Telecommuting: the Advice is Now

Submitted by Josh on

As a followup to my last post, I'm going to assume that based on my previous thoughts you've now gone to your management team and advocated successfully for some work-from-home days in your life. More likely, of course, is that you're fortunate enough to be in a corporate environment where remote work is already embraced, whether that's for just some days during the week or month, or all of them. However you got to this point, though, this is where I come back in to impart my advice for working remotely in a successful way. Remember, I've been doing it for most of the last ten years, starting back in 2007 with just a bit of a break when I first transitioned to my current company.

This advice came to be when a friend's spouse was looking into becoming her team's first remote employee when she looked to change teams last year. Until then, I never really had it written down anywhere, having just a general set of ideas in the back of my head as I worked to be successful in my own situation; helping lay down some guidelines for my friend helped me to realize that the concepts are pretty universal regardless of what kind of work you're doing. And, of course, this advice has a great deal of your-mileage-may-vary, with some things being more or less important if you are in a team where you're the only remote person, or if you're only remote a couple days a week, things like that. And, of course, I'm coming from my own perspective as a software engineer, which might not track 100% to someone working in book publishing. All of this might seem obvious, but it's definitely important to remember for people just starting out down this road; additionally, some of these guidelines may be less important the longer you do them. In any event, I apologize for any pedantism in advance!

Be Visible

In my opinion, the most important thing you need to remember as a remote employee is to be visible to your team and your management. Be quick to respond to email, and be even quicker to respond to more instant methods of communication, whether it's asynchronous via Slack or SMS, or realtime like voice or video calls. Try to be the first person to call into meetings when your schedule allows, too, and when appropriate, have your webcam turned on for teleconference meetings. It's a fairly easy way to remind your peers that you are there, even if not in the same room, and that you're taking your meetings seriously.

To that point, you can emulate a lot of the face-to-face interaction you'll be losing by going remote by talking to people over video chat, whether it's one-on-one or in the context of a larger meeting. However, your organization might be such that they'll be more comfortable seeing your smiling face show up in the office physically from time to time. This is more of a problem for folks like me who are fully remote, of course, but in those situations you'll want to accept the request to come in from time to time with grace. It helps keep you and your team emotionally connected, and camaraderie up, which is good both for your morale and the morale of your peers as they relate to you - remember, not everyone is going to be thrilled that you get to work remotely when maybe they don't, or don't as often.

Be clear when you know you're not likely to be able to respond quickly, whether that's for lunch or for the appointments with which everyone must do from time to time, too; when people know your availability, even if it's just a vague recollection from a passing comment, they're less likely to be frustrated if they need you and can't track you down right away. Having your team frustrated with your availability as a remote employee is the worst thing you can let happen, because you're not as able to catch and manage that frustration - it's easier to explain in person why you got hung up coming back from lunch than it is from miles away. If people are repeatedly frustrated by your availability, they're likely to complain, and that's not a good omen for your continued flexibility.

The least fun part of this bit of advice, though, is this: at least while you're starting out and everyone is getting used to your new working situation, be prepared to be the most available on your team. This might mean you're putting in more hours than usual; while nobody really likes to plan for working extra time, knowing that you can be around for both the early birds and the, um, later birds on your team makes you all the more valuable while you find your rhythm. Keep this in mind also when you have big team changes, such as reorgs or an incoming new manager, as you might want to revisit this balance to make sure you're presenting yourself and your work positively.

Don't Be Too Visible

A shorter, easier to grasp counterpoint to the above follows: don't force yourself into the trap of working twelve hour days every single day just to be visible. What I mention just above is really best suited as a ramping-up sort of advice. Once you and your teammates have reached a comfort zone with your work, it's a good idea to re-evaluate how much you're working and when. If you're having to work twelve hours a day to keep up, relative to a standard eight-hour day when you were in the office, you need to evaluate where you can work more efficiently from home, instead of simply working that added time all the time. Of course, everyone has times where they have to put in some overtime to keep abreast of the incoming work, even if they're exempt and not hourly, but you can't let it become your rule. It's a quick way to disliking your new remote arrangement and burning out, and burning out doesn't help anyone.

So, if you are tethered to a laptop all day long, consider staying at that keyboard only as long as you need to in order to stay up on the work that requires it. If you can, distance yourself from your workspace during off hours, or check in only intermittently or read emails and chat from your phone rather than your computer. This is an easy and natural way to separate the day if you're writing code for a living like me, but even if not, disconnecting from your primary work device at the end of the work day can be a huge help to avoid burnout.

Stay a Part of the World

The more you work remotely, the more likely it is that you interact less with people. Most of us spend most of our time working during the week, and suddenly shifting to a place where you're not interacting in-person during those hours can really get to some people - most people, probably. Disconnecting some to be around actual humans can help, because anyone who tells you that they completely ignore the social aspect of being in an office is probably lying to themselves. Some socialization with peers can still happen between remote and in-office employees, of course, but it's not a like-for-like substitution.

Because of that, again, you should visit the office when it works to do so. It's a nice refresher, as I mentioned above. But beyond that, you need to remember the social things that can happen beyond work. Work the gym into your schedule before or after your day, or, once you have a good schedule worked out, do a yoga class or something once a week during the day. Go get a coffee somewhere that's not your kitchen every once in a while. Do a meetup once a month with local folks in your industry to keep that in-person professional conversation alive (or to keep your networking alive, just in case everything hits the fan!). And, of course, don't forget about your roommate, significant other, family, or anyone else who's out there who kept you part of the world before you became a work-from-home sort.

Lock in Your Workspace

Not everyone has a big house or apartment where they can set aside a space or room exclusively to do their job, of course. But even if it has to be just a corner of your living room divided off with a room screen, try to have a place that is for your work and for your work (more or less) alone. This is important because it really helps with being able to divide your day, as aforementioned; just like when you finish for the day at the office, get up from your desk, and get in a car or on a train to get home, having a segregated area dedicated to your work makes it easier to disassociate from it when the time comes. You can choose when to open the door to that converted spare bedroom or when to peek around the room divider at what's going on.

If you do most of your work from a laptop, as I suspect most do these days, try to keep it docked or tethered to a monitor, keyboard and mouse, etc. as much as possible. This is definitely one of those things that will work better for some folks than others - some weirdos out there probably like working on a smaller screen and keyboard, but they're not the types with whom I choose to associate. Like, those people definitely have some skeletons in the closet, right? Anyway, in my case, staying docked has some huge workflow benefits, like being able to use a full-size, ergonomic keyboard and mouse, having multiple large monitors, and a generally more comfortable and customizable workspace. And, of course, it gives me a concrete and tangible location that I can come to for work and leave for not-work.

Your organization can probably help you with this, especially if you're transitioning from being in the office to being outside of it. Organizations that are used to having a distributed workforce probably have a plan in place to allow - with approval, of course - employees to take their tech with them. Naturally, this will allow you to set up your home workspace in a manner nearly identical to how you had it in the office, which will ease the transition by saving you time and energy in not replacing your daily workflow. If not, it's worth dipping into your own money if you can manage it to try to do the same yourself, as a comfortable workspace in terms of both ergonomics and equipment has a ton of benefit both to you and your work.

It's worth noting here that, at least for people doing this before 2018 in the United States, there are potential tax benefits too. Space that you can exclusively set aside in your home, and things that you buy exclusively for working in that space, can be used to write down your income at tax time. It includes percentage-based deductions for home utilities and mortgage interest, deductions for equipment you buy out of pocket that is not reimbursed by your company, and more. I am not an accountant, so check with yours, but these deductions have been a real boon to me in my time. Naturally, it remains to be seen whether the 2018 tax reforms recently passed at the time of this writing will eviscerate these benefits, so it may or may not be a great benefit to you (or me!) down the road.

Embrace the Distractions

I find that when I work from home, I'm not really as mobile as I am in the office, because just about everything I need to get through a workday is literally at my fingertips. This doesn't stop at just my code and my email, but naturally includes meetings both scheduled and ad hoc. In situations where I might otherwise just walk to someone's desk or a conference room, well, I can't very easily from a thousand miles away, so I sit at my desk. This is not necessarily the best way to work; moving around from time to time is just a nice break from doing the same thing for eight, ten, twelve hours at a time, and in my opinion the human brain isn't really cut out for staying in one place like that.

So, if you're home and you're by yourself, you need to fill in the distractions you have at the office with similar ones at home. Starting a load of laundry, unloading the dishwasher, brewing a fresh cup of coffee, feeding the cat - all of these are things you'll want or need to do anyway and they can afford you a couple minutes away from your desk to reset your mind briefly. Despite what I said before about having a dedicated work environment, sometimes you might even benefit by undocking and sitting somewhere more comfortable for an hour or so to work with a different vista (for me, my sunroom provides a nice change of scenery from time to time). Even having a TV on as background noise isn't the worst thing in the world, provided you can do it (or anything else described here) in a manner in which you can police yourself.

Again, this is something you should work yourself into as you find your rhythm for doing your job outside of an office, so you can find your own limits and also what works for you personally to stay most efficient throughout the day. Remember to keep the balance between your chosen distractions and your work, but most importantly, do your best to ignore people who question why you would need those distractions. Anyone who says that you're slacking just because you get up to move laundry to the dryer during the work day is someone who almost certainly has no clue how often they are not 100% focused during their work day (and sounds like someone who would probably be miserable working remotely, anyway).

At the end of it all, though, these are in-depth details. The most basic advice I can give is this: be responsible. If you weren't a responsible employee in the eyes of your peers and managers, you wouldn't have this opportunity in the first place; so, as long as you're thinking in terms of what you can do to be the most responsible in any given situation, you're likely to figure out the rest as you go, and you'll be able to tweak the above advice in a way that works the best for you, and then turn that into a blog post of your own, thus completing the circle of life.