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Working from Home for Fun and Profit

May 31, 2018 - J. Tower


I’ve been working remotely–or telecommuting, as it is often known–for nearly 10 years, and in that time I’ve learned a few DOs and DON’Ts for being a successful remote worker. I’m far from perfect, and am still learning and getting it wrong at times, but I wanted to share some of my observations and see if anyone else has anything else to add to the list.

It’s worth noting that a few years ago, I took remote work to an extreme by working from all of the lower 48 states. You can read more about my family’s trip around the country at 48statesproject.com.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned that helped me be the best remote worker I could be:

    When you work physically near others, communication happens more automatically than it does when there are many miles between you. Remote workers must, above all, be pro-active communicators. They must strive to be available to their clients and coworkers–especially immediate supervisors and/or clients.Answering emails, phone calls, and Slack messages quickly, even if it’s just to ask to answer more fully later, is critically important. Anything else could give the impression that you’re not around. You don’t want to give the impression that you’re either heads-down working on a task or possibly outside flying a kite.Tell team members that might be impacted by your absence exactly when you are going to be gone for a doctor’s appointment, meeting, or lunch. In short, you probably can’t over-communicate.
    Are you a morning person? A night person? Do your kids get off the bus at 4PM and need a hug and a snack? Anything you can do ahead of time to plan around the style and timing of your work will help with your perceived predictability and reliability.Do you need a comfy chair, a large, 4K monitor, and a hot mug of coffee always at hand to get into the groove? Make sure you have what you need to do your best work. If you don’t know what you need to focus, experiment and see what works best. Spend some extra money to make your setup just right for you. Remember: this is how you make your money, so being more efficient is worth some investment of time and money.
    With the ubiquitous entertainment options that are available to us today, it’s easy to find a distraction if you want one. It’s important to find ways to avoid whatever your weakness is. For some that might mean working in a different location than the Netflix-connected TV or the Xbox. For me it means using Spotify and my headphones to get “wired in” Mark Zuckerberg style. For whatever reason, this makes it easier for me to focus and get things done. A friend of mine likes earplugs. Someone else I know uses a white noise app.You won’t have any chatty cube-mates to interrupt you at home, but if you’re like me, you can find ways to make up for that with other distractions. I think a daily schedule or routine might help for this. Maybe try the Pomodoro Technique and give yourself a snack or other small reward during your breaks when you’ve done a good job focusing.
    I used to have a daily alarm on my phone to remind me that my kids were about to get off the school bus. As little kids, they were physically incapable of talking at a normal volume indoors, so when that alarm went off, I’d relocate to a more quiet and secluded location in the hour.Sometimes I tell my wife when I have a meeting scheduled so she knows what to expect. Or, sometimes I use a certain door being closed or light being on as a signal to be quiet or not to enter. If you plan ahead and know your family/roommate’s schedule, you can make changes to your work environment that will have the smallest possible impact on them and you.
    Spending all your time working by yourself will very likely turn you into a lonely, unhappy, and uninteresting person. It might sound like an exaggeration, but the #1 reason that people I know have stopped working from home is loneliness. Get out and work with other friends that work from home. Find a way to meet new people. Consider joining a coworking facility in your city. Do what it takes to feed your social side or you will burn out.
    The little lunch-time or water cooler conversations you have in an office can be missing in the remote office situation. Look for ways to replace this with other forms of networking and social learning such as conferences, code camps, user groups, and meetups. Attend at first, but make it a goal to contribute in some way–speak, organize, clean up afterwards, whatever…
    I miss my 15 minute commute. It was the perfect amount of time to reset from work and be ready to start over as a husband and father. I don’t miss my 45-60 minute commutes, though. When my commute is just down the hall or stirs, it’s a lot easier to accidentally bring work problems home.For me, drawing the line means not looking at my email during dinner or tuck-in time with my kids. It means I try not to work after 5 unless it’s a true emergency. I’ve learned the hard way that getting “caught up” never happens. There are times you will need to work harder than normal, but don’t let that become the new normal.Also, if you figure out work/life balance, please write a book about it so I can read it. You will likely become a millionaire.
    Those of us that work in the software industry can have a pretty sedentary lifestyle. Don’t forget to stand at your desk, walk when you’re on calls, get some exercise, and probably some fresh air, too.If it feels like a waste of time, start paying close attention to where you are when you get your best ideas. If you’re like most, you’ll find it will be outside, walking, in the shower, or sometimes event using the restroom. All of these places have something in common. You’re doing something physical but not using your brain as actively. You need to give you brain a break and let it wander to be able to solve problems creatively, and that often works better during a little down time.

If you’re thinking about working remotely or already do, I hope hearing about my experiences are useful for you. I’m also very interested in other peoples’ experiences.

Do you work remotely? What habits, tools, or other things help make it work for you?

J. Tower

4 thoughts on “Working from Home for Fun and Profit

  • Jeffrey Zuerlein

    June 11, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    These are excellent points. Working from home is no picnic, and requires planning and discipline. Of all the challenges you mention, I think the lack of water cooler talk was the worst for me. I really enjoyed chatting with coworkers about a good ball game, or what was going on in our lives. It was also a good time to ask for help and advice. I got involved with a local group that welcomes people to the community when they move here, and helps them make new friends. I also use a co-working space once a week, because sometimes, it doesn’t matter if the door to the office is close, I just need some time to focus on code!

    • J. Tower

      September 6, 2018 at 10:59 am

      Thanks for sharing your tips, Jeffrey! It can be both good and bad, can’t it?

  • Craig

    September 6, 2018 at 10:45 am

    J, there was no mention of letting your Foosball game wane. Am I safe to presume that I could actually score a point these days? First time I ever saw passing in Foosball while bouncing it off the sides was against you. Blew my mind! Telling that story at subsequent jobs has elevated you to a status held by characters in Viking lore.

  • J. Tower

    September 6, 2018 at 10:59 am

    I’d guess it’s a little like riding a bike, but I haven’t played very much in recent years. I’m sure I’d need to practice for a while to get back up to Viking-level skills.


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