Two years remote

May 19, 2016


I’ve been at Red Hat for a little more than 5 years, and technically remote the whole time - but the first few years were as a consultant so I was always on the road and in offices – they were just other peoples’ offices. Since I switched to engineering, I’m now working from home all the time.

I thought I’d write a blog post about my experience, and talk about some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

The office

When you are a permanent remotee, having a comfortable and dedicated working space is very key. For me, anyway, there’s a context switch that happens when I enter my office that signals it’s working time. When the two spaces are the same, it’s much easier to get distracted.

My first home office was in Berlin, in a corner of my very small flat. I used a room divider to make a semi-private space, and even experimented with a standing and walking desk for a while. It worked, but the design made it a permanent standing desk so I often found myself switching between the standing desk and my kitchen table. It was not an ideal working environment, especially since it was breaking my dedicated space rule.

Last year, I relocated back to the US, and made sure to spend a little more time (and money) on my home office space. I’m pretty happy with it.

Current home office
Current home office

Equipment:

For the price, I’m really happy with the MARKUS swivel chair, considering that I think other office chairs of similar comfort can be much more expensive. The BEKANT desk is also a very affordable desk that has a motorized sit/stand function.

Routine

When I lived in Berlin, I was 6 hours ahead of most of the team I worked with. That meant I often found myself working into the evening hours if I need to communicate with them. Especially with the conflation of working/living space, it was easy to just stay in work-mode well past 9 p.m. That’s a pretty good recipe for burn out.

Now that I’m in the U.S., I find myself occasionally drifting in the other direction, being online earlier to talk to European coworkers. However, I found a way that works for me. I spend 30 minutes in the morning before breakfast to check-in. That 30ish minutes tends to be part of the time I also draft my plan for the day.

So, for the most part I stay within the bounds of normal working hours now. My morning routine looks something like this:

  • 7:00 - 7:15 Wake up
  • 7:15 - 7:45 Pop into office
    • Look at GitHub, Inbox, and IRC mentions - maybe respond if urgent
    • Review my list of tasks (scrawled crazily on a legal pad next to my desk), and circle a few to tackle today - this includes personal items, too, like “get a hair cut” which can be squeezed into lunch time, or to plan what I’ll do after work. This is kind of based on a blog post I read a while back about purposing your day.
  • 7:45 - 8:15 Shower, get dressed, etc. - I find this to be relatively important to do, although yes I sometimes work in my pajamas. There are remotees who find it liberating to spend every day in their pajamas, but I learned from experience this doesn’t work for me. I need to get ready to go somewhere, even if it’s just the other side of the apartment. Otherwise you’ll start looking like this Oatmeal cartoon
  • 8:15 - ? Breakfast and caffeine
  • 8:30 - 9:00 In the office

From there, I’m working until about 11:30-12:00. This period of work tends to include following up on any reviews on GitHub, responding to e-mail, IRC support, or taking advantage again of being able to talk to my European co-workers. Then I break for lunch, which could be to run an errand, or actually prepare a meal in my kitchen.

One of the great benefits to me from working at home is being able to use my kitchen, whether it’s to heat up leftovers from last night or actually make something.


Lunch! Lunch! Lunch!
Lunch!


The afternoon tends to be a similar period of work as before lunch, and I’ll take another break mid-afternoon around 3. That’s usually to go for a walk in the neighborhood and grab a cup of iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts. When I get back, sometimes I’ll stand the rest of the day. I tend to finish anywhere between 5:30 to 6:30pm.

Of course all this an idealized day, and I’d say most of them look something like this, but there are certainly days when I wake up at 8:30, wander to my desk in my pajamas, get sucked into something and look up at the clock and it’s 5:30pm, but as time goes on this kind of thing is much less frequent as I become better about being a remotee.

Downsides

Of course, there’s downsides to being remote too. The most obvious one is isolation. I tend not to see people during the workday - other than the UPS driver, Agador (my roomba), or Pablo (my office plant). There’s no impromptu conversations by the LaCroix fridge like you might have at Red Hat Tower in Raleigh.

I do stay connected to my team via IRC and chat with them during the day, I also get to visit at least once a year and see them in person. Google Hangouts I also tend to use with video on with coworkers when we’re working on something together, at least for scrum. I’ve worked at other companies with distant employees who feel like they don’t even exist as part of the team. Red Hat in general, and my team in particular, is extremely remote friendly. But it’s still quite a different experience than being in an office.

And even though I’ve been doing this for a few years, my way of working is not optimal. I wish I was a tad more organized in getting things done, and while I think adopting the “purposing your day” habit helped, it’s not quite as organized as it could be.

In the beginning, I’d say it was a lot tougher than it is now. I’ve learned to force myself to get out of the house most evenings - no more spending 3-4 days without any human interaction at all, which happened more often than I’d want to admit in the beginning. I picked up playing hockey, go to dinner with friends, and also take a course at Harvard Extension one night a week. Those all get me out of the house.

I want to use the day I go to Harvard for class in the evening, and spend the entire day in the city. There’s a few coworking spaces around Cambridge, and it’d be good to get some social interaction at work one day a week. I think I’ll try that in the Fall once class resumes.

Conclusion

Overall, working from home is a really rewarding thing to be able to do, and I feel really privileged that my employer is so remote-friendly. If you’re a remotee, what does your office look like? How do you cope? What routines have you developed?

If you’d like, you can comment on the Google+ post as I haven’t found a good commenting solution since I moved this here blog thingy from Wordpress to GitHub pages.