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How to Stay Productive in Tough Situations as a Remote Employee

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I spent last week at a conference in San Francisco with many of my colleagues and community members from around the world, but the giant volcanic ash cloud over Europe put a damper on the final day of the conference as my European friends started to realize that getting home wasn’t going to be easy. I felt a little guilty for my short flight home to Portland, and even now, a full week later, some of them are still stuck in San Francisco while the backlog of travelers clears out.

A disaster of a different variety hit many corporate environments this week when McAfee pushed an update to computers that sent computers crashing to a halt, crippling many systems. As a Mac (s aapl) user, I was spared, but I watched co-workers and friends at other companies trying to figure out how to fix their dead computers. Days later, many corporate IT departments are still dealing with the aftermath. Needless to say, this past week was a tough one for many corporate web workers.

While web workers tend to be able to work on the road, extended unexpected travel delays can be difficult and stressful, especially for people spending days in airports just waiting for a seat to open up. This can be a huge drain on productivity when you are focused on managing a difficult situation instead of being focused on work. Likewise, computer issues that result in a non-functioning system can be bad enough for employees in an office, but it can be devastating to the productivity of a remote employee who can’t just walk over to the IT department for a quick fix. I was in the office during the McAfee issue, and watched as people wandered around looking lost and wondering what they could possibly do without their computer.

These are just a couple of examples of things that can be very disruptive, but here are some ways to be a little more prepared and stay productive during those difficult times.

  • Contact information. Is all of your information about how to contact the IT department sitting on on your computer or on a network drive somewhere? In this case, be prepared by going old school and carrying a piece of paper in your wallet (or a note in your phone) with contact information, especially phone numbers, for your IT department, corporate travel agency, manager and other key people. This helps to ensure that you can get in touch with the people you might need to contact for a work emergency, regardless of where you are, whether you have an Internet connectiot or whether your computer is working.
  • Alternatives. If at all possible, try to make sure that you always have some kind of alternative system that you can use when your primary computer is out of commission. I know this isn’t always practical, but even an old laptop, a netbook or smartphone can work in a pinch when you are having critical systems issues. Just make sure that you know what caused the first issue before booting up that other device and letting it suffer the same fate.
  • Adjust. Don’t hesitate to adjust your work day to accommodate these disasters by running errands during the day and finishing your work in the evening when your equipment is back up and running. In the case of extended travel, work in chunks when you have some downtime in between focusing on catching that next flight. Make the best of a bad situation by getting some other personal tasks out of the way so that you can focus on work when you get things back under control.
  • Think. Most of us are probably working on projects that require some time to think, plan or strategize. Forget about the computer for a while, and sit down with a piece of paper to sketch out some ideas or plans. While you may be used to thinking in front of the computer, I’ll bet that you can still make progress without it.

What are your tips for staying productive in tough situations?

Photo by Flickr user qmnonic used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

3 Responses to “How to Stay Productive in Tough Situations as a Remote Employee”

  1. You are so right Dawn! I live in the Philippines and we are currently suffering from daily power outages which initially took a toll on my work. But eventually I was able to adjust my work program and now back on track.

  2. Sin Trenton

    Personally, if my net book would snuff it while I’m on the road, the only real issue would be to find an alternative computer, so I don’t have to work on the typepad of my (highly regular and ordinary) mobile.

    My first and immediate solution if my net book would snuff it is the mobile. Apart from mail, I have Java apps handling my GTalk, Jabber, Skype, IRC, etc, so I can at least communicate with colleagues and partners. The address book and calendar are synced with cloud services.

    Second back up is my 16GB USB memory, which doesn’t so much contain important files–they are stored over at Dropbox or Google Apps–as my software. Portable apps ( allow me to carry my Firefox browser, Open Office, Pidgin (IM), GIMP, Dia (Open Source Visio), Keepass for passwords, and pretty much everything I need, with me. And with them, my settings, my macros and bookmarks.
    Of course, this means that I need another computer, either an old spare, or if I can borrow one. Point is, that I don’t need to install anything at all. Plug in the memory stick and the lion part of my office is there, immediately.

    And as you mention under Think, as a last resource, there is always my Moleskine notebook and a clutch pencil. Run without batteries.