How We Do: Working Remotely


I’ve worked remotely for the better part of a decade, so I’ve seen the good, the bad, and totally terrible side of it. It takes a certain type of person to work remotely. You have to be a self starter, focused, excel at time management, and be immune to distractions. Don’t have these qualities? Neither did I when I first started out.

No boss around to keep tabs, no one asking if I got that website to “pop more.” The waves are good, so I might as well surf until lunch. Then grab some food, get on the computer to answer a few emails, move a few pixels, then off to the gym. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that was fairly routine when I first started. It wasn’t that I didn’t get the work done; I wouldn’t be where I am today if I just completely blew it off. It was more that I didn’t have or incorporate that office structure, the 9-5 routine that helps people stay on schedule and make their days more productive.

The freedom of working from home/remotely can be overwhelming. You need to lock down a strong routine and the correct tools so that your working-remotely dreams don’t become an unemployment nightmare.

Schedule

Time boxing changed my life. I took Sunday afternoons to set up my week to come so that every hour was accounted for, including surfing and gym time. This allowed me to focus on each task at hand and not worry about what I should tackle next, making me efficient. Most importantly, it got me in a routine and kept me from getting distracted by extracurriculars. Which brings me to my next tip. Just because you are working from home doesn’t mean you are at home. It’s not time to do laundry, clean the garage, mow the lawn, or any other house chores that your wife is yelling at you to do. You are at WORK. When’s the last time you were in the office and Jim said he was taking a break to head home and do the dishes? Never. Make sure that these tasks are addressed as if you were going to the office everyday.

Now that I am at Focus Lab my weeks are more scheduled for me. But I still outline my design time each week to make sure I get all my tasks done. We have a project manager who will let us know when we miss something. Luckily, working remotely means she can’t hit me in the head in passing, but the occasional “fail” gif may come my way in HipChat.

Tools

Working remotely requires tools beyond Adobe CS. When working with a team like Focus Lab, or with several teams as a freelancer, communication is the make-or-break. It is important to be available during normal operating hours, answer questions quickly, and that you constantly collaborate from afar.

At Focus, we use GoToMeeting video for client meetings and internal meetings. It has allowed us to interact more personally with our clients, as well as other team members (like myself) who are not in the office. You’d be surprised by how much the video personalizes things. I met Sam in person a few months after he started working at Focus, but because we had interacted on GoToMeeting it was like we had known each other and seen each other every day.

The other invaluable tool that has allowed us all to stay connected is HipChat. If you are reading this, please take a break and go download HipChat. This is the best remote collaboration tool on the market in my opinion. We have project, company, and personal rooms all set up to share projects, leads, cat gifs, memes from our GTM meetings, etc. It’s our virtual office. Everything passes through this, even work related stuff on occasion. ;)

Home Office

This one is a biggie: your office needs to be somewhere that you are excited to go every day. It’s just you, a computer, maybe a few cats, and your thoughts. If you work in a boring, muted environment (pictureless jail cell), you are not going to be inspired and you will end up mowing the lawn instead of working, which we already established was wrong, so don’t do it. My office is decorated completely different from the rest of the house: skateboards hanging on the wall, a chalkboard wall for posting and sketching ideas, ceramic deer head, etc. Make sure that your office is the kind of place where you can spend eight hours a day.

Traveling

Make sure that you get away from your home office when you can. Cabin fever is real and if you have the chance to go work with your team or a client onsite, do it. It doesn’t need to happen a ton, but keeping that human interaction is great for team members and clients. As it gives you a great excuse to get out of your PJ’s and take a shower. Even though I am half as productive when I work in the Focus Lab office (seen our Instagram feed for nerf wars, planking contests, and other shenanigans), I look forward to those weeks where I can tap Bill on the shoulder and ask him a question or get beard grooming tips from Matt in-person. Truthfully, these in-person meetings and work weeks float a generally successful remote work experience.

In Closing

Working remotely isn’t for everyone. Truthfully, I would love to be in the office everyday hanging out with the Focus Lab team and collaborating without a computer between us. But my reality does have its advantages. If I want to go radio silence and design for a few hours without any distractions I can do that; I get to see my family throughout the day rather than just mornings and evenings; I don’t spend any wasted time commuting or sitting in traffic, which allows a lot more focused work time.

Do you work from home? I’d love to hear how you overcome any of the hurdles inherent with working remotely.

Join the conversation

Ryan Keairns on April 29, 2014

Hey Charlie!

My experience is very similar… and I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get out every once in a while.

I like to drop-in at local coworking spots, coffee shops, libraries, etc.

Also, take advantage of your freedom. Work from a hotel or an airbnb and pretend you live elsewhere :)

Thanks for sharing!
Ryan

James Fletcher on April 29, 2014

You hit it on the head. Having an office space that you’re happy and even excited to go to each day is key. Without that we are emotionless robots, and our environments will always have an effect on our attitudes.

Thanks for the post, Charlie.

Shane Helm on April 29, 2014

Great article Charlie.

I agree, it is important to stay in communication during normal business hours.

Some reason, I have an opposite struggle than those who get distracted to mow the yard etc.  Since I am a very responsible person and since I am remote, I want to make sure the office knows I am getting work done.  I tend to take less breaks working remote than I did in the office.  But I get far more done without meetings, commuting, etc.

There is a balance and I am still working to figure it out.  Probably need to take your suggestions on building the right calendar.

Thanks.

keaton on April 30, 2014

I’ve been remote at least 50% of the time for about the last year. It’s definitely a struggle at first but the benefits are so out of this world, it just makes sense. I can live and work in Joplin, Missouri, with my family while the rest of my team are in a different time zone.

I will admit I’m feeling some desk envy though. Good Lawd.

beasty on April 30, 2014

The same for me , it’s a pleasure to work from home, in a pleasant place, be far away from trafic jam and close to his family.. Btw i would really change for working an awesome place like Focus…

Ciprian Gavriliu on April 30, 2014

Working remote is a lot about limits and self discipline. The best part - being alone and completely immersed in the work is also the worse part - being alone and disconnected from the world.

It also depends a lot on your personality type. I like hanging out with people a lot so more then 3 days in a row spent working in my house get’s me a strong cabin fever.

Good article Charlie!

Jonathan Olsen on April 30, 2014

Great article. Kinda sums up everything I have learned as well. Only that I dont keep as structured of a schedule as you do, but hey, everyone is developing in some way. :)

Where di you get that backpack? Really hard to find a good looking backpack these days.

Adrian Pelletier on April 30, 2014

Good read and similar to my experience with being self-employed for the last 6 years. I can also vouch for the importance of outlining each week ahead of time; it is absolutely necessary to make each day as productive as possible.

Sim Kolev on April 30, 2014

True stuff. I’ve been working remote for the last 7 years. A lot of people think working form home is “easy” and often make remarks that it isn’t a “real” job. I encourage them to try it for a few weeks and they usually find out that it’s much harder than it looks. We end up juggling more tasks in one day than some do in a week at the office. I couldn’t agree more with the points you made about self-organization and self-discipline. A lot of folks lack those skills and fail to manage their time properly, especially when given the freedom of doing whatever, whenever. In my years of working remotely, my efficiency has skyrocketed, and I haven’t missed a single deadline. However, a lot of companies still hesitate from hiring remote contractors, as I’m sure everyone has had more than a few bad experiences when it comes to micromanagement or working with “professionals” who fail to deliver on time, take on more than they can handle, or just plain disappear completely. I’ve had my own fair share of collaborating with “phantoms”, sometimes even losing money or clients in the process. I do trust that in the future remote teams will be a much more common sight in most industries, especially as we continue progress by creating the proper digital tools for collaboration and quality control.

Anyways, great write-up! I wish everyone a productive day in your PJs.

Marc on April 30, 2014

This is some insightful advice. I like the point about blocking time and being AT work, even while physically at home. Also, stylish equipment and office!

Kelly Brito on April 30, 2014

Awesome post. The main thing that makes me work mostly from my home office is being able to see my family all the time, instead of a few hours in the morning and evening.
I absolutely need to plan my days better. I’ll try to schedule the full week ahead like you do on Sundays. That sounds just like what I need. :)

Leo on April 30, 2014

I work remotly for 8 years, now i can work even with daughters sitting in my chair with me and playing with dolls and a pink pony wich is helping me to press buttons on keyboard all the time. I think that “remote work” is a state of mind, now i think nothing can disturb me, when i am working, i can switch off reality, when i have to. P.s. sorry for my poor english

Caleb on May 1, 2014

Thanks for writing Charlie! Working remotely does require real discipline, but the benefits are huge if you can pull it off. You can save a lot of time and money every day by not commuting. But then again, you have expenses at home to setup up your personal office.

The one thing I would recommend is to always work in some sort of a “team” environment – even if you are a solo-freelancer. You should always have a few guys you can bounce ideas off, and ask for help when you get stuck on something. This will really help you grow your skills quickly.

Joel on May 1, 2014

Good article! Thanks for sharing your experience.
I’m a UI designer living in Paris and I work remotely with London, New York and Tel-Aviv.
You are 100% right when you say that’s really important to sometimes, meet the guys that are working with you. Even if a remote work is possible (sometimes hard), we should keep IRL interactions. This make big changes in the work relationship.
Cheers!

Vlastimil F. on May 1, 2014

Hi guys,

thanks for the article.

I have question. Is it some detailed screen (or anything with more info) about the calender planning? Because I’m lost in that. If I want planned my day in calender. I not know how use the time segments with right information. Please recommend me anything about the theme, thanks! :)

Pete R. on May 2, 2014

Something I aspire to do myself. Although, mine will be running own businesses + freelancing since not many employers around here (I live in Thailand) understand the benefit of remote working and how it affects creativity.

To tell you the truth, I think the corporate ladder (even startups) had it all wrong for us. As we grow older, we want more freedom, not the other way around. From my experience, when you are given more responsibilities, you tend to also lose freedom in the process. Somehow, it’s like the more money they gave you, the less trust they will put on you.

Great article! :)

Eric Rowan on May 20, 2014

The company I work for uses HipChat as well, but I’m trying to move us over to Slack. I have no affiliation with Slack, I just happen to think they’re the business. Check ‘em out! https://slack.com/

Deep Velani on August 8, 2014

Great post. Just a thought, why do you have two workstations setup?

Michael Moore on August 11, 2014

Good stuff.  I’m three months in to my first experience with remote work and Google Hang Outs and Slack have become my two best friends.

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