How to work remotely

The ineffable, omnipresent Kalen Jordan (at least according to my Twitter feed) recently posted a Medium article on working remotely where he stated I took the cake for the longest tenure of working remotely on his list at 15 or so years. I started working in web development in 1998, having gotten on the tail end of the dot-com boom which meant I had loads of expectations of making it big right before it all crashed down. So 15 years sounds about right. Maybe even a little longer.

But all of this work over the past 15 years has given me the opportunity to see many different sides of working remotely. I have worked remotely for companies and I have worked remotely on my own. With that in mind, and tons and tons of context, here are a few thoughts on what to expect when working remotely.

Not having a commute is awesome. Very, very awesome.

Every once in a while I have to go to the doctor to get blood work done. When I do that I am supposed to fast. Because I enjoy food I get the blood tests done in the morning. Every time I do that I am so thanful that I don’t have a commute. Truthfully, I would like a small commute to get out of the home office, but there are some many drivers out there who don’t know how to get out of my way that I would probably have a stroke at some point. Instead, I get to listen to my children argue about who hit whom… On second thought… maybe an early commute.

But no. I get to walk my dog in the morning (largely to loosen my back muscles). I’d rather do that.

Being able to expense some of your home expenses is really nice.

All you suckers having to pay for your own Internet! Ha! It is really nice to sometimes be able to saw “meh, I’ll expense (or write off) it”.

You must be able to mix your personal and business life, and you must be able to switch on a dime.

This is a must. If you work in an office you might need to work in the evenings, but people know you’re out of the office. If they call you they may start with “I’m sorry to bother you after hours…” But when you work from home nobody knows if you are in your office or out grabbing a beer. It doesn’t matter if you are or are not; people will interpret you differently if you are not in the office.

Because your work and home environments share the same air you need to be able to switch back and forth between the two. Your children won’t appreciate you muttering “stupid clients wanting stupid code at stupid times of the day” any more than your clients will appreciate you muttering “stupid children wanting stupid food at stupid times of the day.” The two will get mixed up, but it is your responsibility to manage that.

Same thing goes for dogs.

I’ve read a number of articles that say you for your work you should carve out a place in your home that when you are there, there door is closed and you are in there working. I think that is the worst idea. Your are a rational, social animal. You need interaction and virtual interaction is not what your body and mind are designed for. Closing the door will only increase your isolation and I heartily recommend not doing that.

Unless Caillou is on. Then close the door, lock the door, and crank up some Megadeth.

You must take time to rock out!!

My commute is awesome. I tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition, yawn and stretch and try to come to life. Then I walk over to the office and start typing on a keyboard. My goodness, that becomes monotonous. Humans are built for the outdoors. We are built to experience different things. And if we don’t we become stagnant, ornery, and crotchety. Some would say that I’m already there…

So, what I do is either write music or just rock out. Crank the guitar way up and hit those strings. Maybe you play the banjo. Or maybe the spoons. Whatever. Even if it is for 10 minutes you need to be able to do something that is completely not work related. I don’t know this for certain but I would bet that the change in blood flow in your brain is necessary to maintain good long-term brain function. (it sounds like science so it’s true)

But there is a warning. This, very easily, can turn into laziness. I say that because I’m feeling it right now where I just want to pull out Ableton, Maschine 2 and Guitar Rig and record some sick beats.

Have a beer every once in a while

Your home office is just that: a home/office. Your office will intrude into your home. Let the home intrude into your office.

Maybe I should have titled this one “allow your children to give you hugs when you’re on a phone call.”

Take time to work out

I think I work out somewhere between 45 and 90 minutes a day. Seeing my pictures online, that might surprise you. But I’m not doing anything hard or crazy. Just walking the dog for 30-45 minutes and jumping on the exercise bike while watching Homeland for 0 – 60 minutes a day. Our bodies are not meant to be sedentary and one of the predictors of if you will develop some form of late-life mental illness is any form of exercise.

Be prepared to miss out on things & remote communication is hard to do well

I was working for a company where there was a programming competition where everyone was split into teams. Work started out and I had presumed that things were moving ahead. Then I stopped hearing about things and as time went on I figured that the competition, like many initiatives in many companies, just fizzled. I found out a few months later that the competition had been completed and my team lost. I hadn’t been told. Perhaps it sounds a little cry-baby-ish but those are the things that you remember if you’re ever sitting in your office alone and asking yourself if you’re contributing anything worthwhile to the company.

Remote office parties or team-building activities royally suck

There was one time I was expected to be on a office party call; it was an end of the week thing. There was some talking about numbers and things like that, but it was during the holidays and there were… refreshments, and such. So, I was dialed in with the phone on speaker. “Blah blah blah… blah blah laughter blah blah laughter” and so on. Well, I’m sitting in my office, by myself, while everyone else (except the other people on the phone) were busy having wine and other things. I don’t blame the company, but nothing sucks more than being forced to watch other people have fun.

You think team building activities are lame when they’re done in person? Doubly so when you can’t read the expressions on anyone’s faces. “Webcam”, you say? Have you seen my office? No?

There was one time when it was fun. I got on a call and everyone was sharing the instrument that they played. One guy was playing a mandolin, another guy an accoustic guitar. “Hey, Kevin, you play guitar, right?” “Yeah” “Play something!” I went to get the guitar off the wall and plugged it in. I turned the 1,100 watts in my office up to 11 and started playing Eruption (I think).

You can’t do that in an office… 🙂 Maybe I just like showing off.

You have be to be able to be alone

That may sound depressing, but it’s not. For some people, such as myself, who are introverts, being around people sucks the energy out of us unlike extroverts who get energy from people. Does that mean I hate being around people? By no means. I love being around people. But for me, people are an investment. When the funds are depleted I need to take time on my own. Recently I had been working on something (I forget what) and I was just completely exhausted. And I hadn’t even done much that day.

So I said “this is nuts” and grabbed Eusebius’ The History of the Church and spent 6 hours outside reading. My next day was one of my more productive days ever. You need to be able to be alone. And I would say that, unless you are in sales or something where you need to interact with people, being an introvert is almost necessary.

Be prepared to not advance as far in your career

I’m sure someone will take offense to this but not only is it true, but it should be true.

Let me explain.

Everyone wants to have a data-driven, numbers-based approach to promotions. A person who has does well at their work, however they are quantified, should be the person who gets the promotion, right? Sure… if you can measure every variable. The truth is that you can’t. You cannot measure every pertinent variable. How do you measure, truly measure the things are are truly important such as honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic, etc. Someone may be able to write a thousand lines of picture perfect code per day and be massively beneficial to the company, but if they are an ass to those around them should that person ever be placed in a position of leadership? Even if the person is personable, should they? No.

There are so many subjective judgment calls that cannot be made with a numbers-based approach that using that approach will end up forcing you to be blind in certain areas.

Those areas are places that can only be filled in with direct personal contact. How does the boss feel about you? It sounds unfair, and it is. But the data-driven approach is just as unfair, if not more. Data, itself, is meaningless. Meaning needs to be interpreted. Our senses take in so much more information than a data-driven approach ever can. I think I read about this in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. There was a researcher who could make determinations, with 98% accuracy, of married couples who would end up getting divorced. How did he do it? He had honed his senses to watch for certain things. In one example they were watching Kato Kaelin’s OJ Simpson testimony frame-by-frame. At one point this guy said “stop! Look at him.” Kaelin, on that frame, had a snarl on his face. They kept playing the tape and the snarl was gone. He had reacted to a question a certain way and his reaction was on tape for only a fraction of a second but this guy, who had honed is inate abilities, caught it.

Those are the kinds of things that are brain is processing when you have face-to-face interactions. You may not be aware of it, like that researcher, but your brain is still doing it. So is your boss’. Without that face-to-face interaction they have a blind spot on you and your numbers will not be telling the whole story.

Have reasons to do it

I do not “promote” remote work. I think that it can be good for some people but bad for others. If your reasons are completely selfish then perhaps you should consider not doing it. Every action has a “why” behind it. Each one. There is nothing you do that is meaningless. Purposeless? Maybe. Meaningless? No. I just tapped myself twice on the forehead. Why? Because I thought it might make me laugh. And it did. Now I’m giggling hysterically.

Why did I start working from home? Well, because I was a contractor. Why did I continue working from home? Well, because I felt like the money spent on housing in the Bay Area is excessive. Why am I working from home now? Because I adopted my children and I decided it was more important to be at home to help with my children because children from foster care tend to be harder to parent and it would be unfair to my wife to make her do it all. Until our children become somewhat self-sufficient I will be working from home and not taking jobs that require me to travel significantly. That’s a huge trade-off. I could be twice as far along in my career if I chose a different road. But I’m not because career-mindedness is truly not very important to me. Careers are furthered by personal contact and relationships as well as doing a good job. It’s the old “it’s who you know” adage. Unfair? Maybe. True? Goodness, yes, and you will not be able to engineer that out of the system. Why? Because we are relational animals. Changing the system means making unnatural changes to ourselves. Instead, try to work with human nature.

You have flexibility

It may sound like I’m negative on remote work. To some degree that’s true, largely because I am a proponent of attachment theory in Psychology. I see it in my children, each of whom have been with me for different percentages of their lives, and I see it in relationships with others. People are intended to attach to others. Remote work hinders that to some degree. But, there are also positive tradeoffs as well. So perhaps I would call myself a “Wary Proponent.” What that means is that it can be good.

One of the things I like about remote work is that because I don’t have to deal with a commute I get more time in the day to actually do work. And sometimes that work isn’t paying work. Over the past year I have spent a lot of time working on independent projects (partial list below). I believe that we are most like the Divine when we are making something. God is not just THE Creator but A creator. We are most like God when we are good, when we are loving, and when we are creating. Oftentimes we forget the latter. Creativity is not just painting, drawing, or writing poems but any time we “create” something. Creativity is an inate human need. Children don’t need to be taught to create; they just do it. As adults, I believe, we often stifle the creative impulse for practical considerations. Often this is lamented but I disagree. Writing poetry instead of feeding the hungry is an abomination. You can’t feed the hungry with art (unless it’s a gingerbread house). So I don’t think that stifling the creative impulse for practical considerations is bad. Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is not quite right, IMHO, but it points us in a good direction.

When working remotely you have extra time in the day and you also have more flexibility with what you can do with your break time (which you need to take, BTW). When it’s nice out I will take a book with a pipe and read under my trees, or I will work on some yardwork (in Texas, in the middle of the day), or I will mow grass, or I will write code, or record music or work on something else. When your work is at your home you have more options with what to do with the time you have. Because of that I’ve also been able to spend time working on a lot of projects over the past year. Now, each of these are related to my work in some way, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to do these had I been working remote for a salary (since the company tends to own your thoughts at that point), but it is precisely because I had flexibility that I was able to work on a lot of different things.

Here is a list of some of the things I’ve worked on (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

Magium – A PHPUnit/Webdriver based test framework for streamlining browser testing. It basically boils down to building out reusable Web Driver commands for web applications (currently Magento) allowing you to bypass much of the boilerplate code that browser/functional testing may require.

MagiumMagento – A Magium extension library for doing Magento browser and functional tests

MagiumMagento2 – Same thing but for Magento 2

magento1-magium-ui – A Magento 1 module for building and executing Magium tests from directly in the Magento admin UI

configuration-manager – A library for managing context-based configuration for PHP applications. It is related to the Magium library in name only

messaging – A pseudo standard for building messaging applications similar to JMS

embedded-message-queue – A work in progress for CLI applications using the messaging pseudo-standard

mcm-redis-factory – A factory for Redis for use with the Magium Configuration Manager

mcm-zend-db-factory – A factory for Zend\Db for use with the Magium Configuration Manager

configuration-magium-bridge – A library that allows you to configure Magium (and MagiumMagento) using the Configuration Manager

MagiumGmail – A Magium extension library for integrating Gmail functionality for getting emails generated during testing

twitter – A Magium extension library for browser testing authentication against Twitter

auth0 – A Magium component that helps you test authenticating against Auth0

MagiumMail – An API for a service that allows you to include transactional emails as part of your Magium test cases

MagiumMailChimp – A Magium module for validating MailChimp integration. Note – this is a community project; it is not supported by Mailchimp

And there is much more to come… I hope.

Conclusion

One of the biggest problems of the Industrial Revolution is that it took fathers out of the homes to work in factories. Now over the past several decades it’s also started to take moms out of the home as well. While it is popular to say that the individual is the base unit of society that is demonstrably false. How long does a society of individuals last? Well, one generation. The base unit of a functioning society is families. The longest lasting nations in all of human history have been those which have placed an emphasis on the family. I think that the notion of working away from the home has done some damage, maybe even a lot of damage, to the institution of the family.

I work from home because 1) I work in an industry where it’s possible (many do not have this opportunity), and 2) because it is better for my family. In fact, I don’t know that I would have seen this if I had worked in an office. I probably would have pushed ahead, faced it all, stood up tall, and done it my way. Thank God it did not work out that way. I work from home not because it is better for me, but because it is better for those to whom I am responsible. At some point I may need to work out of an office, and I am sure that at some point that choice will come, and that I will enjoy that too.

But until then I’ll have to put up with my kids running into my office to give me hugs and kisses the second they come home from school.

1 thought on “How to work remotely

  1. Great write up. I work from home 3 days a week (well, technically 5 days a week since I tend to work every day), and yes, as you say there are trade offs, but I would not get to see my 4 year son (or my beautiful wife) near as much with out remote work. Of course, there are days when I grumble about just having to go back to office because of all the distractions, but then I work it out.

    Thanks again for your honesty and your example.

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