In the summer of 2018, I joined a globally distributed team and started writing technical documentation as a remote worker.
Before I started this job, I had always commuted to work and been part of a collocated team, so that was a huge adjustment. Through trial and error, I have figured out what works for me and what doesn’t, and now I cannot imagine working any other way.
I have written this guide because I am aware that many of you reading this have been forced to work from home for the very first time because of the COVID-19 outbreak. I know that this is a very scary and unsettling time for all of us, but I hope that this blog post can make you feel a little less stressed and help you be a little more productive through this challenging time.
Without further ado, here are my top tips for making the most of your time as a remote worker.
Pay for a decent broadband connection
Having a good Internet connection is not optional. Waiting for things to download and dealing with constant outages will seriously harm your productivity and drive you towards more distracting activities.
You may not need the fastest broadband connection available, but you do need reliability. Review the ratings from organizations like Which? and TrustPilot to determine which ISP or cable provider provides the best customer service for your area, and then switch to them because that means more reliable connections and quicker resolutions to outages.
It is also recommended that you use a wired Ethernet connection if possible because that is a lot more reliable than WiFi. I use powerline Ethernet adapters because my router is downstairs, and I work in a spare bedroom upstairs.
Also ensure that you write down your employer’s IT support telephone number and print off the instructions for how to connect to the company VPN. That will save you a lot of stress and wasted time when you are troubleshooting your Internet connection.
Have a dedicated work area and set ground rules
Do not use your living room coffee table as your work area! You need a dedicated workspace free from distractions that you can also vacate at the end of the workday. The best place to work is at a dedicated desk in a spare bedroom, as you can shut the door while you are working, and you can remove yourself from that environment when the workday has ended.
Everyone you live with needs to understand that while you are working, you are not to be disturbed. You are not at home having a vacation, you are doing paid work that happens to be conducted in your own home, instead of your usual office space. It would not normally be acceptable for anyone you cohabit with to interrupt work calls or chat to you while you are working, so you need to make it clear that working from home does not change that.
If you leave your work area to make yourself lunch or a cup of tea, you can treat those situations like the short breaks you would normally have at work, and socialise as normal.
Stick to a daily routine
There is a running joke among remote workers that the best piece of advice they can give you is “always switch from your ‘night time’ pyjamas to your ‘daytime’ pyjamas”. While that is something that is often said in jest, there is a nugget of useful advice in there!
If you follow a sensible routine of showering, getting dressed and having breakfast before starting work each morning then you will feel more professional, stay focussed, and improve your mental health.
Of course, if you want a “slob day” on occasion then no one is stopping you from doing that. In fact, it’s one of the perks of remote working!
Plan your work for the day
Your first task each day should be to determine what you want to achieve before you finish. By clearly defining your goals for the day and setting yourself the challenge of achieving them you are less likely to be distracted and lose the motivation.
If you need help to determine your workload, your supervisor and work colleagues should be able to provide guidance on the tasks you should be prioritising. Something you can be thankful for is that you will have fewer impromptu distractions while you are completing those tasks.
Communicate regularly with work colleagues
When teams are working remotely it is very easy to lose track of what people are up to, and it can be harder to “chase up” work from other people that you need to keep going with your own work.
Communication is the most important obstacle that you and your colleagues must overcome. Recording this week’s work for the entire team on a wiki page, and having a team call at least once a week where everyone provides an update on what they’re doing, ensures that the whole team is on the same page about what’s happening.
I also strongly recommend that you make use of collaboration tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, as everyone will get instant feedback to their questions, instead of having to wait for emails to be returned. The other benefit of those tools is that you can set up private chats for specific questions, groups for common interests and still indulge in a little water cooler gossip during breaks.
Ensure that you set your notification preferences for any Slack channels you join though, as they can quite easily become addictive and distracting. It is also strongly recommended that you use social media sparingly.
Information that needs to be regularly revisited and referred to should be provided on a wiki page, or a shared document other people can bookmark. That is particularly important because it is not straightforward for your colleagues to ask each other to send the same information by email each time they cannot find it.
To mentor colleagues, you will need collaboration tools that enable you to share each other’s screens, and communicate using voice in real time. Skype for Business and Zoom Messenger are both popular choices for many organisations.
It is important to continue eating well when you work from home. I find the extra energy I have from not commuting every day means that I can cook myself healthy nutritious meals, but I still mix things up by buying lunch from the supermarket, or nearby takeaways, a couple of times a week.
Try to walk or cycle instead of taking the car, and ensure you exercise regularly. I use Pokemon Go to motivate me to go on walks around the neighbourhood, but most people prefer trips to the gym while it is quiet during the day.
Ensure that you take regular short breaks throughout the workday to stay focussed and motivated, and open the windows in your house to keep air circulating. You can also treat your lunch break the same way you did before you started working from home.
Finally, make it a rule that you must leave the house at least once a day. I know that might be scary during the coronavirus pandemic, but so long as you avoid close human contact, and take appropriate hygiene precautions, then it should not be a problem. If you have a back garden, then that is a great opportunity for you to mow the lawn, water the plants and paint the fence!
Enjoy the perks
One of the great things about working from home is that you can customise your working environment to your own personal tastes. If you want to use a mechanical keyboard, dress like an Elvis impersonator and cook fish in the microwave, none of your work colleagues are going to moan about it!
Similarly, while you are working you can play TV shows, music and podcasts. Not only does that make working a more pleasurable experience, but the background noise can make you feel less lonely and isolated. Take care to ensure not to let that distract you though.
If you have ordered items online or you need tradespeople to come in to work on your house, then you no longer need to take time off work to accommodate that, because you are already at home anyway.
Finally, if the remote working trend sticks when the coronavirus pandemic is resolved, then you may find that “working from home” doesn’t necessarily always mean “working from home”. If you want to work from a coffee shop or a hot desk for a change of scenery, or you need to take a trip to see relatives, then there is nothing stopping you from doing that. So long as you have your work laptop and an Internet connection, the world is your office.