11 Rules You Need to Know for Working Remotely

—Amy M. Gardner

With summer approaching, the ability to work remotely can loom as the Holy Grail of benefits, making possible shorter days (minus the commute), focused attention on long-delayed projects, longer vacations thanks to the ability to work while the family relaxes, and lower childcare costs.  As we work with our career transition clients, the ability to work remotely – whether occasionally or regularly – is one of the items must often on their wish lists, whether as a proxy for a flexible workplace, or as a critical component to make their lives work.  This isn’t a unique desire; 70% of workers around the world are remote at least one day per week, and more than 50% work remotely at least half of the time.

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From my very first post-college job through today, I’ve worked remotely full-time for about four years in various environments, remotely 10-20% of the time for about eight years, and have been location-independent for the last year.  Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how to work remotely.  Today, we’ll tackle 11 rules you need to know for working remotely, while next week we’ll address how to supervise remote workers.  Whether you find yourself working remotely only when there’s a snowstorm or work remotely every day, your career will benefit from following our 11 rules for working remotely.  

Rule 1:  Be flexible.  Unless you are hired for a remote position several states away, there will almost certainly be times when you need to be in the office on a day when you would otherwise work remotely.  Being flexible and making clear you view the ability to work remotely as a benefit rather than a right will go a long way with your own mindset and your coworkers.  The same goes for social events: even if the employer makes clear you don’t need to attend, make an effort to attend social activities, even on days you would normally not be in the office.  

Rule 2:  Have what you need to work remotely.  Your job may vary, but think broadly about what you use in a month, whether that means a computer, wifi sufficient for video calls, printer, scanner (or a scanner app on your phone, depending on the quantity of documents you need to scan), preprinted FedEx labels, etc.  Having had, in a prior life, to courier (at enormous expense!) a three-hole punch and stapler to a senior person working from a vacation house who realized she needed those items, planning ahead will minimize your own stress and help you avoid violating rule three.  

Rule 3:  Don’t let your work arrangement burden others. If you are working remotely by choice, don’t expect others to take on extra work.  If, for example, you are the only person choosing to work remotely on a meeting heavy day, don’t expect your boss or peers to loop you in by video. Either be in the office or ask your assistant to do it.  And be ready to be on the phone instead. Conversely, if you work remotely occasionally, go out of your way to accommodate others who do as well.  Text the colleague to let him/her know that the meeting is starting late so they aren’t sitting on the phone wondering what’s happening, be sure that people on the phone are called on, etc.    

Rule 4:  Be extra available.  It’s silly but true that when someone who works in the office isn’t in their office, people assume they stepped away to go to the bathroom or are in a meeting.  When remote workers do the same, coworkers often assume they aren’t working.  Because of that, even if your coworkers all roll into work after 9 and log on only after they’ve gotten their coffee and chatted, if you’re working remotely you should make sure you are logged on and extra responsive when the office opens.  If you are working on projects that require you ignore email for a few hours, put an out of office on your email and let your supervisor know how to reach you so they don’t wonder if you’re at Target.  

Rule 5:  Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  A coworker once told me that she wished she could see the house of one of our coworkers who worked remotely; she assumed the coworker’s house must be immaculate, given that she was so often cleaning during work calls.  Just because you can put a conference call on mute to fold laundry or load the dishwasher doesn’t mean you should.  And you definitely shouldn’t be doing it during calls where you are engaged and thus not on mute.  Yes, your coworkers in the office may very well be shoe shopping during a two hour call. But the way to address that is to ask if you really need to be on a particular call – not to fill the time with personal tasks.  It’s not fair to your employer and, in my coworker’s case, irritates the coworkers who can hear you banging dishes while they’re working.      

Rule 6:  Always be video ready.  Being able to turn off the video can be a godsend during a meeting when you need to eat a snack (or don’t want to watch a coworker eat a snack!). But if you’re working remotely, you should be video ready – resist the temptation to work in gym clothes or to let your workspace become a mess.  It helps your coworkers take you more seriously and keeps you in the right frame of mind.  Along those lines, keep in mind the background: unless you’re a lifeguard, doing a video call from the beach (or a regular call where coworkers can hear seagulls and waves), will not send a positive message.  

Rule 7:  Have a back-up plan.  The time your phone service will go out or the neighbor will decide to cut down a tree will be when you are leading an important conference call. Having a reliable coworker you can trust to jump in if disaster strikes is a necessity.    

Rule 8:  Be extra visible when you are physically in the office.  Years ago I heard a theory of how one attorney in a smaller office was able to build support in the main office to make partner: he (allegedly) had himself paged in the main office on a regular basis, despite not being there.  The theory was that by reminding people in the main office of his existence and making them think he might be there, he was ensuring they would remember him.  You don’t have to go that far, but when you are in the office in person, don’t let your time fill up with anything you can do when you are working remotely; be sure to make time for lunch and coffee with colleagues, in-person meetings, etc.  Particularly if you are remote full-time or on a regular basis, the goodwill built during those trips will be a bigger asset than any amount of work you could have gotten done while in the office.  

Rule 9:  Enlist others for help.  There are times when being in the office is a huge asset for getting things done.  When you aren’t there in person, figure out who is willing to go down the hall and pigeonhole the person who isn’t responding to emails.  Build relationships with other people in the office who work remotely occasionally or regularly and help each other out.  

Rule 10:  Don’t work remotely on Fridays. Time management guru Laura Vanderkam has written about this extensively, but in short, the theory goes, working remotely on Fridays suggests to employers that you’re trying to extend the weekend rather than trying to get more done.  If you’re given the chance to work remotely on a regular basis, pick a default day (or days) light on meetings so you aren’t missing face time (which, regardless of workplace, really does still matter) and pre- and post-meeting chats and can actually do deep work.  All things being equal, mid-week is usually considered ideal for working remotely.  It gives you a commuting break, it’s not the beginning of the week so you don’t miss post-weekend chats around the water cooler, and you don’t send a message to your colleagues that you’re taking three day weekends.

(Vanderkam’s books always contain both good tips on time management and her own philosophical take on time management.  Her latest is Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done and my favorite is her bestseller (applicable to men and women): I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. Check them out for more suggestions on using working remotely to help with time management.)

Rule 11:  Stop working.  Without the sounds and sight of coworkers leaving at the end of the day, chitchatting, coming in late, etc., it’s entirely possible to work far more hours when you’re remote than you would in the office.  If you’re working remotely one day per week, that may be a great chance to get caught up or ahead on projects.  But in general, don’t burn yourself out working more remotely than you would in the office.  If you can, work from a designated area separate from the rest of your home so you can physically walk away from work at the end of the day, set an alarm to go off every day at the time when the office closes as an audible reminder each day to start wrapping things up, and schedule appointments that require you to wrap up work shortly after that.  Or adopt the strategy of one remote worker I know who put his office lights on a timer so they turn off at 6:00 p.m.

If you’re one of the 70%+ of people who work remotely, what are your own rules for working remotely? Let us know in the comments.

Amy M. Gardner is a certified professional coach with Apochromatik specializing in career and career transition coaching.  Amy is a former Big Law associate, partner at a mid-size law firm, and dean of students at a top 5 law school. Today she works with lawyers and other high-achieving professionals to build the career and life they want. Contact Amy directly at amy@apochromatik.com.