How to become a remote worker

Yes, it’s 2018, us IT folks have probably been working remote for quite a while (full-time or occasionally), but there are other industries where these things take time. Not to mention that in countries like Belgium, remote work also has to be arranged for in employment contracts or ancillary documents. But anyway, I digress.

During the past months and weeks, the company where my wife works has started organizing to support remote work. They have been working on improving some IT things, talking to employees around how to organize as a team, and so forth. The first week of October is when things will happen: every employee is allowed to work remote one day a week.

Having been a remote worker for 7 years now, there are a few tips that I can share. Focused on her work situation, so I will not cover everything I can think of. She has few meetings so if that is what you are after, go read Scott Hanselman’s tips and tricks. Of course I hope you can get something out of it as well. And feel free to add comments around things that work and don’t work for you!

Job types and communication lines

While it will be easy to introduce remote work for some job types, for others this will be more difficult. As always, “it depends”, and mileage will vary. For me, remote work is relatively easy. I am a lone worker! Most of my tasks don’t require much collaboration with others, so I can pretty much sail my own course every single day.

For my wife, things are different. She works in a team of 10, where everyone has their own tasks inside that team, but a lot of communication with other teams is required.

The type of job, the organization itself and the lines of communication required to do your job will influence how things work out. But there’s already one word here that is important: communication.

Remember that word, it will come back a few times, as it is the most influential concept to how things will work out.

Personal things

Let’s start with personal things. I remember when my boss told me I could work remote. Being professional, I jumped into the car and drove off, time to work from home!

And then you get home. Now what do you do…

Remote work means work

To some, remote work may sound like a vacation. In some ways it is: no morning and evening commute, and you get to stay home to do your work! The problem is: people still expect you to do something. Depending on the type of job, your working hours may vary, and you can find a way that works for you, but you will need some discipline.

During the week, my wife leaves towards work at 7:30 AM. That’s when I start my working day. Usually, she arrives home around 4 PM. That’s when I try to end my working day. More on that in a second.

I have always been used to working business hours, I find productivity mostly in the morning, so I start early. Bonus points, as this also lets me stop quite early. Since this gives me 8h30 of work time, it also gives me time to take a break or go for a short walk during lunch.

If your team expects you to be there during business hours, stick to those hours. If you have flexible start/stop times, try to stay close to the times you would work at the office. It keeps the routine, and I find it easier for myself to make me believe I’m at work.

Communicate your expected office hours with colleagues who are at the office. They will know when you are there, and when not. Set those expectations for them, and for you.

Not now, tomorrow is another day

Now, my plan is to stop at 4 PM. This works out maybe once a week. My job type means I work with people in different timezones. And those that work in earlier timezones seem to start later than me as well. So to have a window of communication, I often have to do some things after 4 PM.

I’ll dive into communication tools a bit later, but while those tools are a blessing, they can also be a curse. I don’t have to communicate in that after-4 PM window every single day. Yet, interruptions come via the different tools and me being friendly (and stupid) usually responds to those interruptions, whether during the day or when I should consider my work day finished. 7 years of remote working, and I haven’t tackled “not now, tomorrow is another day” yet.

Again, communicate the times you are there and the times you are not. Your day ends at 4 PM? Let colleagues know, set expectations.

If you are just starting remote work, try to adhere to this as much as you can. I like to believe doing this from the start is easier than doing it 7 years in… And beware of the next one…

Guilt

Being a remote worker can be a guilt trip. Am I doing enough work? My boss can’t see me, so let’s make sure that I respond to e-mails as soon as I can, even after the time I consider my work day finished! Don’t. It’s a guilt trip. And you’ll end up like me, ignoring “not now, tomorrow is another day” too often.

Don’t overdo it. Working at home, at least to me, feels much more productive and usually is, too. Which means I sometimes feel like I’m done, 7h into my work day. Now what! I am supposed to work 8h! At the office, you would go and have a coffee, chat with a co-worker, maybe do some mails from last week, and when the clock strikes 8h in, you’re off towards home! When working remote, this is a dangerous moment. You may start doing more things, making sure you do 8h30 or even 9h, because who knows, a manager may be looking over my remote shoulder! Better work!

Don’t feel guilty. When your work is done, it’s done. Again, it boils down to those expectations. Set expectations in terms of work time, and maybe in terms of tasks, too. “When these 5 tasks are done, I’m out!”. It sets expectations for colleagues, managers and, more importantly, yourself. Don’t start feeling guilt.

Where is your office?

A few years back, Scott Hanselman also wrote about remote working. One of the tips he had was that it’s easier to switch to “work mind” by having your home office be different from your home. I occasionally work at the kitchen table, and during summer I like to sit outside for some work, but generally you can find me in my home office.

Some of my colleagues sometimes work from coffee shops or the library, but to me those places don’t feel like work spots to me, and I get distracted too quickly. I tried, but my home office works best.

My home office is a dedicated room. The wall has a different color scheme than the rest of the house. Subconsciously, stepping into that room puts me into work mode. It’s a bit of a boundary, but it sets expectations. For myself, but also for others!

I’m at the office!

Having a dedicated home office also helps setting expectations for others. When I’m in that room, I’m at work. While one of the perks of remote working is that you are home, and other can walk in and out, having that dedicated room makes it easier to communicate boundaries, too. For example when the door is closed, I’m focusing, stay out unless you want to come in to say the house is on fire.

No really, I’m at the office!

I like my family. My parents live on the other side of the village, and they pass by my home on their commute. For some reason, they seem to think remote work is vacation, so they pop in every now and then. That’s fine, usually, I can spare a quick coffee. Other times, I can’t.

Geek productivity at work

I tried explaining using the above chart, and after a few years they now politely give me a call if they plan to stop by. That’s great! There is still the perk of a quick visit, but now there is also the perk of focus time when an interruption would be too costly.

I heard others explain this to relatives by saying “you didn’t drive 50km to Brussels when I was working at the office!”, and that seems to work, too. Again: communicate.

Remote work gear

Now that we went over the personal side of things, let’s look at a few things in terms of gear that help me a great deal. There are only a few hardware things you will need, of which the most important is…

A good headset

Depending on the number of calls you will be making during the day, a headset is recommended. That microphone in your laptop? It sucks during a call with customers or colleagues. Try Skyping someone and take some notes using your laptop keyboard during the call. They’ll want to punch you in the face for giving them the sound of a boulder tumbling down in the background. Get a proper headset. Ask your boss for one.

There are may, Logitech has a couple, there’s Parrot, … Some prefer bluetooth, I prefer a cable (because I always run out of battery with those bluetooth ones). Get one that sits comfortable on your head, Google around a bit and you’ll find a good one, no doubt. Here’s the one I have, it’s nice and not too expensive.

A good Internet connection, and VPN or a remote desktop

Remote work often means you’ll have to be “on the network” to access services at the office. A good Internet connection is a first requirement there, both for accessing remote systems as well as making calls and so on.

Make sure VPN connectivity provided by your company is fast enough, and don’t feel bad for telling them it’s crap. Many IT professionals setting up those connections route all your traffic through the company, yet provide you a connection that has the speed of 90’s Internet. Tell them, you need it to do your job.

If they can’t, ask them to setup a computer at the office that you can login to, basically having your computer at work with the keyboard, mouse and screen in your home office. This is especially handy when you have to work with large files - these will all stay in the remote network making things feel much faster.

A second screen

If you are used to having a second screen at the office, try arranging one with your boss.

A docking station

While not required, a docking station was one of my best remote work purchases. Before, I used to have to plug in power into my laptop, that second screen, the USB headset, …

Now, all those peripherals are connected to the docking station and I plug in one cable that now charges my laptop and connects it to all those things. It makes it so much easier to move to another location in the house for an hour to enjoy some different scenery, then come back to the home office, plug in and continue.

Good coffee

Workplace coffee is often horrible. Get good coffee.

Communication tools

One of the things you will need is a tool to communicate with colleagues. Skype or Skype for Business may work, Microsoft Teams or Slack may work, there are many and most probably, the IT folks at the company will suggest one and preinstall one.

Get to know the tool. Whether Skype, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams or Slack, they all have their good points and bad points. One bad point: they seem to almost never select the correct microphone and speakers when making a call. Learn where the settings for switching to the correct one are hidden, to make communication less cumbersome.

A watercooler channel

At JetBrains, we use Slack. Our team has a “watercooler” channel where we post work-related things but also stupid and funny things. It’s a bit like what you have at the office: open communication, and if you decide to tune in, you can.

Just like in an office, if I have a question for a direct colleague, they may be able to answer it at once. If someone says something funny, I can join the laughter. Try such watercooler channel, it’s probably much easier to use something like that than having to call 10 colleagues who are normally seated right next to you if you want to know who is working on something you are working on as well.

It may work for you, it may not work, but it’s an open line of communication that you can tune in. There’s one prerequisite to this watercooler: everyone at the office should have it open as well, otherwise you’ll be all by yourself. Which brings me to a few organizational things.

Organizational things

While probably not in your hands directly, there are a couple of things the organization can help you with. Or that you can help the organization with.

Communication!

Again, communication. It helps the organization if you set expectations, but also the other way around. Ask them when you should be there. Ask colleagues to let you know when they will be in late, and let them know when your coffee maker exploded and you will be a bit later.

Being seen and unseen

Linked to guilt you may feel for not doing enough, there’s the other side as well. We humans tend to believe that only when we are in the office, we are seen working. Wrong! Don’t let that feeling guilt you, and when colleagues work from home, trust them, too.

Become remote-first!

You are not working remote alone. When one is working remote, everyone is! You happen to work from home, others happen to work from the office. Use collaboration tools, take notes in meetings, and include your remote peers that don’t have a face-to-face presence.

“But they are working remote, why should I care?” - that’s one I have heard before… Trust me, you want to care. Tracing discussions in the form of notes, communicating using a searchable tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams will allow you to trace decisions and earlier communications, even when everyone was at the office at that time. It’s a small effort, and everyone benefits, even those who are always at the office,

I hope you can get something out of this post. Feel free to add comments around things that work and don’t work for you!

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