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David S.
David S.

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A basic survival guide for the new remote employee.

Howdy folks. I have been a remote web developer for over a decade. When i started, there were no guides or best policies. I had to figure all this out through trial and error. So i figured i'd pass some of this along, as remote work is all the rage these days.

'clock out' and take a 5-15 minute walk every ~2 hours and let your brain decompress. You deserve it.

There is a reason some states have mandatory 10 and 30 minute breaks - it's for mental health ( and preventing burnout ). As a remote worker, at least treat 'yoself to what is legally mandatory for everyone else.

You can of course substitute walking with meditating or something else, but the key objective here is to get away from the screen and cool off the brain.

Bonus: while your brain is decompressing, you may solve an important problem that has been nagging you all day. If you perpetually work on something hard/complex, your brain can slowly tire out and start spitting out some really poor solutions. I come up with my best programming solutions when i'm not working.

Set boundaries with your employer and establish a routine of when you work and don't work.

An employer may think of you as someone they can call any time to work on anything. They may even operate that way themselves. It is NOT good to be 'on call' at every moment; if you allow this, you will always be in 'work mode' all day. This will dramatically reduce your productivity because you never relax - work is constantly on your mind. You'll end up working 7 days a week in little spurts and dreading that phone call or email every time.

You need to draw some lines in the sand with your employer. It starts with how you respond to emails and other requests for attention. When i established a window of hours i'd be working, and stopped responding to emails outside of that time window ( unless something is on fire ), my employer eventually started respecting my personal time.

There is a good reason the idea of the "9 to 5" work day was invented and continues to be kind of a gold standard. It creates a clean separation between 'life' and 'work'. The great thing about being a remote worker is that "9 to 5" can be "7 to 3" or "1 to 9" or whatever you wish. But the key here is to have a time you work, and a time you don't. Establish a routine and stick to it.

Get out of the house and into a shared workspace where you can be around other remote workers doing similar work + separate your home life from work life.

The main value of a workspace is networking and bouncing ideas off other people's heads who may have different and valuable perspectives or experience. This is far easier to do in person than online. In my experience, i have learned more about web development in 6 months of casually chatting with other workspace members than i have in 3 years in my own reading.

A shared workspace can give you the social advantage of working for a large company, which is very useful when you are the lone person in your field at a small company. You may hear about a job opportunity and have an 'in'. You may receive a hot tip on how to fix a perplexing problem. You may meet someone in another field and glean some insight about how that field works ( super valuable ). You may find someone to vent with. Maybe you will make a friend or two!

When we work alone, we miss out on all these benefits of a social environment. It can lead to stagnation in your career and a feeling of isolation. Digital communication just can't satiate the social needs and benefits that come with face to face interactions. In addition to this, if you work at home, it's far too easy to slip out of work mode and do something else ( and of course, you'll feel guilty the entire time.. ).

If you're strapped for cash or feeling adventurous, there are some alternatives to workspaces. Sometimes i like to turn my car into an office by bringing a fully charged UPS, laptop, headphones, and lunch with me to a nice location such as a beach, top of a mountain, etc. I get my internet from tethering my android phone. There are also public spaces like libraries and coffee shops that might suffice as a means to get away from the distractions in your home.

The worst remote workspace is unfortunately a corner in your house or separate room; especially if you live with other people. You may constantly be trying to train them to respect your personal space and not distract you while you are working.

Work happens on one computer. Play happens on the other.

Being a remote worker, you probably have a set of logins, software tools, folder hierarchies full of files, email addresses, etc etc that are all relevant to your work, and navigating through your computer when the work and play things are interspersed creates cognitive friction and increases the chances you are just going to sit there and slack off ( isn't looking at memes a lot more fun than filling out that TPS report? ).

This is the mental equivalent of being in a first grade math class while somebody perpetually throws toys and candy into the room, creating a continuous distraction.

You need a computing environment that is free of digital distraction, devoid of your social media logins or anything else that is NOT work related. The only thing personal you should bring is your music library.

If you do not have the resources to afford another computer, you can create this separation with virtual machine software such as VirtualBox, which is free. I am a programmer for some clients, a linux systems administrator for others, and a UI designer for some others. This requires so many different tools and settings for those tools that mixing all these things together is just insane.

I personally take this a step further and have a virtual machine per large client, and one 'general purpose' virtual machine for all the smaller clients. This prevents me from having to flip settings around on the dozens of programs i use, or go through an long taskbar list to find the file i was working on for client A, instead of the one i'm working on for client B.

Again, treat yourself to a basic thing non-remote people get to enjoy. There are many good reasons why work environments are set up this way.

Keep in touch!

It is easy to become disconnected from your client/supervisor when they are only available by phone or email. Additionally, the person who decides to opt for remote work is likely an introvert. This is a recipe for one party to forget about the existence of the other. If your client/supervisor does not keep the communication going, then it is, unfortunately, your job to keep this flame going.

It would be a good idea to send a progress report to your employer, perhaps once a week. It just serves as a reminder that you exist and that you are providing value to the organization.

Bonus: if you do this and other employees do not, you will get a significant competitive advantage, being known as the guy/gal who is proactive and a good communicator. You will be in your client/employer's mind first when the opportunity for a special project or new position comes up. Because most people, even extroverts, are shockingly bad at how to handle digital disconnectedness.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any suggestions to add to my list, i'd like to hear your comments about how you survive & thrive as a remote worker.

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