One major change wrought by the communications revolution of the last 20 years is in the way we conceptualize work. Remote work has enjoyed steady growth for years, and it’s projected that more than one in twenty people will be full-time remote workers by 2025. The flexibility and ease of telecommuting is extremely tempting for staff in a wide variety of industries—it saves on time, petrol, and food.
Still, it’s not without its issues, and principle among them is isolation. It’s not just the lack of water-cooler conversations: working from home cuts you out of a hundred little workplace loops that are crucial for our emotional health. Some employees are built for that sort of thing, but a lot of us start to go stir-crazy without the burble of our colleagues around. That’s not the only problem either: a lack of structure; a weakened work-life barrier resulting in an inability to ‘switch off’; the Invisible Employee Syndrome where you’re passed over for promotions because it’s harder for staff to assess and value your contributions; all factors that can make life difficult. Today we’re going to go over some key ways to survive as a remote employee and keep your sanity.
So what can you do about it?
1. Create Structure
One thing you never notice about offices until you leave them is that they have this implicit order. Everything needs to be done between 9–5 in a single restricted space with shared amenities, and that means everything needs to be done in certain ways at certain times, and it takes a lot of choice out of your hands. Which seems like a good thing, but the question arises: did you need that choice? Because now you’ve got to learn to expend mental energy 100 times a day on little things that you previously just did on autopilot.
The solution? Learn to create your own structure. Personally I use Trello a lot more than I ever did while working in an office, and I’ve finally started color-coding things. I used to just go into the office and do everything ad-hoc straight out of Google Drive but now it’s an orderly system of color-coordinated folders backed up by a kanban board, and it helps streamline my thought processes immensely. If I don’t do it, I end up turning in circles, trying to juggle six tasks and getting none of them done.
2. Learn Your Timezones
If you’re working remotely with a single team in the same city, this isn’t a problem. If—like me—you’re working with one team in town, one team 7 hours behind you and one team 20 hours behind you, things get a little difficult. I worked out of Indonesia for a while (what’s up Sidoarjo? Miss y’all) and you run into a lot of digital nomads trying to coordinate with offices in Berlin or Riga who are all driving themselves insane, getting up at 2am for Skype calls and having to spend half the day waiting for somebody else to wake up.
This one is thankfully a simple fix: internalise when your colleagues arrive at work and when they leave, and plan around it. Is the primary content manager not awake for another three hours? Then the report for him can wait, if there’s something more important to do. I just have a little timeline up on the pinboard beside my desk that shows when various team members wake up and when they close up shop for the day.
3. Join a coworking space
Coworking facilities like Regus and Zioks are springing up all over the world, and they’ve quickly become hubs for freelancers and remote workers. They help bring the office-ness back into your life, but with a degree of flexibility that’s hard for traditional offices to match. Was the commute obnoxious? Pick somewhere close. Have kids? Pick one with a daycare. Worried about spending too much on coffee? Find one in a cheaper part of town. Being able to pick your office building is huge, and obviates most of the core issues with standard 9/5 office life.
They’re far from perfect: some can be extremely pricey (there’s one 10 minutes from my house, but it costs $40AUD/day for the cheapest package and it ain’t even that nice) and they have the same issues with office politicking as you’d get in a regular office (or worse—don’t ask me about The Tuna Slack Incident) but they can be amazing if you find the right place.
Coworking spaces are, well … extremely variable. There are awful ones that are objectively worse than staying home that still have the gall to charge you money, but there are great ones too—affordable places with a real culture that’ll help you stay on task while building professional connections. Getting started with coworking can seem intimidating, but it’s really all about selecting the place that’s right for you. You know what sort of place you want to work, and if you don’t see it, move on.
4. Become a Better Communicator
Office communication is difficult even when you’re all in the same room. When you’re not there at all, it becomes even harder. You’re going to spend more time around your colleagues if you’re spending time in the office, and that means you know them better as people, and that means you have an easier time working with them. When you strip away body language and tone (and, specifically, your familiarity with a particular colleague’s body language and tone), meetings can become a nightmare.
- Spend social time with your colleagues. Preferably face to face, though I understand that’s not viable for a lot of remote companies. But spend a little time in the off-topic channel, set up a group chat, maybe have the occasional social call. I’m a huge fan of Jackbox games for this—they’re easy to pick up and understand, and you can play them seamlessly across multiple continents.
- Don’t let yourself be misunderstood—it’s very hard to tell tone or mood remotely (even with video), so if “okay” means “actually, I have some concerns”, then you’re going to be in trouble.
- Get used to asserting yourself more. You’re the invisible staffer who leaves reports in the Slack, and that means you need to do extra work to get your contributions noticed. I’ve lost count of how much of my work I’ve seen attributed to on-site staff because the boss just has a clearer siteline on them. You’re going to need to learn to say “actually, I did that”. A lot.
5. Create a Firm Boundary
One of the big dangers of remote work is that the work/life barrier gets slowly broken down, and you find yourself working longer hours because hey, the office is right there. Some folks are fine mediating this space, but it can be dangerous for many employees and can lead to burnout and stress.
I’ve heard a lot of techniques from various remote workers for dealing with this, and most of them include some sort of physical element:
- Having a specific room of the house you do work in, and not doing work outside of it.
- Having a specific desktop PC that you work on—no laptops for work unless in emergencies. That PC is The Work Computer, you don’t do work on any other device.
- Never work in the house: stick to cafes/libraries/coworking spaces and don’t bring your work home. Cafes are particularly good for this since—at least where I am in Aus—they tend to close around 5pm, and it establishes a clearer Time To Go Home.
- One friend has a toy cat that goes on his desk when he’s working, and goes away in a box when he’s not—if he’s at the computer but the cat isn’t, then his brain knows he’s not meant to be working.
Personally, I work on a borrowed office Mac, then go and watch Netflix on my own Windows 10 PC. It creates the occasional Command/ctrl keyboard confusion but it really does help me know when I’m meant to be working and when I’m not. Really, it’s about having something you can condition your brain to accept: this is the work space, this is not the work space. Am I in the work space? Yes? Then work. No? Then don’t. It’s much easier to have that sequence in your head if there’s some sort of visual or tactile reminder.
Bringing It All Home (get it?)
All of this isn’t to say don’t enjoy working remotely—I can hardly even conceptualise coming into the office five days a week any more, and I’m happier for it. I have some much-needed flexibility in my life, and I didn’t even need to take a pay cut. It’s just that remote life comes with caveats, and its own problems that need to be managed smartly. With liberation comes loneliness, with freedom comes disorder, with distance comes, well … distance. These challenges aren’t insurmountable, they’re just challenges.
After all, you’re good at those.