I was asked on twitter recently about how I am able to be successful and impactful at an organization as a remote worker. What follows is a run down of how I work remotely, and how it has changed over the last seven years.
This is not a “rules for how you should do remote working” but more so a single perspective on the problem of remote working and my own simplified set of guidelines that I feel have worked for me.
Let’s start off by talking about why I am a remote worker. I typically work for organizations who have an office in Central London, while my home is out on the east coast of England.
My commute into work in the morning is just over two hours, and my commute home is either the same or worse depending on the state of the trains and the nightmare that is the home time commuting hours of 4pm-7pm. That’s almost five hours a day sitting (or more likely standing) on a train.
Also, because of my locality I have to be up before 6am in order to get to work by a reasonable hour. It also means, to avoid the commuter rush in the evening (including trying to acquire a seat for that long trip home), I typically have to leave the office by approximately 4.30pm latest.
I don’t know about you but I consider that…
Before I had a family, that would have been time back to myself to do things such as: having a more relaxed breakfast, having more time to get ready for the day ahead and maybe even going to the gym before work.
Now that I have a family, that’s critical time I get to spend with them before I start work, as well as to do some house chores and help my wife with getting our son ready in the morning.
If you don’t have children, then it’s probably best that I explicitly state what otherwise might be considered ‘stating the obvious’ (and apologies if so), but just in case: getting children ready in the morning is a lot harder, time consuming and stressful than you’ll probably realise. So it’s important I help my wife with this otherwise it’s a massive burden on her shoulders.
Note: this can often be something as simple (but meaningful) as looking after our son for a mere ten minutes just so she can get washed and dressed!
Not to mention things like getting deliveries to your home, or getting a plumber round to fix your sink, or even time to take your kids to the doctors.
All of these things that people have to deal with in their day-to-day lives can be made easier if we were able to work from home.
Problems with Remote Working
OK, so not everything is roses. Here is a short list of things that can be a concern when working from home (and I’ll dig into each afterwards):
- When do I start/finish?
- How do I get noticed/feel included?
- How can I be impactful?
- How should I communicate?
- How do I prove I’m getting stuff done?
- How do I avoid procrastinating?
- How can I stay healthy?
Note: this is a small list from a much larger set of questions people often have about remote working, but hopefully these are enough items for me to discuss to help get across my thoughts.
When do I start/finish?
This is important. You need a routine. Doesn’t matter what it is, but you need one. If you think remote working is waking up whenever you like every day and wandering around the house in your pyjamas and whimsically selecting the code tasks you’re going to hack on, then you’re in for a rude awakening.
Remote working is WORK. So you get up at a consistent time in the morning, you get washed and dressed, you have breakfast and a coffee/tea, and then you think about the day ahead. Start WORK.
This is likely going to sound no different to maybe how you’re working at the moment as a ‘non-remote’ worker, right! Exactly.
I’m up at 7am and I start work by 9am (sometimes 10am if there’s something else I need to do in the morning). I do a full day’s work: so if I start at 9am I’ll be finished by 5pm. If I’m starting at 10am I’ll work till 6pm.
Sometimes you’ll find a natural wrap up of your day is earlier than when you should ‘officially’ finish. For example, you’re planning to finish at 5pm but it’s 4:30 and you don’t want to pick up another large task today.
In those instances, I would normally just jump over to read through any late email I’ve received. I’d then jump onto Slack and check-in with my team, most likely I’ll be dropping an ‘end of day summary’ (which can be very helpful for my team mates who are based in different timezones to me).
How do I get noticed/feel included?
This is actually a subtle question with many different layers to it. In most companies I work for I start as a ‘partial’ remote worker (so maybe two days a week in the office). That can be really helpful as far as building up relationships with my colleagues. You need good relationships.
But if you’re starting off as a completely 100% remote worker, don’t worry, building relationships is easy enough to do. It just takes a bit of effort on your part (which I’ll explain next). I can say it’s easy to do because I have built up many great working relationships with my colleagues based in the United States (both in the eastern and western timezones).
Note: although reaching the western timezone is tricker than eastern as it’s a solid eight hours behind. It’s possible to do still, but again will take just a bit more effort if that’s what you want.
Ultimately it comes down to communication (and good communication at that). For communication to be considered ‘good’ it needs to happen at the right time and in the right medium (see How should I communicate? for more details on this subject).
You’ll find that I will, every morning (hopefully around the same time) drop a message into Slack (for the UK engineering team) saying something along the lines of…
Morning all 👋 <funny gif> _^^ some explanation of the gif_
I typically put an explanation below the gif if it is based on the current weather outside, or maybe there’s a big event happening, or maybe it’s just a funny caption to go with the gif, whatever.
The reason I do this is because that’s me. That’s the type of person I am and I want other people to recognise that this is my personality coming through. I’m giving a bit of myself to these people. I also then do the same thing for my team (who currently are all based outside of the UK) in our own team Slack channel.
Of course I don’t just do that 😉 I’m also very open about my personal life and what I’m doing. For example, I’ll often post pictures of my daily lunch time walks with my son.
Again, the reason I do this isn’t to gloat (although sometimes it is when the weather is sunny) but a nice coastal scenery shot with me and my son in it, reminds people that I’m a human being and not some anonymous entity behind a keyboard and screen.
You should try to learn more about your colleagues, and appreciate what sorts of things they’re into. Maybe they love photography or are into games or books. Maybe they like riding their bike on the weekend or going rock climbing. Having freeform non-work related conversations is great for this (so find a space to have those conversations).
So for example I know a colleague of mine who works in Argentina loves cats and has two of her own. I also have cats and we chat regularly in DM’s about not only work, but we share pictures of our cats. Simple things like that help build stronger relationships and makes working together more meaningful.
We also follow each other on Instagram, and I have many work friends (current and old) who follow me (and vice-versa) on twitter and facebook. We spend a large majority of our life at work, so making friends and really caring about who you work with will make a massive positive impact on your enjoyment while at work.
Don’t limit yourself to reaching out to just your team, or to people in your locality. Make an effort to take part in various channels of communication (including those that might be happening across different timezones). This might be as simple as joining various Slack channels where people talk about certain languages or tech, but it can include joining various ‘working groups’.
I’ve been part of, and led, many working groups (architecture, code design, documentation, communication). You can spin up a working group about anything you’re interested in and by sharing it with the organization you’ll be surprised to discovered that there are likely lots of like-minded individuals interested in the same things and willing to discuss and to want to help improve the quality of the ‘thing’ happening within the organization.
Once you start doing the groundwork of understanding your colleagues and proactively sharing a piece of your true self at work, you’ll also find that people will start reaching out to you, for both your opinion and to include you in conversations (this could be because they recognize you have specific skills that will benefit their project or maybe it’s something more informal – someone cracked a joke and cc’s you as part of it).
You have (for lack of a better word) ‘exposed’ yourself to the organization.
How should I communicate?
Communication takes many forms and is one of the biggest contributing factors to misunderstanding requirements, and to personal unhappiness. It’s one of the most critical skills to learn and to utilize (regardless of whether you’re a remote worker or not).
For example, don’t just Slack people all the time. You should notice when conversations are getting out of hand (i.e. too much back and forth overlapping textual messages with no one really reading the other person’s message, you’re both firing off in the hope that your point is heard first) and offer instead to jump over to a ‘face-to-face’ video call to clarify.
With face-to-face people generally are more easily able to listen because the convention in our society isn’t to shout interweavingly across each other. Instead, someone talks and (if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be) you’ll be listening and really taking in what the other person is saying. You’ll then adapt your response based on what the other person has just said †
† this is much different to what a lot of people mistakenly do which is: stay quiet until the other person has stopped talking and then reply with their pre-canned response (i.e. again they’re only interested in getting across their own points).
One thing that I like to do after taking a long Slack conversation into a face-to-face video call is to go back to Slack and to summarize what was just disussed. There are a few reasons for doing this:
- it’s a documented record of what was discussed.
- it confirms that everyone has understood the outcome correctly.
- it shows you’re conscientious of people in other timezones (who might have been following the conversation).
Another important characteristic of good communication: you should also aim to be ‘clear’ and, if the situation calls for it, concise (this is something I’m guilty of not being good at, but I’m aware of that problem and try hard to be better at).
In my blog posts I’m definitley not concise, but then I’m usually ‘telling a story’ and that’s a different situation to writing an email or a Slack message (but even still I’ve a long way to go to improve – no one’s perfect).
For those of you who are interested I would highly recommend reading the following material:
- Radical Candor: care personally and challenge directly
- Nonviolent Communication
- Authentic Communication
A couple of other important notes to make:
Make sure you block out time in your calendar for important events, such as a lunch hour or family time etc. This becomes especially useful when working within a distributed company, for example, in my calendar I block out 5pm to 10pm for ‘family time’ so people in New York and LA can’t accidentally try to book a meeting with me.
Schedule monthly 1:1 meetings with people of differing levels within the company, such as interns, seniors, managers, designers etc. This is useful because it gives you a regular ‘check-in’ with what’s happening elsewhere in the organisation and it also helps others to get to know you.
How can I be impactful?
To have ‘impact’ can take many different forms. Being impactful isn’t just about getting a job done. It could be mentoring colleagues, or it could be noticing a problem space (either in the tools your organization uses or the services it provides) and producing an RFC documentation that tackles some possible solutions.
I think ultimately to be impactful requires you to care. You need to care about the organization and its success. You need to care about your colleagues and their success.
If you’re just turning up at work to ‘go through the motions’ and to just ‘get paid’, then you’ll likely always fall short of having true life affirming impact.
How do I prove I’m getting stuff done?
This is a classic concern for both people wanting to be a remote worker, as well as organizations who are unsure remote working is something they want to offer to their workers.
Any half decent organization is going to have ‘process’ and that process should be effective regardless of whether you’re remote or not. You should have some form of project/task tracker (e.g. Jira), you should have some form of methodology of working (e.g. Kanban, Scrum, Agile etc).
With this process you should have enough to demonstrate you’re ‘getting things done’. For example…
- Daily team standups: this is your chance to say what you worked on yesterday, what you worked on today, and whether anything is blocking you. This is a great time to express things concerning you and for your manager/team to get an insight into that.
- Task tracking: if you use Jira then you’ll have a set of tasks on a backlog that are prioritized and are assigned to specific individuals. Management can track and review what you’re doing and see if things aren’t getting done.
- One to one meetings: you have an opportunity at 1-1 meetings with your line manager to express your concerns, and it can be a good time to highlight things you’re doing (not project/task specific as that’s not the point of 1-1’s, but maybe you’ve created a working group or are working on an important RFC).
How do I avoid procrastinating?
I personally feel that people are capable of procrastinating regardless of whether they’re remote or not. To avoid procrastinating means being focused, getting rid of distractions, settings yourself deadlines and generally being organized.
None of these are traits that should be limited to remote workers, as this is just what it means to be an attentive and considerate worker.
I would say that if you’re going to be a remote worker though, you’ll want to have yourself a space where you can work. Yes it’s nice to be able to work from any where in your home, but to have a dedicated ‘office space’ is important.
I have an office space which I use the majority of the time because it’s quiet and it’s away from the family noise. But I also find that when it’s sunny I like to work from the lounge in the morning (because the sun hits that room first, and also means I can be around my son while he’s enjoying his morning playtime).
I might then move to working from the kitchen so I can look out at my garden and again enjoy some sunshine and scenery as the sun moves around during the day. But again, I do mainly work from my office space, especially when I have meetings or I feel I really need to concentrate.
If you listen to music while working then that can actually be a cause of distraction. For me, if I need to focus (or am working on something I’m unsure about) I tend to find music with lyrics generally distracts me so I’ll listen to genres like jazz, classical or downbeat instrumental (trip hop’ish stuff like DJ Crush’s “Code 4109”). But if I’m working on a system I know very well and I’m just churning out stuff like a batch of unit tests, then I can listen to anything.
Ultimately you need to get used to recognizing when you’re distracted and to combat that however it makes sense for you.
How can I stay healthy?
This is a very important topic as remote workers are notorious from suffering burnout from over working. You need to have clear boundaries, so you need to say: I start at N time in the morning and I’ll finish at N time in the evening. I’ll also have lunch at N time during the day (and have a full lunch).
For me personally I have a desk that transitions from a sitting desk to a standing desk. I find in the morning I like to stand for an hour or two and then I’ll sit for an hour or two, and then I’ll go for a walk along the seafront (sometimes with my son or sometimes by myself if I need some space) during my lunch hour.
I make sure that my lunch is something I cook. I avoid ‘ready meals’ or snacky foods like crisps and chocolates (I generally only ever have a nibble of dark chocolate in the evenings if I have a sugar craving).
As an example, a general day of eating will look something like…
- Breakfast: bowl of mixed nuts, raisins, blackberries, banana, pumpkin seeds and oat milk.
- Lunch: salmon and salad.
- Dinner: meat, veg and a bit of carb.
I also don’t drink coffee or ‘normal’ tea. I’m primarily a drinker of water, peppermint tea, and if I need caffeine I’ll drink a pot of Guayusa green tea (which has more caffeine than coffee but is much healthier for you).
Note: if you’re able to, try and do some exercise as well! A sedentary lifestyle is not good for us. If you can’t get to a gym or aren’t motivated to do exercise then don’t kick yourself about it. But do get up and out of your chair for a walk every once in a while. Fresh air really does make a world of difference.
The key thing is to be ‘active’ and to have space to think about other things that aren’t work related as this will actually help your subconscious to really kick-in behind the scenes and process conversations and other things going on at work.
It’s also important to realize that you’re remote so you don’t have to work from ‘home’. You can work anywhere there’s an internet connection (if your work provides you with a mobile wifi then that’s even better because you can just go to the beach and work from there if you like).
I’ve never done it but I could imagine going to my local library and working from there to be quite nice. Maybe going to a bustling coffee shop with free wifi? Either way, get out and away from your home as often as you can so you don’t start building up a form of ‘cabin fever’.
What doesn’t work well?
OK, there are some things that still don’t work that great when being a remote. Below is a small selection:
- Whiteboard discussions: architecture design meetings using a whiteboard can be difficult. there is technology to help with this but it’s not great. One thing we’re looking to explore is for all employees (remote and in-office) to have access to a drawing tablet for their computer so they can draw with an electronic pen into some shared screen software. This would be much more flexible and easier to work with than trying to draw with a mouse.
- Remote meetings: specifically I’m referring to people who aren’t familiar with doing remote meetings and so they’ll do silly things like treating the remotes as if they aren’t there. So they’ll sit with their back to the camera, or they’ll ask for opinions from people in the room but not take the time to say: “for those here who are attending remotely, does anyone have anything to add?” (because jumping into a conversation remotely can be much harder than if you’re in a physical office/room).
- Unplanned conversations: sometimes conversations are sparked in the office between colleagues. They don’t always happen on Slack, and so it’s important that those people in the office are thinking about their remote colleagues and include them when necessary.
That said, there’s not much that’s so problematic that remote working couldn’t be a consideration for most organizations.
Hopefully you’ve found this rundown of remote working (from someone who has been remote working for many many years now with great success and much learnings under his belt). If you have any additional questions then do please reach out to me on twitter.
But before we wrap up... time (once again) for some self-promotion 🙊