Can’t Focus When You Work from Home? Try This

If you can’t focus, it isn’t because you’re weak. You need a new habit.

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Before you started your remote job, home was a place of rest. Coming home signalled the end of the work day and the start of down time. This presents problems when your place of rest becomes your workplace, too. Are you having trouble focusing now that you work from home? You aren’t alone. Before we talk about what to do to fix the situation let’s clear up one thing.

You Aren’t Distracted Because You’re Weak

Your lack of focus stems, at bottom, from the associations you have about home time. Your brain knows that home is where you relax. If you live with family or roommates, they are used to talking to you whenever. Trying to work in these conditions can seem like an uphill battle. Fortunately there is a powerful technique that will help you focus more easily.

Build New Habits—Visual Cues

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The best way to fight the ‘home is where I chill’ association is to build a new ‘I’m at work’ habit. This looks different for different people. Think of the routine you had when you worked out of an office. Did your commute involve a run to Starbucks? Did you have a set of work clothes? Harness some of those cues.

The second time I went remote, I lived in an apartment in Los Angeles with a husband, a toddler, two cats, and a second child on the way. Getting dressed in my suit jacket and slacks put me in work mode. As I became accustomed to working from home I was soon able to ditch the full suit. Now I work in jeans and a button down shirt.

Build New Habits—Spatial Cues

Try working in the same part of your home every day. I enjoy working from Starbucks, but that gets expensive pretty quickly, so I mostly work at my desk. The ideal desk location will be away from the hustle and bustle in your home, and have some way to lock out family. You may need to get creative.

My desk is in a small alcove in my bedroom, and my bedroom door doesn’t have a lock. Instead I wedge a crutch underneath the doorknob. It’s both funny and infuriating when one of my kids tries to get in by body-slamming the door. Usually they are saying something like “Mom? Mom are you there? I can’t get in.” That is, of course, the point.

If You Build Habits, The Focus Will Come

Above all, don’t give up. Just because it’s hard to focus now doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out for remote work. Try a few things, and give your habits time to develop. Soon you will be focusing on your work like the ninja you are.

Do you have a go to work routine that works for you? Share it in the comments.

How to Set Up Your Remote Office on the Cheap

Besides a computer, the list of must-have office equipment for the new remote worker is smaller than you think.

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Your first remote job is an adventure—complete with the need to gather the right supplies if you don’t want to crash and burn. Admittedly, this is a balancing act. On the one hand you don’t want to over invest until you know that the remote work style works for you. On the other, there are a few key things you absolutely can’t live without. The list is smaller than you think.

Invest in a Great Internet Connection

Wired internet is the gold standard. Many apps take a lot of bandwidth, and you will save yourself some stress if you can plug into a router. That said, if you can’t get a wired connection, get the strongest wifi you can afford. Understand that you may need to find work arounds. Check out the rates for coworking spaces in your area. Some libraries also have wired internet, and private spaces you can reserve.

Buy a Comfortable Chair

This is the one tangible item you should buy as soon as possible. The first time I went remote I worked from my kitchen table. I was a freelance writer in New York City and I was determined to set up my office with money I earned freelancing. I was a hard nosed business woman and that was my hard nosed plan.

Unfortunately my kitchen chair was also hard. A month into my new career I needed a chiropractor. Fixing my bout of sciatica took many chiropractor visits and several hundred dollars, and then I had to invest in a nice chair anyway. My attempt to work on the cheap ended up costing far more than making a simple investment up front.

Clear a Wall

There will be video calls you have to attend. Make sure one wall in your home is work appropriate. A blank wall is perfectly acceptable. You can always add more personality once you understand the work vibe.

And that’s it. There are other things you will add to your remote office eventually, but let yourself settle in first. Some people don’t like working from a desk. Others need their things in a dedicated space. You may not know which category you fit into until you develop your new routine. Give yourself time to figure out what works for you, and you’ll be cruising along on the remote highway in no time.

For those of you who have been working remotely for a while, what things do you absolutely need to be happy and productive? Let me know in the comments.

What People Think You Mean When You Say ‘I Work from Home’

Remote employees have a real job with a real paycheck. Here are three assumptions you need to check at the door.

You are Unemployed

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Okay. We get it. People who get laid off or fired usually have the smarts to grab a few gigs as they look for their next stable job. In these cases, remote work is something to do for now. However, according to GlobalWorkspaceAnalytics.com in this study, the remote working population has grown by 140% since 2005. This number specifically excludes the self-employed. At least 4.3 million US employees work from home at least half the time. Translation: your friend who works from home is part of an army of unseen employees doing real work for a real paycheck.

You are “Working”

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The reasoning goes something like this: your boss can’t look over your shoulder and make sure you’re working, therefore, you are binge watching Netflix. Let’s break this one down a bit. How many employers do you know that will give someone money for nothing? We’ve all seen that guy at the office who surfs his social media all day long, leeches off of other people’s projects, and sucks up to the boss so he can keep him job. This is harder to do remotely. In the online environment, you are the sum of your online actions. People who don’t respond to instant messages or hit their deadlines very quickly become ghosts. No amount of sitting in your chair and “looking” busy will save you.

Remote employees work more. With fewer in-person distractions, it is very easy to get into the zone and work until the wee hours of the evening. Most remote workers have to put processes in place to force them to stop working.

You are the Master of Your Own Time

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Remote employees are not self employed. Our bosses schedule meetings we must attend. Deadlines get moved up. Projects change and we need to throw our schedule out the window and start over from scratch.

We don’t have time to take you to the airport, or pick up your laundry, or host a three hour lunch at the last minute. We could do these things. One of the joys of remote work is having the ability to go on a child’s field trip, or get a haircut in the middle of the day. This flexibility isn’t free. We start work at 5am, or log back into work at 9pm after the kids go to bed to make up the time. Sometimes we do both. If you want a remote worker to do something with your or for you during business hours, it has to be worth the sacrifice. And give us some notice.

Help Us Help You

Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 20–25% of the US workforce works from home with some degree of frequency. If you keep in mind what your friend really means when she says ‘I work from home,’ you will refrain from annoying her, and raise your chances of getting that free ride to the airport.

 

Have a Plan

How do you work when your internet goes down? Planning, that’s how.

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I read in bed for 30 minutes every morning before I get up. I didn’t notice the problem at first because my phone had cached my usual websites a few minutes before I started reading. I’m not sure if this was coincidence or not. Should I be creeped out? Hmm.

In any event, by the time I rolled* into work at 8am I knew my internet was down. No internet = no work. Fortunately I have a plan for this. I sent a text to my boss and packed my mobile office**. There is a coffee shop a mile and a half from where I live that isn’t on the same grid as my house. Packing to leave only takes a few minutes, and I finished just as the internet came back online.

I didn’t end up using my Plan B this morning, but having one saves me time. I know which coffee shop(s) have reliable wifi, and when they will have a place for me to sit, because I scouted them out ahead of time.

Developing your own fallback plan is as easy as googling coffee shops and taking the weekend to make a few visits. Research may require you to sample the coffee or baked goods but I know you’re up to the challenge. Do it for science.

Do you have a favourite coffee shop to work in? Why do you like it?

*If by ‘rolled’ you know I mean ‘walked a few feet.’ Rolled makes me feel like I’m James Bond coming at you in a tux and expensive sports car. Possibly I should get out more.

**It’s a small black backpack with a spare set of cheap headphones, pens and post-it notes.

Remote Work Gave Me Running

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I run to burn the crazy. I run to quiet my spinning brain so I can recharge in the silence. Running helps me beat the seasonal sads. Somehow, running in the forest in the pouring rain makes the rain less depressing. I have no idea why this is, but it works for me.  If I didn’t work remotely, I would never have figured this out.

I run during my lunch break. I hear about people who can exercise at lunch and then jump back into their cubicle. How does that work in real life? I sweat like a crazy person when I’m working out. I sweat so hard that salt crystallizes on my face and I have to be careful about how energetically I wipe the sweat off my brow for fear of scratching myself. And let’s not even talk about the smell. I don’t understand how you can exercise, shower, and get back into your work clothes all in the space of 30-60 minutes. Either these folks don’t sweat, don’t work out very hard, don’t work out very long, or they are magic. If any of you are magic, please tell me how to gain this superpower.

I used to be an indoor exerciser. I was that high school kid who woke up at 5am to workout before school, and that morphed into a gym habit in my 20’s. The gym stopped working for me when I went remote. If I’m not careful, I can spend all day indoors and then I feel trapped. And let’s not mention the existential angst of running on a treadmill and not getting anywhere.

That trapped feeling first drove me to biking outdoors. Biking is fun but ultimately limiting when you don’t like riding a bike in the street. Running though…I wanted to at least have the ability to run. When I first started a couch to 5k plan I told myself that I only had to do it for a week. If I still hated it at the end of the week, I could stop.

Running outside was intimidating for reasons I can’t articulate even now. But running inside wasn’t an option because I needed to be outside for my mental health. And it turns out that when the scenery changes, I love running. It’s hard in all of the best ways. I’ve logged anger miles, sorrowful miles, and miles filled with gratitude. At the end of all of them I feel like my insides have been washed clean. I’m ready to handle whatever comes next.

It makes me wonder what remote work will give me next. Do you work remotely? What does it give you?

How to Know if Your Remote Employee is Really Working

Back Away from the Surveillance Equipment 

If you read the comments section on articles about working remotely, someone inevitably asks ‘how do I know if my remote employees are working?’ The concern is that employees will loaf without a manager to watch them. I’ve managed remote teams as small as twenty and as large as 100, spread across California. Most of my people did their jobs and did them well. Identifying the shirkers didn’t require fancy monitoring systems. You don’t need them, either. There are cheaper, more effective ways to prove that your remote people are working. This article will discuss a few.

Hire the Right People

Screen out the loafers. There are people who want to do a good job and fulfill their commitments. But be warned, you will not find these people if you assume everyone is a money-motivated shirker. Check for evidence that your interviewee has completed tasks even if that meant doing things outside her job description. Ask about projects that have gone wrong or changed in scope. How did the person handle the situation? Can she accept fault? Look for people who do good work despite challenges. Look for people you can trust.

A lack of trust can damage any office, but it is particularly poisonous to the remote workforce. I once had a boss we’ll call “Stan”. Stan lived in perpetual fear that his team was loafing instead of working. In order to “prove” that I was working, I had to answer all of his emails within minutes of receipt or Stan would call me to find out what I was doing. It made me miserable. Worse, it made me inefficient at the job I loved. I explained the effect Stan was having on my ability to do my work, and his answer was to send me a $10 gift card to a local coffee shop. Otherwise his behavior remained unchanged. So then I was miserable AND offended that he thought he could buy me so cheaply. Stan didn’t understand what motivated his team. Stan didn’t last long.

You may think you don’t have time to figure out someone’s motivation. In reality, the time you spend on this task up front will save you from performance problems in the future. Remote employees have a degree of autonomy that in-office employees do not share. Any of them could shirk. Hire people who don’t want to. No amount of surveillance can take the place of hiring trustworthy people.

Hiring the right remote workers is a necessary first step if you want people who work, but it isn’t the only one.

Weed Out the Wrong Ones

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Not everyone thrives in the remote workforce. When Kaplan Test Prep transitioned from a brick and mortar business to one where 90% of full-time employees worked remotely, some employees left. For some, home held too many distractions. Others couldn’t turn the work off, and they burned out. Whether you are hiring someone new or assessing members of an existing team, weed out those who can’t succeed in the remote environment.

The employees that thrive have some commonalities. Consider three:

  1. They self-structure. These are the college students who set up a study plan and used it. These are the athletes that found a training plan and followed it. Look for evidence of consistency and self discipline. These folks will work on their projects, even when you are too busy to check on them.
  2. They communicate proactively. Remote employees need to be better communicators than their colleagues in the office. When an in-office employee encounters a problem, other coworkers may see or hear it unfold. The same isn’t true for remote employees. Hire people who will reach out and tell you what you need to know so you can do something about it.
  3. They show initiative. Hiring remote workers means you get to hire the best people for the job, no matter where they live. On the flip side, you won’t always be available to answer your worker’s email if your team works in different time zones. You can’t operate effectively with direct reports who must always be told what to do. Hire people who will try to solve problems.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of qualities that make a great remote worker. However, you will be hard pressed to find a successful candidate who lacks any of them. In a perfect world, managers would weed out unsuccessful candidates before they get hired. In reality, this doesn’t always happen. If your direct report truly lacks the discipline, communication skills, or initiative to work in this way, then it is better to identify that as early as possible. Use the time you would have spent cleaning up performance problems to help your employee find a different role.

Hiring the right people and weeding out the wrong ones will go a long way toward ensuring your people work when you don’t watch them. The rest of the solution comes from you. Set up systems to monitor your people the right way.

Set Up Smart Checkpoints

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While micromanaging can smother a direct report, a completely hands off approach can also damage efficiency. Some solutions require more authority than others. Depending on the company, decisions to spend money, to change a deadline, or to redirect the course of a project fall to you. A standing meeting is an efficient way to plow through these items. Experiment with meeting cadence to find what works best. I’ve found that monthly meetings worked well for my part-time staff. All other business happened through email and one-off calls. My director and I meet once a week for 15–30 minutes, and the entire team meets for an hour every other week. These meetings keep everyone on track. They are also great opportunities to update everyone on wider company news.

It’s important to note the difference between regular check-in meetings, and the check-ins that Stan the micromanager arranged. Stan did the remote equivalent of jumping out of the bushes and yelling ‘Gotcha!’ In contrast, holding a regular, scheduled check-in to clear away obstacles helps your report do her best work. Your employees will notice the difference.

Focus on Outcomes

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Once you’ve scheduled regular check-ins, focus on outcomes. This is what you are measured against anyway — the volume and quality of work your people produce. It doesn’t matter if your remote employee answers all of your text messages within five minutes. He could do so from a bar. Or, from the beach. There is nothing wrong with working from a bar or the beach (or a bar on the beach), if the employee is actually working (and not intoxicated). Does the employee meet his deadlines? Is he delivering quality work? Is he on time to scheduled meetings? If colleagues and clients know when and how to reach him, then it shouldn’t matter if he works from 8pm-10pm on Monday so he can take 2 hours on Tuesday to go to a doctor’s appointment. Employees work harder when they have flexibility. It’s a perk they wish to keep.

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Managing remote employees can throw even the best in-person manager off balance. Techniques you may use to monitor and support your people in a traditional office don’t always transition well into the remote workforce. Hire people you can trust. Set up smart systems to help them do their work, and focus on outcomes. If you do so, you won’t wonder if your employees are working. You will know they are.

I Wrote a Book

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In 2010, the company I worked for transitioned from a brick and mortar business into one that was 90% remote. There were few companies that worked this way in 2010. Still fewer of them were as big as us. We had to write our own road map, and as is often the case we didn’t get everything right the first time.

My fellow authors and I took different paths inside the company that reinvented itself. This book is the culmination of the hard earned wisdom we acquired along the way. If you’ve ever wondered how to ward off toxic levels of loneliness or build your career as a remote worker, then this book is for you. You can find it here: Amazon.com