The M Dash

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How To Work Remotely, Effectively: A Guide

April 10, 2016

I once wrote an important press release in the passenger seat of a rented Hyundai, driving from Cape Code to Providence at some ungodly hour in the morning to catch a plane to Philadelphia (don’t ask). I have transcribed an interview in a pedicure chair at my local nail salon, extending my foot rub as I played back the tape again and again. I’ve drafted many assignments in windowless hotel bars, nursing a gimlet and snacking on bar nuts.

Sure, anyone can “work remotely” while getting buzzed in a bar, glazing over her email inbox. But in my case, the work I do outside of the conventional office setting is often my best. It’s so good, in fact, that I often seek out the “remote” when I need to be my most productive.

This isn’t to say you should ditch your desk for a bumpy car ride at the crack of dawn. However, I do believe that working remotely is a critical skill that can be acquired, honed, and then employed for maximum effect to improve your work and make you happier in the process.

Not convinced? Research backs me up. In January 2014, the Harvard Business Review published an article that detailed a study led by Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and Co-Director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study, which followed a sample of workers allowed to telecommute for nine months, illustrated that working remotely actually enhanced these employees’ productivity, plus improved their attitude and company morale in the process.

I chalk this phenomenon up to having more control over my environment when I’m out of the office. Yes, calls, emails, and unplanned interruptions still happen, but generally speaking, you get to decide if there are distractions. In discussing his findings, Bloom explained, “One-third of the productivity increase, we think, was due to having a quieter environment, which makes it easier to process calls. At home people don’t experience what we call the ‘cake in the break room’ effect. Offices are actually incredibly distracting places.”

Still, working remotely does involve discipline, rigor, and planning—Bloom’s “cake in the break room” effect could easily translate to the “cake in the comfort of your living room while watching TV” effect if you’re not careful. I’ve devised a code of conduct for my own out-of-office work, distilled into four points, below; consider them your guide to working productively (and happily) from the couch, a faraway hotel room, or the rental car of your choice. Wi-Fi not included.

work remotely

Work just about anywhere in the Annabel dress and featherweight scarf.

1. Plan out exactly how you’re going to spend your time.

When I’m working remotely, I’m a drill sergeant about my schedule—even if I only have one thing to do. I will meticulously map out what I need to accomplish—from emails to sourcing images for a blog post. I’ll assign time estimates to finish certain tasks (30 minutes to pitch a new story idea, 45 minutes to review this week’s topline social media stats, two hours to work on a brand presentation); I even slot in breaks to run an errand or make lunch so I know when I should be working and when I shouldn’t. If it sounds rigid, it is. But I do it to infuse my time with the all-important sense of structure—which often disappears when we walk out of the office.

I’ve learned from experience that I have to create an ironclad schedule to eliminate the temptation to take twenty-odd minutes to groom my eyebrows, assemble an elaborate snack, or spend my entire plane ride reading tabloids. Those distractions are real, and they’re the reason why so many people get sidetracked when they’re not surrounded by coworkers. Knowing exactly how I will spend each minute out of the office—and sticking to that plan, no matter how much of a drag it can be—creates a roadmap around those time-sucking detours.

2. If you’re working from home, pretend like you’re not at home.

One of the most common mistakes people make when working from home is to act, well, like they’re at home. This translates into behaviors like getting up to do dishes in the middle of a thorny email or watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show while on a tight deadline. While you might feel like you’re “multitasking,” the results are usually sloppy.

As such, it’s important to create a distinction between “home” and “work,” even when they are technically the same. You wouldn’t bring your laundry in and fold it in the office while talking to your boss, so don’t do that during work hours at home, either. To create this separation, select spaces in your home that are designated for “work.” In my case, this means sitting at my desk—the couch is where productivity goes to die. It also helps to form routines that signal “work time.” For me, that means turning off the TV, turning on some ’90s music that could’ve been on the soundtrack of My So-Called Life, and lighting a candle—feel free to get weird with it. Once you establish your rituals, it’ll be easier to settle in and focus.

3. Seek out inspiring locales.

Like most humans, my mood directly correlates to my environment. In fact, plenty of research shows that one’s physical workplace has a positive or negative influence on happiness and productivity. You probably can’t change your office’s harsh fluorescent lighting or puke-colored carpeting, but when you’re working remotely, you get to choose your surroundings—and, consequently, your mood and attitude. Take advantage of this.

An inspiring, interesting, or novel environment often makes me feel happier; more importantly, it results in more energized, purpose-driven work. After all, if I’ve traveled to a beautiful place solely to be productive, I’d better get to it, right? Some of my favorite spots: a museum (or its café, always an underrated choice), a quiet bench outside on a nice day, or the lobby of a beautiful old hotel (totally free, totally transporting). If you’re a freelance writer, you could try traveling to new places to find inspiration. If you’re on the road for work, put in the effort to find the best, favored-by-locals coffee shop in town. Don’t default to Starbucks. Seriously.

4. Don’t be a slave to Wi-Fi.

It’s amazing how much productivity hinges on having Wi-Fi. It’s also kind of sad. While I’m certainly guilty of giving up on a certain task due to faulty Internet access, I have also learned that you cannot let Wi-Fi issues become a work barrier—and there are two ways to avoid this.

First, if you know you’ll be traveling and unable to access the Internet, plan ahead of time to work on some offline tasks. This can mean drafting emails, reading through documents, reviewing a presentation, taking phone calls, or even making a thorough to-do list. You might even enjoy the untethered (and less distracted) feeling you get when you go web-free.

Second, you can purchase an Internet hotspot. I have a Mifi Jetpack from Verizon, and it’s been invaluable (especially when I’m stuck on a long car ride). You’ll never curse the Wi-Fi gods again—and you’ll never have another excuse for skipping out on work, either.


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Julia Sweeney is a freelance writer and the Director of Marketing at S.W. Basics, an all-natural skincare brand based in Brooklyn, New York. As a copywriter and editor, she’s worked on behalf of brands like Marriott Hotels, ABC Carpet & Home, and DARA Artisans. She lives in Manhattan’s West Village and considers My So-Called Life a profound source of wisdom. Spirit animal: red fox. Read more of Julia's posts.


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