Remote Control: Mastering the Art of Working from Anywhere

I’ve been working remotely off and on throughout my long career as a software engineer, manager, and tech executive. I was working from home long before the COVID lockdowns introduced the concept to huge numbers of workers who formerly knew work only in the context of offices and cubicles. I’ve worked remotely from home, from hotel rooms, from European trains, and from beachfront cafes sipping on a nice espresso. In addition, once the internet and its communication tools matured enough, I worked remotely with and remotely managed whole teams of people who were all doing the same.

Over the course of that career I’ve learned a lot about remote work. I’ve learned what it takes to be effective as a remote worker, and what the pitfalls are. I’ve been surprised at times at just how much you can get done, and at other times just how frustrating it can be when the right ingredients aren’t there for remote work to, well, work. It really takes something to be effective working remotely. It doesn’t just happen.

On one of my first jobs in college, I was given a computer workstation (not long before personal computers first came out) to take home and assigned to write a medical office’s scheduling program. Initially, I felt leery of working at home, sensing my own tendency to get distracted and spending time doing home stuff when what there was to do was work (program the computer). So I decided, in a rare moment of foresight, to create a routine, almost a ceremony, in which to structure my time.

I would wake up, perform my morning ablutions, get dressed, brew some coffee, and eat breakfast–exactly as I would if I were about to leave for work. The layout of my kitchen allowed me to ignore the workstation on the table during all of this, and I did. Finally, at 8:00am, I’d finish up breakfast, pour a second cup of coffee, and then turn around and look at the workstation for the first time that day, turn it on, let it boot up, and get to work. I took about a half-hour lunch (away from the workstation, not at it) and started looking to wrap things up at the workstation around 5:00. Once I found a good stopping point, I’d log my time for the day, turn off the workstation, and leave the table. As it turned out, that process was quite effective, and I was able to be productive, satisfied after a good day’s work, and could go out with friends, leaving work at work.

Now, I’m not going to insist that I know what’s best and that all those things I did are necessary for everyone, but I do feel that it’s really important when working remotely to have some defined and consistent structures in place to set a remote worker’s mindset, to sharply delineate one’s activities between work and not work. 

I cringe (and laugh!) when I hear the stories of people in remote meetings getting up and flashing their undies (or worse) to the camera when they thoughtlessly get up from their chair. Pro tip: if your work environment is not casual, don’t be casual when working from home. Even if wearing a suit in your home office seems odd, I’d recommend it if you’d normally wear one in the office. Oh, and—for sure—put on your pants!

Another common pitfall: pets and children creating havoc in the room during Zoom meetings is, needless to say, disruptive and, frankly, unnecessary. I mean, who said that because you’re working from home you don’t require childcare during working hours? At most jobs, you cannot be providing childcare and doing your job at the same time! Attempting to do so is a disservice to both your employer and your kids. 

To conclude, I know that, while working remotely instead of in the office can be effective (and, by some reports even increase productivity), it takes something to make it work. It doesn’t come for free. You have to work at it. 

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