How do you do great work while sitting near the same spot where you watch Netflix? How can you be responsive without losing the focus necessary for getting things done? How can you maintain and grow your network when you spend less time face to face?
The key is to detach yourself from old ways of working and adopt new habits to match your new environment. Long before public health concerns pushed many of us indoors, some of the most successful people fueled their careers with carefully perfected work-from-home routines. Drawing on those profiles and her own insights, productivity expert and mother of five Laura Vanderkam reveals how to turn "being cooped up" into the ultimate career advantage. Her hacks include:
• Manage by task, not time. Going to an office for 8 hours makes you feel like you've done something, even if you haven't. Remote workers should set 3-5 ambitious goals for each day and consider the work day done when these are crossed off.
• Get the rhythm right. A well-planned day features time for focused work, interactive work, and rejuvenating breaks. In place of a commute, a consciously chosen shut down ritual keeps work from continuing all night.
• Nurture connections. Wise remote workers can build broader and more effective networks than people sitting in the same cubicle five days a week.
Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, a self-starter or someone who prefers detailed directions, you can do your clearest thinking and deepest work at home--and have more energy left over to achieve personal goals or fuel bigger professional ambitions. In fact, soon you might find it hard to imagine working any other way.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
On Thursday, March 12, 2020, my twelve-year-old rose at 6:45 a.m. to get ready for his 7:20 a.m. choir practice. My husband got ready for work, drove our son to his middle school, then hopped on a train. I read outside for a few minutes before supervising the morning routines for our other four children. At about 9:00 a.m., with everyone at school or in our nanny’s capable hands, I settled into my home office as I usually do—a nice spot on the northwest corner of my house in eastern Pennsylvania where I could watch the forsythia bloom through the window. I worked on my podcast and writing projects, but the news was darkening quickly. Cases of the novel coronavirus that had been making headlines were popping up around the United States. That afternoon, the governor ordered the kids’ schools closed for what would turn out to be the rest of the term. By the time my husband got off the train, he had, along with millions of people, become a full-time virtual worker like me, moving from an office downtown to a new corner office—his on the southeast side of the house.
I study time for a living. In normal times, my business involves speaking to corporate or conference audiences about productivity, and writing books based on my analysis of thousands of time logs. I know, from studying such logs over the past dozen years, that working from home has become more common. This is true both for employees and for the self-employed. A study by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics found a 159 percent increase in remote work from 2005 to 2017, though with blurring boundaries between work and home these statistics are hard to pin down. Anybody who checks work email from her bed at 10:00 p.m. is technically working from home, even if she wouldn’t define it that way herself.
But before March 2020, working from home during business hours was still perceived as a questionable choice for anyone with big ambitions. Corporate work-from-home privileges were doled out mostly as a once-a-week perk for people who needed a better work/life balance and who’d proven themselves trustworthy. Even then, such a concession was usually reserved for Fridays. Everyone knows that Fridays are the least productive day of the week. The assumption was that anyone working from home wasn’t working, so best to minimize the opportunity cost. Sure, video conferencing had improved since the clunky webinars of the past. Organizations occasionally lamented the environmental costs of commuting (right before shipping their CEOs to Davos on a private jet). Still, with many managers assuming that work had to happen at set times in an office building—with the temperature locked at a frigid 68 degrees—millions of people braved traffic just to email and call people in other places. I remember one conversation with a business leader who was exploring remote work as a trend his organization needed to be aware of—“but,” he noted, “it would never work for us.”
Then the COVID-19 epidemic swept through the United States and Europe. In the space of days, people learned that their entire organizations could operate remotely (including that business leader’s). Gallup polls found that, as of March 13–15, 2020, only 31 percent of U.S. workers had ever worked remotely; by March 30—April 2, 2020, this had doubled to 62 percent.
Forced to figure it out, people learned that you could, in fact, pitch a million dollar project to a client via Zoom. Many routine medical visits could be handled via telemedicine, raising the question of why people had wasted hours sitting in germ-filled waiting rooms. You could work closely—laughing, sharing moments—with people who weren’t in the same state. People suddenly juggling work and homeschooling or childcare figured out that, while it wasn’t easy by any means, with careful planning they could work at varying hours and still get some stuff done. If a proposal can’t be written on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., maybe it can be written on Tuesday at 6:00 a.m., then presented while a partner covers, and toasted during nap time.
As daily life slowly clawed back toward normal, few could argue that remote and flexible work “would never work for us.” It has.
People always revert to old habits. The first post-quarantine trip to a coffee shop? It’s a celebration of human interaction. On the second, people avoid eye contact with the barista as usual. But some things do change. Maybe you are among the millions who worked from home for the first time during COVID-19. Maybe you cannot fathom strapping yourself back into your car to burn ten hours each week commuting. Maybe you used to spend your weekdays visiting client headquarters, but now your clients don’t want to battle traffic either. In April, Gallup found that 59 percent of those working from home during the pandemic wanted to keep doing so afterward. Maybe you want to explore new ways of working—ways that are more self-directed and where location and hours are less set than before.
If so, this book is for you.
It’s also for you if you’ve been running your own small firm (as I do) or managing a distributed team for years. It’s for anyone who wants to take the opportunity that a great upheaval provides to rethink time and life. Having seen what is possible, the smartest leaders are recognizing that structuring work to be more flexible in terms of time and place isn’t about work/life balance. The wisest professionals are recognizing that remote and flexible work styles can be huge strategic advantages for those bold enough to seize them. Organizations are more nimble; people are happier and healthier. Working face-to-face is great, but like everything, there is a point of diminishing returns. For many kinds of work, this point is far below the previous expectation of forty set hours a week in a cubicle. In the new corner office, results matter more than where and when work happens.
This book shares strategies from highly successful people who are thriving in this new world. We’ll talk about:
Managing by task, not time. Time is an incredibly useful concept, but structuring work differently allows for efficiency breakthroughs.
Getting the rhythm right. A well-planned workday ensures challenging but sustainable progress.
Building your team. Wise remote workers can create a more effective network than those sitting in the same cubicle five days per week.
Thinking big. There is no contradiction between working remotely/flexibly and nurturing your long-term career ambitions.
Optimizing well-being. Working from home at least a few days a week can help people maintain the energy necessary to succeed in a competitive world.
Each section has practical tips that you can try today. I’ve done my job if, at least a few times, you say, “I hadn’t thought of it that way before!” My goal is to motivate you to take charge of your workday, and your work life, and to achieve results that would not have been possible under the old operating instructions.
In my conversations with highly productive people, I’ve learned that the ones who seem to manufacture time don’t hold to rigid notions of how the 168 hours of a week should be used. They plan their workdays to tackle their most important work when they’re freshest. They meet their spouses for lunch on Tuesdays. They invite former colleagues to go run together at 6 a.m. and wind up hatching new business plans while getting some exercise. They head home (or out of the home office) in the evening for family dinner and then sometimes do more work building their empires at night after the kids go to bed. They work in different places, but it’s as much about getting new ideas, and managing energy, as it is about any traditional notions of balance.
Sometimes these people’s jobs are inherently flexible. If you run the show, that meeting happens when you want it to. Other times, people simply work as they wish to work, figuring that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Now, with upheaval everywhere, far more people have been empowered to work differently. This isn’t easy. There are plenty of challenges in working from home, which this book will describe. No, not the usual assumptions. High-performing professionals do not take to watching Netflix all day just because they can. Bigger issues are if people don’t know when to stop working, or if people get stuck and don’t know what to do without their boss around the corner, or if managers set unclear goals. The self-direction required for remote work is tough—whether you work for someone else or for yourself. But success is possible by keeping in mind two principles we’ll return to frequently in this book.
First, working from home is a skill. People can learn to work from home just as they can learn to speak French or play basketball. It’s reassuring to realize that, as with most skills, people do a slipshod job on day one, but get better with time. Spring 2020 provided a crash course, and a lot of bad Zoom meetings with people speaking on top of one another. In crisis mode, many people used modern technology to replicate what they could of the work environments that they’d left behind during that dark week in mid-March. This makes sense and is also enlightening. (So much could be replicated!)
Emerging from that, though, is a desire to embrace the second principle: innovate, don’t replicate. This book is a manual for moving to this more mature stage—from the remote work of March 12 to a more thoughtful vision of what remote work can be. Working from home doesn’t need to be about making do, hanging on, and counting the days until everyone is back in the office. Mixed with in-person work, it can be a strategic advantage. In the new corner office, ideas matter more than ever. But shoes? Those are optional. This book is about how successful people thrive while working at home—and how, with their advice, you can too.