8 Handle remote work

As we’ve all learned, the chances of anyone in tech eventually having to work remotely even part-time are nonzero. Remote working can be challenging, but it’s definitely a skill you can build. And because there’s always the possibility of it being something you need for your career, why not plan for it and start building the skill now?

8.1 The challenges of being remote

If you’re not used to working remotely and haven’t developed a system for doing so effectively, know that remote working—whether full-time or occasionally—can definitely be hard on your work and on your career. Frankly, it can also be emotionally draining.

It becomes easy, for example, to lose sight of the yellow line that delineates your personal self from your professional self (see chapter 6). When you’re working from home, it’s a lot harder to create a firm line between work life and home life, which sometimes makes it difficult to put on your office face and show up with all the professionalism you know you should. It can also be easy to work too much. I’ve worked from home for years, and I sometimes run into folks who think it sounds great until I rephrase it as “I sleep at the office.” I’ve learned to maintain that work-life balance by using the time management techniques I discussed in chapter 7.

Additionally, remote working can feel isolating, potentially making you unhappy if you normally thrive on daily office interactions. There are no break-room conversations, no random hallway encounters with fellow employees, and no opportunities to run across people outside your team. If the majority of your colleagues are in the office, and you’re remote, it becomes easy to be left out and to feel left out even when you aren’t. When you’re not visibly present at the office every day, you may feel that you’re being passed over for promotions, choice projects, and other internal opportunities.

Even participating in video calls as a remote worker can be draining. Video calls don’t convey all the subtle human body language that we’ve evolved and grown up to expect, making the people we’re talking to seem flatter and communication more difficult. Your brain winds up exerting additional energy to stay engaged in conversations and to perform all the subconscious signal reading that we normally do effortlessly in person.1

Remote work can also be tough on your family. Young children don’t always understand that even though Mom or Dad is home, they’re not necessarily accessible. The confusion can be frustrating for the kids as well as the parents.

In short, remote working isn’t like working in an office at all. If you’re accustomed to working in an office or if you’re generally new to the workplace, remote working can be far more difficult. I consider myself an introvert, yet working entirely from home is more challenging most of the time than working in an office. So what can you do to make remote working part of your success?

8.2 Creating a space

The first step is creating a space that’s used for work and nothing but work. Ideally, this space is a dedicated room in your home with a door you can close. That’s not possible for everyone, so at the very least you need a dedicated and separated space of some kind. I have a friend who now works from home and doesn’t have a spare room to use as an office. Instead, he set up a desk in a specific area of the house and put bright yellow carpet tape down around it. That’s his office. He never sits inside the square unless he’s working, and the rest of the family has learned to respect the invisible wall that the tape represents.

You cannot be successful over the long term treating your couch and coffee table as your office. You need a space that gives you many of the things that an office environment provides: a place to sit where you can hold an appropriate posture, and room for your work equipment and for whatever accessories you need: notepads, stress balls, or whatever else gets you through the day at work. Even working at the dining table will become stressful over the long term. Either you’ve permanently taken a space away from your family and made it into your office, or you’re left constantly clearing out of your office every afternoon and moving back in every morning.

A space is essential If you don’t have the ability to create a sufficient, dedicated work space for yourself, you run a real risk of not being successful as a remote worker. Take that into account as you consider both housing options and job opportunities.

Additionally, if you work from home, you by definition sleep at the office, and that’s no fun. Make sure you’re getting out of your work space every day and maintaining a healthy separation between work and life. This is a big reason why having a dedicated, set-aside work space is so important. But it’s also important that you get out of the house for a walk or run, to walk the dog, or to meet with friends. I have a friend whose main hobby used to be playing games on his Xbox; when he was forced to begin working at home, it resulted in too much time in the same place. He dropped the Xbox games for a long time and took up herb gardening in his backyard. It gave him the change of scenery he needed and a place he could walk away to when he needed a break from work.

Consider office stress Work can be stressful; we all know that. Most of us rely on being able to leave and go home, where we try to create a more comforting, less-stressful environment for ourselves. Imagine what it’s like to have all that stress occurring at home, with nowhere to get away to! That’s one more reason why a dedicated work space can be so critical and why it’s so important to be able to get out on a regular basis.

Although everyone needs a dedicated work space, we don’t all need the same kind of space. I need a full-on office with a door that I can close. (I’m an obnoxiously loud typist, and my family needs the door more than I do.) One friend of mine gets by on a little desk that folds out from a wall-mounted cabinet. Yet another has a corner in her basement where she feels happy and productive. Still another pays—out of his own pocket—to rent a small enclosed space at a co-working facility near his home. There are plenty of options to consider.

Everyone is different when it comes to creating an effective workspace, and that can include your electronic workspace. Maybe your employer sends you a laptop to use while working at home, but you find it more convenient to also have that mail on your personal phone. That’s fine, but be aware of how easy it becomes to break the work-life balance and wind up being always on for work. There’s nothing inherently wrong about being always on for work, provided that you’ve made a conscious decision to be that way, but don’t let it happen by accident.

8.3 Creating a space when you have no space

One serious challenge of working remotely is not being able to create a dedicated space for your work. Commandeering the dining room table, working on the sofa, or perching on your back patio can present a lot of potential problems:

  • Working in those shared spaces can create difficulties for your family (something I’ll try to address in section 8.4).

  • Not having a dedicated space makes it harder to step away from work and go back to your personal life. The two can become inextricably linked, which means you feel like you’re always working and never have any time away from the office. That’s going to put a lot of stress on your mental health.

Although I haven’t met all the people in the world, I have never met anyone who was able to successfully work remotely, for a long, sustained period who didn’t find some way of creating a dedicated space for themselves. I know people who tried, and they became stressed, unhappy, and upset with their jobs—something that I certainly hope never happens to you. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for more creative ways to make space for work:

  • Consider renting space. Even if you don’t work in a rented space every day, spending a good chunk of your workday elsewhere can be helpful. Co-working spaces often rent single, dedicated offices by the day, week, or month, along with access to open-plan workspaces where you can have your own desk. Some areas of your town may offer affordable office-space leases as well. Where I live, the downtown area has several older homes that have been converted to office spaces, with what used to be a bedroom renting for pretty low monthly rates.

  • Look into innovative furniture. I have a friend who lives in a one-bedroom apartment. She didn’t want to turn her dining room table into her desk because there was no way to get away when the work day was done; her desk was right there! But she realized that she didn’t spend much time in her bedroom during the day, so she invested in a kind of Murphy bed. When she wakes up, her bed folds up into a wall-mounted cabinet, and a desk swings down from the underside of the bed. It’s got plenty of space for her laptop, and she taped a plastic folio to the underside of the bed as well, which gives her a spot to stash her notebook. When the work day is over, her laptop goes in its bag, the bed folds down, and she heads into the rest of the apartment to enjoy dinner, watch TV, and relax.

Another friend converted a wooden shed to an office. He installed a small air conditioner, cut a window in one wall, and reorganized the things that were being stored in the shed. (He admits to having had a sizable yard sale for all the stuff they decided they didn’t need as much as they’d once thought.) It’s given him a private place to get away to and a way to walk away at the end of the day.

The most creative approach I saw was taken by a friend whose spouse also worked from home. The spouse had always worked from home, so they had a small bedroom that served as a home office. They tried sharing that space, but it didn’t work out for either of them. So my friend bought some ceiling tracks—the kind you see in hospitals to separate a room into halves. She hung some attractive curtains from the ceiling and pulled them around part of the living room during the day. She got a coffee table that could extend upward to desk height, and that became her desk. After work, the curtain tucked out of the way next to the sofa, the laptop went into the coffee table, and the desk lowered back to coffee-table height.

The idea is to be creative. Look for spaces in your home that may be underused during the work day, and look for furniture and other solutions to help turn them into an office. Don’t forget about your yard, if you have one: accessory structures can have a small space heater or air conditioner added to make them more livable. Even an enclosed pop-up tent (like the kind you often see at farmer’s markets) can offer a way to separate your work and personal lives a bit, at least now and then.

If you think remote work might be more permanent for you, it might be time to start thinking about changing residences. A bigger apartment, or a home with a dedicated den or office space, might be a good long-term bet, provided that it fits your finances.

8.4 Working with family

Perhaps the toughest part of working from home is sharing the home with people who don’t fully understand what you’re doing there all day. My own mom, when she would visit us, had this problem: even though we were lucky enough to have an in-law suite with its own bedroom and bathroom for her, she saw nothing wrong with popping into the spare bedroom I used as a home office. After all, I was “playing on my computer” like I did when I was a kid. What harm would an interruption cause?

The trick is to set expectations for others and lower expectations for yourself. If your job is one that routinely expects you to be in back-to-back meetings, that probably isn’t going to work. You’re going to need to schedule more down time so that your kids can see you.

One colleague has a giant whiteboard on the door of the room she works in, with a battery-powered clock hanging right above it. Her meetings are clearly mapped out each day, with a chunk of time between meetings. “My kids can wait 30 or 45 minutes,” she told me, “provided they know they’ll get 15 or 20 minutes of my attention afterwards. Honestly, they’re usually bored of me after 15 minutes, so I can take another meeting until they think up something else they just have to share with me.” She put me onto an online app called Clockwise, which integrates with Google Calendar and grabs unscheduled time on your calendar as focus time, blocking that time out and letting you tend to yourself—or your family—throughout the day.

After you set those expectations, you have to honor them. If a meeting runs long, excuse yourself, and explain that you have another meeting. And you do: it’s with your family. Communicate your days off, and schedule those too: make time for chores, but also make time for the family to be a family.

You and the other adults in your life may need to have a frank conversation about changed expectations and agreements, if you find yourself working from home. Adults at least, can see logic and reason where younger kids sometimes can’t. Talk about the realities of work and about what still needs to happen at home, and create written schedules and agreements about the new way things will need to work. I have one friend who found herself working from home, and her partner kept wanting to vacuum when she was on meetings. “And I get it,” she told me. “That’s when he’s used to cleaning. We had to shift that to the evenings and weekends, which took some adjusting, but he moved dusting to the afternoons, and we agreed to buy a second vacuum so I could help get that done faster in the evenings. And honestly, it’s half an hour of not having to think about anything, so it’s a bit of an unwind after work.”

Be creative, and think critically about the problem. Don’t expect adult behavior from your kids, who are used to having their parents pay full attention to them whenever they’re home. Don’t expect a spouse who’s normally been at home when you were at work to immediately rearrange their world to accommodate yours. Sit down, talk through the situation, and come up with a plan.

8.5 Adopting a routine

Most people who work in an office have a regular routine: they commute to the office, perhaps listening to the radio or a podcast along the way. When they get to the office, they might grab a coffee from the break room and sit down at their desk to work on the day’s mail. They do their job, taking meetings as scheduled, and then head home. Perhaps they have a habit of stopping to pick up groceries or a meal on the way home. When they get home, they might watch the evening news or a TV show, and spend some time with the family.

What the routine is doesn’t matter; what matters is having a routine. That’s especially true for a remote worker, because it helps enhance the mental separation between work life and home life.

A colleague of mine has established what I think might be a model routine for remote working—not the contents of her routine necessarily, but the structure she’s put into it. She wakes up, has a cup of coffee, and gets the kids off to school. Then she takes a jog around her neighborhood. This jog is her “commute.” She listens to her podcasts each morning and starts to transition from home to work. She gets home, showers, and dresses in work clothes. Then she sits in her office space and works. She schedules her lunches, blocking them off on her calendar. Her employer embraces remote work and has a tablet set up in each break room that’s dialed into a perpetual video call. When she’s ready for a break, she uses her phone to dial into that call and heads to her kitchen for a snack. That way, she’s able to chat with anyone whoever might be in the break room, as the people in the office do. When the work day is over, she takes a quick walk around the neighborhood. It’s her commute home, and she says it’s when she unwinds and relaxes, listening to music she enjoys. The kids usually get home from school before she’s done with work, but they know that Mom isn’t to be bothered until after her walk.

One thing I admire about her—and something I emulate—is how rigorous she is about scheduling her day. Everything goes on her calendar, and she lives by it. Her day doesn’t have the spontaneity of a normal office environment, where random conversations are more likely to happen, but she’s also convinced many of her colleagues to strictly schedule their day. When they all get to work for the day—some in the office, some remotely—one of their first tasks is to look for blank spots in their calendar. They’ll fill those blank spots with 10- or 15-minute meetings with other colleagues who also have a blank spot then. Essentially, they’re duplicating the random encounters of the office more deliberately.

Whatever you put in your routine, the point is to have one and to stick with it. It’ll help keep you sane and help you show up as a professional every day.

8.6 Explicitly defining a culture

While it’s up to the entire company to create and promote a culture that embraces remote work, every remote and in-office worker can do a lot to help drive that culture. Meetings in particular can be challenging for remote workers, especially when they’re in a minority. It’s important that you help create a culture that embraces remote work and affords appropriate courtesies to both in-office and remote workers:

  • Video calls often have a delay of a second or two. Everyone in the organization should understand that, and if they ask something like “Does anyone have anything to add?”, get used to looking around the room for a few seconds. That gives remote people a chance to respond.

  • A noisy conference room is the worst experience for someone who’s dialed in. Side conversations, rustling candy wrappers, and tapping pens can make the conversation incomprehensible. Meeting facilitators need to recognize that and remind everyone who’s in office to mute themselves, as the remote attendees are expected to mute themselves to reduce background noise.

  • Some companies I’ve worked with use the talking-stick mechanism to help remind people to be quiet. They’ll use some physical token—maybe a stress ball or some other object—to indicate who may speak. For the in-office people, it’s a visible reminder to be on mute when you don’t have the object. When a remote person is speaking, the object is placed in a small container, like a cup, to indicate who is holding it at the moment.

  • Remote workers are asked to behave as though they’re in the office. That means dressing according to office customs or rules, showing up promptly to meetings, and maintaining a professional work environment (even though it’s in their home).

  • It’s best if meeting facilitators show up a few minutes early so they can make sure that the conferencing equipment is set up and ready to go when the meeting is scheduled to begin. Meetings should always begin with short introductions or at least a greeting to and from everyone, as a way of making sure everyone can hear and can be heard without having to go through the painful “Can everyone hear me?” ritual every time.

Another area to consider is the inequity between in-office workers and remote workers when it comes to casual conversations. Everyone can, and should, be on guard for casual office discussion and decision-making that excludes remote workers. I once contracted with a company that had a unique take on the problem: rather than grouping teams in their office, they deliberately spread out. A programmer might sit next to a clerk from finance, and a network engineer might sit next to someone from human resources. The idea was to require a more deliberate effort to walk over and talk to a colleague, reminding you that you might be excluding a remote colleague. Teams could meet in conference rooms, of course, but doing so is an obvious reminder to schedule something and include your remote colleagues. The solution wasn’t perfect, but it went a long way toward helping in-office workers develop some empathy for their remote colleagues.

8.7 Networking like you’re in the office

One of the most difficult things newly remote workers deal with is missing out on all that office chatter. Especially in companies whose leaders have not created an explicit remote culture, it’s incredibly easy for remote workers to feel left out. Here are some suggestions you can consider to help feel more connected and more like part of the gang, even if the entire gang is remote:

  • Hold regular happy hours over Zoom, Teams, or whatever communications platform your organization uses. Hold these events after work hours and for an hour or two. Focus on small groups: your immediate team, your direct peers, or similar groupings. Forbid work conversations. Focus on what everyone’s doing this coming weekend, what they did for their birthday, and other personal conversation.

  • Keep your work calendar rigorously updated. Mark everything, even personal appointments like lunch. Then tell your co-workers, “Hey, if you have a quick question, glance at the free/busy time on my calendar. If I’m free right then, send me a Zoom link (or whatever). If I don’t respond within a minute, text me your question, but that way, we can connect in person more often, even if it’s just for a minute.”

  • Look for tools that help co-workers connect in person at random. Slack has a free plugin called Donut (https://slack.com/apps/A11MJ51SR-donut) that’s designed to randomly connect co-workers for a quick video chat or in-person meeting. It’s a good way to have a human connection outside scheduled meetings. You can talk about stuff you’re working on and get a better feel for what the rest of the company is doing.

Networking with non-co-workers is just as important. Look for open Slack groups within your profession, and attend lots of virtual events. It’s not the same as coffee or drinks with colleagues, but it still helps keep you in the mix. A little search engine research for terms like “remote angular slack group” can turn up several options for folks who work with the Angular framework, for example, and you can tweak that search for your own interests.

8.8 Remote work: Permanent or temporary?

After the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, a lot of us found ourselves working remotely. What a lot of us didn’t know—and in many cases still don’t—was whether remote work would last forever. Although some companies are now reopening offices in parts of the world, and others have announced plans to do so eventually, some of us still don’t know. Some of us have taken advantage of the new remote-friendliness of the world to move to different cities, to save money, be someplace we love, be closer to family, or for some other personal reason. For many of us, then, remote work is definitely not temporary.

Don’t let your temporary remote accommodations accidentally become permanent. Something that was bearable for a few months or a year may be wearing on you in ways you don’t sense until it all finally becomes too much. If something is going to go on forever—or even for the foreseeable future—sit down and think about it. Examine all of your assumptions about life and work: how much space you need, where you work, what kind of work you do, how your family interacts with you, everything. Put it all on the table, discuss it with the people who are important to you, and thoughtfully make a plan. You need to be willing to set aside all your assumptions so that you can view your situation with a fresh eye, consider your own unique needs and boundaries, and come up with a best-fit solution.

8.9 Action items

For this chapter, whether you’re a remote worker or an in-office worker, I want you to think about remote working life. Create a sort of remote work preparedness plan, or if you’re already remote, evaluate your current working conditions:

  • What kind of space would you create to work in? Would you be able to meet some of the criteria I outlined in this chapter?

  • What kind of work-from-home routine would you create for yourself? What would your morning commute look like, for example?

  • If you were to draft a list of office etiquette rules to make remote workers feel more included, what would that list look like?

  • If you’ve never worked remotely (or have done so only infrequently), what sorts of things would you miss about being in the office? How could you mitigate the loss of those things by using tools, processes, or rules of etiquette?

1 In “Zoom Gloom” (http://mng.bz/YAZ7), Julia Sklar explains how video calls affect us biologically and psychologically.

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