Episode 20 – Remote Work



October 14, 2016

Hello everyone, and welcome to episode twenty of Front End Center!

I met a friend for lunch recently, and had an interesting conversation about expectations and methods for doing remote work. While it’s not a topic that touches on the technical intricacies of code, or the divine inspiration of design, it’s something that presents a pretty large stumbling block.

Like most things worth doing, it’s a case of “need experience to get experience”. Except, where most situations expect you to pick up experience by interacting with other, knowledgeable team members… remote work is often the polar opposite. You win a freelance bid or get hired based on your other existing skills, and then sit down in your living room and… read the company welcome email?

Welcome to working remotely. Even better, the less strict and demanding your time recording requirements… the tougher it’s going to be getting (and keeping!) your feet under you.

There’s a spectrum of situations when working remotely. Much like a traditional office environment, there’s no one-size fits all expectation. If you’re working for a larger company, or a small team that hires remote consultants regularly, they may already have a regimented system in place.

They might expect a daily record of hours worked, either entered manually or through a digital punch clock tied to your work account. Tools like this provide uniformity and accountability, for both your sake and the company’s. Especially if you work as an external consultant with client-billable time, that is VERY important!

For many who work remotely to avoid traditional work arrangements or high-stress consulting though… these helpful mechanics can be more of a turn-off than a useful tool.

So what do you do if you find yourself in an environment bereft of these potential tools? How do you keep the opportunity of freedom and self-management from turning into a golden cage? Let’s take a look at some proven methods. Bear with me, some of these seem obvious from the outside, but they can be life-savers if you’re already mired down and at a loss.

One of the biggest freedoms for many freelancers and remote workers is that they don’t have to strictly follow set business hours. As long as they meet expectations, they aren’t beholden to waking up and clocking in at a certain hour.

If you happen to set your own hours, do so responsibly. Sleep in if you need to, but hold yourself to a certain time to wake up, and a certain time to begin working. Even if that’s one o’clock in the afternoon, keep it regular. Some people are morning people, some are night owls. What they share is productivity thanks to routine. Not being able to focus in or reliably make use of your time is a surefire way to reduce your effectiveness, no matter how many or few hours you ultimately put in.

Everyone has a time of day that they tend to be most productive. Figure out your rhythm and use if effectively. On a similar note, cut out as many distractions as you can. Working from home with family around? Set up some boundaries. If possible, literally set up a space like an office or bedroom, that is dedicated to being yours while you work. If it sounds like it would be easier just working while completely alone… maybe. I’m prone to being distractible myself. Too long alone in a quiet space leads too one of two things. Either my mind starts to wander, or I derail onto an idea for a new project. Whether a personal goal or something tangentially related to my work, it still results in me getting an effective zero intended results.

Keeping that routine can help with this, but it comes down to knowing your own tendencies and best counter strategies. I’ve known freelancers who literally use their own egos to stay on track. They’re that guy in designer clothes, sitting in the middle of the busiest coffee shop in town, working manically. The little voice in the back of their head keeps telling them that they have eyes on them, so they don’t slack off. On the other hand, a constant litany of mocha orders isn’t the most distracting topic for them, so they aren’t in danger of wandering off task thanks to outside distractions.

Whatever works for you, do it! If you don’t know what works best, get creative and try a few things out. As long as it doesn’t completely ruin your productivity for days on end, it’s a worthwhile experiment.

Another habit that helps both your work and everyone’s around you is to communicate regularly and efficiently. Some remote workers operate as black holes. Requests and payments go in, and the product or design pop back out somewhere in the vicinity of the due date. There’s… nothing necessarily wrong with this methodology… but it’s not the best option for most people.

Whether its multiple clients paying for your freelance skills, or an established team of coworkers, keep in touch! Ask questions, make observations, and generally communicate the little bits of information that would normally be present when working physically close together. No need to be an over-sharer. Your biggest client doesn’t need a daily report on your breakfast and morning weather. Just make sure that the little details we take for granted internally don’t pile up into a giant wall of silence for those around us.

Another big issue for my friend pertains to anyone who’s got either a salaried role, or is guaranteed ‘X’ many hours per week. What happens if there’s a slow day, or, heavens forbid, a slow week? Do you just cash out on your guaranteed hours and promise yourself to work super hard when more work actually shows up?

There’s a few ways to tackle this issue. The first is, reasonably, make sure that there ISN’T actually more work to do! Just because your plate is clear now doesn’t mean there isn’t more to be done. Reach out to clients or team members and see if there’s any additional work that you can help offload. Reduce their immediate demands, or start paving the way ahead for them on the next step of their workflow.

Consider your own work queue as well! Are there any projects with far off deadlines you can get a head start on now? If not, how can you still benefit the you of tomorrow? When I have some spare time on my hands, I focus on a few specific tasks.

The first is to look back over my last busy period and find any processes or projects that felt unnecessarily painful. If I can figure out WHY something took too long, or was too complicated, I can streamline that when it comes down the road in the future! Sometimes it’s all about figuring it out in your own head. Other times, you can literally translate this forethought into Photoshop macros, pre-built code modules, or other, quantifiable tools. If you end up with an actual end product, share it to your team or community! I can guarantee you someone else has struggled with the same issue. At the very least, you’ll save someone time and effort someday. With luck, you’ll receive some well-earned recognition from your effort and foresight!

Still at a loss for productivity? Learn. Learn. Learn some more. Revisit those trouble spots again. See if there are existing tools, languages, or technology that can help. If you have a major project coming up that might be outside your scope, start researching and making practice projects.

Whatever your situation, I promise there’s an effective way to spend your time and still value the time you’ve promised your client.

Thanks for tuning in everyone. I’ll be looking forward to the next twenty episodes, and the next beyond that! Until then, though, this has been Chris Landtiser and Front End Center.

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