Here we are in the year 2020—a Sci-Fi date that has somehow through the relentless passage of time come to be the actual date—and we're facing two major factors that have suddenly made remote work extremely compelling for a wide variety of people. The first, the ubiquity of the Internet, is what allows remote work to really be possible, at least for a large swath of white-collar workers, students, and others (including potentially millions who have never before worked from home). The second, COVID-19, has rather suddenly taken working from home from "might be an interesting experiment" to "I need to do this" for a large group of people.
With that in mind, there are a whole lot of people giving remote work a shot for the first time in their lives, many of whom probably find the prospect pretty daunting. I know when I tell people that I've been one hundred percent remote for just over a decade now, one of the most common responses is, "Oh, I could never do that." I usually follow that statement up with, "Why's that?" and get one of a handful of responses back. "I don't think I'd have the discipline" is the most common one, but I also hear "I wouldn't know how to structure my day" and "I'd get lonely" pretty often. These are all valid concerns! Let's talk about them.
A quick note: all of these are suggestions and guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. I break them all the time, sometimes because it's a good idea, sometimes because I screwed up!
Developing the Discipline
One of the biggest advantages of the office is that it theoretically offers fewer distractions than your home. In practice I'm not sure this is entirely true – have you ever seen a sitcom, movie, or other piece of media set in an office that showed people diligently working at their desks for eight straight hours? Still, I get it: even if you do blow some time talking to Joe and Mary in the breakroom, that's a whole different thing from trying to work literally ten steps away from your PlayStation. It feels like it would be easy to be distracted at home, and it is. Here's how I deal with that:
Get Up At the Same Time Every (Week)Day
This one took me a while to figure out and even longer to get good at. It's very easy to get engrossed in something at night, stay up too late, and think "Oh well, I'll just get up later and work later tomorrow." The problem is that you can't always work later. Real life tends to happen in the evenings, whether or not you're ready for it. Significant others and kids need attention, the dog needs to be walked, groceries need to be bought … letting your schedule slide around like crazy often means that your work hours suffer.
It's okay to sleep in a bit on weekends, though I recommend trying to stay within an hour or two of your normal schedule so you don't have to deal with the whole "I couldn't fall asleep on Sunday and now I'm a zombie on Monday" thing, but on the weekdays, I really recommend getting up at the same time every day. It leads directly into the next tip …
Work on a Schedule
One of the perks you often see mentioned about remote work is that you get to make your own hours. This may or may not be totally true depending on how much you need to interact with others at your company, but it certainly does increase flexibility. Consider, however, setting those hours in stone, or if not stone then at least something that takes some effort to break, like wood. Sure, if you really need to, you can take a couple of hours off to go to the doctor or the dentist, and make those up later, but that should be the exception, not something that happens daily.
One of the key factors in successfully transitioning to remote work is consistency. It's important for you, and it's important for your employer or clients. Being consistent with your scheduling will help you be consistent with your deliverables. People will know when they can expect you to be answering emails, available for meetings, or just at your desk doing your work (for me, that's mostly coding).
Your schedule doesn't have to be nine to five! It can be whatever works for you. If you work best at two in the morning, you do you ... but do it consistently. Side note: if you're actually that much of a night owl, you might want to find a position with an extremely distributed company that's used to people working at all hours of the day and night.
This one is going to bum a lot of people out. Another one of the first things people say to me about remote work is that I must spend half my time in my a) underwear, b) pajamas, and c) sweatpants. Nope, nope, and nope (I don't even own a pair of sweatpants). I get up, I do some morning stuff, I work out, I run, I take a shower, and I put on normal "I could go to work in this" clothes. Now, if you have to wear a suit or even biz casual at your current workplace, then yeah, remote work is likely to offer you a chance for more casual clothing. I typically wear jeans and a T-shirt or thermal shirt, depending on the season … which is what I've worn to the vast majority of my in-office jobs as well.
Why get dressed? Because a) we're not a bunch of babies and the majority of adult clothing is perfectly comfortable and b) it really helps you feel like you're at work, and not your home, even though you're at your home. This is a key distinction you need to be able to make, and you should encourage habits that help you make it. Putting on real clothes helps, I promise.
Ignore Your House
This is another tough one until you get used to it. It's insanely easy to get up for some coffee and be like "well I should just empty the dishwasher while I'm here" when in fact that is absolutely not what you should do. You're not at home, you're at work. You're just working in your home. Whatever your house needs, I guarantee you it'll still need it when quittin' time rolls around. So get your coffee, go back to your desk, and keep working, because you're at work, and because you …
Set a (Flexible) Non-Work Schedule
This one's got a little leeway. I'm a schedule person, so I do a lot of stuff at specific times every day/week. For example, I load the dishwasher with the day's dishes every afternoon after work. I take out the trash and empty the cat boxes at the same time of the day, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, every week that I'm not on vacation (and even on those weeks if the vacation is taking place at home). Along with the dishes, it's the first thing I do when I'm done with work, which gets it out of the way and frees the rest of the evening up for whatever else I'm doing with my time (which ranges from "writing my latest novel" to "playing video games" to "laughing at fail videos while my wife rolls her eyes at me"). I also eat my meals at more or less the same time every day, when possible, including on the weekends.
This doesn't mean everything has to be rigid! Unlike your work schedule, you should feel comfortable breaking your non-work schedule regularly (instead of building it in wood or stone, build it in LEGO - easy to pull apart and put back together). The goal is not to be a robot. It's just that by having some kind of schedule, you know you're going to get to all that stuff that might otherwise be calling to you during the work day. I don't have to do the dishes when I walk by them at eleven in the morning, because I know I'm going to do them when I wrap up at five-ish.
Reduce Temptation With a Dedicated Work Area
Don't put your desk next to your PlayStation. I realize this is kind of an extreme example, because honestly most people aren't going to fire up Nioh 2 in the middle of the day no matter how new to remote working they are, but it's at least a very clear example. What it really comes down to is: try to find a place that you go to for working, at least during the day. I have a home office. It does not contain a television, or video game consoles, or lots of books I want to read, or a good view into the rest of my home. It does contain my guitars, but frankly I'm bad about playing those even when it's the right time to do it, so that's not much of a temptation. If your desk is set up next to a bunch of other appealing stuff, it becomes much more difficult to focus on work. Even when I lived in a studio apartment in Manhattan and had all of 250 square feet to work with (and was only doing remote freelance work on nights and weekends), I still managed to stick my desk in its own corner, away from the couch and the TV.
Structuring Your Day
We've covered some of this already, what with all the scheduling and such, but we haven't really talked about what to do with the eight hours (or less … hopefully not more, though that's probably an empty hope for a lot of people) you're scheduling as work hours. Obviously, this is heavily job-dependent. If you're a professor, and you're supposed to give a lecture every week at 2 PM, then I suggest you give your lecture every week at 2 PM whether you're doing it in a lecture hall or in Skype. Otherwise the … Provost? I have no idea how university admin structures work … might become enraged and produce a threat display by bearing his or her enlarged canine teeth.
If, like me, the vast majority of your work involves rapid alternating between swearing at your code editor and pumping your fist in victory, you have a lot more flexibility in how you schedule things. Here are some (more) tips:
Set a Time or Times for E-Mail
Ten years in, I'm still bad at this one. I check my e-mail way too regularly. I did, at least, take all e-mail notifications off my phone, so that I stopped feeling as much pressure to immediately respond to every little thing that comes in. Still, I check e-mail constantly. What I don't do is respond constantly. Or at least, I try not to. I try to do a session of responding in the morning, one around the middle of the day, and one before wrapping up for the day. That's not always possible and you're going to have to have some flexibility here, but the better you can encapsulate this task, the less risk you run of realizing you've spent all day clearning your inbox and haven't actually done any of the work you're theoretically being paid to do.
Side note: short answers to email are valuable both to you and to the receiving party. Trust me, no one wants a long-winded e-mail. I say this as someone who regularly writes long-winded e-mails. Try to keep it brief, and you'll have a much easier time maintaining "inbox zero" (or at least, like I do, "inbox ten-ish").
If You Have Multiple Clients, Schedule Those, Too
It's easier to take breaks in an office. There are people to talk to, places to go out for lunch, and so forth. It can be easy to never leave your desk while working from home, or to leave only for the time it takes to walk to the kitchen, refill your coffee or grab something from the fridge, and then come back. This is bad for your back, your neck, your morale, and your stress levels. Just finished with a four hour block of client work? Get up and move around for a bit! And on that note …
Get Out of Your House
I run five days a week, with the following exceptions: 1. I'm sick. 2. It's pouring rain to a point where even my water-resistant gear can't handle it. 3. It's snowing like crazy. 4. It's after a big snow, and the sidewalks are either not yet cleared, or an ice-laden death trap. 5. It's under 25° F out, because screw that.
That's my routine. You can make up your own. In addition to that, in the warmer months, I try to get out every weekday afternoon for a short walk. I have a FitBit and, yes, I try for 10k steps (when it's warm - again, screw the cold). Getting up, out of your house, and away from your desk is vitally important. Seriously, I can't express how valuable it is. I didn't do this when I first started working remotely, and it exacerbated everything else. It made it harder to schedule my time, made it much more tempting to screw around, and generally left me feeling physically uncomfortable. The human animal is not meant to spend all of its time in a confined space. Get out of your house! Just, you know … stay six feet away from anyone else.
Let's Talk Loneliness
Working from home, especially long term, has its own set of mental challenges. Loneliness is definitely one of them. It's especially noticeable on the occasions when my wife takes a trip but I'm still at home working. When I was working exclusively on CloseBrace for over a year, I had periods where I realized I hadn't directly interacted with another human being, even a store clerk or whatever, in three or four days! This is, like failing to get out of your house, unhealthy. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this problem:
Communicate. A Lot.
First and foremost, obviously, you should be communicating with your clients and/or co-workers. This will be easy if you work with or for people who are used to dealing with remote workers, and incredibly frustrating if you're working with or for people who are not. I've run the gamut, doing work for companies that were built to be 100% remote from the ground up and have extremely effective communication strategies in place, to companies where I was the only person not in a physical office and very frequently felt the effects of that fact. If you have the luxury of choice, I strongly recommend gravitating toward the folks who know how to do it – it makes a huge difference.
You don't need this kind of setup, but it'll make you feel cool! (original photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash)
BUT, in either case, you need to be proactive about communication. For this purpose, I can't recommend Slack highly enough. Every workplace, even those at which all the employees are expected to be physically present, should have a Slack workspace. For remote work, it's essential. It serves as a connection to the other people on the project, as a written record of what's been discussed and what decisions have been made, and a place to blow off steam with giphy gifs or adorable dog pictures. Slack is, in some ways, the modern equivalent of an office. It has different rooms for different purposes. The benefit is that this office space can be expanded indefinitely as the company grows without significant cost. You don't have to start piling desks into what was formerly a conference room because you hired a bunch of people but haven't yet found a new building.
In addition to Slack, use your e-mail. Remember how I mentioned having designated e-mail times? That's important because if you're communicating well, you're probably going to send and receive a decent amount. Clear communication is extremely important with remote work because you often don't have the subtle cues—gestures, facial expressions, a bottle of water poured over your head—that in-person communication allows. When in doubt, ask follow-up questions. Be polite, courteous, and friendly. Always. Even when you're seething with white-hot rage. One of the awesome things about working from home is that you can shout profanity at your cat instead of your manager, and then respond to their latest email cordially (the manager's … not the cat's).
Get Out of Your House, Redux
While hitting the coffee shop every single day can be a bit pricey, depending on your level of human contact, you may want to bite the bullet and pay for those Lattes. Even idle chatter with the local barista, especially once you become a regular, can really help you feel like you're connected to the world. Obviously, this doesn't really work well if you're trying to isolate for COVID-19, so adapt as necessary, but in general try to avoid situations where you don't talk to another human being, in person, for multiple days straight. It can lead to depression and sap all the fun from remote work. If you absolutely can't talk in person (again, COVID-19), then at least try to hop on a videoconference. It feels more "real" than text chat.
Engage with Friends
One of the things an office provides is, assuming you get along with your coworkers, a sort of forced camraderie. You're all there together, so jokes and memes and the like happen organically. Again, it's the "break room" effect. You can duplicate that, somewhat, if you and your company/client take the right approach to remote work. Your Slack Workspace (which, again, is basically a necessity) needs a "break room" -- it needs an off-topic channel, or a general channel in which off-topic discussion is encouraged. It's absolutely vital that work not be just about work. People need to connect on a human level, and we do that by sharing funny cat GIFs, news stories about bears acting like humans, and videos of soldiers surprising their families. Have you ever worked at an office where they try to cut out all of this sort of human interaction? It's f'ing miserable, and a Slack workspace that's policed so that all discussion is 100% work-related is just the same.
If your job is to manage people, you need to know this, too. Trying to get eight straight hours of work out of anyone is a fool's errand. Accept that some amount of time every single day is going to be burnt on social interaction and non-work activities. Pay attention, so you can cut things short if people are spending all day finding new videos of robots doing cool stuff (unless you run a website dedicated to chronicling such things), but you need to allow a little leeway. Trying to deny that human beings—even self-declared introverts—are social animals is like trying to push back the tide. You're going to exhaust yourself without making any significant difference.
So … that's what I've got. You've probably seen a lot of this advice before, but I think much of it's worth repeating. Working from home has its own unique set of challenges, but it's also got a huge set of perks. No commute, you can set up your office how you like, you get to use your own bathroom in privacy rather than a stall next to someone who is for some reason talking on their phone, and so forth. I've been working remotely for a decade, and I can't really imagine ever going back to an office full-time. I think once you've tried it, and once you've developed some good habits, you won't want to go back either!