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.