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Working Away

Jiab Wasserman

EVEN BEFORE COVID-19, I was no stranger to working remotely. From 2011 until I retired in 2018, I worked for a major bank from my home office. I started working remotely a few days a week and then, in 2013, requested to work fulltime from home. This was met with skepticism from friends, colleagues and supervisors.

They had concerns that working remotely would make it difficult to connect with others and to get promoted. “Out of sight, out of mind” was a common warning. But during my remote work period, I received two promotions with large pay increases. I was also selected to join an exclusive 10-month leadership pipeline program. I mention this not to brag but to demonstrate that it’s possible to thrive while working remotely.

Like the idea of working from home? Here are 11 strategies that helped me:

1. Have a dedicated workspace. There can be more distractions at home than at the office. A quiet, dedicated and preferably isolated work area can minimize distractions.

2. Dress for success. Many people advise you to dress for the job you want. Studies show that how people dress at the office affects how they’re perceived. Even when working remotely, I found it was still important to dress for success, not to impress others but to mentally tell myself that the workday had started.

As soon as I woke up, and after a cup of strong tea and meditation, I changed out of my pajamas to comfortable daytime clothes. Nothing fancy. It could be a thick sweater and sweatpants in the cooler months, or a light comfortable T-shirt and pants in the hotter months.

Changing clothes was a way to tell my brain to switch into work mode. It’s similar to players donning a team uniform before a game. One of my sons who works from home now also uses this tip. In addition to getting dressed for work, he always puts on a belt. He uses the belt to signify that he’s mentally ready to “buckle up” and start his workday.

3. Don’t break your brain. Take frequent short mental breaks, preferably outside. Because my manager and most of my colleagues were on the East Coast and I live in Texas, my day usually started early, at 7 a.m. Most days began with meetings for several hours. By 11 a.m., I was mentally tired. What worked for me were mental breaks of 10 to 15 minutes each. I usually made an effort to go outside to my courtyard. Getting fresh air and seeing greenery always helped to clear my mind.

4. Do something physical midday. The law of diminishing returns applies to work. Taking a longer break around lunchtime or early afternoon, so I could get some exercise, worked well for me. I usually went for a run or walk, or worked out to get my heart rate up and break a sweat. I was then more productive and sharper mentally in the afternoon.

5. Pay attention to ergonomics. For a short time, it may be okay to work from the couch or the kitchen chair. In the long term, these habits can harm your body and health. A year after COVID hit, people who had started working from home were reporting more back pain because of bad posture.

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It’s especially important to have your workstation set up ergonomically to prevent problems. I invested in a height-adjustable desk so I could either sit or stand while working. Also pay special attention to the three Es—eyes, elbows and ears. The monitor should be at eye level to prevent neck and shoulder strain. Elbows should rest at a 90-degree bend in the arm. Ears demand excellent quality headphones so your head and neck can be straight upright when on the phone, which may be for many hours a day. I always liked to stand and pace while on the phone. It was not only healthier but also kept me engaged and alert.

6. Don’t disconnect from colleagues. I made an effort to stay in contact with key colleagues. I scheduled recurring virtual one-on-one meetings with them, as well as with my manager. Most of the time, we used the meeting to update each other on projects. If we got caught up on work, we used the remaining time to get to know each other personally. The more time you spend working remotely, the more effort it takes to stay connected.

7. Have rules for remote meetings. Virtual meetings can be a challenge because people can more easily get distracted. I’ll admit that I was guilty of letting my attention wander, the result of multi-tasking during online meetings. For the meetings I organized, I tried to minimize this from happening. How? I usually kept meetings to under 30 minutes. Most people were willing to accept an invitation to a short meeting. They also tended to stay more engaged if the meeting was just 15 to 30 minutes, rather than an hour.

8. Don’t let meetings go long. Be respectful of participants’ time by not going past the meeting’s scheduled end time. If you must, ask for the okay of those on the call. Don’t be the “oh, one more thing” person who sends meetings into overtime.

9. Have an agenda for each meeting and stick to it. Most important, share the agenda beforehand so that everybody knows what to expect and so the meeting can stay on track.

10. Summarize a meeting’s outcome. Before each meeting ended, I would give a recap and then follow up with an email covering the takeaways. This would include any actions we’d agreed to take, including who was responsible for each item.

11. Set boundaries. Sometimes, I worked more hours than I wanted to, especially after my sons left home for college. To draw a line, I would often schedule to play tennis with friends in the evening after work. It forced me to change out of my work clothes and focus on my free time.

Jiab Wasserman, MBA, RICP®, has lived in Thailand, the U.S. and Spain. She spent the bulk of her career with financial services companies, eventually becoming vice president of credit risk management at Bank of America, before retiring in 2018. Jiab lives in Texas with her husband Jim, who also writes for HumbleDollar. She’s an advocate for addressing the issue of gender inequality. In addition to writing and playing tennis, Jiab creates and sells art, which is available through her online shops. She and Jim are working on a new book, due out in 2023, that examines the impact of social media influencers on youth consumerism and identity development. Head to Linktree to learn more about Jiab, and also check out her earlier articles.

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Edmund Marsh
Edmund Marsh
28 days ago

Good tips. I’ve already shared it. I especially like 3,4 and 5.

DrLefty
DrLefty
28 days ago

That is a fantastic list! I’ve learned a lot about working remotely since March 2020, and I especially resonate with the dedicated work space with ergonomically appropriate furnishings and with taking mental and physical breaks—oh, and boundaries. During the early months of COVID, I forced myself to stay off the computer on the weekends even though there was nowhere to go and nothing really to do. I knew my brain needed the rest from the workweek.

I didn’t do as well with maintaining relationships and running short meetings as you did. Those are great suggestions for anyone.

OldITGuy
OldITGuy
1 month ago

Great suggestions for anyone, but especially someone working remotely. The last 5 years of my career my management allowed me to work mostly from a remote office while my team was distributed nationally. So although I worked mostly from an office I knew few people there and shared many of the same challenges as if I was working from home. Most of your suggestions apply equally well to that environment. One additional item I’d suggest you consider adding to your list: 12) Be a low maintenance employee. In my case, working remotely I felt it advantageous to obscure rather than highlight my remote location. To that end, here’s a few things I found useful to do: a) there was a certain amount of routine tasks (eg. annual required training, performance reviews, etc). I found it effective to take the initiative and be one of the first to always complete those housekeeping chores (and especially not be one of the employees managers had to hound to complete those tasks). b) be accessible. I worked fairly autonomously, but when management did reach out to me they never had to work to reach me. I bent over backwards to be easily reachable and responsive to them. c) there were occasionally “issues” that arose due to my remote location. I made a point to specifically identify those when they arose and either eliminate or minimize any effort on my managers part necessary to resolve them (rather than dump something into my managers lap and ask them to solve it). I found these techniques helped to obscure my remote location rather than highlight it. I think “Be a low maintenance employee” would be a good addition to your list.

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