A colleague and friend of mine posted a link to Viktor Petersson’s reflections on a decade of remote work in Slack. As an advocate of remote working and digital lifestyle, I read through it with anticipation. I love this kind of post.
A whole decade working remotely. That’s a long time. Then it hit me; as I approach my 32nd birthday, this summer brings up my 10 years too.
I left university with a degree in multimedia and communication design, an after-school qualification in HTML and a newly found interest in WordPress. After applying for a couple of digital jobs unsuccessfully, I advertised myself as a freelance web developer. Starting with working on local businesses websites from my bedroom, I now consult for companies and agencies all around the world.
So, with the internal discussion that Viktor’s post provoked as inspiration, here are my experiences from 10 years remote.
Focus Is Everything
While this applies to every job role, I can’t stress how important focus is for remote workers.
It takes a certain type of person to be able to work remotely for long periods of time. Are you comfortable in your own company? Do you enjoy putting everything into a specific task for a few hours? Can you do that without being distracted? These are the sort of questions I ask people when I’m quizzed about remote work avenues.
Whether you’re working from home or on a beach, you need to be productive. This can only happen with periods of intense focus in my opinion. Remote work often does not lend itself to this. Some people openly admit that they’d succumb to distraction – whether it be the TV downstairs or the beer at the bar. In this case, remote work is not for you.
Focus is not always under your own control. For instance – when working with agencies, you will get interrupted. What I can recommend is to set boundaries with your colleagues and leaders. Let them know how you work best. Put limits on times of the day you’re willing to be interrupted. Breaking your flow (and that of your collaborators) is counterproductive for everyone.
When working, a remote person needs the ability to zone in on their work and zone out of everything else.
Distraction Is a Killer
Put your phone on do not disturb. Use an app to mute social media. Get the game consoles out of your office.
Speaking with my peers who don’t work remotely, they often struggle to understand how I stay focused while not at “work”. The thing is, I am at work. My home turns into my workplace during working hours.
While I do appreciate the level of flexibility remote work offers me, I’m pretty strict during these hours. I won’t start my day watching Game of Thrones; even if the day is long and full of spoilers. I’ll watch it when I’m out of work mode.
You’ve got to give yourself the best chance of being the most productive you can be. This does not happen if your head is out of the game (of work, not Thrones) an hour here and an hour there.
For developers and engineers, in particular, distraction is a killer. Any programmer reading this will know about flow/crunch mode/the zone.
It’s a magical dream-like state where the time goes twice as fast and code flies out of your fingers. If you’re not getting to this state at least a couple of times a day, you’re likely getting distracted.
It only takes 1 notification.
A Dedicated Workspace Is Vital
As nice as it is working from the garden when the sun is out, the real work gets done in my dedicated workspace. My office is set up specifically with all the tools I need to best do my job. When the door is closed and the headphones are on it’s a distraction-free zone.
If you’re struggling with day to day remote working, without a specific place you work from in your home, I’d encourage you to set one up.
I saw a saying once that resonated with me, I think it’s an old proverb but I’ve never been able to find the source:
Always buy good shoes and a good bed. Because if you’re not in one, you’re in the other.
I want to add a good chair to that too. We are literally sat on our backsides for much of our lives. I invested in a Herman Miller Embody Chair when I started my freelance business. ~£1000 for a chair might seem expensive, but £100 a year isn’t bad. My back (and backside) has thanked me for it.
It’s super valuable to invest in the proper equipment for your workspace. It pays for itself.
Routines and Habits
A common attraction to remote work jobs is flexibility. No one looking over your shoulder, make your own hours up as long as you get the work done, go for a pub lunch, take an early finish if you need it.
Flexibility is a definite perk, but I’m also a firm believer in baselines routines. What I mean by this is how a standard work day should typically go.
What made me a better remote worker was to embed a set of routines and habits into my work day. The first of which was to get up earlier.
I’m not a natural morning person. I’ve had to work on my sleep routine a lot over the last few years and I’m still tweaking it.
My Current Morning Routine
- 05:50 – Alarm
- 06:20 – Gym
- 07:50 – Walk the dog
- 08:20 – Shower
- 08:40 – Breakfast + morning emails
- 09:00 – Work starts
The habit of getting up early has directly boosted my remote working and my life in general as a byproduct.
Your end of day routine is just as relevant as your start to the day. As Viktor mentions in his post, I also try to add a hard cap on the time I finish working. For me, this is currently 19:00. This is not the time that I finish every day, but the time I won’t work past.
An efficient remote worker will be utilising routines and forming habits. And in my experience, routines and habits make other routines and habits easier to come by. Something as small as drinking a bottle of water with lunch can start that momentum.
Although the “21 days to form a habit theory” has sort of been debunked, (James Clear cites, it takes between 2 and 8 months to develop a new behaviour in your life), start small and stick to it. My routine became second nature soon enough.
As an aside: If you’re interested in habits and habit-forming, check out James Clear’s book – Atomic Habits.
Remote worker. You. I’m talking to you! Please, please, please exercise.
Just as much as I’m not a natural morning person, I’m not a natural athlete either. Starting to exercise regularly, around 6 years ago, changed my life.
The mental clarity I have after a session in the gym is unrivalled. Plus, heading out to the gym gets me out of the house where I’m cooped up so often. And generally, I feel a lot better about myself.
It’s extra relevant for people in sedentary jobs to take exercise seriously. A person with a desk job will burn off fewer calories while working than someone in a manual role.
Don’t let working out get pushed to the bottom of your to-do list. No matter how busy you think you are, no matter how dumb you think you’ll look, no matter how unfit you feel.
There are no downsides to regularly exercising. Make no excuses.
As with the habits; start small and stick to it. It will get easier and it will improve your life.
Communication Is Your Most Important Skill
The most important skill of any remote worker should be their communication. Whether you’re a designer, a developer or the CEO of a company. If you can’t communicate well, you’re set to fail.
This is another reason why I think remote work is not for everyone. Some people don’t excel in written communication. Video conferencing is used a lot nowadays. But the vast majority of exchanges are still text-based.
If it’s hard to articulate a project brief, describe a bug clearly or ask for help in a concise way via email/Slack, remote work is probably not for you.
A Few Tips on Communication
- Get straight to the point. That way, the receiver can prioritise your request within their workflow. Be pleasant and direct.
- Spell things out. It’s sometimes hard to convey the wider context in written communication. Same with emotion and intent. Therefore be clearer than you think you need to be. Use emojis!
- Manage expectations. If you get a message or an email with a request that you know you can’t get to within a reasonable time, let the sender know that. It will save frustration on both sides.
- Respect statuses. If someone is set to “Do Not Disturb”, try not to message them. Trust them to have a good reason for having set this.
- Use meetings sparingly. Before you call a meeting, think whether the issue could be solved in a quicker way. When you do sign up for a meeting, make absolutely sure to attend it on time.
If I were hiring an engineer to work remotely for my company, I’d first look at how they communicate before looking at how they code.
Treat Everyone The Same
Working as a remote individual, a remote company, or a company that hires remote workers, there are a number of scenarios you’ll come across.
I’ve worked in agencies where some employees are remote and others are based at HQ. Many companies are going full remote. Conversely, some companies like everyone in-house (way to kiss that extended talent pool goodbye!).
Day to day remote work for an individual, though often their choice, is isolating. While I don’t struggle with face to face interaction myself now, some remote workers are remote workers because in-person meetings are their idea of hell. In my earlier years as a remote worker, this avoidance of meetings perpetuated feelings of isolation.
To the Company That Hires Remote Workers
Treat your remote hires in the same way as a person based at the office. Be accommodating of them. Include them.
If you have a company get together or retreat, make it easy for your remote employees to attend. Pay for their travel and accommodation.
When delegating projects, try to pair remote workers with employees at the office.
The people that work for you remotely will appreciate it. It helps them to feel like part of the team, which will be paid back to you in good morale and loyalty.
To the Remote Worker
Make the effort to visit your colleagues in person every once in a while.
Treat your employers and/or collaborators the same as you would if you were sat in the office alongside them.
This might mean making additional efforts to get to know your co-workers personally. Follow them on social media. Have a few non-related work-related chats. It’s cool to get to know people and it will make collaboration in work time flow better.
Be competent, reliable and present. The people who you’re working with/for have placed trust in you. While not in the office physically, offer the equivalent level of respect to people and perform your role in the same way.
Set Boundaries with Family and Friends
Your family and friends will think you’re not properly working half of the time.
I’m 10 years deep working from home. Nevertheless, some of my friends still call me when they have a day off to play golf. (You know who you are!).
I don’t know why, but there still seems to be this stigma around working from home and freelancing. Particularly from people who work 9-5 jobs.
Now I know people usually mean no harm, but it does get waring at times. Spell it out that you’re unavailable during your work hours.
Place Importance On Your Social Life
Providing you haven’t completely alienated yourself for not playing that midday 18 holes of golf, it’s important to make time for an at least modest social life.
Remote workers often miss out on the end of week drinks and the Christmas parties. So with that said, extra effort is usually required to be social.
I’ve spoken with other remote developers who struggle with this. It can be difficult to rectify depending on where you live, proximity to your friends and other circumstances. I’d suggest joining a gym or sports club (exercise ✅) to help. It’s really worth making that effort.
My wife and I are always out walking the dog together or eating at restaurants. Most members of my social circle are in completely different lines of work and we like to go for drinks fairly regularly. This is great for me as it allows a level of separation from work.
It also provides something that is crucial to me personally. Perspective.
I often get lost in my work, stressed out and set in my ways. It’s beneficial for me to hear about how other people are getting on in their lives.
“Not Working Guilt” Is Real
Switching off is something I’ve struggled with for years.
As a remote worker with a home office, there is always that temptation to carry on working. It’s like reverse distraction.
I can be sat watching TV and I’ll get this overwhelming feeling of guilt that I’m not being productive. I can be having a conversation with someone, but thinking about work, appearing uninterested in the conversation I’m having. It annoys me when I’m like this.
Stamp that stuff out. You’ve done enough work for today and it’s no fun talking to someone who’s not completely present.
There are more important things in life than work.
I’m a work in progress in this respect, but I’m getting better.
Make Time to Take Stock
Remote working and running your own businesses is all-encompassing and a greatly internal thing. It’s healthy to reflect on your situation from time to time.
I’ve started to set evaluation periods where I look at my current habits, routines and the general balance of my life.
It’s so easy to get lost in your work sat alone on a computer all day. Take stock by talking to other remote workers and business owners; gain perspective from their experiences as well as your own.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. However, just because your current situation isn’t bad, it doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.