Three Unforeseen Challenges When Working from Home

The first thing I thought about when I started working from home is my desk. I knew that the desk I owned was unsuitable for my needs and that I needed a new one. For some reason, I don’t exactly know why, the desk gradually became a symbol for my readiness – and the feasibility – of my plan to work from home.

If I only had a desk, so I thought, I would persuade my full-time boss I could work part-time, find new clients, and embark on a new, independent road. If I only had a desk, and a separate work station at home, I could easily separate business and pleasure. If I only had a desk, I’d have a fitting place for my computer, and I could sit by it for hours on end and never tire of working. So I bought a desk, and the rest followed with varying degrees of success.

But there are some things I never anticipated when I began to work from home, and they turned out to be quite challenging:

Oh, the loneliness and the scream to prove to everyone that I exist!

I’ve already written about how important it is to have little rituals that symbolize the switch made when you leave the office to work entirely from home. But this simulation always leaves something to be desired: there’s no one to say good morning to, no colleague to go to lunch with, no office villain to despise in common with your friends at work. People who work from the office spend an average of 40 hours a week with their colleagues. Sometimes, they spend more time with people at work than they do with their family or friends. I don’t have that. Sometimes, I meet no one except for my immediate family for weeks on end. At the beginning, it’s nice to work in such a quiet environment. But as the time passes, I find myself wondering “Do I exist?”, and whether I still have the ability to small talk with people.

So this is what I do: I make sure I never bail out on friends. For example, I meet with a friend at least once a week, have conference calls with friends who live abroad, and make sure I set a play date with a kid whose mom I actually like. So, three times a week, I have some social event, however small, scheduled. Some weeks, I find I can’t have enough of it, while in others all I need is one simple exchange with a friend. All in all, I found the happy middle.

Oh, the internet provider called again!

You get to your office, connect your laptop to its docking station, run through your emails, print a report you have to go through, and go to the office kitchenette to make yourself a cup of coffee. Sounds like a reasonable start to your day, doesn’t it? But for all this to happen, someone has to purchase that laptop, make sure there’s Wi-Fi, buy a printer, and stock the kitchenette with coffee and sugar and milk. In your home office, you’re not just the employee and the boss, you’re also the IT person and the person in charge of administering to your crucial needs (like coffee). So how to buy the laptop best suited for your needs, and an honest internet provider?

So this is what I do: There are several companies out there that will make all of this possible – companies which stated purpose is to set up your perfect home office. I’m all for it, especially for people who have neither the time nor the patience to deal with the hassle. As for me, I decided to turn my lack of knowledge to an advantage. Everytime I feel that my home office lacks something I dedicate some time to research the market for reasonable and productive solutions. At the end of every year, for example, I make a call to my internet provider, and try to lower the cost or replace it with a better one.

Oh, what did just happen in that company meeting?

The very first thing you do when you get to the office each morning (post-coffee, that is) is share and receive information. You talk, you listen. You know where your to-do list stands. You know where your team is at. You know your boss’ mood. All this information spreads around the office like a virus, simply because people interact with others. When you’re not there, all these things fly off your radar, and this absence may well damage some aspects of your work.

So this is what I do: I signaled out some key people in the companies with which I work. These are people I like to talk to, and they like me. Every time we have a conference call, I set up fifteen minutes of chit chat ahead of time, and then I spend some time gossiping with my “key people”. It doesn’t happen every day, naturally, but once every week or so, it’s enough to let me know which way the office winds are blowing.

Home Office Heroes 5

Lately, I find myself feeling sorry for myself quite a lot. I’m not usually a crybaby, but recently I’ve found myself trying to work, my laptop on my lap, while my thoughts keep wandering to the picturesque beaches of the Riviera outside my window, the shaded, quiet streets of Nice waiting for me to walk them, the sweet post-lunch cocktails calling my name. So, naturally, I find it hard to concentrate on my job. It’s summertime! I’m supposed to let my hair down and be at the beach; not sitting here, in a relatively dark room, with only my laptop to keep me company.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I love working with words. But just every once in a while, especially in summertime, I wish I could throw my laptop out the window and never open it again.

So I did what I do best: I went online, and found some tricks to help me be more productive in these challenging days.

Tiny To-Dos

The Eisenhower Matrix method has come up with one of the more frightening ways to be more productive. Eisenhower’s strategy asks that you prioritize your tasks into four categories: urgent and important; important but not urgent; urgent but not important (which you can delegate); and neither urgent nor important.

Basically, you begin by doing what’s urgent and important, and move down the list. Sounds extremely reasonable, doesn’t’ it? But most times, I tend to over-think it, and then try to forget about the whole thing by starting on the first item of my uncategorized list. Kelli Smith offers a way to overcome the panic: easily digestible tasks, tiny to-dos you can complete in ten minutes. Run through them first to jump-start your productivity, and then move on to more complex tasks.

Better To-Dos

One of the more efficient ways I know of bringing some order into my wandering thoughts is to create a list of tasks. In fact, I make my own to-do list every morning. Some days I check off all the items like a superhero, while in others, the list just sits there, waiting for a better tomorrow. I never thought there was something I could do to improve on this method, but then I read this nice post by Charlie Gilkey on how to create a to-do list that will spur you into action.

My favorite is writing a verb-noun construct, which usually tells you what needs to be done to what. For example, instead of writing “Tony and Doug”, write: “Schedule a conference call with Tony and Doug”, so that you don’t have to guess what needs to be done. It’s clear from the get-go.

The 10-Minute Test

Spend enough time on the web, and you can literally devote entire days to reading tips on how to be more productive. Ironic, isn’t it. Bestselling author David Kadavy offers a simple technique to filter information: sit for ten minutes, and concentrate on what you have to do. Don’t get up or deviate from your task for anything – coffee, the bathroom, Facebook. Just focus on what needs to be done.

During these ten minutes, you’ll figure out what was hardest for you: when exactly were you distracted? Did other tasks pop into your head? Were you able to overcome these distractions and focus on the task at hand? In other words, this test will reveal the blind spots in your productivity.

 

Home Office Heroes – Part 4

I like it when things get into a routine. I like it when I know how my day starts and how it will end – I work better, it gives me control on how I allocate my time, and it makes it easier for me to deal with unexpected things that happen during the day.

All is well and good, but after a few weeks or months of pure routine, I feel the world zooming out of focus, everything becomes a blur, and I feel that if I don’t change something soon, I’ll blend into a wall – no one will see me, and I’ll disappear. So I always try to do something other than work. It’s not always easy, so I went online to look for ways I can improve my efficiency, and to set some new goals.

A calendar and a red marker

One of the hardest things for people working from home to do is develop good habits for anything that isn’t work – getting more exercise, eating healthy, learning a new language, writing a book – whatever your goal is beyond work. It’s hard, for a simple reason: you’re in control for the entire work day, and when the day draws to a close, it’s so much easier to let things take their usual course. I read a piece about acquiring new habits by Mr. Jerry Seinfeld himself. It doesn’t require any special or expensive arrangements, and it goes like this:

“Get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. ‘After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain’”.

Group you time

One of the things I strongly believe in is that not all days were created equal. Some days it’s easier to focus, and the job flows smoothly. On other days, I find myself more scattered: there are too many tasks, too many worries, too many dreams. There’s really nothing we can do to erase these nutty days, but we can certainly improve them. I’ve learnt to deal with this phenomenon by turning these day into single-task days: Today I write; tomorrow I meet with people; the day after, I analyze data. And so on. So in less focused times, turn your days into single-task days: conference-calls today, talk to no one tomorrow, etc. Chris Iona wrote a nice piece on the different ways he arranges his working day.

Workplace Haiku: The conference call

The Financial Times used to ran a weekly “office Haiku”. A Haiku, as Wikipedia defines it, consist of 3 lines. The first and last lines of a Haiku have 5 syllables and the middle line has 7 syllables. The lines rarely rhyme.

One of my favorite haikus was one praising conference calls, and it runs like this:

Face to face
Not as nice
As his voice

 

7 Steps to Building and Maintaining Your Online Presence

Whenever I engage with a new client who wants me to manage his or website, one of my first questions always is: Do you have any other digital assets? One of the most important factors for any business today – whether it’s a one-person shop or a factory employing thousands – is the management of its online presence.
Online presence is the sum of all the business’ representations on the web: an official website, a blog, and a social media page or account (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.). They all must be managed and treated for what they are – a big army of marketing and customer relations specialists.
The thought of managing our online presence can be daunting, especially when we’re talking about a new business or a business that’s long neglected that aspect of its management. Managing your online presence is crucial for retaining existing customers and getting new ones. Here are the principal steps to take in order to do it effectively.

1. Build a strategy

Your online presence must achieve both short and long term goals. Therefore, before you start designing your Contact Us form, think: what would you like your website to achieve, how can your social media page help, what would the blog support, and which businesses can you collaborate with to benefit all parties?

2. Create a website

Your website is your online home, so to speak – the main venue for all your digital activities: this is the place to tell the world about yourself, sell your products exactly the way you want to, and showcase your services. Think about what’s important for you to show on your website, and get help from professionals (UX specialists, a website builder and a designer) so you can think together about your needs and goals. The thinking process is crucial to creating the website that will work best (until you have to revamp it, of course. Websites are a lot like socks).

3. Pick the right social media site for you

Every social media site features different strengths and audiences: LinkedIn caters to white-collar businesspersons, Facebook’s users are aging, Snapchat is becoming the young people’s app, Twitter is skimpy on words and appreciates wit, Pinterest is for DYI lovers, Instagram is big on visuals. You have to pick your social media site according to your target audience. A watered-down presence on each site is pointless, so pick one or two that will do your message the best service, and start from there. The important thing is to be consistent and articulate.

4. Build your content strategy

Your online presence demands a constant influx of updated content. Your website should be updated periodically to reflect changes. Social media sites demands content several times a week, depending on the site, the nature of your business and your target audiences. Finally, your blog has to show that you’re following the latest trends of your business.
To manage all that, you need to build a strategy for the short term, the next three months, and the next six months. You don’t need to plan what you’ll write in every post from now on, but you do need to know what it is you’ll be talking about in each of these places, so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel every week.

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5. Make friends

The beauty of social media sites is that they allow you to create long-term relationships with your clients and like-minded businesses. Use this to talk to your clients and gage what they need, want and think. As for other businesses, use social media to promote collaborations that will bring new clients and increase the number of “friends” and members of your online community.

6. Check the numbers

Sometimes, maintaining an online presence and writing content keeps us too busy to check what they actually bring to our business. There are plenty of free analytics tools out there (Google Analytics is probably the most robust and popular among them) which will enable you to check these monthly numbers. How many people entered your site; how many of those made a purchase; how did they get to your site; how many people reacted to your posts and how many of these made a purchase; and so on. Create a list of criteria you can check every month, according to your business goals. In this way, you’ll be able to know if you’re investing in the right places, or wasting your time on a strategy that is ineffective.

7. And now, start from scratch

The internet is not for the faint of heart. It changes constantly, and what seems like a hot trend today may be looked at as utterly ridiculous in two years’ time. So, never assume that your online presence – however well your strategy may serve you now – is a set constant. Once a year, at least, rethink your strategy, adapt your content accordingly, and reconsider your optics on every place online.

Home Office Heroes – 3

I don’t why the month of May is so special, but someone, in some research center, ought to get into it: every year, in May, everyone suddenly becomes super-productive, and my inbox suddenly gets filled with new projects from regular and new clients. I’m not complaining. You can’t really complain about more work, but I do wish that some of that increased demand would trickle into June, July and August, so that my life can get back to normal. But I know that won’t happen. July and August will see everyone hurrying to other places, places that do not demand my attention.
So naturally, I went online to see how to deal with the added stress.

One hour off

I’ll begin with the best advice on how to deal with stress that I’ve heard in a while. Write this down: for one whole hour every day, leave everything be. Close your laptop, silence your phone. Sit on the couch with a good book, and read. No special effects needed. Just set aside all distractions and focus on one thing for just one hour a day. It could be fiction or non-fiction – whichever you prefer. According to Jon Westenberg, who wrote an adorable post on the subject, that one hour makes him more focused and inspired for the rest of the day.

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Clients are not children

We’ve all experienced the following: a big or medium-sized client calls us, and wants something down RIGHT NOW. He or she is even angry that it didn’t get done yesterday. This isn’t your fault. It’s not even your responsibility. But you find yourself telling the client: I promise you’ll have it in the next hour. Why do we make these promises? Because they’re easy to make. They pacify the client in an instant, and the drama is resolved. But the problem is still there. In fact, it has just begun. Because now you have to make time to keep that promise, time you’ve scheduled for other things, and instead of solving the problem, you’ve just created another one, just as pressing. Or, as Jason Fried put it: “Promises are like debt — they accrue interest. The longer you wait to fulfill them, the more they cost to pay off”. Think about it the next time, a second before you promise something; and maybe you’ll find another way to calm down the irate client.

Go to sleep

You’ve had dinner, watched a bit of TV, chatted for a while, even tidied the house, and before you know it, it’s late, and you’ve only got six hours of sleep left. Sounds familiar? It happens to me every night (except for the waking up part: my son is responsible for that part, and never misses a chance to rise and shine earlier than the sun). That’s exactly when a stress point is created. Follow this good piece of advice by personal trainer Jamie Logie: “Aim for the usual 7–8 hours a night but feel free to get some more if you’re feeling really run down or sick. This is when you need to heal and repair”.

Getting out of the House – Now!

Having a job is a funny thing: you wake up every morning, brush your teeth, have your coffee, and then, with barely a pause, you’re supposed to invest nine hours of your day – more than a third of it – in things that make money. Every single day. At least five days a week. And people working from home don’t really limit themselves to a 5-day working week. At best, if they’re really determined, there’s just one day in the week when they don’t work at all. So every day we open our laptops. Read emails. Follow up on them. Send emails. Tell other people what to do. Answer the phone. Try to be concise. Try to be nice. Try to be professional. Routine, it ain’t easy.
For people working from home, that routine can get even harder. First, they work at the same place where they live. I already wrote about making an easier transition from home to work when working from home, but it still isn’t easy. Second, they work by themselves. Sure, there are conference calls, but there are no actual people around to share hardships or small victories with. Third, they do it with no outside supervision, so only they know what they’ve got done, and what they haven’t.
Fortunately, there’s a whole world out there. If you dare to put on some clothes, open the door and walk down that flight of stairs, then oh, the places you’ll go!

Here are the main reasons why getting out of the house is worth your while:

You’ll become more effective

We all know that it’s possible to set boundaries between home and work without ever leaving the house, but the task becomes easier when we actually do leave it. You can rent a workstation in the closest co-working space, or designate a day or two in the week where you work from a café. The important thing here is the setting of boundaries. Boundaries between work and anything that isn’t work make our work easier. Besides, when working away from home in a bad day (and we all have those), the act of shutting your laptop and getting up in frustration becomes that much more dramatic.

Improving your self-esteem

Even when working from home, we’re never really alone. We have conference calls, private calls and emails. We’re communicating with the world. Yet, everyone who’s ever worked from home knows that after a few days of not seeing other people, you start thinking: how do I actually look? Am I fat today? Does this shirt look good on me? And how do I feel? Are these voices in my head for real?
Conversations with other people, even if they last seconds, can make you sane again. Meeting with friends for a break is also a good option. Long term relationships have been proven to contribute to mental health. According to research conducted at Iowa University and published on Live Science, “People with strong social relationships increased their odds of survival over a certain time period by 50 percent. That’s on par with ceasing smoking, and nearly twice as “beneficial as physical activity in terms of decreasing your odds of dying early”.

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Yes, you can be scary and dangerous

Networking

There’s really no need to explain the importance of networking to a working person. The more professional contacts you have, the easier it gets to get new projects, consult about current projects, or move projects you really don’t want to be doing. Moreover, the secret to efficient networking is… more networking. According to Dr. Ivan Misner, founder and Chairman of business networking organization BNI, “There is a direct correlation between the time you devote to the process and the success you realize from it.” You can always network from home, it’s true, but face-to-face interactions are often more effective, and eliminate the chance for future misunderstandings.

5 Tips for more productive online meetings

We’ve all been there before: meetings that go nowhere. You stop whatever it is you’re doing and march into a generic conference room. On the way, you meet other people on their way to the same meeting, laptops or notebooks in hand. It’s time. 80% of the people have arrived, while the other 20% are still on their phones somewhere or sending one last email, or still on their way to the office. Ten minutes in, everyone is there. Now, all of a sudden, everyone’s thirsty. Or need to grab a stale cookie for their coffee. Or they need catch up on how everyone is doing, or talk about a recent project, or discuss last night’s football match. 15 minutes in, the meeting begins. Someone says something, which may have been an actual beginning of an effective discussion, but someone has a remark. About something else entirely. It is remotely reminiscent of what the meeting is supposed to be about, but directly connected to the first speaker’s job in the project. They get into a heated argument. The rest of the attendees lose interest. They get back to their phones, their emails, or more often than not – Facebook. 50 minutes in, someone says: this is totally irrelevant. And someone else rises to leave, saying “I have another meeting”. An hour has passed, with little, if any, progress.
In conference calls, things could actually get worse. You don’t have to wait for people to grab a coffee or a cookie, but every time, almost everyone is late. Or they’re talking to you from the underground parking lot, or they’re on their way to a weekend in the desert, and their connection is bad. And then, when everyone is finally in on the meeting, no one really listens, just like the birds on the wire. They’re busy with other stuff, comfortable in the knowledge that they cannot get caught. Check out this brilliant video to see how conference calls look like in real life.


But it doesn’t have to be like this. Here are some tips for effective meetings. You’ll have to follow them diligently, but they’re worth the effort:

1. A good reason to meet

Sometimes meetings happen just because someone thinks that meetings prove they’re working. Sometimes, the number of people sitting around the virtual conference table is bigger than 20, just because 20 people want to prove they’re working. So, before every meeting, stop to think: do I need this meeting? Do all the people invited have to be in it, and have something to contribute? If the answer is Yes, proceed as usual. But if it isn’t, have a one-on-one talk with the person in charge, either of your work in the organization or the meeting, and work out if the issues can be worked out between you two or with one or other two relevant people, and cancel the meeting.

2. Choose the right service

There are plenty conference-call services out there, but not all are equally trustworthy. A mediocre service may save some money in the short run, but in essence it wastes the time of a lot of people – and wasted time never saves money. I use QCONF. I like it because no one ever gets disconnected, and it saves everyone the hassle of entering a 22-digit code to participate. Also, it is cheap and the price is fixed, so I know what I’ll have to pay in advance.

3. Work according to schedule

There is no reason why meetings cannot start on time and end on time. It hardly ever happens, so what you need to do in your next meeting is this: present the most important issue first, without waiting for late comers. Then, present the issue on a PowerPoint slide that everyone can see. If anyone joins in late, say: Thank you for joining us, we’re in the middle of a discussion; the issue discussed is summarized on this slide. Then, continue with the discussion pleasantly but assertively. After a few times, everyone will know that your meetings always start on time.
How to end a meeting? That’s simple enough: treat the end of the meeting as seriously as the starting time. If, during the meeting, you see that you’ll need more time, shorten the meeting by a few minutes and schedule another meeting with the same participants.

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4. What would you like to achieve?

According to an appalling (yet entertaining) study published in Forbes, 90% of people do not understand the purpose of the meeting they’ve just attended. Anyone who has been in more than three meetings in the course of his/her life knows why: meetings that aren’t run effectively tend to fade into nothingness. So, in your next meeting, after everyone’s arrived on time, state the purpose of the meeting. During the meeting, try to ask yourself constantly: are we keeping to the purpose? If not, feel free to steer everyone back onto the right path. You’re making both your life – and theirs – easier.

5. Who does what?

There’s a manager I work with who always says: a meeting with no action items is a meeting wasted. In online meetings, it’s really simple. You’re sitting by your computer as it is. So, as you approach the end of the meeting, make sure that everyone agrees on what needs to happen as a consequence of the meeting, and send a meeting summary immediately afterwards. Now, everyone knows why they came, and that they’re a part of a team that needs to move things forward.