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How to Work Remotely Without Going Insane

scahhht profile image Scott White Updated on ・6 min read

The future of work is remote.

In recent years, fully-remote companies like GitLab, Zapier, and InVision have proven that a remote culture is not just a perk, but a clear business advantage. Technology is accelerating this transition. We can chat instantaneously in Slack, coordinate a global videoconference through Zoom, and track our entire roadmap in Asana.

For employees, remote work provides more flexibility (hours, family time, no need to move when switching jobs), fewer distractions (no sales calls happening next to your desk), and shorter commutes (or no commute). For companies, a remote culture makes it easier to hire, reduces office costs, and naturally attracts self-motivated workers.

Despite its advantages, remote work can have drawbacks. Between loneliness and isolation, organizational ambiguity, unclear work/life boundaries, and complex coordination, remote work offers several challenges.

None of these challenges are insurmountable. At walrus.ai, we've thought a lot about how we can improve our remote-first culture. By introspecting on the disadvantages of remote work, we can structure our days thoughtfully to mitigate or eliminate these disadvantages at the root-cause.

Remote work is not without challenges

Working remotely can be lonely

Humans are social animals. Research suggests that when unplanned, spontaneous social interactions prevent loneliness. When you work remotely, you miss such interactions that are endemic to the office — chatting at the desks, passing people in the hallways, sitting down for lunch. If you're not careful, it's easy to feel isolated, particularly if you're transitioning into a remote job from a bustling office.

It's easy to feel out of the loop

If documentation at your particular company is poor, it's easy to feel lost as a remote worker. If your goals are ambiguous, remote policies ill-defined, and spontaneous meetings occurring behind closed doors, it's easy to feel like you're left out as a remote employee.

Coordination is challenging

When a team works across multiple time-zones, coordinating real-time meetings is challenging. A bright-and-early meeting in San Francisco might be squarely when you want to tuck in your child in Amsterdam.

Work/Life boundaries can become blurred

If you live, work, and sleep in the same physical space, the lines between these your work time and your personal time can easily fade. Furthermore, the flexibility of remote work can cause your work hours to be different than your social community, increasing feelings of isolation.

How to structure your days to live your best remote life

✅ Define Done

When you are in a traditional office, it's clear that the day is ending when people start to filter out. When you work remotely, you don't have such obvious cues, and it's easy to lose track of when you should stop working.

To counteract this, give yourself a target. When you start working for the day, choose a rough timeframe when you want to finish your work for that day. If something about your day changes significantly that causes you to step away from working (exercise, last-minute appointment, etc.), re-evaluate and adjust your target end-time, and try to stick to that time.

▶️ Identify triggers

When you sit down at your desk in an office, your body knows it's time to work. When you wake up in the same place you'll work for the day, there's no clear start to the work day.

Teach your brain to start working by associating certain actions (or "triggers") with the commencement of work. For example, walk around the block, and when you return, start your work. Or simply stay in your PJs up until you're ready to start working, then change your clothes and immediately kick off your work day.

Choosing a routine or process to start the day will help sharpen the lines between life and work, and will get you into deep focus faster.

📄 Document everything

Successful remote cultures rely on strong documentation. When in doubt, you should document what you are working on, even when it feels like too much. Create publicly-trackable tasks for everything you plan on working on. Block out time on your public calendar so everyone knows what you're up to during the day. Write down your approach for whatever task you're working on in a publicly-viewable document.

Thoughtful and publicly available documentation helps others gain visibility on what you're working on, reduces the need for meetings, and gives you more structure in what you're going to work on in a given day. Furthermore, the more available documentation, the less likely anyone will feel out of the loop with respect to decision-making thought processes or what's being worked on.

👩🏻‍💻 Choose a work area

If behavioral psychology has taught us anything, it is that animals behave predictably to repeated stimuli. Just like a dog might start salivating when you walk to the cabinet in which its food is held, you'll want to take a nap if you climb into bed.

To get into the work mindset, choose an area of the house (or a different place, like a co-working space or a coffee shop) to start your day that you only associate with work.

And for the love of god, don't work in your bed, or you'll want to sleep while you work, and you'll think about work when you're trying to sleep.

❌ Eliminate unhealthy micro-temptations

When we finish a small task, it's in our nature to want to take a break. These breaks can be healthy – they provide us the opportunity to take stock of where we are, recharge, and focus on the next task at hand.

However, there's a limit past which these breaks take us into unproductive territory.

If too many micro-temptations (easily available snacks in the kitchen, the TV playing in the background) are present while you're trying to work, you may find yourself constantly getting distracted whenever you finish a task, no matter how small.

To stay in the zone, keep the snack food farther out of reach, keep the TV off, and you'll get more done, and feel a greater reward when you take a well-deserved break.

👋 Find time for informal communication

Spontaneous interactions, and unstructured time with friends and colleagues make us happier. To avoid feeling lonely while working remotely, proactively set aside time with your team to get to know eachother outside of a work context — coffee chats with folks in your area, social calls, or team offsites are all good ways to bond.

Furthermore, and ironically, working remotely may also force you to be more proactive about scheduling time to spend time with your friends, particularly if you work non-traditional hours.

Lastly, play with your work environment. Go to a coffee shop or a library where other people like you will be working.

📈 Measure results, not hours

When you're in an office, it's natural to measure productivity in terms of "days of work". Remote work requires more self-discipline than simply clocking in and out of an office. At a company level, a culture of measuring results gives every employee more clarity about what he/she should be working on.

At an individual level, setting measurable goals and tracking results is a great way to stay on track with the global objectives of the company without constantly checking in with other people, as well as a good way to determine when to stop working (when you accomplish the specific goal you set out for a day).

Wrapping it up

As more companies adopt tools to enable better synchronous collaboration and asynchronous task management, the shift to remote work will continue to grow.

To ensure this transition is successful, both for the company, and for the individual, specific measures should be taken to address the inherent disadvantages of remote work.

At the end of the day, you can conquer these disadvantages by structuring your days to draw clear lines between work and life, triggering your mind to focus on work, and building in social time to your schedule.

Have any other tips for living your best remote life? Let us know!

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Posted on Nov 8 '19 by:

scahhht profile

Scott White

@scahhht

Co-founder at walrus.ai – End-to-end tests in one line of code. Berkeley native, mediocre pool player.

walrus.ai

End-to-end tests in one line of code.

Discussion

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Great tips! Having a defined area where I work (one that doesn't have any of my entertainment vices), has been a huge push to my productivity.

 

🙌 "Environment vices" is a great term

 

Great tips! Having a morning routine to trigger the start of the work day is key. I've just started working from home primarily a couple months ago. My routine starts with logging in to quickly see if there are any fires burning, dropping my kid at the bus stop and then making myself a coffee. Once the coffee is brewed, the work begins! I need to figure out how to make the fridge less accessible though :)

 

I needed to read this! I don't think i'd be able to keep my sanity if I didn't have my own dedicated room (a.k.a my office) to work. One huge difference I noticed within myself is that my spontaneous conversation isn't as quick as when I was in the office. I used to be quick on the responses when it came to small talk but now i'm like "huh?". Luckily my wife works from home also so I'm not completely muted but she does all the talking most of the time. I'm just usually saying "really, ok, for real, wow, no she didn't, whaaaat". Thanks for sharing this post!

 

And I am reading this when I should be working.

 

I sometimes work from home and the biggest struggle is to keep focused, not reaching for my phone and start getting distracted on Reddit/Facebook etc...

I don't think I'd be able to work remotely all the time but sometimes it's nice to just stay home

 

For me, working at office was more like that. I felt like I was actively slacking whenever possible just to get the required work hours at the office done for the day. And I felt absolutely unproductive because of that.

Now when I work from home, if I don't feel like working since early morning I take my time and relax. And that way when I start later it feels much less forced. Also at home you don't have to follow any office hours or transit. If I feel like working at 10pm at sunday because I just got the best idea about the task I'm solving, I just can.

 

It's largely due to the fact that you only sometimes work from home. Without doing it as part of a routine, you don't build in the habits that you have when going into the office is the routine. For you "home" equates to "personal time."

It takes a bit more mindfulness and discipline, but you can retrain yourself to not be so distracted even if you don't work from home very often.

 
 

Been working remote and freelancing remotely for quite a bit of time and have some super specific tips I can share

  • a daily journal of your work life helps deal with isolation
  • switched from texting friends to Marco Polo, again helps with working in isolation.
  • plenty of tools available to transcribe zoom meetings
  • pomodoros helps prevent getting distracted by all the comforts of home
  • make sure you know you have a Hotspot on your phone (saved me many times when Comcast went out)
  • work remotely !== only work from home. Get out the house and work at least once a week (library, coffee shop, coworking, park, etc...)
 

I work remotely and your advice is good sound. I make sure I separate my living space from work space. I'm fortunate to have a dedicated office in my house, where I only go to work. I've also used local hot desk spaces.

I think it generally works if your working in a remote first organisation. When an org has a bit of remote and mostly collocated the organisation need to make sure any comms include the remote team members.

I've not encountered loneliness as I have family and friends who live with or near me.

 

I think another thing is probably finding group activities so that you won't be that lonely.

 

I think a lot of people mistake "working in the vicinity of people" to be equivalent to "being social" when it's really not. It's just enough to get your "fix," but the quality really isn't there if you actually look at it.

Getting out to user groups, lunch with friends, game nights, etc. takes a bit more mindful effort, especially at first and if you don't have an established routine, but the quality skyrockets, in my experience.

 

"When daddy is in his office, he aint home." is the rule when I started remote working.

 

Thanks for your post 👍. Btw, walrus seems interesting, I am checking it out now.
I wrote a somewhat related blog post a while ago here on dev.to, and I would really appreciate your feedback on it if you get a chance: dev.to/hitman666/how-to-make-it-as...

 
 

Great article! I already found myself doing a few of these things as I started working remotely more frequently, but how you've codified them is extremely helpful.