Working Remotely during the Apocalypse
The widespread outbreak of remote work and working-from-home policies thanks to COVID-19 has caused a number of people to ask me "Andrew, how have you managed to work mainly alone in an office for almost 10 years and keep most of your sanity? And before that didn't you work at an airport hanger with maybe 1 other person around? Are you ok?" So thanks to popular demand, I am joining the herd and posting my own set of guidelines to staying productive when you are not surrounded by an office full of distractions.
This is the big one. Don't try to hide out, with your head down, and just 'hammer out work'. That's great in short bursts. But it will drive most people nuts pretty quickly. You have to communicate.
The company chat app be it Teams, Slack, Hangouts, Matrix, IRC, is your #1 tool if they have it. This is where you live. Be an active participant! Have it running on your computer and mobile device whenever you are 'at work'.
Video chat is huge. If you have to say anything longer than a paragraph of text to someone, consider firing up a video chat. I find it the best way to talk through ideas or explain concepts. Try not to make it a big 'meeting-style' ordeal. Keeping it informal helps you feel connected.
Phone and voice/only chat is nice for casual conversation. I mainly use it when taking a break, going on a walk or a snack-run. Doesn't have to be work related.
The #random channel or equivalent in your organization's chat app is actually quite important. It really helps you feel like a part of the group to share in all of the non-work-focused banter. It give the 'office water cooler' or 'break room' feel. Don't ignore it.
If a #random style chat is not active or available, I keep a couple of separate IRC channels open on subjects I enjoy like #openbsd. Of course you would want use a platform (slack, reddit, etc) and subject matter that you care about. It provides that same feel of non-work-focused chat that you can look at when you need a break. Or you can ignore it all day without consequence (which is also very important).
Don't fear meetings! When you are remote, meetings are a great way to see everyone and catch up. I look forward to them. Leaving time for a round of general "what do you have going on?" questions makes it even better.
Having your own office of some sort is essential. It lets you maintain feelings of 'going to work', 'being at work', and 'wrapping up for the day'. Your work focus goes way up when you have some kind of place dedicated to work.
The more removed your office space is from your home space, the better. I rent space in a separate building, but a garage works great. Lacking that just a different level in your home (basement, attic) is an improvement. At the very least try to have a separate room. Working from the dining room table is likely to end poorly for all involved.
A key feature of the separate office space is that it remains just how you leave it. When you are not at work, you aren't in your office space. So when you get back to work everything is as it was. You can sit down and be re-immersed in your own 'productivity palace'. I even find the setup/teardown of a laptop to be a distraction so I always have a computer at my office, on and running, ready to go.
Dress for success. I find the act of putting on 'work clothes' when 'going to work' extremely helpful. Doesn't have to be fancy; I wear jeans and a company or software-themed T-shirt. But it is consistent. And when I get home I change back into non-work clothes. (Sometimes just a different shirt.)
I've always kept a work log of what I do every day, just a text file organized by date. It's not particular to working remotely, but it is another great way to get yourself back 'up to speed' when returning to the office.
Background audio of some kind is huge! Music you like goes without saying. But I have found non-music radio/podcasts/etc to be really nice as well be it news, sports talk, or whatever. It helps give your office a feeling of community. I have never followed football, but I now love a good rant on the Vikings front-office debacles as much as the next person.
Keep office hours and try to follow them. Have set times during the day when you are expected to be available. And likewise let people know when you are expected to be away. That leads of course to:
Keep a regular schedule. Seriously. Have set times when you expect to get to work, be at lunch, and be home from work. If you are running late, rush! If you are working late, try to wrap it up and 'get home'. A real schedule keeps you focused when you are supposed to be focused.
Have lunch. Set a time for lunch and be consistent. Try not to eat at your desk every day, hoping to cram a little more work in. I've long since lost count of the number of difficult problems I have solved shortly after returning from a lunch break.
Do a lunch workout. Some days it's nice to do a 30min bike ride, zwift, or something active. Then go with the quick desk lunch when you return. It can be a nice way to mix up your week.
An afternoon (or morning) coffee/snack run can be almost as helpful. It's best to truly 'get out' of the office space since the walk itself is half the benefit, but even moving to a different room for a few minutes can help. Just don't forget to bring your phone!
Not for everyone
At the end of the day, remote work is not for everyone. Some people just function better with lots of others are around. Some people simply cannot stop reading pointless blog posts on the internet without a manager's oversight. My tips here won't solve that. But hopefully they make the experience just a bit more bearable for everyone.
Questions? Comments? Email me on this article: workremote_at_apastron.co