As of 2020, I’ve been a fully-remote developer for 7 years. Throughout that time I’ve worked for fully distributed companies, hybrid companies and at least one organization where I was the only known remote employee out of thousands. Throughout that time I’ve learned plenty of lessons through both numerous wins and losses as I’ve helped both myself and the teams of which I’ve been part adapt to remote work.
Before I get any further I will say remote work isn’t for everyone. Thankfully, at some point most of us will have the choice to go back to an office and, if that’s how you work best, great. The freedom to choose to be remote or not is one of the best parts of industries such as software development and others.
All that said, if you’re remote because you want to be or not, there are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way. Here are a few that have not only helped me become a better remote employee but have, in fact, converted me to someone who works better when I’m remote. These days I joke that “no one wants me in the office with them.” That’s true on so many levels. Here are a few ways that you can get to that point yourself (if that’s your goal) or, at the very least, make the best of being remote while you must be.
Set Your Work Hours
When I first started working remote it was all too common for me to work 60-80 hours a week if I was absorbed in a project or problem. While this might sound great at first, the simple fact is that it helps no one.
The first problem was that I burned out. I don’t care how much you love your work, there is a point at which it can and will cross-over from fun to a chore. Once you cross that line it is very hard to go back.
It isn’t just you that can be hurt by over-work either. What happens to your team if a level of output (I wouldn’t say productivity as overwork is rarely of a quality that I would consider productive) becomes expected? A good way to get those you work with to resent you is to take a team that’s used to M-F 9-5 (or similar) and start bragging about all you accomplished over the weekend on your Monday stand-ups. This behavior gets old real fast, especially to your team members that will have to work extra to review the work you didn’t need to work ahead on.
Don’t get me wrong, we all need to put in extra once in a while. I’m not saying to never work on the weekend. If there’s a problem or situation that temporarily requires it, go for it. It’s the habit that’s a problem and that habit is all too easy to form when you’re remote and bored.
Personally, I keep an 8-4 M-F schedule for my day jobs and I have been for about 6 years. I’m not one to take a lunch or step away much so this works well for me. I list my work hours on my calendar and make sure I communicate this with every team I join early so as to be able to work through any conflicts. When 4pm hits, I’m out. There is rarely a time that what I’m working on can’t wait and that’s OK.
Separate Your Workspace
It’s hard to end your day when your work computer is sitting right next to your favorite chair. It’s also hard to break away when your personal computer becomes your work computer.
For anyone at a good company, separating your personal computer from your work computer should be easy as your employer provides the tools you need to do your job. If you don’t have that luxury, however, this is where owning a second computer, if you can, really is a great investment in your mental health.
Beyond your computer, though, it’s just as important to separate your work space from your personal space. This might be as simple as putting your work computer (and its cords and other related items) away at the end of the day. Return the kitchen table to a place where the family can eat or the end table by your chair back to the reading/collection space it was. Even better, if you have a spare room or other space turn that into your formal office. When work is over leave it an don’t look back.
For me, as remote work is a permanent affair, I have a dedicated office in my home. My wife follows this too in that she has a side of our sun room put aside that isn’t visible from our living room. These spaces allow us both to escape after work. If I do personal computing then, such as side projects or anything else, I have my own computer for it that I can use in my living room or elsewhere. This separation has served me so well over the years that I often really do feel like I commute to and from work even though that commute is just to and from my home office. Combined with a regular schedule this means I still “go to work” like everyone else and I’m not tied to it at all hours of the day and night.
Take Regular Breaks
I love working my 8-hr day in one solid block. I don’t take a lunch, I don’t run errands during the day, etc. That said, it isn’t healthy to just sit at the computer and pretend to be focused for a solid 8 hours. That isn’t expected at the office where we’re constantly moving/chatting/etc and it shouldn’t be expected at home either.
Plan in regular breaks. For me this means going for a 10 min walk twice a day, usually around 10 and 2. This does a great job at breaking up my day and keeping me moving a bit. Some weeks, if I’m particularly focused, I’ll even set an alarm to ensure I remember to break. It isn’t much but it keeps my mind fresh and helps ensure the work I do is as focused as it can be.
Get the Right Equipment
If your comfortable on your couch, great. If it’s a kitchen chair that does it for you, that’s wonderful too. If you will be going to go back to a regular office in a few months it probably doesn’t make sense to go out and buy new furniture. That said, a quality surface and seat do make a difference.
When I first started working from home I bought a cheap office chair from an office store. It took all of three weeks for my back to start to hurt. It turns out office chairs, at least at some stores, are rated for how long you should sit in them daily and it really can cause problems to try to spend 8 hours in a chair that is only designed for up to 1 hour. As a result, I quickly bought a better chair. While you might not need to buy a new chair for a temporary situation, do be willing to move your furniture around a bit. Bring up the “nice old chair in the basement” if that will help you be comfortable all day.
Furniture, though, isn’t the only tool that can help. A quality camera, mic and headphones will go a long way, when paired with the right software, to make meetings go smoothly. Even Spotify or similar can be an appropriate tool for remote folks to help relax and focus.
The point here is look at what is in your toolbox and try the tools that will help you be and do your best. It might be a chair or a standing desk, a nice mic or webcam or Spotify or even a new to-do app or alarm clock. Every job requires the appropriate tools and working remotely is no exception.
Learn Your Tools Well
Of course, you can go out and spend $3,000 or more on a great office setup, write a blog post on it and watch the traffic roll in to your previously dormant blog but, here’s the thing…
that won’t make you a successful remote employee.
Whether your tool is your new schedule or your new standing desk, learn how to use it and use it well. The best example I can think of here is videoconferencing software. They’re not always easy.
Let me share a short story on not knowing your tools. I bought an expensive microphone almost 7 years ago when my team complained that they couldn’t hear me well. It helped, but it never seemed to help that much. It took almost 6 years with that mic before someone realized I never bothered reading the directions and I had mounted it backwards. I turned it around and then, after 6 YEARS, it was finally a great mic.
The point here is don’t just go out and get everything myself or anyone else tells you to. Don’t blindly adopt our schedules or buy the tools you see us with on calls. Instead, get the tools that work for you and learn how to use them. Being remote comes with an exceptional amount of freedom. Use that to learn what works best for you. If this requires you buy something, great, just learn how to use it. Even the simplest tools can go a long way in the hands of a master. Become the master of what works for you. That, and that alone, is what will make you a successful remote worker.