I Went Remote a Year Ago: Here's What I Learned
Editor’s note: The following post was written by Jeff Langevin, a CBT Nuggets team member who works remotely full-time. Due to CBTN and many other companies encouraging employees to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he wanted to share his experiences about working remotely.
Within the past year, I went from almost five years of working at CBT Nuggets headquarters to being a full-time remote employee three time zones away. Fortunately, this transition was made easier for me due to the fact that I had worked from home in the past, including one remote day a week while at CBTN HQ.
Now that a lot of people are facing the prospect of working from home full-time due to the COVID-19 pandemic (many of whom haven’t had the advantage of easing into it), I wanted to offer insight to making a smooth transition.
These are not declarative statements about universal best practices, they are just things that have helped me — and will hopefully help you too.
Stick to a Schedule
It is really important to establish a routine and hold to it. For me, adhering to a pretty typical 9-5 schedule helps keep me focused and accountable for my work. The autonomy and flexibility of working from home are great. However, they can be a pitfall if you let things become too unstructured and variable.
Help yourself stay disciplined by establishing a reasonable schedule that makes sense for your obligations (both work-related and otherwise), and try to be consistent about it. Here are some things to think about:
- Consider when your team members might need to reach you.
- Consider what times of day you are most productive or energetic.
- Consider if your time zone will require you to periodically adjust your normal schedule to accommodate others, especially when setting up meetings.
Create a Distinction Between Work and Not-Work
This one can be tricky because it can sneak up on you. Sometimes, it’s easy to let yourself answer just one more email or get drawn into a slack conversation at 8 p.m. But the more you let small units of work permeate your non-working life, the harder it is to maintain separation and balance between work and the rest of your life.
This also reinforces why scheduling is important. If you know what hours you are going to be working, then you also know what hours you will NOT be working — which is just as important.
One of the ways working in an office handles this issue is that it creates a physically distinct space for work. When I’m in the office, I work; when I’m at home, I don’t. Pretty simple.
But when you are working from home, this distinction doesn’t exist. That’s why it’s very helpful to try to create a physical separation to reinforce mental separation.
- Find a spot to dedicate as your workspace. If you have an office space or spare room, use that. If not, try to find a desk or table that you can consistently use as an uncompromised workspace.
- Try not to use a space or room that you may also use for recreation or outside-of-work activities (I’m looking at you, couch).
- Stick to your schedule. If it’s after your EOD, cut yourself off. That last task or email can wait until tomorrow.
- It may take a while for you to mentally transition between non-working and working mindsets. Perhaps schedule a buffer activity to help you get prepped for work (do a crossword puzzle in the morning) or to wind down from work (go for a short walk at the end of the workday).
Make Your Workspace Comfortable
This can be easier said than done depending on how you set up your workspace at home. But the more pleasant it is to be “at work”, the less likely it is to be easily distracted.
- Try to find someplace quiet where you will not be interrupted often.
- Try to find a spot with natural light (no more overhead fluorescent lights!).
- A comfortable chair with an appropriate desk and monitor height is important.
- Decorate your space with artwork, bookshelves, plants, etc.
- This is also where I would suggest going out to a cafe or something for a change of scenery, but maybe take a rain check on that one for now.
Stay connected, But Also Don’t
Of course, it’s important to be available to your colleagues. You’ll need to be able to respond to messages, requests, and attend meetings. This is important not only for productivity reasons but also for social and community reasons. Without a doubt, the most difficult part of working from home for me is the lack of social interaction.
That is what I miss most about being in an office, and I suspect it will be the biggest pain point for others as well. It’s TOUGH. Virtual communication and video meetings do help but are an imperfect solution. Here are ways to stay connected with others:
- Institute mandatory team check-in video meetings at least once a week, even if it’s mostly to just say hi.
- Reach out to other team members with non-work related messages to help substitute for organic office banter.
- Find non-work-related Slack channels to participate in.
- Call your mom, she’d love to hear from you.
The flipside of this, however, is that being TOO plugged in and attentive to communication tools can hamper your ability to get into deep work. Take advantage of the fact that at home there are no desk drive-bys, neighboring conversations, or nerf darts flying past your head to distract you from long stretches of highly productive, efficient work.
It can be hard to let go of the idea that you need to be seen as available to be seen as working, but in reality, there is a big difference between being present and being productive. You trust that your colleagues are working even if you aren’t checking up on them every 10 minutes, so there’s no reason that they won’t trust you are doing the same.
- Don’t incessantly check email or instant messages.
- Set aside large chunks of uninterrupted time (2-3 hours) to dedicate yourself to projects or problem-solving.
- Don’t feel the need to respond immediately to every message or request.
- Make sure you are being respectful of others’ time management and do not expect immediate responses for non-emergency issues.
- Trust your colleagues to trust you.
Be Intentional About Meetings
Meetings can be a little more complex in WFH situations, especially when dealing with different time zones. If you can communicate something effectively in writing, opt to share a written doc instead of calling a meeting. People can digest documentation on their own schedule, and identical information can be communicated after the fact.
Meetings ARE appropriate where back and forth discussion or debate is a priority, and in those cases, it is a good idea to keep them small and brief.
- Use alternative methods of disseminating information where appropriate.
- Keep meetings as small as is reasonable, preferably 3-5 people.
- Keep your camera on if possible. Not only will others appreciate seeing your face, but it will help you feel more accountable to and engaged with your colleagues.
Take Breaks and Get Outside
One of the biggest mistakes that I still make when working from home is to assume that the time spent at my desk is directly related to output. There are days when I realize that I haven’t left the computer since lunch. I’m tired and unfocused, and can’t really say I’ve achieved much for the day.
Alternatively, there are times when I am conscious about getting up, moving around, taking a break, getting a snack, taking a walk, or doing other activities throughout the day. Almost invariably, those are the days where I have produced more in less time.
Exercise is a great way to break up periods of sedentary work, but really just anything that gets your body or mind into a different mode for a while will help — both your emotional relationship to your work and your actual output when you return to work.
- Take periodic breaks where you actually physically get away from your workspace.
- Try setting up alerts or reminders to take breaks if you have a hard time doing so organically.
- Get outside! There are measurable physiological and psychological benefits of walking outdoors, especially in the woods.
A lot of this seems like common sense, but it does require effort and awareness to make the adjustment to working from home. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes some time to work out the kinks. Like anything new, it takes time.