Yet another post on summing up the first year of working remote. But I hope it can inspire someone out there, or give someone some clue to what it’s like and where the great parts are and possible hidden pitfalls. I’m not saying it’s for everyone since I know plenty of people who like the idea of having a clear distinction between work and home. But for me it works and I probably never want to go back.
It’s been over a year now since I quit my old job and started working remote full time. I started this journey with an old colleague of mine, consulting and building web sites or systems for clients where I was producing/consulting and he managed all clients (but also producing). Him living in Gothenburg, where almost all clients where located also, and me living in Stockholm meant the work was done on a full remote basis since it’s about a three and a half hour train ride between the two cities.
I’ve since then transitioned to working on my own, mainly due to moving in with my girlfriend which gave me a better financial situation that allowed me to work less to pay the bills. I still produce and consult, but on a smaller scale while dedicating the rest of my time on writing and prototyping some ideas for products I have.
Give it some time
The shift from a regular nine to five job to working remote full time is a fundamental change, getting used to it is nothing that will happen overnight. It took me quite some time, probably three months or so, to adjust and finding my own path in how to function properly in my new way of working. This is one of the reasons I’m writing this, to perhaps help someone think about the things I’ve experienced and learned over this year.
Not having the routine of going to an office, working a few hour, having lunch, working a few more hours and then going home leaves you with an empty page for your day. Creating new habits and routines have been important for me and it’s one of the things that took me a while to get into and one of the reasons you should give it some time. For me the most important part is my morning routine which I’ll touch on later. Having a somewhat set routine for my mornings allows for my days to get a certain flow and give them a fair amount of structure I’ve gotten used to. This routine has gradually changed and is changing from time to time because I always experiment with different things in it and see if the outcome is better or worse. I believe one key aspect in creating habits and routines is not to make too big changes often but instead make small incremental changes and trying them out for a while. I might elaborate more on my morning routine in a later blog post.
Communication is key
I believe it to be the most important factor if working remote will succeed or fail. Constant communication is necessary whether it be talking on the phone, writing e-mails, writing documentation or updating issues in a bug tracker or project management tool. I’m not saying that you need to be in a Google Hangouts session all the time, but write everything down. I would say almost all issues that arose from collaboration with someone working remote is due to lack of communication or inability to communicate properly in written form.
Get a good project management tool, there are an abundance of them out there such as Trello, Asana, JIRA and Basecamp just to name a few. This is probably what you want as a central hub of information that is linking to all other services you use. Other good tools you can use is Google Docs for when you need to write in a more feature rich editor and Dropbox for sharing files. One thing that helps out a lot is also a good place for sharing password and other sensitive material, the one I’ve used and is very pleased with is 1Password (it allows for a common storage on Dropbox also). Just make sure that all collaborators are on board on all the different services and actually use them.
This should go without saying but I’m saying it anyways: use version control for code. Code is also communication.
Work space / place
This will differ for everyone but it’s important to find a work space in an environment that suits you. I started off by working from home and renting a desk at a web agency’s office since I thought this kind of mix would suit me. My plan was to do most of work from home and go to the web agency for working but also to get out of my apartment and meet some people. After a while I realized I didn’t really use my desk at the web agency, I always came up with some excuse to stay at home to work and the desk became more of an obligation I felt compelled to use from time to time since I was paying for it and I had told them that I would work there from time to time. Perhaps it was that the desk was too far from home and it felt too much of a commute? So I rented a desk at a web agency closer to my home. And then another one even closer and cheaper. Last week I gave it up because I came to terms that it wasn’t for me and I enjoy working from home.
Wherever you choose to work from is not really important as long as it fits you. But what is important is to create a good environment where you can relax and focus. What I did is that I improved my home office by buying an ergonomic chair and a large monitor, working on a laptop exclusively will make your body hate you. Put some effort in to creating your optimal environment where you feel calm, relaxed and comfortable. I usually move around in my apartment when I’m working since changing my immediate environment can be good for shifting the focus of what you’re doing. When I code I always sit at my desk where I have a good monitor, an external keyboard and an external mouse. But when I write on my blog or book I tend to take my laptop and sit at the dining table, it shifts my focus to “write mode” instantly by the association that I’ve created between writing and the dining table.
Productivity & focus
You will most likely face a stream of distractions, especially when working from home. This can be the new episode of Game of Thrones, friends that want to hang out and grab a beer, any YouTube video or social media. What it all comes down to is how you deal with these distractions and not end up procrastinating too much. The solution for me have been to find tools and techniques for staying productive. I do not think productivity is something that can be forced. That is one of the reasons I don’t like the idea of eight hours in an office, because you can not force yourself or someone else to be productive. It’s also a reason why I don’t like techniques such as Pomodoro or application that “shuts off” distractions such as social media and YouTube. For me it’s a combination of techniques, tools and prioritization that enables my productivity and lets it occur naturally.
Currently I use a mix of Trello boards and IFTT for automating creation of tasks I do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis or when certain things occur on other services. I also have a habit of capturing tasks and ideas, reviewing it all for determining what is important and when. However if you want the full details on this you should read the book Zen To Done, it’s an adaption of GTD it have really changed the way in which I work and stay productive.
Every day I start off by planning my day by identifying the most important tasks I want to complete that day which is most often two or three tasks. I take in consideration my weekly goals and more long term goals, those I also review every week, month and year. Then I try to complete the largest task as soon as possible so I can focus my full attention on it and after that start working on the smaller tasks. My main goal each day is to get my important tasks finished as soon as I can and often I try to make that happen before lunch time. If I manage this it opens up the rest of the day for me in such a way that it allows me to be creative and free, much like the well known Google 20% time rule (even though it can be debated to a long extent that it’s not really Google’s own “invention”).
Work and personal time
This can be a tricky one in finding a distinct line between them, but I for one does not care very much for it. Allowing me to mix work and personal time is one of the added benefits of working remote for me. Whenever I encounter a difficult problem or get stuck I very much enjoy procrastinating for a while, running a personal errand, exercise or go for a walk. This freedom is what makes me feel so great about working from home and it keeps me extremely motivated too such an extent that I think I could never go back to a nine to five job at an office.
The separation between work and personal time has come naturally for me during this year. I would almost say I have an even bigger separation between them now than I did before since I now never work during the evenings on hobby projects or something work related. Now I find time during the day to do this instead, I think we all can agree on having an 8 hour work day in an office does not equal to 8 hours of productive work, there are probably a lot of research on this you can find out there. This is my biggest reason for not wanting to spend my life in an office.
One thing I’ve noticed is that a good and balanced personal life is my main ingredient in getting things done and being productive when I work. Of the two or three most important tasks to get done each day one of them usually end up not being related to work but something I want to get done in my personal life. The benefits of not having something “hanging over” you from your personal life when you work is tremendously relaxing and enables me to focus on the work I’m doing.
I believe I’ve touched on all the points that made me do the switch over to remote work, and I can honestly say that I’ve never had a regret in doing it. Life for me is about being happy and doing this where I can focus both on my personal life and my work has allowed me to be happier. The freedom it gives you is immensely satisfying.