Taking Yourself Seriously as a Remote Employee

A while ago, I was given a copy of Michael Lopp's Being Geek (a book on software career management). I've never read it cover-to-cover, but every now and then I'll pick it up, open to random chapter and start reading.

Recently, I found myself reading essay entitled The Pond, which covers the topic of managing remote employees. As I read each bolded headline, I grew slowly more despondent. With each point it felt more and more like Rands has very strong feelings against remote workers. And what was worse, was I had to agree with him on a lot of his conclusions.

This was discouraging not only as a remote employee but also as someone who has always espoused the personal and societal benefits of remote work. Only after reading the essay again (and a third time) was I able to distill a more accurate thesis:

A remote employee is disruptive to concept of an office.

And Rands is right about that. Everything about "the office" as an institution is threatened by a remote employee, be it the practicality of persisting in a physical space or the cultural effects of not being part of the gang.

As a remote worker it's easy to feel like that guy every time I ask someone to set up a call-in number for a meeting, or can't make those after-work drinks. Finding a good inter-office flow as a remote employee is hard and often very awkward. But this is new territory for everyone involved: for my co-workers, for my managers and for myself. Just like Rands notes, the desire to work from home is inevitable and frankly, I'll be damned to concede defeat.

And so I give to you my advice for being a professional work-from-home professional.

Treat it like a job

It's important to feel like a professional in the privacy of your home. This means treating every day like the one before it. Be at your desk at the same time every morning and be constantly available throughout the day. Keep the volumes on your personal email and social networks down. Put on a tie if you have to.

Remember, you have the same responsibilities and are accountable for the exact same work your peers are.

At the same time, don't drive yourself nuts. Enjoy the same kind of benefits and flexibility that your office would allow you. This involves time fetching coffee and a decent lunch break.

Be honest about the hours you work and do work during those hours.

Oh, but don't forget you can play your music loud.

Commute time is your time now

The absolute number one reason I choose to work at home is the loss of commuting. Not having to spend an hour or two a day sitting in my car is one of the greatest reliefs in my life. The commute is a soul-sucking, gas-chugging endeavor that I will have a very difficult time returning to should my circumstances change.

So what do I do with the time I would normally spend commuting each morning? I go to the gym and come back to the apartment feeling like a million bucks, ready to start my day.

My point is that the time you don't spend commuting is a treasure that few people possess. Don't waste it by sleeping in or working an extra hour. It's your time now, so use it to better yourself.

Be better at email than you are at the phone

There are a lot of things I don't like about email, but one huge benefit is that it allows me to gather my thoughts before I speak. When I worked in an office I hated being ambushed with a question I wasn't prepared to answer. My emails are ten times more detailed than anything I could cover verbally in a meeting or hallway conversation.

In any given day, there are a myriad different communication tools a remote worker will use. If you're lucky, your office has an internal IM system or webcams for every employee. But regardless of this, email will still be your primary medium for communicating. This means that email is going to be the best way you can stay on people's radar. There is no walking over to their desk or bumping into each other in the hallway.

You need to be really good at email -- and that includes responding more quickly than you would in the office. Be eloquent, be efficient, and for the love of god use proper capitalization and punctuation.

Be loud and (slightly) annoying

To reiterate a point I made above, you need to make sure you stay on people's radar. This can be really hard. You might be used to working from home by now, but at any moment you might need to interact with someone new who isn't completely comfortable with your modus operandi.

Because you can't be in the office to reinforce your own communications, it often helps to turn up the volume on your correspondence (in a nice way). Sometimes you need be that guy in order do your job effectively. The goal here is to be noticed, and to give people a sense that you are, in fact, doing the same job they do. If you find yourself needing to be a little abrasive to achieve that, then make sure you buy those same folks a round of drinks when you're visiting the office.

Be proud about it

Most office-bound individuals probably picture remote employees as rolling out of bed at ten in the morning and spending all day their underwear. I would worry more about the opposite problem -- a tendency in the remote employee to work a bit too hard. We never leave the office. Our work is scant feet away, and some of us might have a tendency to feel we haven't put in enough hours.

While the typical managers fear they don't have a constant presence in the day of an remote employee to keep them on task, I fear that the pendulum swings both ways, and that lack of management can also mean an employee will kill him or herself without any external pressure to slow down. It might seem counterintuitive, but in my experience a truly lazy individual prefers the comforts of the office where it's much easier to delegate to others and coast by unnoticed.

You know you're happy and proud that you get to work remotely and you should make sure others realize this. You're not just doing this until you move closer to the office. You've made a lifestyle decision that you believe will results in a healthier, happier and more productive employee.