people sitting in front of computer monitors in a coworking space
"Bat Haus Coworking and Event Space". Photo by Shridhar Gupta on Unsplash

Ideas on Making Remote Work... Work For You

A couple of weeks ago, we had a good discussion on Twitter around remote work. Here are some tips and guidelines I use personally to keep myself on track as a remote manager for an engineering organization.

have an activity that signals the start of your work day and the end of your work day

One of the more challenging boundaries to set as a remote employee, whether you're a manager or individual contributor, is to know when your workday starts and when your workday ends.

While there's convenience when working remote, whether from home, a coffee shop, or a new location, that convenience doesn't mean that your day starts and ends whenever. To help keep myself on a healthy routine, no matter which timezone I'm in, I signal a start to my workday with the following items:

  • shower
  • coffee
  • taking my medication and vitamins
  • taking a 5 minute walk around my neighborhood (or, if traveling to work from a coffee shop or co-working place, hopping in my car).
  • plug in my laptop into my docking station at my desk(CalDigit TS3+ is a life saver!)

These items in succession allow me to signal to myself that my personal time, much like a commute, is coming to a close, and I'm ready to connect and dive in on my day. When I'm particularly consistent at this, I've had time to process my thoughts and physically let myself know that it's go time.

When I first started working remote, I loved the convenience of rolling over and turning the laptop on. Over time, though, I realized I encroached on my own personal time. If I woke up earlier than usual, I'd start my day earlier because, "why not?". Well, the answer now for me is, because working remote doesn't mean I don't need time to myself before I go to the office.

The lack of a commute means I don't have the same routine: catching the express bus or hopping in my car, grabbing a coffee from my favorite shop (Long live the Mint Mojito), getting that last minute of my podcast or song in on the elevator, sitting at my desk and plugging in all the wires into my laptop. Not only was that a routine that I could just automatically move into, it was also time that I had blocked off. Every morning. So if I wanted to come near the office early for a gym session, that was fine because I signaled to myself and my team that my day started at a certain time, and after I had gone through my routine.

As a manager, it also works as a reminder for me when scheduling meetings for others and otherwise respecting the routine and time of the members of my team. Unless there's a particularly urgent matter and one is on-call, that space for each employee is there by default for me to not encroach on.

Speaking of the docking station I mentioned earlier, that brings me to a really important next guideline I've set for myself.

dedicate a space away from bed or the sofa for work

Some of us have the luxury of having one more bedroom than we have family/roommates/partners/children/cohabitants of our home. Some of us may not. Even when I didn't have a second bedroom, I've had a space dedicated solely for work.

Working from the sofa feels great and why wouldn't it? You have all the comfort of home while working, right? Well, for me, it was a bad idea. Over time, the rigors of the work day would stay with me on that couch. It became easy for me to simply keep extending the workday because I'm on the couch. It also became harder for me to shut off the workday and keep my living room as a space for entertainment and relaxation. Then comes

So in my current place, I've made sure my 2nd bedroom has everything I need to be comfortable yet productive. And when the workday is over, I close the laptop, leave the room, and close the door. The only other time I go in there is to grab a pair of sneakers to wear out (I have a wall of sneakers - more on that in a different post).

You don't need the luxury of a 2nd bedroom or auxiliary unused room to create this concept. Maybe have a setup at the kitchen table, and when it's time for lunch/dinner/after work, pack up the laptop. Or, if you can, a small desk or workspace that can be integrated into your living room (or if you can resist the temptation to work, bedroom). The goal is to just have a place that you can setup and tell yourself, "it's now work time", and have a way to pack it up so it's out of sight when needed.

Speaking of packing it up, my next tip that's worked for me is away from the laptop.

take frequent breaks and battle the effects of a sedentary lifestyle

When working remote, maybe even moreso from home, it is easy to get into a zone. One of the better perks of working from home is focused, mostly distraction-free time, amirite? The downside of that is that all those little distractions in the office also can have a physical benefit - staying active.

Walking from meeting to meeting. Dropping by someone's desk to ask a question. Going to the kitchen or cabinet for a snack. Sending a fax (do people still do that?). Taking a "smoke break" (whether you smoke or not, the physical activity of leaving the office for a walk, a coffee, a chat with a coworker, etc). All these things can make it easier to get your recommended 10,000 steps a day and keep you active in small period throughout the day.

Getting in the zone at home or remote, this can take a lot more discipline. Breaking away from the desk is probably one challenge any "desk" work profressional can relate to dealing with. It is important, however, for our physcial and mental health, to take breaks from the computer. Here are some ways I do this as a remote employee.

  1. Walking/In-Transit meetings My first year of working remote, I developed some serious cabin fever, so I started taking my daily status calls while walking around the neighborhood. It was an easy way to be able to not feel couped up in the house, get some fresh air, and also meet my obligations. For bigger meetings or ones that are focused and topical, I may not do so, but it's worked well. In addition, we hold a weekly engineering meeting for the squads I manage, and it's not uncommon for our tech leads or other engineers to ask if this session would be a primarily talking session or one where we need to be in front of our machines for a presentation.

    I call out my tech leads for this because as senior engineers, they are helping to reinforce and normalize the culture of us getting some Vitamin D as a distributed team while on certain calls as well as doing so when meeting appropriate. I definitely wouldn't recommend taking a walking meeting while staring at a presentation - safety first! So, no matter your form of mobility, try and use it during at least one meeting a day.

  2. Pomodoro (or related techniques) After a good period of some productive work, it's great to take a break and give your eyes a rest. Pomodoro as a technique involves singular task focus for 25 mins, followed by a short break, and taking a longer break once you've finished 4 tasks that way. I have found it successful, but I notice for me at times, I don't always have tasks I can break down to that short (or, as a manager, that I have back-to-back meetings).

    Instead, I've started using the Google Calendar functionality that allows you to build in travel time for your meeting appointments. For instance, all of my 30 minute meetings are actually scheduled in 25 minute blocks, and all 1 hour meetings in 50 minute blocks. It's a good forcing function to make my meetings as short, sweet and productive for all as possible, but it also helps me to mimic the action of doing something between meetings as I would in the office. Bio breaks, water breaks, walks from one conference room to the other - all these things occur in the office (and more) in the time between meetings. In addition, it gives you guilt-free time to give yourself a break between meetings without being late, feeling rushed or harried, and to also ensure you're meeting your own needs.

  3. Lunch/Dinner/Snacks - Avoid Delivery Apps If Possible So, this is a hard one. However, in office environments I'm not a fan of eating lunch at my desk, without some sort of time away, unless its an absolutely critical matter. I believe in my lunch break being my lunch break - that's my walking thought time. People watching time. Connecting with colleagues time. Release from morning stress time. I may eat at my desk when I get back from a lunch break, but that's usually in cases where I've gotten some good walking in or took care some errands that go me outside.

    When working from home (or otherwise remote), I think one unique advantage is that you can prep and source your own meals, thus potentially saving money and/or prep time if you take your lunch to work. The forcing function of getting up to go cook/heat up/prep/juice/blend lunch is that it gets you away from the desk. You're up on your feet, you get the legs moving, you break up the day. It's another sneaky way we get steps in all day at the office - you've gotta walk to the fridge in the kitchen or break room, microwave your food (or get your sandwich or salad or whatever food of choice), and prep before you eat it. In my experience, mimicing that at home has helped me to not be too stationary throughout the day. Delivery apps - not so much. Sometimes I'll do it if I'm in a crunch, or have little time between my office gig and teaching gig at night, but I do prefer to not order in. On the days when I do, I try to go do the pickup option to get me out of the house (and cheaper fees!) or I'll meet the person at their car instead of them just meeting me at my door.

sick days! take them! don't work sick!

Being at home sick doesn't mean you have to work sick because you are at home. While you may not be able to give others the flu if you have it while working from home, you can give them the idea that you have to work through sickness instead of resting and healing, and that's not good either.

There's no reason to feel guilty for working from home/remote and calling out sick. Your team needs you at your 100% best just as they would in the office. Working while sick will usually make you less productive, less pleasant (let's be honest - when we don't feel good, we're not always in our best moods or spirits), and more likely to prolong your sickness. Forget the work aspect of it - that's not good for taking care of you, which should always be your #1 priority.

Don't work through a stomach bug. Don't "tough it out" during headaches and migraines. Don't force yourself to give that presentation "even though my voice is hoarse". Think of it this way - a surgeon wouldn't be allowed in an emenergency operating room while sick, due to all types of risk of infection and also just being able to focus and do the job - why should you? Take. Your. Sick. Days.

pto? make sure you take that too

Remote employees also need time away to rest and recover. Working from home/remote doesn't mean that you don't deserve vacation due to the convenience of not being in the office. You are in the office. Just also in your home or favorite coffee shop or coworking space. You need time away from work just like everyone else, so take it.

If you happento have unlimited PTO, do not fall into the trap of "I can take it whenever". TAKE IT WHENEVER. I personally suggest at least one week per quarter. If your team or group can normalize expecting everyone to take a week of for self care, you can also have the benefit of making your quarterly planning more focused. There's 13 weeks in a quarter (on average) - one week per person shouldn't make or break your productivity. In fact, if your people aren't taking time off every quarter, burnout becomes easier to seep in, and that can break your quarterly productivity and your working happiness much more than a vacation.

Your team needs you at your best. That can only come if you have the space to integrate your life and personal needs with your professional life. PTO is not a gift to take likely - it is part of your overall compensation. Not taking it is literally leaving money on the table, as well as quality you-time. So take it. Now. Go request that week off. Or whatever it is you need. Your mileage may vary but make sure you meet your needs there.

distractions are everywhere

In an ever-increasingly connected world, distractions are no longer just in the physical workspace. Apps. Alerts. Breaking News. Twitter viral threads. Instagram Live. Netflix. All these things are the same, and sometimes additional, potential distractions. Try to minimize the distractions as you would if you were going into the office. If you wouldn't update your personal Facebook feed during a meeting at work, don't do it during a meeting at your desk at home. For me, it was important that I gave myself the same clear lanes from distraction at home, because otherwise, I wouldn't have a remote job for long as my Pokemon hunts keep calling for me.

One of the benefits of working from home is removing some of those in-office distraction points. However, you now have to make sure you add some discipline to try to minimize the ones that can come from being at home or in a remote setting.

For me, I tend to keep my phone notifications muted except for Slack (for work & calendar stuff) and email. I keep my text notifications to my smartwatch, which is actually easier for me to ignore than my phone (go figure). My video game systems aren't in reach. And, because I have a separate room as my office, I can just shut the door and work.

However, not all distractions are bad, because sometimes you need that to break away from the desk. Which leads to my next item...

connection with other humans

Some distractions are good and necessary. Those usually come in the form of working around and near others, or finding some other way to get social connection outside of your 8 hour day.

One challenge with remote work, especially when working from home, is connecting with other people. If your home office isn't nearby or accessible to your location, you can miss out on happy hours, afterwork events, activities, or even just being in the environment of other people as you would commuting to and from an office.

It's important to not get stuck in the default of just staying in the house all day. For starters, there's an important health benefit to leaving the house: Vitamin D. I'm pretty sure as we spend a lot of times indoors all day that vitamin deficiencies are pretty common in some form, so get out of the house and get some sun.

Also, I've noticed in my experience, there's a sudden rush of some positive energy when you walk into a coffee shop, and the barista knows your order. You're not best friends, hell, you may not even know that they live a block away from you, but the exchange of someone knowing your order and the appreciation you give in return is the kind of connection to others that happens dozens of times throughout an in-office workday.

Another challenge of working from home in particular is the spontaneous connection with others because you happen to bump into each other, or otherwise are accessible to a common location. Often, even in the most urban environments, where the people in your life tend to hang out, may not be as spontaneously accessible to your home location. Setting friend dates and family dates can be a great way around this challenge. It reaffirms our previous principle of signalling the end of your workday AND it gets you out of the house. This can be difficult (it still is for me, ask my friends - they'll tell you lol) but practicing this over time can be worth the effort. Having fun with others is also a great way to keep your cortisol levels from remaining high from a stressful workday.

Another challenge that pops up a lot is connection with your colleagues. Which brings me to my last major point from the thread:

non-work channels of communication with remote peers

This is important, especially when setting and maintaining the culture of your team. Think about the ways you've built trust and rapport with your on-site teammates in past jobs. The reliable "who wants coffee?" colleague. The one who always drags you away fro your desk for lunch when you needed it. The "omg, did you see what _____ did at the Emmys/Grammys/Oscars/[insert event I probably didn't watch here]". The birthday cheers.

Now, everyone will respect their boundaries for social connection - some of us are introverts, some of us are extroverts, and some of us fall somewhere in-between. And my recommendation isn't to make lifelong penpals (though, it's funny how some former colleagues become friends throughout your journey, isn't it?). However, we all spend hours a day together, with our own take on the mission our company sets out to fulfill in pursuit of fiscal sustainability and happy customers. Doing so remotely tends to remove some of the connection that comes with physical presence, day in and day out.

So, my suggestion - find ways to add that back in. In my experience, channels that are held for social/non-work chatter or adding a few minutes to invite your team to bring themselves into your daily meetings can help those connections foster.

I have a managers-only gaming channel, where we all nerd out on games and just have an escape from the rigors of organizational thought. Every friday, my team adds a social component to our standups - for a few months, the team decided to do "treat yo' self Fridays", where one person either suggested the treat we should all have and/or just presented their chosen treat for that day. Recently, another team member started with noticing that we all have varied travel plans but we do also have a lot of overlap in the things we like to do on our personal travels. So - every week, one person will share an upcoming trip they will take OR a past trip they took and the itinerary they enjoyed at the end of a meeting. Our tech org channel is for connection across the squads of engineers and product managers (who at any moment can span 4 to 10 timezones). We have a focused engineering channel where we discuss code and challenges, so that allows us to use our team channel for more relaxed virtual watercooler chatter.

What I've noticed this time around is we have teams of talented people who have shared some amazing bits of who they are and a closer connection as colleagues. Someone sending me a Slack and saying "hey, you have 5 minutes to hop on Zoom?" isn't nearly as anxiety-inducing as it would be if we didn't find ways to build those professional (and personal) bonds. There's a trust that's been cultivated and it makes it easier to have the easy and hard conversations.

Whatever works for your team, organization or group may differ and that's the point. No two work environments are 100% the same and you'll notice that this list is not a "do this now" as much as it's about themes and examples of how you can personalize it for yourself.

Hopefully, this has given you some things to think about as you make remote work work for you, not just professionally, but personally as well. Let's continue the conversation over on Twitter or LinkedIn, where I can hope to make this an exchange and learn from some of your ideas as well.

Until next time...