Over 4 million employees now work from home at least half the time, according to Global Workplace Analytics, which also reports that 40 percent more employers offer work-at-home options than just five years ago.
From a productivity standpoint, those companies appear to be on to something: a FlexJobs survey shows that 65 percent of workers feel that they would be more productive working at home than at the office. Among the reasons for this potential boost for remote workers: fewer distractions, less stress from commuting and less impact from office politics.
But that doesn’t mean that there are no pitfalls for those who work from home. To be successful, remote workers need support from their organizations. Ideally, this would include technology, training and policies that facilitate working from home. It’s also important for managers and teammates to be on board with telecommuting and to see its benefits. No matter how diligent the remote worker, they won’t be able to succeed if their team isn’t willing to support them.
But what if you’re not a decision-maker yet? There are still things you can do to make your work-from-home job a success. The most important area of focus: communication. Working remotely can make it harder to connect with your colleagues, especially if you — or they — are new to the situation. To make sure everyone’s on the same page, be sure to:
1. Get Expectations
Before you trade your pants for PJs and your commute for a quick stumble to your home office, you need to talk with your manager about expectations.
Don’t assume that you know what a normal workday will look like, now that you’re working at home. Ask what they’ll need from you — and get specifics. When should you be online (logging on and off)? How will you communicate with each other (messaging, email, video, phone)? What are your deliverables and how will working at how change the way in which you deliver them? Get as many specifics as you can.
2. Keep a Set Schedule
Even if your employer is more interested in results than schedules, it’s a good idea to be consistent about yours. It may also help you to be more productive: work is a habit, like anything else. Starting work at the same time every day may make it easier to get into the zone.
But regardless of whether consistency helps you, it will be a big help to your colleagues. They’ll know when you’re available and be more likely to reach out at the appropriate time. That will also help you to develop better work-life balance, as you’ll be less likely to get messages after-hours.
3. Perfect Your Tech Setup
Technical difficulties are the bane of remote workers’ days. Sometimes, they’re unavoidable — your cable goes out, taking your internet with it, or a recent update doesn’t install correctly and you have to spend part of your workday troubleshooting. But to the extent that you’re able, it’s a good idea to iron out difficulties before you get started working from home.
Talk to tech support while you’re in the planning phase. Ask about any restrictions on the tools or programs you need to do your job, and about procedures for getting support when you’re remote. If you’re using your own devices to do some of your remote work, check to make sure that they’re supported.
4. Commit to One-on-Ones
Many managers schedule regular one-on-ones with their direct reports. Usually, the goal of these meetings is to check in about ongoing projects and make sure that things are heading in the right direction. Your manager may also use these chats as a chance to talk about your professional goals at the company, as a sort of mini-evaluation and coaching session.
When you’re working from home on a regular basis, these meetings are even more important than usual. Depending on your boss’s schedule, they may represent the only time you get to talk to each other for days at a time. So, make sure you use these meetings to your advantage. Come prepared with a list of recent wins, questions about current and future projects and ideas for further discussion.
5. Pay Attention to Individual Preferences
Everyone’s different when it comes to communicating at work. Some people prefer to talk in person, which might mean video conferencing when one or both are remote. Others love Slack or other messaging applications. Some still prefer to email or even talk on the phone. And, some will use a combination of these methods to stay in touch.
The method isn’t important. Your goal is to figure out what works best for your boss and the other members of your team. As usual, the simplest way to do that is just to ask. Doing so will save you a lot of struggle later on.
6. Be Honest
As long as companies have used messaging applications to communicate with off-site employees, remote workers have used these same apps to pretend to be working when they were goofing off. Fifteen years ago, workers might log on to AOL Instant Messenger hours before they were really working, to look like they got an early start. Today, workers might lowercase their Slack messages, to appear like they’re on the web version instead of checking in on their phones. (The mobile version defaults to caps after periods. Sneaky, right?)
Don’t do these things. You’ll almost certainly get caught and wind up explaining why it took you 40 minutes to answer a simple question. And anyway, the illusion of productivity doesn’t make your to-do list go away.
7. Be Concise
Working from home means learning how to write clearly and effectively. Why? Because most of your communication will happen via writing.
The most important thing is to be concise, so that you’re not making your coworkers wade through a sea of words to get to your point.
“In all forms of communication, most of which will be some kind of written communication, strive for conciseness and clarity,” writes Larry Alton at Inc. “The more concise you are, the better you’ll be able to hold each other’s attention, and the less time you’ll waste with fluff. The clearer you are, the less room you’ll leave for misinterpretations, assumptions, and other disastrous missteps.”
8. Do Your Job
This is possibly the most important communication tip for remote workers or any kind of workers: do what you say you’re going to do. Be reliable. Make sure that your colleagues know that they can count on you, no matter where you’re working.
It’s especially important to be dependable when you’ve been granted a privilege. So, if you’re one of the few telecommuters, make sure you don’t give anyone cause to regret giving you the option.
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9. Don’t Forget the Water-Cooler Chitchat
This might sound like a contradiction of the last point, but it’s also important to make time to connect with your coworkers.
Idle chat isn’t always a distraction. Time spent talking with your teammates about your dogs or your upcoming vacations isn’t time wasted. It’s an investment in team building. You might find out that you have more in common with your coworkers than you realized, and those points of connection might help you to function more effectively as a team.
“While you must handle business issues, you also need to build a rapport and connection with coworkers if you want to improve your communication,” writes Greg Kratz at FlexJobs. “If you don’t already have one, ask your boss to set up an online chat channel that your team can use for both task-related and casual conversation. The more you get to know each other, the easier it will be to work together.”
Of course, there are limits on socializing even when you work from home. Just as you wouldn’t interrupt an in-person meeting to talk about non-work-related stuff, you shouldn’t derail a group thread for the same. And obviously, you always want to be careful about how much personal information you share. It’s no one’s business what’s going on with your personal finances or relationships, so don’t feel the need to engage in TMI.
10. Set a Good Example
Whether you work at home or in the office, work-life balance is a struggle for many professionals these days. When you can be online anytime, anywhere — after dinner, on the weekends, from the beach or the sidelines of your kid’s soccer game — it’s hard to unplug. But you have to practice doing so, for your team’s sake as well as your own.
Why? Because you’ll be more productive when you’re not trying to be on 24/7. From a communication standpoint, this means being up front about when you’re online and when you’re away — and respecting your coworkers’ time off, as well. Honor their away messages and avoid contacting them with non-emergencies. You’ll encourage them to extend you the same courtesy and make it easier for everyone to get the job done.
Tell Us What You Think
Remote workers, do you have communication tips to offer? We want to hear from you. Share your advice in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.