Jul 29, 2020

Staying Productive While Running Your At-Home Business

Working in an office setting has always involved unique hazards. For example, most of us have experienced loud coworkers, soul-draining commutes through heavy traffic, unreliable elevators, tempting boxes of donuts that stymie our diets, mandatory attendance at birthday parties for coworkers you don’t even know, and break rooms that smell like someone microwaved a giant piece of fish for lunch. There are plenty of reasons why offices are sometimes referred to as “zoos” and “boiler rooms.”

At the same time, working together in an office offers undeniable benefits. Collaboration can be easier when your colleagues sit close. And all the spontaneous chats that arise in parking lots, stairwells, and restrooms essentially accomplish the same goals that would otherwise take a lengthy email thread. Questions can be answered and solutions attained, all with the added benefit of context from facial expressions, voice tone, and body language.

Offices, it seems, can incubate ideas just as well as viruses, making the recent transition to home settings a challenge for many small business owners.

“In an age when community-based social ties are increasingly frayed, the office is where many adults interact with other adults,” explains a remote work analysis from The New Yorker. “Perhaps, encoded in our genes after millennia of tribal cooperation, there is instinctual excitement at working side by side with others toward a shared goal. An email that reads ‘Job well done!’ is not the same as a smile. These benefits of the office—these subtle affirmations of our humanity—were easy to overlook, until we abruptly found ourselves deprived of them.”

Perhaps these sentiments resonate and you find yourself longing for the days when you shared a workspace with colleagues. Or you might consider remote work a lifeline that has made running your small business more enjoyable than ever. Wherever you fall in this workspace spectrum, it’s clear that that status quo has been forever altered. And you’ll need to chart a successful course if you hope to find success with the new normal.

Challenges of Working From Home

Young working father talking on the phone while babysitting his playful daughter at home.

Aside from the absence of the aforementioned benefits associated with working near your team, there are other difficulties you might encounter while working from home. They include:

None of these obstacles are dealbreakers. But you’ll need to outline proactive solutions if you want to avoid the traps lying in wait around your home. Simultaneously, you should accept that working from home will always be different from working in the office. This means that if you have a family, you will need to allocate time to address their needs. This dual focus is not only practical, but it’s the most healthy approach for everyone involved.

“During this pandemic, employers are seeing that workers can’t function well without accommodation for their family responsibilities,” says the Harvard Business Review. “Will that lesson last after the crisis is over? American families want greater choices in determining how their work and their families fit together. Post-pandemic, can we create a system that fits real workers, not just idealized ones? If so, we have the opportunity to emerge from this crisis with both healthier employees and better performing organizations.”

Millions of individuals around America are recalibrating the balance between job and home life. What works for Steve in Houston might be a disaster for Heather in Portland, and the solution that Debra in Newark discovered would only frustrate Derek in Sacramento. Not only will you need to find strategies tailored to your situation, but you’ll also need to acknowledge that flexibility will always be part of the mix. What best suits your preferences will undoubtedly evolve as the year progresses (or, at least, it should if you want continued success).

Developing Productivity Strategies That Get Results

Home office

When we think of some of the office-related challenges listed above, such as loud coworkers and meaningless parties, they have a time-worn feel. These obstacles have been around so long that most of us have adapted accordingly. We know how to spot them from a mile away and then deal with them as well as humanly possible.

The same cannot be said for the challenges of working from home. For most of us, these are issues that have only become consistently apparent in recent months. Thus, our years of experience in traditional settings do little to equip us with solutions.

What has become apparent is that working from home requires a new kind of focus. You might be reallocating precious moments of your day to address family needs and build those bonds, which is just fine. But the other portions of your day will then require a renewed focus. Doorbells will ring, dogs will bark, and kids will giggle, but you must sharpen your mind and drill into the current task.

“Weeks into the new reality of stay-at-home orders, remote work, and being constantly bombarded by news of how bad things can get, we’re all getting used to new ways of getting business done,” says corporate productivity researcher Maura Thomas. “For many of us, one detrimental result is that we’re struggling more than ever to find the focus we need to be productive. This means the practice of attention management is more important than ever, not just for our productivity, but for our peace of mind.”

How do you go about managing your time effectively? How do you create those pockets of time where you can accomplish as much, or more, than you would have in an office setting? Here are 7 suggestions that have helped other small business owners succeed. Some may be perfect for your situation, while others lack applicability. What’s important is that you search for new ideas and continually test their effectiveness in your routine.

1. Get an office: One of the biggest benefits of working from home is that you can finally secure that “corner office” that generations of American workers always dreamed of. It really doesn’t matter if your workspace is in the corner of your home or the middle, but it is important to have a designated workspace.

Sure, you might occasionally do some work in bed or on the couch. But these indulgences should be rare. What you need is a private room that allows you to close off the outside world and focus on your work. Make sure you have a comfy chair, adequate lighting, and all the necessary tools closeby.

2. Lay out a routine: From the daily commute to the huddle at the water cooler, working in an office fosters routines. You need to take the best parts of this phenomenon and apply it to your home setting.

Start by deciding what time you will wake up each morning. Your commute to your workspace will obviously be much shorter, but that doesn’t mean it should become an afterthought. Select the time you want to start working on most days and then adhere to that structure.

Even if you won’t appear in video meetings, put on fresh clothes in the morning to avoid the malaise of working in pajamas. By injecting professionalism into one of the most comfortable settings on earth, you’ll be able to rise above many of the issues that hinder remote workers.

3. Manage Your Obligations: It’s much easier for work to bleed into your personal life when it is literally occurring in the space where most of your personal life resides. Compartmentalizing your tasks is harder when they’re constantly at your fingertips, which obviously wouldn’t be the case if you were sitting in an office that was 45 minutes away from home.

To remedy this problem, draw some clear lines in the sand. When you have finished for the day, don’t be afraid to let your colleagues know that you are logging off for the night. This is easier for them to accept and remember if you’re sticking to the routine mentioned above.

Provide extra insulation in your off hours by creating away messages in your work communications and then turning off notifications on your phone. Every step you take to create separation between the 2 aspects of your life will make it easier to honor your various obligations.

4. Block out the housework: Speaking of obligations, one of the biggest distractions many people deal with is the housework that stares them in the face as they work from home. There will always be floors you could be mopping and toilets you could be scrubbing, but you’ve got to treat your work time as though you were sequestered in an office on Alcatraz.

If you find yourself struggling to resist the siren call of housework, perhaps you should allocate some time for it during one of your daily work breaks. The point is that you shouldn’t let it creep into the times you’re trying to maximize efforts and focus on business-related tasks.

5. Say no to the television: As with housework, televisions can be a tempting distraction for many workers. Don’t fall into the trap of having a show on in the background while you work. Either you’ll ignore the show, making it pointless, or you’ll experience the more likely outcome and it will invade your mind space.

The easiest solution is to have a zero-tolerance policy for television during your work hours. Not only will it help you dial in your efforts on work projects, but it will make your favorite shows more enjoyable. As the saying goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

6. Reward yourself with “me time”: Dedicating yourself to work tasks takes effort. Rather than run a marathon and risk burnout, make your day a series of sprints. Include consistent breaks in your schedule to provide the “dangling carrots” your mind needs to stay motivated.

Your breaks should be tailored to what you need most. Perhaps it’s enjoying a cup of coffee on the balcony. Or maybe you want to crash on the couch and read a chapter of your latest crime novel. What matters is that it gives your mind and body a chance to recharge.

7. Stay connected to your work family: Just because you’re not in the office doesn’t mean you should become an island. Whether you were a social butterfly at the office or preferred to keep to yourself, it can be hard to transition. from the familial aspects of a shared workspace. Don’t allow yourself to become isolated.

The good news is that you have resources like Slack, Zoom, Teams, and Facetime to keep you almost effortlessly connected to your people. Carve out time for formal collaborations, silly bantering, or even virtual happy hours.

“Good relationships are built on a foundation of good communication,” says business guru Justin Bariso. “While I try not to get bogged down too much by email and instant messaging, these tools are still very useful for staying in touch with colleagues and maintaining those relationships. And while there’s no true replacement for an in-person meeting, online conference tools like Zoom and Skype allow you to see the other person’s facial expressions and body language, in addition to hearing their voice.”

By regularly checking in with your people, you draw out their strengths and elevate your efforts. It’s the perfect way to improve your focus and get more done during your workday.

Take a moment now to jot down any ideas you have for improving your productivity. Perhaps one of the suggestions listed above would be a slam dunk for you. Alternately, you might have thought of something else entirely. What’s important is that you take note.

Empower Your Efforts With Digital Tools

You were never meant to shoulder the full burden of your work. This means you should seek helpful collaborations with coworkers, as discussed above, and also that you should delegate some of your responsibilities to digital tools. Here’s the truth about these tools: not only will they make your work easier, but they’ll make fewer errors than you would have if you’d done it personally.

Yes, automation can be your best friend when working from home. Every task offloaded to a digital tool can create more time for breaks during the day or an earlier completion time so that you can fully dedicate yourself to your family.

There have been countless articles written since the COVID-19 pandemic about time management and how American businesses can stay effective despite all the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Digital tools can be enormous allies in your efforts for time management. And every minute they shave off your daily duties has value.

“Is the saying, ‘Time is money,’ true?” asks a time management guide from the Small Business Administration (SBA). “If your business runs out of money, you always have the opportunity to get more. More money is ‘simply a sale away.’ On the other hand, once time is past you can never get that time back nor can you add more hours to a day. Yes, poor time management can cost you and your business tremendous amounts of money. Realize, however, that the better you manage your time the more money you can earn. With time management, business owners maximize how much they get done each working day.”

Let’s take a quick look at some of the most popular tools available to small business owners. While they share common characteristics, each offers unique perks. As you do your research, you’ll likely find a handful that seem tailor-made for your business needs.

Working from home will always present challenges that don’t exist in office settings. But the benefits of the arrangement can be immense. Armed with digital tools such as those listed above, you’ll find it easier to focus on your daily tasks. You can free up valuable time and keep your mind fresher for the highest priorities. In this way, you can take full advantage of the opportunity to work closer to your family.

About the author

Grant Olsen
Grant Olsen
Grant Olsen is a writer specializing in small business loans, leadership skills, and growth strategies. He is a contributing writer for KSL 5 TV, where his articles have generated more than 6 million page views, and has been featured on FitSmallBusiness.com and ModernHealthcare.com. Grant is also the author of the book "Rhino Trouble." He has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University.

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