Many of us can recall a time when the thought of working from home was merely a daydream we’d have while fighting the traffic on our morning commute to the office. More and more people have been making the switch in recent years: remote work in the U.S. increased by 159% between 2005 and 2017. Even more dramatically, the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 has shifted the work-from-home concept from a rare job perk to a standard protocol worldwide in just a matter of days. Whether you find yourself working remotely by choice or by chance, there’s no denying that becoming a full-time work-from-home employee requires a complete mindset shift from the days back at the office.
Though there are plenty of factors of remote work that will put a smile on your face (no commute, complete control of the radio and thermostat, nonstop snuggles from your pets, etc.), a lot of people struggle to find the “rhythm” they had while working on-site. These obstacles may seem small, but in reality they can really throw a wrench into your productivity. Even some of our own clients have shared their frustrations with this new style of work. UpBuild has been a distributed team of work-from-home strategists across the nation from our inception. Since we’re work-from-home pros, the UpBuild team came together to offer up some of our own advice on how to overcome the common challenges of remote work that we’ve all had to face.
We’ve narrowed down the 10 most common day-to-day challenges that we and our clients face while working from home. You’ll get to hear from everyone on the team as we address these hurdles and provide unique solutions to help you optimize your remote work days from here on out.
1. Avoiding Distractions
Compared to distractions at the office, distractions while working from home “just be hittin’ different”. Whether it’s your dog constantly barking at passers-by, your neighbor leaf-blowing his yard, or those social media notifications that you just can’t ignore, there’s just no telling what could spring up, and these distractions can knock you off your game for hours.
For Alex Ramadan, a secluded room and a pair of headphones is the key to blocking out most of the distractions you’ll encounter.
“I avoid distractions by proactively limiting my exposure to distracting things.
The best strategy I’ve found for avoiding my personal distractions has been using headphones of varying noise-cancellation or isolating technologies, in conjunction with layering non-distracting soundscapes and music that doesn’t distract me. Many apps for your phone or tablet will let you play multiple audio sources at once, so you can play something like a constant rain sound while also playing a song from Spotify.
In practice, this looks like me wearing a pair of Airpod Pros and using a series of apps to listen to sounds like rain or train noises while listening to music that isn’t distracting. So, I’ll have a background soundtrack of rain and then maybe an album I know well (no lyrics, it’s more distracting to me even if I know them well) to work to. This helps me from hearing outside noises and getting distracted.
My go-to background noise app right now is Dark Noise https://apps.apple.com/us/app/dark-noise/id1465439395.
The next big thing for me is having a door to my office. I can shut it and, theoretically, “get down to business.”
If all this fails and I do end up getting distracted, I don’t give myself a hard time. I just breathe and recognize “I’m distracted;” then, I try to reduce the current distraction and get back to work. If I can’t avoid being distracted, I stop working and resume when my mind is right.
Different things will distract different people, so the best advice I can give is to identify common distractions for yourself, try to understand why they distract you, and then limit your exposure to them.”
2. Staying Energized
When that midday sleepiness kicks in, your cozy bed or couch that’s only a few feet away starts calling your name. That makes powering through your day a little more difficult when you’re working from home. A pot of coffee and a good night’s sleep are some fairly universal remedies for tiredness, but what else can you do to give yourself an extra lift throughout the day?
Ila Mar points out how a healthy diet and lifestyle make a big difference in staying energized.
“Honestly, staying energized for me is all about maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I find it super important to work out, drink lots of water, eat a healthy lunch, and get plenty of sleep every day. I try to work out first thing in the morning so I can start my day off with high energy. That leads to me drinking tons of water throughout the day too, which really helps. Drinking lots of water keeps the urge to snack at bay and keeps me wide awake most of the time. Eating a healthy lunch also helps. Too many carbs will just put me to sleep by 2PM. But if I do start to really feel myself lose energy, I’ll take a quick break to do something fast like go check the mail or quickly tidy something up in another room. Of course, doing this every day isn’t always easy, but I’ve noticed that staying energized is more of a lifestyle than a quick fix.”
3. Dealing With Isolation
Working from home on a daily basis causes a lot of people to feel, in a sense, sealed off from the outside world. The term “homebody” takes on a whole new meaning when you find yourself going a full day (or more) without leaving the house. It’s a good idea to have some simple daily or weekly routines to allow you to change up the scenery and interact with the public.
James McNulty has a few activities that he can lean on to keep from feeling isolated.
“To be honest I don’t often feel stuck inside the house. I’m quite happy working at my home office. I have, however, recognized just how important it can be to separate “home” from “office.” With that in mind, once or twice a week I’ll drive through Starbucks. It’s a fifteen minute detour to my morning and helps me feel that I’m breaking the isolation cycle. If the weather is nice and I feel that I need a mental break, I’ll take five minutes to sit outside in the backyard. If I have a particularly manageable workload, I’ll take my dog Colin on an afternoon walk. He likes those days.
At UpBuild we also have “Pair Calls,” twice-weekly (primarily video-based) meetings with another member of the team. The pairing rotates each week, and we talk for around fifteen minutes about anything we like (not work-related). It’s a great way to feel more social.”
4. Creating Your Ideal Workspace
Remote work gives us the opportunity to work from just about anywhere. Sure it’s nice to pack up your laptop and head to your favorite coffee shop or outdoor spot once in a while, but for the most part, having a dedicated and optimized workspace at home is the best way to zero in and get things done.
For Ruth Burr Reedy, it’s all about blocking off an area of your home and designating it strictly for work. That way, from the moment you sit down to begin working, your brain knows it’s time to get down to business.
“I try to be “at work” as much as possible when I’m working. I have a dedicated space with a desk, chair, and external monitors and keyboard, and I work from there as much as I can. I find that working from my desk helps me make the mental transition from “home time” to “work time” and back much better than working from e.g. the living room couch. If I end up doing non-work tasks on my laptop in the evening, I take it into another room, to try to maintain that boundary between home and work as much as possible. Even if you don’t have a whole extra room to be your home office, set up a workstation somewhere in your home where you can minimize distractions. Treat it like “going to the office” — you wouldn’t be folding that clean laundry if you were commuting to an office, and your home office is no different! The nice thing about doing this is that your break time can truly be a break; you can get up, leave your desk, take a walk, play with your pets, whatever you like!”
5. Maintaining Professionalism
To all the remote workers out there who throw on some sweatpants and a t-shirt every morning — don’t worry, I’m not here to burst your bubble on this one. If you come from an office background, making the switch to working from home will inevitably make you rethink what professionalism really is.
As the Founder and CEO of UpBuild, a company entirely comprised of remote workers, Mike Arnesen is one of the pioneers of this new wave of professionalism. Here’s what our fearless leader had to say about professionalism when working from home:
“Professionalism takes on a whole different meaning when you’re working from home, doesn’t it? The key question you need to ask yourself here is “what does professionalism look like at my company and in my role?”
For example, as the CEO of a fairly contrarian digital agency, my answer to “what’s the appropriate attire” is:
- shirt (of the long-sleeve or “T” variety)
Aside from also trying to either have clean hair or cover-up that whole situation with my trademark beanie, that’s appropriate work attire. If my attire is something I’d be comfortable meeting a business connection in, it’s appropriate for remote work. However, once the Zoom meeting/Hangout/Slack Call ends, all bets are off. I’d like to recommend, “The Year Without Pants“?
All kidding aside, I had a simple pass-fail that I set for myself each day back in 2015 when I founded UpBuild: put on pants. The image above was my phone wallpaper for that entire year.
When you’re coming off of years working in an office environment, everything about your home environment screams “I’m not at work!”. The simple achievement of at least putting on pants like a grown-up each day was enough to shift my brain into work mode and get down to business.
Outside of attire, I think professionalism when working from home is critically important. This may not apply as much in the time of COVID-19 — when remote work has become ubiquitous seemingly overnight — but in the years leading up to this, remote work has long been viewed with a bit of suspicion and skepticism.
Is that person, who’s clearly working from their couch, really working? Can I trust that my employees aren’t spending 90% of their day on Facebook? Is this distributed SEO agency just a bunch of shiftless ne’er-do-wells pretending to be a “real” company?
Extreme professionalism is the best way to combat and counter all of those concerns: Send well-written and articulate emails; follow up; double and triple check your work; always hop into your virtual meetings on time (if not early); over-communicate with regard to deadlines; ask for help and feedback.
I think it’s easy to develop bad habits when you’re collocated in an office because the assumption is that if you’re physically there, you’re busy. You’re productive. We all know that’s an extremely flawed assumption, but it’s often taken as fact.
Like it or not, you’re fighting an uphill battle when working remotely, but through investing even more in professionalism, you prove that remote can work; you foster better relationships; you can literally fake it until you make it (pretending to be extra professional will, as it turns out, make you super professional and productive as a result).
One final note: keep your dang desktop clean. It’s more noticeable than you think when, sooner or later, you’re forced to screen-share. ;-)”
6. Dialing in Time Management
Many of us started learning the importance of time management back in grade school, but it’s a skill that very few can honestly say they’ve mastered. When you’re working from home, you quickly find that structuring your day is almost entirely up to you and, in a lot of cases, there are new distractions and non-work-related tasks and that you have to juggle.
Danielle Rohe actually finds it easier to manage her time when working at home. If you’ve been having trouble maximizing your remote work efficiency, Danielle’s strategy might help you tighten things up.
“Since working from home, I’ve found it easier to manage my time than at an office. At an office, just a run to the coffee pot can end up in an informal meeting. Meeting rooms get held up and you find yourself having to herd everyone to a new, available location or reschedule around everyone’s busy schedule. Someone drops by your desk to ask you something, which turns into a quest for an immediate answer. With most of your communication being asynchronous when working remotely, that allows you to set a new request aside until you complete your current task. If remote work is new to your company, hopefully you all can establish some boundaries around understanding that a DM or email does not require immediate response. However, if something is urgent and needs immediate attention, make it known.
While this kind of goes along with limiting distractions, I’ve found that my browser tab hoarding can end up being a time suck. I limit my active browser window to the current task. I’ll group together tabs in other browsers for other projects in the mix. If I come across an article I want to look at, I’ll put it in a tab of my non-active browser and wait until I’m between projects to do my reading and research.
The key to managing your time while working from home is keeping to a routine. If you don’t have established working hours, it could be easy to find yourself caught up in other personal activities, not giving yourself enough time for work. At UpBuild we have work hours established for 5.5 hours of the day that ensures everyone working for the day is available during that time. We can complete our work outside of that time whenever we’d like. If I break from my routine to start in the morning before work hours, I set an expectation to do 1-2 hours of work that evening then after my daughter goes to sleep. When working in the evening, I always set a specific time to shut down work, so I don’t just keep at it. For me, the hardest part of time management when working from home is making sure to stop and take breaks!”
7. Communicating With Coworkers
As Mike Arnesen mentioned in regards to professionalism, when you’re working from home, communication becomes an absolutely vital skill. Whether you’re shooting the breeze with a coworker, pitching to a Fortune 500 prospect, or updating a current client, staying connected should always be top of mind.
This seems like a good time for me to chime in! I’m Nick Bradman, and since my role involves tons of interaction with coworkers, current clients, and new leads, my communications range from informal Slack messages to creating proposals and presenting deliverables.
“I’ve found that the biggest difference when it comes to communication when you’re working from home versus an office environment is the importance of staying connected internally. It takes some extra effort to keep everyone on the same page and maintain a standard that the whole team follows. Without having face-to-face contact with the rest of the team, it’s harder to casually toss a reminder to a coworker about something you’re waiting on, or ask for help when you’re stuck. Whatever the case may be, the last thing you want to do is set the issue aside and hope someone will eventually reach out to give you what you need.
At UpBuild, we are very collaborative and often create small teams to tackle a given project. We use Slack to quickly bounce ideas off of one another, Zoom for longer discussions that might require screen sharing, and Trello to share and review deliverables. I have synced all of these apps on my other devices as well just to make sure I don’t miss a notification. Whenever I start on a new project, I take some time at the beginning to dive in and make sure I have all the information and tools I need to do my part. If any questions or concerns arise, I share them with the team immediately so that they don’t spring up at the last minute and cause delays.
It’s also nice to stay in touch with coworkers on a personal level once in a while. If you’re an extrovert you might do this naturally, but for others I’d recommend making a point to spark up a friendly conversation a couple times a week. From a work perspective, it’s a good way to get to know your coworkers’ communication styles and will likely improve your ability to work together. From a human standpoint, it’s simply a good way to clear your brain from work for a few minutes and connect with another person.
When it comes to external communications while working from home, most of the snags I’ve experienced are related to video conferencing. If you’re new to it, I’d recommend having a practice call with a coworker so you can test your setup. Make sure you can see and hear each other clearly, and if you need to share your screen, make sure you have the proper privacy settings adjusted on your machine. It’s a good idea to check on this any time you have an external call scheduled, as sometimes your settings can get switched around due to software updates or other causes. When it comes time for a video conference, give your machine plenty of time to load the application before the meeting starts.
Conference calls with clients or leads are the only time I would recommend putting a bit of extra effort into your appearance. I don’t go overboard, but I make sure I’m wearing something presentable, and also make sure everything looks neat in the background. If you’re working in a room without much natural light, you might want to switch a couple of lights on. I like to turn on a desk lamp behind my computer so I don’t look like a shadowy figure sitting in the dark.”
8. Taking Breaks
A 2019 survey published by Quantum Workplace showed that among employees who don’t take work breaks, 67% described their emotional wellness as “Low” or “Very Low”, and 71% described their physical wellness as “Low” or “Very Low”. More simply put; breaks are important. If you’re managing a high workload, it’s easy to forget to give your brain some time to relax.
Laura McDougall is no stranger to a heavy workload, but even she makes some time during her day to take a breather.
“I like to take the thought out of factoring in breaks by using a tool like the Pomodoro timer (link: https://www.marinaratimer.com/) to help me both focus on a task distraction-free and delineate breaks. This method encourages 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break, and after 4 rounds, there is a 15-minute break.
While a lot of my breaks are admittedly kitchen/sustenance related, I also have a furry coworker who serves as a foolproof ‘take a break’ reminder. Taking my dog for a walk is my favorite daily break when the weather holds.
Since the nature of our work can be pretty ‘heads down’, taking breaks is essential when switching from one deep dive task to another and helps prevent me from getting burned out. It allows me to get out and interact with the world, which I’d recommend to any remote worker.”
9. Working Remotely With Your Significant Other
What could be better than working from home with your significant other? Honestly, not much! It’s hard to imagine a more ideal work environment than working from home with your favorite human, but it’s still important to remember not to “distract” one another during work hours. On the other hand, it’s equally important to make sure you have a strategy in place so that working together doesn’t put any unnecessary stress on your relationship.
After a year of working remotely alongside her partner, Michelle Polk has learned that, like many aspects of a relationship, communication is key.
“I’ve been working at home with my partner for over a year now. Here is what I’ve learned.
- Respect one another’s workspace and set boundaries. If you’re at your workspace and working, the other person needs to respect that space and distance.
- Coordinate your meeting schedules: If you and your spouse have virtual meetings, it’s helpful to know when they are. Knowing when my partner’s meetings are allows me to plan my “noisy” activities accordingly. Also, It’s not fun when you realize last-minute that you both have meetings at the same time while working in a studio apartment.
- Communicate work styles: How do you like to work? You and your partner will likely have very different work styles. It’s important to communicate this with each other. Do you like to chat all day and treat your spouse as a co-worker? Or do you want to be quiet all day, heads down, and take separate breaks? This is a biggie.
- Take a break together: This is a good way to have intentional time, not related to work. Going outside on a walk can be a great way to unwind and reconnect.”
10. Maintaining A Work/Life Balance
You would think that working remotely would tip the scales of your work/life balance toward the “life” side of things, but in reality, working from home can do just the opposite. If you’ve found yourself with a lot on your plate, it’s tempting to put in extra hours which can quickly become your routine. If you’re passionate about your work, as many of us are, it can be difficult to “call it a day” even after you’ve put in your time. So how do you shift gears from working from home to just being at home?
Will Hattman has had many years of experience working remotely, and has his own strategy for mentally clocking out when his work is done for the day.
“I find it valuable to have rituals that send the signal to my brain that work is done for the day. Under normal circumstances, my favorite is to take a walk around the neighborhood with my wife. As of this writing, walking around is still per se permissible so long as you’re not hugging your neighbors along the way, but for anyone skittish about venturing outside for pleasure, you could accomplish the same official division of the day by enjoying a short workout (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/well/workouts/), brewing a cup of herbal tea, playing guitar for a while, starting dinner in some formalized way, reading a few poems, putting on a record. Anything that occupies the full attention of your mind and your body and that is totally unrelated to work will do the trick.”
Hopefully, these suggestions alleviated some of the remote work stressors you may have been facing. If there’s anything we didn’t mention here that you’re having trouble with, go ahead and leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction!