Remote Routines - 2014-09-12 - Brian CobbSep 12, 2014 • Brett Chalupa
The first episode of Remote Routines, a new irregular interview show highlighting the routines of remote workers hosted by Brett Chalupa.
This episode was recorded on September 12th, 2014. It is with Brian Cobb, a software developer here at FullStack.
Apologies for the shady audio quality and occasional drops. Will work on solving for that issue in future episodes.
My name is Brian Cobb, and I work for FullStack as a software developer. I live in Madison, Wisconsin. Right now, it is like 40 degrees here, a nice and chilly fall day.
What does your daily routine look like since you work from home?
My routine is pretty consistent, at least the beginning and end. I like to get to work between 7 and 8, and I like to leave between 4 and 5. I find that works for me, both in terms of mental energy and in terms of having time outside of work to persue other interests.
The first thing I will do in the morning is check chat, check email, look at the calendar, check Trello, all that good stuff. I usually take about an hour for lunch, which gives me time to do the dishes. [It helps me] mentally unwind from the first half of the day and […] prepare for the second half.
Lately, the project I have been on, has an afternoon stand-up. It is a nice way to reflect on what I have done and be ready for that meeting.
Is there anything you do to try and stay in tip-top mental, physical, and spiritual health? Some people might run, some people might bike. Those are physical health, but when people say they are healthy, does that mean they are skinny? Like they don’t eat a lot of carbohydrates? From spiritual, educational (mental), and physical aspects, how to approach health?
I definitely feel like exercise is a big component of my mental health. I play in a men’s baseball league every week. When you are not a high school athlete, that is a lot of exercise compared to when you sit at a desk all day. I also ride my bike long distances for fun.
I do not know that I could describe the mechanism by which that improves my mental health, but I do feel greater clarity when I do those sorts of things.
I am definitely more content with my life, it does not feel like…*Cashmere, Brian’s cat meows.* My cat also keeps me mentally healthy, I should add.
Making the time to do those things makes me feel content for having done them. The act of doing them is a source of realignment and reflection.
What is your favorite part about remote work? I realize that this may have a lot of similar answers, but I am curious to see if there are different answers. What is your favorite part about working remotely and working from home?
First of all, I would say [working from home and working remotely] are two different things. I know a lot of people who work from co-working spaces. I typically work from home.
I really like the idea of positive pressure in design. The idea that a constraint limits a system, but in a way that ends up being pretty good. It is a valuable constraint. The constraint of working remotely pushes you into good habits, like using a calendar, keeping track of what you are doing, and talking with other people about what you are doing regularly. And developing written communication skills, like formal writing and knowing when it is appropriate to post up a GIF in the company chat.
Those are all core compentencies for a remote developer. When I have worked at in-person jobs, those are all not as important because you are all there. Especially when you are a small company, you are all just there and you can make it happen.
So it is like remote work etiquette? I think that is a really interesting [point].
I think those habits would adapt really well to an office environment. I do not think these skills are only useful for remote employees.
Working from home is an additional bonus because I feel completely comfortable in my workspace. There is no weird politics about leaving food in the fridge or refreshing the coffee pot. My cat is just wandering around, and I can feel like I am at home. Well, because, I am literally at home.
I think that that is one less thing you have to think about when you are trying to solve hard problems, that is the environment around you. If you are completely comfortable in your environment, that is just one more advantage.
I can totally understand that. When I worked at Burton, there were PA speakers surrounding the area I worked in. You could come in and Biggy Smalls would be playing all day, or you could come in and it would be reggae for four hours. There’s no noise canceling headphones that can drown out that steel drum.
This interview is not to sell remote working. I am not writing a book on remote. [laughs] I am not creating a remote job board. This is not to sell remote working, this is to talk about it.
What is your biggest struggle or challenge working from home and working remotely?
The obvious problem is that it is hard to establish boundaries between home life and work life. Hard, not only for me, but hard for the people in my life. Understandably, it is hard for the people in my life to know when I am at work and when I am not at work because I am home the entire time.
For instance, I have had family members drop by when I am on a call, and they are ringing the doorbell because they know I am home. I run upstairs and I am like, “I am really happy to see you, but I can’t talk right now. Can you hang out for another 30 or 40 minutes while I finish up this call?” They are a little disappointed because ‘so close, yet so far.’
If I decided one day that I did not want to eat dinner until eight o’clock, I could easily work until eight, no sweat. I could put in a solid 12 or 13 hour day, but that would not be healthy. I would not want to start a trend of doing that.
What do you do to separate home and work time? Do you use a computer a night? That is something I think about a lot. If I am on the computer, I am working. If I am not on the computer, I am not working.
A little context, I am living in Madison[, Wisconsin] right now, and [my partner and I] have an upstairs and a downstairs. We lived in San Francisco where we had a one bedroom apartment with a bedroom the size of a closet and a connected living room and kitchen. I worked out of the kitchen/living room area there. There it was impossible to set physical boundaries, let alone mental boundaries.
Here, [in Madison], I have a desk downstairs with a “work” laptop. Basically a workspace. I do not use this workspace unless I am doing work. Step 0 is to close out of every work related thing on my laptop. Step 1 is to take it upstairs and do it upstairs. That is where it is okay, if I am working on side projects or whatever, to let the boundaries of home and work lower.
What is the hardest part about working with a team that is distributed and remote?
I think time zones are harder than they are cracked up to be, especially for real-time communication. To some extent, you can structure your work and practices around not being in the same time zone. In my experience, there are some activities like pair programming and brainstorming that work best in real time. Or only work in real-time in the case of pair programming. I think that time zones pose a challenge to that. That is kind of a small thing.
A benefit of remote work is that it puts these good contraints on your day. Those constraints are not easy, and I think that those constraints can create a culture of isolation. You show up to your basement desk, put on your headphones, listen to music, type into chat, maybe see someone once a day, and that is your work day. Some days will be like that, but if everyday is like that, all the sudden a month has gone by and the only folks you see are the folks you see when you are running errands. You have not developed any personal connections with the people you work with.
It is very easy to detatch when you are remote. There is no one there to grab you for lunch or to toss the frisbee around with.
There is no ping pong table or fooseball table.
When you work from home, that is almost a benefit though. You can detatch and really focus. You can have that four or five hour focus time. You can quit chat, mute notifications, and really dig in. But you can’t just go and grab someone [at work] to hangout. That balance is super tough.
It might be worth noting that remote work tends to attract a personality that is more quick to detach from things like chat. Some people can manage the notifications, the emails, chat, and go seamlessly from one to the other while getting substaintial work done. But for people, like myself, who like the quiet, I can dig myself into a hole of isolation very easily if I am not careful. There is nothing you can do except to have structure around socializing.