Working Remotely: Are You Surviving or Thriving?

A few years ago, I spent a period of time living alone, working fully remote, and occasionally working overnight hours – typically from 8 PM – 4 AM.  Even during the time I wasn’t working overnight, my hours were still “flexed” – often from 6 AM – 2 PM, with evenings and weekends sprinkled in as well.  Even though I was living in Rogers Park – one of the most populated neighborhoods in Chicago – I was feeling extremely alone and out of sync.  I was confused when to sleep, relax, exercise, eat, or even what to eat!  Can I have a burger and a beer after work at 4 AM?  Why am I eating breakfast in the afternoon?  Should I be heading to the gym at noon?  Working flexible remote hours can often seem like a lawless place.  I was barely surviving my situation – and I certainly wasn’t thriving.

I found several things that kept me grounded during this period of time, many of which I’m applying to the new situation many Americans found themselves in last week.



Dress to impress – even if you’re only impressing yourself

If you’re anything like me, your first thought when starting to work remotely is, “awesome, I get to wear sweatpants all the time”.  Although this feels great for a day or two, I found it wasn’t really a sustainable lifestyle.  If you want to avoid that “gross” feeling you may have had after a full week of working in sweatpants, try dressing as you usually would to head into the office.  Or, at least throw on jeans and a t-shirt.  You may feel a little silly at first (especially if you’re not utilizing video conferencing), but I’ve found that my mood overall is boosted when I’m wearing “real” clothes, and it provides a sense of normalcy.  Simply put, more people thrive when they aren’t wearing a pair of sweatpants and a ten-year-old pit-stained Menards Race to Savings t-shirt.

On the flip side, to increase your comfort while still looking proper, wear some slippers.  You can even spend a few extra dollars on a nicer pair with a memory foam bottom, if you feel so inclined.  You’ll thank me later.



Use your webcam

You spent all that time getting ready and dressed, why not show it off? Almost every modern laptop has a built-in webcam. And, if yours doesn’t, you can buy a simple USB webcam for as little as $20. Now that you’re working remotely, you’ve lost that face-to-face experience during meetings. Studies have shown that videoconferencing greatly improves communication.



Designate a workspace in your home

While it’s tempting to lay on the couch all day while you work, this is a slippery slope.  First, there are many more distractions in your living room than your typical office.  Second, it helps mentally to keep your work and personal life separated.  When you work in your living space for too long, it starts to feel like you’re living in your workspace.



Take an actual lunch break and disconnect

When you’ve got an enormous to-do list from work and e-mails coming in at all hours from co-workers across the world (and also working flexible hours), it can be tempting to check in and catch up with work around the clock.  My suggestion is to as best possible avoid checking in outside your regular work hours.  Institute some “quiet hours” for your work notifications.  This can be configured on most communication tools such as Outlook, Teams, Gmail, and Slack. Work is important, but again, we want to avoid the feeling that we’re working around the clock.

Schedule a time slot on your calendar for lunch and adhere to it.  Plan your day accordingly – during my lunch time, I log off from work and mute my notifications.  I take my dog for a walk, prepare my lunch, and watch one of my favorite TV shows (for me, it’s either The Office or Scrubs – both absolutely fantastic).

Of course, it’s important to let your teammates know you’re disconnecting.  I have my Outlook calendar marked as “Out of Office” during lunch and outside of my regular working hours.  Additionally, my team knows my regular working hours and that I don’t check my communication tools outside of those hours.  They still have my phone number for emergencies.




Never neglect your sleep!  You should be getting a minimum of 8 hours of sleep every night.  Some people need 9 or 10 hours – listen to your body and what it needs, especially if you’re feeling ill or fatigued.  And no, it doesn’t need more coffee.




If you’re looking for a new way to relax, try meditation. You can find some videos on YouTube to lead you in a meditation session in under 15 minutes. Yoga with Adriene is a well-known channel with some excellent meditation videos.



Take walks outside

Try taking a walk, even if it’s just around the block.  If that sounds boring to you, bring a pair of headphones and listen to some music, a podcast, or an audio book.  When you’re cooped up inside all day, it can be really refreshing to get some fresh air and get the blood pumping a little.




With your doctor’s approval, try adding a little more exercise into your schedule.  Now that your commute is just across the hall, you’re getting a lot less activity than you normally would.  As someone that works in the Chicago Loop, I have no problem finding 7,000-10,000 steps in my daily commute.  However, when I’m working from home, it’s easy to have a 3,000 step day.

Not sure where to start?  If you’re looking for a fun variety of workouts, I recommend checking out Daily Burn (no, it’s not a referral link).  I’ve been a subscriber since 2016, and I truly believe it has something for everyone.  Their 365 workouts are great to find a daily routine.  They’re filmed live every morning, and also available on-demand.  They also offer a huge library of on-demand content, including beginner workouts, yoga, quick HIIT workouts, as well as more advanced offerings.  They’re also offering a 60 day free trial right now.



Keep a schedule

In order to thrive while working remotely, with or without “strange” hours, it’s best to keep a schedule as best as possible.  Try to define a time when you are working, that makes sense for your and your family.  Maybe you and your spouse need to rotate working and taking care of children.  This is a conversation you’ll want to have with any cohabitants as well.  Perhaps it might be nice to take an afternoon walk with your spouse, or squeeze in a game of Mario Kart with the roommate during lunch.  Don’t be afraid to get creative here!  I have a co-worker that works mornings, takes care of their child in the afternoon, and logs back on after dinner to finish up their day.  As long as we’re communicating (and your employer is cool with it), accommodations can be made.

Keeping a schedule doesn’t mean we can’t be a little flexible

Don’t be afraid to take ad-hoc breaks.  When we work at the office, we often take formal and informal breaks.  For example, a formal break at the office could be picking up lunch or a coffee run.  Informal breaks, however, could be a simple conversation with your nearby co-workers about how the Bears are once again destroying your hopes and dreams (seriously, Jimmy Graham?  What year is it? Please prove me wrong, Jimmy).

When we’re at home, it can be tempting to minimize or even eliminate these breaks.  A “coffee run” ten feet to the kitchen takes significantly less time.  Additionally, there’s no one to talk to about how the Ricketts made virtually no moves during the off season, and whether that’s a good or bad thing.

That said, to merely survive while working from home, we can grab our coffee and go back to staring at our computer screens.  But, to truly thrive, we should create new breaks.  Because we’ve made our other time more efficient, we shouldn’t be afraid to go a little bigger here.  Go outside and get some fresh air with a walk around the block.  Maybe get a quick workout in the afternoon.  Or, close your eyes and meditate for a few minutes – it’s amazing how much a 15 minute break can refresh your energy.

But, I don’t have time to schedule a 15 minute break!

I often take what I call “mini-breaks”.  While my code is compiling or I’m waiting for a co-worker to message me back, I get up, walk around and stretch for 30-60 seconds.  Honestly, it’s incredible how much better your legs feel after 30-60 seconds of impromptu stretching.

Also, remember how we’ve lost that time where we chit-chat with our co-workers?  These people are often some close friends that we may not socialize with outside of work.  As your (and their) schedule allows, check in with them and see how they’re doing.  Or, even better, create a group chat with the people you usually sit by.  There’s no reason you can’t have a Trubisky vs. Foles debate over IM throughout the day.

Okay, so how should I create my schedule?

Keeping a schedule can help maintain your sanity – even if you’re not working right now!  Some people may recommend trying to mirror your schedule as if you were going into the office, minus the commute.  I think it’s okay to have a different routine while working from home, as long as you have some kind of routine.

My typical daily routine for the last week looked like this:

7:00 AMTake the dog out, shower, eat breakfast. Wish that I woke up earlier so that I could have gone running like my wife did.
8:00 AMLog on to work. Put on my noise cancelling headphones and make myself fully available to my team.
9:30 AMDaily Scrum meeting. Webcam on to prove to my co-workers that I did, in fact, shower today.
9:45 AMQuick break. Walk around, make a protein shake, play with the dog a little.
12:15 PMBreak for lunch. Completely disconnect from work – computer locked, sound off, phone notifications snoozed. Walk the dog, make lunch, watch some TV while eating.
1:00 PMReturn to work.
2:30 PM Meeting to sync with Dev team. Webcam on to prove to my co-workers that I didn’t fall asleep at my desk after lunch.
3:30 PMQuick break. Play with the dog, check personal email grab a sparkling water or make some tea.
4:00 PMPrepare to finish up the work day. Check in one last time with my team, see if there’s anything they need by EOD. Respond to emails, prepare code deployments.
5:00 PMLog off from work and completely disconnect. Monitors off, notifications snoozed. Take the dog for a lengthy walk or play at the park. Make and eat dinner with my wife.
7:00 PMPersonal time. I could be working out, playing video games, working on side projects, or socializing with friends/family (remotely, of course!).
10:30 PMTake the dog out one last time, ready for bed.

And just to be absolutely clear – there’s no way I adhered perfectly to this schedule.  The point of the schedule is to make your life more organized, not to stress you out when things don’t go perfectly.

Even if you’re not working from home, but just spending a lot of time at home right now, consider planning our your day – and sticking to it.  It doesn’t have to be quite as detailed as above, but it often helps to build a little more rigidity into your day by planning tasks and meals.



Invest in your home workspace (and yourself)

As you are able, try to invest in your home workspace.  Truly, this isn’t just an investment in home office equipment. It’s an investment in yourself, your productivity, and your comfort.  You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars setting up a home office, but you should at least have a comfortable and sustainable setup.  Although you can certainly survive with what you have now, a small investment can make you proud of a home workspace you can thrive in.

Not sure where to start, or looking for ideas to improve your home workspace? Feel free to read about my setup and some general advice on how to invest in a home workspace: Investing in Your Home Workspace (and yourself): A Web Developer’s Setup

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