I recently brought home a new laptop. After getting all of my favorite apps installed and customizing my desktop, it was time to get to work. As a web designer and developer most of the work I do has an online component, making working remotely from home, or the local coffee shop, ideal. That isn’t to say it’s easy to work remotely, because it is not. There are several challenges, even some technical ones, to telecommuting effectively. Most of these challenges can be overcome with the right tools, the right attitude and a little creativity.
Ground Control to Major Tom
Solitude is a good thing when working remotely. But it can also become a distraction. The couch can suddenly swallow you whole while you procrastinate in reading the latest issue of Wired magazine. The remote office presents an entirely new set of distractions to overcome. Learning to focus on the task at hand, getting your work done, requires time, patience and discipline. And just because you are online doesn’t mean you are on the grid. Be sure to have a phone nearby where coworkers can reach you, and check your messaging client and email at random intervals. If something important should come up at the office, you don’t want to be left unreachable, floating around in a tin can.
When I work remotely from home I have the opposite problem of being alone. I have to contend with the incredible din generated by a toddler and his little brother, little wrecking balls disconnected from the chain. If you are going to work remotely you will need a quiet place, preferably separated from common areas of the house. A private office is ideal, but I’ve discovered the kitchen works quite nicely, too.
There are other challenges that you’ll face when telecommuting. Video chats are nice but they can’t replace the culture and ambiance of the office environment. There is something about being in the same room with coworkers that makes us feel like we belong, like we are still in the loop. The cure for this is simple, get together with coworkers on a regular basis. I happen to only work from home one or two days a week, giving me plenty of time to catch up with my colleagues. Employees who work remotely every day of the week do not have this luxury. At Pelago we have regular events outside of the office where everyone can get reconnected. Something as simple as going out to the movies together and getting some dinner afterwards can do wonders for morale and productivity.
Tools of the Trade
Once you’ve decided to work remotely, it’s time to configure your computer for communicating and collaborating with other people on your team. Here are some of the essential apps and utilities we use at Pelago.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is indispensable when working remotely. Most offices are completely firewalled off to the outside world. A VPN connection gives you the same access to the office you would have if you were physically sitting inside it. Most routers come with VPN servers installed. For example, our SonicWall Router uses IPSEC for establishing VPN connections. Using any VPN client that supports IPSEC, we can get access to our office at anytime from anywhere.
We use Skype exclusively for group chat and video conferencing. The ongoing chatter of our group conversation is not always work-related, which is helpful for making remote employees feel like they are a part of the office when they aren’t physically present. The video chat makes it easy to start a conversation when chat won’t cut it. Skype has been an essential tool for us as it enables community and collaboration unrestricted by physical barriers.
Most email providers offer IMAP, POP, or at the very least, a web-based client for accessing email. I personally use Thunderbird and IMAP to check my email when working remotely. This way my email is kept in sync whether I am checking it from my desktop at work, the laptop at home, or on my iPhone. Email may seem like an obvious requirement when telecommuting, but it’s important to remember to take your email with you wherever you go. Despite other communications tools like chat and Twitter, email is still a staple for communications.
Online Time, Task and Project Management
One of the most difficult challenges of working remotely is simply knowing what to do with your time. What should you be working on? When is your next project due? How much time have you worked today? It is unrealistic for a project manager to verbally communicate this information to each individual remote employee. Instead, project managers should be using online project management software to keep everyone up-to-date. Coupled with time tracking and task management, remote employees can log into one application for managing their daily tasks and keeping track of their time. Meanwhile, project managers can keep tabs on remote employee productivity and effectively manage agency workflow. Which online application you decide to use is up to you. The important thing is to pick one and stick with it. The more data you track, the more useful these tools will be to your agency.
A week later and everything is running smoothly on the laptop at home. I’ve got all of the aforementioned apps up and running. And I look forward to each day I work remotely. I put on my headphones in the morning to drown out the noises around me and get to work. Some days I’m even more productive than when I am in the office, and other days motivation eludes me. But in the end it all balances out. Work gets done and I get to take the occasional nap on the sofa.