A lot has changed in the last week. Professional sports teams have suspended their seasons; professional conferences are being cancelled; and many places of work are opting for a remote work environment.  According to the CDC and WHO, these actions are some of the best steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. But life must go on. Businesses must continue to function. And for those of us in the philanthropic sector, we still want to engage with donors, report about their impact and move our missions forward.

The question on the minds of many advancement leaders is, “How can our team stay productive while working remotely, especially if they are used to a traditional office environment?”

Remote work became my new reality when I took a new role as a consultant. After spending nearly 20 years functioning comfortably in an on-campus office environment, I learned very quickly that working remotely is quite different from that which I was accustomed. Distractions abound. Communication can be a challenge. Resources and technology considerations are important.

Success in working remotely requires a different mindset than working from a traditional office. Remote work can make us creative, nimble and efficient. It takes discipline, technology, self-care and clear expectations.  Below are some of the key lessons I learned about successfully working remotely.

Discipline is Vital

Without colleagues (or bosses) around, the temptation to walk the dog, do the dishes or watch just one more episode is omnipresent. The best way to combat that is to force yourself to be disciplined in your work.

  • Create a schedule and stick to it. One of the great things about working remotely is that you can be flexible about when and how you work. But as humans, we thrive on structure and consistency. Evaluate your workstyle and create a schedule around it. Starting and stopping work at about the same time every day helps to maintain a familiar rhythm. I suggest looking back at the last month of your calendar to identify your natural workflow. Do you check email first thing in the morning, or do you like to frontload your meetings? See what rhythms emerge from this scan and create a daily schedule that mirrors your preferred workflow.
  • Dedicate a consistent workspace. When I first switched to working remotely, I would work from the kitchen table and other days I would work from a card table in another room. It soon became apparent that the inconsistency of my workspace left me feeling unsettled.  The solution for me was to create a dedicated workspace that would function as my office.  While not everyone can dedicate an entire room as an office, it is important to find and utilize a consistent space. Such a workspace signals to us (and those around us) that it is time to work.
  • Dress for success. For the first few months of working from home it was (maybe) jeans and sweatshirt for me. I came to realize that having been used to more professional attire for two decades, I didn’t feel as work ready when dressed down, so I started forcing myself to dress more like I had when working in an office.  Much like setting a schedule and using a dedicated workspace, dressing for work sent a message to my brain that it was time for work.
  • Find balance. One of the challenges that remote work created for me was an inability to separate work time from personal time. As noted above with the need to create a schedule, the need to find and stick to balance is vital. It is tempting to slip back into your dedicated workspace to send one more email or finish one additional project. But that quickly becomes dangerous.  Closing the laptop and walking away at the end of the day is important to you, your family and your organization.

The lack of a 45-minute commute was initially a blessing. No more sitting in traffic with my blood pressure and speedometer going in opposite directions.  Then I realized that I had typically used that time to decompress, reflect and refocus my attention on the home front.  Now my commute is 12 seconds and that doesn’t offer the same opportunity to switch from work mode to home mode.  I have started incorporating a five to ten-minute transition period between closing my laptop and walking out of my door to greet the family. For me, that break is typically simply listening to a song or two on the radio.

Embrace Technology

Between video conferencing platforms and collaboration software, maintaining productivity remotely is as seamless as in-office environments, perhaps more so.

  • Over communicate, efficiently. The temptation when working remotely is to send everything as an email. This can quickly overwhelm colleagues and lead to unread or buried requests.  An effective solution is to create digest emails. These emails include several bulleted requests or bits of information that need to be shared with a colleague or a team. This allows a singular message to replace what may have been seven different emails.  Death by a thousand emails is a real challenge when working remotely.
  • Be overly inclusive: In terms of overcommunicating, nuances can be missed, and assumptions made if a team doesn’t take an intentional approach to sharing all the information. While it may seem onerous, being thoughtful to include everyone will help alleviate miscommunications or gaps. Also, not everything needs to be an email, see the comments below about other forms of communication.
  • Utilize platforms for collaboration and video meetings. Few things have made remote work more effective than the glut of team collaboration platforms and video conferencing technologies on the market today. Admittedly, I scoffed at the use of video conferencing in advancement until I experienced how effective it can be in my work as a consultant. It suits not only internal meetings, but donor engagement as well. Some of the most productive donor meetings I have conducted since joining BWF have been held via Skype, Zoom and Teams.

As mentioned above, not everything needs an email; technology like Slack (among many others) has made that especially true. Such platforms allow for instant messaging and file sharing.  When simple, quick questions arise, Slack messaging is a great way to ping a colleague without cluttering their inbox with another email.  It takes time to determine what is Slack-worthy versus an email, but once that equilibrium is established, the flow of work and information is quite frictionless.

Find Your People

One of the things that I miss most about my previous in-office life is my coworkers, many of whom were good friends. Working remotely doesn’t afford the same opportunities to talk about the results of the game or who got voted off the island. I had to become intentional to find my people and stay close to them, even remotely. Many of the same technologies I utilize for external business create opportunities for continued contact and interaction with internal colleagues as well. Slack is great for communicating about projects and for sharing cat memes.

Other Considerations

Below are a few more things that don’t fit neatly into the boxes above but have proven to be important.

  • Set expectations with others. It is important to clearly communicate expectations with family members and roommates that working remotely, often from home, requires just as much focus and discipline as working from the office. As such, being clear about limiting interruptions and creating rules about entering the dedicated workspace helps avoid hurt feelings or misunderstandings. When the door to my office is closed or I have my headset on, everyone around me know that I am not to be disturbed.
  • Taking breaks. In a traditional office environment, our workflow is interrupted an average of 4 times per hour. In remote work environments, natural opportunities to take breaks may not present themselves as frequently.  As such, it is important that you carve out break times to stand up, stretch, and allow your mind to focus on things other than work for a few minutes.  I find that 10 minutes every hour refreshes and refocuses me. I will also admit that I often use these breaks to accomplish small, domestic tasks such as checking the mail or taking out the trash.  For me, it gets my body moving, shifts my focus off work for a moment and reduces chores, thus increasing free time when the workday is done.
  • Redundant materials. Setting up your remote workspace should be similar to your in-office workspace. Keep phone chargers, power cords and other materials at your remote workspace in the same manner as your traditional office. This is also true for office supplies so that you limit the temptation to deviate from work while scouring the house for a stapler.

While remote work may never fully replace traditional offices, something tells me that the skills we may be forced to learn over the coming months will serve us well in a more digitally connected and global business community.

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