If things go according to plan, I’ll be operating remotely starting March 2022. There’s plenty of documentation on the benefits/drawbacks of remote work. For me, working from home will greatly reduce my commute time (45 mins) and will help me minimize extra steps which can be used towards exercising, sleeping and indulging in hobbies. On the flip side, preparing meals three times a day, workplace isolation and social confinement are the big drawbacks. Other big worries include familial and digital distractions. Distracting environments exert a negative influence on people’s motivation, which in turn can hamper productivity.

My employer has asked folks to come back to office starting February and as such I had to decide what I was wanted to do long-term. I decided to go remote. The rationale behind this decision revolved around my need for certainty, optimizing for cost of living (CA is expensive) and wanting to be closer to my wife and her family.

Before I dive into the meat and potatoes, let me provide some context regarding my work situation. My team isn’t remote first – 75% of my colleagues (including my manager) will still be operating from the office. We’ll also be working in different timezones; my co-workers will work out of either the California or the London office, whereas I’ll be working in EST.

As March seems to be around the corner, I’ve been diving into books, papers, and articles in the hope of gathering pointers. Here’s a round-up of some not so typical advice I came about:

Consolidate Social Media Use

An open office (or even a cubicle environment) places an unutterable restraint on your usage of time-sink holes like Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News etc. That restraint goes away once you start working from your home. It’s fairly easy to open a Chrome tab to divert your attention while your code is building. In order to combat this, Cal Newport suggests a few things:

  1. Delete social media apps from your phone. Prefer using it on the web.
  2. Completely abstaining from social media works until you have an hour to kill while waiting at your Doctor’s. What’s proven to work is 30-40 minutes of consolidated, deliberate usage of social media per week.
  3. Don’t click on Like. Don’t comment. Prefer IRL conversations with your friends.

prefer richer communication channels

This Nature paper has a pretty interesting take vis-à-vis knowledge transfer and the remote worker. It postulates that the efficacy of the knowledge transfer depends largely on the strength of the relationship. It argues the switch to remote work actually causes the number of ties between individual in XFN teams to reduce. This leads to less time being spent collaborating, resulting in ineffective knowledge transfers.

The paper also mentions a pretty discernible trend - In the pandemic world, workers are spending less time in meetings, communicating more asynchronously and individuals collaborating more with folks they already know. The jury is still out on whether this switch to a more async form of communication will actually lead to an organization wide performance drop. What’s clear is a remote worker’s network becomes more fragmented (you interact only with folks you know) and each fragment becomes more clustered. This might actually lead to a reduction in the quality of the worker’s output. To prevent this silo’ing, it’s suggested that remote workers prefer richer communication channels, such as a video chat especially for communicating complex ideas.

Another research article advocating for the “richer communication channel” came from the engineering team at Stack Overflow. There are a lot of platitudes in their article, but the central ideas revolve around doing things that you would normally do in an office environment over … video conference.

establish a social support infrastructure

One big issue that I foresee is lack of connection with co-workers through social hours or otherwise. As such, a remote worker should plan to:

  • Rely a lot on my friends and family!
  • Identify personal remote mentors. These are folks who have prior experience with the wide-ranging issues that crop up in the life of an individual remote worker.
  • Establish a personal insider that provides a good idea of the political landscape within the team and the org.

I’ll be missing out on those water cooler / coffee break conversations. If I look from a career perspective, I’m not too worried about missing out on these convos. How effective are these water cooler conversations anyway? In the past, I’ve learned what my co-workers did over the weekend, what restaurants they ate at, what sports game they watched through these conversations. Very few of these talks were project or work related.

curate your workday

One interesting observation was noted in this paper:

Most of my colleagues are usually late to meetings whereas I’m not. They’re working together in an office and they usually have meetings that last longer and they chit-chat after the meeting is over. It’s okay for them to be late, but it’s hard for me.

It might not be pretty evident, but organizing your calendar well and ensuring adequate preparations for meetings is going to be pivotal for a remote worker.

over-communicate and over-recognize

Being visible and being able to communicate many of the actions that are easily observable in office context is pretty important for my job-role as an engineering tech-lead. You have to play the game here and acknowledge wins and losses (“Thanks for working on this”, “Great job team” etc.) and virtually pat your co-worker’s back often.

block hours for deep-work

Collocated workers tend to encounter more interruptions than their distributed colleagues. But the over-communication that you’ll need to do to unblock others and maintain visibility will certainly disrupt your own work rhythm. This’ll leave very little time for my own projects and tasks that you want to tackle through the day. As such, be deliberate about blocking a few hours every day (9 AM to 12 PM EST for me) to do intentional, focused deep work.

parting thoughts

Ideally, I’d have preferred working in the office for a few times a month, but there isn’t a hybrid component to my employer’s remote policy and as such my access to the office is rather limited. Visiting the office occasionally is also besides the point because the nearest engineering office is 3 hours away.

2022 is a going to be learning year!