For most commuters, the first two weeks of January are the worst. The Christmas holiday period is over and trains, buses and metros begin to fill with returning workers, teachers and schoolchildren. The commute is never easy, but January is by far the worst. While we often question how much time we spend commuting, not everyone looks for the obvious answer: remote working.

Remote Working: Saves Time

Millions of people every morning subject themselves to a close examination of a stranger’s personal hygiene, wasting hours doing nothing between home and the office. They arrive in the office on a Monday tired, crumpled and frustrated. In the UK, more than 3.7 million people spend more than two hours a day travelling to and from work, according to the BBC. More of us need to ask ourselves, or rather our bosses, do we really need to be physically present in the office?

In the UK, more than 3.7 million people spend more than two hours a day travelling to and from work.

To put this into context, each month, nearly 50% of people working in London spend a whole day getting to work, and another full day going home again.

Those who are reluctant to authorize remote working say they are worried that it is hard to supervise remote workers or call them to account. Indeed, this is often the reason many public-sector employees are not permitted to work from home. Many managers are concerned that remote workers sit on the sofa drinking coffee and watching daytime TV.

How to Fix a Broken Virtual Team

Remote Working: Saves the Planet

However, there is little argument that the flexibility offered to virtual workers is very attractive to employees. It offers a more relaxed work environment that can benefit creativity. Employees have a better work-life balance and are less prone to stress and emotional strain. Fewer commuters are also good for our green credentials. Fewer journeys mean less damage to the environment.

Any organization can also benefit with more productive workers, reduced attrition rates and lower financial commitments providing desk space in premium real estate.

But how do we ensure that flexibility doesn’t become cabin-fever, or that remote workers do not succumb to the temptations of home comforts? There are three ways remote workers can act to maximize the potential of working from home.

Atmosphere

Although you are at home, you should get dressed! Not necessarily formal business suits, but certainly not dressing gown and pajamas. Not only is there the risk of an embarrassing video call from a client, but it sets your mind straight and creates a psychological preparedness. You may not have a house big enough for a separate office, but an uncluttered desk is essential. Keeping your work area separate from your home area leaves you focused and productive.

Three’s a Crowd

If you are sharing your house with others (and especially children), make sure they are adequately supervised and entertained. Make sure that they understand you are remote working and not having a day for domestic chores. If you have young children or pets, it may be worth installing a bolt on the door to prevent embarrassing interruptions, as happened to Robert Kelly during a BBC interview.

We do not want to replicate the formality of an open office space, but it is essential to rope off your personal space from your professional space. This delineation will help your focus and will help you relax more effectively when you finish work.

Part of the right atmosphere is knowing when to finish. Remote workers tend to have fewer breaks, start earlier and finish later than other employees – it is a matter of self-discipline not to allow a 24/7 work pattern to develop. Keeping consistent, regular hours as far as possible not only keeps remote workers sane, it is an important part of your organisation’s duty of care to you.

Communicate

Unanswered messages and calls are danger signs in any organization, but even more so when you are remote working. In organisations using instant messaging services, the “away” status is a red flag that some co-workers or managers might interpret as signs that you are watching TV or gardening or even shopping. Virtual workers need to be digitally vocal, responding quickly to messages and making sure that phone calls are answered.

Birthdays, life events, holidays and achievements still happen whether you are in the office or not, so stay involved without overburdening your colleagues.

The biggest danger for the remote workers themselves is feeling out of touch with what is going on, not knowing the superficial news and gossip around the office. Without a water-cooler as a focal point for news, we need an alternative. Get into the habit of chatting with coworkers about social things as well as business. Birthdays, life events, holidays and achievements still happen whether you are in the office or not, so stay involved without overburdening your colleagues.

Communication, however, is even more important about work topics. You need to use all the available collaboration tools to make sure that you are pulling your weight on projects. Just as important is not imposing on others by requesting updates, you should know about already. Be disciplined about keeping tracking tools and to-do lists up-to-date.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Choosing the right media for each message is essential:

  • Instant message: quick update or simple question, social conversation
  • Email: extended question, clarification or confirmation
  • Phone call: opinion or discussion point
  • Web conference: formal meeting Many organisations also offer social networking sites such as Yammer or Slack for group or company announcements, and it is important to use those too.

The biggest danger for the remote workers themselves is feeling out of touch with what is going on

It is also important that you don’t hide your dissatisfaction. In a physical office, colleagues and your management will often notice your body language when you are unhappy and will act to support you. One of the biggest threats in remote working is that the worker leaves because they were unhappy with a decision or situation – and no one else knew. Set up regular short conversations in your calendar with your team and your manager to give voice to how you all are getting on.

Talk about your successes and frustrations, so that it becomes routine to have a rounded discussion – meetings should not just be about solving issues or complaining, but about building and maintaining a trusting two-way relationship.

Trust

It is worth repeating – lack of trust kills all the advantages of remote working.

The key to trust building is history – we tend to trust those who have a demonstrated track-record of being trustworthy. In a virtual office, it is harder to establish that shared history – there is no reminder through your physical presence.

Build Your Reputation

It is therefore mission-critical that the remote worker is organized, has an eye for detail, and is proactive. You need to work twice as hard to maintain your reputation as reliable. To become memorable for the right reasons, you will need to make sure that people can count on you to submit work without silly mistakes or inaccuracies and you will have to show through consistency that you won’t let people down.

Lack of trust kills all the advantages of remote working

When you or a team member starts working remotely for the first time, it is an essential step to define clear roles that have unambiguous boundaries. Ambiguity leads to conflict as work falls between two people or gets repeated. Unchecked, the conflict escalates into a massive drop in team effectiveness and resentment on all sides.

While the team manager is responsible for setting the initial positions, each team member, remote and physical, is accountable for ensuring that the ideal works in practice. They must give constructive feedback to allow the roles to be tweaked as needed. Each worker needs to be clear about the team’s expectations of them; and about what the responsibility of each member is.

Each team will work out the details for themselves, but remote working is intended to be flexible, so it is unlikely that rigid solutions will work well.

Don’t Get Left Offline

The number of people choosing to work remotely is increasing. The number of companies hiring remote workers is growing dramatically. A physical desk is an expensive investment, and after the downsizing of the financial crisis, organisations are realizing that they can access a much greater talent pool and it is much cheaper to hire remote workers.

The web is full of reports about changing work patterns of millennials who demand more flexibility and are digitally fluent. For many those companies unwilling to offer virtual working options are going to find that the available talent pool is very small indeed. Time to act!