Working Remotely & How to Prepare

In 2011, I relocated from Los Angeles to RTP to join NetApp. I didn’t even make it 2 years before having to head back to LA in 2013 for my own sanity. Since then, I have been considered a remote worker. Working from Home (WFH) has been a way of life for me these last 8 years. It has its Pros, and it has its Cons, and we’ll talk about those today. Hopefully in doing so, I can share some hard lessons learned (good & bad) as we head forward into this global crisis known as CoronaVirus, but also for those that may be taking on new roles that are remote (more and more common every year). Entire companies are being run remotely these days. Two of favorite examples are Buffer and Podchaser. They’ve been very public and open about how they run their global companies with ZERO office space.

The Joys of Remote Work

TL;DR or Golden Rule: Ideally, you want to mirror your office life (or better, schedule) to your WFH life. What do I mean by that? Discipline. Adulting. I know, I KNOW! This is all supposed to be fun & games working from home, right? /sarcasm

In the beginning, it feels very foreign. Almost like there’s no “adults” watching, and you’re free to sit around in your ratty clothes eating cheetos and ice cream all day playing video games, simply because you had no meetings on that day. Yep, there is certainly a honeymoon period of that first time you’re given permission to do whatever the hell you want with little to no supervision. But that inevitably has its consequences. We’ll come back to that.

Before we get into some of these rules, there are certainly some fringe benefits of working from home. Time with children and loved ones, being home for that delivery you have to sign for, slotting in an errand, all kinds of stuff. But before you can successfully do that efficiently, you have to really get some fundamentals down so that you can begin to intertwine the two “lives.” Part of the joy in working from home for me has always been establishing my own routine, not the one my employer sets for me. You won’t be able to do that at first. Don’t fret. That takes months if not YEARS to develop into its own calendar of events, as it takes an incredible amount of discipline and experience to settle into.

What time do you get up in the morning to be at the office by 8 or 9?
Still get up at that time. My alarm goes off at 6:30AM every weekday morning, whether my first call is at 8AM or 3PM.

What do you do before you leave for the office? Cup of Coffee, Shower, get dressed, breakfast, exercise, walk the dog?
Yup, you guessed it. Still do those things. In the same order. Routine is PARAMOUNT!

When you’re at the office, you likely have a desk or cubicle dedicated to you, right?
Carve out a dedicated quiet, sealed off space for your work day. Away from the distractions of “being home.” Typically a spare bedroom or closed working space where you can have a desk, computer, and maybe a comfy chair to relax. Put a microwave and a mini-fridge in there if you need it. Anything to keep you from the trappings of Netflix and your couch.

Do you normally find someone to have lunch with? Pack Your Lunch? Cafeteria?
Bingo. Once or twice a week, reach out to a colleague and meet for lunch. Escape the desk to go down to the kitchen to make a sandwich. Psychological breaks and “check outs” are vital for your sanity, and its also important to get up and stretch and move around once an hour. Side-note: People rib smokers for smoking, but I bet you didn’t think about the fact that they’re getting more exercise than you on an average work day walking back and forth to the “designated smoking area.” I’m not telling you to start smoking by any means, just making a point. Get up and move around once an hour.

Start there. Start with those few fundamentals. Because if you can do those, congratulations, you’re going to love working from home.

Before we move to the Cons of WFH, I also wanted to take a moment to highlight some things to avoid, because if you fall into the trappings of thinking that you’re always home or conversely, perpetually available, you’re not going to get the most out of the experience.

Most who screw up the WFH experience initially break the routine they would normally have when going to the office. You either need to be disciplined to stand by that, or develop an entirely new routine that doesn’t find you in your bathrobe playing video games at 1PM. I’ve lost count of how many conf calls I’ve been on where a remote person joined and their camera was accidentally on initially, revealing a bathrobe and messy hair at 3PM in the afternoon. So, a couple of key things…

One… know your weaknesses, own them, and also recognize that you’re not a minimum-wage worker punching a clock and flipping burgers, but a professional with a career that normally requires you to wear business casual at a minimum.

PRO TIP: Bathrobes and jammies are not considered “biz casz.”

Hold yourself to a higher standard and take pride in it. Plus, a shower feels amazing first thing in the morning. Admittedly, I’m not a coffee guy, but something about sucking down an ice cold Diet Coke first thing in the morning really gets me movin. To each their own.

Two… Eat. You will forget to eat. You will skip breakfast, inevitably because you assumed you didn’t have to get out of bed because your first call isn’t until 11AM, and then you’ll miss lunch, too, because you’re slammed playing catch-up on 300 emails you got that morning. You’ll look up, and it’ll be 4:45, you’ve been in meetings the last 5 hours, and you’ll wonder how you completely lost the day.

It’s ok, it happens to all of us. Recognize it when it happens, and give yourself a routine to escape the lazy. Or it will consume you and you’ll find yourself still responding to emails at midnight later that evening, leaving your boss questioning what it is you’re doing all day that you have to be answering emails at midnight. There’s a ripple effect at play.

The Cons of Remote Work

We’ve talked about some of the joys of remote work, and the flexibility it affords, but let’s discuss some of the Cons.

Detachment. Yup, that’s a very real thing. You might turn your nose up at me, or scoff at the idea (because OMG TWITTER DUH) but at the end of the day, the interaction with REAL PEOPLE while you’re at the office has its own rewarding psychological side effects as well. Affirmation and validation of jobs well done, accomplishments, and the general community of the office environment can do wonders for the psyche, and leave you feeling fulfilled.

When you’re working from home, not so much. Usually the extent of fulfillment you get is a spouse asking for help with something because “you’re there,” or a kid running into the room squealing while you’re on that important sales call about to close the deal. And who doesn’t love “Barking Dog Guy That Forgot to Mute His Mic” on every conference call ever? All of this completely taking you away from the work you’re supposed to be doing. Then later they’re fussing at you because “you’re still working” after 5PM, when they were the one’s distracting you all day.

Don’t take for granted the fulfillment you get from interacting with people, and see the rule above about making lunch plans with colleagues, get on a group Slack call and hang out, or invest time in learning some collab tools like Discord or Teams for casual water-cooler chat throughout the day. You hear folks say in the office all the time that it’s “good to get out of the office?” Well, the same applies to the home office as well.

Autonomy. Wait, I thought this was a Cons section? Yep. Some people do not manage their time well, do not do well without extreme focus or pressure, and the ADHD can kick into absolute overdrive at home, completely removing you from any situation or focus where it is absolutely needed. Now, I’m not naive enough to preach this without recognizing that distraction exists at the office as well, but learn to do things like closing your door, wearing headphones with some loud music for white noise, or hanging a tag on the door to let others in the house know you’re not to be disturbed. I listen to very loud heavy metal in my ears almost all day every day when I’m not on an actual call or watching something else. It works, I promise.

Nutrition. You will find shortcuts and ways to not eat properly working from home. You will eat 10-fold more junk food, using the excuse that “I don’t have time.” (See previous paragraph about time mgmt). Please, do yourself a favor and stock up the fridge and pantry properly. If there are snacks you like to have from the office vending machine, get some of those, but be ready to also make yourself lunch every day as well. #routine

Working Late. Anyone that has worked from home for any period of time has found themselves still sitting in the chair working at 9PM. It happens to the best of us. See, when we’re at the office, we put the pen down and go home, knowing we can pick up where we left off the next day and that’s that. Unfortunately, your routine will run a little rampant on you if you’re not careful, and this will begin to morph into routine. You’ll stay up later and later, sleep in later and later, and eventually you’ll find yourself working second shift. The absolute worst-case scenario here is that you completely detach from all friends and family because you think you were getting more done. When actually, if you hadn’t watched the second Netflix movie, or the 27th YouTube video of cute cats playing on a trampoline (or <insert your poison here>, you likely would have done better about being done.

This is indeed the most dangerous Con of all of them. It’s also the easiest trapping to fall into. How did I solve it ultimately? Well, when I was single and lived on my own, who cares? I did what I wanted. But I also missed out on gametime, going to dinner with friends, etc. Now that I’m not, if work begins to bleed into family time that THEIR routine dictates is your time with them, such as dinner, tv, playtime, etc, then you’re also doing more damage than just yourself.

Ultimately, I just make it a point, sometime between 5PM-6PM to get up from the desk and go downstairs, where we start talking about dinner or anything we want to do that given night. It’s good to catch up about our days, what we have going on the next day, and watch some tv. Ya know, the thing you would do if you came home from the office? #routine

A Note on Time Management

I am constantly experimenting with time management techniques, and ways that I can tweak my schedule. The last thing I do before I go to bed at night is look at my calendar for the next day. The first thing I do in the morning when I wake up? Anyone? You guessed it. Look at my calendar for the day. I have my work Outlook calendar, of course, but I also run and manage more than 10 different Google Calendars, each with their own unique purpose.

With that in mind, USE that tool if you’re the same way. Block off time for your daily repeating tasks. For example, I’m trying an email efficiency technique currently where I block off the first hour in the morning and the last hour of the day for email. Notifications for those apps are off, and then I never open Outlook or gmail outside of those hours. You may catch me scrolling through my inbox mid-day to scan for anything super-urgent, but I won’t open any of them otherwise.

This has had an unintended but awesome side-effect of training my peers to contact me by other means. At our disposal, we have Slack, Teams, Texts, WhatsApp, and TwitterDMs. Why in the world do you need to email me to ask me if I can make a meeting? It’s the reason I put my handles and phone number in the signature of every email I send out. Some pick up on it, some pester me about why I didn’t immediately respond to their email in 3 minutes and start sending out SOS’s. We’re 20 years into the 21st century. Email should not be our primary form of collaboration in the workplace anymore, but for some reason it still holds sway. I want it and voicemail to die a swift death ASAP. They are not needed anymore. But that is all a post for another time.

Stay Safe & Enjoy the Journey of WFH

It can truly be an awesome experience, and can give life-changing perspective on how we work in the 21st century going forward. If there is any silver lining about this Novel Coronavirus, I hope that it is that more people get exposed to working from home, learn to manage employees and their time in more productive and efficient ways, and perhaps that reduces some of the commuter traffic, helps with the climate crisis, and opens our eyes to how things can be done differently with a whole new #routine.

If you have any questions for me that I didn’t address here, hit me up on twitter @datacenterdude!

/Nick

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