I Suck At Working Remotely

After over 15 years of working for tech companies entirely from offices I found myself in a new role where I needed to work remotely, be on-call, and not only that work with people on US timezones.

My initial concern was “How will I motivate myself to get started in the morning and keep it going?”, but this pales into insignificance as I discover the problem is “How do I switch it off?”

My boundaries were constructed by the divide of home and the office. This division meant that I had to leave at the end of the day and have a buffer (commuting by car or bicycle) for my evening. Working in the same place as I live has knocked that down. Bizarrely with my commute removed from my day I feel like I am spending even less time with my family than I was previously. I prefer to be an early morning type of person and have always been, this really is tricky when working with multiple timezones.

Now is the time I need to ask what other people do to cope, and the changes I need to bring in to go from what is an unhealthy work ethic into a more balanced life. I know a lot of people my age getting into deep anxiety (all lovely people who I would never imagine going down that route, but the human brain is wonderfully complex).

One of the weird things about working in an office is that you spend all your time with a small group of people in our company. When you have a family as well you spend all your time with your work friends or your family and you kind of forget you don’t have a proper social life outside of those two circles. I’ve also found that I don’t leave the village I live in that often now as there is little need to, but then you can see they deficiencies that were covered up.

As of last week I’ve decided that I am going to start addressing these problems piece by piece.

  • Every lunchtime go to the shops to buy it (can be expensive, but a mechanism to force me to leave the house).
  • Eating far more healthily and a no snack rule for me (I know I can consume almost unlimited calories). This is phase 2 of this particular plan and makes the first point less expensive.
  • Just stand up and go out for a bike ride mid afternoon for 30 minutes before PST timezone wakes up.
  • Start addressing the on-call anxiety which can cause me to freeze up and be far less productive. There are personal and technical items to address here.
  • Reaching out to friends and family again after essentially digging myself into a very deep hole.
  • With my children I have to make sure I’m unavailable for a certain period of time every evening for bedtimes and baths. Most of the time I have not failed at this.

And further forward looking because it is going to be difficult to do all changes in one go.

  • Start enforcing a “no evening work” rule and start actually unplugging at a more suitable time to have family and personal time. I know I am going to struggle massively with this, with products like Slack becoming more the norm they are massively intrusive.
  • I know I have to do some evening calls purely due to the timezone, but I should limit it to not all evenings.
  • Try to head into the London office more regularly, if for no other reason than to have more human contact.
  • Start to find a way to get to talks in Cambridge/London again by addressing workload.
  • Actually try a bit harder on the social life front.
  • Social media can be positive and a huge negative. It needs to be controlled more, I think reading books/comics distracts me from it more, but TV does not.
  • Start writing again. Just blogging to start with, but longer form than social media posts.
  • Look at co-working spaces for at least one day a week out of the house and village.
  • Or even find like-minded people who want to share an office space, not necessarily every day either.

I want to hear from other people who maybe have been through a similar process, or need to go through it. Advice, help and support always gratefully received (and given).

5 thoughts on “I Suck At Working Remotely

  1. Remote is hard, mostly because it’s so different, and so there’s less help and guidance, and expectations can be fuzzier. Tuning notifications across all your apps and platforms is worth taking time over. (I offer a sounding board coaching session to do this, which I’ve done for my team members in the past… happy to do this over coffee sometime if you need a Cambridge break 🙂 Getting out the house is good; getting into the office occasional days is good too. make sure you have some free time in your office days for serendipity so it’s not 100% scheduled chats…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I work remotely on average 2-3 times a month so may not be the most relevant opinion. Initially, I did find that when working from home I was less productive that I would want so thought up some simple changes to how I went about my day. Sounds like you are encountering something similar.

    Firstly I change the focus off “work from home” to “working remotely”, I try to separate the two where possible and in theory, I could literally be anywhere. Fortunately I have a good friend with a home office who lives not too far away and will regularly go there for the day, set up in one of his offices and we can share those important downtime moments of a working day (making coffee, chats about work etc) and importantly a pint at the end of the day. I get as much, if not more done on these days as I would at the office and more than I would at home. I have also visited my parents and worked at theirs, however there are more interruptions and an endless supply of coffee.

    I’m fairly active and sporty so whenever I am working remotely (wherever that is) I make sure I get up early and either go to the gym or go for a quick 9 holes of golf. Something to replace the commute. I do like your idea of walking to the local shop to get lunch and will definitely make time for that on my next remote day.

    I tend to work solely on one timezone but if I have a late call, I know I’ll have follow up work to do afterwards. I start my day later to accommodate that. flexible working in my eyes doesn’t mean work the same hours but somewhere else. it allows flexibility. sometimes I’ll start early and finish early.

    I’ve always worked in sociable environments, with teams and I like being around people. I would recommend looking into local coffee shops or hotels where you can work from if there are no specific co-working spaces near you. There is always a buzz and a chance for some people watching even if you’re there alone.

    If I’m ever around Cambridge and on a remote day, I’ll give you a shout!
    Jon

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jon. It is really great to know how other people cope with these interesting work arrangements. It feels like all the little details build up into something bigger, I just need to work out what my details are.

      And if you are around Cambridge let me know!

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  3. Hi Garry! As you probably already know I’ve been working remotely (full-time) for years, and I think this post is excellent. You make some great points that I agree with, articulated far better than I can. Your point about being always at work instead of always at home really resonated with me…. when I started my current gig I had just moved in with my partner and I soon learned that me working from home was not great for us because I could not switch off. So, I had to have a workplace outside of home. I still do occasionally work from home, but psychologically it’s more like squeezing in bits of work in between doing things at home.

    There’s just 2 points I thought I might like to add, one of which is a benefit of remote working that I’ve learned to maximise, and another is either a -ve or a +ve depending on how you look at it.

    For clarity of context, I am talking about FULL-TIME REMOTENESS, not something like 3 days in the office 2 days wfh.

    First of all, the clear plus: remote working necessarily implies distance and like that undiscovered tribe in the Amazon, that means you get to evolve in isolation from the rest of your org, and I think that is a good thing provided you can maintain cohesion of mission with the org. The downside is that you can’t learn as easily from your team, but I think provided you are diligent with finding answers yourself, on aggregate it’s a +ve because it reduces groupthink.

    Besides forcing you to find solutions on the Internet rather than asking the person who sits next to you, which makes it more likely that new best practices will get introduced into your org more quickly, working remotely also allows you to more actively curate your network of professional peers. Coworking spaces are a part of this (and using a coworking space is my insurance policy against gradually giving up things like deodorant), but personally I’ve gone further and fully embraced my remoteness to mean I get to work anywhere and grab a coffee with anyone anytime (unless I have a Skype call scheduled or a high priority piece of work – I mean that’s just basic professionalism anyway). I get to learn from people outside of my org. Professional discretion applies to what you share with outsiders, but it is possible to have meaningful technical/process discussions with individuals from other organizations. You have to be selective about what you decide to push back into the org and when (like, getting everything moved to Python 3 is not the hill I want to die on right now even though noone I have met outside the org has expressed sympathy for me still being on 2.7…), but the key point is, knowledge is more rapidly acquired from outside the organization, and therefore the aggregate learning of the team grows at an accelerated rate as opposed to if everyone was in the same room.

    The other point, which is either a +ve or -ve, is on some level perhaps a matter of personality. Have you ever had a crap day at work? The sort of day where you get in the morning and you try to get stuff done but your head just isn’t in the game today and then at 5.15pm you feel like you wasted the day? I’ve had days like that, and I’ve had colleagues (and managers!) have days like that. No biggy, everyone could see that you tried.

    The problem when you’re remote is, from the perspective of your team, you showing up and failing is indistinguishable from not showing up at all. Especially if you’re dealing with a tricky-to-repro-or-diagnose bug, going a few days without tangible results is an entirely probable outcome and can ramp up levels of anxiety because you start to imagine your team mates wondering if you’re slacking off. Yeah you can painstakingly document everything as evidence of work, and I used to do that, but then I started getting sensitive to the time cost of all that documentation slowing me down even more (and for documentation that I was not actually convinced was of much value on its own), and producing the documentation delayed a resolution *even more*, to the point where things start to feel even more hopeless like you’re running but still somehow getting nowhere….. arggh.

    This effect is clearly a -ve because any source of anxiety is obviously bad, but I guess it might count as a +ve as a general philosophical point because it underscores that ultimately, the only thing that really matters is results. Maybe being in an office can sometimes obscure that universal truth. I dunno, maybe it’s all in my head and my manager/team aren’t really disappointed in me for not getting more done more quickly, or maybe they do – my point is, I can see how they might think I’m slacking off, and if our positions were reversed….. honestly, I think I might think that of them.

    That is to say, with remote working, there’s no points for showing up, because quite literally: YOU DON”T SHOW UP!

    Luckily, there’s so much +ve about remote working that on aggregate, you can deliver results. Mental health resources make a difference, and in that regard I’m quite lucky because mental health is front-of-mind in my city. And I suspect (though I can’t confirm this) that the staff of my coworking space are trained to sniff out anyone having a bad day and try to have a friendly informal chat with them, even if it’s just something totally superfluous like “hey there’s this cybersecurity meetup I saw and I thought of you, you work in cybersecurity right? Are you going to that? How’re things going anyway?…”

    Or maybe they’re just nice people 🙂

    Like

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