Working Remotely

Vincent Danen

September 30, 2017

I've read a few articles lately about working from home and some best practices for working remotely, and other topical guidance around the subject of working from home. I always find these articles fascinating because I want to see if there's something I am missing or doing wrong. Maybe there's a way I can boost my own productivity. Some insight. Something.

Inevitably I finish the article, sigh, and carry on. The suggestions they make are sometimes silly, and sometimes they are no-brainers. And since I've not written on this blog for a while, I figured I would write about what my day as a remote worker looks like. It may also be useful for friends and family to realize that just because I'm home, it doesn't necessarily mean I'm available. Sometimes I think people figure I don't work and can drop anything whenever they like. (I wish!)

So, as a preamble, I've worked from home since 2000. It's not something I've done for a few weeks or months or even years. I've been working from home for about 17 years now, and as a result I think I've developed an allergy to working in the office. I find it very, very difficult to work from an office these days. I do have to work from an office maybe once or twice a year (usually in a different country though!). The benefits of meeting some of my coworkers and associates outweigh the temporary discomfort of putting jeans on and working in an office, so I do want to state up front that when working from an office is required, I usually don't mind... probably because it doesn't happen too often. =)

If I could sum up working from home in one word it would be discipline. This is absolutely the 100% most useful skill you need (and can develop) to work remotely from home. Every time I read articles on this topic, however, they don't call it out specifically. They give you ideas and routines to adopt, but they don't tell you that in order to adhere to these things you need to be disciplined to be successful. Tools and tricks are helpful, but they are easy to work around. So from here on out, every topic has one underlying premise: you must have, or you must develop, discipline in order to be successful and performant when working from home.

That being said, let's go through some of the things that are usually suggested for remote workers and I'll share my thoughts.

Getting Dressed for Work

Most of these sites tell you that you need to get dressed for work, even if work is at home. I suppose this is because we've conditioned ourselves that "dressing for success" is a requirement, but I expect it's more basic than that. Just get out of bed! Do not work in your bed. Beds are meant for sleeping in, and the same reasoning behind going to bed to sleep rather than play games or read or watch YouTube goes here: if you turn your bed into something other than a place to sleep, your brain won't properly shut down when you get into bed. You're conditioning your brain to think of your bed no differently than your couch or your desk -- places where sleeping is generally a bad idea. Well, for most people. This doesn't seem to be the case with my wife who can watch YouTube, roll over, and be out. This is not the case for me.

So, having said that, here's my perspective. I am a gloriously unapologetic pajama-wearing person. My "pajamas", mind you, usually consist of a t-shirt and pajama pants, so I'm semi-dressed: I just don't put on jeans. Ok, maybe this is TMI but the conventional suggestion of "dressing for work" doesn't cut it for me (and while I may mow the lawn in pajama pants, I've certainly never showed up to an office in pajama pants). Sitting long hours behind a computer make me desire to be comfortable. Pajama pants are comfy and so I wear them. I do get dressed when I need to go somewhere though.. the idea of being stranded on the side of the road in pajama pants is a little horrifying. But from home, why not? This is one of the perks from working from home. Big thing is getting out of bed and moving to a working space. Oh, just don't wear the pajamas you sleep in during the day, at the very least put on your "daytime" pajamas and set aside your "nighttime" pajamas.

Designated Work Space

Most people/articles suggest you have a designated work space. I couldn't agree more. If you live alone, I suppose it could be just about anywhere that isn't your bed. If you don't, I would strongly suggest a space with a door. A different or dedicated room devoted to all things work so that when you're in it, you know you're working (and just as importantly, others know you are working). Maybe it's the psychological aspect of it, but being in a separate dedicated "office" (with a door) is a great way to maintain focus. I actually don't ever close my door. My daughter or my wife can wander in as they please. They know that when my headset is on, chances are if they walk too far in someone will spot them via a video chat so that's enough of a deterrent. But they know when I'm in here, I'm (usually) working. And more importantly, I know when I'm down here that I'm working. It's a way to set that boundary between work and home. Which leads to the next point.

Maintain Work/Life Balance

This is probably one of the hardest things to do, because one of the great benefits of working from home is that you can take care of personal things while also dealing with work things. But, without the aforementioned discipline you can find yourself doing more personal things than work things and this can be an easy trap to fall into, particularly if you're new to remote work. For me, having a set of firm understandings with myself and with those around me really helps. So here's my list of required things for making sure that I can maintain that work/life balance.

Set a start time and stick to it

I get up every morning at 6:30 and start at 8:00 on the nose. There are odd days when I need to get up earlier, but I never get up later. This 1.5 hours before I start working gives me a lot of time to get started and alert without starting my work day 10 minutes after I roll out of bed (been there, did that for many years). This gives me ample opportunity to use what could have been a commute to get myself oriented for the day. I'm not a breakfast person, so this involves some coffee, some time spent reading the Bible, some time spent in prayer, and some time spent exercising. Skipping this routine usually means I'm not at my best. Whatever your routine needs to be, set out enough time before you start so that your work time is highly productive time (some people go for meditation, go for a swim, play with your kids, whatever it is that gets your blood moving and your mind alert). I don't know about you, but 10 minutes after I get out of bed I don't even register my own name so starting to work at that time, and trying to be performant, doesn't really happen and that first hour of work would be spent simply walking up and not being very effective. Also note that I am not a morning person so when I started doing this it took a huge amount of disciple and not a little internal complaining, but it has been well worth it.

Set boundaries

This is of huge importance. My family knows that my working at home isn't because we're independently wealthy and that the work done here actually pays the bills. They also know that without the job, we don't eat, which makes it rather important. They also know that if I can get the work done, I have more time for them in the evenings. Making this understanding clear, they treat me, at home, as though I were in the office. They don't sneak around like little church mice so as not to disturb me, but they know to keep their disturbances to a minimum. I am, however, always available if they need it and no one gets barked at if they do interrupt me with good reason. I also try (and mostly fail) to step away from the computer and get out of the office for a break every hour or so (either to grab coffee or water, etc.) and they grab me at those times if they need to. The big point here is to make sure that those significant people in your life know that if they interrupt you when you're working you will be distracted. Those interruptions are costly, and tend to get paid for with "over time" and that simply robs everyone of quality time later. I am not someone who wants to be thinking about work for 16 hours a day because of constant interruptions.

They say it takes you, on average, about 10 minutes to get "into the zone" when you're doing creative work. When you're in the zone and interrupted, not only does it cost you the time of the interruption (say, 5 minutes) but it also costs you another 10 minutes to get back to where you were before. If you get two 5 minute interruptions every hour, you're only doing 30 minutes of efficient work every hour. That is not what I would consider performant. Forbes has an interesting article called Interruptions At Work Are Killing Your Productivity that is worth a read on this topic. Suffice it to say, if you want to feel good about (and maintain) an 8 hour workday, you want to minimize those interruptions.

Time away from work

Another important aspect to working at home is to make time for other activities away from work. This is where having a separate workspace is useful, but sometimes it also means being intentional about how tethered to work you're going to be. I used to get work email going to my phone, along with the wonderful dings to remind me that someone wanted something from me. This doesn't help! Now, while I can still check work mail on my phone if I want, it no longer alerts me in any way (not even visually). I can still be reached easily enough in an emergency (a voice call, text message, etc.) but I don't let mail alert me when I'm away from my desk. While not everyone can do this if they're on call or have certain obligations, being binged about things that I really don't need to care about at this point in time can be a real distraction in what should be downtime.

Also, given you're working at home and not in an office with it's implicit social environment, you need to take time to get around people (unless you hate people, in which case ignore this advice). I love hanging out with my family and I have plenty of home projects to do so there is no shortage of things to do outside of work. I'm not a big bar/club/coffee person, so am not one to go out to social environments like that. For me, I spend quite a bit of my time at my church and with my church family and that meets my social needs and gets me hanging out with people. I really value these times because they get me out of my work environment and keep me away from that ever-present temptation of work around the corner (which is literally the case for a remote worker). They also keep me centred and keep me focused on the important things in life and keep my priorities in perspective.

In conclusion, working remotely is a huge benefit to me, to my family, and to Red Hat as well. I find I'm more productive since I've managed to minimize interruptions from home (still working on managing those from work, but at least you can ignore an IRC ping a little easier than someone walking into your office!). And if I can be more productive at home in those regular working hours, it means that time spent away from work can be had without thinking about work.. if the internet isn't on fire, that is. Remote work can be exceptionally rewarding, but for it to be effective for both you and your employer, some care has to be taken to do it well so that you can reap the benefits, and your employer can as well.

I enjoy reading articles about working remotely, and see the value in them given so many more people are working remotely now than when I started. They've not really taught this old dog any new tricks, but for those new to this working from home game, or for those struggling with it, take some time to hunt them down (I won't list any, but there are a lot), read the advice and instead of overhauling everything at once, go for those incremental and impactful changes, and consistently seek to improve yourself. Remember, it boils down to one thing: discipline.

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