The art of working remotely

Elissa Williams

Even outside of work, I have always been a person to make a list or a plan of action for my day and follow it. When I became a working mother, I realized even more the importance of having a plan to make sure I take care of what I need to. Layer onto that the fact that my job is remote, and you can see how personal accountability is key to my every day. 

Working remotely can be challenging. It can lead to video-call-fatigue and blurry work/non-work boundaries, or be lonely and hard to find motivation without in-person colleague time. It can even just be logistically tough. (I imagine most of us at The Engine Room have been let down by cafes falsely promising wifi.) That said, we all experiment with and find our own ways to stay productive and motivated. Here are some things I try to practice in order to stay engaged while working from home or wherever my office is for the day! 

Establishing a daily routine

I have found that, for me, it’s best to end each workday by setting my intentions for the following workday. When I do this, I list and plan out my top five priorities. This only takes five or ten minutes, but means that when I start work the following day, I know where I want to go.

At the same time, it ensures that when it’s time to wind down my work, I actually stop working. In the past, I found that I would struggle to shutdown for the day because I would add 15 new things to my list at the last minute (creating unnecessary stress in the last few minutes of my workday). By restricting myself to just choosing five of those for the next day, I give myself permission to shutdown, and I reassure myself that the most important ones will get done the next time I’m online.

Starting conference calls with clear goals

One of the hardest parts about working remotely is not being able to see your teammates on a daily basis. That makes it really hard to gauge someone’s emotions before the call, but it also means that calls can easily run over time. With that in mind, I always try to have video calls (not just audio) to bring in a personal element and to be able to literally see how a person is doing. I set aside a few minutes at the beginning of the call to check in, and I plan these minutes into thinking about the rest of the call agenda. 

Setting time limits for projects – especially inbox cleaning

Whether it is working through my inbox or writing a proposal, I find limits crucial. I try to always set clear time limits for myself and hold myself accountable to actually stopping and moving onto the next task for the day when I hit those limits. If I hit a time limit that I gave myself for a task but haven’t finished the task, this can be a flag that I need support or another set of eyes to look at something. It could also signal that my attention is frayed and might have too much on my plate. Finally, it helps me enforce my priorities – if something critical doesn’t get the time it needs because I went over time working on something less critical, I can note it and adjust. 

Planning in break times

Though the value of breaks might seem obvious, I’ve found it to be important to not just take them but to plan for them. If I wait until I’m feeling exhausted or disengaged to take a break, I get less out of a break (be it a small one in my workday, or a bigger one like taking time off). During workdays in warmer months, I like to sit outside and watch the birds or go for a short walk, and during colder winter months I enjoy working on a puzzle or take a short walk on the treadmill. 

Knowing the “office” spaces you can access

Currently, I live in a somewhat rural area and at times will lose power or my internet will drop with inclement weather. Other colleagues deal with regular power cuts. Still others cannot (or prefer not to) work from home, and rely on public workspaces or cafes. In all of these cases, having backup plans is key to feeling prepared and productive. For me, knowing I can switch to a cell phone hotspot or move to a nearby coffee shop eases my mind on days where I have many video calls or a lot of internet-dependent work. 

Understanding my and others’ expectations 

Everyone works differently and that’s understood at The Engine Room. As part of our on-boarding process for new team members, we ask for their communications preferences – how do they prefer to interact and communicate with others? Also, when first pairing line managers with their reports, both individuals complete a questionnaire that covers their preferences around feedback, communications, scheduling and more. We know this is important to us because we’re a remote team and believe it’s also critical in in-person organisations. It can translate to more effective work and, just as importantly, can help people feel more comfortable bringing their needs and preferences forward. Though it might seem like a small thing to know when folks prefer an email or a quick message ping, it’s not. It conveys respect for that person’s work and their humanness.

These six things are just a few practices I’ve adopted to help me stay productive and healthy in a remote workplace. Setting clear intentions each day, taking breaks, and celebrating successes with my teammates on a daily basis means I can bring a happier and more productive me to my work – and my colleagues can, too! Keep an eye out for tips from other Engine Roomers – our strategies for working remotely are as diverse as we are. We’d also love to hear your strategies. Share them over on Twitter @EngnRoom or send us a note at hello[at]@theengineroom.org.


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