Remote workers have freedom from commutes, flexibility to control their own hours, and they have the choice to live wherever they want. But, it’s not all one way. Hiring remotely is a bonus for employers as well: Companies that hire for remote positions open themselves up to a whole new global talent pool, and are more likely to keep hold of employees.
Remote workers are not only vital to startups, and businesses who choose to hire them. These global work-from-home employees keep customer service ticking along 24 hours a day. The demands of the customer have risen, and the need to keep customers successfully supported is vital to business growth. Business can’t afford not to scale customer support around the world.
Remote work isn’t something that “other people” do, because the virtual office trend is growing. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com:
- 20-25% of the U.S. workforce already works remotely or at home
- 80-90% of workers would like to be remote at least part-time
- Since 2005, there has been 103% growth in employees that work from home.
Remote workers started Kayako, and they continue to drive our success to this day. I started at Kayako as a remote worker in London while CEO, Varun Shoor, worked in India. It wasn’t until four years later that Varun and I would meet for the very first time.
Now, with more than 150 employees working from two offices and 15 homes around the world, Kayako also hires remote workers to take advantage of a global talent pool.
But as working remotely grows in popularity, so does the emphasis on setting up remote workers for success.
The remote working life
Remote work can be rewarding, liberating, and a path to a flexible work-life balance with a company located on the other side of the world. According to Stanford Business School, people who work from home are not only happier, they’re more productive, too.
But, the untold truth is: it can also be isolating, exasperating, and an unending source of stress because you live where you work and work where you live. Whether you work from home in customer service or another industry, the tricks are to find balance and, above all else, stay productive.
In those four years of working remotely, it turned me into a virtual office veteran. Over the last three and half years I have worked from three different homes, during multiple vacations, from my gym, countless coffee shops, auto maintenance facilities, bars, and during the dwindling minutes catching the last bit of wifi in the airport departure lounge. Clients and customers have never noticed my nomadic work habits—or at least, they’ve never let on as much—which tells me that my productivity has met or exceeded expectations.
I’m proud of that. But it hasn’t been easy. You try leading a conference call in a Starbucks while a traffic jam of cars in the parking lot honks in ear-splitting protest at the truck driver who has blocked the driveway while he gets his latte. It took a lot of tap dancing to keep that meeting on task.
So how do Kayako employees that work from home in customer service stay productive when we don’t have an office? After some dangerous self-reflection and two engaging conversations with Kayako colleagues, Daniel (Customer Support Advocate) and Kelly (Self-service Content Manager), I identified six keys to staying productive from a virtual office.
Own your business
Lack of motivation is the most insidious detriment to productivity. Working in a traditional office every day provides external motivation in the forms of sharing space with colleagues, direct oversight from a supervisor, IT security protocols, and walls to keep you from wandering about when motivation wanes. Depending on your industry, you may have daily, hourly or other quotas you need to meet.
As a remote worker, other than the quotas, much of that external motivation is easy to circumvent. That’s why disciplined internal motivation is so important for remote workers to possess at the outset or develop quickly. Charles Duhigg says in his book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive, that, “Motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed.”
Take the perspective that you’re running your own business. If you don’t get the work done, then no one else does. If no work gets done, then no money comes in. If no money comes in, then eventually you’ll be asked to box up the belongings in your virtual desk.
It’s important for me to keep up the habits that you would have at a traditional onsite position. There’s a huge amount of personal responsibility that goes into managing your workload. Do your laundry, take showers, and don’t take shortcuts.
I only work for a day out of my home office before I change venues. On a normal day, I’ll try to work the in a coffee shop in the morning. Then I’ll go work out of my home office. Then I’ll go work out of one of the local breweries or someplace else for the afternoon. I have a co-working space; that’s helpful because it’s nice to be around other productive people.
Even if you split time between a traditional office and virtual office, thinking of your remote location as a satellite or franchise office of your employer reminds you that if you’re not motivated, then someone else will be.
Flip a switch
There is plenty of advice on how to design your virtual office. Some think the space is important. Others want you to focus on the amount of sunlight. The one absolute essential is that you find ways to flip a switch from home mode to work mode. Without the physical separation you get by going into an office, it’s up to you to figure out how you achieve the level of focus necessary to be productive.
If I need to reset, then I’ll close out of everything, disconnect and come back to it. I’ll get out of the room and walk the dog for a few minutes.
When I start to feel that slump, changing what I’m looking at helps, or I’ll go workout, or just having a conversation with another person is all it takes.
After you define your virtual office—whether it’s a room or sequence of events that narrows your focus—you need rhythm and instruments to find your groove.
Find your rhythm
Remote work is rarely a nine-to-five gig. Whether you’re assigned a shift or you just need to get work done, how you schedule your day before and after you flip your focus switch will contribute to your level of productivity. This is called finding your rhythm, and you have to do it to survive the solitary, stationary island of a remote worker.
There’s a real danger of blurring the lines between your professional and private lives to the point when you walk through your front door you’re not sure if you’re at home or at work. To avoid this, Daniel looks to cycling, making music and Uber driving to help keep him in rhythm. Kelly moves.
It’s really important for me to stay in rhythm. I’m completely in motion when I’m not working because I’m dormant when I’m working. Before work I’ll ride my bike. After work, I drive for Uber.
If I don’t switch it up, then I just get into my own head. It turns into a giant echo chamber of, “Oh, you’re not working on this fast enough,” or “Oh, you should be doing this other thing.” If I sit in the same chair in the same place for too long then I start to go a little bit stir crazy…Sometimes all it takes is having a conversation with my barista.
It’s also important to start and finish the day with momentum. “To get over the feeling that I’m always on the clock, I make a to-do list for the next day at the end of my day,” Kelly said. I do this, too. It helps make a clean break from work to home life at the end of the day, and it saves you from scrambling to get organized at the beginning of the next day.
Try every instrument
Collaboration tools make it easier to stay engaged and productive while working from home. Your employer provides some, but take the initiative (without breaking any of your company’s IT regulations, of course) to try tools that keep you focused and in rhythm. And don’t be afraid to try new tools because with working remotely growing in popularity, so is the market in collaboration tools.
We can use any tools we want to get the job done. Kayako encourages us to “think like a freak.” And it pays dividends…I wouldn’t be able to do this job without a password manager. Kayako is run with no fear. They’re willing to explore new tools to make us more effective in our jobs.
We rely heavily on Slack…I’m obsessed with Todoist. If it’s not on Todoist then it doesn’t exist for me.
Some of the tools Daniel and Kelly rely on for collaboration and productivity include:
- Google Hangout
- Google Docs
- White noise and ambient music
I too rely heavily on Slack. Dropbox and Google Drive have been standbys since I started my home office. UberConference lets me record conference calls. And thanks to my conversations with Daniel and Kelly, I’m now a satisfied user of F.lux and Todoist.
Look to the mother ship
While you have to take more initiative to be productive, your employer and colleagues will play major roles in enabling, supporting, and rewarding you. Just because you work from your own office doesn’t mean that you work alone.
Companies like Kayako rely on remote workers to provide expertise and experience that they cannot find locally. To capture and leverage what remote workers can offer, companies have to expand their community to include all of their remote workers.
There’s always someone there to reassure me. They’re just so positive and forward thinking on education and learning. Even when I make a mistake, they help me see the silver lining.
A big advantage at Kayako is that we are all plugged into what everybody else is doing so we can keep pace with a project…everyone here is very self-driven.
If you think another tool or service or meeting will help you improve productivity, then you have to ask your employer to help make it happen. They may not be aware of the gap since they don’t see or even talk to you every day.
When in doubt, over communicate. You don’t have the luxury of working in an office and being able to pop into a cubicle to ask, “What’s the ETA for X?” You need to be more direct. Otherwise, the stress of uncertainty—and Kelly’s “echo chamber” of self-doubt—will start to eat away at motivation.
How to improve your productivity
Again, as a remote worker, much of the responsibility to make yourself more productive falls on your shoulders. You know when your energy flags, the kinds of interactions that set you back, and the warning signs that you’re not being as productive as you want to be. It’s up to you to make yourself more productive.
I want to improve my technical knowledge. Kayako gives us access to online training—free of charge—for things like Linux Academy, PHP programming, and it’s my personal responsibility to get caught up so I can be more efficient. This job can be humbling sometimes and I want to get to the level of the people I work with so I can get it done faster.
I’m trying more time-boxing techniques where I sprint for 20 minutes to completely focus on a single task. I’m trying to find one that fits so I can get drafts out a bit faster.
Expect more production than your brick-and-mortar counterparts
As a remote worker, you get the advantage of time. No commute. No tracking down conference rooms. Fewer impromptu meetings. No office distractions. While this can isolate you if you let it, you can also use the time to get more done than your colleagues back in the office.
So if you read this to start your day, then toss the pajamas into the hamper, get a quick workout and start implementing these six keys to be more productive:
- Be accountable for your productivity.
- Discover your focus triggers.
- Be deliberate about scheduling your whole day, not just your workday.
- Stay informed about the latest collaboration and productivity tools.
- Over communicate with your employer and colleagues.
- Know your weaknesses and take the initiative to strengthen them.
Then go for a walk, drive for Uber, or chat with your barista. You need to get out of the house!