I'm a seasoned remote worker. I've been working as a remote software development consultant since 2012. And as much fun as coding brings to my life, the key factor that made me pursue this career path, was the ability to work remotely. This article is a reflection on my journey as a remote developer and lessons learned over the last 7 years.
Why did I want to work remotely?
I can't explain why I have always felt that it's the result that matters. I've been working as a web developer since 2005, having started with doing project-based freelance work. There's a different motivation and drive behind a project where you have a deliverable. The project wouldn't finish itself, regardless of whether I worked in an office or from my room in my parents' house. So I developed a mindset that it's the result that matters, not where you got there.
This mindset slowly gnaws at you, until you realize that you're happiest when you're working from home, from a cozy café, the wonderful outdoors or just from your bed, in your pajamas. If you manage your time just right, you get an extra bit of free time that you can use productively. Doing simple house chores while you wait for the test suit to run, is just one of the ways working remotely rewards you with time.
Unfortunately, I had never experienced the joy of short commuting time. The closest office I ever worked at was located in the same suburban area as my home and still, it took me 20 minutes by car to get there. I have spent the daily average of 55 minutes on commuting to work, in one direction.
And while it’s true that the time spent on commuting can be used productively, it is also true that you simply have no other choice. You cannot get that time back or exchange it for something you find more interesting.
Working remotely eliminates commute altogether. Working remotely doesn't necessarily mean you have to work from your bedroom in your underpants. Many remote workers work from co-working spaces, collaborate with other remote workers and rent out an office, or just work from wherever they find fancy.
The difference is, in the remote scenario it is you who decides how long your commute will be. Not to mention the thrill of an occasional trip to meet your co-workers for some valuable face-to-face time.
Have your own place to work
Another perk of working remotely is picking your own setup. You get to choose what type of chair, desk, computer or laptop, external screens, keyboards, and other peripherals. And that can easily become quite costly. It's not something you have to worry about when you work on-site, in an office where your employer has taken care of all that stuff. Hopefully.
Have you ever thought what it would be like to listen to whatever background noise or music you want? Perhaps you prefer total silence. And hey, do you remember that sweet mechanical keyboard you checked out at the store the other day? It was so noisy! You can use that when you work remotely from a workspace that's all yours.
However, there is one important lesson that I would like to stress the importance of. You need a workspace. Whether it's a desk and a chair, a closet or even a whole room as a cabinet, you need a dedicated workplace. It is tempting to turn your whole apartment or house into a bunch of random working spots, but personally, I have found it to be exhausting
Having a work-life balance is all about that balance. Work must separate from life. If you let one bleed into the other too much, you lose that balance. And that's never good. That's why I made it a habit to start working at the more-or-less same time, to make sure I get into the zone during my most productive hours.
I would suggest making a workspace that gets natural light. Invest in a comfortable chair, I mean it. If you don't have sufficient comfort in your workplace, you will quickly wear out. While it's fun to do occasional work in random places, or even on the couch. Even though you are at home, you will spend a significant amount of time at your workspace, try to enjoy it.
I have successfully worked from my home for the last two and a half years. I have had a dedicated desk in my apartment, with an external monitor(later two), keyboard and mouse. I rarely spend time there after work, because I spend my evenings watching my kids play or watching Netflix. Although I didn't have to leave for work to come back at t he end of the day, I essentially go to work when I sit down at that desk at 9:30 am and come back around 5:45 pm.
Which brings me to the next topic:
Working with others is a social skill
If you go to the office every day, there's a lot of external stimuli that keep good working habits in place, and motivate pretty much everyone equally. You can't really spend the whole day looking at(or creating) memes, because somebody will notice that and you'll end up in an embarrassing situation. Even if you have flexible working hours, there are people that are counting on you to be there within some kind of agreed on timeframe. Having that sort of predictable routine is also important for remote workers. While it may be tempting to sleep until 1 pm and then pull off an all-nighter, going to bed at 5 am messes with other people's schedules. Working is a social thing and having a predictable working schedule means others can depend on you. It is much better to be fresh, woken up and concentrated during the same hours your colleagues are. It's just nice.
Be available or, at least, inform others when you are not. People are counting on you.
Communication is key
Remote work in general means that you will be mostly alone. If you don't have actual colleagues working with you at the same physical location, you will feel a bit alone. Communication will be way different than it is when you communicate face-to-face, it also depends on the person you are communicating with and the circumstances.
My first golden rule of thumb is: never assume anything. I had a colleague who told me that she feels weird when addressing someone directly on Slack over an urgent matter. She thought it would seem rude and intrusive.
I have given one-word answers to people when I was busy. Later that day I read the conversation again and it struck me as callous. It felt as if I was trying to shrug my colleague off. In reality, I was busy with something, but it wasn't as urgent. I didn't have time for chit-chats and I tried to keep chatter at a minimum.
Written text does not carry over enough of the emotions involved when you try to get a point across. Generally, people are nice and do not want to be rude towards each other without a reason. Please don't assume your remote colleagues are rude because they respond with "no" or "merge". Most likely they are simply busy. Imagine asking someone in real life: "Hey, can I merge this?", and getting a nod as a response. Perfectly normal, right? Nod is a known gesture and it implies a lot and adds value to the conversation. Written text doesn't carry that over. Please, don't assume.
Another important aspect is having visual contact with your colleagues. Whether it's daily standup or a meeting, seeing your coworkers' faces adds human touch to working remotely. Don't be shy, give someone a call when debating over something. Sometimes things are easier to explain if you use your voice, or your camera or screen. It also helps collaboration and bonding team members together.
However. Do not cold call anyone. Sorry, but that is very annoying and uncalled for. I wouldn't just run up to someone, take off their headphones and kick off a conversation immediately, if I were to do so in an office. I would walk up to the person, make that person aware of my presence, say hi and ask if we can have a chat about whatever. Apply the same rules of politeness and common sense to your remote colleagues. Ask if you can have a quick call, say hi, be nice. And please avoid the dreadful hi, followed by a good few minutes of "Name is typing...". If I'm distracted, I would like to know why and it's easier to tell by reading the notification. There's a difference between a dreaded notification that says "PRODUCTION IS DOWN 🔥" and "hey look at this picture of a cat doing machine learning".
Now, when you've got your workplace and social skills set up, you definitely want to invest in a good webcam, headphones, and a microphone. Which leads me to my next topic:
When people can't see you or can't hear you, they will lose contact with you. If you are working in an office and having daily stand-up calls or planning meetings, speak to the camera or microphone please. And speak up! I really want to hear what you are trying to say. Remote workers really do like it when you face the camera and speak loudly and clearly. We like those kinds of coworkers the best!
Being heard also means taking public discussions public. It's okay to have a personal chat between two people, but if three or more people are involved, take that discussion to a public channel. I have dealt with super annoying conversations that start off between people and then grow to 5. And you have to copy paste bulks of text from the previous conversation, to provide context to the newly joined person.
It's okay to have secrets, but agreeing upon something is more valuable if done in public. Use separate(locked) channels to keep like-minded people together, but try to keep discussions public.
Developers, inform others of your decisions, actions and production errors you cause. Be nice!
Have face to face meetings
Final and last advice for both fully and partially remote companies: get together. Jump on busses, trains or airplanes and get some face to face time. It doesn't have to be spent working all the time, you have to have fun together. Go for a night out, go to some place warm and exotic, go to the beach!
I work as a fully remote developer for Convious. We are a truly distributed company, with people working in 5 different countries. And we love to get together! It helps our team. Time spent together is very valuable, use it wisely. After all, working together, even if from a distance, is a social thing.
Oh, we're hiring! Come join us if you love working remotely with the best kind people.