Professional Development: The New Corner Office

How the Most Successful People Work From Home 

Summary by Lisa Buck

New Corner OfficeThe coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the workplace landscape, with millions of Americans now working remotely. It has also changed the legal landscape, with hearings held virtually and attorneys working from home.    

Time management expert and TED speaker Laura Vanderkam offers strategies for boosting productivity in remote work in her book The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work from Home.

According to Vanderkam, the key is to shift fromthe old way of thinking about work and adopt new habits, whether you are working remotely or managing a team of remote employees.

Her tips include:
   1. Manage by task, not time
   2. Get the rhythm right
   3. Nurture connections


Manage By Task, Not Time

The old way of thinking about work is focused on time: a workday is a certain number of hours. Attorneys are hyper-aware of time, as many of us live our lives in billable hours. However, time is not the only marker of productivity.

Vanderkam suggests a workday should focus on accomplishing prescribed steps toward a goal, rather than spending a certain number of hours sitting in a chair. In other words, focus on results.

Managing by task rather than time does not mean time is ignored. Vanderkam says that the openness of a remote workday can be disorienting, and therefore it needs to have structure.

Plan on Fridays

Vanderkam suggests setting a designated weekly time to plan for the week ahead. She uses Friday afternoons to plan. During this time, think through the week to come and make a list of your top priorities. Priorities fall into three categories: career, relationships, and self. Think about when tasks can happen and the logistics required.

Vanderkam suggests leaving one day per week (for her, it’s Friday) relatively open. This acts as a buffer to absorb spillover from the rest of the week: things that take longer than expected or didn’t get done because of an unexpected crisis.


In your daily planning, resist the urge to make a long to-do list, which ends up being more like a wish list. We have all experienced the mismatch between morning ambition and evening reality. 



Harness the Power of Progress

In your daily planning, resist the urge to make a long to-do list, which ends up being more like a wish list. We have all experienced the mismatch between morning ambition and evening reality. An effective to-do list is short, containing about 3-5 items. A short list forces us to prioritize. Vanderkam suggests viewing the daily to-do list as a contract with yourself, an agreement to complete those 3-5 items by the end of the workday. For remote workers, a completed to-do list indicates when the workday is done.

A completed to-do list also allows us to see progress. A Harvard Business Review article reports the single most important thing that can boost motivation of workers is the sense of making progress in meaningful work. Team members who feel they are making progress will be happier and more productive.

Vanderkam uses a Ferris wheel analogy to describe the to-do list: the items on your daily list are at the top of the Ferris wheel. Keep spinning the Ferris wheel as the week goes on, and eventually all of the items will make it to the top.

Rethink Meetings

Vanderkam believes that many meetings are unnecessary, go on too long, or involve people that don’t need to attend. A meeting should only be called if that is the most efficient way to achieve the desired result. A well-planned meeting should have a specific purpose and an agenda sent in advance. The agenda could even include chit-chat time at the beginning if connectivity is a purpose of the meeting.

An alternative to meetings is having an agreement among team members that during certain hours, everyone is open to unscheduled phone calls to chat or collaborate. This is the remote equivalent of an open-door policy. The agreed upon “office hours” are for calls and collaboration and “quiet hours” are for focused time.


Get the Rhythm Right

A good workday has rhythm, a general template which helps you manage your time and energy.


Start Well

Conscious markers of time help shift our mind from home to work. Traditional work involves a commute to the office which signals the start. In remote work, you can open the day by mindfully making a cup of coffee or creating a musical cue. Some people create a playlist for their home offices. You might light a scented candle. Some companies have a virtual “opening ceremony” each morning, a purposeful and short (no longer than 10 minutes) check-in with team members.

Your template for the workday should recognizewhen your peaks and valleys are likely to happen. Vanderkam advises doing your most important work during your most productive times. Do work that requires deep thought when you have the most energy and the least distractions. For example, if you are freshest in the morning, you might reserve the first 90 minutes of your workday for your top priority project. You might reserve time in the afternoon for less intense work such as answering phone calls and emails. Vanderkam says using “sprints of focus” can be helpful in protecting interrupted work time. For example, work for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, repeat.

We all battle distractions, and working from home may amplify those distractions. Family members, household tasks, unopened mail, the dog barking, and social media compete for our attention. Even noise cancelling headphones can’t protect us from our own distracting thoughts like what to make for dinner. Vanderkam says that when something pops into your head, immediately write it down (she calls this a “Later List”), then return your focus to work.

Vanderkam encourages a “box lunch” approach to lunchtime—a 30-minute break during where you take 15 minutes to eat, and spend 15 minutes on a personal aspiration that would otherwise never find time in your life. This aspiration could be reading a classic, drawing, playing a musical instrument, or learning a foreign language.


End Well

Just as a workday should start well, it should end well. Create an ending ritual to indicate the work day is done. This may include reviewing your to-do list for the next day, meditating for five minutes, making a cup of tea, or unplugging your laptop. This ending ritual will help disengage your brain from work.

Vanderkam says people with children at home or other care-giving responsibilities tend to be better at observing an end to the workday. People without care-giving responsibilities often let work bleed into all hours of their life. If you find yourself in that group, Vanderkam suggests making non-work commitments such as a class or club or even a regular evening appointment with your garden to help signal the end of the work day.

For weekends, Vanderkam suggests creating windows of time for work, such as Saturdays before noon and Sundays after 7p.m. Otherwise, she says, Sunday will look just like Wednesday and that can lead to employee burn out.


Nurture Connections


In remote work, the water cooler chats are gone. Vanderkam says it’s crucial to build in time for social interaction with your remote team. For example, send a birthday cake to a remote worker on their special day while co-workers sing “Happy Birthday” via Zoom, create a team book club, or host a virtual wine tasting. Get creative when it comes to social interaction. Vanderkam is a fan of “home office tours”, where employees take turns showing off their work space with a quick sweep of their laptop, perhaps introducing a willing family member or pet.

In addition to socializing with your team, Vanderkam recommends scheduling a lunch, coffee, or walk once a week with someone worth getting to know better. Vanderkam calls these “curiosity conversations”. It doesn’t matter whether the person is in the legal profession—they have a network, and by reaching out to them, you will broaden yours.

She also suggests getting in the habit of sending one note each day to build and maintain your network: congratulate someone on a promotion, refer to an article you read about their organization, or mention that you recently spoke with a mutual friend. This will help to avoid the “out of sight, out of mind” plight that can plague remote workers.

Another way to build connection is to intentionally select your background setting for virtual meetings. Make conscious use of whatever visuals you share onscreen to convey something about yourself and advance your personal brand. Interesting art, a travel souvenir, or a framed album cover of your favorite band tells colleagues about your interests and is an obvious subject for the small talk that starts most meetings.

Conclusion


There is reason to believe that many of us will continue to work remotely in a post-pandemic world. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, two-thirds of remote employees want to continue working remotely. By shifting how we think about remote work and adopting new habits to support it, employees can be motivated, productive, and engaged regardless of their work location.




Ms. Buck practiced corporate law in Minneapolis and was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law. When she isn’t writing tor the Hennepin Lawyer, you can find her behind the lens at Lisa Buck Photography.