For most of my professional career, I’ve worked from home a few days a week - and a few times, for stretches of a few weeks - and that’s been the norm on most of my teams, not counting full-time remote workers. But for all the talk about remote work, much of it seems to focus on tools, collaboration and productivity - and relatively little on the human side, and tips to help balance work and life when the work happens in your home (or wherever else you are).
These certainly aren’t for everyone, but here are some of the tricks I’ve accumulated so far that help me be happier, more productive and more sane when working from home, whether it’s a day or few a week or a few weeks straight. I know these aren’t applicable to everyone, and they also assume a culture that already values work-life balance, but might not spend a lot of time talking about the little hacks to make remote work better. Not all of these will work for every person, and there are plenty I’m surely forgetting or not aware of.
1. Dress for the Job
I’ve made the “I’m working from home so I’m not wearing pants” joke plenty of times myself. But it’s never true. When I’m working from home, the first thing I do is go through the same morning routine I do when going in to the office - most importantly, making coffee and getting dressed. Lately I’ve taken to wearing “nicer” (read: having buttons somewhere on them) shirts to the office, and OK, I’ll wear a t-shirt when I’m home. But I still put on long pants and shoes.
For me, this is a big part of the psychological side of work/life separation. I have “work clothes” and “hanging around the house” clothes. When I’m going to be working, I wear work clothes. When I’m done for the day, a (psychologically) big part of my end-of-the-work-day routine is changing from work clothes to “hanging around” clothes.
Whoever I heard this from - and I’m sad to say I don’t even remember who it was - probably sounded crazy to me. But it really goes a long way to psychologically separate work time from personal time - especially on the days when I finish up work and get right back to the keyboard working on personal projects or gaming.
2. Separate Profiles
Keep separate profiles in your browser, one for work and one for personal. Chrome and Chromium have support for separate users; Firefox recently added built-in support for switching profiles, which is quite nice for those of us who had been using Profile Manager.
While I’m sure there are some people who do this simply to keep history/bookmarks/etc. separate, I do it as an incentive to focus on work when I’m at work and focus on not work when I’m not. At the end of my work day I close my “work” browser session and open my “personal” one back up. Thanks to session restore, all of my tabs are right where I left them… and I don’t have a reason to leave distracting personal tabs open during the work day, or work tabs open when I’m on my own time.
(I know this doesn’t work for everyone, especially if you’re on-call and it’s busy. In those cases, I usually keep tabs in separate windows, one for work and one for personal; it’s all there when I need it, but out of the way when I don’t).
3. Take Breaks
When I’m physically in the office, my day is usually broken up by moments away from my computer work with colleagues - whether it’s walking to a meeting or lunch, whatever conversations pop up in the room, or even just whiteboarding a problem. Sure, there’s plenty of conversation on HipChat when we’re remote, but I’m not getting away from the keyboard like I do in the office.
Take breaks. Take the dogs out, take five minutes to play with your kids or pets, go make coffee or lunch, whatever. Just be sure to break up your day and not fall into the trap of sitting in the same spot for however many hours staring at a monitor. Our bodies need “get up and walk around” time, but our minds need a change of scenery too. Five minutes away from the same monitor is helpful. Sure, if I’m deep in the middle of something, I’ll keep at it. But I usually find that stepping away for a few minutes now and then at logical context switch points helps a lot. And if it’s a day of mostly writing code, it also provides a good time to think about what I’m working on without the burning urge to immediately start implementing.
Don’t fall into the trap of feeling that work from home time demands that you’re glued to the keyboard every second without pause - nobody in the office is doing that. And don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you have to prove you’re being productive while remote by never taking a break - if you’re like many people I know, you’re probably already more productive when you’re in an environment that feels more comfortable (you can always point people to Psychology Today’s Remote Workers Are Happier and More Productive).
Also, don’t give up opportunities to change your surroundings. If you have a webinar or online meeting, grab the laptop and take it from the couch (assuming the setting is acceptable for the attendees). Need to read a lengthy article or documentation? Bring the laptop outside. Anything to get a mental and visual change of pace.
4. Lunch is Holy
When I’m in the office, if my team doesn’t have lunch plans (which is the rule rather than the exception), I tend to eat at my desk, and only take as much time as I need to eat. Sometimes I’m good to myself and read something, other times I just work while I eat.
When I’m at home, I take the 45 minutes we’re given for lunch, every day. If my wife is home, we watch something on TV and eat together. If she isn’t, I catch up on an episode of something on Netflix. But no matter what I do, I set aside the full “official” 45 minutes to decompress, step away from the keyboard, and breathe a bit. Sure, sometimes my mind is still churning away on whatever I’m working on, and I usually only break for food at a logical stopping point. But it’s still an important part of staying focused through the day, and not hitting the end of the day feeling exhausted and glassy-eyed.
On-call or similar exceptions aside, when they day’s over, the day’s over. Disconnect.
I have HipChat and various other communication tools on my phone if I absolutely have
to be reached after hours. But aside from that, when my work day is over, I close my
work browser session and switch to personal, close any editors/windows/etc. I have open,
and ensure all of my changes are committed and pushed. As much as I occasionally rue
the fact that my current job has almost everything on our private network, it means
I can disconnect my VPN client and be unable to access anything work-related. I’ll
admit that I usually leave my work-related
screen windows open overnight, just
for ease of picking back up, but I always close them over a weekend or vacation.
Unless you’re being paid for a 168-hour work week, you deserve to have some time away from work. I’ll admit I’ve had some jobs where on-call was… quite busy… but it doesn’t take that long to connect and start up what you need, when needed. You owe it to yourself: when you’re done, make the work stuff disappear from your field of view. If you spend much time at your computer outside of work, you need to keep the two separate… or else “work time” becomes “awake time.”
6. End-of-day Routine
Develop a daily end-of-work routine or ritual. Do something to psychologically say to yourself “I’m done with work for today, I’m switching gears to my personal life.” If your office is also your home, you miss out on the decompression and context switch provided by a commute (even a short one). Put something in its place. This is especially important if your after-work time, even occasionally, involves going back to the same chair, keyboard and monitor(s) - whatever the reason.
Change your clothes, catch up with family, spend some time with your pets, watch a TV show or read a book, cook dinner, go for a walk - whatever. Just do something to signal to yourself that the work day is over, and you can leave all of those thoughts, anxieties, problems, ideas and tasks until tomorrow. As much as you may intellectually know that you’re “done” for the day (even if your pager might go off), do something to show yourself, and tell your subconscious, that you’re “going home.”
7. Get Outside
I’m an introvert, and have occasionally suffered from mild depression. Neither of those is unusual in our industry; the former is just much more accepted and discussed than the latter (unfortunately).
If you can, get outside. Even if it’s just to run an errand, take a short walk, or drive around the block, get out of the house. This is especially important if you usually don’t (but can), or if you’re working long hours. At a previous job we had an “incident” that resulted in the engineering team working round-the-clock for the better part of two weeks; we ended up scheduling a 24x7 rotation, but until that two-week-ish mark, we were all more-or-less working whenever we were awake. It was awful for all of us - both our personal well-being and our productivity and focus. Even just running to the store or to pick up dinner was an immense relief from the wake-work-sleep-repeat cycle.
Even if you’re not working insane hours (and I certainly hope you’re not), be aware of how much time you’re spending at home indoors. If you’re not terribly social by nature, make sure you get outside, and do it on a regular basis. Even if you don’t have to go somewhere, do it anyway for a change of scenery and a chance to clear your mind.
8. Talk About Burnout and Frustrations
This goes for everyone, but more so for people who are remote full-time or for long stretches, on a team that’s at least partially in-office. It’s really easy to feel disconnected from what’s happening, and it’s also really difficult - especially if you do most of your communication via text - for your manager and co-workers to know when you’re feeling stressed or overworked. Talk about it.
Burnout - even to the point of suicide - in technology has been talked about more recently, including John Willis’ Karōjisatsu, Gene Kim’s recent work, and Jason Hand. It’s certainly something that our industry needs to be much more aware of, and something we all need to work to fix, both personally and with our colleagues. If you’re a manager of remotes, make sure you check in with them often - not just on how their work is going, but on how they’re doing emotionally, especially related to work. Find out what’s frustrating them, what’s draining their energy and how their work-life balance is. If you’re not a manager, check in with your coworkers about the same things, and make sure someone knows how you’re doing. It might feel awkward when you’re having a great time or starting a new job, but it’s a habit that’s much easier to get into when things are going well than when you really need it.