Working Remotely and Making Your Own Signals

My first job out of college was with AmeriCorps — I was a community organizer in Binghamton, NY, working on something called the Binghamton Neighborhood Assemblies Project.

The Neighborhood Assemblies were a series of small direct democracy experiments, based in each of the cities voting districts. It was a fulfilling way to spend time, and was exactly what I needed to dive into after giving graduate school a try.

The community organizer gig didn’t have what you’d call much of a set schedule — our office was based out of City Hall, and we came to get to know the signals of the rest of the building.

When we heard the planners head out to get lunch, it was around noon. When we could hear the local alternative radio station, playing through tinny boombox speakers, it meant folks were gone for the day, and the janitor was doing his job. When the hallway lights went out, it meant we were the last ones in the building, and probably time to start thinking about heading home.

It’s been the same for all of my jobs — small signals that indicate where you are, how your day is going, what time it is. In cafes there were early morning customers and late-day duties — you didn’t mop the floor until an hour before closing. Signals.

Working remotely, especially if you work mostly from home, lacks these signals. There aren’t other folks around who present regular patterns of behavior and expectation that you can build your own day around. There isn’t an entire building’s ebb and flow that you can float along with.

There are pros and cons to this — it allows you as an individual to find your own best way, your own ideal schedule and timing, in a way that being mandated to a particular place at a particular time would preclude. It allows for a lot of this kind of experimentation, in fact.

Having no signals can also allow for, or in some way legitimize, the inclination for a lot of tech workers to put in just one more — one more ticket, one more pull request. This is how you end up working far into the night, really letting your work overflow the bucket you had set out for it.

This is a con — a lack of exterior signals, of social signals, may lead us to overwork, to burnout, to unreasonable expectations of ourselves.

It leads us to the question so common among remote workers — “How do I know when I’m done?”

The answer is, naturally, whenever you decide you’re done. It’s the deciding that’s tricky.

So, the remote worker has to create these signals for herself: through experimentation and weighing of options, to create signals to indicate the end of the work day.

You could construct signals to indicate the beginning of your day, when to take lunch, etc — but I think most important for your mental health is finding a way to put a punctuation at the end.

I’m lucky insofar as The Doctor and Mango tend to get home around the same time every day, so I have a nice bookend to my work. I know about when they’ll be home, and I don’t pile anything time-sensitive or must-do in that calendar slot. When I hear the car in the driveway, I quit Slack, I close my laptop, and that’s it.

It’s very freeing. If you’re working remotely and have not yet built yourself some type of end-of-day signal or ritual, I totally recommend it.

It could take any format — maybe you have your computer set to play a particular song at a particular time. Maybe you have a certain last task every day, and you follow it up with a walk around the neighborhood. Maybe you use IFTTT to flash your office lights at 5PM.

Signals are important. When we work remotely we are lucky enough to build our own.

This piece originally appeared on my blog, s12k.com , where I write about remote work, leadership, and small data. If you like this, you can sign up for a weekly digest of my posts here.