Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 2 – Blurred Lines

To survive and thrive as a remote worker, you need to know how to overcome the obstacles and reframe them as benefits. When you are faced with a crisis — such as the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions — the ability to shift your mindset becomes even more critical.

As Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, an effective path to dealing with a crisis is to turn adversity into an advantage, a trial into a triumph, and an obstacle into an opportunity.

In part 1 of this 3-part article, I discussed Asynchronous Communication as the first obstacle to thriving in remote work.

The second obstacle to overcome is Blurred Lines. Commuting to and from an office provides transitions that you do not have with remote work. When the commute goes away, there is no physical switch to know when the work day starts and when it ends. You also might not have a dedicated room or separate space for work, which makes it harder to draw the line between personal stuff and professional obligations.

If you were thrust into remote work or didn’t plan for it, your kitchen, living room, or other personal space might now be your makeshift workplace. When you can’t physically leave the office, it’s harder to shut your computer off and call it a day. The work day doesn’t seem to end because your office is right inside your home.

On the flip side, the lack of clear lines between work and home makes it easier to succumb to distractions. There is the refrigerator in the kitchen and the TV in the living room calling for your attention. The computer you’re using to do work is probably the same tool you use to watch YouTube videos, hang out on social media, and binge watch Netflix shows.

If you’re new to remote work, you will need to start with physical boundaries. When I lived in a smaller home, I carved out a spot in the corner of the living room for my desk, chair and computer. I moved to this dedicated space to work. During my breaks, I went to the kitchen or on the back porch.

After I moved into my current and bigger home, I called dibs on a spare room with windows overlooking the backyard. This has served as my home office since I started my own business as a solo lawyer and productivity coach. I use it to do focused work on client matters. The closed door is a signal to my family that I’m at work and should not be disturbed. Although this doesn’t stop my two young children from calling out for my attention, I routinely go to this office when playtime or family time is over and work needs to begin.

For long-term remote work, it’s good to have a well-functioning desk and comfortable chair for ergonomics. A desk that allows you to easily adjust the height for typing, writing or reading, while standing or while seated in a chair can be pricey, but worth the benefits.

To create good feng shui and improve energy flow, you arrange your work equipment so you face into the room and have a wall or screen behind you. This gives you a clear field of vision and helps you feel protected from behind. This is known as the commanding position in that you have a view of the door or room when you’re at your desk.

Although it might be tempting to place your work surface facing a window, this can be quite distracting. Instead, place your workstation perpendicular to the window or opening so the view is within your scope of vision, but not directly in front of it. This gives you access to natural light but makes you less drawn to the outside world when you need to do focused work.

If you don’t have a spare room to serve as an office, you might need to place your work station against the wall so you have a visual separation from your home life. If you have to face a wall or expose your back to the entryway, you could hang a mirror to have a view of the room and see people coming into your space. You could place a small bookcase, table or file cabinet behind you to serve as a physical barrier. You could also partition your workspace from the rest of the room with a shoji screen or other moveable divider.

Your preference for silence or sounds in your background also affects your work-from-home productivity. The good news is you typically have more control over this in a home office. When you’re in a traditional office setting, you can’t keep telling your colleagues to stop talking in the hallway or to quit laughing in the lunchroom.

I know some people who actually work better with the TV on in the background because they find it comforting and less isolating. (I don’t know how they do this, but they do.) White noise machines or apps can also serve as audio signals for work mode.

Personally, I tend to go with silence when I’m doing high-cognitive work, such as writing a legal brief. But in some situations, I use apps like Brain.fm (to which I subscribe) and Focus at Will, which are designed to get you into focus mode, quiet the mind, and increase productivity.

I occasionally play tracks on Coffitivity and Hipstersound to recreate the sounds of a cafe in brainstorming and creative thinking sessions, or when it has just been too quiet for too long. Instrumental music like contemporary piano or the Monument Valley soundtrack are other favorites.

On the other hand, if you have unwanted sounds at home, you could use active noise-cancelling headphones or earphones. If you have small children around, you need to have another responsible adult around who can address their needs while you’re tuning them out.

If certain scents and aromas make you more productive or less stressed, then go ahead and burn that candle or use that essential oil that does the trick. There are no coworkers with allergies and fragrance sensitivities to worry about.

In remote work from home, you have more control in designing your workspace based on your physical, visual, audio and olfactory preferences. You can have your dog napping by your feet or kid doodling next to you while you answer emails. You don’t have colleagues and clients walking into your office and making judgments about what’s appropriate and what’s not.

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For more information on overcoming obstacles to thriving in remote work, read part 1 (Asynchronous Communication) and part 3 (Competing Priorities) of this multipart article.

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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and make time for what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC from her home office. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 1 – Asynchronous Communication

For the last 5+ years, I have worked exclusively from home as a solo lawyer and a productivity coach in my own business. Previously, I had flextime and did some remote work during my last two years as a full-time employee. Because this was an exception, and not a core part of the team culture, I did not fully embrace remote work until I went independent.

With intentional practice, I’ve developed habits and skills to work successfully from my home office. With no daily commute and the freedom to design my work day, I am better able to synch with my natural rhythm, focus on the top priority, get into the zone, and take deliberate breaks. Remote work also cuts overhead expenses and allows me to be more selective with my clientele and projects. But this setup also has productivity obstacles, especially when you’re new to it.

The first obstacle to overcome is Asynchronous Communication. For the seasoned remote worker, an asynchronous approach to collaboration or teamwork is preferred because it reduces interruptions, protects focus, and improves decision-making. When you send an email, for example, you don’t expect an immediate response. You allow the person to reflect on the information and reply with more thought. The response can take a few hours, a day or two, or several weeks, unless there is a strict deadline or time-sensitive opportunity that needs more urgent action.

But for those who like to get impromptu reactions to an idea, drop in on a colleague to ask quick questions, or engage in spontaneous chats in the lunchroom, the loss of synchronous communication is hard to take. Real-time communication is less common when you’re not co-located with your team.

Remote work can feel isolating, especially in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, when physical distancing is being mandated or encouraged. To maintain social connections and increase accountability, you can start your day or end your day by checking in with a work-from-home buddy. A telephone call in which you share your setbacks and wins can bring a sense of calm and joy in a virtual workplace.

Employers might also worry about not being able to keep a pulse on their remote teams. To combat this problem, companies often try to recreate the traditional workplace by requiring remote workers to be online and available during normal business hours, such as 9 am to 5 pm. They might expect the employee to respond immediately to emails, messages and telephone calls, irrespective of what they are doing in the moment. They might also use productivity-monitoring and screen-logging software or have employees turn in minute-by-minute accounts of their work day.

Such tactics reduce the sense of agency that a remote worker would otherwise have. In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink points out that autonomy is a key component of intrinsic motivation. It affects your ability to control what you do and when you do it. More autonomy builds trust, improves innovation, and encourages creative thinking.

Having the team in one office doesn’t necessarily amount to higher productivity. Sure, a manager can walk around workstations and ask employees what they’re working on and check on their mood and energy levels. But it’s also possible for a person to escape real work by showing up for meetings, responding quickly to emails, and looking busy at the office. Remote workers, on the other hand, have their output and results to show productivity.

In-person meetings are frequently overused and many serve no real purpose. They tend to force people to make decisions, react to information, and share their perspectives on the spot. Outgoing, talkative or higher-paid team members also tend to dominate the discussion. So in-person meetings and other forms of synchronous communication lead to quicker but not always better solutions.

With today’s technology, it is possible to have synchronous communication when this is truly needed. You can use video conferencing either for one-on-one meetings or group discussions to build rapport, connection and engagement. Some popular software tools for this purpose include Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout Meet (G-Suite), GotoMeeting and WebEx.

You can also use communication apps like Slack and old-fashioned email exchanges and telephone calls to get real-time communication or have urgent and important conversations.

In remote work, there is less oversight and more autonomy. While you can have set hours for synchronous communication and collaboration, be flexible with work schedules rather than attempt to recreate traditional office hours remotely. If you have important milestones and delivery dates to meet, schedule check-ins to confirm progress.

You don’t need real-time communication to share knowledge and provide status updates. For instance, there is a wide variety of project management software like Asana, Trello and Basecamp for team-based work. There are also industry-specific document case management programs, such as Clio, MyCase and RocketMatter for lawyers.

You can write things down, disseminate the information, ask for what you need and when, and provide time for review and reflection. Written communication or records on your processes, procedures, policies and action items allow others to access the information without needing to be at a specific meeting at a specific time and place.

While real-time communication and in-person meetings help with relationship building and team bonding, they are unnecessary to do real work, make great things, and meet big objectives. Asynchronous communication is really a benefit when you know how to use it to your advantage.

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For more information on overcoming obstacles to thriving in remote work, read part 2 (Blurred Lines) and part 3 (Competing Priorities) of this multipart article.

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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and make time for what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC from her home office. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.

Staying Present and Productive in the Face of Uncertainty

Staying present and productive can be especially difficult in the face of uncertainty. At the time of my writing this article, many of us in the United States are hunkering down at home to help slow the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019).

We each have different ways of coping with challenges and when conditions are largely outside our control. We could feel confident and sure-footed one moment, and then unsure and shaken the next. We might have mixed feelings and conflicting thoughts about the restrictions being imposed by our national government and local authorities to address the COVID-19 situation.

Self-isolation is meant to protect our personal wellness, flatten the curve for the coronavirus transmission, and reduce the impact on the health care system. On the other hand, it has serious, long-lasting repercussions on schools as well as businesses, such as restaurants, coffee shops, bars, theaters, museums, gyms, and recreational centers that rely on in-person attendance and patronage.

For the last 5+ years, I have worked remotely or virtually as a solo lawyer and productivity coach. I communicate with clients and prospects, all around the world, mostly by telephone calls, video conferencing and emails. In-person meetings are rare and usually non-essential. I did not have to adjust to a new setup like others who shifted to remote work in response to COVID-19. In that respect, I am fortunate.

Keeping grounded, sticking with healthy habits, practicing daily routines, getting high-quality sleep and maintaining real connections are just as important, if not more so, in times of uncertainty.

As a person who consciously limits news consumption and social media use, I initially took a head-in-the-sand approach to COVID-19. But as the travel restrictions increased, events got cancelled, schools closed, and certain businesses were ordered to shut down, I began to stay informed.

The trick is to refrain from constantly checking for updates. Once a day in a limited time block is more than enough, and certainly not first thing in the morning or around bedtime. Consuming information is not the same as taking real action.

Just a week ago, I was at the USCIS Field Office in Minneapolis representing clients at their green card interview as a U.S. immigration attorney. My client offered a handshake to the adjudications officer to thank him for approving his case. The officer politely refused and explained the staff was instructed to avoid such contact due to the coronavirus.

After I said goodbye to my clients, I took a walk through Downtown Minneapolis and noticed hand sanitizer dispensers at front desks and elevator doors in office buildings.

Then later that day, I learned that President Trump issued a proclamation restricting entry into the U.S. by most travelers who had been in the Schengen area of Europe for the last 14 days.

Then on Friday, I went to my local Target store and saw many empty shelves, with no toilet paper, facial tissues, hand sanitizers or canned soups available for purchase. (Luckily, these items were not on my shopping list.) People seem to be stockpiling much larger quantities than what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends, i.e. a 14-day supply of food, water and other necessities for every person in the household in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

That same day, President Trump proclaimed a national emergency and the Governor of my state, Minnesota, declared a state of emergency to combat the novel coronavirus. It was around this time I started to hear more and more about “social distancing,” which the CDC and other experts say is a key step to preventing the virus spread.

By Monday, March 16, Minnesota schools were closed and I had not only my toddler at home, but also my 1st grader who is now being “homeschooled” and my husband who switched to remote work. Later that day, the Governor ordered all restaurants, food courts, coffeehouses, bars and other places of public accommodation to close, except to offer delivery, take-out, or drive-through service.

We need to acknowledge the current reality, evaluate risks and strengths, and respond effectively to ongoing developments. My productivity is not at its peak. My focus is not as sharp. This is normal in the midst of a global pandemic that touches on daily life.

Still, I am staying present with client matters and keeping track of next steps, targeted completion dates, and deadlines. Although USCIS offices have closed temporarily to the public and some U.S. Consulates have suspended or canceled visa interviews, due to COVID-19, I continue to make steady progress, with the awareness that no crisis is permanent or affects everything.

Many businesses are functioning well and using online technology and other alternatives to fully provide services while limiting in-person contact. As a remote worker, I am operating on the virtual office platform I have held since I started my firm in October 2014. Drop-offs and delivery of mail and packages continue to be accepted and processed at my Downtown Minneapolis office location.

Most people recover from the illness through self-care at home, many with the virus have relatively minor symptoms and a few are asymptomatic, and children are not particularly vulnerable to it. Nevertheless, this global pandemic is expected to be here for a while and brings health risks, emotional angst, and financial challenges.

In the midst of uncertainty, there is unique opportunity to appreciate the privileges we often take for granted, build necessary resilience for setbacks, reassess our priorities, deepen or expand valuable skills, and live more intentionally.


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