Few weeks into my new job I have had a rare treat to enjoy – working from home. Now, don’t get me wrong – I have been blessed with the business warrior’s tools of trade for a while, such as a laptop and mobile phone, but mainly because of the habits of my previous team, it always felt awkward to suggest working from home. To be precise: it felt like my boss didn’t think I would be doing as much work as he thought I was doing in the office. Interesting take on the issue of trust – but I reserve that to another post.
Working from home? Well, never mind how far we have got with information technology, computing and connectivity – there is still some stigma attached to this form of working, particularly in a work-obsessed country like Britain, where true men don’t go home before at least 8pm. There has been numerous discussions about this in the press, where working hours have been compared with countries in Europe and conclusions made about the fact that our working hours are in fact getting longer, not shorter despite the advent of so much ‘labour-saving’ technology. In many ways it seems that the ubiquitous connectivity through laptops, blackberries and email means we are perpetually stuck checking them and thus inadvertently our working days stretch far into the evening and our spare-time than they would if we could leave them behind when leaving work.
Back to working from home though – this seems to be either a recipe for extreme productivity in the case of some and the recipe for perpetual distraction for others, all depends who you talk to. This also colours the response you get from people when you inform them that is what you will be doing. Some tell me that the office is an escape mechanism, they actually get some work done when not continuously interrupted by their children or pets, for others home is a cave, a lair where thinking and strategic planning can occur – away from the distractions of office routines. Others struggle with motivation when alone at home, others struggle with it at the office surrounded by chatty or catty colleagues. In any case – it seems that much of this depends on the kind of work you do.
First, you need to be able to assess the type of input your current tasks require. Often our to-do lists are a mixture of all three approaches listed below, but simply being aware of which type of concentration they require makes it easier to plan your day or even plan your ‘Cave’-moments.
1. If your work requires long periods of un-interrupted concentration:
Such as planning, designing, programming, writing proposals, reports and analyses – you need to find a location where you can best do this. The office may not be the perfect place at all, as colleagues like to wander over, ring you or drop you emails which land right in the middle of your flow of consciousness and jolt you from whatever trail of thought you were trying to follow. In those cases, it is important to minimise the amount if distractions, wherever you happen to be;
- close the email and set your messenger status to away or busy:
- run only the application you need at that particular time
- have a comfortable area with a clean desk and nothing around you other than things connected to the task you are working on right now
- listen to music through headphones
- just wear headphones anyway (to make people less inclined to start talking to you from across the room)
- set your phone to forward to answering machine or on silent
- have a cup of coffee or some water handy
- keep a list of the things you need to be thinking about when doing this job
- sketch things out on paper first (think!), move to computer later (execute)
- avoid personal calls or chatting
- have lunch at your desk if necessary
- if you feel stuck, take a break and a piece of notepaper and a pen with you and go sit outside, in the canteen, in the park, another room and let your thoughts focus on some simple pointers: what are the objectives, the deliverables, the enablers, the obstacles, and the time-line?
2. If your work requires short bursts of intensive activity:
Such as phone calls, emails, meetings, routine tasks etc,
- Keep a list of things you need to do, follow the GTD method if necessary
- Avoid scheduling meetings whenever you can, make a habit of dropping by people’s desks instead, particularly if you only need to speak to one person. Most things can be covered this way and followed up with an email if necessary. Meetings are often conducted whilst sitting down, which means people’s thinking slows down too – and time is wasted unnecessarily.
- Meetings are useful if you need to talk to two or more people at
the same time – but unless you distribute an agenda before hand and stick to it, meetings can drag on and be inconclusive, so always make it clear what you want to achieve, make everybody aware of this and stick to the plan rigorously
- Meetings with more than 8 attendees can rarely
accomplish much more than be a form of information distribution and
quick questions and answers, so use them for what they are. Again, have an agenda, be strict with timing and stop discussions going round in circles. Conclusions and actionables is what you want.
- If your intention is simply to update people on the tasks for the week or day ahead, there is nothing wrong with stand-up meetings. I know these have acquired an 80’s yuppie-tinge in some circles, but again – they are very useful for what they are. If you have a set of instructions or information to give your team, gather people up, tell them and get on with it. These meetings should not go on for more than 15 minutes, but it is amazing how much information you can cover in 15 minutes standing up with everyone standing up around you, as opposed to all of you sitting down.
- Before making a phone call, make a list of things you need to cover, accomplish, agree upon or delegate and keep your eye on the list to make sure you cover all the points
- Try to avoid falling into the email trap where virtually all your communication is done via email, talk to people, ring them up and use email as a summary tool wherever possible – not as the tool for first contact.
- Be clear and to the point in your communication, make it clear what you need, and what you will do and want others to do
- Do 3 – 4 short tasks, have a break and come back – persisting too long makes you get slower the longer you persist. If you cannot finish a task in 30 minutes, allocate another time-slot for it later in the day or the next day (depending on your deadlines). If it’s a big task, revert to point one and find yourself space and time for some un-interrupted thinking and concentration.
3. If Your Work Requires Creative Team Input:
Such as brainstorming, problem-solving, concept development, new product development etc.
- These things can seldom be accomplished in busy office environments as the many distractions around us prevent the un-interrupted concentration required not just by you, but the entire team.
- Some good tips on the prerequisites for running good creative brainstorms can be found here
- Get yourself away from the office to a place which is considered ‘neutral’ i.e nobody’s ‘homeground’ so all team members are equal and devoid of all the usual office politics of rank, status and so on.
- Set aside solid time for this, but no more than an hour and a half at the time followed by a break
- End the day summarising your conclusions and be clear about what happens next. When things are fresh in people’s minds, this is also the best time to mobilise people and make it clear who needs to do what. Give people ownership of the outcome.
All in all it’s about analysing each project or task you have, understanding how you need to tackle it, i.e through long periods of intense concentration, short bursts of activity or through creative input and most projects require a combination of all three, which means you need to break the project down into constituent components that can be tackled in one of the three ways mentioned.
If you have a team, these activities apply to them too so it helps if you can be open about your thoughts and planning and make sure people know when all of you need to be together and when it is OK to be in Mode 1 and perhaps work from home, if that is the most conducive place for the person to be able to concentrate and think without being uninterrupted. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else, so be accomodating here.
Big projects in particular come down to planning and not just planning in the sense that you stick some deadlines in a calendar and leave people to it. It’s up to each and every one of the members in a team to assess their to-do lists and decide which of the three modes they need to engage in order to accomplish the tasks and communicate them openly so the team doesn’t end up disintegrating because each member is engaged in their own deliverables and forget that time together is as important as time apart, provided there are clear goals for both.