At the request of a client, I’ve been working on site one day a week, and in that time I’ve noticed something that differentiates the way I, as a remote web worker, operate when compared to my “in-office” colleagues: I see my time very differently than they do. And, to be honest, I think it makes me more productive than they are.
Like many offices, people in this place often strike up conversations that last for twenty minutes or more about topics that aren’t work related. Between commuting, lunch breaks, and a requirement to be on-site all day, every day, the lines between work and down-time blur for the in-office worker.
Whereas I see the seven or so hours I spend at my desk as work time. Someone’s paying me for that time. And the moment it’s done, I’m free: I don’t have to sacrifice my time to commuting, so I can turn around and start to do whatever I like. So when some of my colleagues started a half-hour conversation about television shows the other day, my thought was, “guys, I’ve only got seven hours here!”
A half-hour out of my day spent chatting has a big impact on my productivity, especially as I’m only in the office for a limited time, and need to get all my face-to-face work done in that space. This conscious approach to the way I spend every half-hour of my time is, I think, the reason why my in-office colleagues have been surprised that I turn their requests around “so quickly.”
By keeping an eye on the small units of time, I’m able to focus on outcomes: every time I receive a request, I think, “How long will that take?” Often, it’s about fifteen or twenty minutes, so I do it on the spot. For the in-office worker, this kind of request might simply get tacked on to a to-do list and done when it gets done.
Owning Your Own Productivity
When you work remotely, you really come to own your own productivity — you can’t blame an unproductive day on the people around you talking, someone’s farewell lunch taking two hours, or anything but yourself. If your IM contacts are too conversational, you change your status to “Busy” and get to work.
Working remotely lets you own your own productivity by putting you in a position to set your own boundaries. In an office, the boundaries are blurred: people can interrupt us about work or other topics. You might feel you have no time to take a lunch break, perhaps because of the interruptions, or because your office culture may not encourage it. It may be easy to justify starting — or staying — later at work to miss the peak-hour traffic.
Increased flexibility of employment conditions, designed to make employees more responsible by giving them more control and freedom, may go some way to increase in-office productivity. But I think the workplace itself superimposes certain inescapable conditions onto the work arrangement — conditions that preclude the kind of productivity that remote workers can achieve.
For example, an office is like a community. If the people in it don’t interact, you wind up with ghettos, factions and mistrust, rather than openness and harmony. Every boss wants his or her staff to be friends; as long as we get the work done, they (broadly speaking) may not care exactly how we spend our time in the office. The inescapable social machinations of a healthy workplace take time. Many would argue that they contribute to the quality of the work output: a harmonious office does better work than one in dischord; a close-knit team works more effectively than one whose members can’t be themselves with one another.
Striking the Balance: Remote Workers On-Site
For those who alternate between working on site and working from home, these differences can be hard to balance. It takes some intuition and practice to “read” a workplace and understand how it operates. But it’s important to be able to do this — and quickly — if you’re to work there effectively for a limited time, like a day or two per week.
You’ll also need to be flexible about the way you work: while you might own your productivity when you work remotely, you must give up some of that control when you’re working on site.
You’ll probably enjoy the experience more — and achieve better results — if you open yourself up to a sensible level of conversation with colleagues while you’re working on-site. Perhaps leave the headphones in your bag and allow yourself to be engaged by the personalities around you every once in a while. There will be times with deadlines approaching when you can’t talk, but be prepared to relax and chat for a few minutes when you can.
Adjusting to working in an office every now and again can challenge the hard-line remote worker, but that’s probably not a bad thing. How do you adjust to working on-site, or in different workplaces, when the need arises?