How to be productive when you work at home: Lessons learned from 100 years of working remotely

With nearly 100 years of combined experience working remotely, the RescueTime team knows a thing or two about being productive while working at home. (Not to mention the fact that our job is to help you understand how you spend your time.)

While remote working has only really entered the mainstream in the past few years, teams have been doing it for years. And with pretty amazing results.

According to recent studies, 30% of remote workers say they get more done in less time, while 82% say they experience lower levels of stress.

What’s even more surprising is that 87% of remote workers now say they feel more connected than when they worked in an office, according to a recent Harvard Business Review study.

But massive studies can only tell you so much. Hearing actual stories from people who spend their days (and nights) working from home is the easiest way to understand how to be productive when you’re not in the office.

I spoke with each member of the RescueTime team to understand how they structure their workday, what tools they couldn’t live without, and what they do to stay productive while working at home.

Learn how to optimize your day (no matter where you work from) with our free, 63-page Guide to Managing Your Time and Fitting More Into Every Day.

Your company’s culture is the cornerstone of successful remote work

One thing that became instantly clear was how company culture is so important to the success of a remote team.

Personally, I’ve been working remotely for over 3 years now. But RescueTime is the first place that doesn’t feel remote. Sure, sometimes I feel a little out of place as the only Canadian on the team, but I never feel out of the loop despite being 1000 miles north.

Talking to the team, the same shared values kept popping up:

  • Being able to look after and spend more time with family
  • The flexibility and freedom to work from wherever, whenever
  • Additional comfort of being at home or in their neighborhood
  • The lack of a commute and the time spent not having to “get ready” for the office
  • Added energy from not having to commute

As data engineer Madison Lukaczyk explained:

“I get 40 days a year of my life back because I don’t waste 3-4 hours every day on the process of getting ready for work / traveling to and from work.”

While for CEO, Robby Macdonell, who wrote about his fears of going remote 3 years ago, working from home has allowed him to find an important work-life balance: “I moved to Tennessee to be closer to an aging parent with some health issues. Being able to do that without having to quit a job I love has really helped maintain my sanity.”

Robby Desk
CEO Robby Macdonell’s desk

The RescueTime culture supports the flexibility and trust that’s integral to a successful remote company.

Teammates regularly post in Slack if they’re taking off to pick their kid up from school or need to go blow off some steam at the gym. This isn’t a requirement, but rather just a communal feeling of keeping everyone up to speed.

However, this isn’t to say there haven’t been issues that have needed to be worked through.

How to balance flexibility and structure when you work from home

One of the hardest challenges when it comes to working from home is being disciplined. With no imposed daily structure, it’s easy to get distracted. Or worse, work yourself to exhaustion.

For most of the RescueTime team, the solution has been to adopt a modified 9–5 schedule.

“Even though a wildly personal schedule is possible, working consistent hours greatly helps take separate home life from work,” explains developer Tim Beaudet.

Tim's desk
Developer Tim Beaudet’s home office

Most of the team starts their days between 8-9am and signs off by 6-7pm at the latest.

However, a few have found some specific daily schedules that work better for them.

VP of Research, J.P. Myers gets up at 5am to grab a few hours of uninterrupted work before getting his son ready for school: “That time of the day is great for focus—no meetings, no IMs and no phone calls. I used to be a night owl but have traded that for the early morning. I like it much better.”

While Head of Support, Roger Wolgemuth balances work with school, fitting all his responsibilities into a 12-hour block between 9am and 9pm.

Regardless of when they start their day, most people I spoke with described their main struggle as not having anything forcing them into “work mode.”

As software engineer Brian Arenz explains:

“It requires the discipline to start your day as a professional without the obligatory shower, coffee, and race out of the door for your morning commute.

“With just a little bit of routine, like letting my dogs out at roughly the same time every morning while I have my coffee, or just taking a short walk in the afternoon, I’m much more motivated and certain of what my day is supposed look like.”

Or, as Senior software engineer, Chris Tweney puts it: “You have to be self motivated and self managing. If you don’t have the grad school mentality you won’t succeed.”

Key takeaways:

  • Create a clear structure for your day, including regular start and end times
  • Don’t be afraid to customize your schedule to work around your life
  • Find your own small actions that can replace the “ritual” of getting ready and commuting to an office

RescueTime tells you where you’re spending your time so you can be more productive wherever you work from. Sign up for your free account today

Separating the “home” from the “office”

When you’re working from home, the office is always a few steps away. That email you forgot to send? It’ll only take a minute. Until you open your email and find some to-dos for tomorrow morning you could catch up on tonight.

How much work is too much work?” asks engineer Brian. “I have days where I work ‘heads down’ for 5 hours. But I also have days where I’m at my desk for 12 hours or more. It’s important to define lines between your personal and professional lives, but to be realistic about occasionally blurring those lines to get something done right and on time.”

Brian's desk
Software engineer Brian Arenz’s desk

For customer success manager Irene Phelps, this all comes down to time management: “I had to figure out a schedule that fits with my family needs while still getting everything done.”

Scheduling and separating your time spent on “work” is one part of the puzzle. But what about the natural distractions of family, friends, chores, and other household responsibilities that come up?

“If working remotely from a home office, you absolutely need the support of your family and friends,” says iOS developer David Morford. “You need to make sure they know your work hours are the same as if you were in an office.”

Davids desk
iOS developer David Morford’s desk

“I think some of my friends and family have the impression that working from home means you don’t actually work much. So they are surprised that I’m actually focused on my computer for 6-8 hours,” adds Madison.

“I think my ability to focus with others around has improved, but I usually seek out a quiet room.”

For J.P., the easiest thing to do is to create a clear boundary between work and home:

“If I didn’t set boundaries, the kitchen and the living room would turn into workplaces. I’m still working on trying to take regular breaks to recharge during the day. I enjoy my work and it’s easy to get dialled in and not realize 4 or 5 hours just went by.”

“When you work at home, work is where your computer is.”

However, the distractions can also be one of the perks, as J.P. explains: “Probably the coolest thing about working remotely has been seeing my kids more as they grow up. Even if they pop in my office for a minute or two, it often changes my perspective on the day.”

Key takeaways:

  • Separate where you work from where the rest of your life happens
  • Let others know that you’re unavailable (even if you’re just working in the next room)
  • Take advantage of the people around you for support and motivation

Home office, coffee shop, or co-working space: What works best?

The majority of the RescueTime team works from home. However, most of them talked about the loneliness that can set in when you’re isolated for long periods of time. The obvious answer is to get out where people are: coworking spaces, coffeeshops, and the like.

Madison workspace
Data engineer Madison Lukaczyk’s home office

But there’s a clear trade-off. The more people you surround yourself with, the more potential distractions.

For CEO Robby, he’s found that home is one of the worst places for him to get work done:

“I have to be out of the house, in a dedicated work space to really work effectively. Some people can work just fine out of coffee shops, some people do just great in a home office. I need my own space away from distractions that I can mentally reserve just for work.”

Other team members have found their own balance, working for long stretches at home but scheduling in purposeful social time:

“I don’t have any problem with distractions, I actually found the office more distracting,” explains COO Mark Wolgemuth.

Mark's desk
COO Mark Wolgemuth’s home workspace

“But, I find I need periodic hubbub and white noise of other humans or I get spaced out and depressed, so I frequently work from coffee shops.”

Engineer Brian also breaks up his days with a bit of social interaction:

“A coffee shop or a lunch date with a friend can make all the difference.

“This has helped me over the years in avoiding ‘Home Alone’ syndrome. I.e. wearing pajamas all day in a pile of junk food wrappers—a stereotype we’ve all heard/joked about.”

Key takeaways:

  • Schedule in regular social interactions, either by meeting friends or being around other people
  • Find the workspace that allows you to do heads down work—either a home office or a dedicated office in a co-working space

The RescueTime list of must-have tools for remote teams

Working from home has become more of a reality thanks to the tools available. And that’s been especially true for the team at RescueTime.

However, as COO Mark explains, it’s not just the tools you have, but how you use them that determines your success:

“It doesn’t really really matter which tools you use. What matters is that you practice and become familiar with the collaboration tools you’re using, which takes time.”

Over the years, these are the tools that have become the most important to the team’s success while working remotely.

Organizational tools for keeping product updates on track

It takes a considerable amount of work to keep RescueTime optimized for every browser, OS, and platform. And, as Senior software engineer Hank Gay explains, remote teams need to be even more organized than collocated ones:

“It’s important to have digital tools for things like the product backlog, roadmap, bug tracking, etc. In-person teams can get away with much sloppier tracking of these things, because you can always talk to someone in person to get clarification. Remote work forces you to think more formally about them.”

Slack and Zoom for communication, collaboration, and chats

Communication is key to your success when working from home. It takes the right tools and processes to ensure you feel connected and in the loop. For the RescueTime team that means Slack for day-to-day communication and Zoom for our weekly team meetings and other video chats.

For software engineer Hank, while tools like Slack let you have real-time conversations, they are great because you don’t have to answer right away:

“A fairly instantaneous chat program is key. You can ignore it if you need to, but you get a much different feel from chat communication as opposed to email.”

Shared Google Calendars to keep everyone on the same page

When you’re not in the same room as people, you often don’t know what they’re doing. Which can be frustrating.

One of the first things CEO Robby did when I first started at RescueTime was share his Google Calendar with me. This helped me understand where his time is being spent and when he’s most likely to be available for calls. Not only is this a great tool and practice for remote teams, but it helps build a culture of transparency that supports workers no matter where they are.

OneNote for sketching ideas

It can be hard to have those spontaneous and collaborative brainstorming sessions you have when everyone is in the same place. For VP of Research J.P., he solves this through Microsoft OneNote:

“OneNote can act like a shared, virtual whiteboard for hand-sketching ideas (something I miss about being in the office). It’s also great for keeping meeting notes.”

In-person meetups for building camaraderie

Working from home is fantastic, but nothing beats actually spending some time with the people you work with. For everyone I spoke to, the importance of periodic meetups, either as small groups or as a whole team, was key to their continued success.


Working remotely can be a massive leap towards a better work-life balance. But you need to do it properly. There are so many simple traps you can fall victim to, from isolating yourself to feeling like you need to work excessive hours to “prove” you’re pulling your weight.

But with the right tools, communication, and best practices, it’s possible to successfully and productively work from anywhere you want.

Do you work from home? Let us know what you do to stay productive and happy in the comments below.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

5 comments

  1. Good article. I’d like to see it written for us who are one-person shops, and work from home. We have no team.

    1. Thanks Lisa. There’s definitely a difference between working alone and on a team when you’re remote. I’ve done both and I found the hardest part was the isolation that comes from being solo. You don’t have the casual Slack conversations or weekly catchups to remember that you’re a part of a team. For me, this meant prioritizing social activities after work hours and really sticking to a set schedule (so I’m not working until 10-11pm every night). What are the hardest parts of working remotely for you?

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