Telecommuters: Tips for Setting and Keeping Your Schedule

by Nancy Ordman

Working in a location other than an employer’s office can be a much-appreciated benefit. Many employers provide telecommuting staff with equipment, services and tips for setting up a work area at home, and dozens of books and articles give advice on everything from the best document shredders to managing family members who think that working any place other

than an office is the equivalent of goofing off.

Even with a workspace conducive to productivity — at home, at a co-working space or a coffee shop — and support from family or roommates, some folks have problems managing their workdays when they’re not in a traditional office location. Those new to the workplace, such as new graduates embarking on their first jobs, haven’t had much practice shaping a 9-to-5 workday.

Whitson Gordon understands the problems that lack of structure can cause; in a recent New York Times article he offers some practical advice.

Set working hours that match your internal clock

For those who have some control over the hours they work, choosing to work during the hours when they are most productive is a huge plus. Employers have the final say but often some flexibility is possible. Multinational companies with workers in every time zone often benefit when a US-based employee can be available during daytime hours — in Tokyo.

Whatever the schedule, a set routine of activities when the telecommuter wakes up is an important factor in starting the workday on the right foot. Wake up, do yoga, take a shower, get dressed, make breakfast, whatever activities help get the motor running. Keeping to the same schedule every day, including getting the same amount of sleep every night, helps set the right tone for a productive workday.

Have a schedule for the workday

No, restating the obvious is not redundant. Office workers usually arrive, leave, take breaks and eat lunch according to a reasonably consistent schedule. Telecommuters should do the same, even though it can be tempting to start the day earlier, or later. Working straight through for eight hours is counterproductive. Skipping lunch or a break is easy when no co-workers drop by to suggest grabbing a coffee. Don’t give in to the temptation to take too long a break and plan to make up the time after hours. Yes, the office is a few steps away … but maintaining separation between work and the rest of life can be even more difficult for telecommuters than for commuters. Gordon sets alarms to remind him to take breaks and eat lunch. And stop working for the day.

 Analyze time use and rejigger the schedule as needed

Schedules need to work for their owners. Gordon suggests that telecommuters track how they’re actually using their time and consider whether it’s time to make adjustments. Various time-tracking apps make it simple to clock the amount of time spent on given activities (email, client meetings, writing articles for the company website, playing games and cruising the internet). Too much time reading about topics unrelated to work? Maybe the culprit needs more frequent but shorter breaks from the computer. Frequent requests for meetings that start before or after working hours? If such requests cluster around a specific time, maybe a different start of stop time makes sense — but not both. Telecommuters need to work out, with management’s help and blessing, a reasonable set of working hours.

For part-time telecommuters

Although Gordon’s advice is aimed at full-time telecommuters, people who work outside the office once or twice a week can incorporate his suggestions into their out-of-office workdays. Keeping to a schedule that doesn’t depart radically from in-office days helps reinforce that a telecommuting day is neither a mini-vacation nor an invitation to work too many hours.