How to stay productive when working from home

Setting personal and physical boundaries is key.
By Dawn Wotapka

Accounting may have once been relegated to the office, but technology set it free. These days, many CPAs are able to work from home, at least part of the time.

Just 32% of employees in the United States and Canada spent all their time at the office last year. These days, employees want alternatives: 43% say the ability to work off-site is a must. As a result, 40% more U.S. employers offer flexible workplace options today than in 2010, with business and financial operations being in the top five categories offering telecommuting options.

Working from home can seem more relaxing than going in to the office. Some CPAs find that they're more effective outside the distractions of the workplace. "There's no standing-around, watercooler talking," said Greg Dewald, founder and CEO of Bright!Tax, an accounting firm that relies on a work-from-home workforce. "It is pure. It is just work. I realized that I was much more efficient working remotely."

However, working from home can have its own pitfalls, said Brie Reynolds, a senior career specialist with FlexJobs, a site dedicated to remote positions. Challenges include separating personal and work lives when they occur in the same physical space and learning to focus and stay on task without direct supervision.

"As long as people understand these challenges when they begin working remotely, it's very possible to overcome them and thrive," Reynolds said. Some ways to ensure you stay productive when working from home include: 

  • Dedicate space. Don't make the couch or a bed your workspace. Designate an area that makes you want to do professional work. "Find a space in your home that is your sacred space," said Dewald. "If you don't have an entire extra room for at-home days, set up a corner where you can separate your professional and personal lives."

    Think about what you need to be productive and happy. "Proactively consider what you need to be successful. What sort of equipment and technology, desk, and chair?" Reynolds said. "Consider investing a bit of money into a new paint job for your office space, some shelving or other organizational pieces, or a comfortable chair."

  • Set the scene. Make sure your space is noise-free for phone calls and appropriately private for video conferences. "If you're going to be on the phone, on video chat, or otherwise verbally communicating with co-workers or clients, you need a quiet space to focus and participate in those conversations," Reynolds said. "It's also a courtesy to the folks you're communicating with that you don't have background noise or distractions happening."

  • Establish boundaries. When working from home, you need to let others know your schedule and whether interruptions are allowed. Set boundaries with roommates and family at the get-go. "Getting their buy-in and support is critical to successfully being able to focus," Reynolds pointed out.

    To remind people you are working, consider posting "office hours" or a do-not-disturb sign at your workspace when you're busy.

  • Stay on track. Working from home requires personal discipline. While lounging in athleisure clothes may sound fun, shower and get dressed as you would any other day to keep yourself in a productive mindset. "Believe it or not, I'm not sitting in my PJs preparing tax returns," said Katelynn Minott, CPA, a Bright!Tax partner who has worked both in an office and remotely. "I work a regular schedule."

    Make a list of things you need to get done and stick to it. It might seem obvious, but taking everything home with you is key. A missing laptop cord could derail your remote day.

  • While working, "keep in regular contact with your managers," Reynolds said. "Make sure they know what you're working on, what you're accomplishing, and what resources or help you need to be successful."

  • Take breaks. To ensure you stay fresh, take breaks as you would at the office. "Set hours, break for lunch, and leave the office for non–work-related things," Minott suggested.

    Do not assume you need to work 100% of the time while you are at home to be productive. Get up and move around. We all need time away from tasks, which leads to increased creativity, better focus, and a healthier overall lifestyle.

Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a senior editor at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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