Let’s not beat around the bush: we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 continues to spread. Governments around the world are introducing ever-increasing measures designed to limit the impact of the virus and flatten the curve so that health systems are not overrun.
What is happening is terrible.
In my native Spain, COVID-19 has already taken the lives of more than 2000 people as I write this article. Like many, I am concerned for my friends and loved ones.
Amidst all this, however, as I am confined to my apartment in Barcelona, I can’t help but also feel fortunate. Unlike many, I am still able to work.
For several years now, my morning commute has consisted of nothing more than walking to the end of my hallway. A great many people have recently started a similar daily commute, however, they were not given a choice.
As a consequence, you could argue that right now there is a forced experiment being undertaken, in which instead of merely paying lip service, many employers are having to rely upon a remote workforce in ways they have never been comfortable with before.
So instead of talking about the virus, I would much rather share some of my own tips and experiences as a remote worker. But first a little bit of background.
How I got started
Like many, I worked in an office for several years. It wasn’t until 2015 that remote working was even a choice for me.
After some personal upheaval, I decided to move to Barcelona from my native Madrid, and it was there that I started working for a software consultancy that was remote-friendly.
Over the ensuing years, it didn’t matter where I was as long as the work was getting done.
When I left that company, I continued working remotely, with colleagues and clients spread throughout the world. By now I am quite comfortable with the remote working lifestyle and to be quite honest, can’t even imagine going back to an office.
How you can get started
The basics you will need to get started working remotely are somewhat self-evident. You should have:
- a space to work, preferably a separate room.
- a proper desk and chair. I have a standing desk, but it’s not for everyone.
- a decent internet connection or mobile tethering plan.
With the basics taken care of, here are some things I find important or have discovered over the years.
I still ‘go’ to work
After I wake up, I have some breakfast, have a shower, and sit reading the news whilst I have my coffee. This is my routine; yours might be different. But the basic idea is to have a touchstone, something which gets your brain ready to know that we’re about to start work.
Some people recommend going for a 10 min walk outside (this may be difficult at the moment). It doesn’t matter as long as it is consistent and works for you.
After finishing my coffee, I head to my office, and once I’m inside, that’s it, I’m at work. As far as my partner is concerned, I am now 100 miles away.
This is important.
When I first started working from home, it was all too easy to think of myself as being at home, and my productivity suffered as a result. Similarly, it was all too easy for my partner to feel like they could interrupt me, after all, I’m just in the room down the hall.
This also works in reverse. When I leave my office, be it for lunch or at the end of the day, I ‘return’ home and leave my work ‘in the office’. It may seem silly, but I find it is an essential mental distinction for me.
When I first started working from home, I never really stopped working. There didn’t exist any clear delineation of my workday, and as a result, I always had one half of my mind thinking about work. As you can imagine, this is a quick way to burn out, and I very nearly did.
It can be lonely and frustrating
We are social creatures, some more than others, and it’s only when you begin working remotely that you come to realise just how important those daily interactions were with your teammates and other people.
You may even find yourself missing your daily commute!
If you are able to work from a co-working space that can help to an extent, but you may still find it hard to feel part of your team.
In the past, I have seen this particular problem overcome with regular ‘coffee hangouts’ or a ‘remote beer’ over Skype, and several companies I know and have worked for would organise a yearly physical get together to help create some shared experiences and allow people to form the kind of bonds that are difficult to via an internet connection.
But despite all of this, it is almost inevitable that at some point, you will experience some depression, increased anxiety, and frustration. This happened to me, it happened to my Co-Founder, and we both know several others who experienced the same after switching to a remote working lifestyle.
That initial feeling of being disconnected, not in the know, or misinterpreting the emotional intent of an email or a message in a Slack channel.
The amount of extra effort that you now need to put into communicating effectively, starting each meeting with “Can you hear me ok?” instead of just being able to have a quick chat in person.
The pain in the ass trying to setup a remote desktop session so you can help someone with their setup when you would have just been able to walk over to their desk.
You may experience all these and more during the initial transition. All I can say is to take your time. It does get easier with practice.
Beware of Slack
What I should really say is ‘beware of real-time chat’, since now that you’re working remotely you will find yourself spending more and more time using tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Riot, RocketChat, to name a few.
The idea is to help keep you connected and tuned-in to what’s happening with your team, clients, or the wider company. But just like with the road to hell, relying more and more on a platform like Slack always starts with good intentions.
On the face of it, being able to communicate instantly both individually and in a group setting seems like it would add a lot of value.
In my experience, though, I have found that such tools quickly degrade the value of the communication they facilitate.
Instead of composing your thoughts and writing them out in long-form in an email or an Asana task, for example, it can feel easier and quicker to just start chatting someone.
The resulting conversation, however, tends to take a meandering walk as you end up gathering your thoughts in real-time, tying up someone else when it wasn’t essential.
Similarly, instead of doing a quick google search or looking up a company wiki, it can feel easier to just drop a question in a channel asking if anyone knows how to quit Vim… again, drawing the focus and attention of more people than was really needed.
I’m not saying that such chat systems are not useful; I fully recognise their importance for a remote workforce. But discipline is required in order to get the most out of them, both personally and across a company. It must always start with respect for other people’s time and attention.
Timezones can be a pain
Working with someone in Ireland when you’re based in Spain is pretty easy, there’s only a 1 hour time difference. But when you’re based in Europe and working with a client in Los Angeles, It can be 3 pm or 4 pm your time before they come online.
You might try and keep all your meetings nearer the end of your day, but what happens if they want to have a global call with you and the rest of their team who just happen to be based in Australia… yes this has happened to me, and no, it’s not fun having a work call at 11 at night.
In my opinion, such calls should not be necessary, in fact, most meetings generally are not necessary, as long as everyone involved fully embraces async communication and co-ordination.
If we are honest with ourselves most questions do not require an immediate response; however, we prefer it, and you could argue that working in an office or chat systems like Slack and WhatsApp have conditioned us in some ways to expect and rely upon immediacy.
There are however many project management tools out there such as Trello or Asana that can be used to communicate back and forth across timezones or even within that allows you to keep things moving forward whilst at the same time not requiring an immediate response.
In my experience, they improve accountability and relieve stress and anxiety, so long as every member of your team or your client are fully on-board and embrace them.
In the end, every person is different, and so is every team and company. Remote working isn’t something you get good at in a day, and it still continues to evolve.
This article has explored only a few important aspects drawn from my own experiences, which I hope are helpful to anyone reading.
Here are some other resources you might also find useful:
- Twist: Remote Work Guides: we have recently started using Twist and find it to be a refreshing take on how to collaborate.
- How to build strong relationships in a Remote Team: Zapier has been fully remote for many years now and has been quite successful at it.
- The Ground Up Show: this podcast covers complementary topics to remote working such as overthinking, how to overcome anxiety, setting life goals, productivity, and so on.
Get in touch
If you would like help transitioning your team to remote working, feel free to reach out via our contact form or by sending an email to [email protected]. We try to respond within 48 hours and look forward to hearing from you.