Working remotely when everything else is in flux

Everybody and their mother seems to be handing out WFH advice at the moment. I was reluctant to join the chorus (by now you already know that you have to mute your mic during a call), but after the umpteenth friend expressed “I don’t know how you do it!” I do feel the need to highlight the fact that remote work, and remote work whilst everything around you is new and uncertain, is not the same thing.

I know this first hand. Two years ago my husband and I packed our bags (and our dog) and left a life we loved to pursue a two year assignment in Limerick, Ireland. With the move, I quit my job and though I had some opportunities locally, I mostly pursued remote opportunities as I felt it gave me more growth opportunities and flexibility. (Turns out this was a good call as we’re now heading to Amsterdam for another two year assignment and not having to change jobs again is a big relief.)

At the time everything was new. It was exciting, but from a work point of view it was exhausting. Having already worked partially remote in the past, I was definitely very naive about how much of an adjustment working from home full time would be, especially considering the fact that we had left behind our friends and family in Cape Town. The first couple of months as an expat can be very isolating, meeting new people and settling in takes time.

Much like pandemics, the isolating nature of moving continents does not pair well with remote work. Rich Harris (of Svelte) had, what I believe to be a really relevant and read worthy thread on this recently:

Mistakes were made.

Arguably the biggest mistake I made early on was not setting myself up for the long haul. The two main factors here were probably a lack of confidence in my own abilities (that’s really a post in itself) and the fact that we were only planning on being in Ireland for two years. The two-bedroom house we are renting here is furnished and having just sold off or boxed up all of our stuff we didn’t want to accumulate more stuff on this side.

Whilst interviewing, the company I ended up accepting an offer from, paid me for the time it took to complete my technical test. I used that money to buy myself a monitor and some plants for our house. We had a nice window-facing cabinet in the corner of our living room, I converted it into a desk and that was it. I was the only one at home during the day, so that was were I worked for the next 20 months. Mistake number two? You guessed it, don’t work in the living room.

Remote Office

I realise that space is a massive privilege, but if you have any way to separate your work space from your living space, capatalise on that. It’s the number one to-do on most “how-to remote” lists for a reason. I now work in our spare bedroom and when friends or family come to visit I just move my desk into our bedroom for the duration of their stay. The separation helps to determine and manage how much time I actually spend in front of my computer.

I’m a self-taught software developer, my job was a hobby long before it was a job. I can spend hours happily tinkering at my computer. Unfortunately, if you leave the tinkering unchecked you can easily overdo it. As with exercise, you need to pace yourself to avoid injuries - something most runners learn the hard way.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have bit the bullet and invested in a nice secluded office space from day one. This is probably a good time to mention that this pandemic isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, if you’re in the fortunate position of still having employment and considering making some upgrades to your home office, you’ll probably get your money’s worth.

If you’re a remote company by default, offering a home office setup or co-working space allowance really goes a long way for employee happiness and mental health. If you had an office would you expect your employees to bring their own desk, office chair (💸) and monitor?

On to a strong contender for being my biggest mistake: feeling guilty for not being productive 100% of the time. The guilt would push me to work into the evenings to “make up for the time I wasted”. When working remotely, bum in seat means nothing and for the first time in my life I was doing time sheets. If I wasn’t happy with my output for the day (spoiler alert: I never was) I would just keep working until I was. I know better now, but since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the procrastination-guilt-productivity-cycle has surfaced in a number of conversations. Turns out “WFH guilt” is an actual thing.

This can be a tough cycle to break, but the reality is there will always be more work. Start by stopping at a specific time, irrespective of how productive your day was. If you don’t switch off you’re only cheating yourself and ultimately your work and health will suffer. Chances are you’ll be less productive the next day, because you pushed too hard the previous day…and so the cycle becomes a habit.

In my case, it eventually reached the point were I woke up in the mornings with the sole aim of filling a time sheet. For someone who loved what they were doing during their downtime so much that they turned it into a career, this was incredibly depressing. Depression and an isolating work environment do not pair well. The fixation on filling my time lead to me working long and unproductive hours without any focus on the value of my work.

When you spend most of the day by yourself it can be hard to get perspective. That's why having one-on-ones or some form of a mentor program in your company is so important.

Generally, one of the strongest arguments in favour of remote work is less interruptions and meetings. The realisation that not all interruptions in a “normal workday” are bad and acknowledging the role that positive interruptions play really helped me to form better working habits by focusing on taking “smarter breaks”.

In the past breaks were spontaneous and generally occurred once I grew frustrated with a task or simply felt like a breather. They would most likely result in me scrolling Twitter until I felt refreshed. (Twitter makes you feel many things, refreshed is not one of them.)

I now have a Pomodoro-esque strategy and line-up things to do in my breaks, like playing guitar, reading a long-form article, quickly unpacking the dishwasher, meditating or watching our dog, Wilco, sleep. (Mostly the latter.) More importantly, I no longer feel guilty for taking five minutes to unpack the dishwasher or take out the trash. Breaks are necessary and if you work from home, they’re going to look a little different than they did in an office.

I found daily updates really valuable. They help to frame my day and keep track of what I achieved. This comes in handy when it’s time for a project or performance review. On the flip side they help my manager pickup when I’m overwhelmed or stuck.

Framing your workday is incredibly important. Traditionally, this might be your commute or a gym session en route. If you work from home your first activity after work needs to be something that takes your mind off work, after learning this the hard way I now typically opt for a run, dog walk, strength session at the gym (pre-COVID) or cooking a nice dinner.

Initially, I didn’t view remote work as a skill. It didn’t take me long to join the “remote is a skill and you should hire for it camp”. Being able to work remotely is a skill that you should either hire for or be bullish about the fact that you are providing your employees with the appropriate culture in which to cultivate that skill.

I definitely didn't capitalise on the benefits and flexibility that come with remote work. This is largely a by product of the “productivity guilt” and feelings of being overwhelmed mentioned earlier. Remote work should enable you to have better quality of life, if that’s not the case - that’s a red flag.

You might currently (and suddenly) find yourself in a remote environment with colleagues that are a little overwhelmed too.

Don’t be afraid to make contributions reflective of the kind of culture or environment that you wished you were working in.

If your colleagues aren’t keen on daily updates, do it anyway. Post them on a project specific channel or just send them to yourself. Start saying “👋🏼” to everybody in the mornings, soon others will follow. If you feel like people aren’t sharing enough or that there aren’t enough overlap between teams, start sharing more, ask somebody to help you out the next time you get stuck or arrange a weekly team chat. You might be surprised how many colleagues share your feelings.

I made the mistake of not speaking up. As this was my first full-time remote job, it included a number of logistical challenges, like figuring out how to take care of tax and accounting as a sole trader with an employee in another country. Knowing that mistakes could be costly, I found this quite stressful and pretty intimidating. I ended up taking care of it mostly in my own time. Looking back I should’ve asked my company if they would assist with the cost of an initial accounting consultation, but at the time I was still finding my feet and already felt like I was under delivering.

If you don’t speak up, you’re robbing your manager of the opportunity to help you. This is a two way street. If you’re not communicating with your employees effectively, they’ll start colouring things in with their own narrative (something to keep in mind when you get to the paragraph on negativity bias).

If you suddenly find yourself running a company remotely and are still onboarding new employees, make sure somebody is checking in on that employee regularly. Encourage your existing employees to schedule calls with new employees, even if they are working on different projects or teams. It helps form a picture of how the different aspects of the company fit together.

There is an energy that comes with the novelty of joining a new company, don’t let that go to waste just because you’re a remote company. Tiny gestures like sending new employees a company branded cap or a copy of REMOTE: Office Not Required goes a long way.

Get face time with your colleagues as soon as possible. I only met my colleagues IRL eight months after joining the company, but this really helped to form a better understanding of their individual personalities. It enables you to view daily interactions through a more informed lens and keep any negativity bias in check (another solid argument in favour of daily updates and one-on-ones). We now get together every six months. Generally new employees won’t go more than about three months without meeting everybody…unless there’s a pandemic.

I briefly referenced negativity bias. As humans, we’re seemingly hardwired towards negativity. One of the biggest challenges of written communication is the lack of nuance and tone, when working remotely it’s really important not to immediately assume a statement or question was made negatively. You need to trust that your colleagues will raise any issues they might have in a sensible manner. Building that trust can take some time.

The last mistake worth mentioning is relevant regardless of how or where you work. Make sure you know your worth and how to make yourself valuable within your company. In my line of work it’s not that hard to get sidelined by the latest alluring framework or trend, but the reality is that your customers generally don’t care about the tools you use, they care about what you do with those tools and how it benefits them. More often than not, what others might label as boring, is stable. Stable and profitable.

Focus on the areas where you add the most value and if you don’t know what that is, ask! Asking questions is a good thing. It shows you care and might just put you first in line for that new project or promotion.

Mistakes were made, lessons were learnt - that’s how we grow.

When you know better, you do better.