08/21/2014 05:54 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

Putting the 'W' Back in WFH

For the last year, my commute was a grueling 20 feet. I showed up to work early to fight for the best parking spot (location: the couch...opponent: my dog) and put in a solid 8 hours of work (also consisting of naps, laundry, & video games). I work from home (WFH), and I'm a lot better at it now than I used to be.

It's an alluring lifestyle. No commute. No coworker food theft. No passive aggressive notes about 5 page printing limits. At first, it lived up to the hype and more. Then I noticed my productivity, performance, and overall mental/physical health drifting off like I used to when prepping for daily 2pm meetings with Vice President Blanky & Senior Manager Pillow (I took a lot of naps). The road to productivity while permanently or occasionally working from home has many pitfalls, and in the beginning I fell into most of them.

The information age has brought with it an increasingly remote workforce. 1 in 5 Americans find themselves dialing in versus commuting in, and that number is expected to increase by 63% in the next 5 years. This shift comes with a steep learning curve when competing with in-office work quality and productivity. If you are fortunate enough to wear the WFH crest, please pause your House of Cards binge to learn from my mistakes (then get back to work you lazy oaf).

How to WFH and get $#%@ done

Through trial and error, I've learned a lot in the past year about overcoming many of the productivity pitfalls that often stem from working from home. Most of these issues resolve themselves when you take ownership over the 4 big WFH factors: your workspace, your time, your body, and your career path.

Own your workspace

  1. Don't work from the bed or couch -- Have a dedicated workspace where creativity, productivity, and stress can fester and remain when the workday is over. A bed is for either sleep, sex, or work. Choose 2.
  2. Coffee shops are your friend -- I work from a new coffee shop or shared workspace at least once a week. It's a great way to explore new neighborhoods, find inspiration, meet likeminded people, and get out of the house. 'Working from home' doesn't have to mean working alone. If you are lucky enough to work remotely but too foolish to capitalize on the freedom and opportunity to explore and meet new people then you don't deserve the WFH crest.
  3. Don't sit ALL day -- The science and statistics around sedentary lifestyles are astounding. Don't sit on your duff all day because we both know you stream Netflix all night. That's 24 hours of sitting, couch potato. Between my makeshift standing desk and occasional walks, I'm on my feet >50% of the workday. If you can afford a standing desk buy one, and use it a few hours each day.
  4. The 5pm clean up -- Spend 5 minutes at the end of the day tidying up the workstation. Straighten up papers, clean up dishes, and wipe down the desk. All the peer office pressure of keeping a clean desk is gone, but a messy desk is distracting and harmful to the creative process. It takes 5 minutes, you barbarian.

Own your time

  1. Plan out your day -- At the start of each day, write down what you NEED to accomplish. Block time off on your calendar inbetween meetings to accomplish it. This is good to do even if you work in an office. Set daily goals, have a plan, and accomplish them. When your day is winding down, clean up your to-do list and move remaining items to tomorrow.
  2. Schedule (constructive) breaks -- Breaks are good. Our brains can't concentrate for 8 hours at a time. When planning your day, build in two to three 15 minute breaks. The time is your own, but use it constructively. Take a walk. Work on a side project. Don't engage in mindless activities like TV, Twitter, or Facebook. The workday is a marathon, and I've never seen a marathon runner sprint for 2 hours, nap for 20 minutes, then sprint again.
  3. Avoid impromptu naps -- If you wouldn't sleep at your desk in the office, you probably shouldn't be taking naps in the middle of the day while working at home. If you would nap at your desk then either a) you're a badass alpha or b) I want to work where you work. An occassional nap is fine, but it's far too easy to get into a daily napping schedule, and far too difficult to stop.
  4. Downtime (no calls or meetings) is for execution...not playtime -- Most large companies have lots of meetings and they are usually for making decisions (not for getting actual work done). The rare but glorious time in-between meetings is where actual work gets done. When working from home, it's easy to end a conference call and reward yourself with an episode of Seinfeld. I got in a very unhealthy rhythm of being ON when I was in meetings and OFF when I wasn't. This left very little time for ACTUAL work (or I had to work late into the evening to finish what I put off).
  5. Start something new -- You aren't commuting anymore so you have more time to give to something else. Build or do something you are passionate about (so long as it doesn't take away from your day job or compete with your employer). I wanted to build an app while learning how to code so I built this. If that's not your thing, start playing guitar or make crafts and sell them on Etsy. Don't give those precious hours gained back to Facebook. Take advantage of it.
  6. Scheduled stop time -- Decide when you are done working each day and shut the laptop when the clock strikes. It's very easy to meander into the evening, ocassionally pecking at the keyboard while giving half your attention to your children, spouse, or pet. "Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing." -- Ron Fucking Swanson

Own your body

  1. Get out of your PJs -- I used to work in my PJs all day. Not only was it depressing to get caught in pajamas at 5pm by the UPS guy, but working in your cozy onesie sets the wrong tone for a productive work day. Dress like you're going into the office on a casual Friday.
  2. Basic hygiene still applies -- Take a shower & brush your teeth. It's hard to fit a shower in between afternoon meetings, and it's a great time to plan for your day. One day without showering can quickly turn into 3. Don't be gross.
  3. Plan meals and snacks -- Before I start my day, I know exactly what I'm eating for breakfast and when I'm eating it. I have lunch prepped and ready to go the moment the clock strikes 1pm. If you don't have a plan, it's very easy to either forget to eat or eat something unhealthy because it's fast or convenient. Avoid grazing the entire day by structuring your meals.
  4. 2 cups a day -- Guess what. The whole coffee pot is yours. You can brew whatever you want, and nobody will touch it the entire day. This is dangerous. Before I knew it, I was brewing a pot at breakfast and a pot after lunch, sipping on java the entire day. Limit yourself to 2 cups/day to avoid caffeine dependence.
  5. 2pm walk -- Take at least one 30 minute walk each day. I prefer to take mine in the afternoon with my pup. I use them to stretch my legs, clear my head, and mentally prepare for the workday home stretch.

Own your career

  1. Be present -- Even on phone calls you aren't moderating. It's really easy to daze off or multitask in meetings. It's even easier to lose focus on a conference call with the entire world wide web at your fingertips with nobody looking over your shoulder. One minute you're listening to your colleague Judd go on and on about this month's metrics, and the next minute you are in a bidding war for a signed 'Maverick' from Top Gun poster (@ $299 you'd be an idiot not to buy it).
  2. Over-communicate -- You'd be surprised how much critical information gets casually communicated in an office. Updating stakeholders isn't as easy as popping by their cubicle. Share updates early and often. Also, decisions often get made informally or 'offline.' This usually means, as a remote employee, you weren't involved when you likely should have been. If you do your best to keep everyone well-informed, it's likely they will do the same and involve you when necessary. Note: this is especially true if you are the only person on your team working remotely.
  3. Identify the information pipelines -- Find the people who are 'in the know' and call them regularly. They'll be able to share updates on tangential projects, important business updates, and maybe a little office gossip you'd otherwise miss.
  4. Don't rely on email -- Not being in the office makes it very easy to solely rely on email to communicate. Email makes it very hard to build rapport and much easier for colleagues to ignore a request (or say 'no'). If a big part of your job is getting people to do stuff for you, Microsoft Outlook can't help you. You can't just swing by their office anymore, so pick up the phone or start a video chat. It's the next best thing.
  5. Connect with coworkers -- It's very hard to form close, personal relationships with people over the phone. Jokes, tone, and intent are very easily misinterpreted which makes forming friendships somewhat difficult. You also miss out on teammates' birthdays, happy hours, etc (that's 3x weekly office cake for you, buddy). Because of this, I make an extra effort to connect with colleagues whenever possible. Bring a lot of enthusiasm to phone calls. Remember birthdays and other special occassions. Send e-cards or flowers when appropriate. Anything to show your personality and that you care about your colleagues as people. This makes working with them more fun and the whole team more productive.
  6. Find the right tools -- Many startups are capitalizing on the growing remote workforce and building amazing tools that make being productive and connecting with colleagues easier than ever before. Here are a few of my favorites that I'm currently using or have used in the past. Slack: searchable, team communication. Awesometalk: video conferencing. SnapNDrag: screen capturing & sharing (because in software development, a screenshot of an elusive bug really is worth a thousand words). Quickcast: video screen recording. Timeout: reminds me to take a break from the computer screen for eye health. Disclaimer: If you haven't mastered the basics of looking like a functioning adult while WFH, use caution. It's entirely possible to join a video chat and have a few coworkers catch a glimpse of your Superman pajamas. Fine. It happened to me. Don't judge.
  7. Promotions won't fall in your lap -- When you aren't in the office, you won't always be top of mind for a promotion. It's very important to either be very explicit with your manager regarding career growth OR understand that part of the trade off of working remotely is (ironically) a little less career mobility and progression.

Most importantly. ENJOY IT! It's the shortest commute you'll ever have. You can work from anywhere, and it won't last forever. Before you know it, you'll be in a cubicle again, looking back on those 12-18 glorious months of freedom, creativity, and now hopefully...productivity.

Please tweet me any WFH tips you have (@jgvandehey). I'd love to see any 'start something new' projects from those working from home right now ☺. If you work remotely in SF and want to work with me @ a coffee shop, DM me on twitter. Thanks for reading!

Kudos to @mollybugler, my dream girl, for putting up with me while I was mastering this routine. Things got a little messy during the learning phase. Thanks to Justin, Kayla, and Molly for providing ideas & feedback on this piece.