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On Working Remotely

Tips for helping to improve the remote working experience.

Some people are cut out to work remotely; some people aren’t. Having grown up in East Africa and completed elementary and high school via an American correspondence school, I’ve always been a remote kind of a person. And although I traveled a lot growing up, I always loved being at home, wherever that was at the time. Though I didn’t know it at the time, in many ways, I spent my entire youth preparing to work remotely as an adult. Though Palantir is a Chicago-based firm, the majority of our employees are remote. I work as an engineer here and am part of that majority. A good infrastructure is necessary to help support and keep remote employees like me integrated, beyond that, there are a few things I’ve learned along the way to help improve the experience of working remotely for everyone.

Communication is Everything

Though being a good communicator is essential to everybody regardless of where they work, it is especially so for those who work remotely. As more communication is migrating toward some form of written word, it is very important to be intentional, complete, and accurate in your communication. Written communication warrants more thought and effort and can be harder to correct than spoken communication. Go ahead and take the extra 20 minutes to think before responding to an email; ask for five minutes before replying to an IM ... it’s okay, so long as when you’re responding, you’re able to get to the heart of the communication and provide clear answers or next-steps for the recipient.

Predictability is Everything, Too.

Predictability is more important than availability, and completeness is more important than promptness.

When you’re working remotely, having a predictable schedule will help you establish yourself as a fixture in the minds of your coworkers. Have and follow a rigid schedule. Don't be afraid to talk about it, too; share it on your calendar and be sure it is up to date. Have a long lunch planned one day a week? Not a problem as long as everyone knows about it. If your coworkers know that you’re always online by 8:15AM (or 9:15 or 11:15—whatever the case may be), then they begin to sense you know how to manage your time and, by proxy, your work.

Share and Shape the Culture

Culture is the unspoken assumptions of a group of people. As a remote employee, you'll need to suss out aspects of the company culture that are implicit in a physical office. Does your company encourage you to take ownership of your space (and your projects)? Does the working environment encourage and imply excellence? Do people show up and punch a timecard or do they strive to work in a community? Understanding these things will help you better integrate into, embody and influence the culture of your company.

Strike a (Healthy) Balance

It bears repeating that a life out of balance (read: too much work, not enough other stuff, over a long period of time) is not sustainable. In the first quarter of 2014, my family and I spent five weeks at my childhood home in Tanzania. While I normally have a very strict schedule, my schedule while I was in Africa was askew. To maintain coverage with my co workers in the States (who were nine hours behind me), I ended up working a second shift (4pm-1am). It became too easy, though, to work an extra hour (or three) after everyone had gone to bed: I would get caught up in a problem which always seemed prudent to fix right away. This is doable in the short-term, but having a healthy work/life balance is fundamental to not burning out. As freeing as it may seem to be allowed to work remotely, having a schedule is the only way to maximize that freedom and appreciate it.

Dedicate Space

It’s been said a thousand times before, but it’s true and also warrants repeating: Make a dedicated space for your work. If you’re working from home, it’s more than just a tax write-off, it speaks to your stability. When we bought our house, I initially claimed the front room (just off the living room) as my home office. About two months before my son was born, I realized that this location would no longer be the peaceful place for focus. So, I spent the next year renovating my basement to create an office space where a just-learning-to-walk toddler couldn’t wander in and distract me from phone calls or work. (My wife has come to find that texting or emailing me while I'm at work is often more effective than interrupting me.)

Probably the best part, though, is being able to come upstairs at the end of the day and have both physical and mental separation from my work. Now, in the evening, when I'm sitting in the living room, I'm not looking into my office thinking about what I have to do tomorrow.

Enjoy the Benefits

Because working remotely does require significant effort, it's important to recognize why you're doing it and celebrate it. Yes, you have to be more intentional, more disciplined, and be willing to make sacrifices in your personal space, but the rewards are numerous.

Like I said before, I've always been a homebody. I love nothing more than taking a break from work to eat lunch with my wife and son upstairs. I love that we live only a few minutes from my wife’s family. I love the city we live in. I love not needing to clean snow off my car or wait at an icy bus stop. I love being able to wake up at 6am and be at work at 6:30am while not being rushed. I like brewing my own coffee. I like that I know my postal carrier by name and that my neighbors count on me to check in on their houses when they’re out of town. There are probably a thousand more reasons I could list; I sometimes need to remind myself of these things when I’m dealing with some of the more labor-intensive parts of working remotely. But, in the end, it’s all worth it for me.

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