Telecommuter. Remote Worker. Digital Nomad. Road Warrior. These are but a few of the names used to describe people who don't regularly see their co-workers face to face. I'm one of them. Perhaps you are, too.

The names can imply different things. A road warrior is someone who takes frequent business trips while a remote worker is (usually) someone who works from home. Measuring how many people telecommute is difficult.

Regardless, telecommuting comes with it's own set of opportunities and challenges. Let me share some things I've learned.

3 Things I've Learned -

  1. Find the Right Noise vs. Isolation Balance
  2. Communicate Frequently with the Office
  3. Know When to Quit

1. Find the Right Noise vs. Isolation Balance


Common advice for remote workers is to "eliminate distractions". I want to dig a little deeper.

I find I need a balance between noise and isolation. Too noisy? I can't think. Too quiet? I start distracting myself with the desire to be near the action. I hate total isolation and I prefer instead to find the right kind of noise.

Having people around me creating LOW-volume noise is great because it makes me feel connected to life. Playing music between phone calls and even singing loudly can be great for my focus - it's a special Gen-X skill. ;-) Plus it's a perq for working from home!

Less ideal noise is my family deciding to blend a smoothie...right next to my desk. (My workspace is close to the kitchen and not very sound-proof). The point here is that I find a certain degree of noise to be a productivity boost. The trick is figuring out what noises personally distract you, and which ones help.

As a side note, I find coffee shops to be an ideal mix of low-level people noise and I'm usually very productive in that environment.

2. Communicate Frequently with the Office


Geographic distance from co-workers can lead to getting out of touch with priorities. I might be churning out work, but it is it the right work? To be effective and not just efficient, keeping a strong communication flow to the office helps me stay on track and get excited about what I'm doing.

By communicate, I don't mean just checking email. I find it's vital to have regular phone calls (and video calls) to ensure my team is moving in the same direction. My colleagues and I practice the GTD method of maintaining Agenda lists leading up to our meetings. Then when we meet via phone, we can plow through the everyday items that require our mutual attention. Perhaps more importantly, we try for regular strategy meetings where we discuss the bigger picture.

Another trick we use is regularly CC'ing and BCC'ing each other on communications we send to other people, such as clients. (Private emails stay private, of course.) This way, everyone gets a better pulse on what's going on for our company. The key is that any email from colleagues that has a BCC or CC is considered "FYI only, just read and delete."

3. Know When to Quit


One of my greatest challenges working remotely is finding the right work-life balance. It's not so much that I'm getting communications from my co-workers at all hours. It's that my work is constantly available and I know there are always important projects needing finishing.

What I'm finding is that I'm noticeably less productive after a certain number of hours in my chair. I start to mark time rather than really do work. So I (try to) break for a while, because it's more important to get things done than it is to log a certain number of hours.

One trick we use is setting our Skype status indicators (online, offline, away, etc.) to communicate our general availablity. Give yourself the freedom to set your personal status indicator to "offline" on a regular basis so you have the energy to be effective during your "online" hours.

What have you learned about telecommuting? Any tips or tricks to share?

The challenge of a new productivity system


IBMer Amanda Bauman recently reduced her inbox from 5000 emails to zero after learning GTD techniques. She attended the April 8 "Getting Things Done with Lotus Notes" web event and learned the best practices of GTD straight from the experts, David Allen and Eric Mack. Inspired by what she learned, Amanda made some dramatic improvements to her productivity system. I had linked to her story previously.

Today - a little over 1 month later - Amanda posted an update. She writes:

It's been over a month since I started my quest to clean out my in-box and adopt the GTD methodology. I've purposefully restricted this quest to just my work life, because quite frankly, my personal life works  just fine as is :-), and I'm a big fan of only tackling one major change at a time, otherwise I start to feel out of control. And be assured, GTD is a big change.

But over a month later, my in box remains empty, my to do list remains full, and things that may have been on the edge of my radar and in danger of falling off... well, they are still on the edge, but now there is a nice, tidy wall around everything to prevent things from slipping off the edge.

She goes on to describe some of the challenges and successes she's experienced on her journey with GTD & eProductivity. Read the full post

Her story is well-worth the few minutes it takes to read. It echoes some of the other stories that we've heard from eProductivity users. Implementing a new productivity system can be a challenge - we all know how hard it is to change habits! But when you have great tools that attract you to use them, frequently the pain of change can be tempered and the adoption of new habits can be accelerated.

What are challenges you've faced on your way to working smarter, not harder?


Categorized or Standard Inbox?

As a result of last month's "Getting Things Done with Lotus Notes" public and IBM Employee Only webinars with David Allen, thousands of Notes users around the world are now exploring and choosing eProductivity as an alternative to the standard Lotus Notes Mail/Calendar/tasks experience to increase their personal productivity. Today I want to discuss a little-known feature hidden inside of Lotus Notes that allows you to categorize the messages in your inbox.

This 'categorized' functionality has been provided by IBM in all Mail template releases since Notes 7. Apparently some organizations - like IBM - have modified their standard mail template to make categorization of messages in the inbox become the default.

How the 'categorized' inbox works in Lotus Notes:

In the standard Lotus Notes Mail inbox, emails are presented in chronological order with the oldest message at the top and the newest at the bottom. No preference is give to messages flagged 'High priority' or calendar invites and meeting notices:

This is my standard inbox as it appears in eProductivity

In the 'Categorized' Notes Mail Inbox, emails are presented in a categorized fashion so that:
  • Calendar Invites/Updates will appear at the top of the inbox
  • Next, all high priority emails will be displayed
  • Finally, all normal priority emails will be displayed
Here's how the above mail box looks with the 'categorized' inbox:
This is what my inbox looks like with the 'categorized' inbox enabled in eProductivity

I'm not sure whether I prefer the categorized inbox or not yet, but if you are a current eProductivity beta user and want to experience this, we've posted version in the beta forum so you can try it out for yourself. Meanwhile, read on for my reactions...

My thoughts on the categorized inbox so far...

On the surface, this categorized view would appear to be a boon to anyone that gets lots of emails and wants to be sure that they won't miss an urgent email. At least that was my initial reaction. I like that all calendar items appear at the top of the inbox -- it makes it easier to process all of my calendar related invites, notices, and changes at once. At first glance, having the high priority emails at the top of the inbox means that I won't miss a high priority item -- as long as I remember to check that part of the view.

But is this really the most productive way to go, or does it encourage less productive email habits? That's what I wanted to know, so I made the change to my inbox and worked with it for a while.

What I like about the categorized inbox

As I stated earlier, I like having all of the calendar information in once place. That makes it easy for me to handle all calendar information at once. What I lose, however, is the context as I can longer see the email messages that came in before and after the calendar request or update. I haven't reached a conclusion about whether that is a big deal or not.

In the same way, I like that I can see and get to all urgent (flagged as High importance, but let's call it how people use it) email in one place. Here again, context is lost because these messages are now at the top instead of in the message flow.

What concerns me about the categorized inbox

For me, the biggest concern about a categorized inbox + lots of emails is that I'd FORGET to check the top of the stack. David Allen and I teach that the best practice around email is to process it once into a trusted system and then work from an empty inbox. We teach that your inbox should only be a temporary collection point for incoming stuff.

If you work this way and your process your inbox to zero at least once every 24 hours, then a categorized inbox might be helpful and may even be more productive. If you are buried in email and have a considerable backlog, then my concern is that a categorized inbox can become a hindrance to your overall productivity by encouraging you to deal with what's latest and loudest -- your urgent items -- and not the rest of the messages.

Also, if you have more than one screen full of email, you will have to scroll to the top to see these urgent emails. As a result, you risk losing focus on the rest of your inbox because you are either at the top or the bottom of the stack. For me, in the sort while that I have been evaluating the categorized inbox I found myself subject to the tyranny of the urgent. And, there was no incentive for be to process everything - I could simply wait until things were urgent enough to flag them as such. I try to process my email when it shows up instead of when it blows up.

What do YOU think?

Do you think the 'categorized' inbox would be a help or a hindrance? Do you currently use the categorized inbox? If so, what do you like or dislike about it ? If you don't, what are your thoughts? I'd like to know.

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