I’ve worked remotely for the majority of my career, as a freelancer, as a full-time employee, and as a full-time novelist. While I’ve spent a lot of time working and writing from cafes and coffee shops, hotel lobbies, even the occasional ride line at Disney World, the overwhelming majority of my remote work experience was from my home.
At the moment, remote work is a big topic of discussion, as we all try to “flatten the curve” and minimize the spread of COVID-19. More businesses are asking their employees to work remotely, and more employees are eager to do so, to avoid exposure and help stop the spread.
Remote work can be both incredibly productive and incredibly challenging, for both the employers and employees. The following tips will help both to make remote work … well, work.
NOTE: These tips and ideas work for anyone trying to work remotely, including authors. If you have a day job, or even if you are an employer trying to figure out how to make this work, these tips will also work for you. For each section, I’ve included a tip for employees and a tip for employers, but both tips could easily be titled “Author” or “Entrepreneur/Contractor.”
Also, obviously, not all remote work is the same, and not everyone can do remote work at all. This post is meant for those who are dipping their toes into remote work waters for the first time, and it can’t possibly cover every aspect of every career. Take this as general advice, and if you have specific questions, ask them in the comments. We’ll see if I and/or the community can help!
The first bugbear we have to conquer in this is the way we think of remote work.
Your first instinct, when you find yourself being told to work remotely (or, for authors, find yourself in the position of writing full time), is to feel like you’ve won some sort of vacation lottery. Working from home may have been something of a fantasy you’ve held onto for years. Of course, my wife informs me that some people hate the idea. We’ll talk about that, too, in just a moment.
For those feeling the rush of excitement about working from the comfort of your sofa, I present a word of caution: Do not allow yourself to think of this as “time off.”
This is work. It’s the same work you’d have if you commuted to an office or worksite. As such, you have to put the same effort into it and produce the same results you get paid to produce. The environment in which you work doesn’t change that.
For authors and other creatives, it’s doubly important that you define your writing and creative work as “the job.” You may have done all of your creative work as a side-hustle or maybe just a paid hobby up to now, but suddenly it’s the means by which you make your living. Keep that fact in mind, because if you allow yourself to get distracted, you may find yourself having to hustle to get back to a “day job.”
The mindset of the remote worker is really pretty simple: I am accountable for my own responsibilities.
Your employer hired you to provide a service. Or, if you work for yourself, you have determined to provide a service to someone (readers, clients, agencies, etc.). Right now, as you prepare to work from your home, you are being entrusted to perform that service and to be accountable for it. You own the responsibilities of your position. It’s up to you to actually be responsible.
That’s your job. Own what you’re being paid to do and do it to the best of your ability.
Authors, take note: We work in a highly creative field, but this rule still applies. We are the masters of our fate, the captains of our destiny. But masters and captains, ultimately, have the entire weight of their enterprises resting firmly and only on their own shoulders. You have to determine and commit to the tasks and requirements of your position. It’s all on you to make sure the work gets done.
The sofa gets a little less comfy when you realize that it means you’re working without a net.
Don’t think we’ve forgotten! You have a mindset problem to overcome here, as well.
If this is your first time working with remote personnel, it can be downright scary. Questions come flying in and out of your brain. Truly pertinent and relevant concerns occupy your thoughts and make you question everything.
What if they don’t perform? What’s to stop them from watching TV all day? How can I make sure they aren’t wasting time if I can’t walk by their desk? How do I know they’re actually working?!?
So this is (possibly) going to fly in the face of everything you know and believe, and I truly apologize. But here’s the reality of your situation: You don’t own your employees. At most, you rent them.
Actually, it goes even deeper than that. There’s a fundamental shift you’ll need to make in the way you think of employees and their work. It has to be this way, and it smarts, I know. But the really real reality of remote work (and honestly, any work) actually comes down to this: You are not paying your employees for their time, you are paying for their productivity.
Whether your employees are paid hourly or salary, it makes no difference. Paying hourly is really just a metric the two of you negotiated, a way to control the budget. What you are paying for is not “hours,” though. You’re paying your employees to perform a task, apply a skill, engage in a service, or build a widget. The efficiency with which they perform these tasks is up to them, and you can use that to determine their value to the business. But you can’t own them or their hours. Especially if they aren’t right in front of you.
If you can embrace these two ideas, you are going to get a lot more out of this. In fact, it’s the only way this is going to work.
You have to stop thinking of your employees as being “on the clock” and start thinking of them as “responsible for their own productivity.” Make them personally accountable for the results you need them to produce and hold them to it. In fact, empower them in being more responsible and more accountable, and you’ll likely find they’ll give you more than they would if you had them corralled into cubicle farms.
Of course, if they don’t perform, then they don’t get to stay. Think of remote work, then, as the ultimate means of culling the unproductive from your team, while simultaneously encouraging your best people to perform at peak capacity.
Everyone wins in this if everyone agrees on what “winning” means.
This is more for your family and friends than for you, but here’s the gist: You may be home, but you’re still working.
One of the challenges I have faced over the years was the fact that when people (spouses, kids, friends, neighbors) see you around the house, they tend to think of you as being “off.” They chat. They ask if you want to watch a movie. They nudge you to do housework or other chores. Sometimes they guilt-trip you, wondering why you get to “stay home” while they have to “go to work or school.”
This is going to be a tough thing to deal with, I won’t lie to you.
For the biggest part of our marriage, I have worked remotely in one capacity or another, while my wife has had more traditional, office-based jobs. This meant that in the mornings, while I was sitting with a cup of coffee and a laptop at our dining table or (eventually) in my dedicated home office, she was getting ready and heading out into rush hour traffic, to face a day of phone calls and emails and meetings in conference rooms and all the trappings of work life.
It’s hard to convince someone who has to commute to work each day that you’re dealing with all those same things. You have the phone calls, the emails, the meetings. In fact, because you aren’t face-to-face with people in the office, you likely get more phone calls, emails, and meetings.
The best way to manage expectations and impart the reality of your remote workday is to face it head-on. Sit down with your spouse/child/friend/roommate and state it plainly: I may be home, but I’m still working.
I want to emphasize that this is not going to entirely solve the problem. But if you discuss this civilly at a time when both of you are open to talking it out, you can at least establish some ground rules and solutions and compromises.
Put them on paper and stick them to the fridge. Rules such as, “When my door is closed, I’m at work.” Or “I can’t do household chores during the day, but I can rinse and put away any dishes I use.” And possibly, “I will set aside an hour in the middle of the day for lunch, and you and I can chat about anything you want at that time.”
Just remember, this can be as challenging for your loved ones as it can be for you. It’s not always easy to mentally separate “work you” from “home you.” So cut them some slack, gently remind them when necessary, and be willing to practice some patience from time to time.
And authors, this goes double for you. It’s even tougher to convince your significant other et al. that you’re “at work” when your job is to set your own hours, do research (which may include “fun” things like watching videos or going places or reading books), and writing stuff. Just be clear about what you need in order to do the work that’s paying your bills, and be patient when people forget that reality.
There is some expectation management needed for you, too. We discussed some of this in the section above, but the primary expectation you’ll need to embrace is that your employees may not be working every minute of the workday. But let’s face it: This was a reality, even when they were reporting to an office.
During any given workday, there will always be lulls, moments when employees push away from their desks and go in search of the perfect ratio of coffee to creamer, or just casual conversations about last night’s sportsing event. This is part of work life. By now, hopefully, everyone realizes that there is no avoiding this sort of thing when you have a gathering of humans.
There are also things that arise in an office environment that have to be dealt with, regardless of workload. Coffee spills have to be cleaned up. Printer paper trays have to be refilled. Bad news has to be dealt with. Bathroom breaks have to be taken.
You don’t control every instant of every workday in the office, so you can relax about trying to control the moment-by-moment work of a remote employee.
There’s a certain amount of trust that has to be nurtured in this in order for it to work. You have to trust that the person you hired is both competent and responsible enough to do the work for which you hired them. You also have to trust that you (or your staff), as the person who did the hiring, were competent and responsible in the decision you made.
In short: If you and your team did your job right, then you should be able to trust your employees to do theirs.
Your expectation should be that the work that has to be done will be done, and that it is done to the level of quality you require. Whether the employee does it while watching Friends is irrelevant. Trust them. Trust yourself. And if things aren’t working, make adjustments as needed.
Access and Engagement
It sometimes takes a while to click to this, but as an employee or author or freelancer, what you are really giving to your employer or reader or client is not hours, but access.
You have certain skills and capabilities, and you have a certain amount of time available each day. You have experience and expertise, insight and specialized knowledge, and the ability to organize and perform a service. All of these things are only beneficial to an employer, reader, or client if you are willing and able to grant access to yourself.
For example, as writers, we are granting access to our ability to craft a story or express an idea. The reader benefits from that access by purchasing our books (or engaging with our blog, or watching our movie … writers do lots of stuff).
Whatever your role with a business, the point is that the “product” you’re “selling” is access to you, in one form or another. So … be accessible.
One of the challenges of working remotely is that we sometimes start to feel isolated. Worse, if we are working remotely while everyone else is in an office space, we can often feel like we’re outside the loop. And our coworkers might even forget about us—leaving us out of important conversations, invitations to company or personal events, or just chats about sportsing.
This will always be a challenge. But the solution is to make sure that you are both accessible and engaged.
Being accessible means that you are reachable. You do not, by any means, need to be reachable 24/7. But you need to be reachable within a timeframe that benefits the people you work with. This could mean being accessible during normal work hours, but it could also mean that you are consistent about responding to emails on certain days at certain times, or engaging in some other form of communication regularly.
And engagement means that we are not just passively letting emails and other communication come our way; we are also initiating communication. We respond to emails, we add comments to posts, we suggest and share ideas. Being engaged means being a part of the team on a relatable level.
At Draft2Digital, one of the tools we rely on is Slack. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Slack is essentially a chat tool that lets all of us communicate in various channels or one-on-one. The channels represent the various silos of our business. So, for example, we have a channel for Marketing, one for Customer Support, and one for General communication. We also have a “Random” channel—which, I’d argue, may be the most important channel of all. Because that’s where we get to cut up, joke around, share personal perspectives, and post memes.
That’s the sort of thing that lets a team bond with each other. Think of it like social media, but nobody talks about politics.
For authors, accessibility and engagement take on a slightly different tone. Our readers are the people we need to keep up with. So we rely on tools like email, social media, and blogs. Maybe we have special groups, such as on Facebook or even in Slack, where our people have access to us. And we engage by being responsive, answering emails, responding to comments on our posts, sharing content that our readers share with us.
The side benefit of this access and engagement is that not only does it make those depending on us feel more confident in us, it also makes us feel like we’re a part of something bigger. We don’t feel as isolated and alone. And that is key to being successful with remote work.
Accessibility and engagement are two-way streets. You should encourage employees to be actively engaged with each other, not just out of a sense of efficiency but also in terms of company culture. You want these people to form bonds and be able to work well together. They can produce more, that way. They can produce better. They’re happier, and so they continue to offer you access to their skills and capabilities.
To that end, it’s in your best interest to provide as many tools as possible to allow employees to interact with you and with coworkers.
Email is probably the cheapest and easiest tool, and you likely already have it. But email can be a little one-sided. It’s easy for people to just give passive responses to email, in an attempt to just get it off of their plate. It has less immediacy than a live conversation, with a lower expectation for response.
You might consider a tool like Slack, which we discussed above. Or something similar to it. These live chat tools let people interact with the sort of immediacy that’s close to what you’d experience in an office environment. People can start spontaneous conversations that lead to new ideas and new action items.
A side-benefit of active engagement, by the way, is greater accountability. If employees are actively discussing ongoing projects, it’s a lot easier to keep track of where a project stands. Progress can be measured on demand, and if changes need to be made, they can be done with less negative impact and faster turnaround.
In addition to email and Slack, some tools I’d recommend are Zoom for video communications, Trello for project management, and Dropbox for file sharing. Each of these has varying tiers of features and costs, and they all have the ability to integrate with each other to make remote collaboration a lot easier.
Dressing the Part
So this is kind of a tricky subject for some folks. I mean … part of the appeal of working from home is that it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing pants. Or maybe you are managing a project in your bathrobe. Or you could be giving a presentation while wearing cargo shorts and a Mouserat T-shirt. Nobody is there to judge.
Video presentations excluded.
“No dress code” is a sacred and honored perk of remote work. But it could be working against you.
In criminology, there is something called “broken window theory.” The gist of it, as cribbed from Wikipedia, is that “visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder.” In other words, if we see a broken window in an abandoned storefront or home, and no one fixes it, it can be taken as a mental cue that “no one is watching, there are no rules.”
The same principle may apply when it comes to how we dress in our remote workplace. If we dress like slobs on vacation, we may just behave as such when we should be working.
I want to make a point of saying that this isn’t always true. Just because you wear your PJs all day doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be productive. But for those who are just getting started with remote work, the shift away from all our “commuting” routines could be sending cues to our brains that make it tougher to get to work.
Think about it: You’ve ditched rush-hour, long commutes, corporate decorum, and the cubicle. All the things that would tip your brain off to “this is a workday” have been removed. You’re probably used to the idea that home, along with all of its casualness, is where you get to shut off your work brain.
For that reason, it might benefit you to keep a few of your work habits around. The easiest of those would be the way you dress.
I’m not advocating that you should wear a suit and tie all day (though I do this from time to time). But make an effort to dress and groom yourself the way you normally would, most of the time, even if it’s slightly modified.
For example, pull on some pants and tuck in your shirt. Wear a dress. Do your makeup. Comb your hair and trim your beard.
Maybe just wear what you’d wear on “casual Friday.” But avoid the mustard-stained T-shirt and sweatpants, and get out of the ducky pajamas.
Authors, I’m lookin’ at you. I mean … yoga pants with the word “Juicy” on the rear? This is not dignified attire.
There’s not much I can recommend on this one, except this: Don’t try to enforce a dress code on remote employees.
Within reason, at least.
If your people are making media appearances as part of their work, then sure, they probably shouldn’t be rockin’ a Metallica tee on CNN. But if the only time you see them is for a one-on-one Zoom video chat, then what’s the harm? Evaluate them on the work they’re doing. Let their questionable music tastes pass.
Time. That’s what it’s all about.
When we dream of remote work, we’re usually picturing ourselves sitting on the sofa or out by the pool or maybe just at our dining table. We see ourselves getting the work done in a comfortable place at a comfortable pace.
That can happen. But what happens more commonly is that time gets away from us, and that ends up causing all manner of stress.
One of the reasons that some people, as my wife points out, actually sort of dread the idea of working remotely is that they don’t fully trust their ability to manage all that time. Without the outside influence of a manager watching over them, they worry they may stray. The stack of dishes in the sink is too distracting, has to be dealt with. There’s an interesting documentary on HBO that’s just a little too tempting. There’s a sale on Product X, and if you don’t act now, you could miss out on it.
Distractions and temptations are going to come. But, as we know, the work must be done. So how do we manage it all? Especially in this weird, more relaxed universe where time and work are more abstract than we’re used to?
Time management is a multi-billion-dollar industry for a reason.
Books, videos, courses, coaching and consulting, apps—there is an ever-growing list of tools and resources there to help you become more efficient with your time. Getting things done is big business. And you could, ironically, find yourself with not enough time to explore all the ways you could manage your time better.
I can’t give you the secret sauce to time management, because there isn’t one. The real answer to “how do I manage my time” comes down to how much personal responsibility you’re willing to take for your life and your work, and what tools and methods are the most effective for you.
The former is all about personal choice and maturity. The latter is all about experimentation and exploration.
For me, time management comes down to something pretty simple: If it isn’t on the calendar, it doesn’t exist.
I have probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, over the course of my lifetime, in pursuit of the perfect time management tools and techniques. I’m terrified by the prospect of adding it all up. But I can tell you that if you’ve heard of an app, method, course, book, audiobook, podcast, journal, or anything else in the field, I’ve tried it. Yes, all of it.
And, remarkably, a lot of it really works. It can be both thrilling and inspiring to find a new organizational tool that really lets you get your “stuff” together. But for me, at least, the thrill of it all eventually wears off. Over time, the nifty new tool I have starts to feel like a weight around my neck. It goes from being my salvation to being my burden. I over plan, over schedule, overdo it, and then, I’m done. Can’t stomach even looking at the thing again.
Except for my calendar.
For decades now, any time I wanted to make sure I remembered something, I’ve put it on my calendar. I set reminders, which I can snooze as need. But mostly I can look at my calendar and see that I have this coming up, or that to do, or this thing to deal with. And I do it all. Or I reschedule it for another day, when I may have more time or energy to deal with it.
My calendar is my life. Sometimes I overbook, but at least I can still see what needs to be done. It’s easier to manage my time, and all the projects on my plate, when I can look at the day in color-coded little blocks. I may occasionally dread the workload, but I can see the shape of it. Which means I can manage it.
For you, it may be another tool. I’m fond of apps like Trello and Asana, which have been amazing. I still use these, but for different reasons beyond time management. Some people use some very fancy apps, or Bullet Journals, or Post-It notes.
Find the system that works for you and make it the rule of law for your days.
All of this applies as much to you as it applies to your team. Chances are you have some form of company calendar. Make sure that stays up to date. And if you are using applications such as Trello, make sure that everyone working for you not only knows how to use it, but why they use it.
I can’t stress this enough. If you can’t give a solid reason why people should use the tools you’ve chosen—and I mean beyond “because I said so/I want it” or “because we paid for it”—then all is lost.
Employees are going to do what they have to do in order to get their work done. So pay attention to what they’re doing to manage their time and workload. You may learn lessons you can implement company-wide, and you can recruit your employees to help train everyone else.
Finally, we need to talk about some boundaries.
When your home life and your work are in the same place, the lines between the two can get a little fuzzy. And when that happens, it can have a huge negative impact on one or the other, or both.
Personal errands and chores can disrupt your workday. Work tasks can ruin family time. Spouses and children can become frustrated because you are there, but not there. Employers can get frustrated because you’ve gone dark, or you’re not as responsive as you need to be.
The thing is, it’s easier to separate work from home life when they’re happening in different places. So in order to make sure the blurry lines aren’t causing you undue strive, you need to set up boundaries and rules and abide by them.
First, if it’s at all possible, try to dedicate a space in your home as “work.” A spare bedroom, a converted basement or attic, a nook off of the kitchen, anything. Stephen King wrote from a makeshift desk in the tiny little utility room of their trailer home for years. You can probably find at least a card table to put out on the patio.
To be clear: Not everyone will have a spare bedroom they can turn into a home office. Understood. In that case, you’re going to have to get creative.
Maybe there’s a corner of your bedroom where you can have a place to sit and work uninterrupted. Or maybe you have to work at your breakfast table with headphones on. Don’t have a breakfast table? The same headphone trick works from the sofa. The rule would be, “When I’m wearing these headphones, I’m at work.”
My wife and I are traveling full time in a tiny camper. When I need to shut a door and focus on the work, I have a little office setup in the back seat of my pickup truck. I can sit comfortably, with WIFI, power for my laptop, even cupholders, and get my work done. And when I’m in there, she knows I’m “at work.”
The point is, you may not have an ideal situation, but there is always a way to make this work. I typically recommend going to coffee shops, so you can have a space away from home. But the point, at the moment, is to not only work remotely but to avoid public spaces. In that case, you’ll benefit from a little creative thinking. Take a new look at spaces in your home, such as closets or even bathrooms. Consider a lap desk and a lawn chair. Build a blanket fort in your living room.
There are ways.
This could be a tricky adjustment for you. Your employees may be out of sight, but you can’t afford for them to be out of mind. You still have a business to run.
Still, your people are working out of their homes. You’ll need to be sensitive to the fact that in that environment, there will be other factors they need to deal with, besides the spreadsheets and presentations and reports you require of them. They’re going to have challenges that have nothing to do with work but may interfere with work anyway.
So make sure you’re cutting them a little slack.
But don’t lower your expectations.
If this is going to work, it can’t be all about the employee. You have your own set of needs that have to be addressed. You hired this person because they were the best fit for the position and because they had the skills and experience and capabilities you needed for the role. They may not be in your offices, but they don’t get a free pass.
Set your expectations from the beginning. Make it clear what you expect from them. Outline your policies on communication, on accountability, on assessment. It should be crystal clear, from the very beginning, what you expect from them.
You should also be prepared to provide your employees with the tools and resources they need to succeed. This may include phone or internet service, office equipment, office supplies, access to corporate credit cards, or any number of other tools.
One thing to consider: If this is a permanent arrangement, then maybe you don’t need an office space. Or, at the very least, you don’t need a space as big as what you currently use. And perhaps you don’t need some of the equipment or services you pay for.
This could be a chance to reduce your overhead, which could benefit your business.
Most people have internet access and mobile phones. So if you use tools such as Slack and email, and possibly call-forwarding services or online phone services, your employees may be able to cover their own services out of pocket. If they have home internet anyway, it’s not an added expense.
Providing certain resources for your employees, however, can often help with your company’s image. To anyone outside of your organization, it would appear that your organization is centralized in one spot. You can use the savings from downsizing your office space to cover any out-of-pocket expenses your employees might have.
Just remember, you are, in a way, reaching into the homes of your people. Be respectful of both their time and that of their families. The occasional ask, when you need someone to put in overtime on a project, is fine. But don’t make this a regular thing. Give your employees the chance to spend some of their home time actually being home.
Remote work has all sorts of challenges to overcome. It all sounds really good on paper, and honestly, it can be. But it only works, and it works best, when everyone is clear on the rules. The key to success in a remote work environment is personal, individual responsibility and accountability. If everyone, on all sides, keeps in mind that you are all working for a common purpose, and if everyone respects each other and trusts each other to behave responsibly, then remote work becomes an incredible tool.
We can all stay healthy, happy, and productive. And we can work in our PJs. Just as a bonus.
Kevin Tumlinson is a bestselling and award-winning author, host of the popular Wordslinger Podcast, and Director of Marketing & Public Relations for Draft2Digital, the leading, worldwide ebook distributor online. Learn more about Kevin and his work at KevinTumlinson.com, and discover how D2D can help you build and grow a publishing career at Draft2Digital.com.