A lot has been written about working remotely. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to write down my own thoughts on this topic and the processes and tools I’ve developed to help me be effective at working remotely.
I moved to being full-time remote in February of 2019. Before that every job I’ve had was office bound. Though I worked remotely every now and then, especially when things like the flu hit, I’d never worked from home more than a few consecutive days and never in any permanent capacity.
Even though I work remotely, I am not a digital nomad. I enjoy travelling, but I prefer to do this as part of vacations, not work. With the exception of working from a remote location for a week or two over summer, I mostly work from my home office. I do greatly value the flexibility of being able to work from anywhere. It’s made it a lot easier to travel and visit family for longer periods of time.
The first thing I noticed being remote is how much more time I have in a day. Due to where I live vs. where I used to work I used to spend about 2 hours a day commuting. I tried to use that time effectively, like reading up on email or reading a book. This worked reasonably well in the morning, but on the commute home in the evening more often than not I’d just pass out in the train for most of it. And those two hours in total only holds true when there’s no disruptions to public transit. If anything went on the fritz, it could be hours more until I got to work and back home.
Now, I don’t have any of that. My alarm clock has moved to almost an hour later in the mornings and I still have more time for my morning routine (like breakfast, catching up on the news, and reading a chapter or two in a book). Once I’m done working in the evenings, I’m instantly home. I can plop on a couch and relax or do whatever I want, instead of dealing with the noise and stress of commuting after an already tiring day of work.
This has resulted in a lot more me time, and I’ve slowly started picking up things I always promised myself to do, but could never find the time for. I’m generally happier, and I feel like I am much less pressed for time than I used to be.
Separating work and private life
The biggest thing I had to address when moving fulltime remote is how to keep my work and private lives separate. Since both are now happening in the same space, it’s easy for them to meld together, resulting in you never being at home and never being at work. This makes for an unhappy me, an unhappy family and an unhappy employer.
The most important thing here was to create a number of natural barriers in my day that help me transition between private life and work life. The first rule is to actually get dressed. Don’t work in your pyjama’s. Just like when I used to go into the office, I get up in the morning, do my morning routine and get dressed. Only after that do I pick up my work phone and laptop and start engaging with work. In order to help transition between private life and work life I go for a walk when the weather is nice and start and end the day with doing meditation.
During work hours my personal desktop and laptop are off, I don’t use them, not even on my breaks. If things come to mind that I want to do in my own time, I write them down, or send something that I want to read like a news article to my personal devices (I use Firefox’s Send Tab feature for this). Once I sign off for the day, the work laptop goes off and the work phone goes into Do Not Distrub mode until the next morning. I don’t do house chores during work hours either, with the exception of loading/unloading laundry during lunch. Many home appliances have timers. Use them, so that they’re done and waiting for you around the same time you stop working.
My private and work devices don’t mix. I don’t have my work accounts enabled on my personal phone, or the other way around. My work laptop does not have the SSH keys to my personal infra, and I use a different set of FIDO2 keys for access to work applications vs. private things. The only place where this breaks down is GitHub, b/c I use it for both work and private things. I’ve learned to manage and triage notifications, so I don’t interact with work repositories outside of work and vice versa.
Having a proper work space is crucial to being able to sustain working remotely for a long time. Working from the couch or the dinner table is fun for a day or two, maybe, but after that my body breaks down. The thing I miss the most when doing this is a big screen.
My office has a standing desk and a decent office chair. I have a big monitor mounted on a monitor arm. My monitor has a built-in KVM switch so I can easily have work and private devices wired up and switch between them. I have a good webcam and an extra microphone in order to make participating in video conferencing easy and ensure that I come across loud and clear.
Since my office space is shared between work and private life, those natural barriers I talked about before and explicitly switching between work and private devices are important. I also do a few other things like use a work branded coffee mug during work hours, and swap in and out of work swag.
Having a good home office setup may sound expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. IKEA is your friend here, and so are websites trading in second hand equipment. Keep an eye out for liquidation sales of office supply stores too. You also don’t have to buy everything in one go (my office has come together over the course of two years) and many employers do offer you money to help you equip a home office (since they would pay for this if you were working from a physical office too).
In my case, this is the stuff I have:
- IKEA Bekant standing desk (people bitch and moan about this one being bad or having a bad motor. I’ve had mine 3 years, and it’s been flawless)
- IKEA Markus or Järvfjället office chair
- CalDigit TS3 Plus dock
- BenQ PD3200U screen
- Ergotron LX monitor arm
- Logitech C920 webcam
- Kingston HyperX Quadcast microphone on a microphone arm
This equipment is also useful for doing other things, like online gaming or streaming.
Unsurprisingly, working from home means a lot less direct contact with other human beings. My team and I are all on Slack and we have a channel for shitposting and general banter. Many of us also do weekly or bi-weekly “virtual coffees”, where we connect for 10-20 minutes with a colleague over video conferencing and chat.
Those virtual coffees are not meetings meant to facilitate any kind of decision making, they’re there to talk about anything that’s on our mind and help build social ties. In an office environment this happens automatically but when working remotely you have to explicitly make time for this. One benefit of this is that you can now plan these things, instead of a colleague walking up to you and breaking you out of flow. If there’s more than one of you working remotely in your household, try to sync up on things like lunch time or an afternoon coffee break.
In many cities and especially if you work in tech, there will be things like co-work spaces and hacker spaces, as well as plenty of other people that work remotely. Look around for these, as many of these groups will organise lunches, coffees and afternoon drinks, as well as have something like a Slack group to talk and socialise. This can help you cope with a feeling of being isolated. There’s no obligation for you to join any of these activities, but you have the option to do so when you want to.
When your employer organises company events, make an effort to go. It’s good to get facetime with others and socialise. If your employer also has physical offices, try and travel to them every now and then. For example, I try to travel to our HQ in California twice a year, and for the other two quarters I take a much shorter trip to our offices in London.
None of this travel or socialising is happening right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other members of my family also work remotely now and we get along being together 24/7 just fine. We’ve had to make some adjustments like going into a separate room when joining a conference call as to not disturb other people working. You should probably be doing this when you’re in an office either way!
Many of us want to believe that COVID-19 is just a fluke, a once in a lifetime event. I don’t believe that’s going to be the case. In the past two decades we’ve seen more of these events, like SARS, swine flu, MERS and now COVID-19. With the exception of COVID-19, many of these outbreaks didn’t trigger containment protocols in Europe and the US and the mortality rate was relatively low in our part of the world. To us this all still feels new, like a bad dream, or a nightmare we know we’ll wake up from.
Due to how we’re expanding our footprint in the world and how much more connected our world has become, pandemics like this are going to become more common. As we’ve seen in the COVID-19 response, many of our governments are ill-prepared to cope with this, and our health systems can’t handle this kind of pressure. The containment messures that we are now experiencing are likely to become the new norm until we develop the capability to eradicate these virusses permanently.
If you’re a business, it’s high time you re-evaluate how you work and ensure you tweak your processes so that you can work without requiring physical proximity of your staff. Make sure you provide your employees with what they need in order to be able to work remotely. If you’re not used to working remotely, it’s probably a good idea to start forcing yourself to do so, and talk with your employer about how to enable that. For example, some employers will sponsor you being remote for few weeks in order for both you and them to gain experience in this area.