How to work from home without being forgotten

How can you ensure that, when you work from home, you’re still firmly in your colleagues’ minds? Matt Packer provides some handy tips

For the uninitiated, working from home can feel like a swing to a whole new set of extremes that are every bit as challenging as those they face in the office.

Instead of constant background noise from chatter, crashing phone receivers and the pitter-patter of typing, there is… nothing. Great, big, howling nothing. The kind of prolonged void that would make some people yearn for a supervisory figure to appear over their shoulder and deposit a schedule-wrecking A4 sheet of paper on their desk while saying, “Could you please just take a look at this when you have a moment?”

In other words, all the stuff you were trying to get away from by holing up in your domestic box room.

In the canon of solitary experiences, working from home is very much like being shown a map of the world with a tiny red arrow on it accompanied by a small ‘You are here’ sign. It makes you hyper-aware of your aloneness, and you feel like the human equivalent of the light in the fridge: if the door is shut on you, are you still, in any meaningful sense, ‘on’?

Do you continue to wield influence among your peers? Does your absence feel to them like a different kind of presence?

Reassuringly, the answers to those questions are yes, yes and yes – or at least, they are with the application of certain arrangements that will help you to keep the outside world in mind, and vice versa. Here are some thoughts…

1. Break up your day into tiny chunks

It wasn’t until I started working at home as a freelancer that I saw how all-consuming the occupational rabbit hole can be – and I like to think I always had a pretty solid work ethic. I was simply stunned by how the hours roared by, seemingly at twice the speed of office hours.

That heightened level of concentration that only working at home brings can deepen your sense of isolation from the rest of the planet. So it will serve you well to ensure that you come up for air regularly throughout the day. Breaks will open up scope for interactions beyond your box room and give you a chance to let people know that, even though you’re not around, you’re still, well… around.

One of the best and most popular methods for doing this is the Pomodoro Technique, developed in the 1980s by management consultant Francesco Cirillo. Essentially, it requires you to set a timer for 25 minutes, during which you beaver away at pace, and with high focus. Then, when the timer rings, you take a short break of about seven minutes to stretch, make a cup of tea, doodle – anything to give your brain a little pressure valve. After four of those cycles, you take a longer break of between 20 and 30 minutes. Repeat till the day ends.

The beauty of the Pomodoro Technique is that it minimises the threat of distraction, because you know that your next chance for a break is just around the corner. That improves your concentration – which, in turn, boosts your productivity. As a secondary benefit, it creates opportunities for you to give your colleagues a wave. And while we’re on the subject…

2. You’re only as isolated as you want to be

Let’s flip this whole thing on its head for a second and say, face it: in this day and age, you’d have to go quite far out of your way to slip off people’s radar screens in the first place.

The digital soup in which we all mingle guarantees that – and few who’ve worked from home can credibly claim that they’ve never interacted with colleagues on social media during business hours.

However, for those of you who like to keep your online communication with co-workers strictly professional, team-messaging apps such as Slack, Bitrix24, HipChat, Flock and Hall give you absolutely no excuse to be out of any particular loop.

While they have subtle differences, all of those apps – not to mention their teeming legion of imitators – have been designed with user-friendliness as a primary virtue. Their whole mission is to make it a complete doddle for dispersed workforces to pool ideas, set directions, plan and mobilise. And possibly exchange the odd bit of team-building banter along the way.

The imagination is a powerful asset, and after just 10 minutes of using a team-messaging app, you will begin to feel that you’re constructing an office inside your head – which, of course, your remote colleagues will also be doing. Such is the nature of bonding in the 21st century.

3. Embrace the ancillary benefits of surveillance culture

I agree, it does sound a bit scary – but it’s actually quite reassuring once you dig into it.

In a fascinating article at The Conversation (it’s worth reading the entire thing), University of Sydney researcher Ella Hafermalz explains that teams of dispersed workers she has examined are more than happy to jack in their privacy in exchange for being more connected – so it’s almost as though they’re working side by side.

Hafermalz writes: “A team of computer programmers I spoke with set up a video connection via their computer webcams that was always on. Both remote and non-remote team members were connected all workday to one another, and to a desktop screen in the Australian head office.

“One team member admitted he felt ‘chained to his desk’, but said he liked the video arrangement because it made him feel like a ‘part of the team’.”

She adds: “These remote workers were fully aware that their communications were being (or at least could be) monitored – but it didn’t stop them requesting and using technologies in various ways to stay connected and become visible. Far from hiding away, they worked hard to get noticed.”

4. Pick up the phone

Don’t be a stranger! Give an office-based member of your team a bell (perhaps on one of your Pomodoro breaks), and have a quick natter. Find out how they’re getting on. Make it friendly, rather than coming across as though you’re keeping a hawkish eye on them (even though you may be doing just that).

If nothing else, that individual is likely to mention to the rest of the team that they’ve just spoken to you – thereby evoking your spirit around everyone’s desks.

About the author

Matt Packer is a freelance business, finance and leadership journalist

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