How to Succeed When Working Remotely: Lessons Learned from a Chinese Buffet
Working from home can be an amazingly fulfilling career experience. Likewise, a trip to your local Chinese food buffet can be a culinary delight. But both can also be abjectly horrible. Here is my breakdown on how to succeed at working remotely without the debilitating pains of post-dumpling bloat.
Dress the Part
I am a great defender of Chinese food buffets. I know the food is not some five star affair, but damn it, I like it. What I don’t like, though, is the feeling I get when I look around at my culinary compatriots and see sweatpants being worn in public. This is the fashion choice of giving up in so many ways and when someone who decides that also decides on the same lunch place as me, my mind can’t help but draw parallels.
As such, one of the best things you can do to when working remotely is to remember that it is still work. This is not a day off in lounge pants or a reason to stay in your PJs all day. You need to let your mind know that it’s game time, and you can do that by keeping a set schedule, showering daily (oh so tempting to skip a day but you will regret it), and wearing appropriate work clothing.
On the last point, I am not saying to get all gussied up every day in a business suit, but at the very least, wear pants. I would strongly advise doing more than the bare minimum there and recommend wearing pants with some sort of clasp mechanism. No, drawstrings do not count. Not only does this make it feel more like work but, on those occasions you actually do have to leave your home office, you won’t have to experience the I-haven’t-worn-pants-in-months-and-now-nothing-I-own-fits-me-Insert-Cathy-Ack-Here blues.
Treating work like work can also help inform your home working environment. Yes, working remotely does lend itself to a bit of digital nomadism, but choosing to have a defined home office rather than working at your kitchen table has its mental (and practical) benefits too. More on setting the proper boundaries further on.
Get Comfortable With Confusion
As I said above, I love buffets. But I also recognize that they are not high cuisine. And while I will not defend them as such, I do bristle at the opinion that they are places to be looked down upon. Due to the non-conventionality of the establishment—you serve yourself food, the food is in troughs, sneeze guards are prevalent, (again) sweatpanted patrons—it doesn’t jibe with some people that these can be places where you can find really enjoyable food.
Likewise, the general populace has some preconceived notions about what work is: namely that, to many, if you don’t commute, it’s not a job. They are so used to this concept of work being a building to which to travel that, when a neighbor sees me midday, they will always remark, “Oh right, I forget that you ‘work’ from home.” Working remotely means becoming a bit of an anachronism, so steel yourself.
Further, get used to people saying to you that working from home must be so nice because you can do laundry, clean the house, blah blah blah all while on the company’s dime. How convenient! Usually I am so overbooked and swamped that I forget to refill my water glass, let alone make time to catch up on my ironing (Pro-tip: Reap the benefits of progress and buy shirts that don’t require ironing).
So prepare yourself mentally for this common sentiment from friends, family, and strangers alike. You know it’s work and that should be good enough.
Along with mental preparedness, there’s a physical shift to working from home as well. But to start with my buffet analogy, I’m not going to lie and claim that the food options there are anything but pretty unhealthy. If all you select is fried, brown meat for your entire meal, don’t be surprised when your heart gives up the ghost.
And so it is with transitioning from an office job to a remote job. Gone are the little exercise breaks from your professional day-to-day. No more trips to the watercooler, climbing stairs to a conference room for a meeting, or even walking from the parking lot to your desk. Your commute has just become infinitely shorter and less challenging, so figure out ways to add movement to your day.
I have two dogs who need walking, which is great for exercise but also for their companionship. I also build in other walking times into my day (a wearable tracker like a Fitbit or Garmin VivoFit is a great reminder for this). Go to the gym. Go for a run. Do yoga in your living room at the start or end of your day. Get active and make it part of your routine. (This also helps that whole pants-fitting issue I brought up earlier).
As I pointed out, a fair bit of buffet food is bad for you. But it’s also SO PLENTIFUL that it can be hard to know when to say when. So, it’s vital to set a plan in your mind before you head up to the rows upon rows of buffet delight. All this accessible food can quickly lead to too many plates, and it can sneak up on you well ahead of when your stomach radios to your brain with “Please stop – I am full of dying.”
Similarly, establish set boundaries around your work day. Start at a set time and end at a set time (with the knowledge that these might flex given the situation). Have a dedicated work space that is for work and not a multiuse area. Having your desk in the living room may be a space saving reality, but this decision can interfere with unwinding when you do want to log off for the night. It can be taxing to settle into Netflix in the same room in which you just spent 8 hours doing your job. Plus, if you have video calls, like I do, it’s better for clients to see you in a real workspace rather than hanging out on your back deck (though again, there’s room for that possibility, as I will explain later on).
But boundaries are more than keeping your work out of your personal space. Vice versa, you need to keep your home life separate from your work life. Just as you have total access to buckets of grub at the buffet, working remotely from home means you have unfettered (and unmonitored) access to your TV, your video games, maybe even your spouse and kids to boot. Set up an understanding with them and yourself about what is a work area and what isn’t, so you can keep each part of your life functioning as it needs to be.
I love the freedom of a Chinese buffet. I can have a little bit of everything I like in the portions I choose. I make an attempt to take advantage of this when I dine in such a fashion and it always makes me happy.
This control and variety definitely is akin to one of the benefits of working from home. Depending on your role, the flexibility of location can be a daily occurrence. Since I have client calls, I am in my home office nigh exclusively. However, on days when I have blocked off some time to write a project plan or breakdown a design for our production team, I can relocate to a coffee shop or a wifi-enabled outdoor space (or bring it with you like my remote colleague Dave) for a few hours.
There are times when nothing helps a stymied work task more than disrupting your mental hamster wheel with a change of venue. Given the circumstances, working remotely can make this a daily reality—beneficial to you, your clients, and your employer alike.
Posses Make It Positive
I know it’s supposed to be a sign of superior self-esteem to do so, but I can’t get the hang of going alone to the movies or a restaurant. Life is just more fun when you can share experiences with people about whom to care. As such, I am going on the record as being against going to Chinese buffet alone (THERE I SAID IT). Not only is it a lonely experience, but who will you read your fortune cookie to at the end of the meal?
I’m lucky that my remote working position is for a fully distributed web agency with employees across the globe. I lead a team of incredibly smart and affable people building web solutions for a bevy of enterprise clients. And while having my dogs at home helps with some of the isolation of home work, the connection points I have with my 110+ coworkers is what truly makes my day, every day. Remote work is often deemed more effective and efficient than traditional workplaces.
The faceless emails of the standard office has been replaced with the engagement of all-day chat services like HipChat and Slack to video calling with Google Hangouts, Zoom.us, Blue Jeans, and Skype. I see and interact with my geo-distributed coworkers constantly – much more often and effectively than previously when my work was done in a shared office environment.
For those of you further out on the freelance limb, find a co-working space or collaborate online pushing forward open source projects. Set up interaction opportunities within your every day to not only share what you accomplish, but also have sounding boards for your ideas and motivations. Be part of a community—we’ll be lucky to have you.
Working remotely is quite a shift from the traditional on-site job experience, but well worth the differences. And remember, with great power comes great responsibility. Also an eggroll.