Whether you’re working from home full-time, living life as a road warrior, or simply working the occasional day away from the office, you’ll be most effective if you have the right digital infrastructure for remote work. What needs to be in that toolkit depends on the kind of work you do, your personal working style and your family life: a single software developer may be able to work quietly from her living room with just her laptop, while a business development professional with young kids will need a private room with a closed door for remote sales calls.
Whatever the particular circumstances of your remote working arrangements, there are practical tools and practices that can make your work a lot easier. Here are the tools I recommend based on almost two decades of experience working from home or from coffee shops, both as a freelancer and remote employee:
Document collaboration. Google Drive is already the go-to service for sharing documents with colleagues, but it’s doubly useful when you’re working remotely. Since you can edit a document on screen in real time, collaborating remotely on a draft agenda or report is just as easy as sitting side-by-side with a paper document — easier, actually, since you’ll have all the changes captured by the end of the meeting. You can also use Google Drive or Dropbox to share files and documents that are too large to email.
Note sharing. I use Evernote, a digital notebook application, to keep all my notes and web clippings in one place. It’s a terrific tool for remote workers, because it keeps my notes synced across all my devices — so I have access to all my notes no matter which laptop I have with me, and if I don’t have a laptop handy, they’re accessible on my phone and iPad. Evernote also acts as the equivalent of handing a colleague a file of my notes: by inviting someone into a shared notebook, I can easily share work in progress.
Calendaring. If you need to schedule more than the occasional meeting or phone call, set up your calendar with appointment slots that let other people book themselves into your calendar. You can use Google Calendar’s appointment slots, or use a service like Calendly. Set up these appointment windows during a specific chunk of the day or week, and keep your prime concentration hours (whenever they are) blocked off to do the kind of uninterrupted work that’s hard to do in the office.
Screen sharing. Even if you aren’t doing sales calls, screen sharing is often the most efficient way to show someone what you’re talking about. I find join.me is the most reliable option, and the basic version is free. If you are doing sales calls or demos, set up accounts on a couple of different services so that you have a fallback if your usual service doesn’t work for whomever you’re trying to share with.
Instant messaging. Instant messaging provides many of the benefits of collegiality, without the disruption of a ringing phone or a colleague plopping themselves down at your desk when you’re working to a key deadline. Use it to ask someone a quick question, or even for a little bit of lightweight socializing that can cut down on the isolation of remote work. It’s most effective if you use the same chat service as the lion’s share of your colleagues or clients, and if you hook it up to your phone’s SMS account so that you can read and respond to text messages on your laptop.
Social networking. Even if you’ve never been a fan of Facebook or Twitter, remote work is a great reason to embrace one or more social networks. It’s a way to get some of the ambient sociability and serendipity of working in an office: a 5-minute Twitter break can give you a sounding board for a new idea, or let you discover that bit of industry news you’d otherwise miss. Choose one social network that will be your virtual water cooler, and drop in at least a couple of times a day so that you’re not cut off from the world.
All those great cloud-based collaboration tools won’t do you a lot of good if you can’t get online . . . or turn on your computer. Here’s what I recommend keeping on hand so you’ve always got the access you need.
Your own hotspot. You can’t be dependent on the vagaries of coffee shop WiFi, so make sure you have a way of producing your own internet connection anywhere, anytime. That could be as simple as tethering to your phone, and using it as your backup connection, or buying a USB stick from your wireless company so you can access cell data from your laptop.
A great headset. Make sure you have a reliable headset for both your home and mobile phone. I’ve tried a dozen different Bluetooth headsets and headphones, but I prefer using a wired headset so I don’t have to worry about charging and pairing. Using a headset lets you type while you talk — but one of the benefits of remote work is that you don’t have to sit at your desk. If you’ve got a call that doesn’t require note-taking, your headset lets you go for an energizing walk, or gives you the time to clean up your desk (or your kitchen).
A mini travel charger. If you carry your own power strip, you’ll never find yourself in a café where all the power outlets are already spoken for: just ask someone if you can unplug their computer so you can both use your power strip. This trick will make you friends in crowded convention centers, too.
Extra cables. Buy an extra charging adapter for your computer, and extras cables for all your devices (phone, tablet, etc). If you keep all your cables in your bag, rather than unplugging them at home every morning, you’ll never find yourself stuck without a way to charge.
Battery and car adapter. Carry an external battery that can charge your phone, and make sure you can also charge in the car. Better yet, buy an inverter that will allow you to plug your laptop into your car, so you can always take that crucial sales call from the privacy of your vehicle … without worrying that you’ll lose power mid-presentation.
A lightweight laptop. The more mobile you are, the easier it is to work anywhere, anytime.
Even the best work-from-home toolkit can’t guarantee that you’ll be happy and productive as a remote worker. To make your remote work setup really effective, you need to take advantage of the number one benefit of remote work: exercising a high degree of intention and control over what you want your work day to look like. A lot has been written on exactly how to do that. Here are my top three recommendations:
Chunk your day. Break your day into chunks that focus your attention on what kinds of work you want to do when. For me, that means dividing my work day into “open door” and “closed door” periods. I work best first thing in the morning, so I try to keep my morning schedule blocked off for focused work.
Keep an emergency channel. One of the great things about working remotely is that you’re not subject to constant interruption from colleagues. To take advantage of that, I leave my phone on silent and my instant messaging status as “unavailable.” But my closest colleagues know that they can always reach me via SMS.
Plan for connection. Staying connected to other people is just as important as protecting concentrated work time. Working at coffee shops is a great way to avoid becoming a hermit, especially if you choose a regular spot and introduce yourself to the baristas. Make a point of scheduling lunches or drinks with colleagues and friends so that you don’t get too isolated: remember that you’re getting a lot more work done when you’re out of the office, so you can afford a little social time.
One of the great benefits of living in an online world is the ability to work anywhere and anytime. Harness that power to working where and how you work, and you’ll be more productive than any 9-to-5 clock puncher.
By Alexandra Samuel