I’ve previously written at length on working remotely, both in Finnish (Don’t work in the evenings), about my then-new desk, and generally how I feel about working from home. I also like writing – a lot.
This guide was a long time in the making; I drafted the first paragraphs in 2017. Since then, I’ve rewritten everything and updated this to reflect the global situation in 2020 and general thinking around working remotely in recent months.
As I’ll be working on this series for a long time, I’ll update the guide when new content becomes available. Some of the content might derail a bit, but this is on purpose to provide a more comprehensive context and sometimes useful background to some of the thinking.
Table of Contents
- Part 1 (this post):
- Part 2:
- Part 3:
This guide aims to offer a comprehensive look at what makes working remotely more enjoyable and how not to feel miserable about it. When writing this guide, I set out to provide examples of how I work, where I draw from the more than 20 years of my personal experience working from home. I also fundamentally understand that not everyone wants to or can work from home full-time. Pick and steal the ideas that work for you, discard the rest.
Also, many people might not be using the same tools as I do – and that’s perfectly fine. The guide’s crux is to grasp the concepts and then to mold those to suit your personal preferences.
If I had to condense all of the learnings, insights, and content here it would be this: Guard your precious time fiercely, be optimistic about your possibilities, and be happy with your achievements – and have fun in the process.
Let’s define Working from Home/working remotely/remote work/flex work
For too many years, I was confused when someone casually mentioned they’re doing flex work. I wasn’t sure what it meant, as in my internal vocabulary, you were either in the office or not in the office. Wikipedia defines Flextime (or flex work) as “a flexible hours schedule that allows workers to alter workday start and finish times.” For many working in IT or tech in general, this has often been the norm for a few decades – you’d typically start your day around 9, and work until you needed to go home. And perhaps work a bit more if you felt like it.
I hear many companies defining flex work as flexible working arrangements; usually – although not always – this dictates that everyone works from home on a given day. Or everyone works from the office each Friday. Or something similar. I guess it’s flexible, but for me, this is more of a hybrid working arrangement that might combine the worst aspects of each model.
And then there’s Working from Home, which is the casual definition for working flexibly. For some, it’s working 100% of the time remotely – usually from home. For others, it’s flexibly working from home when the need arises. And everything in between, really. With the global coronavirus pandemic in 2020, some have started to call this Living at the Office, as you never seem to leave your home (and home office).
Regardless of your own model, you can – and perhaps should – define your preferred model.
For me, it’s WfH – I work from home, occasionally elsewhere, but rarely in an office. This leaves many opportunities to work from cafés, trains, planes, hotels, and events. Practically anywhere, as long as I can comfortably set up my devices and get a bit of focus time.
Note: Obviously, when writing this guide, nobody is traveling much, and all events are virtual. But this will inevitably change in the future – at some point. And the purpose of this guide is to be more timeless in that sense.
Work from home, or the café, or elsewhere?
To put this simply, make it possible that you can work from home. Working in a café is fantastic, but only up to a certain amount. A typical week consists of working from home Monday through Friday, and I schedule possible lunch meetings to nearby restaurants on Tuesday and Wednesday. This way, Monday, Thursday, and Friday are optimized for getting work done without distractions. A one-hour meeting over lunch is usually two hours when you factor in travel time, parking, and the usual slippages in schedules.
[ Obligatory coronavirus note: Depending on how your country and region manages the situation, it might not be possible to even work in a café. In such a case, perhaps replace the café with something else – your backyard or balcony, for example. ]
I recommend working from cafés if:
- You don’t need to make audio or video calls. We all not-so-secretly hate that one person who loudly explains something over a speaker in public places. Don’t be that person.
- You can focus even if there is background noise. Headphones obviously help, but they only do so much.
- You will support the café with purchases. I guess someone added a lot of science into this, but the usual rule of thumb is to buy something for each hour I reserve a seat. This isn’t an issue normally where I live, but seeing how crowded the coffee shops are in larger cities, I understand it can be a problem. I vividly remember my first visit to a large Starbucks in Denver – a person took each table with a laptop, and most hadn’t bought anything (or had empty cups from 3 hours ago).
- You can have enough privacy and security. Consider investing in a privacy filter for your laptop, and never mention customers, projects, or other potentially confidential information out loud. I’m hesitant even to mention where I work, even if it’s not a secret. If I’m meeting with someone, I usually refer to a project as the “customer we worked with last week,” or “that B company.”
When you choose to work from a café, you’ll have these upsides almost automatically:
- You can do ad-hoc (in-person) meetings with friends and colleagues.
- You can reflect on things while waiting for that web page to load.
- You can combine your café visit with other errands. I often drop my dry-cleaning on the way to the café and pick them up a few days later.
- It’s easy to do ‘back-office work’ such as emails, receipts, and travel arrangements.
- You can actually just have coffee and not work on those emails and IMs. Like a psychopath.
For me, working from home is usually the plan for the full day. If I choose to work in a café, it’s because I have other priorities I can confidently match with my café hours – such as errands or picking up the kids from daycare. I always prioritize working from home as the most productive time with the highest quality of hours I put in. Working from a café is often productive, but less than from home.
Consider the places where you can easily work with little interruptions, and build your weeks around those places. As for me, those are
- Working from Home – 80% of the time
- Working from a café – 10% of the time
- Working elsewhere – 10% of the time
What to bring with you when you work in a café? See What’s in my bag here.
Recently, the concept of The Hub & Club has (re)surfaced. The idea is that the office provides the opportunity for work when people need it, such as for kicking off a project or starting a new project sprint. And then you can choose to work for home in-between these ideation and strategy get-togethers.
I was initially considering to put this section later in the guide but realized that productivity and focus are crucial. Even more so than gadgets, webcams, computers, and whatnot.
I often recommend Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World for anyone struggling to focus on endless notifications, pings, and distractions. It’s a great book and a quick read. In essence, you’ll need to choose between moving all your tasks one millimeter forward per day or getting real work done by focusing on one task at a time, for prolonged periods. Getting busy by not being too busy.
Focusing is hard and taxing. Few can focus for hours at a time. Be gentle, and start tracking how you can get your best work done. What works for you might not work me, and vice versa. To inspire, these are the ways I use to focus:
- When I work, I work. When I don’t work, I don’t do maintenance stuff such as cleaning up emails or responding to instant messages.
- Have a plan. Instead of trying to get everything done, capture 1-3 things you really need to get done. You cannot eat an elephant in one go, but you can when you chop it into pieces.
- Mute all the things. My mobile phone is always on mute. I also mute everything else, starting from Windows sounds to Microsoft Teams to WhatsApp to Twitter, and so on.
- Get rid of notifications. I leave a notification on my phone until I can check them through. For all other devices, I’ve disabled notifications. I also have Windows 10’s Focus Time set to eternal focus time. I don’t want any interruptions.
I’ve written about how I write my books, and plenty of more advice is listed in this article.
Perhaps an often-overlooked factor on productivity is the inspiration and rest. Let’s start with the latter. You need to sleep well. I’m not a sleep expert, but I’m an expert in hearing from many people that they don’t have enough time to sleep. Make time! You have 24 hours each day, and about 8 hours of that is great for sleep. For some, 6 hours might be enough, but most people I know could use 8 hours of relaxing sleep.
The trick I’ve found is to go to bed early, not try to wake up at 4:30 in the morning. A typical sleep pattern for me is to get between the covers at or around 9 pm. I might browse news, read, chat with my partner, or listen to an audiobook for 15-20 minutes. I then wake up around 6.30..6.45 each morning, including the weekends. Routine and consistency are key. More on this here.
The bummer is that it’s hard for me to stay up late if there’s a special occasion, such as a great party. I start yawning at 9, and I really need to be in bed by 10 pm. For this reason, I also need to do my sports exercise around lunchtime or early enough in the afternoon.
Sleep is a tricky and complex subject, so that I won’t go any deeper into an area with very little scientific understanding. Find what works for you, and stick to it. I’m fairly certain that going to bed past midnight and waking up at 7 isn’t an optimal solution for most people.
If you feel going to bed early is challenging, or your sleep quality is poor, fix it. Lookup a sleep specialist, try a different mattress and focus on what you can change easily that might help you sleep better. This required the internalization that I must sleep enough, otherwise, I’m not productive enough, and the quality of life isn’t optimal either. I also changed the mattress and got real darkening curtains in the bedroom. Also, no TV in the bedroom – you’re there really to sleep, not to watch movies.
Then, on productivity. Once you’re rested and know how to focus, productivity often appears quite easily. Wikipedia has lengthy explanations on productivity, and for business productivity, this snippet is great: “Often simple changes to operating methods or processes increase productivity, but the biggest gains are normally from adopting new technologies.“
This isn’t to say that getting a new gadget or adopting a new piece of software magically makes you productive. You have to go back to basics if you are unsure where your productivity comes from. List things that you must accomplish. Reading emails isn’t an accomplishment, or attending eight meetings each day either. I might sound overly harsh on this, but I often see people spend a full working day achieving nothing while still being very, very busy at the same time. And usually exhausted by late afternoon.
I don’t claim to have a magic wand on productivity, but I proudly proclaim I’m fierce when it comes to getting things done. I don’t use a super complex framework or process for this. I just squeeze everything out from the very basics and keep it simple. It goes like this:
- Each morning I list the three things I have to accomplish at work that day. These do not include menial tasks, such as reading emails, but concrete achievements: “Write and send the offer to customer X,” “Process survey data and produce initial findings,” and similar.
- I have my lunch at the same time each day. This way, I get about 3 hours of work done before lunch and about 3 hours after. In-between, I might check emails, make calls, and prep dinner. I also want to ensure I have lunch each day.
- I start with the most challenging task first. This way, even if I only complete that, it’s a great achievement. The less significant tasks I can tackle the next day.
- I clean up tasks, emails, meeting requests, to-dos, and requests that are not really important. People like to amplify what they do, and many people often invite people ‘just in case’ to some random weekly meeting they feel is important for them. I’m a black belt in politely declining things that are not really part of what I try to achieve. Sometimes it sucks, but then I consider what’s more important – getting the things done I have on my list or spending an hour in a meeting I have no role in? Obviously I’m simplifying this quite a bit, but you get a general idea.
I’ve written about my simple Outlook email rules earlier, and also how I aim to learn quickly.
Aim to be the director, actor, and scriptwriter for your workday, and be fierce when it comes to protecting your limited and precious focus, time, and energy. If you fail on this, you end up spending 40 hours a week achieving very little that is useful.
While I wrap up writing the next part of this guide, here is some further reading that I enjoyed while researching and thinking of this topic.
- The WFH ‘hub’ is here to stay
- The Ars Technica ultimate buying guide for your home office setup (Ars Technica)
- Going all-in on remote work: The technical and cultural changes (Ars Technica)
- Interview with Reed Hastings, on remote work (paywalled)
- Microsoft analyzed data on its newly remote workforce (HBR)
Thanks for reading!
I work with Azure and frequently write about my experiences. I’m a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, ex-MSFT. Based in Helsinki, Finland.