Home & Office

Remote work is everywhere now. But here are 3 things I've learned from doing it for years

Remote working isn't a new invention, even if most people have only recently discovered it.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor


Image: Getty/Manuel Breva Colmeiro

Like many freelancers, I've worked for many years to create a career that allows me to work anywhere at any time. While my work hours are still roughly nine-to-five, I also have the freedom to choose when I work and how.

There's been challenges along the way. You have to build a base of regular clients, you have to manage the risk of accepting too much work or not having enough, and you have to be OK with the fact that there's no guaranteed wage at the end of the month.

Yet I always felt that the balance for me at a personal level meant the risk was worth the rewards. Certainly, I've felt pressure at times, but I've also been able to do things my way. It makes me happy to know I've been there for every school assembly and Sports Day.

The rise of remote work, hybrid work, working from home -- call it what you will -- has changed that. Sure, I got here first, but now everyone is at it. And for the first time as a freelancer, I've looked at some of my permanently employed friends and started to wonder if I've still got the best deal.

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Professionals in all kinds of roles in all kinds of sectors are spending much of their working life at home. They too can work flexibly and log off temporarily to go for a walk, do some shopping or pick up the kids.

The reason for this change is well-rehearsed: the events of the last couple of years have changed everyone's perception of work. When lockdown came and knowledge workers couldn't go to an office, they suddenly didn't have to waste hours commuting and could spend more time being productive on work and non-work activities.

These professionals almost overnight recognised what every freelancer will tell you: going to the office is, for the most part, a waste of time.

Most knowledge workers say they're more productive working at home than they are in an office, despite what any CEO or government official might say.

What many permanently employed professionals have also realised is that being at home allows you to make more use of your downtime.

Sure, there's evidence to suggest that some people work too hard at home -- and that's a big problem. But for many of these employees, working from home has been a new experience. I remember struggling to get the balance right at first, too.

Yet when you get it right, it's great. And the good news for these employees is that they now get to spend more time working flexibly, but without all the stresses and strains that come with being a freelancer.

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My reasons for becoming a freelancer were straightforward enough and probably resonate with others in a similar position.

I had young children at the time and I wanted to ensure I was around my kids as much as possible. I'd also become bored of commuting into London and wanted to make sure that any time away from kids was productive.

It's not that I didn't like working for companies. I enjoyed being part of a team. Most of the time, I also enjoyed being in an office. It wasn't the experience of being in an office that drove me to my home. I enjoyed chatting with people and -- OK -- mucking around with my mates.

However, what I didn't enjoy about the office was all the unwanted extras that come with being in a corporate space.

If I enjoyed the small talk, then I hated the 'big talk' about corporate goals and the endless meetings that come with them. I disliked the things that stopped me from being productive. Now, that's not so different to being a freelancer: you still have clients you'd rather not work for and jobs you'd rather not do.

However, if the client and the work starts to affect your wellbeing as a freelancer, you can drop them. You might take a financial hit, but the relief that comes from dropping a problem is often greater. Running your own business with your own clients means you get to call the shots. At the end of the day, that's something that's really important to me.

And while many of my friends are now working from home, it's not quite the same style of working adopted by freelancers.

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The truth is that freelancer workers quickly establish a work cadence that fits with their personal lifestyle. Going back to the office would mean disturbing that tempo. I'm just simply too entrenched in the freelance world.

I've had the benefits that home working brings -- and now others are getting in on the act, too. As we all know, not every professional has the opportunity to work from home. For those who do, it's nice to be able to create a better work/life balance.

So, what have I learned from being a remote worker for such a long time? I think these three simple things help:

  • Structure your day -- You can work flexibly, that's one of the benefits of being a freelancer or remote worker. But you also have to work -- and regularly. Try and create a cadence of work that's right for you and the people you work with. Also, set yourself daily targets. Once they're achieved, reward yourself by doing something else.
  • Enjoy your downtime -- I'll admit to not being the best at this. It's important to make the most of quieter periods because you never know when the next run of full-on projects is about to begin. Don't feel guilty for taking time out. And try and do something away from a screen. It's tempting to pop on daytime TV for a quick break. Don't -- get out the house.
  • Speak to people -- We're social animals, so being unsociable and talking to no one for hours on end can be soul-crushingly dull. I'm lucky not to have too many Zoom calls, but I do take every opportunity to enjoy speaking with real people, even when it's on a video call. And I always chat with the postman about football when he knocks on the door.

Of course, it's hard to see how flexible-working patterns will evolve in 2023: perhaps employers will get the upper hand and employees will all find themselves back in the office? Or perhaps remote work will prove to be so effective that many workers never go back? If that happens, I know which option I would choose. 

Good luck to those of you who are trying to create an effective approach to hybrid working. But if you need some advice on how to work effectively at home, don't forget to talk with your freelance friends who've been at it forever.

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