Captain's log, stardate d609.y38/AB
We have been working remotely since we created the company, in 2014. We want to share a few personal tips that will make remote working a better experience and sustainable over time.
MarsBased was created in March 2014 as a 100%-distributed company. That means, we work remotely 100% of the time and, what's more, we do not have an office. Not even now, that we're 15 people, and the company is six years old. We still operate as a fully-distributed team.
Every now and then, we write a blog post about how to work remotely. This time, we've asked our employees to share their tips to make their experience better. Some of them have been working for our company for four years or more, so they know what they're talking about!
We have grouped the tips in four different categories:
- Location: Where to work from, how to spot great places to work from and what makes a place a suitable spot to work from.
- Routines: We've been working remotely for many years. Some people have got their routines and habits that help them to get fired up to do remote work.
- Setup: A tidy and clean environment will help you to focus on what matters. We share a few tips on how to accomplish this.
- Communication: Communication is key when working remotely. Not only with your co-workers, but to your clients and even your family.
For the sake of clarity, this article is aimed at people doing hard remote. That is, with no possibility of going to an office. It is especially useful for those forced to do remote because of a global pandemic like COVID-19, nowadays.
In order to ensure that work gets done, you need to be in the most adequate environment. There are no written rules as to what's the best place to work from, but we tell our employees that they need to find a place that complies with the following criteria:
- Feels like an office: You can work in a correct position, with everything you need (notebooks, sockets, chargers, a secondary screen, etc.)
- Is free from background noise: You'll be taking a lot of calls, so get rid of unnecessary noises. Also, a quiet environment will help you to concentrate better.
- Has a fast and stable internet connection: We all have to take that emergency call from a train, but that should be the exception, not the rule.
- Ensures your well-being in the long run: Invest heavily in a good chair and office equipment. Health is no joke. You don't want to get injuries because you are working from the couch all the time.
The most important thing to know is that when you're working remotely, you are your own office.
We'd like to take on the occasion to debunk a myth: working remotely doesn't mean working from home all the time. In fact, a couple of our employees work from a coworking space because they feel like they can get their job done better away from home.
The rest, we work from home, and most of us have got a separate room to work from. We call this, the "work zone" or "work room", and it usually is a separate room designed and furnished to that effect. When you're in the work zone, you are working, and when you need to disconnect from work, you get out of it. Simple!
Actually, one of our developers, José Luís, uses a sign on the door to let his family members that he is "at work" and doesn't want to be disturbed. Dealing with family is tricky, but can be done using the right practices!
Most of the work gets done in that office-like environment, but we all need our occasional break or change of environment. One of our developers, Oriol, spends a couple of hours a day sitting on a fitball to see things differently, and to give his body a change of posture.
We try to stick to our favourite place most of the time, but allow for a bit of creativity every now and then. For instance, working on Fridays from a different location to wind down, or going to a cafeteria to write a blog post for extra inspiration.
For one, I keep a list of good coffee places on an Apple Notes to curate the best places to work from. I include important information such as whether the coffee is good, prices are fair, whether they play music in the background or if it's tranquil enough, the wifi speed and the number of available sockets.
As a business developer, I spend a lot of time on the road, so it's essential to know a few places in every part of the city for emergencies or those spare hours between meetings.
For the occasional remote worker, this section doesn't make a lot of sense, but since this is aimed at people who work remotely every day, we will share some of our best routines to get fired up!
As a remote worker, it's important to get into the zone. Having a separate location/room to work (the aforementioned "work zone") helps, but what if you don't have it or if you need extra preparation? Here are some powerful tricks.
Routines are great because they work. It's important to have your routine to help you get started. Here's a couple of them from our MarsBased team members:
- Routine #1: Take a healthy breakfast, brush your teeth, stretch a little, dress properly (as if you were going to a real office) and prepare your bottle of water, a coffee, and everything you need to start coding!
- Routine #2: I always check social media first time in the morning to get it out of the way. Then I prepare an orange juice and tea and I check my email for 30 minutes and schedule all the derived tasks for the next hours/days. Then, I tackle the most important task of the day with a clear head and plow through the rest of the tasks.
There are more tricks, of course, like checking your email only once or twice per day, to keep focused, or to do a check-up call with your teammates first thing in the morning, or even non-related work like going for a quick run before starting the day or to do bullet journaling to structure your thoughts and keep ideas aligned with your schedule and expectations.
Last, but not least, never work in pyjamas. That's a rookie move.
We've said it before, but it's worth repeating it: when working remotely, you are your own office. Your location is as important as your setup.
Investing in good office material will do wonders for your remote working environment. Most remote companies will give you a good laptop and some extra equipment like an extra screen, a laptop stand, an external mouse/keyboard and much more. Some, like us, go as far as covering your office furniture at home, like your desk or a good chair. In fact, all of our policies are on our employee handbook, so read it if you want to dive into deeper detail.
"Your bag is your office" ventures José Luís. He advises people to acquire a good bag to bring all your working stuff inside of it. If it doesn't fit, it's not necessary. Less is more, or walk light, walk better.
I, for instance, recommend the Minaal bags. They're not on the cheap side, but the customer service is stellar and the quality of the product is hard to match.
Another good piece of advice is to invest in good headphones. They should come with noise cancellation, so you can focus better and to isolate from the occasional background noise (phone, roadwork, washing machine, other people's music, etc.).
Most of us agree on having a tidy environment. If you've got many notebooks, scraps of paper, post-it notes everywhere, dozens of pens and other material scattered around on your desktop, that's a sign of a cluttered mind.
Cleaning up and putting things where they belong in the last 5 minutes of your workday will not only help you to have a clean start the next morning, but it'll send your brain the signal to disconnect from work.
As for the rest of the equipment - standing desks, single or double screen, bigger or smaller laptop, etc. - we don't seem to reach any kind of consensus. As with everything else, the main rule of thumb is "use what suits you best" as long as that doesn't create any injuries or health-related problems in the long run.
You can't work in a remote working environment if you're not a good communicator. Period. In fact, Basecamp hires only good writers. Literally, they say that "If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill a position, always hire the better writer".
You will need to communicate with your bosses, your direct reports, your teammates, your clients, your partners and even with your family and friends.
Let's start with family and friends.
Ensure everybody in your house knows when you are working or when you are available. For those not acquainted with remote work, they might think it's ok to interrupt any time or to ask you to do things during your working shift. We mentioned using the sign at the door before, but having clear rules and schedules will help you to reduce the friction with your flatmates/family:
- Establish a working schedule (8am-1pm, lunch break of one hour, then 2pm to 5pm)
- Let them know when you're taking a break - otherwise, they won't know when you are and will start asking at all times.
- If you're in your work room: a closed door means "no interruptions". Open door means "available for interruptions".
As for your teammates and online communication channels, some people like to switch off all notifications when they're working, others just when they need to go into full-focus, or some do differentiate between essential notifications (Slack messages from the projects they're working on and direct messages) and non-essential (whatsapp, skype, non-work Slack notifications, email, etc.).
It is a small wonder that those who work from airplanes often get A LOT done. Without internet and calls, it's very easy to maintain long streaks of concentration (and noise-cancelling earphones).
Last, but not least, clients and bosses should more or less be treated alike: proactive and frequent communication will keep expectations aligned, will maintain everyone on the same page, will reduce friction when conflicts come and will cement the foundations of long-term relationships. Be always upfront and overcommunicative about everything.
Morale of the story
Remote work is normal work where you define the surrounding conditions. Most things we do while working remotely we would be able to do them in a regular office, so don't do crazy things and stick to common sense.
If you need more ideas or advice, we're happy to give free counsel to everyone. Send us an e-mail and we'll be happy to share more!