How To Work Remotely

After a nice and calm summer the second wave caught up with us here in Switzerland and we are back to working from home full time.

When the federal government mandated that people work from home whenever possible, many companies were thrown into a situation they weren’t prepared to handle. Nevertheless, all over the world people proved how adaptable humans are. Given the circumstances, I think this big experiment was mostly a success.

Luckily, even before the Coronavirus Pandemic and prior to my sabbatical, I had experience with remote work as I worked with distributed teams and I managed a team of engineers in three different timezones.

I can’t stress enough that you cannot just transplant your office processes into the remote world and think things will work the same. They might for a while, but long-term your team will burn-out.

Working from home (or working with a distributed team) requires a different philosophy.

Accommodate the people who do not have a “home office”

We need to acknowledge and keep in mind that not everybody has the environment at home to work full time.

For people in smaller apartments with families and kids, for example, it can be difficult to get something done. This is especially true when schools are closed. Give your employees the time to breathe they need, support them by providing the necessary equipment to work from home, and let them chose the hours that work best for them. If they are not able to put in 8 hours of work, that’s ok too. A lockdown is temporary. Family goes first. No, we are not family at work.

Asynchronous Communication

Working with a fully remote team provides some unique chances to improve on what most people don’t like about offices: Constant interruptions, noise, and long meetings

If you have a dedicated home office, the quietness and calmness of working from home can be a godsend. However, we need to be mindful of the attention hogs like Slack and other real-time communication tools. One of the most frequent complaints I hear is that people can’t focus on a task because of constant interruptions.

As a team lead, set the guidelines and embrace asynchronous communication.

It takes a while to get used to, but writing down a question properly often results in new insights and you might not even need somebody else’s input after formulating the question.

Keeping the Spirit

Many people say that “company culture” gets lost when everybody is remote. That’s not true. If your culture gets lost when people cannot go to the office, there wasn’t much of a culture to begin with. What is true, however, is that your company’s culture might change.

When everybody is in their own home it’s harder to keep a personal connection. Schedule some additional time in your rituals at the beginning so people can just chat. We also have a “virtual water fountain” channel where people can share non-work related stuff and hang out at coffee breaks. We also have an ongoing “open window”-meet where people can hang out during work to see each other. This is completely optional and not everybody likes to do that. But I like to have a place that I can join when I take a coffee break or before ending the day just to hang out. I am not a big fan of forcing the team to have a good time together. Listen to them and ask them what they would like to do. Maybe your team would like a little hackathon afternoon or a game night or just having a drink while chatting in the open window?

Reduce Interruptions

If you are using Slack as a primary means of communication, agree on when it’s ok to @ mention someone. For example, in my team we have the following three categories of questions:

  1. Non-urgent: Are prefixed with a ❓
  2. Questions that need answers in a few minutes have a 🚨 prefix
  3. For truly important questions, we tag the “on-duty” engineer in your question

Since we are operating the platform behind Ricardo interruptions can happen anytime. To reduce the impact on the team, we have a weekly rotation of an “SRE on Duty”. The SoD is responsible to answer questions from the developers, on-call engineers, or is the first to jump into incidents. They also tackle any unplanned work that needs to be taken care of.

This setup allows the rest of the team to disable most notifications and work uninterrupted.

Personal Well-Being

Everybody is different and has different needs. Following are a few recommendations that have worked for me in the past and might be helpful for others. In the end, you have to figure out what works and what is important for your well-being.

  • Don’t forget to treat yourself. Go for a walk over lunch, eat fruits, do something to relax. Not going to the office also means you will miss out on all the walking you usually do to get to the office and inside the office.
  • Make your home office comfortable and ergonomic. Get an adjustable desk and chair. Invest in a good 4k screen (e.g. HP Z27 or Dell U2720Q), a good keyboard and a mouse (e.g. Logitech MX Master 3).
  • There are no hero awards for working overtime. Of course, sometimes there is the need for a short sprint, but we are in it for the long haul.
  • Track your time for yourself. You’ll be surprised how much you work.
  • If you have trouble winding down at the end of the day, one thing that can help is to ask yourself “Have I done a good day’s work?” Answering that question is liberating. Often, if the answer is an easy “yes”, you can stop working feeling satisfied that something important got accomplished. Should the answer be “no”, you can treat it as an off-day and explore the Five Whys.
  • Creating a routine can help to get into a working mood and out of working wood. Eg. walk around the block before and after work.
  • It’s recommended that you have separate devices for work and pleasure. For example, if you want to watch something in the evening on Netflix, it is very tempting to “just check an email” and get sucked back into work.


The following blog posts and books inspired the content of this blog post: