With 52% of the global workforce working from home at least once a week, remote work has moved beyond the realm of “experimental work model” and is here to stay. But while the internet loves to tout its benefits, remote work isn’t just something you can slip into effortlessly. Without physical boundaries to your workspace, or managers overseeing your work, you are completely alone in how you structure and manage your time.
With 50% of our workforce working remotely full-time, here at Memory we’ve learnt a thing or two about making that transition. Here are a few of our best time management strategies for remote workers.
The challenges of remote time management
As soon as you start working remote you become completely responsible for all your time – from how you spend and structure it, to how you keep it accountable and balanced. That responsibility is great, and a huge reason why so many people are attracted to remote work in the first place.
But having a big mass of unstructured time on your hands can quickly become overwhelming, especially when you realize you can’t just copy/paste an office routine format. Here are a few of the biggest challenges of remote time management you need to seriously consider:
There are no physical boundaries between “work” and “leisure”;
Your work is not as immediately visible as it is in an office context;
You will feel a pressure to be immediately available on Slack and email to counter that lost visibility;
No one will structure your week for you – but they will make entitlements on your time if you don’t set your own boundaries;
Without direct feedback, it can be hard to ascertain how well you are using your time;
Statistically, you will work more intensely than you would in an office, but take fewer breaks and work longer hours.
7 remote time management strategies
1. Track your time
To work your time into an effective schedule, you first need to understand how you actually use it. In the first instance, time tracking helps you understand how long different tasks take, so you can protect the right amount of time for different pieces of work across your week.
In the second, it helps highlight inefficiencies and distractions, so you can continually improve your processes. It’s also essential for maintaining healthy work patterns – showing you how many hours you work each day, so you can offset any imbalances and protect yourself from burnout.
Thankfully, this activity need not eat into your workday – automatic tracking apps can now handle the whole data capture process for you, even creating time sheets so you can share progress with your manager with minimal effort.
Approximately 40% of people feel schedule flexibility is the biggest benefit of remote work – but you still need some form of routine to reap the benefits of that. Set consistent core hours for your work, including dedicated availability hours so colleagues know when to contact you and expect a response.
Outline what you want to achieve by the end of the week, and sketch out the tasks required to get there. If you’re planning on working from a few different places, consider which environments best suit those tasks. Always try to frontload your most important (and usually most complex) tasks each day, to capitalize on your fresh focus.
Having just a brief plan can help keep you on-track and stay accountable for what you’re doing each day. It’s a good idea to map this out at the end of each working week, to minimize the challenge of jumping back into work on Monday mornings.
Time blocking is a highly effective method for just get started with tasks. It requires you to set finite portions of time for different activities in your day, ensuring that the amount of effort you put in stays proportionate to the value of the task. This method ensures small tasks don’t balloon into hour-long epics, and serves to contain low-value admin tasks – like answering email – which can quickly dominate your work day.
Time blocking also sets a healthy competitive pressure which helps you get started with your complex, daunting tasks. It works to help you access productive flow states by stretching your skills without overwhelming them.
4. Stay conscious of events and meetings
Few things are worse as a remote worker than being pulled out of your flow for an hour-long meeting you completely forgot about. While you have unparalleled opportunity to do more productive deep work, you still need to keep an eye on team events and commitments – otherwise they will creep up on you and scramble your plans.
Before clocking off each day, check your schedule for the following day to ensure you’re ready for any early-morning meetings. If recurring events serially interrupt your productive patterns, try using a smart meeting scheduler – the most advanced can actually intelligently reschedule unproductive meetings carving up your week, to protect more space for undisturbed focused work.
5. Change where you work
Aside from injecting exciting novelty into your working week, changing up where you work can help to create an important physical separation between where you work and where you relax. When you always work from your home, it’s easy for work to bleed into your downtime, and without a clear cut-off you may find yourself working longer hours than you would in the office.
Moving to a café, library or co-working space just for an afternoon can create that useful physical boundary between work and rest. Scheduling commitments, like a regular course or exercise class, at the immediate end of working hours can achieve a similar effect. Some people even choose to work a ‘mock commute’ into their schedule, going for a jog or walk to bookend their working day.
You’re probably aware of the trope – with no one watching over them, remote workers just sit around all day watching Netflix. In reality, the biggest challenge to keeping time productive as a remote worker relates to containing digital communication. The loss of direct visibility at work can quickly breed anxiety among remote workers, where they feel they need to constantly “prove” they are working by responding to any email, Slack or tool notification immediately.
Understand: asynchronous communication is essential to every effective team – whether they are in-house or remote. To protect your focus from the ravages of immediate availability, block notifications whenever you need to focus deeply on a task (automation can trigger this for you). You might want to check out some of these free anti-distraction tools as a second layer of defence.
7. Plan your breaks – and don’t feel guilty taking them
In addition to working longer hours than their office counterparts, studies show that remote workers take fewer breaks and sick days – a powerful cocktail for employee burnout. So instead of thinking about time management in terms of doing as much as we physically can with a set amount of hours, we need to recognize our own cognitive limitations and intelligently navigate them to get more from our performance.
As a remote worker you need to constantly balance work with rest. At the start, you might want to schedule in regular breaks, making sure you don’t work intensely for more than 90 minutes at a time. These breaks don’t need to be huge; just taking two-minute “microbreaks” has been shown to improve cognitive performance. You just need to remember – and feel entitled – to take them!