Monthly Archives: September 2015

Office Ours

This month, we have been posting about time management, and setting up a productive work schedule that more closely matches your biological proclivities.

Once you have found and established your natural rhythm, you will of course need to convey those hours to others, especially those in your household. Tell your spouse, children, and/or other cohabitants what your office hours are, when it’s okay to be disturbed, and when it’s not. As for off-site colleagues or clients, you can discuss it with them on an individual basis, but not everyone you work with may need to know your schedule. If you collaborate closely with people, you may want to drop them a note telling them that “I am usually ‘out to lunch’ from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.” or whatever you decide is your break time. However, most of your colleagues will be able to figure it out, especially if you use the status messages in an instant messager and/or Skype to let your contacts know if you are available or unavailable. After a while, people will begin to figure out your schedule—probably even better than you know it!

Setting office hours becomes a pointless exercise, though, if we’re not strict about enforcing them. This is especially the case where children are concerned, as they can insist on wanting to play or require some other attention while you are trying to work. The only real solution is to exert parental authority. The same goes for spouses or other cohabitants.

When Technology Fails

Richard here.

In many previous posts, we have identified all the technologies that enable working from home—small, fast, powerful, and cheap computers; mobile phones; the Internet; tablets; the Cloud; and so on. These things have become so ubiquitous, and so invaluable, that we often taken them for granted. And when they fail, we often don’t know how to cope.

Case in point: earlier this week, Skype experienced a massive server outage that essentially shut off its service. As it happens, Skype is how your Home Office That Works! co-authors collaborate on our various projects, and on Monday we were trying to finalize a document, and found ourselves un-Skypable. And let’s face it, an outage can often lead to outrage.

It’s not just Skype. Sometimes other “utilities” can go down. I recall once starting to conduct a Webinar for 150 people and at the exact moment it began, the power went out, shutting off my cable modem. Speaking of cable modems, very often (especially in winter), the cable goes out, cutting off my Internet access. Cellphones are problematic even at the best of times. Sometimes the problem is “user error,” like the time I accidentally spilled a large mug of coffee into the keyboard of my primary laptop computer, causing it to literally explode.

Over the years, I have learned that virtually every technology we rely on requires a “Plan B.” For example:

  • Q: If my cable or WiFi goes out, what other ways can I get on the Internet? A: Mobile phone or tablet.
  • Q: If Skype is unavailable (like on Monday), what other video calling options are there? A: FaceTime or, what we ended up using, a Google Hangout.
  • Q: If your computer explodes, how do you get at your files? A: Make sure everything is backed up regularly. Today’s Cloud-based storage solutions can help immeasurably in this regard.

When you have a home office, anticipating all of these things—and more—is a kind of disaster preparedness. When I lived in Southern California, we were always encouraged to have an earthquake preparedness kit; in Florida, having supplies on hand in the event of a hurricane is vital. What I call technology disaster preparedness involves having all of these options ready to go. Take time to set up and learn how to use Google Hangout, for example; make sure you have a decent data plan on your phone or tablet; make sure whatever data backup system you have is up to date and that your important files are constantly backed up. And, most importantly, know where to get help if a true technology disaster strikes. Maybe you need to find the nearest Apple Store; maybe you need a local tech support service. Maybe you need to find the nearest location to you that has WiFi.

A little advance planning can minimize the loss of productivity that a technology disaster or outage can cause.

“How Can We Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?”

Richard here. Not long ago, I got a message of a type I had not seen in a very long time: an out-of-office autoresponder. Remember those? It was (and apparently still is) an automated “out-of-office” message generator that automatically responds to incoming e-mails when you don’t have access to it.

We used to see these a lot in the days before the smartphone, but as more and more people started using iPhones and the like, they became unnecessary. In fact, it almost seems like there’s a kind of stigma attached to using an autoresponder. “What? You don’t have an iPhone? What century are you living in?”

The expectation today is that you have access to e-mail wherever you are, which may or may not be true. If you telework, corporate policy may limit your ability to check company e-mail on a mobile device, which may be a good thing. But if you are self-employed or are in other ways entrepreneurial, you may have no choice but to ditch the autoresponder—even if you really can’t check e-mail remotely. (Traveling abroad can make checking e-mail, especially on a mobile phone, a challenge.)

Sometimes, I wish people did use autoresponders more: there is nothing more frustrating than not getting a response to what I thought was an important note, only to get a note back two weeks later saying “Sorry, I was on vacation.”

There should be no stigma attached to using an autoresponder, and if you do have to use one, why not have it do a little marketing and PR for you. In the autoresponse message, include a link to your website, your latest white paper, a social media link, or some other brief marketing message.

Response Required

Last week, we wrote about how managing messaging can be a substantial challenge, equivalent in many ways to time management. We recommended going dark at certain times to focus on productive work. However, we need to be careful not to become too blasé about incoming communication. While, yes, most e-mail or phone messages can wait, even only moderately important ones can’t wait too long, otherwise we forget about them. How many times have you received an e-mail that required a response, put off actually composing that response, and as new messages came in, that message gradually moved down your mailbox until it disappeared off the screen. Once that happens, it’s gone. And then three days later you get a snarky follow-up message asking why you ignored the first message.

(Another, relates issue is that, depending on how well our mobile devices are synced with our main computers, sometimes we get a message on a mobile device, plan to respond at a more propitious time, and then forget about it because the message did not appear in our computer’s mailbox.)

If this has happened to you, you are not alone. We are inundated with communication, and it is easy to forget about an e-mail or a voicemail. One solution is to block out a certain period of time where you will only check e-mail or voicemail, and then in that period make it a point to attend to everything that requires a response. That may be easier said than done, but it’s worth trying.

Splendid Isolation

As we have been saying through this latest series of posts, working from home is all about time management, and while we want to be able to use all the myriad communication technologies around to make ourselves available to colleagues, clients, and managers, we can make ourselves too available. E-mail, the phone, texting, and of course social media are all potential time sinks that can take our attention away from getting productive work done.

As a result we should not be afraid to “uncommunicate” at certain times. It’s often the only way that we can manage our productivity. It can even be desirable, particularly when working on deadline or an important project, to go completely dark, or enter “Fortress of Solitude” mode: you turn the phone(s) off, you quit the e-mail program, you turn off Skype and instant messaging, and put up a “do not disturb” sign on your office door (you do have a door, right?).

Some people have strategies for allowing important people to get in touch in emergencies while keeping out potential distractions and time sinks. Some splurge on private phone lines or cell numbers that are only given out to important people with instructions that they are only to be used in emergencies. Then they know they can turn off the other communication routes. Caller ID and customized ringtones are also good filters to help keep the distractions out. Some people use a super secret instant messaging screen name that they only give out to those VIPs. When you need privacy, only log on with that name.

These days, managing messaging can be virtually synonymous with managing time.

Driven to Distractions

When we work from home it is, of course, crucial that we make ourselves available to colleagues, clients and, especially, bosses and managers. It should not be virtually impossible to get you to respond to an e-mail, a text, or a phone call. That said, though, sometimes we can make ourselves too available.

A lot—if not most—of working at home is about managing time, and most of managing time is creating effective filters for the things that can take time away from our productive work. Visitors, phone calls, instant messages, e-mail, social media—all of these things can intrude on us when we need to be accomplishing tasks.

Most of us are very bad at filtering out distractions. We immediately drop everything if the phone rings or the text message application chimes. As soon as new e-mail arrives, we jump over to our e-mail program and read it. We have our instant messaging and social media applications open and immediately respond to messages or status updates. Some people even set up their Facebook mobile app to alert them when there has been a status update from a friend. As the number of ways to communicate has increased, so, too, has the number of ways we can be distracted.

The reason we are bad at filtering out distractions is largely psychological. We may fear we are missing something vital if we let that call go to voicemail, or if we turn the instant messaging program off, or if we don’t check e-mail every five seconds. And now with Twitter, if we’re not “part of the conversation,” we may as well not exist, apparently. And while, yes, that may be true in certain circumstances (maybe we are expecting an important call or are waiting for a response to something), the fact is that more than—arguably—seventy-five percent of the time, any given communication is not vitally urgent and will keep if left unchecked for a short period of time.

In fact, it’s not unusual to welcome these distractions as a way to deliberately avoid working on something we really don’t want to work on, or something we are having trouble getting started on. We all have tasks or projects like that; the house is never cleaner, the yard never more manicured, than when there is a project we are putting off. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but working at home demands discipline.

Flex Time

While working from home can often allow us to set a work schedule that is more in line with our individual biological rhythms, it can be very easy to become as much a slave to one’s own self-imposed schedule as to the 9-to-5 grind we had been trying to avoid.

Becoming slaves to our own internal schedules can keep us from being productive on demand. For example, you may get your best writing done at 6:00 a.m., with 2:00 p.m. being your least productive period. But if you get a 2:00 p.m. call from a client or coworker requiring something to be written “immediately,” you can’t beg out and respond, “This is a down time for me. It’ll be better if I do it tomorrow morning.” That’s simply not going to fly.

So, yes, develop your own productive schedule, but make sure that it is a strong but flexible preference.

Time for Telecommuting

This month, we have been looking at time, and how a home worker often has the luxury of being able to set a work schedule that is more in tune with his or her natural rhythm.

However, not all home-office workers have that luxury. If you telecommute to a main office rather than run your own home business, you will probably be at the mercy of the company’s operating hours. Managers, coworkers, and clients may expect you to be on call during those hours, and you may get penalized—or even fired—if you vary your schedule or fail to be available when needed. After all, telecommuting is not an excuse to play hooky.

You may not have the luxury of making your own hours, but mobile technology can help increase your availability to others while at the same time letting you operate on a schedule that is more conducive to your own internal productivity. Most telecommuting arrangements involve a commitment to always be available during certain hours of the day, such as from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., with the other hours left flexible.

None to Five

As we said on Tuesday, we all have a natural rhythm and the problem many of us who work have is getting our work lives to “play nice” with that rhythm. A 9 to 5 work schedule is not an easy thing to manage when you’re a night person and have difficulty getting up in the morning. People who work “graveyard” shifts—say, 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.—have an even more difficult time.

With a home business, however, it can be easier to tailor a work schedule so that it is more compatible with one’s biological tendency. Depending on what it is we do and the extent to which we need to be available to colleagues or clients, we may not be able to completely conform to our biological rhythm. If you’re a night person and happen to be a sales rep, no one is going to be too happy about you making sales calls at two in the morning, unless your client is in China. Likewise, if you need to connect with clients, you need to be available when they are at work.

Some people have the luxury—if that’s what you want to call it—of not having to interact with colleagues in real time at all. We once worked with a data analyst who tended to work overnight, and files would be e-mailed at three or four in the morning. He was never available during the day, but he didn’t need to be. He got his work done efficiently and, in fact, it worked out more conveniently for his coworkers who were not waiting around during the day for files to be e-mailed.

Sometimes, though, we can split the difference. Writers, designers, and others who need to concentrate intently on specific projects find it easier to get those tasks done in the early morning or late night hours because there are fewer interruptions and distractions. The phone doesn’t ring, there are fewer instant messagers or texters up and around (unless we work with other morning or night people), and visitors are unlikely to show up at our door. With the bulk of work being done either early in the morning or late at night, we can do low-level tasks and be available to make or receive calls during the nine-to-five period.

(Things get more complicated when you work with people on different coasts or continents. Living on Eastern time means you only have a few hours in the morning to interact with colleagues in Europe, and a few hours in the afternoon to work with those on the West Coast. If you work with both, you may never get out of the home office!)

When you first start out working from home, you will need to experiment to see what your natural rhythm is. Some of us have been able to find our internal clock while still working in an outside office, if we were lucky enough to have flexible schedules and could often go into work at more biologically convenient hours.

You probably already know, or at least have a sense, of what your own rhythm is, but a good way to discover it is to spend a couple of days waking, working, and sleeping unaided. Go to bed when you’re sleepy, wake up when you wake up without setting the alarm clock, and work when you feel naturally disposed to it. Two or three days spent in this way will likely uncover your own natural rhythm.

One fly in this particular ointment is that your natural rhythm may collide with others in your household, and you may have reasons other than work to operate on a more conventional schedule. The kids may need to get off to school, the spouse may have to go to work at a certain time, and the cat, dog, fruit bat, etc., may function as furry alarm clocks. So although you may not be entirely able to set your own schedule, a little experimenting should allow you to strike a comfortable balance for you to get the contiguous blocks of time that you need.

It’s About Time

All life forms have a natural rhythm, scientifically called “circadian rhythm,” which refers to the fact that our biological systems are based on 24-hour cycles. (It could be said that some of the more lethargic of us have a cicadian, rhythm where, like the cicada, we only become active once every 13 years.)

Anyway, this inherent rhythm is why when we travel to different time zones we are so tired and out of it; our bodies are telling us that it’s one time, while the clock is telling us that it’s another. It’s also one of the reasons we often get that “3:00 in the afternoon feeling” of general fatigue and want to take a nap.

Even though we all share the same basic 24-hour rhythm, we all differ in how our functions and activities are distributed in those hours. Some of us are early risers (“morning people”) who get up at 5:00 a.m. or so and can jump right into productive work, usually tiring in the late afternoon or early evening and going to bed early. Others are late risers (“night people”) who prefer to sleep late in the morning but are productive in the nighttime hours, starting in the late afternoon and working productively until midnight or even later—or earlier, depending on how you want to look at it. We don’t often choose this rhythm, but whether through habit, biology, the schedules of the people around us, psychology, or some combination of these factors, it chooses us. When we have a nine-to-five office job, the hours we are required to be at work can collide with our natural tendency, whether it means we are habitually late or grumpy until mid-morning or run out of steam after three in the afternoon.

So the next batch of posts will look at time management: how can the home-office worker develop a work schedule that maximizes productivity while at the same time in more in line with one’s natural rhythm—and/or the rhythms of those who share the home.