I’ve been working remotely for 21 months, here’s my story.
“ Oh you don’t want to be doing that! Do you?”
☝️ This was the response I got from (almost) everyone I spoke to when making this decision over two years ago. Largely, these were sympathetic and caring responses, but mixed in there was an undertone of ridicule and pity. Unsettling to say the least, but I was sure I was making the right decision for my family.
I was expecting my first child, moving into a managerial role at work and seeing the majority of my immediate family making their way into the midlands. Naturally my wife and I started considering our options and felt that moving to Leicester would be a good move for us too. We wanted our child to be surrounded by family and be able to experience that to its fullest and yes more selfishly, we wanted to know we had a support network around us too. That simply was not going to be possible down in London.
For me, it was a very difficult decision to make. All my career paths and job choices were (and still are) primarily based in and around London, it had been my home for the best part of two decades and I was worried about how I would make the whole ‘remote working thing’ work out. Would I be able to become a long-distance commuter? Would the technology support me to work and manage from afar? Would I be able to strike a good work-life balance? Those worries, whilst all valid, were suppressed when I thought about what it meant and would mean for my family. I decided it was worth the compromise and that I’d figure it all out.
Nearly two years later I’m sharing my thoughts and offering any tips that I have from experience. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, I will be remotely working for the foreseeable future as will a lot of people and so this could be useful for people that haven’t done this before.
So first a confession, I’m not a full-time remote worker. It’s typically 60/40 split where I’m in the office for two days and the rest are spent working from my home office. This flexes due to the demands of work and at times it could be one to two weeks of continuous remote working and others where I’m in the office for an entire week. Technically I’m a hybrid remote worker, but I would still say that I’m mostly remote.
The second thing to note, my work predominantly is managing and leading a team. Again, it’s tough when interacting with with people face to face, but becomes even more challenging when doing it from afar!
How has this been overall? In short — tough but surprisingly successful. My team held a year-end retrospective for 2019 and feedback showed genuine surprise at how I’d managed to lead and manage from afar. Yes there’s definite room for improvement, but I took it as reassurance that somehow I was making this work! Here’s a breakdown of what I’ve found tough and what I’ve tried to do to overcome them:
This is one of the earliest things I noticed and still presents itself as a challenge. When not in the office and essentially surrounded by ‘work’, it’s easy to let your brain relax and not focus on work as much as you should.
You get distracted by your phone, a spiral of YouTube videos and even a fleeting pigeon flying past your window and before you know it your ‘working hours’ are gone and you’re STILL on the first item on your to-do list! (Yes, this has happened. Yes, I am ashamed of it).
I found that a few things helped here:
- Speak to your partner/family that are in the house during the day. Have a candid conversation about the fact that WFH literally means “Working from home” and not “Yeah I just have to check emails once in a while…”. They should then respect the fact that you shouldn’t be disturbed unnecessarily
- Give yourself some space. Yes, this can be tricky if you don’t have a dedicated room for work, but commandeer a corner of the dining room and get yourself some noise cancelling headphones. Isolate yourself from the ‘outside’ world as much as you can (without becoming a hermit!)
- Set a daily routine. Don’t treat a WFH day like a weekend. Yes there’s no commute/travel as there would be on a typical office day, but still wake up at a reasonable time, still shower, change your clothes etc. Don’t let this be an excuse to sit in your underwear the whole day (as great as that may sound). Seriously, this makes a world of a difference. It helps program your mind into ‘work mode’ and makes you more productive.
- Set yourself time for doing non-work related things. If distraction is inevitable and with you spending more time at home you want to catch up on housework you never got done, that’s fine! You just need to set times for when you do that and when you don’t. After all this is one of the natural benefits of working remotely, you just need to be responsible about it. A technique that really helps is the Pomodoro Technique.
Projecting yourself virtually
This one is particularly challenging for anyone trying to lead and manage remotely. How do you maintain a presence when you’re not really there? Here’s how I’ve done it:
- Use technology to your advantage. I’ve been fortunate that we have access to a Microsoft Surface Hub. From team stand-ups to running workshops, this bit of kit has really been key for me to work with my team. It’s essentially a collaborative computer on wheels with a digital whiteboard, cameras and microphones. I’d go so far as to say that with all it’s faults, it’s been my favourite Microsoft product in years! Yes, I understand that not everyone can get one of these, but if that chance presents itself, get one!
- A good segue to my next point — use your webcam! Yes, as awkward as it is to show yourself on camera, do it! Click that little ‘enable camera’ button that you always have turned off. It makes the world of a difference. When people see you, they can connect with you better and it helps communication tenfold.
- Don’t behave differently from when you’re in the office to when you’re not. Of course you can’t do things like sit down and grab a bite with your colleagues, but the little things like morning catch ups or laughing over a funny video/meme can still happen! Don’t treat yourself as the elephant that’s not in the room (see what I did there?), if you act as though you’re with your team and that you are always accessible as if you were right next to them, they’ll treat you the same. Call each other frequently and often and make full use of communication channels.
Having realistic expectations
Maybe I was naive, but I was hopeful that everyone would adapt at the same pace and in the same way. It didn’t. It was a real challenge at the start. I kept feeling left out and ill-informed of what was going on in the office and with my colleagues. What fixed this was a candid conversation between us all so that we all understood each other’s perspectives. I had to realise that this was a change for them almost as much as it was for me. From being able to pat me on the shoulder to get my attention, they now had to open an app and either message me or hit “call”. And the more steps there are to do something, the more reluctance/hesitation there tends to be. Just be open with each other and be accommodating of one another. Particularly if everyone is working remotely, everyone will have unique variables that make it harder/easier for them to do certain things. Just be patient and work together.
If your team is really struggling with this, why not try and set up a social contract or team charter? I did this with my team and it really did help.
In a world where people are not in the same space, good communication is absolutely essential. Use the various comms channels you have access to appropriately and well.
- Email — this is largely the de-facto standard in large organisations, but that is changing! It has it’s place, but I rarely use this with my direct team.
- Instant messaging — this is my go-to whenever I want to quickly chat with people. Whatever your flavour (Sametime, anyone?) I like making this my go-to way of communicating now. It lowers formality (which can be a blocker) and just keeps things flowing better.
- Video calls — as a big introvert I initially hated this. But it is now one of my favourite tools to use. Need to talk about something important or address your team as a whole or just feel like your joke would be better understood in person? Use video calls. I didn’t realise just how great an invention this was until I started depending on it so much.
- Limit your comms tools to a select few that everyone can use. Don’t go overboard, but again don’t go too minimalist. Find the balance that works for you and your team.
Keeping that work-life balance
This one is more centered around me being at home and away on a weekly basis. I’m typically away from my family for ~40 consecutive hours each week and sometimes that feels like an eternity.
- Missing those key moments sucks. With a young child I’ve literally come back home to see him learn 5 new words or figure out how to crawl! Yes, it pinches knowing that I’m not there in person, but it drives me to make the most of my time when I am home. Embrace the fact that you won’t always witness things, but just be sure to be present when you are around.
- Keep work at work. Typically advice given to any working person with an office job and always being connected. Make sure that you take the time to disconnect! Working from home blurs the lines a lot. If you’re passionate about what you do (or even if you’re not!), you can find yourself spending “just another 15 minutes” sending an email whilst your dinner gets cold. Don’t do that. Seriously it’s not worth it no matter what anyone tells you. I’ve done this more than I’d like to admit, but a recent article by a dear friend really made me reinforce this in my mind.
- Oddly, the unconventional work pattern for me gives me more time with my family. I get to share all my meals with my wife and son almost every day of the week. Whilst trying to coerce him into eating “just another bite of his food” does get exhausting, it allows me to be the involved father I’ve always wanted to be.
Make the most of down-time
Naturally I spend a lot of the time on the road. Google Maps did a good job of reminding me with a round up of February:
It resonated with me in a few ways:
- I spend a typical person’s entire work week sitting in a car. Whilst it’s an inevitability for me as public transport is a more costly and time consuming option, how do I make the most of this time? For me it’s been audio books and podcasts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m trying to learn something in every second of every commute, but it gives me the chance to indulge in my audial interests. From fact to fiction, I try and give myself a balance. But sometimes silence is golden too. A bit of self-reflection doesn’t go amiss.
- I don’t walk nearly enough! The metric above isn’t exactly all-encompassing though. I believe it is just when I’ve had google maps open whilst I’ve been walking. Even still, I need to walk, jog & run more!
- And in the same vein, I am probably in the car for more time than what Google tells me. Yikes!
Reinventing the way I work
Remote working is not a new thing. People have been doing it for years and it could potentially become the norm in the not too distant future. Whilst I’ve made many adjustments so far I’m always trying to innovate and change the way it all happens.
An interesting read, particularly for me, was the way someone has been able to run a Design Sprint entirely remotely! Being a facilitator, it’s inspiring to see this and really motivates me to keep my head up and make this work for me!
For those of you that have skipped to this bit, I’m not a full-time remote worker, but a hybrid (read above to understand).
I’ve found that whilst challenging, the key to succeeding is to make this work for you. Play to your own strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses so that you don’t fall to them. Communication is vital to make this all work and taking advantage of technology is the way to go.
Lastly, and most importantly, genuinely try and keep a healthy work-life balance. Find the ratio and mix that works for you, your family/friends and your work.