Career Advice

Career Advice: Remote work

One thing we learned in the pandemic is that in many office jobs, remote work is not only possible, but in many ways, desirable. Even as workers have returned to the office, many companies have adopted “hybrid” models, allowing employees to work remotely part of the time. Other companies have opened up their hiring practices to encompass workers from across the country, allowing those workers to work remotely all the time.

With this new norm not going anywhere, what’s the best way to work remotely?

First, make sure it’s right for you, says Mark Richardson, owner of career and talent consultancy Unfinished Business.

“Do you appreciate and do you enjoy working on your own? Or do you need to be part of the team? It’s not for everyone,” Richardson says. “Some people need to vibe with people. Some people need the water cooler to gather around.” If that’s you, there’s nothing wrong with deciding you’d rather be in the office.

If your personality does favor remote work at least part time, though, Richardson says there are two important considerations to start with.

Mark Richardson

“The first thing you need to do is make sure that you’ve got the appropriate technology,” including reliable internet service. “The second thing that you want to think about is what kind of space are you going to be in? Are you in a dedicated space? Is this the space that you can operate in without having to tear it down and set it up every day? So that you can have consistent logistics, you can have a consistent background, everything at arm’s length.”

Harper Donahue, Director of Human Resources for the City of Milwaukee, also said it’s important to create a space that’s “ergonomically correct and appropriate.”

“You have to really put in that investment so that your work space is comfortable,” Donahue said. “I think it’s definitely important to have an area carved out in your home, because it’ll help you have those boundaries. Invest in a quality chair. Invest in a desk. Some employers will also support some of that, but most won’t.”

Speaking of boundaries, both Richardson and Donahue said it’s important to set some between work and home life.

“When we first shifted into virtual, everyone’s teleworking, your office became your home, and you’re at home all the time, so you don’t leave work alone,” Donahue says. “You had burnout from that. Six months into the pandemic, folks felt like they were working all the time. They couldn’t shut it off.”

One way to get past that is to set something of a routine, Richardson says.

“Just like when you used to go into the office, you should try to keep as much of a routine as possible,” he says. “Try to keep some kind of regularity so that when you are working, it feels different than when you’re at home. And when you’re in the kitchen and you’re doing laundry and you’re binge-watching stuff, and whatever you do in your normal day, you should feel some separation between your normal day activities and work.”

Donahue adds that it’s important to set some firm “off” hours, when you might be working on projects on your own but aren’t “available” for calls or emails.

It’s also important to take vacation – and mean it – Donahue says. He says people are carrying larger vacation balances these days, meaning they’re not taking time off for things like appointments and other personal matters.

Harper Donahue

“Folks still had doctor’s appointments, they just weren’t actually taking that time off, and they are trying to flex that as they see fit,” Donahue said, which is usually fine as far as the boss is concerned. “Most (employers) actually just look at productivity. As long as you’re getting your work done, and it’s quality work, they’ll leave you alone,” he said.

Still, it’s important to take time off, and actually be off.

“Vacations actually don’t look like vacations anymore. My family and I are going to Florida, but I’m taking my laptop. I can still pop in on this meeting,” Donahue says. “You have to really figure out a way to set appropriate boundaries. It’s not just employees, it’s also the manager. If someone is going to be out, wish them well, and try to keep them out.”

Another potential downside of working remotely – especially if you’re remote all or most of the time – is a lack of connection with your work team. 

“One of the things that can’t happen when you’re remote is all the side conversations and the organic conversations that happen just because you’re in the office together,” Richardson said. “You’re not going to bump into somebody in the parking lot or in the break room. You don’t have the opportunities for these collisions and these impromptu conversations, whether they be personal or professional. Because you don’t have that, you have to be more intentional, and you have to just create more random check-ins.”

That’s not too hard to overcome, though, with some intentionality.

“A lot of times, companies will do things, icebreakers, culture builders, specifically for remote teams, so that you’re not just jumping into the nuts and bolts during a Zoom call,” Richardson said. “You’re doing some bridge building. You know, what did you do during the weekend? Let’s take a poll of the staff, different things that keep people engaged.”

“Part of those check-in meetings are also about just actually just checking in. Yeah, it’s work, but it’s more casual,” Donahue said, adding that some intentional in-person meetings, even just for lunch or happy hour, can also go a long way.

“Let your direct supervisor know when you need some face time,” Richardson says. “Which doesn’t mean it has to be something big, or gloom and doom, or major.  It just means sometimes you need to have a three dimensional conversation versus an on-screen conversation.”

Finally, it’s important to take some self-assessment time, to reflect and be sure you’re happy with the situation.

“It’s not okay if it’s not okay,” he says. “You need to respect those same boundaries going both ways. If it’s family time, then it’s family time. And you’ve got to put the phone down, you’ve got to close the laptop, and you have to work really hard not to let that interrupt your home life.”