On Working Remote

What I’ve learned from working for a company, remote, full time, from the opposite side of the country.

This Month marks the second year I’ve worked completely remote for Nasdaq as a product designer. Nasdaq is, of course, located in New York. I live in California — the polar opposite side of the U.S.

So, what is working remote? Imagine being able to say — “Gee, I really wish I could’ve worked from home today!”

Now amplify that to all day, every day.

Sounds great, right?

The thing is, working from home is applicable to one of those “Grass is always greener” analogies, that, when you’ve actually gotten used to the fact that your house has mighty morphed into your office, and that you’ll never physically leave at the end of your work day, working from home becomes slightly less exciting. Now that I’ve worked 96.4% from my house, for a company that’s on the complete opposite side of the country, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned.

1: Reply to all work emails

Well, that seems redundant. Do I have to reply to every email? Even those work announcement emails? Relax. No, you shouldn’t be that guy that replies to work announcement emails with superfluous statements like, “Thanks!!” Or “Sounds great, boss! LOOK AT ME. Thanks! ~ that guy.”

Nobody likes that guy. Don’t be that guy.

What I mean by replying to all work email is: Reply to email that directly correlates to you or a group that you’re a part of. Replying to all emails is so important. Even just reply with: “Awesome, sounds good! I’ll have it finished by ___” gives your co workers and superiors an acknowledgment that you are indeed reliable, and you’re not leveling your World of Warcraft character and leaving the work laptop to gather dust.

It’s hard for your coworkers to know that you’ve received said email, they can’t exactly pop up over your cubical and see if can even take on more work for instance. No one can just approach you for tasks, and since 99% of the company you’re working for relies directly on email as the primary form of communication, you are especially obligated to clarify that you’ve received and understood any and all email that comes into your inbox.

Replying to email with your general acknowledgement and statement of commitment is also a great paper trail. If you make an effort to write your emails with a greeting, acknowledgement of work and estimated date of completion, you could use that if anyone in the future says that they’ve never received anything from you, or try to focus blame on anyone else. Especially being a remote worker, it’s a lot harder to defend yourself if shit hits the fan, and leaving a reliable paper trail behind keeps you credible and protects you from business politics.

Most email programs allow you to create and save older emails into folders. Especially if you’re working on a rather large project, it’s good to create a folder with that project name, and saving emails that contain commitment dates, emails with attachments and notable “atta-boys” as well.

2: Make sure your work chat is also installed on your phone.

This is super important. Our team at Nasdaq uses Slack as an alternative way for our team to communicate to each other. If you’re ever in a situation where you need to take care of something outside of your home office, or if an emergency comes up, you can still communicate with your team. Most, if not all cases, team communication apps like Slack or Hall will have a free mobile version that you can download to your phone. It’s a small thing, but it’s super important when the time comes when you just can’t be in front of your work computer.

I hate it when I go somewhere and I forget my blackberry (yes, blackberry. The tiny microsoft laptop that fits in your pocket.) I primarily use it for work email, but when I forget it I feel cut-off — Not all situations allow me to pull out the laptop and find a wifi signal. The thing is, I never forget my personal iphone. At least if I forget my work phone I can use my iphone with Slack to maintain communication with the team. Most people feel like they’ve amputated a limb if they forget their personal phone in any situation.

One thing I love about using Slack on my phone is that it already utilizes my native alerts when someone notifies me or tags me. I feel that I always have access to the team, even if I’m away from the computer or forget the work phone.

3: Buy a f$%king whiteboard.

I’m serious. Whiteboards aren’t just useful for team meetings, but they’re great for managing simple to-dos. There are times when you get assigned to multiple tasks or projects, and having applications like Basecamp buried deep within your browers tabs can become ambiguous.

Whiteboards are great for checking things off as you complete them. They are also great for quickly sketching out an idea before you commit to a psd or code prototype, and when you feel it works, you can simply erase it. It also feels great when you’ve completed a project, and you physically wipe it off the board. There’s a strange sense of literal completion when you have to physically wipe a to-do off a white board.

Whiteboards are also great for getting all the crap out of your brain onto something physical so you can use that brain room for whatever you’re currently working on. Nothing is more distracting than working on something when you’ve got a head full of to-dos. Putting it somewhere else at least gets it out of your head. I love it when at the end of my work day, if I have a clear whiteboard, I am free to accept new projects. I don’t have to think too hard about it if someone from the team needs anything from me, or if I’ve forgotten something — A clean whiteboard means I’m done!

I hate the fact that I have pretty intense ADHD. It’s always been a problem in school. I was a terrible student. My biggest problem was that I never paid much attention in school, thusly I never took any notes. My brain was always in ten places at once. The fact that my brain doesn’t allow me to store information very long before I start getting distracted by butterflies and reddit, I have to write everything down. I am seriously useless if I don’t note down most every single word in a meeting like a corporate Court Recorder. Having a whiteboard where I can constantly reminding myself what I’m doing isn’t just convenient, it’s mandatory. Ask any of my coworkers, I’m very forgetful. At least with a whiteboard, where I can quickly note to-dos, I will never forget what I need to do that day. When you’re working remote, no one is there to remind you what you’re doing, this is why it’s especially important to buy a f#$king whiteboard.

4: Find a hobby.

This is a weird one. As any remote worker will tell you, it gets really lonely working by yourself. At the office, you can schedule after work activities like happy hour or whatever to connect with your team on a personal level, and also have something social to do after work.

Remote workers do not get this.

After we’re done working, and everyone signs off of Slack, more than likely you will feel restless and will want to leave the house immediately. The thing about working from home is that your house isn’t just your house anymore, it’s your office building, lunch room and conference room. When you’ve completed your work day and everyone signs off of Slack, you’re still stuck in your office. Get out of the house and recharge your batteries. Find something you can do with little planning — Something you can instantly deploy. If you’re relatively close to the coast, pick up a used surfboard from craigslist, or a mountain bike if you’re further inland. Like to work with your hands? Get a beater of a car or motorcycle, and make it your ridable lego set. Even if it’s a f$%king razor scooter, scoot your ass out of the house for a while.

Getting a physical hobby is also a great way to clear your head after work. It often feels like after signing everything off and shutting down the work laptop, my brain is still running in circles with work because my brain thinks we’re still at work. There’s no leaving the office. Where you make your stove quesadillas is also where you’re stressing out about the last task you were doing. Where you play Diablo III or Counter Strike is also where you had your 6am meeting. After sitting on your ass committing pull requests and stressing about work just a few hours earlier, you don’t want to sit on your ass some more — like Olivia Newton says, you got to get physical.

5: Get all that shit off your desktop.

You know you’ve got too many documents, design files and random screenshots scattered all over your desktop when your computer starts to look like a teenager with a bad case of acne all over their face. CLEAN IT UP IMMEDIATELY.

Take at least an hour a week to clean up your desktop of all the random shit you’ve neglected to organize. Having that mess on your desktop, especially if you’re working remote, can become extremely distracting when you’re trying to get work done. If you only have you to rely on yourself, you’re especially obligated to make sure you’re in order to get it done.

When you’re working from the office, it’s a little easier to get away with having a messy desktop, or desk for that matter — but when you’re working remote, there is no collaborating or working face to face with your coworkers to solve problems, it’s just you and your computer. If you can clean up and organize your workspace, that means you can also clean out all of the crap in your head so you can get back to work.

Having a messy desktop also means you probably have a messy folder structure. It’s best to delimit folders based on project names and a work number system that you use just for yourself. The bigger the number, the newer the project. Inside my project folders I also like to separate my documents into child folders:

  • Code
  • Design
  • Docs

That’s it. If I can successfully get all my loose shit delimited by project and at least separated by those three child folders, I would have organized at least 90% of the crap on my computer. I know this is typically general derp knowledge, but I feel that even the best of us forget that our computers can actually make folders for all of our documents.

Google docs is also a great way to keep track of what projects are still active based on the made up project numbering system we made for ourselves. With Google docs, I can sign in from wherever, and I can see if I’ve highlighted certain projects by critical or completed by color or value, doesn’t matter. If I’m able to sync up my local folder structure with statuses based on my google spreadsheet, I’ll know what files have priority over everything else.

Being a remote worker also means you are also your project manager. Sure, you’re working for PM’s remotely, but being remote does mean you naturally have more room to either manage yourself with discipline, or eventually suffer the consequences of your own disorder, failing your team, and making a bad name for other remote workers. Let’s make ourselves look awesome, okay?

6: Go to regular design meet ups.

Since you can’t mingle face to face with your coworkers anytime you want, it’s important to get outside and talk with other humans. Not only is it a place to vent your frustrations, but you can also learn new techniques & processes from other people in your field. Some of the greatest friends I’ve made have come from local design meetups.

Going to design meet ups is also a great way to pick up some side work with another designer. Make sure it doesn’t become a conflict of interest with the mothership, but picking up small side gigs here and there is a great way to refresh your brain on alternative design and programming techniques that you can utilize for your full-time job.

Sometimes I feel like we get stuck in a rut and closed off with the monotonous way we design and develop in-house, and doing a little side work is a great way to reboot your design thinking. In-house design also usually has a way in which they do things with pattern libraries, so it’s great to not have to use corporate blue and the same font all the time.

7: Put some clothes on, Hippy.

There are some great perks about working from home and there are caveats. The obvious perk, especially working remote for a traditional corporate company, is getting to work with silly moose pajamas on.

Put real clothes on.

Okay, calm down, I know that one of the great perks from working remote is having the opportunity to work in your silly moose pajamas on, or no pants at all. I, for one, am a great proponent for silly moose pajamas, but the reality is if you start dressing too relaxed, your work ethic will sorta conform to it.

I know this isn’t the case for everyone, but when I’m wearing my silly moose pajamas / socks and sandles, all I want to do is eat junk food for the remainder of my day and watch Orange is the New Black. When you put on a respectible pair of pants, it does something weird for your brain —

“I’m going to do something productive!” it says. “I’m not going to play Counter Strike and eat a bag full of Circus Animal Cookies!”

Wearing a pair of moose pajamas DOES NOT say, “I’m going to do a ton of work, write some emails and attend 6:00am meetings! WOOHOO!!”

If you want to be productive that day, put some clothes on, BUT, unless you regularly video chat with your team, for all they know you could be wearing a tie on your head and rocking a pair of crocks. (Sorry Brian — For the crocks joke, not the tie).

8: Prepare yourselves.

Realize that if you get the opportunity to work remote, when you do actually get to see all of your coworkers in the same general vicinity, prepare yourselves, because mass consumptions of alcohol are coming.

I’m not joking.

I realize that this is subjective, and it depends on the culture of the team, but what I emphasize is the ridiculous child-like excitement you feel seeing all your dingus worker’s faces in the same room as you.

When you’ve worked with someone on a project for months, and you finally get to see their face, all you want to do is high-five the shit out of them into oblivion and take them out drinking, because You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I realize I’m taking that quote out of context. sorry Wayne Gretzky. #notsorry

Remote workers are a special breed of human. When we finally do get to go out in a social setting, please treat us like you would an animal in a zoo — please do not tap on the glass and do not hand feed us. We startle easy, and if you expose us to too many lights and sounds, you will lose us.

I realize it’s not that dramatic, but working from home for years on end makes us forget social queues, especially only being able to attend all of our meetings over the phone. Instead of being able to see nods and grunts as a way to enter a conversation, we are represented by a little black conference phone, trying so desperately to get our opinion in.

8: Conclusions

Working remote is awesome. I’m not going to lie, it’s amazing, but there are obvious caveats and things both you and your employer need to do to make it work.

Working 100% remote is a relatively new concept, and it’s important for the ones that actually do get the opportunity to do it, also have the responsibility to not ruin it for everyone else. You are not entitled to anything. Your employer would definitely have an easier time hiring someone local — Someone who can come into the office and physically be a part of the team.

It’s up to us, the moose pajama wearing, now socially awkward and destitute remote workers to make it acceptable for the modern workplace. We have the opportunity to make working remote a normal part of most, hopefully all office cultures.

You can follow Casey on twitter @caseyhald. He enjoys riding his Harley seventy-two and occasional surfing. You can view some of his art on dribbble if you want. He works with a bunch of Lucha donqs at Nasdaq(we’re hiring) and loves a good pale ale. Casey occasionally speaks about himself in the third person.