I will be working remotely.
When my friends heard that, they must have pictured something like this.
Their reactions, however enthusiastic, fell into a few categories.
- Cool! You will be working from the Bahamas. I wish I could do the same.
- Just don’t work from home. You will stop showering in, like, a week.
- I couldn’t do that. I must be surrounded by people at all times.
And I agreed. After all, I had worked half-remotely before, and I loved it. One day at the office, a few days at home. What’s not to like?
At home, there are no desks tightly packed in order to save space. There is no background chatter. No one is frying fish in the microwave. Add the daily commute and all the unproductive conversations you never wished to have, and you end up with a pretty uninspiring working environment.
If you’re like me, you hate the office life. You crave silence. You want solitude. You feel at best when no one is breathing down your neck.
When I joined Unsplash earlier this year, I felt like I had finally struck gold. There was nothing that could stop me now. There was only me and my work, in a perfect world free of distractions.
Six months later, my opinion has changed. Here’s what I found.
Your environment is a tool (or it should be)
As a remote worker, you no longer have a go-to place. There are options to choose from, and what you choose will dictate the type of work you can do effectively do.
Option #1: Home
Home is the obvious choice, especially if you live alone. The most appealing characteristics of working from your place include silence, cost-effectiveness, and having the comfort of using your beloved desk setup. If you’re a night owl, you can work here during the evening or even at night, if that’s your thing.
While solitude may indeed bring out the best in you, let’s face it, no one can stand it forever. As humans, we’re social creatures, no matter how introverted we are. After a period of being alone, you will quickly realize how much you really long for interaction.
- Pretend you’re going out. Start your day just like you would if you were working from an office. Set the alarm, jump out of bed, take a cold shower if you like. Wear something nice. Apply your favorite fragrance. Mute the phone the second you start your workday.
- Eat lunch with your friends. You need to eat anyway, so using the lunch hours to get out, take a walk, and connect with other human beings is a perfect opportunity to regain balance.
- Separate your working space from your living space. We often associate discipline with getting up early, but it takes discipline to switch off as well. At the very least, try not to work where you sleep. Make the bedroom your resting zone. Your body will know the difference.
Option #2: A café
After a few weeks, when you finally get bored with the environment you thought you loved, you start to look around.
Working from a café is a very different experience than working from home, and in my opinion, it should be used for a very different purpose. But first, a few facts:
- You won’t have your 32" monitor there.
- Electric sockets are a luxury, not a commodity.
- If you don’t have a buddy, you can’t go to the bathroom without risking your precious AirPods getting stolen. And your MacBook. And your bag. Depending on where you live, they might even take your smoothie.
A café is not a good replacement for an office. You won’t do any deep work here. Use it for tasks that don’t require your undivided attention. Answering e-mail, scheduling work, gathering ideas are good examples. You will also meet other remote workers, so it might be an opportunity for networking.
- Buy a VPN service. If you care about privacy and data security at all, the idea of using a public network to exchange confidential information (like code, correspondence, or money transfers) should frighten you. A VPN will encrypt the connection for you. I’m using one called Nord VPN.
- Bring the internet with you. Public Wi-Fi is flaky. It depends on the venue, yes, but if having the internet connection is an absolute prerequisite for you, you need to be prepared. Use your phone as a hotspot if needed.
- Don’t buy the coffee you don’t want. People use drinks to buy themselves permission to occupy a seat for the day. It would be weird to claim a spot if you haven’t ordered anything, right? Half-right. If you don’t intend to consume whatever you’ve got, don’t make it go to waste. Use your money to tip the staff instead. Shout out to Luke Chesser for this tip.
Don’t sit there the whole day. Use cafés to put yourself in the work mode, and once you’re charged, move on to something more suitable.
Option #3: A coworking space
For someone like me, coworking spaces represent the worst of two worlds. The commute is back. The background noise is back. People you don’t trust are back. You don’t have the fancy 4K monitor that’s waiting for you at home, but you do get an unlimited supply of coffee. On top of that, you pay a substantial amount of money if you can find a decent coworking space to begin with.
But that’s me. If you have flatmates, kids, your neighbor is a fan of gangsta rap, or for whatever other reason your home is not a viable option for you, then a co-working office might be.
Option #4: A library
An interesting choice. It’s free, it’s quiet and — in this day and age — likely to be vacant. There is no pressure to buy anything, and finding an electric socket is rarely an issue.
The only problem is when you need to break the silence. Forget about having calls and pair programming. Forget about notifications. Libraries are no good for those. Use them only for deep work.
Option #5: Rent a desk at your previous workplace
Haven’t thought about this one, have you? It’s not a common practice, but some companies are willing to rent-a-desk for a fraction of the price co-working spaces are charging.
What does it mean for you? A safe, familiar environment you can visit when you feel like it. Plus, you get to keep your colleagues and the coffee machine. Unless you had a bad falling-out with the previous employer, I can’t imagine a better deal.
Working remotely offers something your colleagues at the office can only dream about: the freedom to match your environment to the type of work you’re doing at the moment. It’s a powerful tool. Don’t waste it.
Instead of sticking to one spot, I recommend alternating between them on a daily basis. Discover new places. Travel, if you like. Employ space. Use its vibe to put you in the frame of mind you need for the task at hand.
Things they don’t tell you
When we discuss work, we tend to focus on the explicit. It’s easy to spot the obvious differences between remote vs. colocated. However, if you pay attention, you will find way more interesting nuances where no one else seems to be looking.
Remote companies are more mature (because they need to be)
Tech companies love to brag about their values. Sometimes values are about revolutionizing the industry, and sometimes they’re simply about the fact that they care. Either way, it’s difficult to verify if the company practices what it preaches before you join it.
Remote ones are special because being remote-friendly alone says a lot about the standards accepted by an organization.
The first thing that struck me at Unsplash is how well-organized it was. Not only there was loads of technical documentation; every process followed by the team was described with utmost care. Beyond the formalities (for which you need the help of someone else), I was able to onboard myself and be ready to do my thing.
In colocated companies, there is this unspoken assumption that everyone kind of knows everything. The key phrase: kind of. When we assume that someone else knows what we know, it creates an incentive to be lazy and keep business-critical knowledge siloed. That’s a recipe for inefficiency; and if a company you apply for says it’s not remote-friendly, you should consider it a red flag.
At Unsplash, information is written down and accessible. Because it has to be.
You will communicate better (because you have to)
Good communication skills are a peculiar personality trait — while everyone thinks they have it, not many do. I was no exception.
When your team is scattered all over different time zones, the majority of your communication is written communication. The problem is: when you hit submit, it’s too late for clarifying questions. If your point wasn’t delivered clearly, and your expectations towards the other person were not expressed explicitly, it will slow you both down, affecting the company as a whole.
Working remotely forces you to improve that area of your life. Sounds scary? Don’t worry, because you cannot help it. You become a better communicator by communicating better.
After a few months, I not only noticed how my English has improved (thanks, Grammarly), but as an interesting side effect, I started to get irritated at my own communication skills when I fail to deliver a point.
Your teammates are cherry-picked
Only remote-friendly companies have the luxury of choosing precisely the people they want. After all, it’s easier to find a good match if the pool available to you is the entire planet. This has profound implications.
Colocated tech companies need to fight for talent, and often don’t have a choice but to accept a candidate they’re not fully satisfied with. If you don’t have confidence in the person you start a professional relationship with, they will notice the lack of trust. In extreme cases, you end up in a dysfunctional system where processes are a weapon aimed to standardize the workforce.
Having your own company is not all fun and games
While it doesn’t apply to everyone, this scenario seems to be pretty common: you ditch your nine-to-five and start working remotely. The problem is, your new employer is a few continents away. I’m not talking about time zones. I’m talking about your legal status.
If you’re based in a different country than the company you work for, it’s likely you won’t be an employee anymore. You will be a consultant. Having your own little practice. Soon-to-be-remotes often overlook that part.
It’s not the end of the world, and for many of us, it’s actually a better deal. The important thing is: don’t let bureaucracy get in the way of your work. Self-employment has severe implications in terms of social insurance, healthcare, taxation, and retirement. Your employer can help you with those.
At Unsplash, I’m lucky enough to have a stipend that covers my accountant. If I were to do my accounting alone (provided how complicated the tax law is in my country), I would spend more time doing math than programming.
- Be smart about receiving your salary in a foreign currency. If you don’t like the idea of your bank ripping you off on exchange rates, consider using a service like TransferWise or Revolut. They use the same rates you see on Google. A multi-currency debit card will also allow you to work and travel.
- Encrypt your hard drive. No one else will take responsibility for the security of your data now. Especially important if you’re traveling a lot.
- Backup your data daily. Regardless of whether you’re doing your own taxes or not, your computer is still where you keep the important documents. A solution like Apple’s Time Capsule or a NAS server can come in handy.
The missing boundaries
The remote model removes boundaries. It eliminates the geographical boundary. It softens the time boundary. Most importantly, however, it’s indifferent towards how you organize your day. While it may sound appealing, it also creates a problem, because some boundaries are useful.
You are responsible for protecting your time
If you’re like me, then you need to know precisely when you’re working and when you can give yourself permission to rest. If you’re not fully satisfied with how much you’ve done, guilt creeps in.
Imagine this: you just spent 12 hours in front of your computer. According to the clock, it’s time to call it a day. However, a part of you knows you haven’t really been working the entire time. You went out to buy groceries. You cooked a meal. You checked Facebook a few times. If you have any work ethic, you feel obligated to make up for that lost time. Next thing you know, work starts to bleed into your evening, affecting your personal life.
Working from an office solves that problem. When the time comes, you leave the workplace and do whatever you want. Home is different.
My recommendation? Don’t get too excited when your employer is offering flexible working hours. So far, they’ve been the biggest trap for me.
Work/life balance is bullshit
If you love what you do, work/life balance ceases to exist. This holds true for programmers involved in open-source projects. If your spare-time activities help your employer, should you consider them work or pleasure?
I believe each software engineer should be allowed to get involved in voluntary work for as long as it benefits the company they’re working for. This budget, however, is not infinite. Drawing the line between work and hobby becomes even more difficult when we consider all the stakeholders:
- Your employer is paying for the business value.
- To generate that value, you’re using the work of other people (open-source software). This system can only work if you contribute back.
- When you’re not busy writing code, you’re busy reading someone else’s. Your team expects you to be available, to attend the meetings, and to perform code reviews on time. For distributed teams, this also includes writing tons of documentation.
- In every competitive market, the expectations of users can only keep growing. If you want to serve them well, you need to stay on top of your industry. You learn or become obsolete.
The list goes on, but time remains stubbornly finite. Sacrifices need to be made. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about working remotely is that it makes you the judge. If time management is not your strong suit, trying to make everyone happy will drain your energy faster than you can imagine.
The future is remote, for some of us
As Tom Ford said, time and silence are the most luxurious things today. When we consider how many things compete for our attention, it becomes clear that a model of working that respects your time (and lets you keep as much of it as possible) will win in the long run.
For knowledge workers, it’s exciting to see how the concepts conceived during the industrial revolution fade away, making room for new ones designed with respect for deep work.
As with any radical shift, we are witnesses to a transition period in which the best practices have yet to emerge. While it’s difficult to say where exactly the revolution is at the moment, it’s hard to deny the trend. Things will shift in favor of working remotely. It’s best if we start preparing now.
So is it better?
Don’t get me wrong. Despite the challenges, I’m now more convinced that working remotely is the future for knowledge workers than I ever was.
Why? Because those challenges are not really about work. They’re about you. You as an employee. You as a colleague. You as a person. You, when no one is watching.
Working without supervision will uncover flaws in your character. It will test your time management skills. It will show how well you respond to solitude. In some strange way, it will force you to grow up.
Having the privilege to work with people I could never possibly meet otherwise, the freedom to do what I love, where I want, and when I want, all for the price of challenging myself?
I’ll take that deal.
Thanks to Oliver Joseph Ash for sharing your reflections.