How to Balance Autonomy and Accountability While Working Remotely

Did you ever “play office” as a child? While perhaps not as popular a dream-job choice as teacher, doctor or musician, pretending to “go to the office” may have involved a poorly-tied tie, briefcase in one hand, a mug and car keys in the other, blowing farewell kisses to your family.

Never in all the years of children playing office could anyone have envisioned the current style of play. The car keys would stay in the drawer, you’d pair a blazer with sweatpants and you and your coffee mug would take up residence at a desk… or a kitchen table or the living room couch. The rules of the game have also changed for the workday itself. 

Varying viewpoints on remote-work productivity

Many people had not worked remotely, save for an errant sick day or weather event, prior to the pandemic. But many of those same people adapted quickly to the flexible lifestyle and have since chosen to continue working remotely or in a hybrid fashion (if their company allows such flexibility). It does beg the question, if your boss isn’t in the same physical space as you, are remote employees as productive as when they were in the office? 

According to a September 2022 Microsoft study, 49% of managers of hybrid workers “struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.” Yet a survey by Great Place to Work of more than 800,000 employees showed that moving to working remotely during the pandemic boosted worker productivity.

How to stay productive when working remotely

There are likely people at both ends of the spectrum: those who are more productive than ever at home, less distracted by coffee chats and colleagues, and those who take advantage of being home-based by working far less. So how can you prove your reliability while still reaping those work from home benefits like laundry or pet care?

Plan out your day for maximum remote-work productivity. 

Chicago-based Dionte Pounds, partner and director of client services at Sentic, has been fully remote since 2019. He first dabbled in remote work a decade ago, working at an advertising agency where employees could work from home a few days a week.

“I have a list of my projects, so I know what I have to do, and I plan my time accordingly,” he says.

Pounds recommends establishing a routine to handle remote days successfully

“Whether you’re going for a run or taking your dog out, it’s good to build in a quick activity that can get you out of your house for a bit so you’re not just sitting constantly,” he says.

Taking breaks helps assure your mental health stays strong, while potentially benefiting your work performance. And if you feel a bit distracted and want to push off a task, consider implementing the 10-minute rule. Make a deal with yourself that you only have to work on something for 10 minutes. When time is up, you can take a break, but you’ll often feel momentum building and won’t want to quit just yet. The hardest part of any endeavor is often getting started, so the 10-minute rule provides a great solution.

Communicate your schedule to be productive when working remotely.

Given his clients and colleagues in different time zones, Pounds’ typical day might fall outside the standard workday hours. So should he need to log in earlier or later than usual, he’ll give his direct colleagues a heads up on his availability like he would in a physical office.

“There are so many ways to communicate these days, so if you need to be reachable, a lot of times you can be, even if you’re not at your desk,” he says.

It’s a concept Business Insider refers to as “the adult-student economy.” 

“The simple story is on work-from-home days, it’s a great opportunity to do things like go to the dentist, play golf, go shopping when it’s quiet,” Nick Bloom, a Stanford University professor of economics, told Business Insider.

That’s the student part. The adult part comes in when “work-from-home employees shift hours away from the working day when they work from home and into evenings and weekends,” according to Bloom.

Like many things in life, unfortunately this isn’t a one-size-fits all judgment call. It’s up to each employee to:

  • Determine when and how they’re most productive. 
  • Define what success looks like with their manager and team.
  • Set their own balance. An early evening call with your West Coast colleagues might mean you pick up your dry cleaning mid-morning. Or working through lunch a few days might mean you power down your laptop early Friday afternoon.

Ensure you’re completing deliverables and making deadlines.

Pounds had to let an employee go last summer who was not contributing enough.

“If you weren’t doing the work at the office, there would be consequences too,” he says. “In person the signs are more obvious, but you’ll still be able to tell.” 

So long as you understand the expectations from your team, communicate your availability and make a plan for your day, you’ll be able to maximize your productivity, no matter the environment.

Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master’s degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.

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