Remote Work

July 8, 2015

This was posted in Slack a few days ago:

Any of the remote folks here have any resources on [building an ideal desk/office // stepping up the communication & collaboration game // building life structure] around remote work?

I'm coming up on 2 years at Chargify (and therefore 2 years of full-time remote work), which puts me in a good position to share my experiences as they relate to the above questions.

Building An Ideal Desk/Office

My wife and I have four children, and we homeschool, so the house is full all day, everyday. My response is therefore affected by the fact that my house is a hive of activity.

The goal here is to have a space where you can work undistracted. To me that means you'll want a proper office with a door that locks. The understanding among your family has to be that the office is your space to work. When the door is closed, it means no interruptions. The lock is for the times when people forget what the closed door means. And they will forget.

The other thing about a room dedicated to work is that it allows you to mentally segment home life and work life. I don't always work in my office when I'm home (more on that in a bit). But even so, I know when I am done for the day, I leave my office and shut the door, and that's that.

Working from home gives you the unique opportunity to completely customize your workspace. An ideal desk and office setup is relative to what inspires you. What helps you focus and get "in the zone"? For example, I like to have a view of the outside world when I work. I also try to keep my desk free of non work-related things like bills and mail. I find those sorts of things distracting. I'll get to the mail later; for now, I'm working.

A view of the yard, and a clean desk

I recommend investing in a good pair of headphones or a headset. I use Sony MDRV6 Studio Monitor Headphones. I find that listening to music through headphones helps me focus more than listening through external speakers. YMMV. Here are two playlists I listen to when hacking:

I like to switch up my work location. I work in my office 90% of the time, but sometimes I work in my living room, or at the local Starbucks, or even the pub!

Sometimes you need to put your feet up

Switching up work locations like this keeps me from getting into a rut. Working remotely, I don't have face-to-face communication with co-workers. I miss out on things like going with co-workers to a new place to get lunch, or grabbing a coffee mid-afternoon, things I was accustomed to when working in an office. Changing work locations approximates this experience, however poorly.

Stepping Up Communication and Collaboration

The answer I'd give here would mostly be a summation of his thoughts anyway, so I will just point you directly to Wynn Netherland's answer when I asked him the same question.

I will add to that: communicate early, and often; don't be afraid to ask questions. The channels and means you use to communicate (synchronous vs. asynchronous) will be different based on the company, but the general principle applies. The worst thing in a remote job is to be stuck on something and feel alone. It doesn't have to be that way. Just ask!

Building Life Structure Around Remote Work

Working remotely has changed my life, and my family's life. We've been able to travel for long periods of time, and as long as I have a web connection (tethering FTW!), I can work a full-day and then have the evenings and weekends to enjoy a new place.

I'd encourage anyone working remotely to try such a "work-cation". Of course, it's easier for us to do because we homeschool as well, so we can do school and I can work "on the road". That said, it can still be done, you just need to be creative. When we travel we mostly stay with family and friends to keep our costs down, but with Airbnb it's possible to find long-term (1-2 month) rentals at an affordable cost.

Remote work presents a great opportunity to do interesting things, but it's important to remember the work part of "remote work". In everything you do (working at a coffeeshop, doing a "work-cation"), keep in mind that you're part of a team, and the implicit understanding is that you're responsible enough to be productive and manage yourself. The goal is for everything you do to be transparent to your co-workers: no matter where you're working or what your office looks like, you're still contributing at a high level to your company. When my family travels out of town on extended trips, we always drive on weekends or late at night, so that I can still work a full day/week. If I want to take a day off to do something fun with my family, I take it, but otherwise, it's a normal work day, sitting poolside notwithstanding.

My desk for one month last year, at my in-law's in Florida

Additionally, I think it's important to have a routine when working remotely. Have a consistent general start time, and general end time. Take a real lunch break. It's easy to either a) work all the time, since you can work anywhere, or b) become undisciplined in work habits because no one is micromanaging you. You're conscientious, and responsible: don't let that happen to you.

Use the fact that you don't have a commute to your advantage. Spend the hour that would have been spent in the car or on the train instead on reading a technical book, or exercising. I've recently started waking up around 6:30am, making coffee, and just taking the morning easy by reading or going for a run. The kids are still asleep during that time and I can get out in front of the day instead of the day's events controlling me. When working remotely it's easy to sleep until 10 minutes before you're expected to be online, then rolling out of bed and starting work. Again, you're not that kind of person; you're going to make the most out of the the time you have.

Closing Thoughts

Remote work is fun, but also challenging. Unfortunately I've seen people who can't handle the responsibility of working remotely. And that's very sad to me, because it's such a great opportunity for so many things. So communicate well, work hard, and enjoy yourself.

See Also

10 Commandments for Remote Working