3 things I learned in my first year of remote work

Tyler Robertson
Tyler Robertson / Published April 23, 2020

When we talk about remote work, we focus on the remote part. You can work from wherever you want, wearing whatever you want, and in some cases, on whatever schedule you want. But what about the work part of remote work?

When I started at Zapier, that's the part I wasn't prepared for. I'd done plenty of customer support work in the past, but none of it had been from the comfort of my own home. In my interview for the role, I distinctly remember being asked, "What do you think the biggest challenge will be when switching to remote work?"

My response: "How do you actually get things done?"

After just over a year of getting things done remotely, I'm happy to say: the getting things done part is easy. What takes time is figuring out how to manage your schedule, the people you work with, and that always fun voice inside your head. Here are a few tips.

1. Be careful what you say.

Not because you're likely to say something wrong, or bad, or whatever, but when you work in a distributed company, you'll find that it's more often the case that people will really listen to you.

In my first few months of remote work, I found myself bringing up half-baked thoughts and ideas in Slack, fully not expecting anyone to care about what I thought. It was a habit I'd picked up from working jobs where any real decisions were made well above my pay grade. When you're employee #1466-B and your job title is Junior Salesfloor Jockey, you can say pretty much anything, and it won't even register with management.

Some of this is just based on company culture, but I'd argue people take your ideas more seriously in a distributed company. When you work remotely, most communication is written—in a Slack thread, an email, a pull request. So people assume that when someone has taken the time and effort to write something down, it warrants consideration. That's great, but it can be scary.

While working at Zapier, I have consistently received serious, considered replies any time I've brought up a concern or project idea. And because we're distributed and communicate openly in Slack channels, the replies have come from my immediate peer group all the way up to the company's founders.

Case in point: at our most recent retreat, I gave a talk in front of the entire company, entirely based on this post I'd made in a Slack thread:

Y'all I'm gonna submit a Lightning Talk for the retreat that is just This is a cookie, change my mind and the slideshow is 20 images of pancakes pies, cakes, and pizzas

When you work in a transparent environment where people take your words seriously, you need to remember to respect that power. Or else you'll wind up like me, asking a room full of your colleagues and managers whether a pizza is a cookie.

2. Anxiety is not a deadline.

A thing that everyone kind of knows about remote work but you don't fully grasp until you're in it: you can't see your coworkers.

For some, this is a relief. Finally, no more dealing with Tyler's ironic t-shirts and rambling about Dungeons & Dragons. But it also means that there's a trade-off: instead of getting to know every annoying detail about your coworkers, you see whatever version of them that they choose to share. Typically, this will be when they've completed projects, reached milestones, received promotions, had a fancy lunch. Soon, it starts to look like everyone is working all the time and is doing everything super well and IshouldbeworkingwhyamIwritingthis—

You develop this little voice in the back of your head. It disguises itself as trying to be helpful, to keep you on par with this inexplicable group of superhumans you've been hired to work with: "Oh, there's this thing that I think would be super cool to do, I have the skills to do it, and there's nothing technically holding me back from doing it right now. I should do that right now."

I implore you (and by "you," I mean "me") to resist that voice when you can. When you give in to that voice, the idea wriggles and writhes its way into the crevices of your brain and tries its best to become a priority. Every day that goes by without this idea coming to life becomes a stamp in your self-sabotage punch card (10 and your next panic attack's free!). And if you let every idea become a priority this way, none of them are really a priority anymore. They pile up and become a mountain, and before long, nothing gets done.

Write the idea down, share it with others, but do not let your anxiety convince you that it needs to happen right away. Even though the stream of other people's accomplishments may try to convince you otherwise, very few things in this world need to happen right away. You are under no obligation to bring something to fruition right away just because it's a cool idea. Instead, tell the voice this: "You're right, that would be cool. I will keep that in mind if I have some time later on."

This gives you freedom: to work on that idea when it's convenient for you, and to drop it (or let others give it a try!) if it's not something you have the bandwidth for. Everything that actually has a deadline will actually have a deadline.

3. Remote work is real work.

When I tell people that I work from home, for a tech company, the first response is usually something like, "Oh, that must be nice. I bet you can sleep in and work in your pajamas!" with the underlying "so you don't have a real job" subtext.

And, well, yeah—part of that is true, and some of us do work from bed. But it's still a real job, even when you do it from the couch, or the kitchen table, or the Starbucks down the road.

Because we live in a world where what you do equals who you are, if people think your job "isn't a real job," it's easy to let yourself feel like you're "not a real person." Well, first of all, the thing you have is a real job. If it's not, you might want to start looking for your next gig.

But if it's still hard to feel like a person when you spend most of your time with a computer, do something about it. Make plans with friends. Sign up for local events. Go see movies. Join a D&D group. Make a podcast. Knit a scarf. Do whatever it is that makes you happy and reminds you that you're a complete person out of the office (even if that office isn't a real office).

For some people, regaining respect for remote work means finding a coworking space or having six video meetings a day. Being around other people helps remind you that your work isn't an island and rebuilds those connections between your daily tasks and the company's larger goals.

For others, who don't want to physically be around people (where my introverts at?), there are a few other ways to make this happen:

  • Call the spot where you put your computer "the office," even if it's just the one square foot of empty space at the kitchen table (that was my office for my first nine months at Zapier).
  • Make breakfast.
  • Pack yourself a lunch.
  • Dress like you're about to commute to work, even if you work in bed. I'm talking slacks, skirts, button-ups, polos. The kind of clothes that your significant other will see and ask, "Where are you going?"

At Zapier, one of our core values is "Don't be a robot, build the robot." I like to focus on that first part: "don't be a robot." Because you're not a robot! Even though you work with and on and around and through a computer, you're still a person. Remember that.

Now, let's get out there and get things done.

(And by "out there" I mean "the couch," obviously. Separately. In our own homes. You get the idea.)

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