Contrary to most of my other posts, I plan to update this one periodically as things change and this is still current. Check back periodically for updates.
Are you a business owner or manager? Have a look at Remotewave.io’s guide, which approaches it from your side. :)
Well…now that half the world is in quarantine of some level, a great many people are suddenly finding themselves tossed head first in the deep end of remote working. Odds are pretty good neither them nor their employers are really prepared for this.
While I can’t help the employer’s preparation (or lack thereof), I do know a thing or two about being a remote worker and figured I would share my experience. Since for a lot of people, this is a temporary situation, I’ll discuss both more permanent setups and temporary improvised setups when they diverge. You never know, you may like this whole “working from home” thing, even if not full time. :)
A lot of people think that “working from home” equates to working in bed, on the couch, at the breakfast bar, or whatever. While these aren’t bad places for a change of pace, it’s still good to have a “home base” for yourself. This does a few things:
- Helps you get into the “headspace” for work. You go to this spot to work, not play or watch TV or whatever.
- Helps other members of your house see that you’re “at work.” When you’re in this spot, you’re not free to do errands or chores. (You will still have to train them, though.)
Permanent setup: Long term remoters will usually have a dedicated home office with a door, or at least a space separated by large furniture like bookshelves that provide a solid visual differentiation of their office space from the surrounding environment.
Improvising: If you don’t plan to or won’t be able to work from home in the long term, clearing out a room or buying extra furniture doesn’t make much sense, but you can repurpose either or both for the time being. A guest bedroom makes for a good office space, for example (or at least conference room), or if you can move your couch, you can create a work area within your living room with the couch as a “wall.”
Like the office space, the furniture still needs to be conducive to working in for long stretches of time.
Permanent setup: If you’re in this for the long haul, it’s worth investing in a good desk and high-quality chair. I’m a fan of convertible sit-stand desks (like the Jarvis) and the higher-end gaming chairs (like AK Racing). Don’t be afraid to spend some money on these. Your back will thank you.
Improvising: Commandeer your gaming chair if you have one. If you don’t, scope out a variety of chairs and tables you can rotate through every couple of hours. A dining room table is a decent height for a while when alternated with standing at the breakfast bar.
Hacking: Maybe even the improvisation isn’t feasible for you. If that’s the case, take a field trip over to Ikea (ideally in store, but online should work, too) and get a cheap, but comfortable desk and chair. They should be good enough for the time being, and Ikea has a 1-year, no questions asked return policy. Just make sure to keep the receipt. (I don’t normally condone “leasing” like this, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.) Alternatively, pick up something that you can use as a desk for now and repurpose later on (the Omar wire shelving is cheap, adjustable, and about the right height for a laptop desk if you only put one or two of the shelves on).
Good lighting and attention to ambient noise is also crucial for any work environment. Natural lighting is some of the best, especially if it can be diffused, but a good lamp or overhead light can also work.
A dedicated room – whether it’s permanent or temporary – will likely get both of these for “free.”
For those that can’t dedicate a room, try to pick one with carpet or other sound-dampening features and a decent sized window or good overhead light. If you have other people in the house, you’ll also want to bring home your noise cancelling headphones.
Working from home can have some pitfalls if you’re not careful. One of them is the falling apart of routine, especially if you can’t have a dedicated work space.
Even though you’re not driving into work, you’ll want to keep your morning routine so that you can get into the right “headspace” for working. Keep your alarm set, get up, have breakfast or your morning coffee, get a shower, get dressed, etc.
What you do with the extra time you’d have normally burned during your commute is up to you, but here are a couple of ideas:
- Spend some time with your spouse, kid(s), and/or pet(s).
- Dedicate that time to your own self-improvement in some way, such as reading a book, doing yoga, or taking a morning walk.
- Start your work day earlier so you can lengthen your lunch break, take more breaks throughout the day, and/or end your day earlier.
- Farm a highly-contested spot in your favorite MMO game.
If your company doesn’t have them already, now might be a good time to try to introduce one-on-one meetings between managers and their reports. If your company already has them, be sure to keep them going. Now is more important than ever to have a high level of open communication with those who you report to and who report to you, especially since the social distancing right now increases the chance of people feeling isolated and out of touch (especially the more extraverted members of your team).
In a remote environment, communication and socialization are not givens like they often are in the office. You have to make a point to talk to your co-workers, especially with regard to the “watercooler” chat. If you have a work buddy that you often chat or go to lunch with, make a point to keep up that routine in some way. This could be checking in via chat or email, or setting up a video conference or phone call. Maybe put each other on speakerphone while you make your respective lunches.
There’s seriously no such thing as overcommunication in a remote environment.
Agile companies often do daily standups, but given the turmoil, it might be difficult for them to maintain them in the traditional fashion. If your company stops doing them – or if they never did them to begin with – it’s a good idea to post a quick thing in your company’s text chat. This will help you get into the habit of “over” communicating and help keep your team informed about what you’re working on and any blockers you might have.
My format for it generally takes the form of “what I did yesterday, what I plan for today, what blockers I have” to give me something like:
Yesterday: Got the e-commerce widget doing the thing! \o/ Also started on the cart thing and took a look at the media widget bug. That bug appears to be more than just a code issue, so I talked to Joe about it and he’s going to take a look at it on the media end.
Today: I should be able to finish the cart thing today, barring any unforeseen hurdles. If I have time, then it’s on to the slider.
Blockers: Nothing completely blocking me, but I know Joe’s got a lot on his plate, so I don’t know if he’s going to be able to get back to me on the media widget bug in time for it to get fixed by the end of the sprint.
In an office, you might have been able to stop what you’re doing, walk over to a coworker, and ask them a question if you’re stuck. Since your presence pretty much demands their attention, you usually probably got unstuck by such an interaction.
But in a remote environment, you trade that luxury on your end for the luxury of the “do not disturb” setting on their end. No longer are you guaranteed they’ll respond to your question or help you get unstuck. That leaves you with a couple of other routes: either get yourself unstuck on that task, or switch tasks until you hear back from the person from whom you need help.
I’ve found it helpful to take a moment to look at what needs done, especially the things that are coming up soon, but I’m not actively working on right now, and gathering any questions or concerns I have – anything that requires talking with someone else – and sending those over to them, letting them know that I’ll be working on it soon, after these things are squared away. By doing this, I can get something that was in a questionable state into a workable state before I get to that item, so I can just jump straight into my work for it.
Your options might be limited to what the company will provide, but there are a number of tools available to make remote working a lot easier and mitigate a lot of the complaints people often have about remote working. If you don’t have these, it’s a good idea to advocate for them in your company. Many also have specials going on right now to help with the fallout from this pandemic. If you have a similar tool that’s a different brand, you might still be able to leverage some of the additional perks of it. Look into your company products to see what might help your team.
A text chat tool is pretty much a must-have for a remote team. Slack and Discord are common ones that are very quick and easy to set up in a pinch, while Microsoft Teams is a good option for companies already heavily invested in Microsoft. Basecamp and Notion are more holistic options that are worth considering if the company wants to make longer term changes from this experience.
These kinds of chat tools allow for more flexible communication cadences, because they can be either synchronous (voice chat options, or just faster text messaging back and forth), or asynchronous (leave messages for a person that they can answer when they free up), and are generally the communication platform of choice for a remote organization.
Sometimes, a voice or video conference is what’s needed (or even just wanted, which is okay, too). Slack, Teams, and Discord all have built-in voice chat options, either in the call or the conference paradigms, and (the latter two, at least) can support screen sharing.
For dedicated video chat, Zoom is one of my favorites, though Google Meet is another option, especially if you have a Google Apps Business account (the free leaves a fair bit to be desired, but business level is better). Some people also favor Webex and there are several more available, too.
If you don’t have a good headset with noise filtering, especially on the mic, consider software noise filtering like Krisp. They’re generally free (or have a long enough trial to get you through this time).
A common complaint of remote newcomers is the blurring of work and home time, because without the commute and the cues from coworkers coming and going, you don’t have that very distinct switch, and it’s easy to get focused on work such that you lose track of time entirely. The always-connected nature of remote tools also makes it easy to work more than you ever would in an office.
Pomodoro timers, alarm clocks, or any similar tools are useful both for focusing and for stepping away. They give you the cues needed to take a break or get back to work. I’ve personally been using a Mac app called Flow, which is simple, free, and open source.
Also, put your work hours on your calendar and stick to them. When it’s time to stop, walk away. Put your work down and leave it until tomorrow. “Go home” just like you would if you were at the office.
Temporary Remoters: Don’t put your email or text chat on your phone if you didn’t already have it. Don’t set the precedent that you’re working 24/7. Having it also makes it harder to separate “work time” from “home time.”
Also, because this is an extenuating circumstance issue – and if you have kids, they’re probably home, too – consider adjusting your work hours (and expectations). Kids are disruptive, and after three weeks of being stuck at home, they’re likely to go stir crazy. Break up your day if you have to and tag-team with any other adults in your household for things like meetings. For individual work, if they’re disrupting you too much, take a break from work and come back to it when they’re occupied or sleeping. These breaks are great times to do basic home things like dishes or laundry.
Hopefully you already have digital tools for task management, but if you need to convert your Kanban board made of actual Post-It notes, there are a bunch of options these days. Trello is probably the best for a straight Kanban conversion, given its card-by-default paradigm. Asana is a common option for straight to-do lists (it can technically support more complex project management, but I’m not keen on recommending it for that), and I’ve been a longtime fan of Any.do for basic to-do lists, especially with recurring tasks and mobile-heavy usage. For a combination of both to-do style lists and Kanban style boards, I’ve become a recent convert of ClickUp* – tons of power in a user-friendly package. Any will work, and all have free options, so it’s a particularly great solution for the temporary remoters.
* A rare affiliate link, because that’s how much I already love it.
As of yesterday, my state has even shut down bars and the dine-in portion of restaurants, and the public library and local zoo already announced their own closures. Combined with the likely closures of other non-essential establishments, this means we’re pretty much stuck at home. So how do we keep from going totally stir crazy?
If there’s anything we learned from past pandemics, it’s that some sun and ample amounts of fresh air help. And really, those things help keep us healthy even when we’re not sick.
If you can, take your work outside for an hour or three. If you can’t go outside, try opening the windows to get some fresh air. Weather permitting, of course.
I originally had a section in here about this, but I ended up removing it for the initial release, because I didn’t want to propagate irresponsible behavior and I didn’t have enough confirmation of the safety of doing this. It was tough, because walking and bike riding, as well as being outside (even in cooler weather), can help support the body both in preventing getting sick and in mitigating the risk of complications if you do get sick with COVID-19.
Then I found this article on safe cycling during coronavirus concerns, which goes into more detail about how to ride safely and where the hidden risks are. In short, rides and walks are good as long as you stay 6+ feet away from others, generally avoid touching stuff (or use gloves), and wash up as soon as you can. If you use bike shares, it wouldn’t hurt to bring sanitizing wipes with you to use on them.
If you can’t leave your property, but have even a tiny yard, consider some outdoor yoga or training of some sort. Anything to get you outside and keeping your body healthy will help.
Even if this is something you don’t normally do, you’re going to get tired of seeing the same couple of people day in and day out. Set aside a bit of time each day for everyone to do their own thing in their own space. It can be as simple as reading a book or playing a video game or whatever. The point is to get away from your housemates for a bit and into your own space.
Conversely, we’re still social creatures and need socialization. Play some board games with members of your household or just chat with each other, maybe a little more than you normally would.
Also, make a point to check in with your friends via text or phone or whatever your preferred communication channel is. Not only is it good for staving off cabin fever, but it can be helpful for keeping an eye on friends who live alone or otherwise having the chance to support someone in need of help.
Now’s a pretty good time to take up that new hobby you’ve been kicking around. Or maybe you wanted to learn to bake your own bread. Since you’re going to be holed up in the house anyway, might as well make use of it, right?
Got that knitting/crochet project you started in December, but never got back around to? Or how about that book you’ve been meaning to write?
You don’t have much of an excuse anymore! Now’s a good time to make progress and maybe even finish it.
While setting boundaries and times is crucial in general, this is still a time of “extenuating circumstances.” If you have kids, they’re just as likely to go stir crazy from staring at the same four walls all day every day for weeks on end. If they’re getting too disruptive for you to work, use that time to take a break for a bit if you at all can. Work can wait (this is such an important mantra to the Basecamp folks, that they even have that as a built-in feature to their platform), and you’re not going to be working well if you’re stressed from getting pulled in multiple directions. Take a bit of time to give them some attention and maybe do something a little different (even if it’s loading the dishwasher) and then go back to your work. You’ll be a bit more refreshed, less stressed, and probably more productive.
There’s a learning curve to remote working even in the best of times, and this certainly doesn’t qualify as “the best of times” to have to scale such a learning curve. However, with the above tips and tools, you’ll be better equipped to do so.
This is just the beginning, though. So to close out, I’ll leave you with a list of other resources for specific remote and pandemic-driven-remote related topics.
This tweet says it really succinctly:
100% of my team has been 100% remote as long as we’ve worked here, and all of us are having trouble concentrating this week. You’re not bad at working from home if all of this has made it hard for you to be productive.— Kate (@KateRoseBee) March 18, 2020
Take things in stride and as things start settling out into whatever “normal” is for us over the next few months, the remote working will also come easier. You’re dealing with the remote working learning curve and a global pandemic with little information and (if you have kids) remote schooling and have to limit the amount of “getting away” you can do. Even 25% productivity at work right now is pretty good.
- Remote Communication - An article I wrote for Gun.io that focuses on communicating while remote.
- EdTech Crisis Response & Recovery Virtual Team - For academia and academia-adjacent people as they get thrown head-first into this whole “remote classrooms” thing.
- List of Free Software and Services During The Coronavirus Outbreak
- Remote Woman Podcast - A brand-spanking new podcast on remote working as women
- Remote: Office Not Required - Basecamp’s book on remote working, and how and why it can work in the long run
- Miro, Digital Whiteboarding
- David Walsh’s tips for working remotely
- Operation Storytime - Childrens' stories read by their authors
- Microsoft Teams * Basecamp
- Google Meet