The COVID-19 crisis has triggered a tsunami of folks working from home. This has spurred a ton of questions from friends, family, and not yet liberated former colleagues about remote work. As someone who’s been an IC, senior executive, and now co-founder of distributed companies, I have some thoughts. I’ve seen people harness the autonomy and do the best work of their lives. I’ve seen others fail hard. I’m assembling this guide to help sway the balance in your favor … at least as much as is humanly possible under present circumstances.
🦠 This is a peacetime guide to WFH. What many are experiencing now is not work from home as nature intended. It’s an ad-hoc emergency reaction to a crisis. Many are asked to learn to swim in the deep-end — forced into isolation and still expected to perform while also providing full-time child care, homeschooling, and medical assistance. All of the time-tested suggestions below are still applicable and useful … they will help a great deal in this time of crisis, but they can’t make impossible expectations any more possible. To the employers and managers out there: be leaders; please be empathetic and realistic about the very real situations your staff faces daily at home. To everyone else: hang in there; you’re doing a hero’s work.
From 30,000 ft. We typically aim for short-form content that takes no more than 5 minutes of your valuable time to fully digest. Many books have been written about this topic, so while keeping things smart and brief, we’re going to be longer than our default. Should time or attention not permit, here’s the TL;DR.
- 📴 Create boundaries to protect both work time focus and home life balance.
- 🌎 Tailor your work environment so that it is quiet, well lit, distraction-free, and comfortable.
- 🚶🏼♀️ Don’t forget about you. Physical exercise and mental health require methodical focus.
- 👖 Establish a routine. Maintaining a schedule, proper hygiene, and a wardrobe beyond sweats and yoga pants is essential to feeling professional, doing your best work, and respecting your home relationships.
- ❤️ Flex your empathy muscles. WFH requires a new mindset based on deeper empathy, better communication, and proximity-less human connection.
- ⛱ Embrace flexibility. You’re only in a cage if you put yourself in one — you’ll never have more options in defining where, when, and how you work.
- 🛠 Use the tools. We now have access to so many liberating collaboration tools that help facilitate all of the above.
State of the Remote Union
The state of the remote union is good. This is no longer an experiment and is looking more and more like the inevitable destination for where digital work is done. 68% of workers around the globe are working remotely at least once a month. 98% want to do it at least some of the time for the rest of their career — and 97% would recommend it to others. The numerous benefits for employers include increased productivity, reduced overhead, and an expanded recruiting pool. The obvious benefits for employees include more deep-focus time, increased lifestyle flexibility, less time wasted doing things like commuting, more time spent with kids and other loved ones, and freedom to decouple profession from zip code.
1. 📴 Create boundaries
This cuts in two directions. Your work like and your home life need boundaries, but they’re now occupying the same physical space. Without separation and constraints, you can easily screw up both. Your family needs to understand that when you’re “at work”, you’re working. Your employer and colleagues need to understand that just because you’re always inches away from an Internet-connected device, doesn’t mean you’re always available to them. You need to understand the responsibility that comes with being the only one who can police these boundaries.
- 🙅♀️ Dedicated space. Setup your environment in a place that is physically separate from regular home activities and foot traffic. A separate room with a lockable door is ideal (and almost essential for video conferencing). Proximity to a bathroom helps with distraction and people interceptions during focus time. Consider a coworking space, the library, or coffee shops if dedicated home space isn’t practical/possible. I also cannot overstate the significance that having a space to leave has on the cognitive shift from being “at the office” to “at home.”
- 🧺 Multitask judiciously. Just because you can split time with home chores doesn’t mean you should. Mindless home tasks are the devil’s playground of WFH procrastination. Multitasking is also profoundly expensive in context shifting cost. And please, have no illusion that you can watch your kids and do your job. You’ll suck at both.
- ⏰ Set schedule expectations with loved ones and do your best to be consistent in honoring them. Even the little ones will adapt to mom or dad being “at work.” Be prepared to deal with an extra helping of guilt early on (we used to do “prison kisses” through the child gate separating the staircase from my office), but now the kiddos just walk up to my glass door and wave occasionally.
- 👮🏼♀️ Communicate ground rules. Set ground rules for how and under what circumstances others in the house should communicate with you. My partner and I established the simple rule that “if you wouldn’t call me at the office to ask me to do something, don’t do it at home during working hours.”
- 🚦 Segment your day and signal to colleagues. If your role permits it, only check and respond to email at specific times; seriously, close your email client if you don’t want to become Pavlov’s Dog. Block time on your shared calendar not just for meetings, but for dedicated work, thought, and exercise time — it’s one of the few indicators colleagues have as to your availability. I even started blocking “Family Time” on my calendar from 5:30p to 7:30p to prevent meeting scheduling from spilling into dinner and kid bath/bedtime routines.
- 👩🏼💻 Compute differently. Borrowing this one from the Basecamp guys, but it’s great. Use a separate device or user profile for home and work. If you’re not on a tether, don’t live like it.
2. 📏Tailor your environment
Ok, so we have a dedicated space, but what should it look like? Most of the tools in the Remote Toolkit ™ are interdependent, but this one is quite literally foundational. A quiet, well lit, distraction-free, and comfortable environment is essential for productivity, mental health, and physical well-being.
- 🪑 Ergonomics matter. A lot. A desk with adequate working space, a good chair, a standup option with mat, and stool for alternating leg lifting are a great start. Follow links for time-tested suggestions.
- 🐒 To sit or to stand? Sitting all of the time is bad. Standing in the same position all of the time is bad. As with most things, balance is key. I screwed this up badly and the only one who benefited was my chiropractor.
Try standing for closed-ended tasks like email. Standing creates a sense of urgency that could help you finish faster — one of the reasons daily agile “standups” should be spent in the vertical.
Try sitting down for more creative and in-depth tasks like coding, writing, and research.
Or really mix it up and consider walking meetings or a standing desk bike.
- 🚪 Routing options. Ok, so this one probably makes me sound like a dick and won’t be possible for many, but I have four doors in my office. This is bad from a wall use perspective, but phenomenal from an egress perspective. At any time, I have four options to avoid interception. Sometimes you’re in a work groove, but nature calls. Running into a honey-do or the kiddos (damn cute as they are!) is gonna swiftly pop your thought bubble.
- 💡 Atmosphere. Work from a quiet place with adequate control of temperature and lighting (preferably natural). Consider wall color and its impact on your mood. Surround yourself with things that inspire you.
- 📏 Posture and alignment. Extending ergonomics, your posture and position relative to your screen and keyboard make all the difference. Your back, neck, and wrists will thank you. Use the Ergotron workspace planner to help dial this in. Prioritize function over form — sometimes the items that look the comfiest or nicest in your office, may not be the best for your body.
- ⚡️ More speed. Get the beefiest Internet pipe you can afford and note that upload speeds matter a lot for video conferencing.
- 🖥 More canvas. External monitors are productivity game-changers.
3. 🚶🏼♀️Take care of your body
Now that you have a chill place to practice your craft, you’ll need to remember to not spend all of your time there. There’s a reason the airlines tell you to put your oxygen mask on first. You’re not going to help anyone else if you don’t first take care of yourself. Getting ergonomics right is certainly the first step, but you also have to move; standing desks can’t fix sedentary lifestyles.
If you have a strong work ethic (and that’s required for WFH success), it’s easy to get totally absorbed in your work and not take care of yourself. Getting rid of my commute, I told myself I’d have tons of extra time to work out and get in shape. Didn’t happen. It went in the opposite direction. It was all too easy to be always available, always at work, and always sucked into the next thing. Don’t do this. Take the opportunity to excel at self-care.
- 🚶🏻♂️Take walks. The benefits for your body are many.
- 🏃🏻♀️Time-efficient workouts. Consider high-intensity interval training. With kids and work, I have a hard time fitting in workout time. Not commuting, I rarely pass a gym. I’ve had good luck with high intensity, short duration routines like T25 and JCORE. Yes, I know those are DVDs, but I’m an Xer, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ … Planet Fitness is also currently offering free streaming workouts during the COVID-19 crisis. If you can’t find 25 minutes, try the classic 7-minute workout.
- 🚲 Standing desk bike. Yeah, for real. Can’t get away from the work? No problem, work while you bike. It’s surprisingly stable.
- 🥙 Eat well. With less social pressure and easy access to the fridge, it’s easy to put on the wfh-15. Could you live on slices of ham, Oreos, and soda? Tempting as it may be to repeatedly do the wrong thing, you’ll now have access to far better options than the vending machine and the fast-food restaurants near the office. All about planning and choices.
- 😴 Sleep. The laptop comes out at 10:00pm to catch up on Slack and *bam*, it’s 4:00am. Getting 6 hours of sleep per night for 2 weeks is as bad for cognitive performance as staying up for two days straight … except it’s worse because you don’t notice it the same way.
4. 🧠 Take care of your mind
Boundaries and the right environment go a long way, but it cannot be overstated how much of a mindset shift is required for working from home. This varies tremendously based on where you land on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, but you are likely to experience loneliness, isolation, under-appreciation, and deep-seated FOMO. You will be reassured by the paycheck that hopefully keeps coming from the magical Internet fairies, but you will no longer be connected by proximity. Your work and dedication will no longer be physically observed and recognized. You will no longer peripherally know that you’re being included in the right conversations. You will feel so connected to your work that there may as well be a Matrix port on your chair’s head rest. But do not despair!
- 🚶🏻♂️Take walks part 2. The benefits for your mind are profound. If someone could put the same creativity boosting, anxiety-reducing, mood-improving effects into a pill, they’d own the prescription drug world. Now that you’re not commuting (a mental health win of its own), you can use the walk time for Podcast and audiobook brainfood.
- 🔌 Connect. Work communication tools don’t have to be used exclusively for work. Slack is a great place for hobby, special interest, parenting, etc. rooms. Zoom can be used for virtual happy hours, pair programming, and other hangouts. For non-virtual connections, get involved in local meetups.
- 🤝 Develop trust. Connecting with peers and managers will help you better relate to them as humans. This trust (in addition to new levels of transparency discussed below) will help to compensate for what can’t be seen.
- 📣 Self-advocate. Be proactive about sharing your accomplishments as well as works in progress. Help establish appreciation momentum by celebrating colleague wins.
5. 👖 Establish a routine
All of the things your mother told you to do as a kid, still apply as a WFH adult. *Sad trombone*, I know. It’s so easy to let these things slide, but you owe it to yourself and those around you to keep some semblance of a daily routine.
- 🧠 Train your brain. Wake up at a regular time and establish daily habits that signal to the brain that the workday is officially beginning.
- 👖 Wear pants. OK, not literally, but you should get dressed every day. There’s a strong correlation between our appearance and how we feel about ourselves. It’s all about getting in the work state of mind. We also owe it to those with whom we live. On the physical health front, PJs and sweats will have you believing all is well in the kingdom.
- 🧼 Hygiene. Brush your teeth and shower regularly. In addition to the hygiene benefits, showers unleash creativity via a dopamine high, relaxed state, and distracted mind.
5. ❤️ Flex your empathy muscles
Think about how well communication works in most online situations — void of the immediate in-person feedback loop, how easy it is to compose a fiery email, to say something snarky on Twitter, or throw a bomb in a forum. Now, imagine that most of your communication happens without a face or physical presence of another human. To be a successful digital nomad, you must begin working out your empathy muscle until it becomes your superpower. Much of the following works best if embraced at an institutional level, but each point starts with the individual.
- 🎁 Be present. For those not used to having screens (distraction machines) between themselves and their conversation partners, it’s easy to wander, surf and get distracted. Give 100% to the person on the other end of the wire.
- 🦻🏻 Listen. Trust and empathy form the ties that bind. Talk to your peers, managers, and direct reports about their life circumstances, their loves outside of work, and their struggles. Know their stories. Be inclusive and be certain others feel included. Tear down that virtual wall.
- 📖 Radical transparency. Foster a company culture that over communicates — say it, say it again, and keep saying it until it becomes a drinking game. Document decisions and plans so they’re available asynchronously to all. Always use video for synchronous communication so you can more strongly connect and not miss out on the 10,000 non-verbals/min. Everyone’s camera should be on for video calls; don’t worry, the awkwardness of seeing everyone else with bedhead wears off quickly. Even those working from the office should participate in meetings via laptop and webcam for sight and sound equity.
- 🌏 Respect boundaries and time zones. Be mindful that others may be working a very different schedule than you and be considerate of how you’re communicating with them during their off-hours. Remember, you might be blocked on a bug in PT while they’re sitting down to have dinner with family in ET. Slack will show another’s timezone and charted maps can help, too. Companies should consider some overlap of core hours when possible and establish some regular conventions about normal comms versus emergency comms so that availability expectations are clear to all.
- ➕ API. Assume positive intent. Say it with me. “Assume positive intent.” Hire good, well-intentioned people and default to assuming they’re coming from a good place in the things they say and do. Default to asking for clarification and let the assumption of positive intent be the only assumption you make.
- 🙌🏼 Team building. This one requires company support even more than the others. You still need to spend some time together, especially at the beginning and definitely at some regular interval. Proximity breeds empathy. Virtual hangouts are great, but there’s no digital substitute for breaking bread, sharing some beverages, and getting to know folks on a more personal level. Remote gets rid of a lot of the transactional overhead of coming and going, but that can also come at a culture cost if you don’t find other ways to connect. Annual retreats and workweeks FTW.
Attention: Hyrbid-distributed folks. You’re playing on hard mode. Some of you work from home and others are in the office. If you’re not careful, two different cultures will evolve. Office folks don’t feel your disconnect and have default access to conversations, information, impromptu meetings, and team building events. This makes for challenging IC roles and likely impossible leadership roles. Proper inclusivity is an always uphill battle. Hyper empathy and shoe swapping are essential. Those with office roles should work from home occasionally to better understand where things can break down. Those with remote roles should be even more proactive in communications.
6. ⛱ Embrace flexibility
Because you can … the cube farm shackles have been broken. You are now liberated. This is one of the primary reasons you signed up for this crazy new way of life. If you’re still chained to the same desk every day, you have precisely one person to blame.
- 🌲 Fresh air. When the weather supports it, I work from my back deck or under a shaded cover at the beach.
- 🏡 Move. You can now live anywhere with a stable Internet connection. You can have a high tech job and live in the sticks. Ask me how I know ;)
- ✈️ Tagalong travel. Before kids, if my partner or I were traveling to an interesting place for work, the other would often tag along; we’d work during the day and experience the location at night and often extend to a weekend.
- 🗺 Travel as a lifestyle. Don’t wait for retirement to see the world. I once worked with a developer who didn’t have a home. He couch-surfed and hopped from city to city, staying with friends. Several former colleagues permanently travel around in an RV and work via hotspots.
- 🤗 Hug your kids. We’re blessed to have in-home care, so I get to see my kids anytime I want during the day. This is pure magic and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
7. 🛠 Use the tools
I’ve intentionally saved this section for last. Working from home isn’t doing what you did before, but from a different venue. It’s not just a sexy collection of the latest Valley comm tools. Doing it well requires a complete mindset shift, but that shift can certainly be supported with some great hardware and software.
- 💬 Async communication. I’ve used all of the products it’s buried, but Slack absolutely owns this category. I’m a passionate user and investor. It’s flexible, integrated, expressive, and extensible. You also need a good screen recorder, but I cannot in good conscience recommend any general-purpose recorders currently on the market (more to come on this).
- 🎦 Video communication. Key to building human relationships. Key to rich information exchange. We emote up to 10,000 non-verbals per minute in face-to-face comms. Good video conferencing tools have been the biggest tool difference-maker in supporting the remote revolution. Despite recent issues, Zoom is best in class.
- ✏️ Organization and documentation. Trello for Kanban-style project management. Bear for note-taking. Milanote for digitally organizing your brain. Google Docs for shared documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Basecamp for more serious project management.
- ⌚️ Wellness monitoring. Apple Watch or Fitbit for things like calorie tracking, step counting, and reminders to stand.
- 🎧 Audio. I used Pro AirPods when I have a noisier background and a Blue Yeti Bluetooth mic when I don’t. For headset folks, Matt Mullenweg has a write-up comparing some great options. Noise-canceling headphones can also be great when you have less control over your environment.
The 🦠 bottom line
The COVID-19 crisis has been a massive forcing function for a nation-wide toe-dip in remote work. This could lead to one of two conclusions for the not yet woke corporations among us:
- “Weeeeee. Why the &*^% were we not all doing this so much sooner?”
- “WFH clearly stands for what the f — -k just happened. See Bob, I told you this wouldn’t work. What a relief to get back to the office.”
If too many companies are ill-equipped to do remote the right way™, they will walk away with conclusions over-indexed on corrupted inputs. The logistical and infrastructure problems are quite large on their own. Software tools matter a great deal, but it’s the required mindset and culture shifts that will make or break this liberation for many others. So please, load up your toolkit and go be great socially distant WFH ambassadors!