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How to adjust to remote work for engineers who work better in close proximity to others

Over the last 6 months, I’ve had the opportunity to work remotely (at home) as part of an experiment to see if I was cut out for the “remote year travel-and-work” lifestyle that seems to be popular on Medium. With the rising public hysteria about Coronavirus and its potential to derail businesses, many workers are being advised to work from home to prevent the spread of the illness. But for workers like me — extroverted communicators who are heavily influenced by our environments — there are some real challenges that we need to adapt to when transitioning into this style of work.

Any discussion of remote work needs to acknowledge the research against it and its effects on an individual’s work life balance. The technologies that enable remote work come with the expectation that workers be on call and reachable at all times, including your off-hours. This, in turn, worsens people’s anxieties when, for example, they have to “catch up” with their emails at night. Unable to extricate work from their lives, people feel more dissatisfied and eventually burn out.

The counterclaim is that people who take breaks frequently tend to perform better. You’re pitched that “turning off” when you get home, taking your earned vacations / sick leave, and enforcing boundaries are the keys to having a successful work-life balance.

So.. which is it? How can we maintain both productivity and a good work life balance? Which aspects from both camps do we need to adopt to thrive as remote workers? While everybody and their grandmother has written an article on how to be productive doing remote work, I’ll approach this by highlighting certain tips or tricks that run contrary to the conventional wisdom regarding workplace productivity.

0. Create a constraint based environment

This is the first thing you needs to tackle. You need to foster an environment that forces you to be productive. Do your work in the same spot, every day. Some people have the luxury of having home offices, and others join co-working spaces. In the beginning, I worked in every random spot I could in my apartment. I would alternate between sitting on the couch, doing work on my bed, and sitting at the dining table. I eventually found that if I sat down at my dining table with my laptop first thing in the morning, I could jump into my routine faster. My dining table chairs are uncomfortable, and that helped me stay focused because I’d want to finish my work as soon as possible. Plus, I was so used to watching TV on the couch after work that it was hard not to “check out” when I would sit down to do work there.

Some days, I would also try and change my environment entirely; I would scoot over to a library or a coffee shop. And almost every time I felt less productive than I wanted to be. People usually leave the office to work at a coffee shop so they are interrupted less and can get a chunk of IC (individual contributor) time, but for me, the change in scenery caused my brain to wander more than it let me focus — not to mention the time spent in transportation, finding a spot, getting set up, etc etc. Working remotely means that you’ll have more quiet, isolated chunks than you will meetings and ad-hoc distractions. I found that you don’t really need to change up your environments, you just need a consistent one that you can jump into quickly.

1. Stagger your meetings to work in discrete chunks

Which brings me to the second half of my point: stagger your meetings. With these long, isolated chunks of time, it becomes natural to work at a pace that is comfortable for you. You might be trying to figure out how to solve a tough problem, and you might take a 5 minute break to check email or browse reddit. Freed from the social pressures of a group environment, it becomes dangerously easy to let that 5 minutes turn into 15 or 45. The freedom given to you by not having a manager within eyeshot is amazing, but it also gives you enough rope to hang yourself with. In order to make sure you stay on track, it’s valuable to stagger meetings to have constrained time-box for IC work. It forces you to break up your work in chunks to work around those meetings, and it provides natural markers for you to start and stop, which let you plan for appropriately sized breaks.

This is the opposite of what I would do in an office: in order to optimize productivity, i would stack meetings so that I could handle all the interpersonal communications in one chunk, and focus on my engineering work in the other. But modern problems require modern solutions.

2. Do not confuse your home tasks with work tasks

This one sort of snuck up on me. I’m going to assume that like most engineers, you maintain some sort of to-do list to help manage the myriad tasks you have to do on a daily basis. You might have a list for work tasks, another for home chores, etc. I personally use Todoist for these kinds of things, and I love it.

The thing is, with most of these todo list task trackers, you often can’t differentiate between what areas you are being productive in versus what are areas you need to be productive in. To put it another way, having the freedom to do something in front of you leads you down the road of doing things that might be personally productive but not great for your company. There have been times where I might have woken up, done laundry, cleaned the dishes, gotten groceries, but haven’t made a dent in my programming tasks for the day. In those instances, it’s hard not to feel like productive anyways because you knocked off a bunch of items on your checklist. But its a trap!

My recommendation is to blend work and home tasks in a 2-1 approach. Tackle two work tasks before doing your home tasks. Then repeat. Working from home gives you a fantastic opportunity to take care of your home life in ways that are beneficial to your overall happiness, but one needs to take care in prioritizing their work obligations effectively.

3. Manage your stimulant intake

When I worked in an office, I would usually be one of the folks who would brew a full pot of coffee when I noticed it was low. When I started working from home, it was instinctual for me to continue doing that. Without being aware of it, my coffee intake gradually increased from 2-3 cups of coffee a day (which is a lot already, I know) to about 6-8. Meanwhile my productivity began to plateau (and then decrease) despite the numerous caffeine “boosts” I was getting.

A well-timed stimulant (like caffeine) can get you energized and ready to code, but if you do it too often without detox breaks, you’ll find yourself like me, drinking a pot of coffee and still doing half as much work as I used to in the office.

Since then, I’ve replaced every other cup of coffee with tea and water. In the first week afterwards, I felt miserable and terribly unfocused. My work performance took a serious hit as my body was adjusting. But, despite my anxiety about the situation, my productivity came back after the second week, and I’ve been able to reduce my coffee intake to normal programmer levels again. It sucks in the immediate term, but it’s a strategic move to optimize long term productivity.

4. Video Chat often (more than you think you should)

Don’t make standup the only time you video chat your team. Do it often. You don’t need to plan it, just do it. This is a tool we should reach for earlier rather than later in our work routines. The reasons for this are twofold.

First and foremost, it allows us to solve problems much more efficiently. Typing out a dozen slack messages about why the “thing” isn’t working as we expected can take a lot of time and energy, and can be explained in 30 seconds over video chat. We can share our screen and remote debug together, which can allow for 2 sets of eyeballs on a problem.

Second, engaging with your teammates via video chatting means that you have a presence on the team, which makes you valuable to your manager. The age-old adage “Out of sight, Out of Mind” applies here. Listen: I’m all against the idea of “busy work”, bullshit jobs, and the practice of making yourself seem more busy (and relevant) than you actually are. I hate it and how it dilutes the meritocracy that work should be. But, the reality of workplace is that oftentimes, the person who is loudest and most visible is the person who gets the most credit — not the person who quietly sits in a corner and does their work.

In the office, we are asked to be “respectful of our peer’s time”, and to practice judicious scheduling of meetings to ensure individual productivity. In this brave new world of remote work, we need to revisit this piece of advice and consider how we can optimize the team’s productivity by video chatting when teaming up on a task.

So, there you have it! If you’re starting out (and dreading) the idea of remote work, hopefully you found some of those tips interesting. Thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions, feel free to tweet me: @nudgemybody