Crying Children and Crackling Campfires

One of the common benefits listed for remote work is that you can have some peace and quiet and therefore be more productive without the interruptions and background noise of the office environment.

But it wasn’t happening for me. Why not? Sure, I had more time without the long commutes into New York. But I felt like there were more distractions, more interruptions, more noise. Why was that? At Fog Creek, my office had been right next to the open area where the sales team worked. They spent the whole day on the phone, talking to customers. And honestly, though I had a door that could close, I often left it open. Their noise didn’t bother me much at all, and it would sometimes get loud.

Now that I worked from home, it seemed like the smallest noises from my wife or kids, who were often at the other end of the house, would disrupt my concentration. What was going on?

I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for months, and it took learning some new things before this pattern (which continued for a while), began to make sense. I learned that background noise is healthy and can help us be more creative. There are now many websites and apps that will recreate the casual background noise of coffee shops or nature in an attempt to stimulate greater creativity.

Once I understood that, I started using it occasionally. My current favorite background noise website is Noisli. One thing that’s nice about it is that I can pick the background noises I like – I usually go with an even mix of rain and a crackling fire.

I was just reminded of the second realization that made this all clear. As I started writing this blog post this morning, the kids began to wake up. Thus, background noise. My three year old daughter began crying, not loudly or annoyingly, more like a little whimper coming from her room. Normally, I’d let my wife deal with it. But it went on for a little bit. And so I jumped up to check on her. After giving her a hug and calming her down a bit, I found out that Mom had walked in on her getting dressed. She was crying because she had wanted to finish before Mom came in to surprise her by being all ready for the day. This so disturbed her that she sent Mom away and proceeded to console herself by crying about it.

Cute? Yeah. Distracting? Yeah.

But the point for me wasn’t that it was cute. The point for me was that it was background noise that I couldn’t ignore. The noise of my daughter crying means something more to me than the sales guys at Fog Creek chattering away on the phone. It means more than a rainstorm or fire in the background. It means more than the bustling sounds of a busy coffee shop. And because of that I can’t ignore it.

There are just some types of background noise that my brain tunes into. It could be my daughter crying, or my sons playing and laughing together, or my wife trying to round up the kids to go to their home school co-op. I care about my family deeply. Anything they do is important to me. And that means that their background noise is never in the background of my mind.

It’s easy to think of background noises that would immediately make you sit up and take note. The sound of rushing water and a crackling fire are the peaceful sounds of camping on a summer night. But a snapped branch and the rustling of a large animal in the background, even if it’s quieter than the fire, would immediately take you out of your reverie.

Campfire (c) kennymatic

It’s pretty easy to ignore the background noises at a coffee shop. But if someone across the way starts talking on the phone about their friend with the same name as you, it would get really distracting really fast. You’d need to make an effort to ignore the conversation in which your name kept being repeated.

I’ve realized that when I’m working I need to find ways of eliminating the background noises that distract me. That’s one reason we’re building a new office in the garage. The extra insulation will make things quieter, eliminating the distracting background noise of my kids being homeschooled each day.

Until that’s complete, Noisli is my go-to source for overpowering the distracting noises of my family. I also like to listen to music, especially music I found and loved back in college. I know the words by heart, and its so familiar that I’ll sometimes get into the coding flow and only realize 10 minutes after it’s stopped that I didn’t pay attention to a single song on the whole album. And I probably sang along with half of them.

What tools do you use to eliminate distracting background noise? To ensure healthy background noise?

Make Your Remote Work Routine Stick

What is your routine? Heck, what is a routine? What I’m calling a routine, some might call a ritual, or a schedule, or a checklist. At its heart, a routine is a series of steps that you follow to get a result. Think about a routine in a computer program. It’s just a set of instructions, executed in order, to get a certain result.

When you work remotely, you need a routine. You already have some routines. You probably have a morning routine, and probably have an evening routine. They might not be ideal, and they might be a little random, but they’re there. You may also have a lunchtime routine, or a starting work routine.

When you worked at an office (or if you still do), you probably had a routine when arriving at work and one when getting home. Though they probably weren’t explicit or super consistent, the habitual nature of those routines gave structure to your day and helped you get certain things done. Those routines often pressured you to create other routines, like a productive morning routine, or an end-of-the-workday routine.

But when you start working remotely, all of that seems to go out the window. You don’t stop having a routine, but you probably noticed that it degraded over time. Your morning bled into work time, which later bled into the evening. Your routine became more random, less ordered, less productive, less routine-y.

Has that happened to you? I know it’s happened to me. It happened when I first started working remotely. It happened after I moved six months later. It almost happened again last week. But I’m slowly getting better at making the routines stick. Here are a few ideas that keep me from descending into a pit of unorganized, randomly ordered life choices that leave me weak and unproductive…

First, make your routine sustainable. Honestly, this take regular adjustment. I’ve found that I can usually go 6-8 weeks with a new or adjusted routine before the routine gets routine, and therefore boring and hard to sustain. Whenever I start to feel that, I know it’s time to change something. Partly, that change is just for the sake of change. Our minds need a sense of newness to stay interested in something. But more importantly, I aim for changes that will make the routine easier to stick with, while still being productive.

Second, include slack time in your routine. If you’re morning routine is scheduled down to the minute, the smallest disturbance can throw you off your game. Make sure you’ve set aside more time for each activity than it will take.

With the slack time, you need some simple tasks to fill it. Slack time has it’s own pitfalls. The main one is that you don’t need it, and so you pull up your phone and check twitter, and before you know it the slack time is gone, and you’ve already missed the next thing you’re supposed to do. If its not twitter on your phone, its surfing in your browser, or checking Facebook, or picking up the book you recently got sucked into. Make sure you’ve got small things, that will only take a couple minutes to do, to fill the slack. Some ideas: brush your teeth, floss your teeth, de-clutter a room in your home. One that’s been working well for me is that I’m slowly clearing the garage bay where my new office will be built. Just walk in, carry one thing out and find a new place for it. Doesn’t take long, doesn’t get me distracted.

Third, flow. When I say flow, I don’t mean the state of flow that you can get into when you’re deep in a task that you love, that is at just the right line between challenging and too hard. I mean, instead, that the tasks in your routine should flow into each other. It should be easy to move from one to another. My morning routine includes exercise, breakfast, and a shower. And if I do them in that order, it flows pretty well. If I tried shower, breakfast, exercise, it would be a disaster. That’s the simple, obvious example. Another one is to recognize that a few tasks in your routine require a computer – doing them all at the same time helps your routine flow, making it easier to stick to and quicker to do.

At this point, you may be thinking that it’s time to fix your routines. But you’re probably also wondering how to do it. Without the forced structure of a commute, a required time to be at the office, a family or nightlife to pull you away from work in the evening. How do you impose some structure on your own life, while still remaining flexible? How do you keep that structure in place? How do you improve it, so that your routines are helping you be more productive, be happier, get you all those benefits you had hoped for from a remote work job?

Whew! That’s a lot of questions. I’ve put together a short email course on building, maintaining, and perfecting the daily routines you need for productive remote work. Sign up below and I’ll send you a new email once a week to help you build your routines.

Give Up Your Commute

Giving up your commute may be the biggest benefit of working remotely. Commutes take a toll on your happiness, your wallet, and the environment. When you first start working remotely, either because you got a new job or because your employer approved your request to work remotely, the lack of a commute will immediately make you happier.

Because of that immediate personal benefit, I strongly encourage you to give your commute to your employer. The first days and weeks working from home – or a coffee shop or library – are full of learning new things about what works and what doesn’t for remote work.

Give it up!
Give it up! (c)

You’ll be dealing with a family or roommates that aren’t used to having you around, and you’ll need to work out the rules around that. You’ll have a whole new set of possible interruptions and distractions to challenge you. Honestly, your office setup will probably not be ideal. It takes time to build a comfortable, productive home office. Or, alternatively, it takes time to learn the ins and outs of productive work at a coffee shop or library.

For all of these reasons and more, you may not be as productive initially as you were at the office. If you’re additionally starting a new job, you’ll have all the challenges of learning the ins and outs of a new company, a new boss, new ways of working, new tools, etc. If you’re anything like me, all that newness will leave you feeling slow, kind of stupid, and just unproductive.

Because of that, I highly recommend taking the time you save by not commuting and giving it to your employer. If you would leave at 8 in the morning, and get home at 6, go ahead and plan to work that whole time. You won’t succeed of course, for all the reasons I listed above. And even if you do, you probably won’t get as much done as you’d like to.

That’s ok, don’t worry. The new job will eventually become a comfortable place to work. You’ll build out a workable home office. Though it may take years to perfect that home office, you can make it comfortable and productive relatively quickly. Your family or roommates will learn how to deal with you being in the house, but unavailable. They’ll learn when it’s ok to interrupt you, and you’ll learn how to balance your work with the possibility of doing other things during the day. You’ll get used to the new tools of remote work, and make them part of your regular workflow.

In the long run, you’ll get your commute back. But in the short run, giving it to your employer will increase your chances of success at remote work. And whether it’s a new job or not, you’re selling your ability to work remotely. You want to be a success at it. If you’re at a distributed company, they want you to be a success as well. If you’re trying out remote work without changing jobs, your manager and coworkers will be watching carefully to see how well it works for you. Your peers will probably be fervently hoping you succeed. So will your team lead, as he or she thinks about the cost savings and opportunities remote work will open up for the company.

By giving up your commute you’ll be happier. By giving it up to your employer, they’ll also be happier, and you’ll increase your chances of long term success as a remote worker.

For you remote workers out there, how do you use the time that used to be spent commuting?

What Makes You Happy?

I didn’t know myself, even though I thought I did. For years I thought I knew what would make me happy. I thought the right job, using the right technologies, working on the right products, would do the trick. When I left Microsoft, I was sure I needed to work on improving developer productivity. That’s one reason I went to Fog Creek, to help build FogBugz and Kiln. At another point in my career I was sure I needed to work on using technology in education. I felt the fire in my belly, or so I thought. If only I could do that, I would be happy, satisfied, fulfilled.

Which path will make you happy?
Which path will make you happy? (c) Paro_for_Peace

But as I look back, I realize that my choices tell a different story. They tell me what I really value. I’m sure I’ll keep learning what that is, as I keep making choices that defy what I claim will make me happy. Admittedly, sometimes those choices are hard. If I’m honest with myself, I passed up a chance to work at Khan Academy because I valued working remotely more than building tech for education. I left Fog Creek (before they encouraged remote work) because I valued working remotely more than building productivity tools for developers and information workers. Plus, I wasn’t the rockstar developer that either company would change policies to accommodate. I’m still working on that …

It’s got me wondering a bit about why I value remote work, and all the associated benefits, so much. Does it really make me happier? Or am I committed to it, only because I haven’t found the real thing I’m passionate enough about? The thing that would pull me away from home and into an office?

That may be. My life is definitely a work in progress. But I’ve since learned that my reasons for working remotely are borne out by research. The Guardian, in its report on what makes a city happy, revealed some important facts: “Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office.” Additionally, “A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce.”

The Guardian report is interesting, because it makes the case that urban life can lead to more happiness in many cases. If you’re surrounded by people and walk around town you have better relationships with others, you’re more trusting of others, and you’re healthier. The problem is for people like me, a husband and father with four kids. To afford to house my family near enough to New York to work there, I had to deal with a 90 minute commute. So, while New York was great, the commute was miserable. And so was my life. Sure, I could have traded one expensive city with a bad commute, for another by going to the Bay Area to work at Khan Academy. But I made a different choice.

And I’m happier for it. I fully expect that by the time I retire most companies that primarily do information work (like software development companies) will be fully or mostly remote. And the sooner they make the switch, the better off they will be. As that happens, it will become easier for people like me to pursue our technology and product passions, having made the hard decisions first.

Since I started working remotely, I’ve already been able to join a fully remote company, Articulate, that is focused on improving e-learning, allowing me to be a part of the ongoing education revolution. And before that, I worked with an awesome team at TrackAbout, where we put together SpecEasy, an easier way to write unit tests that are very readable. There are lots of ways to pursue your passions. Don’t think you have to do it at the expense of your personal life, your family, your marriage, or your happiness.

How have you combined personal and professional happiness? Have you passed up great opportunities because you valued something else more?

Be Your Own Office Manager

Mark Suster took up the challenges that come with scaling a small, scrappy startup office culture into a decent-place-to-work culture here. In my last post I reflected on my first, “scrappy” remote office and the challenges it presented. Just like a seed stage startup, for me the scrappiness was charming, exciting, fun. The novelty of working from home, the freedom of not having a commute, and even the challenges of working in a significantly worse environment were all new and interesting. That newness made it possible to put up with the pain and still do some really great work.

But over the years, as I increased the amount of remote work that I do until now, where it’s my full time job, I had to scale up my office, just like those scrappy startups have to when they start to encounter a bit of success. Suster pointed out that for a startup making the transition, one of the most important investments they can make is to hire a great office manager / admin person. Just that phrase reminds me of two very impressive admin’s I’ve known.

At Microsoft, Amy was the admin for the Outlook team and she was awesome! For any question you had, she would find an answer. In a big company, political environment, she knew just who to talk to to get things done, but she also always had time to just shoot the breeze. For me, the team was never the same after she left to work at a smaller branch office.

During my time at Fog Creek, if Joel was the head of the company, Liz was the heart. She was just like Amy in so many ways, but at a small company she handled logistics more than politics, and made sure everything ran perfectly. She impressed me from our first conversations in the hiring process, she helped convince my wife that New York would be a great adventure for our family (and it was), and she’s still teaching me great stuff on her new blog: check out Cupcakes in Paradise.

Since leaving Fog Creek, I haven’t had an awesome office manager for one simple reason. I am my own office manager. Remote work is the future of work, and I’m sure that in time, as an industry, we’ll build up a really nice infrastructure around remote work that will handle most home “office management”. But the fact is that it’s still a ways out there. For now, every remote worker is their own office manager.

Doing that job well is not easy. What is easy is waking up to work on Monday and realizing your home office hasn’t been cleaned in a couple weeks. A thin layer of dust covers any surface area not in regular use. I don’t have someone refilling the candy jar or keeping the free drinks stocked. I’m not getting the standard issue laptop, desk, chair, speakers, keyboard, etc. I have to pick all that stuff out, which might be a bad idea for an OCD perfectionist. And don’t even think about the extra stuff, like fresh flowers in the restroom each week, catered lunches, funky artwork on the office walls, etc.

A corner of my office that needs "management"
A corner of my office that needs “management”

If I were a good office manager, I would do all the stuff that Suster recommends at the end of his post. I would have a comfortable chair, clean bathrooms, and a stocked kitchen. I would put up pictures, and make things comfortable. I spend 8+ hours a day in my home office, and sometimes I feel like it loses out to the rest of my home in terms of maintenance and upkeep. It’s time to change that.

How do you manage your home office? What do you miss about having an office manager?

A Bend in the Hallway

The first home office I remember having, and actually using occasionally as an office, was a bend in the hallway of our home when I worked at Microsoft. Yep, that’s right, just a bend in the hallway. I would work from home on rare occasions when I needed to stay home for some reason (e.g. contractors coming). I had a dinky little desk, a horrible chair that couldn’t roll on the carpeted floor very well, and a small monitor. This bend in the hallway had three doorways within reaching distance, opening into two kids bedrooms and their common bathroom.

A bend in the hallway, or in other words, my home office
A bend in the hallway, or in other words, my home office

Despite all of the negatives of such a ridiculous home office, I have a distinct memory of one very productive day when I worked from home. I can’t even remember why I couldn’t go into work that day. But we were close to shipping Office 2007, and I had a ton of bugs on my plate. I sat down at the desk, my wife helped keep our two boys under the age of five at the other end of the house, and I cranked through more bug fixes than I had in the previous week. It really opened my eyes to the possibilities that remote work opens up.

That little home office eventually moved into half of an undersized room, and I still only used it occasionally, maybe once a month, for my day job. But I had a door that I could shut. Whew!

Over the next few years, my home office was part of our homeschooling room, a commandeered child’s bedroom, a corner of the master bedroom (that didn’t work out very well), and back to a bedroom sandwiched between kids rooms. I went from working only rarely at home to having a fully remote job, first at TrackAbout, and now at Articulate.

Through the process I’ve learned a lot about what works in a home office, what doesn’t work, and what is up to personal preference. So, now it’s time to build my own. We’ve got an extra bay in our garage and last week a contractor came in to give us an estimate for the work it will take to turn it into a real home office.

My awesome future office
My awesome future office

I’ll be documenting the process here, along with other tips for doing successful remote work.

What was your worst home office? What is your ideal home office? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.