I’ve Worked Remotely for 18 Years, Here’s How it’s Done (even during a pandemic)

For a lot of people, working remotely is a dream come true — minus the mandatory shelter in place orders that many of us are under. But for some companies, having to suddenly shift their entire workforce to a remote environment can prove challenging. And if you’re an individual who has never worked from home before, you may also be surprised by what’s in store. 

At aytm, we’re a remote-native company since 2009 and personally I’ve been working remote most of my 18 year career. My take on remote is very much a reflection of our culture here at aytm so please adapt these to the expectations of your environment but know, we’ve refined these things from many years of real experience. 

Set Up Shop

The biggest misconception anyone has about remote work is that we are all sitting on a beach somewhere sipping a margarita and casually working between spa treatments. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of work time in the sunshine but 99% of the time I sit in a designated work area just like I would in an office. Although it’s a million times better to be surrounded by my things (and my cat & dog). 

If your plan is to casually place your laptop in your lap while lying in bed or on the sofa, you may want to reconsider. For starters, your back will not be happy after a couple of days and your brain will quickly start to associate your bed with work. This will make sleeping especially hard during a time when it’s likely not as easy as it normally is. 

Unfortunately, if you’re not accustomed to working from home, you probably don’t have a dedicated office space, but you may have a spare bedroom, reading nook, basement, or even an empty corner where you can set up your computer. If you already have a desk, great. If not, consider working from your dining table or breakfast bar. A vanity or TV tray table can also work in a pinch. I personally spent my first year at aytm working from a small converted vanity desk in my bedroom until I moved into a bigger house with a dedicated office. 

It’s Time to Flex

Warning: This tip may not work for all company cultures but the more you can influence others to embrace it, the easier work & life will be. 

While a separation between work time and personal time is ideal, it’s not always realistic or even optimal. When you’re working from home, especially when your kids can’t attend school or daycare, and your partner may be home too, things get messy and intertwined. At aytm, we’ve instituted flex time as a way to support our employees not just through this period of uncertainty, but all the time. 

Employees may need to work before the kids wake up, during naps, quiet time or after they go to bed. Perhaps you code best at night or like to workout in the morning. Here at aytm we clearly communicate our schedules so colleagues know when to expect us at work. We know from years of experience that this can happen even when the world is not on lockdown and openly embrace it. 

If a flex schedule just isn’t possible in your environment, I’ve also found setting up my day with time blocks for quiet time helps when the house may be a bit louder than normal. This gives my family warning when they need to absolutely leave me alone. Lately I do most of my focused work in the morning when my brain is fresh and meetings in the afternoon. However, the important thing here is to find something that works for you and not be super concerned about what “should” work.

Distractions Can Be Good

Even for a longtime remote worker, ignoring the near non-stop distractions at home can be hard. It’s so easy to feel the draw of sitting laundry and gardens to water. And that is ok. Yup, I said it was ok. I have learned to use this time wisely though. 

As someone who is in a lot of meetings and working on complex projects all day, I find the moments I have completing more mundane tasks around the house actually gives my brain the ability to recharge and even work through active challenges. I often joke my most creative moments happen while on vacation. And the science is there to support it – giving your brain a break to work in the background while you complete a household chore is actually beneficial. Just don’t let that 30 minute break turn into hours. I sometimes set an alarm to remind myself or time block to ensure I’m due back at my desk for a meeting.

Embrace the Staycation

Disneyworld may be closed, but your brain and body don’t know that. I embraced the staycation long before it was legally required. Vacations are a lot of work – how often have you said “I need a vacation from my vacation”? Years ago I started to schedule an annual staycation to give myself and my family a break while enjoying our own city, no plane ticket required. It may seem strange to stay home for a vacation when I am home all the time but I found it gives me the time off I actually need without rushing around. While we may be stuck just at home right now, that does not change the fact that we still need time off. 

It’s not normal to spend all day considering your existence in an ever changing world. It is normal for that to be exhausting even when you aren’t leaving the house. Make sure you carve out time to relax and enjoy your house. Play games, make crafts, take a nap. You get it. 

Communicate Without Chaos

If this is your first foray into using apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams for work, welcome to your new love/hate relationship. 

At aytm, we’re heavily invested in using Slack as our main mode of communication. This tool has quite literally changed the way we work each day and mostly for the better. The struggle is very real though. It can quickly become a source of chaos if you do not manage it properly and your teams aren’t using the right tool for the message. 

There are really two main types of messages; asynchronous or synchronous. Essentially an asynchronous message is one you send when you do not expect or need an immediate response. These messages are often best kept to email or specific channels in Slack. On the other hand, a synchronous message is one that requires an immediate response, this is most often done actively in real-time over chat or Slack DM. Choosing the right method for your needs requires some training. It’s very easy to overload your real-time messaging channel with non-urgent messages thus making it much harder to recognize an immediate need.  

When using Slack though you’ll want to ensure you’re managing your notifications effectively. Luckily you can set your notifications for each channel to ensure that you never miss the messages that are most important to you. You can also temporarily turn off all notifications or notifications for certain channels for times when you’re engaged in deep work and need to maintain focus or do not expect to be needed without an @yourname. Channels can quickly add up and this is a real sanity saver for me. 

Another popular way to communicate includes video chat. Everyone in the world seems to be doing it now from school children to your co-workers. It’s a powerful tool in maintaining the human aspect of work. That said, it’s not always best. Video for us is often reserved for 1:1s or brainstorming sessions where seeing each other helps us work together better. Personally I like to pace a lot while I talk and take notes which can be distracting during video meetings. We never make being on video required for this very reason. It’s common to be on a video chat with half the people on video and the other half not. In the end, it’s about what works best for you. 

Lastly, consider creating channels that will make work easier and help cultivate your company’s culture. Instead of doing daily scrum meetings, which can be a time suck, I prefer using a Slack channel called DailySync where every member of the team writes a quick update, letting everyone know what they are planning to work on each day. We also have a Winning channel where we highlight and celebrate new projects, positive client comments, and overall jobs well done.

We have a variety of hobby channels like Business Books for readers, Recreation, Fitness, Meditation, and Good Eats for foodies. Most recently, we added a Health and Wellness channel to discuss the latest news about COVID-19. 

Other communication tools we use at aytm include Google Drive for document collaboration, Trello for project management, Go to Webinar for video conferencing, and Hubspot for campaign management and scheduling meetings.

Consider the Pros & Cons

If there is one thing we have learned in hiring and scaling a remote workforce, is that remote is not for everyone. Even after applying these and other lessons, you may just find it easier to work in an office. That is ok. While you may be forced by circumstance to work from home now, it is not a failure to recognize that you prefer working in an office environment. 

However, for many of you this opportunity to work from home will unlock a whole new world of productivity that better suits your lifestyle. The reality is that there is a ton of value in remote work, and perhaps, now is a great opportunity to demonstrate to leadership that working from home is a viable choice for your company moving forward.

By working remotely, you can work with anyone, anywhere. You’re no longer bound by hiring only people who live in your area or are willing to relocate. Remote companies can tap into talent pools around the world, making hiring decisions based on who is the absolute best person for the job, instead of, who is the best person in a 50 mile radius. 

There’s also much less overhead. Why pay rent for a fancy office space with outrageous utility bills when your team can work from the comforts of their own homes? And when you don’t have those large bills, you can redirect those funds into enhancing the lives of your employees. We put this savings towards truly amazing health benefits that don’t cost a fortune, extra perks like snack & self improvements budgets and a travel program that lets our team travel to each other to co-work. Plus it also allows us to be more competitive with our pricing, thus saving our clients money. 

In conclusion, remote work may not be what you thought it would be but that is ok. The important thing is to find the right balance for yourself, your team and company. If you’d like any insight into our other remote work strategies to help set you up for success, I’d be happy to chat with you.