Arriving at a location-independent work arrangement

Early in my career I was in a job that had me commuting close to three hours a day. I managed it by reading a lot, but it left me with very little personal time during the working week. Weekends were often spent getting ready for the week ahead. I went to work when everyone else went to work, came home when everyone else came home, went shopping when everyone else went shopping. Wherever I went was busy with people rushing to do the same things I needed to do.

Eventually my wife and I moved closer to my office. This made things better for me, but not necessarily for my wife or our personal life. My office was outside the city, and in order to go to most places we wanted to go, we had to make the 30 minute car ride in. My wife had a longer commute to her clients’ locations.

When it came to buying a house, we chose a location based on what would work for us long term, and moved back into the city. I found work not too far from where we lived; 30 minutes by train door to door. Flexi-time helped me manage my work/life balance, but I had always found the office environment distracting and not conducive for work. When I needed to put my head down and get some work done, I worked from home. This helped, but office-centric culture made me feel on the fringes of the social structure that surrounded the company.

An Alternative

I had read a lot about remote working. The concept appealed to me for many reasons:

  • I could cut out my daily commute, leaving more time in the day for other activities.
  • I could work at times of the day and in environments that would help me be as productive as possible.
  • I could design my work space around what works best for me.
  • I could travel out of the city and still work, allowing me to travel for longer and give my itinerary more flexibility.

The book Remote discusses such advantages in great detail. On top of what’s said in the book and what I listed above, my personal situation also encouraged me to take up such a working style. My wife and I live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and:

  • My wife’s family lives in the countryside. If location was irrelevant to my work, we could visit them for extended periods of time and I could work during the visit.
  • My family lives in Scotland… (see point above).
  • We love the idea of country life and wish to settle there. A location-independent job would make this possible.

A Reality

When Nick Marden reached out to me about joining Rapid River Software, his 100% remote software development consulting company, I jumped at the chance to get on board, and since April 2014 I have been working from my home with teams on the other side of the world from me.

When I mention this working arrangement to other people, I often get asked about the difficulties people imagine they’d have if they were in a similar position. Since it’s been over six months since I started, here’s a summary of my experience so far presented by answering some of the questions I often hear:

Don’t you get lonely without colleagues around you every day?

On the whole, I don’t get lonely working in this arrangement. I will admit that when working in an office there were times when I enjoyed a random conversation with colleagues. But more often I found the arrangement distracting. I’m not good at small talk or idle gossip, but found myself involved in such activities more often than I cared for. Worse, by actively avoiding the social dynamic in the name of productivity I felt as though I isolated myself and came across as aloof.

Now, between regular conference calls with my team and spending time with my wife, family and friends, I find I get plenty of social interaction. But in case I need more, my schedule now allows me to hook up with groups of people that have similar interests with me. I’ve been keeping my eye on the KLHiking group for a while now and plan to join one of their hikes in the near future.

Do you find it hard to balance work and non-work activities? Isn’t being at home too distracting?

What remote working gives you is more complete control over your schedule. I love this, but the flexibility comes at a price: you must organize your life well. For example, it’s now possible for me to go to the supermarket during office hours (when it’s quiet), but if I want to do that and work eight hours in that day, I have to be organized with my time. It’s very easy to prioritize small day-to-day tasks and end up not having enough time for work. This is something I struggled with initially.

There’s a number of things that can be done to deal with this:

  • Keep on top of house chores. I dedicate two times of the day to deal with such tasks: first thing in the morning and late in the evening. Think of these times as warm up and cool down periods for cognitive activity. Once I’m ready to start work for the day, our house is in order and hence devoid of distractions.

  • Create a home office. If you have a comfortable, consistent space where you can enter and get to work, once you’re in there and working you’re less likely to find things to distract you.

  • Set realistic expectations for the amount of work you can achieve in a particular day and meet them. If you don’t, your attitude towards work will likely be “just do as much as I can”. While that may sound reasonable, it doesn’t set you up to achieve self-appointed goals and can even leave you feeling unsatisfied, as you may feel like you underachieved for that day. Being explicit when planning your day allows you to celebrate achieving those explicit goals. It also keeps you focused on completing them.

A reality for you too?

I suspect this style of working isn’t for everyone. It requires a high level of self-discipline and a desire to be independent. However, I think many developers are attracted to it. Making the jump from the familiar “9-5” can be difficult though. If you’re toying with the idea of making such a jump and want to talk to someone who’s been though it, I’d be happy to talk to you. Just reach out to me via the contact channels on this site and I’ll respond. I might even be able to hook you up with some work ;–)