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10 Things I Learned about Remote Work in my First Year

Working from Cafe Flor in Buenos Aires, Argentina

In August 2018, I left Paris with my girlfriend. We embarked for a year of travel and I kept working as a freelance Data Engineer. It was scary at first but I was excited to explore new ways of working and traveling.

In 12 months, I lived in 10 cities through Europe, South America and the US while earning a steady income. Each place taught me something new and sometimes unexpected. Here are the top 10 lessons I learned after working remotely for a year.

1. Remote work is about trust

Announcing to my main client I was leaving Paris was scary. Luckily, I was proposed to continue working remotely. At the time, I had no experience working remotely but had worked at the office for a year and built trust. To avoid some of the common pitfalls I read the book Remote: Office Not Required and joined Remotive, an online community of remote workers that gather on Slack.

Until remote becomes mainstream, it may be easier to convince your current employer to allow you to work remotely than finding a remote job. Competition for remote jobs is higher, job offers are still scarce and interview processes can take longer to assure you can be trusted.

2. Seeing colleagues over video helps with motivation

When I started working remotely from Budapest I kept the same habits as in the office. I worked the same hours from 9:30 am to 7 pm, Monday to Thursday, and had a daily call with the data team at 11:45 am.

Seeing the team everyday motivated me and reassured them that I had good working conditions and was not at home in pajamas. We had a company weekly meeting on Mondays at 9:30 am and a data weekly meeting on Wednesdays at 2 pm. Apart from the scheduled calls, we jumped in for some one to one calls and pair programming sessions.

Going to Nomad City in Gran Canarias, Spain

3. Written communication can improve knowledge sharing

When I was in the office, we talked to each other with the fear of missing out if not around. Once remote, most of the communication happened via Slack messages and code reviews. Messages on Slack could be read multiple times and answered asynchronously. When something needed to be saved for later it was added to the documentation on Notion.

During my stay in the Canary Islands, I took the chance to attend Nomad City, a weekend conference about remote work. There were several talks from remote leaders to learn from. For example, to avoid getting lost in the hundreds of daily messages on Slack it helped us to start messages with “Thread: ” to remind people to answer within a thread. It helps keeping messages organized and saving time by skipping non relevant threads.

4. No coworking space is adequate for everyone

Before arriving to a new destination I searched and compared the different coworking spaces online. Having to work an average of 32 hours per week, I wanted to get out from home every morning and avoid mixing home and work life. I found great coworking spaces in Budapest, Puerto Montt, New Orleans and Bordeaux. I had a so-so experience in Tenerife, rented private offices in Valparaiso and Arequipa but really struggled to find a good space in Buenos Aires.

In Buenos Aires, it took me three weeks to find a suitable coworking space. Some places had extremely noisy open spaces, connectivity issues to remote servers and non-ergonomic furniture that made it painful to work. For weeks, I caught up on work at home using a handmade standing desk, it was messy. Finally, I found a by-the-hour internet cafe where I could work efficiently. Apart from developing a list of criteria for choosing a coworking space, the experience in Buenos Aires improved my capacity to adapt to different places and solve issues faster in the future.

5. Most remote workers are not digital nomads

At the beginning of the trip it took me some weeks to build confidence to talk to people. Most interesting conversations happened just before leaving. Later, I showed interest from the beginning, asked to share a coffee or meal and made friends with other remote workers.

I mostly crossed freelancers and remote employees in coworking spaces and realized that most remote workers are not digital nomads. I crossed a few other digital nomads in popular destinations like Budapest and the Canary Islands. South America and the US were great to meet locals. I still missed on the vast majority of the people working remotely from home.

Co-working Patagonia in Puerto Montt, Chile

6. Working from different time zones is challenging

I worked from different time zones with a hour difference in Tenerife, 4 hours in Argentina and Chile and 7 hours in Peru and the US. In spite of the time difference, I still attended the Monday morning meeting from home at 9:30 am in Paris, which could be as early as 5:30 am in Argentina and 2:30 am in Peru. It was challenging and it required slowly adapting my sleeping times to go bed earlier and wake up earlier.

The rest of the week, I started my work day with the daily meeting that was later moved to 2 pm Paris time to make it easier for me to attend. Over time, having half a day of synchronous work with my team was sufficient and allowed focusing on building features without interruptions the rest of the time.

7. Focusing on meeting objectives can bring flexibility to your day

After six months, we had set and reviewed team objectives for two quarters. We were advancing at a good rhythm and there was no sign that remote work was stopping us from meeting objectives.

I felt no need anymore to stress out in the morning to start working at the same time everyday, force myself to work when tired or staying late in the office just for the sake of it. Instead, I focused on meeting objectives. I remained available half a day to match the Paris afternoon and the rest of the day I worked at the most efficient time. Some days it was more efficient to take a longer lunch break followed by a siesta and finish work in the evening.

Living in colorful Valparaiso, Chile

8. It is worth to invest in the best equipment

From the beginning I used the Roost stand and the K380 Logitech keyboard to keep a better posture. At first, we had video calls on Slack and then moved to Zoom to share the screen and video all together. That was important for presentations, as talking to a slide deck is very inefficient. The company also invested on a bigger TV so that the 15+ people in the office could see me at all times and read the slides across the room.

After a few internet cuts in Buenos Aires I made sure to always have an internet backup with a local 4G plan. I also bought the Jabra Elite 35t wireless headphones to get a better call experience from open spaces.

9. Meeting colleagues in person is important for team bonding

While in Europe I flew back to Paris a couple times to spend time with colleagues. I then went to America for seven months and it felt a bit long as the rest of the company works from the office.

I did not feel I was missing stuff related to work. But it is harder to join remotely the informal conversations over coffee, lunch and after works. It felt weird trying to attend the Christmas dinner through a laptop camera that moved from hand to hand faster than I could wish them a Happy Christmas.

Walking remotely at 4200 meters in Laguna de Salinas, Peru

10. Working remotely can boost your energy

One of the biggest advantages of remote work is that you can adapt your work to your lifestyle. I avoided commuting and always took a coworking space within walking distance from home.

I am now saving at least an hour a day on commuting and use that time to exercise, relax and work on side projects. It also feels easier to make it to the weekend without feeling exhausted.

Going remote taught me a lot about productivity, connecting with people and myself. My way of working evolved with time and I expect it to keep changing in the future. I believe remote work, occasionally or full time, can make your work more efficient and joyful too.

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