Notes on Remote Working
Published on 27 March 2020 at 15:33 by
So with the ongoing global crisis, a lot of governments and organisations are recommending that people, if they can, work from home. We're seeing memes flying around, new jokes being created, and also quite a few questions from people who haven't really worked remotely before.
I've worked entirely remotely for almost half a decade, and prior to that, partially remotely for a couple of years. I've had many conversations with people over this time, some who wonder how I ever get work done, some who think I don't have a real job, and others who are envious of what seems like an easy job — I mean, surely I can just eat and watch TV all day?
Over the last couple of weeks, I've been speaking with friends and colleagues who have worked remotely for years, about the challenges that they have faced and continue to face, and how they dealt with these challenges.
How do you get up in the morning?
I've tried all sorts of routines, from having an alarm to having no alarm, waking up early to get work done, to waking up at 10am fresh and ready for a day of
watching TV hard work. I've even tried working through the night and sleeping during the day.
There are a few things which determine how you get up in a morning, and one of the main determining factors is how your employer works with schedules.
At Edge for example we follow an asynchronous workflow with a few scheduled calls throughout the week. This means you get your work done in your time, and you accept that your colleagues may not be able to respond to you right away. There are of course situations where you need to synchronise, such as releases and rollouts but these aren't set in stone and you tend to fall into a rhythm with your team. For example, in a morning I often call my CTO for a chitchat. With another team member, we tend to have catch ups through the week to make sure we're on track. None of this is planned.
If your employer has a set schedule, requiring you to be online from 09:00—17:00 for example, then that settles it for you. Often this is called "working from home". But for companies which don't try to fit remote work into an office shaped hole, we call this "remote-first."
So how do I get up in the morning? Currently I have Alexa set to tell me the news at sunrise before wishing me a Happy
<day> although recently that's been a little disturbing, I must admit. I ignore it sometimes, and unless there is a pressing need to get up early, some days I take an extra hour or two. But you have to be careful not to oversleep, or you risk being even more tired. Some biological quirk I guess.
Dealing with extended periods of isolation
One of the things which most people will now be experiencing is the feeling of isolation from working from home. This isn't new, and has been something we remote workers have been dealing with for some time. It can be lonely, especially when you live alone. I'm told cats help.
It's important to have a support network of friends and family (or other remote workers) that you can call whenever you're feeling lonely. Sometimes it's useful just to have a chat, so you shouldn't ever feel like you're bothering a colleague by calling. Just ask "got a minute to chat?"
Socialising becomes more of an effort though, so arranging things in advance is useful. We recently started doing informal video chats (where previously we'd stick to audio) so that the team could let off a bit of steam, have a laugh, and not worry too much about talking shop and instead just talk about life. For example, we all laughed at a team member explaining how his government have stolen all the chairs from businesses. Where do the chairs go!?
Another thing which can be a struggle is the lack of background noise. Yesterday we rolled out a large release of a number of systems, so I put together a call with half a dozen of my colleagues invited. It wasn't a meeting, just an open channel to discuss the release, talk, joke, and for some, to have some background noise and chatter. Even engineers who weren't directly involved joined to chat.
How do you motivate yourself to shower?
So this was a question on Twitter, but I've been asked it in person as well. If you work remotely, specifically from home, why shower?
It depends on why you shower, bathe, clean your teeth, brush your hair, etc. Are you doing these things for the sake of others, or is it because you have self-respect? Cleanliness is important regardless of whether you're around others.
Now, just like how not everyone who works remotely wears trousers, neither does everyone who works remotely have a shower in the morning, but showering once a day is important. I generally find that if it seems like everyone smells no matter where I go, then it is in fact likely that I am the smell.
How do you get work done and not watch TV?
This applies to a number of activities, including eating the entire fridge, playing video games, reading great books (if you're a book worm like me), or even finding yourself on a 4 hour YouTube video binge, or in a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Ever more likely is the chance of being stuck in the news cycle, reading and watching the latest on this pandemic.
The most important thing here is to timebox your consumption. Read the news, play a video game, watch some TV with your breakfast, but have a schedule and know when you need to switch it off and start working. Know how long you need to work for or what tasks you need to achieve. The hardest thing is to get started, so by setting arbitrary limits, you can more easily stop doing the easy stuff and get started with the hard stuff.
If I remember correctly, a colleague of mine once announced that he played Dark Souls every morning before work so that no matter what happened, his day got better. That's wisdom.
Don't you get sick of being stuck at home?
Yes, yes we do, but a lot of remote workers still take the time to go for walks, or to go to coffee shops etc. That's obviously an issue right now in a lot of the world. In the UK, you're allowed to go for one walk, run, or cycle a day. I recommend you go for that walk. But hey, that's not always so easy.
One thing a few of my colleagues told me was that it's hard to have the motivation to exercise when your daily commute is 14 seconds and it's so easy to sit down and start working. Forcing yourself to go for a walk as much as possible is important, but if you have the space, indoor exercise equipment is a lot more accessible and you're much more likely to use it.
Before the lockdown, I'd often take a book and get a coffee from a drive through and just relax in the relative peace of the car, usually while the chaos of rush hour went on around me. Sometimes, it's just about a change of scenery.
Knowing when to stop working
This is perhaps one of the biggest challenge I have personally faced. I enjoy the work I do, and blimey, there's a lot of it to do, so often I can find myself working right into the evening, suddenly becoming conscious of my surroundings, thirsty, cold, and in the dark. It's important to know when to stop working. If you live with a partner, it can be really helpful to synchronise your working day with theirs.
In this ever more interconnected world we live in, where we're all isolated together, it can be hard to split work life from home life. Many of us engineers have to be available in the event of outages, but it's important to know the difference between an urgent issue and an asynchronous query. Learn where your line is and stick to it.
Sometimes it can be useful to have a time that you finish work, and other times it can be useful to stop working after an event or piece of work is complete. Just as you may sometimes work until 18:30 to finish a deployment, it's also okay to call it a day at 16:00 after a deployment.
Are you even working?
One thing which many remote workers experience, especially in the beginning, is the question of whether they're actually working. For the older generations, it's hard to accept that someone is home but working. Are they playing on the computer? Aren't they just for games? This is a difficult problem to solve as it's all about comprehension. The best we can do is hope that some good comes of this currently global situation and that remote work is seen by many for the possibilities it holds.
It's important to let family members know that you're working, that this is your livelihood, and that you're not available just because you're home, and that you shouldn't be interrupted as though you were relaxing.
Remote working is a wonderful thing, but it's not without its challenges. Most of those challenges stem from how we interact with others, so the solution also lies in how we interact with others. Let's support each other, have more calls, and be more understanding.
And listen to your watch, it's time to stand up!
P.S. This was my 200th blog post. Yay!