Working Remotely

A friend asked if I have any tips on staying productive and happy working from home. He’s staying with his company but moving his home across the country.

First, have a buddy in the office who tells you stuff you missed. That shouldn't be too hard as you already know lots of people (and slack/hipchat means you'll still be well integrated into the team). If your team isn’t already using a slack/hipchat/group chat system then the best time to introduce one is well before you go remote. The second best time to introduce one is immediately.

However, if you start a job working remotely, finding a buddy is harder and more crucial. Bad things happen when you work on stuff that has been cancelled because no one told you because everybody knows about it. Or when you work hard on something but no one speaks up to give you credit. Or when they forget to call into the conference line for an important meeting. Or when they call a last minute impromptu meeting and forget to invite you.

Second, have a dedicated space to work. It could be an office or a specific chair but start out there each workday. You might move around for variety or comfort but a designated place, especially to start the day, helps keep a work rhythm.

Next, keep track of your hours. (This is good practice for lots of things.) It is easy to do laundry while working and then empty the dishwasher waiting for water to boil for coffee then take out the trash and and and... But then that isn't working (unless it is right after a rage-inducing meeting, then I'll give you a pass for up to 30 minutes). If you intentionally sign into and out of work-time then you give the company what they are paying for and you don't accidentally spend every waking minute feeling like you are failing to produce enough and always must work more hours.

Remember, feeling isolated is normal. You are going from lots of face time to lots of alone time. For me, that feels great for two months and then I get stir crazy. Meet-ups and nonwork activities must replace some of your social interaction or you'll eventually get strange(r). Pets are not a replacement for humans. Not entirely a replacement anyway.

Enjoy the amazing productivity boost you'll get from the lack of interruptions and the wondrous quiet. But don't blame your coworkers for their birthday parties and lunches and meetings. Right now, you know that those quasi-social/quasi-work things are not strictly voluntary. However, you may forget and resent the wasted time, especially with a time zone difference when their two hour hello/goodbye lunches are right when you need questions answered. Try to remember that there are differences between your remote and their on-site work and those differences are often valuable: they lead to the information flow and team dynamics that will eventually benefit you.

Sometimes we all hit walls on what we are working on. In the office, that becomes the time when you take a break, get coffee, maybe chat with coworkers also wandering around waiting for their subconscious to solve technical problems. This is incredibly difficult to count when you work remotely. Sure, you can do documentation, email, write accessor code, and online chatting to count the time as working. However, sometimes I use the schedule freedom to take a walk or a shower. Then I find my solution. Should I charge clients for showering? (Entirely a rhetorical question.) This is a tough thing to balance. I have a test: would I be doing this if I did not work for this company? If the answer is yes, then this probably isn’t work time. Clock out for fifteen minutes, do something you need to do anyway, and come back to work. Or stay clocked in and deal with the trivia of the job.

Travel time to go to the office is now shared between you and your company. If they want you there, don't travel there on Sunday, work like crazy because you've nothing else to do, travel home on Saturday, then expect the following week to be normal. I suggest splitting travel (so travel Sunday and Thursday or Friday) so that you don't resent the huge chunk taken out of the week. On one hand, you chose to be remote. On the other hand, they chose to have you in the office. Balance the hands. For consulting, I can't bill for travel but the time comes out of their allotted work hours, not my play time.

One of the great things about remote work and remote workers is that things get documented. Embrace this: write a mini-spec before starting a module or document an interface. This is good practice and good engineering. What initially seems like a negative (lack of communication) can quickly turn into a positive (good communication).

I like working remotely very much. But I do miss the watercooler and the sense of camaraderie. I hope you enjoy your new remote-ness and remember that it both gives you more freedom (yay!), a shorter commute (yay!), and more responsibility (boo? yay? uh?).