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30 November 2021

Lessons from 16 Years of Working Remotely

by Željko Filipin

I have been working remotely since 2005. Recently, an intern has asked me for advice about it. I’ve decided to write a blog post. I hope the advice will be useful to a wide range of people. From people new to remote work (possibly because of COVID) to people with years of experience.

Some of the advice I’ll give in this post might apply to you, some of it might not. Most of the advice should be useful regardless of where you work from, from the office, from a co-working space or from home. You don’t have to take all of the advice. Especially not all at once. I didn’t.

Computer

You’ll probably need one. I’ve used many desktops and laptops. Most computers today should work just fine. I prefer one big screen or two smaller ones. I have a 27 inch iMac from 2012, and it still works great. (I did upgrade RAM and SSD a few years ago.)

When traveling, I prefer a very small laptop. I’ve tried a few options over the years, even very small (and cheap) Chromebooks. I’ve settled on an 11 inch MacBook Air from 2014. It still works just fine.

Internet

I never had to pay much for the internet (even in 2005) and it worked well most of the time. I had some trouble with routers, but not much. Today, probably the cheapest wired internet you can buy would work just fine. If you work from a crowded apartment building, WiFi might now work all the time, for various reasons. It took me some effort to set it up because my desk was not so close to the router. Buying a very long ethernet cable and plugging it in the router and my desktop machine improved my internet speed, latency and stability significantly. I would recommend fast.com (by Netflix) for testing your connection.

Sometimes I work while traveling, and setting up my phone as a router works great.

Desk

“I’ll work from my couch.” Don’t. You’ll need your body long after you’ve retired. Don’t break it while you’re young. Our bodies are made for moving, not for sitting down for many hours, for many decades. I’m not an ergonomics expert, but I’ve learned a bit about it over the years. Working from the couch puts your body in a position that’s not good for your back and your hands.

Any office desk should work just fine. Bonus points for desks with adjustable height, so you can alternate between sitting and standing. I know IKEA has a few of those.

Chair

“I’ll work from the kitchen.” Don’t. It’s probably better than the couch, but you’ll be sitting down for many hours, for many years. Kitchen chairs are not made for that. Invest in a good chair. I have SpinaliS HACKER for a decade or so. I don’t know how available they are globally.

Keyboard

I’ve used many keyboards. I really liked Apple’s bluetooth keyboard, but after a few years of using it, it caused some hand pain. A few years ago, I switched to Kinesis Advantage2 and never had any problems since. It did take me a while to get used to it, but it was worth the effort.

Mouse

I’ve tried many mice, and I really like Apple’s bluetooth mouse. Any mouse I’ve used with my right hand has caused some hand pain. I’ve tried switching to my left hand (I’m right-handed) and never had any trouble since. It does take some time to learn how to use the mouse with the left hand, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Headphones

You’ll need headphones. And if you’re sharing an office you’ll probably want to block disturbing noises. Listening to music or white noise is a good way to do that. Headphones are also very important for video meetings, and it looks like we’ll have more of those in the next few years. I’ve tried many, in-ear, over-the-ear, cheap and expensive, bluetooth and wired, and I mostly use the cheap Apple wired in-ear headphones.

Text Chat

I’ve used many chat software, but I don’t have strong opinions. For many years, I’ve used IRC via IRCCloud. Lately I mostly use Slack. From a communication perspective, it’s almost not important which tool you use. It’s important that you can communicate both socially (non-work related topics) and professionally (work related topics) with the people you work with. When possible, I try to avoid Slack. I don’t like their vendor lock-in model.

Audio/Video Chat

I’ve separated this from text chat, because it’s different. Most of the time, e-mail, text chat and similar will work just fine, but sometimes, the best way to resolve problems is to talk face-to-face, or share a screen. As usual, I’ve used a lot of video chat apps and most of them work just fine.

Water-cooler Meeting

Water-cooler meeting is a special type of video call with your colleagues. It’s a social time, where you can build social connections and learn more about people you work with. We’re not robots. We are social creatures. To work well with other people, we need shared experiences and trust.

Time Tracking

I think I’ve started tracking time as soon as I’ve started working remotely. Remote work gives you great flexibility, most of the time. You can start or stop working whenever you want. You can split the day with a long lunch break. It’s very easy to spend the day doing private stuff instead of working. To paraphrase Spider-Man: “with great flexibility comes great responsibility”. I track my time in 5-minute intervals. I don’t track things that take less than 5 minutes. I don’t think any employer ever asked me to track my time, but I still do it.

Flexibility

I would encourage you to take advantage of the flexibility that remote work offers. You can do shopping, exercise at your favorite gym, go to movies (…) when most of the people are working. Just make sure you track the time you’ve worked.

Work Hours

There isn’t a universal best time to work. It will mostly depend on your current situation. Most of the people I work with live in the US, while I live in Europe. For some of my colleagues, there is a nine-hour time difference. Some people choose to work at the time when most of the company works, however unusual that work hours are in their country. I have a family, so that doesn’t work for me. I still have plenty of late meetings, sometimes until 7pm.

Travel

Before COVID, I used to travel for work a few times a year. Just enough for my taste to see the world, but not too much, since I like to travel. I’ve visited many countries and cities. Unfortunately, sometimes the only thing I saw was the hotel and the conference venue. Fortunately, trips like that were very rare. I usually manage to spend at least half a day sightseeing. Sometimes even for a few days.

Meeting face-to-face at least several times a year with people you work with is very important. It’s much easier to resolve conflicts and problems with people you trust and have strong social connections with. That is currently very hard to do. The best we can do for now is to be social using technology.

Exercise

I originally named this chapter Serious Exercise. You will be sitting for many hours. For decades. Your body is not made for that.

I like running, so that’s what I’ve decided to become serious about. It’s almost not important which sport you’ll pick. It’s more important that you pick something you like doing, so you stick with it for years and decades.

If it’s a group sport, join a club. If it’s something you can do alone (like running), I would still recommend joining a club, or getting a coach. Especially if you haven’t exercised in years, or decades. The most important thing is to create a habit of exercise and avoid injury. A club or a coach will help you start slow and improve over time.

To learn more, I would highly recommend The Healthy Programmer book. It is marketed towards programmers, but it offers good advice for any office job.

Reviewers

I would like to thank Hrvoje Šimić (Shime) for reviewing the article and a lot of advice on how to make it better.

Links

My co-worker Tyler Cipriani wrote Lessons from seven years of remote work.

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