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Working remotely: the pros and cons of developing from home

Natali Vlatko
Home office image via Shutterstock

Working from home might be the best gig in the world, but even the creature comforts of home can have a negative impact on your productivity. We share some tips and tricks for the developers out there about to embark on the working remotely journey.

If you’re used to the routine of going into an office every day, then taking up a remote working position can be a little daunting. A sleep-in here or there, perhaps a couple of pyjama days, and all of a sudden you’ve lost your mojo and you’re out of the workplace loop.

However, the remote developer is fast becoming a go-to position for the advantages of flexible working hours, as well as being able to cater for talents who live outside major cities and business hubs. When done right, the remote working lifestyle can very well reap the benefits of home and office.

Of course, there’s always exceptions, which is why we’ll start with those. While being away from the office gets you away from the distractions of office life, it also gives you time to get caught up in Imgur, Reddit, YouTube… other stuff.

Why working remotely can suck

Marissa Meyer of Yahoo thinks that working remotely is a truly craptastic idea. In 2013 she announced to her 11,500 odd Yahoo employees that any remote workers would either have to come into the office or quit, and Microsoft (remote) employee Scott Hanselman had a few things to say about it:

I see this ban on Remote Work at Yahoo as one (or all) of these three things:

  • A veiled attempt to trim the workforce through effectively forced attrition by giving a Sophie’s Choice to remote workers that management perceives as possibly not optimally contributing. It’s easy to avoid calling it a layoff when you’ve just changed the remote work policy, right?
  • A complete and total misstep and misunderstanding of how remote workers see themselves and how they provide value.
  • Pretty clear evidence that Yahoo really has no decent way to measure the productivity and output of a worker.

But let’s ignore the company viewpoint for a moment and look at why the remote workers themselves might find their role particularly sucky:

  • Being unseen can almost mean you don’t exist. To counter this, try going into the office from time to time to reassure everyone that you’re actually doing a job you were hired for. Your visits can accommodate meetings, relationship building and just generally meeting anyone new and introducing yourself. Even though you’re online every day, it often takes your physical presence to remind people that you’re there and available for potentially new projects.
  • Being at home makes you feel guilty. Seriously, a lot of office workers have this idea that the remote employee is enjoying a few casual morning beers without pants on while they’re stuck at HQ. Because of this guilt, the remote worker is often putting in more hours than required, working late and even working on the weekend. Since you aren’t seen at the office (following on from the aforementioned point), you’re working longer hours than you have to, which sucks.
  • Access isn’t always guaranteed. No matter how much you fiddle around with ‘Direct Access’, there will always be a site that doesn’t work because you’re not inside the office block. You may find that you’ll have to visit the office now and again to particularly deal with these problems that no one else has except for you. A bit crap, but it’s something that will be somewhat specific to the organisation you’re working for.
  • Scarce feedback is scarce. Working from home means you’re not around for feedback, and not hearing any can fuel the paranoia you might feel about your role and your remote status. Getting feedback on your work means actually asking for it. “Am I on the right track with this? Are you happy with what you’re seeing in this project?” It might be hard but it’s essential for beating the remote blues.

Now that the negatives are out of the way, lets look at how to get remotely organised.

Get your workspace in order

If you’re going to make the transition from office to home office, then the importance of having a proper workspace cannot be stressed enough. Working on the couch isn’t going to cut it here, love – a dedicated space that allows for uninterrupted work is key.

This might sound a little obvious, but having the right setup makes you more productive and makes you appear more professional. Decking out your home office should involve the same tools you’d be using in a regular office environment:

  • A stable internet connection – no joke, it’s not always a given. Because you’re working remotely, being available and reliable is important since you’re not physically in the office. If you need to be on conference calls and can’t hold the connection, then it won’t look good in the eyes of your colleagues and superiors.
  • A place to work alone – not possible all the time, even in an office, but being able to have those conference calls without interruptions or background noise boosts your professional standing with others. Having a quiet place to work can also put you in the right frame of mind to grind code, meet team deadlines or conduct unit tests.
  • A second monitor – a lot of offices make the allowance, so why shouldn’t you? If you work better with a bigger screen, then don’t struggle with just a laptop; make the effort to get your specs right in order to be productive and awesome.
  • Headset, notepad, water supply – don’t deprive yourself of the stuff you need to get things done. Stay hydrated, stay focused, stay in the zone.

Sometimes sitting in the same ‘home office’ all day can begin to kill your productivity, and basically drive you nuts. Don’t feel as though you can’t change it up if the need arises. Some developers have found that cafés are good environments because there’s just enough background noise to make you want to focus. Sometimes it’s the buzz going on around you that creates the mindset for producing great work.

Get the software you need

Because you need to be available and reliably so during business hours, it’s important that you know all the collaboration tools out there to make it possible. You’re not supposed to be online from the crack of dawn until bedtime, so make those eight hours a day count.

There are a variety of programs and apps for making communication as a remote worker easy and effective – make sure everyone you need to be in touch with is plugged in, too:

  • Tinychat – a free, web based conference tool that allows you to stream 12 web cams simultaneously. No installation required and pretty fuss-free in terms of use. If you don’t need document or screen sharing, this app may be for you – you can have hundreds of chat-based users, with a Tinychat room created in a single click. It’s a bare bones option, but if all you need is video and chat, then it’s worth a look.
  • HipChat – a program built for every platform and even available as a web app, HipChat runs on everything and is fully customisable, with secure conversations transferred in 256-bit SSL encryption together with the ability to deploy the program on your own server. Enterprise software giants Atlassian are behind the app, with companies such as Netflix and Dropbox already singing its praises (read up more on our HipChat exclusive here).
  • Skype – while not strictly an online conference tool, it’s widely established in enterprises and easy to download. Versions older than 5.0 won’t be able to support group video calls, so it’s imperative that everyone you’re talking to has the most up-to-date release. Creating group chats is easy, with group chat commands and preferences available to be customised, so you’re not caught up in an emoticon battle for the majority of your day.

There’s also programs and sites to help you convert Time Zones when required and forward urgent and last-minute emails to you via SMS, which should be considered as part of your arsenal. Being part of a collaborative project as a remote employee can benefit from a program like Sync.in, which is a web based processor that allows you to collaborate with people in real time – a great alternative to Google Docs if they’re not being used by your company.

Get into a routine

When you’re in the office, it’s easy to tell when it’s lunch time, or a big meeting is on, but it’s just as important as a remote employee to check in and update your status accordingly. Having your own routine from home is an easy way for the rest of the office to know what you’re up to, and know when to reach you.

When working from home, you need to create the segregation that usually exists when you get into the office. When you’re at your desk, you’re working (hopefully), but the whole concept can go out with the bathwater when you’re at home all day. This is where a routine can come in handy:

  • Make your presence known – when you arrive at work you’re saying hi, making small talk, catching up. There’s no reason you can’t announce your arrival in the same vein via whatever chat applications you’re utilising. A simple “Good morning all” lets the rest of the team know that you’re present, along with messages updating them when you’re out or on a call.
  • Have a set lunch time – okay sure, you don’t always go to lunch at the exact same time, but it would be counterproductive to pop into the kitchen for some grub when the rest of the office has already landed back at their desks. On top of setting your lunch time, let people know about it! Set you status just as they do by leaving their desks; and keywords, people! “At lunch”, etc etc.
  • Finish work when you’re supposed to – signing off and announcing as such should also be part of your routine. Again, you’re reminding people that you were around and that you’re now unavailable, regardless of where it is you’re actually working. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you’re expected to put in longer hours, but alas, it can often feel that way.

Now that you have your workspace in check and you’re making the effort to keep in regular contact with the office, as well as adhering to a routine, you’ll have taken the wind out of the sails from any anti-remote work arguments.

TL;DR

To ensure you’re productive and motivated as a remote employee, get your workspace in order, get the software you need and get into a routine. While the suggestions above might work for some or even most, every remote employee needs to discover for themselves what works best and work out the best way to connect with supervisors and peers.

Don’t let the guilt of working from home eat away at your deserved free time, unless you’re just watching animated gifs all day. Make yourself heard and your presence felt, then the proverbial wall between you and your team will come down. Your value shouldn’t be undermined just because you’re not sharing a cubicle with someone.

If you’ve got other tips to add to the working remotely debate, share your comments below.

Author
Natali Vlatko
An Australian who calls Berlin home, via a two year love affair with Singapore. Natali was an Editorial Assistant for JAXenter.com (S&S Media Group).

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