The most important part of being a successful contributor on a distributed team is being equipped with the right tools and frameworks to help you transition into this new paradigm.
My Distributed Journey
Before working from home, I'd worked at a number of in-office jobs, the last of which was working on Software at Zappos. I had a 30 minute commute both ways to an open-office where I would sit down at my desk around 9AM, interact with peers almost all day, clock out around 5:30 or 6 and drive again for 30 minutes.
I started working from home in 2015 for Walmart Labs on a fully distributed team, building software for other teams to use. I transitioned into a job where I could wake up whenever I wanted (which didn't change), my commute was 15 seconds to a guest bedroom in our house, where no one else knew (nor did they care, it turned out) what my hours were, where no one knew if I decided to wear jammies and by the end of the day, I could be confident I didn't have to worry about sitting in traffic.
If you go into a change like this unprepared, it's easy to end up confused, feeling lost and even in a place where you think that this "remote thing" isn't for you. Despite that feeling, I challenge you to consider some tips and techniques I've found to help keep me grounded and help me do my best work and stay on task without also sacrificing my personal life.
The tips that I've found to be most useful for my success and mental health are:
- Maintain your personal routines
- Connect virtually with co-workers as often as possible
- Start your week and your day with a concrete plan
- Create a dedicated workspace
- Stop Working When You Should Stop
Tip 1: Maintain Your Personal Routines
Most people think that their greatest temptation when working from home will be not to work, however, I've found that my temptation is to keep working all the time. The best way you can equip yourself for either temptation is to create and maintain personal routines and rituals that bookend when you want your day to start and end.
Here's what my routine looks like:
- I wake up and make a coffee between 5:30-6AM.
- I write or pursue a hobby (reading or 3d printing) for an hour or two before my daughter wakes up.
- I make my daughter her breakfast.
- I walk the dogs.
- I take a shower and get dressed for work.
- I make another coffee, fill up my water bottle, give my family a kiss and head to my office.
- I take my mouse and keyboard out of their box, turn them on, turn on my monitor and...
- START WORK...and work until END WORK.
- I turn off my monitor, turn off my external mouse and keyboard and put them in a box. I always try to leave my desk "pristine".
- I go downstairs and have dinner with my family.
- I do bedtime routine with my daughter.
- I walk the dogs.
As you can see, my day is bookended with things I care about and can't skip. Find the things that matter to you and bookend your day with those so that you know "it's time to start work" and "it's time to wrap up work".
Note: You may think you don't already have rituals or routines, but things like "eating breakfast" and "showering" are good anchors for setting up rituals and routines to fill the time you may get back from no longer having a long commute. It's easy to think "I can sleep in now!" but the best thing you can do to be successful is to find ways to fill that newly acquired time. It may be spending time reading, exercising, finding a new hobby or if you have a family, spending time with them.
Tip 2: Connect Virtually with Co-Workers As Often As Possible
If you're a knowledge worker that's used to putting on a pair of headphones at the beginning of the day and hacking away on the computer by yourself, you may think work from home is going to give you that much more time to hack away at stuff. Now that you're work from home though, there are probably a lot of opportunities you once had in an office to collaborate or socialize that's now been stripped from you.
Setup Pair Programming/Maker Sessions
Whatever you work on, you're probably not in a situation where you need to do it alone, so check in with a co-worker and ask them if you can schedule some time to pair on something. As a developer, I setup 4-5 sessions a week that last anywhere from 2-5 hours (it's important to be aware of when you or your pairing partner have hit a wall, this kind of work is mentally a lot more taxing than it is when you work alone). In most roles, there are opportunities to collaborate with a teammate or someone else in the organization on work that either of you are working on. This time doubles as an opportunity to interact with others outside of your neighbors/roommates/family.
If your company gives you 10% time, this is a great time to try to connect with someone you may not normally cross paths with. It's also a great way to use that time to interact. 10% time is an opportunity for you to step outside of your daily role/routine/tasks and focus on things like writing, finding creative ways to use existing tools or building tools. You can also start a book club with some co-workers and use 10% time to have a weekly zoom where you talk about what you're reading. If you do this, a great way to keep it up is to make sure that you make it a ritual, by doing it the same time every week and putting it on people's calendars.
One of the things I've done that I've found to be a lot of fun, especially at companies where team building is encouraged, is to play boardgames online together over Zoom.
If you're not using it now, talk to your company about investing in Zoom.
Tip 3: Start Your Week and Your Day with a Concrete Plan
When I worked in an office it was common for someone to catch me within the first 30 minutes of my day and ask me to help with something reactive. If you're in this boat, you'll find that Slack (or whatever tool your company uses for communication) is now the avenue people will use to "tap you on the shoulder". Working from home has a happy side effect of giving you the ability to control your day.
The best way to control your day: plan at the end of the day every day.
At the end of the day every day, I write down what I plan to do tomorrow. I write it down with as much concrete detail as possible. If you work on a team that uses sprints or iterations or some version of long-term (weekly or bi-weekly planning), use your planned tasks to determine what you'll do tomorrow and do it in detail based on where you left off today. I usually write down one big task and 2-3 little tasks.
When you sit down at your desk (more on this coming up), just do what you had planned. Don't open Slack. Don't check your email. Don't open Twitter. Open the tool you use for doing work and check off your tasks you had planned.
Something really amazing happens when you plan your day and don't have an easy way for people to interrupt you: you find yourself done with everything you planned to do and sometimes more than you planned in half the time it would've taken you in the office.
Tip 4: Create a Dedicated Workspace
Having a dedicated workspace has been critical in working from home. Every time my wife and I have moved, we've looked for a place that has a room that I can use as a dedicated office. As you start to work from home and find that you're using video conferencing more frequently or find that your roommates/family are now a part of your "daily office", you'll find that those little interruptions can add up in a big way.
If you have the luxury of an extra room that's not your bedroom or a main throughfair during the day, use that room as your workspace.
Get a Good Desk
An adjustable desk and a comfy chair can go a long way.
I've had a few desks (I built my first two. It seemed cool at the time, but trust me, invest in a desk from people who specialize in this) but I've found the Autonomous AI standing desk or the Husky adustable workbench to be two I enjoy using.
Get a Good Chair
As for chairs, I have only ever owned a Herman Miller Sayl. Don't be cheap on your chair. Your butt's in it most of the day and your back will thank you if you spend the time and money finding the right one for you.
Anything is Better Than Your Bed
Whatever you do, don't work from bed.
If you have a family or roommates, you're probably going to be tempted to campout in your bedroom, but beware of this because of the challenge you'll face of feeling like life starts to blend together. If you absolutely have to use your bedroom, still get a desk and find a "shutdown ritual" that helps remind you that you are no longer at work, you are at life.
If you don't have the luxury of an extra room, try out getting a screen for a desk, a room divider or my favorite an IKEA Kallax bookshelf that you can mount in the middle of a room.
Tip 5: Stop Working When You Should Stop
As I mentioned in a previous tip: you're probably going to find that you actually get a lot more done than you used to in an office. This probably means that you'll be done a lot earlier in your day than you used to. In the first weeks and months, be kind to yourself and "clock out" when you're done. I can't tell you how many days I have wasted by trying to squeeze out a little bit more in the name of "I'm supposed to be butt's in seat until 5PM" when my brain was mush and I'd already conquered the day early on.
This new way of working is amazing and the dopamine hit you'll get from increased effectiveness is going to think you're actually being more efficient. Don't trick yourself into thinking that you are a robot and you have increased efficiency (humans are terrible at efficiency, our greatest strength is our ability to be effective).
Work Well. Live Well. Don't Burn Out.
Long-term working from home (or remote...or distributed, whatever you call it) has been one of the greatest things to happen to me in terms of being an effective contributor, a balanced person and as someone who wants to enjoy the fruits of having family. I see my wife and daughter at the beginning of every day, at lunch and I have dinner and do bedtime routine with them every night. I am so grateful to have that time back to invest it in the people I care about.
If you're in a position where you're working from home, I'd encourage you, try out these tips, be "present" at work when you're at work, be present at home when you're not at work and experiment with different tips and techniques yourself to find the balance you want out of life.