The virtual workforce is a business trend on the rise and working from home offices along with it. The convenience of technology innovations coupled with the nature of knowledge worker professions allows us to work from almost any location we choose.

According to Global Workplace Analytics, 2.6% of the U.S. workforce telecommutes at least half the time, and since 2005 it’s grown nearly 80%. This article in the New York Times proves the trend continues. In the latest Intuit 2020 Report, researchers predict there will be an accelerated increase of a “contingent workforce” such as freelancers and contractors making up nearly 40-50% of the workforce by the year 2020.

Working from a home office is becoming less of a luxury and more of a standard. Yet many aren’t certain they have the right discipline or even the proper set-up to maintain an effective professional life within the home.

After working approximately 12 of the last 17 years from a home office, I’ve collected a few best practices for ensuring I brought the most productive and efficient me to my employers while still maintaining a normal home life. Here are some of my top suggestions for building your virtual workplace persona.

1. Get up and get dressed. While the idea of working in pajamas and fuzzy slippers seems to be the image many have of colleagues who work from home, mostly that’s a negative stereotype. Getting dressed to begin the day is recommended, but I suggest taking it a step or two further.

When I work from my home office, I want to feel like I’ve gone to the office, without the headache of a long commute. I get up at an early hour like a normally would, and I shower and dress, all as if I was going to an office. I don’t show up in yoga pants or flip-flops–instead, I make an effort to feel as if I could easily meet with a co-worker or client at any moment. I put on makeup and do my hair. And with the advent of video conferencing, the surprise ‘face-to-face’ meeting does occur so I’m prepared.

2. Establish an office. Depending on the home or apartment you live in, it can be tricky to create a professional space. If you live in a very small place with limited room to even sit and have a meal, you may need to get creative. But the reality is you need to designate a space where you can set a laptop, hopefully, have a printer, and stretch out just a little with any paperwork.

If you feel confined, it will impact your ability to be productive and think clearly.

If you’re like me and you have a spare bedroom, this is ideal–next to having an actual den or office in your home of course. After having my office in my great room for years, I got honest with myself and determined it wasn’t working as well as I wanted. I also came to the conclusion that I rarely had overnight guests. I made the choice to completely convert my spare bedroom into a home office, and I don’t regret that decision for a second. I have plenty of room for everything I need, I have dedicated shelves and walls just for office things, and I can shut the door at the end of the day if I like. If you don’t want to go this far, maybe figure out how to make it a multipurpose space instead.

When I was working in my main living space, I always had to put everything away at night and never felt like I could use wall space for things like whiteboards and flip charts. As a visual person, I now have the ability to take full advantage and find myself mind mapping or brainstorming with lists and pictures as often as I like.

Tomorrow I plan to do a post on the optimal home office, so stay tuned!

3. Invest in technology. Outside of having a laptop, there are other necessities to optimize a home office so you can remain connected and professional. Let’s begin with having the best and most reliable internet connection you can afford. If you’re someone who has to participate in web-based meetings or relies on the internet and company network connections for the bulk of your work, slow speeds, limited bandwidth, or even dropped signals can be frustrating and give the impression that you don’t have a professional setup. And believe me, your boss/client is paying attention.

It’s important to also have quality versions of the basics – a really good printer, scanner, mobile phone, and webcam if it’s not already built into your computer. As someone who regularly hosts large-scale webcasts and global employee town halls, I also suggest a second phone line and a mobile Wi-Fi device as a backup. I’ve put both of these to good use when unpredictable issues arise such as power or mobile outages.

4. Set a schedule and stick to it. If you work for a company, this tends to be easier to establish. You have regular staff meetings, conference calls, and deadlines that keep you honest. But if you work as a freelancer or a small business owner, you have to build that discipline yourself.

Set regular meetings, block daily and weekly activities to keep yourself focused and productive, and stick to a schedule. You may feel challenged at first but keep at it until you form the habit.

One thing I’ve learned about myself early on was that there was a particular time of day that I had a weak spot.

The early to mid-afternoon was always my toughest time of day where I would get bored or drowsy and found myself heading to the fridge for a pick-me-up. Needless to say, I started developing bad habits to fill that time. Once I realized my weakness, I resolved it by filling it with conference calls so I had no excuse to go to the kitchen or let my mind wander. Years later, I’ve now found that’s one of my most productive times of the day.

And don’t forget to set more rigid start and stop times for your day if you can. The biggest challenge of having co-workers who know you work from home is that they think you are always online and available. The assumption is that you don’t have the commute time, or since you’re not physically departing from an office location, you’re probably easily reached. On top of that, if you’re like me working for global organizations with people from all time zones, there’s even more infringement on your personal time. Try to establish hours with co-workers and team members as best you can, but use discretion for when you need to break those rules as sometimes is necessary.

5. Eliminate distractions. Let’s face it, when you’re in your own home there are loads of distractions and temptations. You may have kids or pets vying for your attention, or maybe you just have friends that stop by for a chat thinking you’re not really working. There are the television and that darn refrigerator always calling us. Or maybe you decide to do a load or two of laundry to just get it out of the way. For me, I have to contend with the UPS and FedEx deliveries that constantly come to our building. We don’t have a doorman and my entire building thinks that since I’m home all day, I can accept their packages for them. Frustrating, but I manage it as best I can. Honestly, if I’m busy on a call, I don’t answer the buzzer. If it’s not something I had delivered, then someone else is assuming I should be available for him or her without respecting my schedule. This is not only an inconvenience but inconsiderate. So I put it on my terms.

My recommendation for the rest is to stress to family and friends that you have official office hours and kindly ask that they accommodate for those. While an occasional interruption is okay, it’s necessary to take this seriously and establish rules and hours that make sense for you, the work you do, and the clients you serve. If you work for an employer, I’m guessing you need to be more restrictive. If you are self-employed, it’s likely one of the perks to enjoy – being able to set your own schedule. But be mindful of how lax you become so it doesn’t get out of hand and impact your ability to meet deadlines or be productive.

6. Get outside. I’ll be the first to admit, there are many days where I am inside the entire day, maybe only seeing the light of day to empty the trash or step out on my balcony. Especially if it’s a heavy deadline day packed with conference calls. However, I’m getting better. I do my best to get outside for part of my day. This could include going out for lunch, meeting up with co-workers or clients, or getting to a networking event or conference. When I worked for my last organization, most of my colleagues were in other cities. This made it harder for me to stay in tune with my local business community.

Now I make the effort to get out and stay connected with those here in Chicago.

7. Be ‘visible’ to co-workers. What I mean by this is, even if you are virtual and have colleagues in other cities or locations, make the effort to outreach often. Pick up the phone–don’t just email them. There is so much that’s missed in conversation by only leveraging email. You have to mimic the office water cooler or cafeteria by working extra hard to build relationships with your virtual colleagues and teams. Make it a practice to call them regularly, find out what they are working on, or what they may need from you or your team. Talk to them about things outside of your normal area of responsibility as it may have an impact someplace further down the line. Be the go-to person no matter where you sit. Continue learning about the business and stay actively engaged.

The downside of not doing this is that not only are you showing your manager you can’t telecommute effectively, but you’re also out of mind when important projects come along. And let’s not forget that when leadership begins asking about the value you bring to the team, you’ll be letting people who hardly know or see you speak on your behalf. Flying below the radar is never a good thing to do.

Are there other challenges you’ve faced with your home office setup? Does your employer support a virtual workforce? Is it increasing in the coming years? Share your comments below.

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