Remote work is hot right now. Many people even say that remote work is the future. Why should a company limit itself to hiring from a specific geographic location when there’s an entire world of talent out there?
I’ve been working remotely, full-time, for five and a half years. I’ve reached the point where I can’t even fathom working in an office. The idea of having to wake up at a specific time and commute into an office, work for eight hours, and then commute home, feels weirdly anachronistic. I’ve grown attached to my current level of freedom and flexibility.
However, it took me a lot of trial and error to reach success as a remote worker — and sometimes even now, I slip up. Working remotely requires a great amount of discipline, independence, and communication. It can feel isolating, especially if you lean towards the more extroverted side of the social spectrum. Remote working isn’t for everyone, but most people, with enough effort, can make it work — or even thrive. Here’s what I’ve learned in over five years of working remotely.
Experiment with your environment
As a remote worker, you have almost unprecedented control of your environment. You can often control the specific desk and chair you use, how you accessorize your home office space — whether that’s a dedicated office, a corner of your bedroom, or your kitchen table. (Ideally, not your couch… but I’ve been there.) Hate fluorescent lights? Change your lightbulbs. Cover your work area in potted plants. Put up blackout curtains and work in the dark like a vampire. Whatever makes you feel most comfortable and productive, and doesn’t completely destroy your eyesight.
Working remotely doesn’t always mean working from home. If you don’t have a specific reason you need to work from home (like specialized equipment), try working from other environments (which is especially helpful it you have roommates, or children). Cafes are the quintessential remote worker hotspot, but don’t just limit yourself to your favorite local haunt. More cities worldwide are embracing co-working spaces, where you can rent either a roaming spot or a dedicated desk. If you’re a social person, this is a great way to build community in your work environment. Most have phone rooms, so you can still take calls.
Co-working spaces can be expensive, and not everyone has either the extra income, or work-provided stipend, to work from one. Local libraries are also a great work location. They’re quiet, usually have free wi-fi, and you have the added bonus of being able to check out books after work instead of, ahem, spending too much money on Kindle books. (I know most libraries let you check out ebooks, but reader, I am impulsive and impatient person. When I want a book now, I mean now.)
Just be polite — make sure your headphones don’t leak, and don’t work from a library if you have a day full of calls.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to stay in the same spot all day. It’s okay to go out for lunch and then resume work from a different location. If you find yourself getting restless, take a walk. Wash some dishes while you mull through a problem. Don’t force yourself to sit at your desk for eight hours if that doesn’t work for you.
If you’re a workaholic, working remotely can be a challenge. It’s incredibly easy to just… work. All the time. My work computer is almost always with me. If I remember at 11pm that I wanted to do something, there’s nothing but my own willpower keeping me from opening up my laptop and working until 2am. Some people are naturally disciplined. Some have discipline instilled in them as children. And then some, like me, are undisciplined disasters that realize as adults that wow, I guess it’s time to figure this out, eh?
Learning how to set boundaries is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned working remotely. (And honestly, it’s something I still struggle with).
For a long time, I had a bad habit of waking up, checking my phone for new Slack messages, seeing something I need to react to, and then rolling over to my couch with my computer. Suddenly, it’s noon, I’m unwashed, unfed, starting to get a headache, and wondering why suddenly I hate all of my coworkers. Even when I finally tear myself from my computer to shower, get dressed, and eat, the damage is done. The rest of my day is pretty much shot.
I recently had a conversation with a coworker, in which she remarked that she used to fill her empty time with work. Wake up? Scroll through Slack and email before getting out of bed. Waiting in line for lunch? Check work. Hanging out on her couch in the evening? You get the drift. She was only able to break the habit after taking a three month sabbatical, where she had no contact with work the entire time.
I too had just returned from my own sabbatical. I took her advice, and no longer have work Slack on my phone, unless I need it for an event. After the event, I delete it. I also find it too easy to fill empty time with work. Now, I might wake up and procrastinate by scrolling through other apps, but I can’t get sucked into work before I’m even dressed. I’ve gotten pretty good at forbidding myself from working until I’m ready, but building any new habit requires intentionality.
Something else I experimented with for a while was creating a separate account on my computer for social tasks, so if I wanted to hang out on my computer in the evening, I wouldn’t get distracted by work. It worked exceptionally well. The only problems I encountered were technical, like app licensing and some of my work proxy configurations. I’ve heard other coworkers have figured out ways to work through these technical issues, so I’m hoping to give it another try soon.
You might noticed that a lot of these ideas are just hacks for making myself not work outside of my designated work times. It’s true! If you’re a more disciplined person, you might not need any of these coping mechanisms. If you’re struggling, finding ways to subvert your own bad habits can be the difference between thriving or burning out.
Create intentional transition time
I know it’s a stereotype that people who work from home stay in their pajamas all day, but… sometimes, it’s very easy to do. I’ve found that in order to reach peak focus, I need to create intentional transition time.
The most obvious step is changing into different clothing than I woke up in. Ideally, this means getting dressed in real human clothing. I might decide that it’s cold and gross out and I want to work in joggers and a hoody all day, but first, I need to change out of my pajamas, put on a bra, and then succumb to the lure of comfort.
I’ve found it helpful to take similar steps at the end of my day. If I’ve spent the day working from home, I try to end my day with something that occupies my body, while letting my mind unwind. Often, this is doing some light cleaning or dinner prep. If I try to go straight into another mentally heavy task without allowing myself this transition time, I find it hard to context switch.
This is another reason working from outside your home is advantageous. Commutes, even if it’s a ten minute walk down the road, are great transition time. Lunch is a great transition time. You can decompress between tasks by going out for lunch, or cooking and eating lunch in your kitchen — not next to your computer.
If you’re used to working in an office, you’ve probably gotten pretty used to being able to pop over to a colleague’s desk if you need to ask a question. They’re pretty much forced to engage with you at that point. When you’re working remotely, your coworkers might not be in the same timezone as you. They might take an hour to finish up a task before responding to you, or you might not get an answer for your entire day because dangit Gary’s in Australia and it’s 3am there right now.
For many remote workers, that’s part of the package. When you’re not co-located, you have to build up some patience and tolerance around waiting. You need to intentionally plan extra time into your schedule for waiting on answers.
Asynchronous communication is great. Not everyone can be present for every meeting or office conversation — and the same goes for working remotely. However, when you’re remote, you can read through your intranet messages later or scroll back a couple hours in Slack. My company has a bunch of internal blogs (“p2s”) where we record major decisions and hold asynchronous conversations. I feel like even if I missed a meeting, or something big happened while I was asleep, I can catch up later. We have a phrase — “p2 or it didn’t happen.”
Working remotely has made me a better communicator largely because I’ve gotten into the habit of making written updates. I’ve also trained myself to wait before responding, which allows me to distance myself from what could potentially be an emotional reaction. (On the internet, no one can see you making that face.) Having the added space that comes from not being in the same physical location with somebody else creates an opportunity to rein myself in and take the time to craft an appropriate response, without having the pressure of needing to reply right meow. Lean into it!
(That said, if you’re stuck, sometimes the best course of action is to hop on a video call with someone and hash out the details. Use the tools most appropriate for the problem. They invented Zoom for a reason.)
Seek out social opportunities
Even introverts can feel lonely or isolated. When you work remotely, there isn’t a built-in community you’re surrounded by every day. You have to intentionally seek out social opportunities that an office would normally provide.
I have a couple private Slack channels where I can joke around with work friends. Having that kind of safe space to socialize helps me feel less alone. (And, if the channels get too noisy, I can mute them for a couple hours.)
Every now and then, I’ll also hop on a video call with some work friends and just hang out for a little while. It feels great to actually see someone laugh.
If you work from a co-working space, that space likely has events. My co-working space hosts social hours, holiday parties, and sometimes even lunch-and-learns. These events are great opportunities for making new friends and forging professional connections outside of work.
If you don’t have access to a co-working space, your town or city likely has meetups. Create a Meetup.com account and search for something that piques your interest. If you’ve been stuck inside your house for days, heads-down on a hard deadline, celebrate by getting out of the house. Get coffee or drinks with friends. See a show. Go to a religious service. Take a cooking class. Try yoga. Find excuses to be around someone other than your cats. When you can’t fall back on your work to provide community, you need to build your own.
These are tips that I’ve found help me, but not everyone works the same way. Remember that it’s okay to experiment — just because you’ve worked one way, doesn’t mean that’s the best way for you. Check in with yourself every now and then. Are you happy with your work environment? Are you feeling lonely, down, or exhausted? Try switching up your routine for a couple weeks and jot down how you feel at the end of each day. Look for patterns. You deserve to have a comfortable and productive work environment!
Hope to see you all online soon 🙌