Making #RemoteWork Actually Work

Presented by Lauren Schaefer at You Got This 2020: From Home

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These transcripts were captured live by a captioner. As such, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

Before I jump into talking about remote work, I want to acknowledge there is a lot going on in the world right now. Many of us are feeling sad, many of us are feeling frustration, many of us are feeling angry, and many of us are hurting. For years, we have had a pattern of racial injustice and systematic racism in the US. For many of us, current events have increased our awareness of this ugly problem. We must change. We must do better.

In a global online space like this, chance also good some of you are already working to influence change. I applaud you for this. I have a feeling that some of you want to be part of the solution but not sure how. It can be so easy to acknowledge the problem, feel overwhelmed by it, and then become immobilised by that overwhelming feeling. We feel the feelings of sadness and anger but then don't actually take the next step to do something about it. It's so easy to let this happen without even realising it.

In the tech world, when we have large problems to solve, we don't do it all at once. We break it down into smaller tasks that can be accomplished in a day or two. When you do all the tasks together, you get a full working app. Let's do the same thing here. If you're not already involved in being part of the solution, I encourage you to pick one small thing you can do this weekend, and then do it.

If you're not sure what you can do, I have a list of three things you can do. I recognise that I'm coming into this conversation as a white person with privilege, so the research I've done on how to help is from that perspective. I'm not saying these are the right things to do or the best things to do win want to give you some practical examples of small steps you can take right now.

So, one thing you can do is educate yourself. There are so many ways you can do this. You can research the history of racism online. You can go to YouTube, and other social media, and listen to the stories black people are sharing. You can learn about microaggressions and bias, and discover how you might be unintentionally hurting others. One book that's been recommended to me by a couple of people is How To be an Antiracist by Kendi. If you have kids, talk with them about racism and current events. Research from Harvard University shows kids as young as three embrace racism when exposed with it. It's not too early to talk with your kids about it. It's probably going to be really uncomfortable for you, but it's important. has put together a list of children's books to help you have this conversation. I heard the Town Hall that Sesame Street did earlier today was really well done. My final suggestion for you is to donate.

Many in the tech industry have been fortunate to keep our jobs during the pandemic as we are able to work remotely. I know not everyone here has remained employed, but, if you're in a position to donate, I encourage you to do so. Find a cause that reflects your values and donate. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed what cause to donate to as there are so many good organisations, but don't let that sway you. You don't have to find the perfect cause. Find one that is doing good work, and donate to it. If you find another cause that is doing great things later on, you can donate to that cause as well. Think about the impact we can make right now if everyone is listening donated just $5. Think about if we donated more.

There are good lists online of organisations to donate to. To get you started, here's one I found on Charity Navigator that lists non-profits defending civil rights. You can protest, you can sign a petition, support a friend who is hurting, you can research politicians for the upcoming election, you can amplify black voices sharing stories and ideas for solutions, you can advocate for better hiring and promotion policies at your company, support black-owned businesses, get involved in an organisation that is working to influence change, or attend the session after this one about how to lend your privilege, and then actually follow through and lend your privilege.

Whatever it is, I encourage you to do one thing this weekend, and then pick something else and do it next week. Just don't do nothing. The silence is deafening. All right, there's really no smooth way to make a transition here, but I'm going to do it anyway. Let's shift gears, and let's talk about remote work.

This is a picture of my dad. He has no idea I'm using this photo in this presentation, but he willingly posed for this photo, and he posted it on Facebook, so I feel like if he didn't want this picture broadcast in a presentation to people around the world, that's on him! Dad doesn't usually come to my presentations, but since this is being broadcasted, he might be watching - hi, dad!

You can't tell from this ridiculous photo, but he was a Harrier pilot in the military for 20 years. He retired from the military and joined Lockheed Martin where he currently works as a people manager. When the quarantine orders hit his area, he called me up and was like, "Lauren, you've been working remotely for years. What advice can you give to me to give to my employees who have never worked remotely?" I started rattling off bits and pieces of advice. He was, "Wait, let me get a note pad", and, old school, he started scribbling down notes before after a few minutes, that was enough, and just stop.

Okay, so this presentation will be on much more organised version of that conversation I had with my dad. I'm going to give you my top ten tips for making remote work actually work right now in current quarantine conditions.

If you're here, I'm going to assume you're working remotely because you want to be, or perhaps you're preparing to begin working for one of the big Silicon Valley companies who recently discovered that remote work actually works, and shifting to allow all employees to work remotely forever.

I gave a talk at PyCon last year of the effectiveness of remote work, and showed my story of how I began working remotely, how to ask your boss to work remotely, and shared my top five tips for working during normal conditions. If you're interested in those topics, check out that talk on YouTube.

The slides for today's presentation are available on my Twitter page so don't worry about scribbling down the link. You'll be able to get it afterwards. Let's dive into my top ten tips for how to make remote work actually work right now.

So, number ten: acknowledge that this isn't normal. Life isn't normal right now. If you're struggling to work remotely, it's important to acknowledge these are not normal remote-work conditions. Julia is a technical programme manager at Google and tweeted, "I've been working remotely for two and a half years. The past two and a half months have left me more exhausted than ever before. This is your reminder that you're not working remotely, you're working remotely during a global health crisis." I could not agree more.

I've been working remotely for ten years, and working remotely during quarantine has been a huge struggle for me. I have a four-year-old running around, making noise, and interrupting me.

Before the pandemic when I told people I would work from home, they would say, "That must be so nice that you get to spend time with your kid while you work," and I'm like, "Oh, no, no, no. She goes to daycare." There is no way I could work effectively and watch her at the same time. And here I've been attempting to do just that during quarantine, and it's been rough. Perhaps you have noisy kids or roommates, or pets, or perhaps you're stressed because of financial concerns, or you're worried about the health of your friends and family, or you miss being around other people, or you're upset due to recent tragedies and racial injustice.

Whatever the case, life is not normal right now. So try to cut yourself some slack. For people like me, this is definitely easier said than done. But, seriously, try to cut yourself some slack, and acknowledge that if you're currently struggling with remote work, you may do better once we return to more normal conditions, whatever that looks like. So as I mentioned, this is a top-ten list. Before I go to each new tip, I will repeat every tip covered.

Number ten, acknowledge that is not normal. Number nine: do something else. If you're going to be on a call where you know you're going to struggle to pay attention and you're going to be tempted to reply to email, or check social media, or make snarky comments with your colleagues on Slack, take your hands away from your keyboard and do some other mindless task.

For example, you could do the dishes, colour, dust. I know I did a little cleaning this morning. Exercise, or even paint your nails. Studies shows that doodling helps people remain information. I find the same to be true for any mindless task. If I sit in front of my computer, the temptation to multi-task is to great. I'm likely to do something else that will require mental energy and prevent me from fully listening. For those boring all-hands calls, or dry conference sessions where you're going to struggle to pay attention, turn off your webcam and do something else.

Number ten: acknowledge this isn't normal. Number nine: do something else. Number eight: eat intentionally. I have a problem of bringing a huge Costco-sized box of snacks into my office and eat them. Whenever my husband or toddler snacks, I want to snack. That's fair, right? The quarantine hasn't been kind to my waistline, so I've been trying to make an effort to eat intentionally.

If I want to snack, I pour a reasonably sized portion into a bowl. I'm trying to limit the number of snacks and keep them relatively healthy. I've heard from some of my colleagues, they have the opposite problem. They will sit at their desk and not realise they missed their lunch until 2.00pm. I don't understand how this is possible, but apparently this is an issue for some people. If that is you, set an alarm on your phone, or block time on your calendar to eat lunch. Take care of yourself and eat intentionally.

Number ten: Acknowledge this isn't normal. Number nine: do something else. Number eight: eat intentionally. Number seven: actively prevent burnout. When you work from home, it's so easy to work long hours, and never feel disconnected from your work. A study in March of this year showed US employees are working an average of three hours more per day during the pandemic - three hours!

When you work remotely, you don't have the physical trigger of walking into an office to know you should begin working, and then leaving the office to know you should stop working. It is so easy for the lines to blur. Especially when we have access to Slack and email on our phones.

And here's the thing: your employer has invested a lot of time and money to make you a productive employee. They don't want you to burn out and quit. If you leave, they have to train somebody new. If you leave, you take with you the team knowledge that may not be written down anywhere. Actively prevent burnout. Your manager probably isn't going to do this for you, so you have to be very proactive.

If your manager asks you to do something that will force you to work overtime, be upfront and ask them which task would you like me to drop? The other key here is to set boundaries. Set what time you want to typically start and stop working and stick to it. When your work day is over, turn off your computer. If you have Slack and email on your phone, turn off the notifications. Completely disconnect whenever possible so that you can return to work each day refreshed and ready to do your best work. Pauline gave a great talk about burnout earlier today. If you missed it, definitely look for the recording later.

Number ten, acknowledge this is isn't normal. Number nine, do something else. Number eight, eat intentionally. Number seven, actively prevents burnout. Number six: be productive. Yes, it's important to actually do your job. Slack conducted a study during the COVID-19 pandemic and found out how long you'd been working remotely in terms of experience makes an impact how productive you are. They found those who are new to remote work were twice as likely to say they are less productive at home. The study also showed that a majority of experienced remote workers say they are more productive at home.

Over time, as you work remotely, you gather tools to help you be productive. Let's talk about some tools, you can use to be productive. First step, set daily goals. I start every day looking at my task list and picking up the most important one or two things that I want to get done that day, and then I do everything I can to get those done. This helps me focus on what's most important, and not just what's most urgent or what's easiest.

Now, I have a tendency to get lost in my work. I can sit at my computer for hours without taking a break, except for maybe a quick trip to the kitchen to grab a snack that I will then bring back and eat at my desk. This is not great. So I've set up reminders to move on my Fitbit. Every hour, it will buzz if I haven't moved enough. This is great as it helps me stretch and clear my head. Mental breaks will help you be more productive, so take them.

On the flip side, some people struggle to get work done if they don't have the accountability of somebody walking by like they do in their office to see if they're working. If you're one of those people, I recommend out trying the Pomodoro Technique. The idea is to work on short blocks of time on a specific task - about 25 minutes - and then take a break. The great thing here is that it encourages you to avoid distractions like social media, or TV, or Slack messages, so you can create focused work time to get stuff done. If you want to Google this technique, it's called the Pomodoro Technique.It's named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timers. To sum this tip up: set goals, get important stuff done, be productive.

Number ten: acknowledge this is not normal. Number nine: do something else. Number eight: eat intentionally. Number seven: actively prevent burnout. Number six: be productive. Number five: embrace the kids. This is not advice I would typically give remote workers, but these are not normal times.

Remember this BBC interview from a couple of years ago? This guy is giving an interview on a very serious topic, and one of his kids rolls in, super pleased with herself. The dad is just mortified. And then kid numbers two rolls in. Dad can't believe this is happening. Luckily, mum comes in to save the day. She next back in to shut the door. To be honest with you, I would have been mortified as well.

I'm a huge advocate for having childcare if you're working from home. It is really hard to be an effective parent and an effective employee at the same time. The thing is, kids are at home right now, and there's very little we can do about it. I've been so impressed with the way Jimmy Fallon has embraced his kids whilst attempting to film the Tonight Show. He knew his kids were going to be around, and he rolled with it.

My husband and I have done our best to co-parent while working remotely, but it's been tough. I've been so appreciate of my manager who talks with my daughter and makes her feel special when he sees her on the call. My kid is so much happier if she feels acknowledged. I found that, if I let her come in, say hi, to everyone, wave to everybody on the webcam, she's more likely to leave, and then go play in another room.

If you're working with people who have kids at home, please be kind to the kids. The parents are struggling, and, if a few kind words to the kid is going to make everybody feel better. Also, what may seem like parents will be the least productive people on your team right now, a study showed otherwise. They surveyed people during the pandemic and found those working from home with children saw a two per cent productivity decrease. They found those working alone without other adults or children in the home, meaning they were completely self-isolating, they saw a three per cent productivity decrease. This really surprised me.

My hypothesis would have been that parents would have been the least productive group. So, when checking in on your co-workers who are parents to make sure they're doing okay, check in on your co-workers isolating completely by themselves. They might be struggling even more.

So, number ten: acknowledge this is not normal. Number nine: do something else. Number eight: eat intentionally. Number seven: actively prevent burnout. Number six: be productive. Number five: embrace the kids. Number four: care for yourself.

In another one that is easier said than done, especially if you're caring for others right now. But do what you can to take care of yourself. Try to exercise a bit every day. Try to eat something healthy. Try to do something fun. I'm an introvert, but I have way less time to myself right now than everyone is home with me all the time. I found taking slow walks by myself in the evening can really help. Sometimes, I will even put on my noise-cancelling headphones, and I don't even play music, so I can be alone with my thoughts.

My guess is that the extroverts are also struggling. If that is you, create virtual coffee breaks, happy hours, game nights, whatever, with your colleagues, friends, or families. You know what you need, so a make time for it. Care for yourself.

Number ten: acknowledge this is not normal. Number nine: do something else. Number eight: eat intentionally. Number seven: actively prevent burnout. Number six: be productive. Number five: embrace the kids. Number four: care for yourself. And, number three: take a lunch break. Every day. Away from your computer.

As a working mum, the lunch break was the favourite of my day, a guilt-free time to watch whatever I wanted to watch, and I could actually hear the TV show without any interruptions. It was amazing. And now everybody's home, so we have family lunch! Yay! I'm sure I will look back on the family lunches with fondness.

For me, I like to watch TV during lunch. Maybe you're not a TV person. Maybe you prefer to read a book or a magazine. Maybe you want to listen to a podcast, or maybe you want to go for a walk or exercise. Whatever the case, take 30 minutes in the middle of your day, step away from your computer, and do something else. I found that if I'm starting to lose focus or stuck on a problem, I will take a lunch break and return refreshed, and the answer on how to move forward on that problem will come to me. So every day take a lunch break.

Number ten: acknowledge this isn't normal. Number nine: do something else. Number eight: eat intentionally. Number seven: actively prevent burnout. Number six: be productive. Number five: embrace the kids. Number four: care for yourself. Number three: take a lunch break. I have saved my most important two tips for last. Number two: ask for what you want.

I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing a few years ago, back when we would attend conferences in person, and a moderator asked at a keynote panel if you could change one thing, what would it be? The response was so simple but it has stuck with me all those years later. She said, "If I could change anything, it would be that each and every one of you would ask for what she wants." Now, typically, when I share this with people, I encourage them to ask for a promotion, or a raise, or a growth opportunity. I still stand by that advice, but I want to really encourage you to think about what you want right now from your company, your spouse, your roommates, your kids, and then ask them for it.

I've been reading a lot of articles about how to successfully work remotely with kids during quarantine. Some of the articles have suggested that you simply explain to your kids that you need focused work time, and supposedly the kids are going to allow you to work for an hour or two uninterrupted. That sounds really great, and maybe that works for older kids, but I can assure you that did not work for my toddler. So think about what your ask is, what is within the reasonable scope of possibilities, and ask for it.

In my case, I told my manager I was struggling to work with my toddler at home and asked to take advantage of the parental care leave that my company was offering. My management team was really supportive, so they actually came back to me and they said instead of taking a couple of weeks off solid, would it work better for you to stretch that out and work part-time instead? I was like, yes! That would be a great fit for both my family and my team, because I was able to stay connected and still get work done, even though I was working part-time. My family would have had a really tough time without this option

. Perhaps you want to ask your manager if you can shift your schedule around and work different hours than you typically do. Perhaps you want to ask your manager if you can take time off as part of FMLA because working with kids just isn't working. Perhaps ask your roommates to stop playing loud music at 10.00 pm on weekdays so you can maintain a regular sleep schedule. The people in your life probably don't know what you need or what you want, so ask for what you want.

Last time to recap this list. Number ten: acknowledge it's not normal. Number nine: Do something else. Number eight: Eat intentionally. Number seven: actively prevent burnout. Number six: be productive. Number five: embrace the kids. Number four: care for yourself. Number three: take a lunch break. Number two: ask for what you want. My final tip for you today: be a great PR agent for yourself.

I'm shamelessly borrowing this tip from a keynote that Nora Denzell gave several years ago. She encouraged us all to be great PR agents for ourselves. Your colleagues and your managers probably don't know all the amazing things you do, so tell them. If you solve a really hard problem, tell them about it. Don't just say, I solved that, no big deal. Explain why it was hard or time-consuming.

When you're remote, people don't see what you're working on, so you have to advertise your work. If you have a daily scrum, or a we think status meeting, show up, ready to tell your team what you've been working on. Be conscious of how you're describing yourself. Control your press release.

When I gave my remote work talk last year, this was one of my tips. That very same day, someone asked me how another talk I had given went. I said, "Well, I got really nervous, so I started talking really fast, I started coughing, lost my train of thought ...". He said, "Lauren, I heard it went great." I thought here I am wrecking the press release that somebody already gave about me and I'm saying how awful of a job I did. So, if you didn't do a good job, don't advertise it, but if you did do a good job, talk about the great parts. If someone gives me a compliment on Twitter or email, I forward it to my management team.

It's an easy way to brag without it seeming like I'm bragging. If someone gives you a compliment verbally, you can always ask them to email it to you or your manager. You can also create a culture of compliments on your team. If you compliment your team-mates and make it normal to do so, they're likely to compliment your strengths as well. And that is a win for everyone. Be a great PR agent for yourself. One last time, I want to recap all of my tips for you.

Number ten: acknowledge this isn't normal. If you're struggling to work region right now, know there are a lot of other factors at play. Remote work may not be the problem. Number nine: do something else. If you're going to struggle to pay attention during a session, do a mindless task at the same time. Number eight: eat intentionally. Portion-control your snacks. Schedule lunch if you need to. Number seven: actively prevent burnout. Do what you can to work a consistent schedule. When you're doing working, turn off your computer and those phone notifications. Number six: be productive. Set daily goals. Use the Pomodoro Technique to stay focused.

Number five: embrace the kids. They're around right now. Let parents that know it's okay. Number four: Care for yourself. Every day, try to exercise in some form, eat something healthy, and do something fun. Number three: take a lunch break. In the middle of your day, step away from your computer for 30 minutes to clear your head. Number two: ask for what you want. People probably don't know what you want or need unless you ask, so ask. And, finally, number one: be a great PR agent for yourself. Advertise your work, and be conscious of the words that you are using when you do so.

I would love to connect with you on social. You can find me on Twitter and TikTok with the user name Lauren_Schaefer. As a reminder, the slides for this presentation are available on my Twitter page. I've compiled a list of resources and related links if you want to deep-dive into this topic more, so you can find those at the back of this presentation. So I hope these tips help you to be a happy and productive remote employee. You've got this! Thank you.

About the talk

Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he wrote 'Some are born great remote workers, some achieve great remote work, and some have great remote work thrust upon them.' Ok, maybe that's not exactly what he wrote. Whether you love working remotely or you were voluntold to work remotely, this is the session for you. Come discover tips and tricks to being a successful remote employee from a ten-year remote work veteran.

About Lauren Schaefer

Lauren Schaefer is a developer advocate for MongoDB. She began her career as a software engineer for IBM where she held a variety of roles including full-stack developer, test automation specialist, and growth hacking engineer. She went on to be a developer advocate at SugarCRM. Lauren holds a BS and MS in Computer Science from North Carolina State University and is the co-inventor of twelve issued United States patents.  She has been working from her home office for the last decade and is an advocate of remote work options.

Photo of Lauren Schaefer

Lauren Schaefer


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