In the beginning
When I tell new acquaintances that I work for a distributed company, they inevitably ask: “You do all of that from home? How?” We discuss this how on a regular basis, but haven't taken these conversations outside our figurative halls. In this article, all will be revealed!
Lullabot is a distributed company with clients all around the world—we don’t have a single office and almost all of us work from home. You might think that means we’re disconnected (not at all!), that we are lonely (never!), or bored (ha!). You might even think we’re nerds! You’d be right on that count, but that’s irrelevant to our working arrangements.
Being distributed requires a more deliberate approach to communication and getting “in the zone.” Here are some of the highly effective habits of our intercontinental team:
Get dressed like you’re going to work
Nine out of ten Lullabots agree (this is a made-up statistic, but keep reading) that their productivity is boosted when they prepare for the day as if they’re leaving the house to go to work. That means pants! And shoes! You don’t have to bust out a suit, but readying yourself for a purpose helps you get into a focused work mode. (The fact that you don’t actually have to leave the house just makes it a little bit happier.)
Have a schedule
To paraphrase our Director of Operations, Seth Brown: “Find your ideal schedule or pattern for productivity. For me, it involves working 8 to 6 with two hours for a long lunchtime workout. This restores me. For someone else, it might be about starting work at 10, having a nap in the afternoon, but working in the evening when they feel most productive. The key is finding your groove. We’re all unique. There are morning people, evening people, and everything in between. We have the flexibility to choose, but it’s important to be consistent with that choice so others can plan around you.”
Getting up early is the most productive time of the day (by far) for Karen Stevenson, Senior Drupal Architect. Karen's daily schedule: get to work early (usually around 4 a.m.), get done early and enjoy a walk or some family-time, and come back later if need be. For Sean Lange, a front-end developer, having set work hours and a daily routine is what works. The importance of a schedule seems to be key for all of us, no matter how offbeat that schedule might be. Have an idea where your time will be spent each day, stick to a pattern that feels comfortable and repeatable, and let your team members know when you’ll be in your groove. Otherwise, time tends to slip away and you find yourself “working” all the time with reduced productivity.
Draw a boundary
As I was doing interviews for this article, many Lullabots mentioned the importance of boundaries. Senior Drupal Architect Jeff Eaton argues, “The valuable thing about getting dressed like you’re going to work, and similar rituals, is that it puts a distinct dividing line between schlepping around and serious business. Because so many of the ‘Bots work on things they find interesting and are passionate about, it’s easy to stay half-connected 24/7. I’ve found that explicitly disconnecting makes it easier to focus when I am connected, regardless of the mechanism used to draw that dividing line.”
Angus Mak, Developer, says: “I never run straight to the computer after waking up. I always take some time to make coffee and let the dog out, so I don’t feel like I’m working before I’m even awake.”
Have a dedicated workspace (and/or device)
Having a home office is crucial for me. I need a desk with a proper chair to really direct my attention to work projects. Otherwise, I fear I’d be floating about the house, distracted by home duties and shiny objects. Having a dedicated workspace helps keep me organized and efficient. Jeff Robbins, Lullabot CEO & cofounder agrees: “It’s good to have a home base where both you and your family know that you’re working. Not only is this a good physical, personal reminder, but it also sends a message (Don’t bother Dad!) to your family without needing to interrupt your work to explain it. Working at home is living at work. Do what you can to differentiate work and leisure time.”
“I also use a different computer with nothing work related on it for entertainment,” says Angus Mak. “When I’m done with work, I switch to my personal computer. I still check work emails on the phone, but at least I don’t see any work related files, programs, code, etc. on my personal computer that might suck me back into work.”
If a separate computer isn’t in the cards for you, you can create separate accounts on your computer. Using one for work, and personalize the other one with your home life in mind.
While we’re talking about work devices, Jeff Robbins advises: “Spend the extra money for a quality microphone headset. If you work virtually, it isn’t just an adjunct communication device. It’s how you’ll be hearing all of your clients and colleagues, and it’s also how they’ll be hearing you. There’s nothing worse than being that guy that people can’t quite understand on the conference call. Never use speakerphone or your computer’s built-in microphone on conference calls. Ever.”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that Lullabots can “walk the talk," or at least, walk while they talk. I was surprised to hear how many of us walk, hike, or stand when we’re on long phone calls. According to Seth Brown: “Walking on phone calls is critical and gives me the endurance to get through the day. When I’m in front of the computer I don’t listen well—there are too many distractions.” Karen Stevenson advises, “Stand up while you’re on phone calls, at least the important ones.” Not only does this keep us focused on the phone call (instead of being distracted by other online tasks), it keeps our bodies and minds alert during a time when our attention could easily wander.
Another great piece of advice comes from Senior Drupal Architect Andrew Berry, “I try to keep snacks and drinks stored away from my office. Otherwise, it’s too easy to stay sitting at the desk all day: snacks are just a long reach away from your desk. Keeping them elsewhere means an extra minute or two, but also gives your eyes and body a rest.”
“I love going for a walk in the middle of the day,” says Matt Westgate, president and cofounder. “I usually reserve the hardcore gym exercise until the end of the day to release stress. My usual transition from work life to personal life is to prepare dinner while I’m having an end-of-day wrap up with Jeff or Seth. Cooking is a creative outlet for me, and it has the byproduct of being (usually) delicious!”
Leaving the house during a workday is often a good idea. A coffee run, a class at the gym, or some errands around town can help relieve cabin fever. If you’ve ever had the experience of working at an office, you know how relaxing a lunch away from the office can be. The same principle applies when you work at home! Take a step away, focus on something you need to do in your personal life, reboot, and return.
Jeff Robbins advises: “If you really want to bear down and work, get out of the house. Go to a cafe, get a big caffeinated drink, and put on headphones. The peripheral activity of the staff and other patrons energizes me. Because I don’t know anyone there, I stay isolated and can really focus on my work without distraction. Their chairs usually aren’t as comfortable as mine, so I don’t stay there all day, just a couple of hours. Then I can head home and appreciate my comfortable chair that much more!”
Use being at home to your advantage
Just because you’re working doesn’t mean you have to forego the comforts of home. Do the things you can’t do at an office -- put on some music, work from the patio, or open the windows!
Jared Ponchot, Creative Director, has his afternoon relaxation time down. “I try to schedule some sort of relaxing activity for the afternoon. I typically hit a wall between 2pm and 4pm, so I try to listen to that and either take a walk, go play with my kids, make a cup of tea, or do something for at least 15-30 minutes that’s completely relaxing. That moves all my brain power from my prefrontal cortex back into a more balanced right/left brain, I think.”
Having multiple places to work in your home is another advantage over a typical office. Jerad Bitner, Senior Technical Project manager, mixes it up between a traditional desk, treadmill desk, a lazy boy, and a standing desk. “Sometimes I like the couch,” he says. “It’s a great way to help prevent repetitive stress injuries, which often result from working long hours in the same position.”
It surprised me just how many Lullabots mentioned the shower when I was researching this article! From Nate Lampton, Senior Drupal Architect, “In the midst of all the phone calls, naps, and lunch, I usually take at least one shower in the middle or end of the day. To me the shower is the absolute most productive place in my entire ‘office.’ There’s no problem so difficult that it can’t be solved with a good shower.”
Jared Ponchot also had an opinion on the shower. “I fully relate to the idea that being showered and dressed before work can help orient one’s self. However, I’ve actually changed my routine, intentionally waiting to shower until late morning or midday. I’ve found that it’s a powerful tool for ‘creative pause’ and cranking alpha waves. I want it to disrupt my ultra focus, a zone I get into when I’m working on for more than a few hours. There are so many times when I scramble to get out of the shower because I’ve suddenly understood something or had an important idea during that break.”
Work. Rinse. Repeat.
Be interactive (in work and other aspects of your life)
“Connecting with people face-to-face during the day is really important” says Matt Westgate, and many other Bots agree. “That connection could be family, a local group, or going to the coffee shop or the gym. I find those face-to-face connections remind me that I’m also making human connections when I’m on the phone or writing email. It helps me better empathize.”
Being interactive during work could mean contacting a client or colleague using videochat via Skype, Google Hangout or GotoMeeting rather than shooting off an email. Lullabot uses several means of communication for our team, but nothing feels quite like face-to face time.
Outside of work, “it’s important to talk about non-work things, to make up for the social interaction you’re losing by staying at home,” cautions Karen Stevenson. It would be incredibly easy to turn into a hermit. Many Lullabots recommend becoming involved in a community or interest group outside of home.
“The biggest thing that helps me keep the balance is being in a group.” Angus Mak continues, “I train dogs a few times a week at a dog club, and that forces me to leave the house at 6 p.m. Having something outside of work that I am passionate about really helps.”
“If you’re a designer working from home, you need to join some sort of group in your local area and force yourself (against your will if you’re wired like me!) to go hang out at their events,” says Jared Ponchot. “I’m a part of the Atlanta Web Designer group. I’ve had to miss it a few times and keenly feel the loss.”
Speaking of family, it can be hard to work at home with family present, as they are (and should be) Priority Number One. Finding the work/life balance in regards to family is something that I’ve had to work hard at. It’s helped to get to a point where I can say firmly, “Right now I am working!” and stick to it. After work, if I’m as diligent giving my family attention as I am at giving work attention, we all feel good.
This is also an important issue for Seth Brown who has three young daughters. “For me,” he says, “the act of shutting my door is symbolic. It says, I’m at work, don’t bother me. But if a child falls off a bunk bed or there’s some other emergency, like sick kids at home, you have to step out of work mode. I feel like it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing to be there for your family when they really need it, but sometimes it can come up at the most inopportune times. It's stressful trying to listen and participate in a conference call while trying to calm a crying child.”
Work at NOT working
Working from home with a distributed team comes with a few challenges that wouldn’t exist in an office. Different time zones, different work schedules, and spotty Internet connections can all work against you. The biggest issue seems to be the same wherever we are: the tendency to overwork. How can you leave work at work when you work from home?
Blake Hall, Senior Developer: “For me it’s always key to remember (and sometimes force myself) to carve out time where I have no Internet access. I inevitably get sucked into something interesting (even just Yammer) if I don’t.”
“It’s easy to get me to read an e-mail or message,” explains Nate Lampton, “but I’ll only respond when I’m at my desk. The variability of my days means that I always schedule phone calls and meetings in advance, preferably not the same day. I usually don’t accept direct phone calls and I use conference lines or Skype as much as possible to prevent clients or even co-workers from using my phone number and breaking that scheduled time.”
Now, for the summary
The end all, as they say, is simple: don’t be afraid to try new things, even if they seem odd. Don’t be afraid to explore, find the schedule and best practices that work for you, and work that way. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to work from home, if it works for you.
I think James Sansbury, our Development Manager, said it best: “It’s working from home, not homing from work, so the point everyone’s making is to create a clear line for what work is and what home is. If that means you get dressed before going to work, get dressed. If that means setting specific work hours, set those hours. If that means taking a long lunch, take a long lunch. The easy part is determining those things; the hard part is actually doing it. DO IT. DO IT!”