With the technological and communication advantages that the Internet has brought, the opportunities for remote working have turned what was once something that was infeasible, into something that is quite achievable, given the right job and industry.
There is some great current writing on remote work, from 37 Signals Remote: Office Not Required, Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants: WordPress.Com and the Future of Work to Matt Gemmell’s really in-depth thoughts on the subject, but I thought I would add my own thoughts on the highs and lows of remote working into the mix, having been trying it out for 8 months.
After deciding that I needed to stretch myself in a new direction job-wise 8 months ago, I started looking around. I had never worked in a ‘remote’ position in the past, only occasionally staying home to deal with tradesman working on the house, and while the experience of working at the kitchen table was occasionally productive, I never thought I could handle the switch from being an real ‘office’ person to working remotely on my own.
I was approached by a friend who wanted me to join his company, and the only perceived initial drawback was the remote nature of it - the job was in Cambridge, UK, and I live (and had no plans to move from) Oxford - about a 2.5 hour drive away.
Despite initial reservations about remote work, the lure of a new challenge was strong, and I thought ‘other people do it - what’s the worst that could happen?’ and decided to give it a go, and after 8 months of it, the following are some thoughts on the subject.
For the most part this is true, however there are always client visits, and I like to try and get together with my team once or twice a month, but apart from that day-to-day the lack of regular commuting generally is great. I find I can use this time for either work, or exercise instead. Travelling to Cambridge does take it’s time, whether driving or on the train, but it’s nice travelling in one larger hit rather than every day.
We all know how a bad meeting can feel like a waste of time - being remote, and working for a small company of proactive people remotely distributed, there’s much less call for meetings (but that doesn’t mean we don’t communicate). When I have questions I usually just fire them off to the team, and often have a quick morning standup, and fire off an end of day round-up email covering what I have achieved and any blockers I might be having. Generally I find that when remote, if I get stuck on something for more than 20 minutes, I need to reach out to my team, otherwise one can end up down a rabbit hole, for something that someone might have an instant answer for.
I never quite realised how on a good day how much work one could get done working from home, without the distractions of a big open plan office. I’m easily distracted by ambient noise and have really settled into a daily rhythm of working remotely, and find that given the right setup (more on that later), my overall productivity is improved.
One of the first things I found people said to me when I said I was going ‘Remote’ was “you’ll just watch daytime TV all day or play your XBox, and not get any work done”, but I actually found that when I started my new job, I ended up working far longer hours than I had previously, as had a real hard time switching my brain off at the end of the day, and it really started to slowly wear down my energy levels.
The combination of starting a new job where one has to learn lots and wanting to do a good job, combined with inexperience of remote work caused me to start to burn out a little after a month or two, as I found that even away from my screen, as I tried getting to sleep my mind was still racing, unpicking the problems of the day and thinking about what was coming up, which led to a lower quality of sleep, and affected me the following day.
Solution: Ensure you clock off on time - work is like turning on a tap - there will always be more of it, and you need time to decompress so you are fresh for the next day.
After reading more about remote working, I started to introduce small changes into my daily routine which have made the world of difference.
This is really important. You hear the term ‘work life balance’ bandied about a lot, but when working from home, this is crucial to get right. I find a solid routine, working to pretty strict hours really helps.
Solution: Start at the same time each day, and try not to work late - however much work you get done, more will always step in to fill it’s place.
When working in an office job, the commute often allows one to unwind and mentally prepare for the day, something I quickly found I lacked when working from home.
Solution: Two things help me switch off - firstly dressing different for work, then changing once done. I often now wear a shirt and some smart shoes at work, and change into a t-shirt and trainers when done - it’s a small thing, but let’s my mind know it’s time to stop.
Solution: Tidying your desk, and doing a ‘brain dump’. Much like when one was at school and asked to tidy one’s desk at the end of the day, I’ve found that the act of cleaning up one’s desk, and writing down a list of ‘next actions’ really helps one transition from the working day to your own headspace in the evening.
Solution: It’s important if you can to try and create a dedicated separate space for working, free of distractions, that you can walk away from at the end of the day. You then begin to mentally associate that space with work, so you are less likely to get distracted.
Everyone knows that one should have an ergonomically good work setup, but when this becomes more your own responsibility at home, it’s worth checking things like posture, screen height, and keyboard/seat ergonomics, to make sure you are not ending up with RSI or posture related issues.
We’ve all done it - worked a long week without doing anything more than sitting hunched over a desk. When you finish work, you inevitably feel tense from not stretching out those muscles.
Solution: This is really important, and usually the first thing that gets forgotten. While I’m trying to start running, I find that even something simple like going for a 20 minute walk first thing in the morning really helps set me up for the day, and I’ve suffered from less RSI/posture issues as a result.
I usually have a queue of podcasts which get me through my walk, and have pretty much built this into my daily routine as a habit.
One nice thing about working remotely free from the constraints of a 9-5 office, is that if your schedule allows it, you can always work a little later and fit in a run during the day, at a time that suits you.
My role involves much interaction with my colleagues, and clients, often in multiple time zones, and if I don’t plan my day out properly and end up reacting to every email that comes in immediately, my productivity and quality of work suffers.
Solution: Obviously there will be cases where one has to drop everything in an emergency, but I like trying to structure my day, and usually write down a list of 3+ things that I’m going to get done that day. I usually check email first thing in the morning, and try to archive/delete things that aren’t relevant to me, before turning off email notifications if I can, and checking at designated times during the day.
Things that I need to action, I’ll often pop a quick reply to, and add to my backlog list of tasks. Most email is never super urgent, and if it is you’ll often find that people call you in an emergency.
Working at home, there will always be a rare occasion where you have to let a tradesman in to do something, but I generally pretend that when I’m working I’m not at home, so not available for any household chores. It’s easy to accept requests of ‘can you just do…’ from your partner who sees you being at home, but these can add up and impact your day, so generally I’m not available for the most part for anything, so I can focus on work.
I’m a pretty social person, and sometimes miss the day-to-day banter of an office.
Solution: I try and make sure I both make it up to see my team for some face-to-face time several times a year, and use really good online tools like Squiggle, Hangouts and Chat, and also go out to local geek events to get my networking/social fix.
Remote working is more suited to jobs that are knowledge/internet based - obviously some types of jobs just wouldn’t work remotely. Working at home on your own definitely takes discipline, but if you can think of and address the challenges it poses, then it offers tremendous flexibility and potential, both in location and quality of life.
It’s definitely not for everyone however, and while I think being co-located with your team can sometimes be better for communication, given the right tools, attitude and approach you can really make it work.