What I Learned While Remote Working at Grandma’s House

I’m just back from Spring Break, during which I joined my wife and daughter on the trip to see grandma and grandpa in Los Angeles. While they went to the zoo and to play mini-golf, I was working.

It was the classic scenario for remote working — I was in a familiar location (the in-laws’ house), with fast internet and no childcare responsibilities during the work day courtesy of my wife and her parents.

Pretty much this exact scenario is described in this great post on remote working policies by Fog Creek which has a useful list of tips and approaches for the worker and the employer.

So how did it go for me? Pretty well, and here are the things that I learned in the process.

Ergonomics matter

At home I set up my laptop on a stand, use an external keyboard and trackpad, and have my chair’s height carefully calibrated to the height of my desk. At grandma’s the laptop was on a card table and my bum was sat on a folding chair. My back hurt after the end of the first day.

I moved to various locations around the house, but never got completely comfortable. There’s a trade-off between traveling light and being comfortable while you’re working, but it’s definitely worth figuring out a solution that works for you. Fold-out laptop stands (or a pile of books) and an external keyboards can help with the writers’ slouch.

The ability to close the door is crucial

Grandma’s is a pretty open-plan house — there’s only one door downstairs (to the kitchen — which as a high-traffic area isn’t great for working in) — and there were no desks or tables in the bedroom we were staying in, which meant that I was pretty exposed while working away at my card table. Most of the time this was fine — I had my headphones in, or was just cranking away at stuff and quite liked being part of the life of the house. But when I had to make phone call or jump on a quick web conference I really needed somewhere with a closable door. So I’d retreat to a couch in the den or perch on the end of my bed — which was OK but not ideal.

Being out of the office focuses you on productivity not just presence

When you’re away from the office you feel much more keenly the sense that you have to get things done, and there are fewer workplace distractions to get in your way. This is held up as being one key advantage that remote-first teams have over traditional ones, and was definitely true for my week in LA. I was much clearer about the objectives for my day, and I stuck to the plan much more rigorously than I normally would.

Part of this is that I didn’t get dragged into meetings, or called over to help a colleague with an immediate problem. (Although when the internet went down in the office, I could still login to our ISP account and immediately see that an outage had already been reported in our area). There’s definitely a sense that just being present in the office on a normal day partly constitutes what’s required of you as far as work is concerned. The transactional sense of trading of time (but not necessarily your attention) for money is more overt when you’re clocking in and clocking out to your factory (however figuratively).

But when you’re staring out at a swimming pool in a West Los Angeles backyard, you really feel like you have to get stuff done for your pay.

I got more creative about where and when I worked

I found myself thinking more deliberately not just about the work I had to do, but where and when I was going to do it. Knowing that I wanted to go to the newly-opened Broad Museum while we were there, I worked on a bunch of social media posts on Sunday (that I could queue up for a couple of days) and put in some evening hours to free up the time to go downtown when I’d normally be working. Theoretically, I could do the same thing during my regular working weeks in the office, but I very seldom do.

Similarly I took myself round to the local Starbucks for a few hours one morning for a change of scene and to work on a writing project. Again, this could be part of my routine at home (or used to break up my routine) — and it was when I worked for myself — but the tangled sense of inertia and expectation in the standard office environment often make this hard. If your colleagues are all sitting at their desks (regardless of what they’re actually doing) it can be difficult to announce that you’re taking yourself to the café. It shouldn’t but it does.

The office culture you leave behind is still important

I easily took part in a couple of online meetings while I was away (which worked fine), but I missed an impromptu brainstorming session that took place one afternoon back in the office. I could have joined in — I was working at the time, and it wouldn’t have been hard to do a Google Hangout with the laptop in the office pointed at the whiteboard — but the office folks didn’t think about it. Even though we have 2 locations in the US and co-workers in Europe, Asia and Australia, there’s still something different about being present in the room that isn’t being fully replicated with the remote workers.

This is a good lesson that where organizations have a mixture of remote and in-person employees, they need to work hard at procedures and practices that mean that the remote staff aren’t disadvantaged by not being present.

Thinking remote-first (rather than just remote-friendly) is harder than it sounds, but it can be crucial in keeping a distributed team engaged and feeling valued.

Some notes on hardware

None of this would have been possible without my laptop, of course. My office provides me with a desktop iMac, and while I appreciate the screen real estate it’s obviously not going to help me out of the office. For organizations keen to encourage working flexibility issuing a laptop (with a second screen, external keyboard and mouse/trackpad for the workplace) has to be the way to go. Fortunately I have a older but serviceable laptop so I brought that.

I was trying out the one-bag, carryon-only approach to packing I’m going to use for a European trip later this year, which meant everything went in a single smallish backpack (with no separate personal item). Man, 5-year old laptops are heavy, especially when you include the power brick. Of course this is all relative, but a quick trip to the Santa Monica Apple Store showed me the improvements in portability we’ve seen over the last few years. A MacBook Air or 12″ MacBook Pro would definitely make this all a bit more pleasant.

One piece of kit that really worked well were the Bose noise canceling earbuds. Their performance on planes is legendary, but they did a great job of cutting out the ambient noise of the house (my sister calls this ‘entering the Bose quiet room’). But they felt weird for conference calls, because even though the built-in microphone is of good quality, I could hear my own voice in head so loudly it was very distracting.

Definitely worth the effort

Especially in the US, where paid vacation time is famously limited, allowing employees to work out of the office temporarily can be a great benefit. Even though I was working, I obviously got to spend time with my extended family in the evenings, and with a bit of shuffling, got to see a little bit of L.A.

And crucially, I got at least as much done as I would have during a normal week in the office, and still returned the next Monday feeling like I’d had something of a break.

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