Last week I contributed to a Work-Life balance article on InVision's blog. It got me thinking. I’ve been working mostly remotely for over 5 years now! Over time I have adapted many habits that allow my life to be balanced. I've worked on somewhat remote teams and fully remote teams. Since having my son 2 years ago it has changed in yet other ways, I thought I would elaborate on my own post for this week.
Working remotely works pretty well for me, yet it’s not as easy as many may think. It’s especially challenging when you live too far away from your office to go in on a whim, while most of your colleagues live near the office. We are always working to improve our remote meetings, but I’d like to share some things I've learned. They can make a world of difference in your productivity, but also in balance. You may have an all-remote team, some people in an office, or consult with clients on a regular basis. Whatever your situation, these tips can help you think about what works for you.
Many people talk about drawing the line from work to home life. Some days this is a challenge, but some days the opposite is a challenge. I assume many don't discuss distractions at home because they want to be viewed as responsible. Honestly, it doesn’t make you untrustworthy to be distracted at home or in the office. It’s life! I’m going to talk about the realities of both, and some tips to stay in the middle. For some, leaving the office frequently may be key to balance. For me, it’s staying productive so that I can be with my family in the evening.
I can’t focus with music on. Like, any music. If I’m working High Fidelity work I can make this work sometimes. But if I need deep focus for things like designing, coding or writing, it’s got to be complete silence. For me, this means a dedicated office with a door I can close. It also means that I sometimes even put on ear protection to produce a zero-distraction zone. We have some noisy distractions in our town that this helps me close off from. Having the door able to close also helps me have a mostly-quiet background during conference calls.
It may seem obvious to light your work area. It is just as beneficial to think about where you will be facing when you work. Of course you want optimal viewing on your screen if you are working on a computer. But take the time to simulate a video chat and you might be surprised how dark things get. My office has lots of natural lighting, but most of it is behind me. I have to make a point to place my laptop so that the lighting is toward my face or the video is pointless. If you can, make sure the lighting is in front of you or that you can move and still work from another angle for video chats. Consider what other workspaces might need to be viewable on a call.
If possible, I think it’s important to have natural light. There is nothing like sunlight to make you feel alert and happy working. Not much kills productivity like a dungeon that you want to get out of ASAP. When you have distractions at home as a possibility, that might happen more than you would like to admit.
This isn’t for everyone, but I love to have a few plants around. Nature helps inspire me and make me feel happy. I spend lots of time in here so my mood is important to keep positive.
Staying in the Zone
For some, this may be overkill. But I focus better when I don’t see the mail, a box on the porch, neighbors, laundry, etc. So I like to keep a water filled container inside my office to refill my water bottle throughout the day. It just keeps me on track. Setting up a coffee maker like a Keurig on your desk might also make sense. It's just one more thing that you can do inside your office without leaving the zone.
The one thing that our team is always improving on is the audio/video set up. Investing in good microphones and software is important. Some software allows you to white board and see teammates at the same time. Perhaps screen sharing is important to your calls – or even a camera angle toward what you are drawing on paper. Take time to think these things out on both sides of the call. Will you be talking in groups often or individuals? Can you provide your client with tools to help this go smoother throughout your project?
If you are a team leader, try to budget for audio/video equipment that will be good quality. One laptop mic doesn’t cut it for more than one person talking in a meeting and the camera can't capture the whole room. Also try to budget for decent video cameras, speakers/earphones for individual team members. This will help them feel supported and encourage interaction. A good camera isn’t that expensive anymore.
It also helps to take time to hash out protocols. For example: how early in advance should you alert someone you need for a video call? I appreciate that our team is respectful about video calls in our home offices. If an audio chat will do, we call up on Slack. Face time is essential, so seeing the conference room when I call into a group meeting helps a ton. I know ahead of time it will be a video meeting and am prepared. We all have an understanding of our heads up expectations for a video chat. For someone like myself that is usually wearing athletic clothes, I keep a hoodie in my office to throw over me if it seems appropriate.
Talk about the ways that calendaring should work and how to invite team members to calls. Set expectations about the protocols with the microphones. For example, sometimes the presenter will start on mute. Will they expect everyone to be on mute on the call unless they're spoken to? What if you have a question or an answer? If you don’t know this is the norm, you may think your speakers aren’t working. Or worse, you could be that person who's typing or coughing in the background while everyone else is on mute. Some software allows chats and the presenter may decide to use that. Some have feature where you can "raise your hand". Also know expectations around recording demos/reviews etc.
Phone Number vs Wifi
It’s important to know the benefits of using a phone to call in to a meeting vs wifi (VoIP). Typically, toll free phone numbers are included with many conference systems (but not all) and are better audio quality. The down side to this option is that it may use your paid minutes on your cell plan, which may or may not be reimbursed for you. The audio quality may be worth it either way, but it’s something to know ahead of time and consider for your next cell plan change.
Using Wifi to call in utilizes your existing internet service for audio. The quality can be questionable, and in some environments it can constantly drop. Test this out before you decide not to use your phone. Bonus if you can be familiar with the environment on the other end to make this decision.
Over time, my work has evolved. Side projects have blossomed and new skills are always being developed. I’ve learned workflows that are best for me, and sometimes getting away from screens is required. For this reason I have a digital space and an analog space set up. They are separate from one another.
If you are UX designer, the analog space is what you would use to sketch out ideas. Yes, with actual paper and pencil. Ever hear of the exercise where you force yourself to sketch out like 20 different solutions for a problem? This is where you would do that. I also happen to use my analog/drawing space for lettering or other artwork. The point is: It faces the opposite direction from my computer desk (toward my windows and flower garden) and gets my head in a different place.
If you have the space, it may also be wise to set up some sort of cardio equipment in your office for when you are watching a webinar or video tutorial. I try to get some steps in wherever I can, and even some pushups or yoga stretches. For some this may be an important time to step outside of the office. For others, leaving the office could lose focus for the cadence you have going. Consider which works for you and prepare for it.
Separate Home Office Stuff
In my home, my office is the most equipped room for organizing paperwork. Over time, this has meant mixing work with home bills and paperwork. I found it stressful and distracting to see bills, schedules and other paperwork I know I need to take care of that isn’t work related. In our next re-organization, we plan on a space which is separate from my work office for this reason. I think it will also help me to be more organized for home projects if there is a specified area to work on them.
It's Business, but Personal
Whether you struggle to stay out of your office or in it when you're working from home, take some time to think about minimizing problem areas. Also, plan through expectations with anyone you will be working with remotely. This will go far in respect, trust, and balance. The details may sounds small, but can make or break success of this unique working environment we are blessed with in the modern age.