Many individuals who choose to pursue a career in independent college consulting will likely be faced with the reality of working from home for either most or all of their time. While it may seem enticing at first, working from home can also present many unforeseen challenges. In an attempt to provide the novice remote worker with a toolkit for success, we asked Jodie Westerman, ArborBridge’s Instruction Manager, to reflect on her experience working from home. Jodie talks about the good, the bad, and the ugly of remote work and shares tips for how to manage the right work-life balance.
I first began working online as a test prep tutor about six years ago. I had been tutoring and teaching in-person all over Los Angeles, so when I was offered the opportunity to instruct and oversee online courses, I jumped on it. Since then, I’ve worked in education sales, program management, and tutor talent development. All of these roles have been online, so I guess you could say I’m a seasoned remote worker!
At first, I felt like I’d struck gold. No morning commute? Check. 24/7 access to my work computer? Check. Casual and comfy dress code? Extra-large check. Because I didn’t need to travel, I was able to fit a lot more into my workday as well. I’d schedule back-to-back meetings with no fear of distraction and barrel through my email inbox.
Over time, however, the very things that appealed to me about remote work started to present a genuine challenge to my sense of wellbeing. With no physical barrier between home and work, I lost track of where one ended and the other began. Even though I no longer needed to commute, I was working longer hours than ever, unable to unplug because my work was always right there. Perhaps worst of all, I started to feel a little isolated. Though I was having more meetings and phone calls than ever before, I missed the little day-to-day interactions, inside jokes, and camaraderie with coworkers that I had formerly taken for granted. I still loved my at-home job, but I also felt motivated to invest time and energy in finding a more sustainable work-life balance. After researching the topic and connecting with other telecommuters, I discovered several valuable tools for making my at-home job work for me.
Though the ideal remote work solution certainly varies per person, there are a few important strategies I highly recommend.
1. Dedicate a space
One of the most meaningful changes I made to my at-home office was setting up a strict physical divide between work and home. Whereas before I carried my work everywhere I went—checking emails from bed in the morning, typing up reports over dinner, and falling asleep to the blue glare of my laptop at night—I soon discovered that this setup made it impossible to “turn off” when I needed to. Work was always within arm’s reach, and this sometimes came at the expense of spending quality time with my husband, friends, and family.
I started by setting up a “work station” away from my bedroom, kitchen, and living room. When I was “on the clock”, I’d make sure to be at my desk. When I needed to eat a meal or take a break, I stepped away. I also made sure that my designated office space was professional and inviting. Because I meet with students and professionals via video chat, I wanted people to understand that they were meeting me in my office and not my kitchen counter.
By refusing to carry my work with me, I gave myself a license to take breaks and refocus as needed. This forced separation helped me reclaim the “life” part of my work-life balance while simultaneously injecting more energy and creativity into my work.
2. Make a ritual
It’s important to make your own workday ritual. Before I started working from home, I never realized how much of one’s day is defined by the need to get showered, get dressed, and hop in the car, bus, or train in time for work. Without these constraints, the morning can bleed into midday which bleeds into afternoon, and before you know it, the day is quickly gone, oftentimes with little to show in terms of outcomes or accomplishments.
To avoid losing track of your entire day, treat your workspace like you would a regular office. Be sure to shower before your work day begins, consider packing a lunch, and set small, accomplishable goals to keep you productive and motivated throughout the day.
3. Preempt distraction
Another hazard of the at-home job is domestic distraction. Research conducted by the University of California Irvine shows that it takes 23 minutes to return to productivity after a single loss of focus. For those of us who try to multitask by caring for children or attending to family members, distractions can really pile up!
If you have children, ensure they have childcare either on site (nanny, partner, family member) or at a daycare so you can focus your attention. Fellow adults can also prove distracting. If your spouse, partner, or roommate is at home while you are working, talk to them about your work schedule and arrange agreed-upon break times when you welcome their company.
4. Build your community
Perhaps the most crucial piece of advice I can offer is to invest time and effort in building and maintaining a workplace community. It’s easy to overlook the essential role that work plays in adult social life. The people we see and chat with at work can sometimes be the people we spend the most time with, who share the most in common with us, and who understand what we’re going through better than anyone else. A lot of people think remote workers can’t build these relationships because they don’t see people in a traditional workplace setting. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help remote workers stay integrated.
Look out for networking event opportunities or stay connected by joining a group. There are a number of professional organizations to look into including IECA, HECA, and NACAC. These organizations also have smaller regional or state-wide segments that can offer more frequent opportunities to connect. Can’t find a group in your area? Create one!
Another great way to meet friends and stay connected is by joining a coworking space. Many have flexible memberships that are cheaper if you go only once or twice a week. That way you’ll be more likely to get out of the house and meet other people who work from home.
Even though working from home can be a challenge, it’s also facilitated a lot of really wonderful things. It’s given me the opportunity to travel and work from different parts of the world, to more easily relocate when my husband changed jobs, and to build a rewarding career doing what I love. What’s more, it’s brought me in touch with a community of education professionals who share my lifestyle and enthusiasm for the work we do. For anyone considering taking the leap and going remote, you won’t regret it! Just be sure to get dressed and pack yourself a sandwich first.