3 tips for more productive telecommuting

Taking precautions can limit distractions and boost productivity for CPAs working from home.
By Matthew Philpott

When Shannon Taylor, CPA, and his wife built their home, he was still commuting an hour to his office in Charlotte, N.C. Choosing to splurge on extra sound insulation around his upstairs workspace turned out to be a stroke of good planning.

Taylor, who now works full time out of his Lincolnton, N.C., home, appreciates the sense of closeness that comes with sharing a space with his wife and two young boys. "You feel more connected to the family," Taylor said. "And when I do take a break, instead of taking a break in Charlotte, I can spend that time with my family."

Our homes are our sanctuaries, filled wall-to-wall with comforts and diversions. But the same qualities that make them such attractive work environments can be serious hindrances to productivity.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey, 38% of employees in management, business, and financial operations do some or all of their work from home. Between 2003 and 2015, the average time employees spent telecommuting rose 40 minutes per workday, an increase of about 23%.

With many employers offering employees the option of spending at least some working hours in their homes, the opportunity for flexibility has never been greater. But with it comes a series of pitfalls that can create problems ranging from decreased productivity to a sense of isolation and lack of workplace cohesion. Here are some tips to increase your productivity and happiness when you work from home.

  • Have a good door and be willing to use it. One vital ingredient for success when working from home is isolation, along with the temperament to make the best use of it and thrive within it. "It is important to have a set office space where you can keep your computer and work documents and a schedule," said career coach and author Hallie Crawford. "Even if your office doesn't require you to have a set schedule, it's helpful to have regular times you know you will be working so projects don't fall through the cracks."
  • In addition to having a room set up specifically for your work, it helps to create a routine beyond having a standard start and finish time for each day. Dressing for work helps to put your mind in the correct space to start your day, and productivity follows. "Some find it tempting to stay in their pajamas and work from home," Crawford said. "But this could also cause some to lose motivation. It is helpful to dress up as they would if they would go for a casual Friday to the office."

  • Know yourself, know your co-workers. While working from home has many potential benefits, being honest about what you need to succeed is vital before taking the plunge as a telecommuter, whether full time or a few days each week. "You're alone, and some people don't like that," Taylor said. And even the most content telecommuters need to stay connected with their peers and clients on days when they are working from home. Introduce yourself to every member of your team, even if only by email, and don't rely on your supervisor as a go-between for every issue. Team members should contact one another directly to solve problems and complete projects, Crawford said.
  • When making these contacts, Crawford noted, it may be helpful to go beyond the convenience of email, scheduling phone or video calls with co-workers to hammer out particularly sticky projects. Communicating face-to-face also can better facilitate one of the trickier aspects of communication: humor. "Humor isn't as easily understood in an email," Crawford said. "Try to avoid sarcastic comments or being overly informal."

  • Focus on finding your balance: As a CPA working from home, take care to weigh the conveniences that come with overlapping your work and relaxation spaces against the potential complications. "While I don't feel obligated, I find myself responding to an email or looking up information virtually any time of the day," Taylor said. "It might be late at night and I'll answer an email. I don't think the client expects me to respond, but sometimes I will anyway."
  • Finding the right balance can be as simple as taking a moment to jot down and acknowledge your needs, both professionally and personally, according to Maggie Mistal, a career consultant and podcast host. "I recommend people write out a vision of their ideal day from start to finish, including their definition of the perfect balance between work and time off," Mistal said. "Once you know what you want, you can more easily define the steps you need to make it happen."

    Mistal said it's vital to define a start and stop time to your day, since work tends to expand to fill all the time you allow it. You need to work in a way that best serves your clients, but also is sustainable, since always being "on" doesn't allow you the time you need to rest and recharge. "Turning off is not some 'nice to have,'" Mistal said. "It's a necessary and important boundary we each need to set so that we can sustain the great work we love to do."

Self-examination and discipline, it turns out, are the keys to a successful workday spent in the home. Whether shutting down your computer at 5 p.m., working late into the night, or even just putting on pants, understanding your personal needs and the complexities of telecommuting will give you a leg up in your career.

Matthew Philpott is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.


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