Working in a full-remote job

12 months ago I started working in a full-remote job as Senior Software Engineer at Generation Lambda. It was a substantial change for me in my working discipline, having never worked in a fully-remote environment. Yes, when I was working as lecturer there were the COVID-19 lockdowns during which I had to switch my back-then teaching job into full-remote for roughly 3 semesters. However, teaching full remote and doing full-remote software engineering work is fundamentally different. Still, I could take a few things away from my remote teaching experience, what to do and what not to do.

In this short blog post I am reflecting on what I see as the main points to focus on to be productive in a fully-remote Software Engineering job. In a nutshell it all breaks down to selfdiscipline.

  • Probably the most important thing is to set up a clearly structured daily regime, which you follow every working day. For example I force myself to get up between 6 and 7 in the morning because I am most productive in the morning hours. If you start early then you have more of the rest of the day to balancing activities such as sports, which are extremely important in a fully-remote job (see below). However not everyone is productive in the morning, so find out what works best for you. Also, if teams stretch the whole globe one needs to compromise on when to get up to make meetings possible e.g. it might be the case that you have a person from South America and one from Australia on your team: when Australia goes to sleep, then South America is getting up - so you need to balance your working time to cover both time zones to some extent.

  • Avoid being available all time. This is very tempting in a fully-remote job, but it is a guarantee to burn out quickly. During the COVID lockdowns when I was lecturer, I made the mistake to be available all day except when I was sleeping, and I promptly ran into a burnout. There are exceptions to this: when the company is going into an important phase such as releasing a product, or being on-call, you simply need to be available 24/7, but it is generally only for a restricted period.

  • During the week I am on a very strict diet, where I avoid eating too much during the working hours. I have a light breakfast of yoghurt with nuts, dried fruits and honey with tea followed by some fruits (Oranges, Apples,…) in the morning. Later around noon I prepare some meat with vegetable or an egg omlette as a light snack, which is my only warm and full meal for the day. I generally avoid carbohydrates as they make me feel very full and mixing them with meats makes me feel very tired in the afternoon, hampering my productivity dramatically.

  • I am using multiple TODO lists to structure my work and keep track of all things and to structure my day-to-day business, especially after I have switched into the Tech Lead position. This probably applies to on-site jobs as well, however I feel due to the lack of certain reminders, structuring events that happen automatically in an on-site job, a fully-remote job needs more self-organisation and self discipline and TODO lists help to not get lost and keep yourself on track.

  • This might sound obvious but isn’t: get enough sleep, it is the very foundation of your performance. Especially in a fully-remote position you might be tempted to fall into an irregular sleeping rythm - avoid this under all costs and stick to a regular rythm (see above). The great thing in a full-remote position is that you can have a short nap, of 15-25 minutes if you really feel tired in the afternoon, however always set your alarm to avoid sleeping too long, which will make you more tired instead of waking you up.

  • The coffee question. I really love coffee but I avoid drinking it on a regular basis. The reason is simple: in the beginning it works like a charm, increasing productivity tremendously, however after around 4 weeks the effect wears off, after your body has become addicted, and you need the daily dose to just functioning normal. Rather I am using and saving coffee as a tool for times where the productivity push is really needed e.g. during crunsh times and releases.

  • I am generally trying to work my 8-10 hours a day in one go, with very minor breaks (toilet, breakfast, short lunch) after which I go outside to do sports for 60-90 minutes. Depending on the time of the year this is: jogging, cycling (autumn, winter, spring), and outdoor swimming (spring, summer). I am very lucky that I live in an environment where this is easily possible (living in nature and 5 minutes from a huge public outdoor pool). In my opinion, daily exercise and workout is fundamentally important for the long-time well being, both physically and mentally. Especially in a fully-remote job, having a balance to the indoor work, where you theoretically don’t have to go outdoors, is tremendously valuable. A remarkable side effect of these workouts is that they free my mind and put it into a state of unfocused contemplating, where I get planning and organisational insights for my Tech Lead role, and new ideas and solutions suddenly pop up while running, cycling or swimming. It is sometimes so effective that I am tempted to count the workout time as regular working time ;)

  • This point might sound silly, but in a fully-remote job you very rarely need to think deeply about your dress code. It is generally only during formal meetings such as as interviews with new candidates or when meeting business partners. Having said that, I think it is healthy not to dress too casual however I am guilty being too lazy there because it is simply super convenient to wear your favourite jogging trousers non-stop for 7 days in a row.

  • For a few months when I started my fully-remote job I had actually 3 jobs (the current one, lecturer at uni and computer teacher at a secondary school) - a fully-remote job makes it possible. I recommend to avoid such situations as it puts a strain on you and you probably won’t last very long if all jobs are equally demanding. Generally, in such a situation you must be even more disciplined and you probably won’t have too much free time. If you have multiple jobs, dedicate for each a specific block of time in your day: either morning or afternoon, and stick to it stictly, that is, while on the one job, don’t even think of the other one. This needs careful planning but it works - obviously only if you are not working on all jobs full time.

  • Full-remote jobs have the benefit that you can work potentially from everywhere (not quite, see point on timezones above) so you might be tempted to do a lot of traveling to other countries while working full remote. Although it can be nice, it sounds much more appealing than it actually is. So far, I went to Portugal, UK and Thailand while working full remote. It was always a nice experience, however it is considerably more exhausting than working from home, as you want to make most of your day and do a lot of trips and activities (especially in Portugal and Thailand).

  • Having you warned against too high expectations from traveling and working fully remote, I suggest to do it every now and then to change your environment to get out of your daily environment to change some habits. Also, as it is unclear how long we can afford such unrestricted travelling (climate change), we should reap the benefits of working fully remote and actually go on trips every now and then to see parts of the world we always wanted to see.

  • No need to commute - depending how close you live to your work place, you can easily save between 30 and 120 minutes daily when you don’t have to commute anymore. This is time you have at your disposal and can use for other things instead. When I switched from my on-site uni job to the full-remote software engineering job it saved me around 90 minutes daily when commuting by bus (60 minutes when by bycicle). I am using this additional free time for my daily workout of 60-90 minutes. With this saved time I can manage the household, cook, clean up, until my wife returns in the evening which gives us both quality time together because the necessary things have been done already.

  • Some people have strong opinions against full-remote jobs because they claim that the social aspect of working with other people is lost. Obviously, you cannot have the daily coffee breaks where you chat about random stuff, however this doesn’t mean there are no social interactions in full-remote jobs. On the contrary, when I am working I am interacting with my co-workers non-stop on many levels: technical, argumentative, socially,… and it is fundamentally important, to get stuff done - after all Software Engineering consists a big deal of communication. Whether it is textual or through voice or full video calls doesn’t matter, the interactions are there, and I enjoy them very much with every one of my co-workers. Sure, these communication channels are narrower than in-person communication, but that only means that you need to be more careful when communicating. The company also organised events, where most of us met in-person, where a lot of team bonding could happen - such events are fundamentally important to get an initial feel on the personalities of the co-workers, and makes it arguably easier to communicate on-line.

  • Besides the commuting argument I believe the biggest benefit of a fully-remote job is that it allows for unprecedented deep focus work, something not possible in an on-site job. In a fully-remote job it is simply much easier to shut off any external distractions - at least they are under your control. However, this is me speaking as someone who has no kids (yet), so this might be not entirely true for people who have kids.

Concluding I have to say that I absolutely enjoy working fully-remote as for me the benefits clearly dominate the drawbacks. An important learning experience for me was coming to the realisation that full-remote teaching does not work whereas full-remote software engineering works actually very well, even in a leading position I am in now: in the end it is very much about communication and for Software Engineering this works very well with the modern tools we have at our disposal.