There are lots of advantages to working away from the office, both for developers and for the companies that employ them. Think about avoiding the daily commute, the cost of office space, the cost of living in or traveling to the city for rural or international workers, the inconvenience of office work for differently abled people or those with unusual family or life responsibilities, and the inflexibility of trying to keep traditional 9–5 hours as more and more of our workforce adapts to the gig economy by taking on second jobs or part-time side hustles.
Remote work can help address many of these difficulties while improving team transparency and putting the focus of work back on the reasons you were hired for your job in the first place. It also opens up a world of possibilities for companies, including broader recruitment opportunities, improved worker transparency, lower infrastructure costs, and more scalable business models based on actual worker productivity.
But working from home or from a co-working space can also present new challenges, and learning how to recognize them and overcome them can make the difference between a productive, happy work experience and endless hours of misery, loneliness, and frustration.
Think I’m being overdramatic? Let me explain.
I’ve had the experience of being the remote worker who didn’t think he needed to pay attention to interpersonal office dynamics, or keep track of his time and accomplishments. I’ve worked long into the evening because I didn’t notice when the work day ended. I’ve struggled with inefficient tools that might have worked fine in an office environment, but proved woefully inadequate when it came to remote collaboration.
So I’ve learned to cope with these issues myself, and for years I’ve been coaching engineering teams by working on-site, remotely, and in various combinations of the two. Depending on your situation, there are a number of useful tools, tricks, and fundamental practices that can make your remote working experience so much better than it is today — for yourself, your team, your manager, and your company.
For better or for worse, most of us are used to having a manager decide what our working hours are, where we’re going to sit, what equipment we’re going to use, and whom we’re going to collaborate with. That’s a luxury that comes with the convenience of working together in a shared space, where management can supervise and coordinate our efforts. It may not always feel luxurious, but you may well find yourself missing the support of an attentive manager when you start working from home and realize you have to make these decisions for yourself.
Set a Schedule and Stick to It!
The first tip I offer for anyone starting out a remote role is to establish the hours you’re going to work, and stick to those hours.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. When you’re working from home, you won’t have all of the little cues that come with office life to tell you when to pause for lunch, when to take a break, and when to stop working for the day. Working from a co-working space or a coffee shop can help, but it’s not the same as having your colleagues around you to exert that not-so-subtle social pressure. What’s more, if you start to feel anxious about whether people at the office know how hard you’re working, you may find yourself wanting to compensate by putting in a few extra hours.
Some people find that it’s easier to compartmentalize remote work by using a co-working space, simulating the effect of going out to work and then coming back at the end of the day. If you’re working from home, your professional and personal lives can start to blend. You’re going to find yourself washing the dishes, feeding the cat, answering the telephone, and attending to all the other chores that crop up in your living space. And you know what? That’s just fine! … as long as it doesn’t start to interfere with your productivity on the job.
Decide up front on your morning and afternoon work hours and respect them. Write them down somewhere you won’t forget to see them, so you can’t pretend you don’t know what they are. The same advice applies to teams working together in an office or people using co-working spaces, but it’s even more critical if you’re working from home.
Let Everyone Know When and Where You’ll Be Working
Building on the theme of scheduling, a remote worker needs to let anyone who works with them know how to get in touch, and may need to encourage that kind of contact regularly. Remote workers can feel isolated or even excluded — left out of important decisions because people at the office simply forgot about them. It’s up to the person who’s working off site to make their existence known throughout the work day, and to advocate for visibility.
This can be easier said than done. One of the advantages of remote work is the ability to focus without interruption for extended periods. Sometimes just the knowledge that the bubble of isolation can be broken is enough to foster distraction and make it harder to concentrate. This can make the experience draining and unproductive, and negate most of the advantages.
It’s not a bad idea to start off just using email to stay in touch with the team for typical group communications. And as a personal productivity tip, try to establish set times during the day to check that email — perhaps three or so over the course of a day. Checking your email constantly can establish a pattern of behavior that puts your attention at the mercy of anyone who wants to reach out to you for anything at any time. Email is asynchronous by nature, so use that to your advantage when you’re working from home.
Apart from direct communication, it’s good to get your team using a messaging tool such as Slack or HipChat. These services can run in the background on every team member’s computer, or even on their mobile devices, providing a shared space for inter-team, intra-team, and cross-functional messaging. There are secure ways for companies to make services like these available for sensitive internal communications, and they can work both on site and off site, establishing virtual shared message boards to keep teams aligned.
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