I’ve been working from a home office for nearly twenty years. At first I was a graphic design freelancer. Later I owned a small marketing partnership with no staff. Most recently I’m in charge of Wire Media — a branding and creative services firm specializing in visual storytelling and data design. Wire Media is a 100% virtual office with staff and clients across the country.
When I first started working remotely, AOL didn’t exist yet and people were suspicious of those working remotely. Today, working in a virtual office is increasingly common, therefore people have accepted it enough that it’s not unusual for a client to ask me to wait a sec while he runs out of the room to check on his baby, to hear a dog barking in the background, or even to see someone’s partner walk across the room.
Working in a virtual office environment still poses some challenges though. It’s easy to get distracted by things that need to get done around the house (or by your video game console!). Being alone all day is just too hard for some people. Family members may not understand that you’re actually working.
But, over the years I’ve established some practices that help make our 100% virtual office run smoothly. And I’ll share them with you here.
1. Be Present
One of the biggest issues in working remotely is that you can’t see if someone is at their desk or not. When you’re physically in the office with other people it’s pretty easy to ask informal questions, get quick replies, do some quick idea generation, or share resources. But if you can’t see the person that’s much more challenging.
Luckily, there are many tools out there for group communications. Slack, Teamwork, Zoom are just a few. The good folks at Zapier have a list of twelve good chat apps. The advantage of these is that people can set their status to show that they are at work. It’s the same as if you could see their body in their desk chair. Of course everyone has to remember to keep their status up-to-date or it gets frustrating pretty quickly.
2. Be Cautious Assuming, and Writing Tone
Often, people interpret written tone of voice in a negative way if there’s any doubt. This creates bad feelings and all kinds of misunderstandings. For example, in an effort to be efficient with my time, I used to skip writing greetings and closings in emails. One day I found out that several of my staff interpreted this to mean that I was angry with them. It really surprised me!
If you’re the one receiving the message, be very slow to take offense at the tone you think you’re hearing. Consider what you know about the person and compare the written message to how they communicate in person or on video. Try to assume positive intent. Psychology Today has a great article that explores tone of voice in email in more depth.
If you’re the one writing the message, include a pleasant greeting, say please and thank you, and keep a light tone of voice. If you’re writing about something serious that requires a firmer tone, you can say something like, “This is a serious matter. I’m not upset though, and hope we can talk soon to explore possible solutions.” That can let the reader know that they don’t need to worry that you’re upset.
3. Use an Online Project Management Tool
There are lots of these: Asana, Basecamp, Airtable, and many more. The project management tool (PMT) serves as your office filing cabinet and calendar. It creates a central location (online) where everyone can access what they need to get their work done, and communicate about the work. Be sure to set up standard processes for how to use yours so everyone knows how to use it and where to find things in it.
We use Teamwork. It provides a way to track the day-to-day of each project, post messages , pictures, video, documents and other files, create milestones in a calendar, create to do lists, assign responsibility, track time, and more. Being online, it means that anybody assigned to the project can access it from anywhere, including our clients.
4. Dedicate a Work Space
Working at home, many people find they end up watching tv, cleaning, or messing around on Facebook all day. If you tried to do these things at an office, you’d probably get fired. To prevent this, set up a place in your house that you use only for work. Further, that should be the only place in the house where you work. Don’t work at the kitchen table or on the couch. Don’t eat or play a game at your work station.
If you have an entire extra room, that’s ideal. If you don’t, you’re still going to have a dedicated space — just smaller. It can be a desk and bookcase in the corner of a room. It can be a small table and chair. Maybe you have a folding wall table from Ikea. The main thing is to maintain total separation of where you work, and where you live within your home.
5. Create Signals for Whether You’re “At Work” or “At Home.”
If you wake up, pad over to the computer in your jammies, check some email, then make some coffee, run the dishwasher, and then do a little work you’re mixing up home and work. This creates tension and can make your work day seem like it goes on forever. Instead, do something that has similar impact to actually leaving your home and arriving at the office — a different environment.
Make a mental separation between when you’re “at work,” and when you’re “at home.” Some people like to get up, get dressed, and go out for a coffee before starting work. Their return home from that ritual is then the signal that they are now at work. I like to go to the gym at the end of the day to signal that I’m done working. What works is different for everybody, so figure out what works for you.
6. Meet in Person Whenever Possible
Don’t become a total hermit. Get out of those sweat pants and face the world! Even though video chat helps, it’s best to be with people on a regular basis. It can improve your energy and change up the pace form just sitting alone at the desk in your bedroom.
Go out of your way to meet your coworkers and clients face to face. Nothing tops an in-person meeting to really get to know someone. Traveling to visit your clients is tax deductible, so do it often! If clients and coworkers are geographically out of reach, then join some business networking or educational groups. Go to meetings at your local Chamber of Commerce, or even join a Meet-Up for people working at home.
7. Get Dressed
While it’s pretty awesome to be able to work in your jammies from time to time, it really can affect your mood and your mindset. You don’t need to suit up (though some people do). But at least have a work-at-home wardrobe that makes you feel confident and professional.
A work-at-home wardrobe might be as simple and jeans and a comfy button down shirt, a low key dress, or even a decent looking pair of shorts and polo shirt. Of course what you wear will depend on the industry you’re in as well. My friend Lauren Messiah has good advice for ladies on how to build a business casual wardrobe. The main thing to remember is to dress in a way that makes you feel good.
8. Train Your Family / Roommates
Your housemates enjoy your company, no doubt. They may be excited to tell you something about their day, or to ask you a question, or to get your help with something. Because you’re “at home” to them and not “at work” it may take awhile before they really understand that this is your job. It just happens to take place in the home.
Establish clear rules. Let them know your schedule and where your dedicated work station is. Make it clear that when you’re at the work, it’s the same as if you were away at an office. You might even be a little silly and do something like kiss your partner goodbye for the day, before heading to your work station. Or you might try having your kids help you on the job.
9. Be Ruthlessly Reliable
When you’re physically absent, it’s easier for people to think you’ve forgotten about them. If you’re late or don’t follow through as promised it can have negative impact on your relationship.
Be ruthlessly reliable. Be on time, every time. Call into that 11 a.m. conference call precisely at 10:59 a.m. If you promised to deliver by COB, make sure that by 5 or 6 pm you are hitting send on the email. Since people can not see you, they can become anxious. If you’re 5 minutes late, that’s five minutes they have to wonder if you’re coming at all, and then to get angry that you wasted their time.
10. Set a Schedule
Without a schedule, many people who work at home find themselves working well into the night, or even on the weekends. The work is right there and they feel pressure to attack the never-ending to-do list. This is a trap! It’s ok to leave your work at the office. And a schedule can help you enforce that rule, and take back your life.
Working at home offers flexibility in your schedule, but that doesn’t mean you should have no schedule. It’s important to set a specific schedule and stick to it. This makes it easier for clients, co-workers, and people that live with you to know when it’s ok to contact you, (or not!). Your schedule doesn’t have to be 9-5. But you should have one that is consistent.
Bonus Tip! Style Your Virtual Office Video Background
To present yourself as a professional on camera is important. If people looking at you can see your laundry waiting to be folded, see nothing but your silhouette, or have a glimpse of your bed in the background it can make a bad impression. This article has more information and lots of details on wardrobe, body language, and other important factors.
Take time to look at what’s visible in your video frame. Does it look clean and professional? Move your computer or camera around until you find a good looking background. Consider a strategically placed bookcase or room divider. Once you figure that out, consider the lighting. People should be able to see your face clearly. Have lighting that focuses on you from the side or the front, not overhead or from behind you.
Keep scrolling to see some examples of video backgrounds.
For me, the positives outweigh the negatives or working virtually. Especially once I learned to handle situations like workaholism, being alone for too long, and communication problems. I love that I can work anywhere there’s an internet connection: on the beach, in a foreign country, or at my mom’s place. It’s let me travel more than I otherwise might, and to spend more time with friends and family who are far away.