I drafted this blog post a while ago, before social distancing recommendations, then mandates, came to the United States. It is not written specifically in light of of our current epidemiological condition. But hopefully there are some tips and insights that might be helpful for folks who already work remotely and to others who will begin to work remotely over the longer-term (either by choice or otherwise). Also, this isn’t the official advice of my employer. Just me spewing my opinions and, if you can believe it, advice...
I was hired as a remote employee and have been working from my home for about four-and-a-half years. Over the past decade or so years I’ve seen in the mood of the market toward remote work fluctuate quite a bit. Remote work was one of the promises of broadband internet, but now that broadband is ubiquitous, the burden of viable remote work lies to a large extent on the temperament of, and efforts taken by, the person working remotely. I also realize that I am in a probably situated within a very small intersection of having a job that is viable in a remote scenario, a living situation that affords me the space and opportunity to work in this way, and an employer who permits me to do it.
I’ve loved the experience. Of course there are obvious upsides to working remotely: no commute (in my case that saved up to an hour a day), I stand with my kids at the school bus stop and can watch their swimming lessons at lunch. But there are inherent obstacles to working remotely as well.
Far be it from me to give advice, but, shoot, I have some things I can actually recommend in that regard. If, for whatever reason, you are remote or want to be remote, or just curious, you can take this for whatever it’s worth…
Access to a high bandwidth and dependable internet connection is the oxygen your remoteness needs to survive. This is a priority.
I just ran an internet speed test and the result (which probably varies throughout the day) is 155 Mbps download speed, 12 Mbps upload speed, and a 19ms latency. I have never in my 4.5 years felt that my overall internet speed was not enough; I’ve never felt myself wanting for more. And I download some pretty heavy data sets and upload big project packages and basemap tiles and high-res images. All while streaming music. And PBS kids streaming in the house. I pay about $90 a month for internet (bundled with the most basic of basic cable: ironically, it’s more expensive to have just internet without the cable). If it were $900 a month I’d pay it. It’s like the value of water: essential though affordable; however, if it came down to it you’d pay anything.
There have been maybe a half-dozen instances over the years where my internet (or, more rarely, power in general) has been interrupted. While rare, it’s a good idea to have a few places in mind where you can set up shop in a pinch. The library, your church, or a pub (pubs typically have amazing wi-fi speeds and are open-but-empty in the workday). It’s a good idea to have a few options in your pocket in case they also are experiencing the outage.
I knew from the get-go that if I were to actually work successfully from home I would need a separate physical space, detached from the house. Not a room converted into an office or a workplace at some extremity of the home. A separate physical space.
I work in an 8 foot by 12 foot shed (in hindsight, I could manage in half this size) we call “the office.” It’s insulated and heated and has electric. It sits 20 feet from the house —my commute. All wood (my brother-in-law is a millwright), lots of light, and a door that locks at night. I could go on about recommendations for the actual workspace, its construction, and some lessons learned, but that’s a separate blog post.
For the topic of working well remotely, I’ll focus on the fact that it is an outbuilding (would a local rent-an-office thing work? Probably, but I don’t know anything about that).
The outbuilding approach has been fantastic. There are a couple of reasons for this.
I have young children who are at home in the day. Early in my remote experience, while my office was still under construction, I took over a small room in the house (all our rooms are small; it’s a 1910 farm house) and set up a desk. My daughter Clover, who was about 16 months old, would visit me frequently. When I had meetings to call into, I’d lock the door; she would knock on the door and cry. Eventually, when she’d come to visit, she would begin by trying to push me out of the room, associating it with the place where dad went to be not-fun.
When I am at home I want to be fully at home. Engaged with the kids and available. When I’m at work I want to be fully at work. As strange as it would seem, when I say goodbye to the family in the morning, give them hugs, and walk out the door, there is an acceptance that dad is away at work. It’s amazing.
In The Zone
But I feel the benefit, too. I have a separation of spaces and a shared expectation for those zones. Full solitude. Full focus. There is a mental association that has manifested where when I walk into the office with a thermos full of coffee-tea (I mix a light roast with red clover tea. Stop judging me) and close the door —I’m locked right in to productivity mode. It just works. And seriously people, it’s a charming little office.
When you work in an office environment you benefit from the organic interactions that proximity provides. You see people, you know what they’re working on, you chat, meet new folks. All of that goes largely out the window unless you are intentional about how you communicate virtually. Those natural conversations, and a general awareness of corporate goings-on, can still happen but you need to actively drive them.
This is probably the heart of all my advice for working remotely. So I buried it in the middle of this really long post to reward only those stalwarts who are actually reading this.
Actively reach out to folks via whatever chat system your team uses. Not for just official work-y stuff. If you think of someone, ping them on messenger. If you see something of their work in the wild, compliment them. If you have an idea on a project, hit them up. It’s amazing to me how much socialization and camaraderie and work can be blurred together by typing into a chat window.
Use the video function on web meetings, if you dare. And smile. It might feel weird, especially if others in the meeting don’t have their video turned on, but there’s a strong peer pressure associated with video conferencing both for and against activating the video option. As a remote employee it’s a good idea to maximize your visibility —literally— to your colleagues. It’s also pretty amazing how much tension can dissolve if you are talking to a face rather than being that distant text-only entity. We’re all people; we’re all in this together.
Learn what folks are working on and reach out for collaboration or with related ideas…because you can’t bump into them in a hallway.
Send issue reports and feature requests more than you would in person…because you can’t bump into them in a hallway.
Assume the brightest most positive tone in written communication. It’s really hard to emote in email, and pithiness can spiral downhill quickly. I like to paste somewhat-related memes or “internet high five” images into email responses. You know, because that’s fun.
Update your manager regularly —more often than they would ask. It’s obviously pretty important that anyone, but especially you direct report, what you are up to. I send weekly lists of “nefarious activities.” In addition, I’ll ping folks for their feedback on progress I’m making or ask for a quick review of something. Think of the sorts of things your manager might ask about if you saw them in the office and just proactively let them know.
I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have any direct reports of my own. So I can offer no advice on the inverse.
Remoteness as an Afterthought
Do everything in your power to make your remoteness a non-factor in the estimation of management and colleagues. If coworkers you meet are surprised to learn you are remote, that’s a really good sign. By being intentionally active, and proactive, in communication and by imbibing that communication with positivity, the fact that you are actually a couple thousand miles away will be less of a big deal. And if you are a remote employee, don’t screw it up for the rest of us by being lousy at remoteness. Can I get a virtual shout from all remotes?
While these absolute red-hot bits of advice are focused on how to do well when you are “away,” there is still no substitute for actually seeing your colleagues and management face to face.
Early in my employ, I would travel to HQ about once a month, for the better part of a week. A pretty big ratio, but it was mega-important for gaining a sense of familiarity with the people, culture, and rhythm of a new job. Over time this has spread out a bit and to a sizable extent transitioned to conference travel (where I still probably have an opportunity to see and meet colleagues). When I am visiting HQ, I make an effort to line up lunches and dinners and beers with a variety of folks. It’s fun, but it’s also pretty valuable I think.
I live within an hour and a half of four airports, ranging from regional (the local connection airport here in Lansing) to international (Detroit). Having these options affords convenience and flexibility in managing trips. It’s nice to have options.
I entered into my remote work with a big question mark about what it would mean for me socially and emotionally. I was a somewhat large personality (others might provide different adjectives) in my previous job’s office environment: recruiting/coaxing others in the office to get out for walks, spontaneously bursting into song, coordinating lunch-and-learns, ping pong, milling around and chatting, oh and also lots of meetings and collaborations I guess. But my tender delicate psyche has survived well…maybe even thrived…in my remote condition. Here are some things that have countered the potential for feelings of isolation…
- Blog, if you can. This opens up lots of conversations and future collaborations, and elevates your visibility.
- Participate in conferences. Be more assertive about that than you might have been otherwise.
- Take breaks and walks. Just because you are remote doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from that sort of thing.
- Get out of your remote office and have lunch with folks.
The fact that I love what I do for a living, and would pretty much be doing it for fun/free if it wasn’t my job, has a lot to do with my ability to provide all the rambling advice above. In the morning I’m excited to get back to whatever it was I was working on before, or to start in on some new idea. In the evening it can sometimes be difficult to pull the plug on the work day. I don’t know if I could work remotely very well if I wasn’t terribly engaged or interested in the work. But, if that were the case, I’d be a crummy employee no matter where I was working.
My schedule can vary seasonally a bit with the kids’ school days, but in general I get into the office around 7:30am and quit around 5:00pm. In the summer, when the kids don’t wake early for the bus, it’s more like an 8:30 start time.
Get Dressed You Slob
Get dressed. Comb your hair. What’s the first joke people make about working remotely? Probably something about not wearing pants or working in pajamas. I get dressed like I would in the office (which still isn’t saying a whole lot). It sets your mind to the respect due your job and helps get you into that discrete zone of work rather than a confusing blended mix of work and home.
I suspect some amount of corporate concern with remote work is that employees may not be engaged and as productive as they ought to be. And that’s probably justified in a lot of cases (you know, if remote workers aren’t following this incredible advice). But, somewhat ironically, for many remote folks it may be tempting to always be “on.” You’re used to being distant so popping open the laptop is no biggie. Because our concepts of work and home are already blurred, your work time and home time can drift together as well. It takes an extra effort to maintain a distinction and keep a healthy balance. When the work day is over it’s over. Let it ride until the next morning.
There may also be a temptation to feel that because we aren’t as visible as in-office employees we need to do more, to demonstrate value. But having a healthy segmentation of work and non-work is good for everyone, and the work we do will be better.
It became clear to me very early in my remoteness, just how much time in an in-office day is occupied by chatting. Walking to the coffee machine. Chatting more. Of course there is a social component (it’s not always a social plus, though, depending on the vibe of the office) to this, but wow is it a lot of time! It turns out that I am far and away more productive than I ever was in an office. I have so much more time, less things to distract, pulled into fewer ad-hoc meetings (and meetings in general), and more time to do the work of work and not the marginalia of work. Working in an office is cool, but working remotely in an outbuilding office is cool too.
Why am I telling you all this? Because working remotely has been an amazing opportunity for me, and if there are folks who are considering it or currently doing it but feel frustrated, I want to share what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. It takes a considerable amount of faith for an organization to trust a person to do their work, and do it well, in a remote capacity. I’m hopeful that I can do right by that trust and I’m happy (though a bit tentative) to share some of the insights that I’ve stumbled on over the years.
I’m very happy being remote and a better employee than I had ever been in an office. But it has taken effort and I’m always learning new ways of connecting and looking for ways to add value. I want you to do well and I want remote work to be a good and solid option for employers. Remote work may not be for everyone, but if you have the opportunity to work remotely, consider these tips.
Remote well! John
5 thoughts on “Working Well Remotely”
Good morning. I noticed in your first image you have 2 screens. What type of screen is that on the left? I dig your setup!
It’s just a regular old monitor, like the one next to it. Except it’s rotate. In your operating system you can set a monitor to portrait or landscape mode. I find it’s really nice for documents and emails.
Good summary, and useful advice. Hooray for the vertical monitor. Ages ago my Mac has a Radius CRT monitor that would spin 90 degrees and tell the Mac when its orientation changed. I wish modern screens were so clever.
Love the blog. I’ve recently started working from home, like many, due to COVID-19. I was a little concerned because I really enjoy being around people. I’ve found over the last year that it works pretty well! That is, if you make the effort. I think your advice is spot on!
Definitely fall in the category of the “always on” remote worker.