On working from home while remaining saneSun 29 October 2017
Since I started working at Datadog, I've had the opportunity of working from home full-time (for the second time in my career). Although I consider this to be a real privilege, it comes with its own set of challenges that I'd like to pinpoint and address in light of my personal experiences.
I hope this article will be useful for anyone willing to try out (or struggling with) remote work.
Productivity VS isolation
First, why would you even want to work from home in the first place? To me, it's both about flexibility and productivity. I can focus on complex tasks for long periods of time without being interrupted, while still being able to keep a flexible timetable. I can also work from anywhere, as long as I can have a good enough internet connection.
However, this flexibility and freedom is paid with isolation, which can then lead to demotivation or burn-out down the road. Remote work is, by definition, solitary, which can quickly become an issue, because humans are social animals and (for most of us) crave for social and physical interaction. This make be believe that remote workers are more exposed to burn-out.
The burn-out cycle
In my experience, the easiest path to demotivation or burn-out (whether you're working remotely or not) is being over-enthusiast and working long hours. When doing so, it's easy to develop some kind of hero complex, a belief that you're indispensable and that things will break down if you take a break, or leave on holidays. The more hours you pull, the less sleep you get, the more stressed and tired you become. Because you're stressed, you then feel you need to work harder, until you just can't take it anymore, and you burn-out.
Ideally, this cycle can be prevented or broken with proper management and supervision. If your manager realises you've started to walk this slippery slope, she/he should take action, and incite/force you to take a break. This can be enforced by regular 1-1 meetings, to keep track on how remote workers are doing.
This brings me to an important point: remote work can dangerous if it's not in the company culture, and you should keep away.
Remote as a culture
To enable sane remote work, a company does must include remote workers in all events, when physically possible. All brown-bags, talks, all-hands, etc, should be streamed live, or at least recorded. If being out of the office means you have access to less information, it means that remote workers are seen as second-rate employees.
All communication must be asynchronous, to include remote workers, especially if teams are working across timezones. Wether it's slack, email, Google Docs or something else, anyone should be able to catch up with any conversation or topic. Any significant direct discussion should be made available one way or another to remote workers.
Finally, it should be easy to go meet your team in person. I'd go even further and recommend you do it on a regular basis. I personally chose to go to our Paris office a week every month.
Now, if your company has remote in its blood and culture, good! Now, all is left to figure out is your organisation and work hygiene. The following advice come from my personal experience and should not be considered as absolute truths backed by science. Take them if they make sense to you.
Containerisation of private and personal life
The first thing I find absolutely essential is containerisation (no, not Docker) of your private and professional life. You need to have a dedicated office room, with a door, that is not your living room. The idea is that, when you open that door, you're at work, and when you close it, you're out. I find it to be especially important during the first weeks of remote work. I now find myself work more and more from my living room, but I know that if I need isolation for some reason, I still have this room I can go to.
For the same reason (along with a bazillion security reasons), never work on your personal machine. You want to make it a conscious effort to switch from watching Netflix to reading your work email.
To me, routine is key to avoid getting tired. Try to wake up, start working, eat, stop working and go to sleep at regular hours. Ban any night work, especially when you're not on-call.
Exercise is also very important. It's easy to keep extremely static during your remote work-day, which can take a toll on your health. Also, one of the things I miss the most is my daily bike commute. I replaced it with 45 minutes of gym in the morning, 3 times a week. This has the nice advantage of making me feel like I accomplished something very early in the day, and gives me energy to keep it going.
Also, take regular breaks and take a 15 minute walk at some point in the day.
Talk with other remote workers about how they make it. Share tips, stories, do-s and don't-s, to build collective wisdom.
Working from home can be liberating and an amazing productivity booster, but you need to stay alert and conscious of the challenges and constraints it entails. I'd urge you to show a fair amount of self-discipline and organisation in order to avoid falling into the burn-out spiral.
I found this very interesting resource from Trello, called How to embrace remote work.
The main takeways I get from it are:
- pace yourself: work isn't going anyhwere. Do not forget to take breaks.
- use the right tool to convey the right information (do not rely on instant messaging for crucial information!)
- don't forget to use passive communication (eg: status messages)
- intent can be lost over text communication. Assume positive intent.