Work From Home: Tips for Working Remotely During COVID-19

Fred PerrottaJenn Sutherland-MillerBen Granas

Why do you work remotely? Everyone has different reasons. For some, remote work is a stop-gap to get through an illness, to extend parental leave, or, you know, survive a pandemic. For others, it becomes a lifestyle and career choice; empowering to live life on their terms.

Our team at Tortuga has been working remotely for 10 years. But there are times we struggle with it, the coronavirus shutdowns are one of those times.

Maybe you’re feeling the same way. Unfocused. Unproductive. Trying to concentrate even through your partner is working from home too, and neither of you has a proper desk. Having kids at home adds a special chaos to the mix.

As I’ve seen written on Twitter, “You are not working from home; you are at home during a crisis trying to work.”

Working from home during a pandemic is not normal. These are extraordinary circumstances.

Whether you’re working from home for the first time or you’ve been doing it for years, you probably aren’t at your best today. That’s okay.

Give yourself permission to be unproductive right now.

You have other things to worry about like your health, your family, and your friends. Take care of those first. Then you can think about work.

I’ve been working remotely for ten years. I spent the first three years of my career in the cushy confines of Google’s San Francisco office. In 2010, I quit Google to start Tortuga while freelancing on the side.

Over the last 10 years I’ve worked from home, from offices, from coworking spaces, from coffeeshops, and from Airbnbs.

Tortuga is a remote company. Everyone on our team works remotely and some work from home. Jeremy and I have helped our ten teammates learn to work outside of a traditional office.

Despite this decade of experience, I’m struggling to focus and to be productive. Tortuga is facing its most challenging time as a company right now. I’m trying to be my best for the sake of the company and the team. But it’s not easy. I’m not operating at 100%. You can’t be expected to either.

Much of the advice that I share with people who start working from home is irrelevant right now. You can’t break up your day with a trip to the gym. You can’t replace the in-person connection of an office with meeting a friend for lunch.

Let’s focus on what is still relevant.

Create a Work From Home Workspace

Create a dedicated workspace. When you’re there, you’re working. When you leave, you stop working.

Your space doesn’t have to be perfect. Just pick a place where you’re comfortable and can work for a stretch. Having good ergonomics and some privacy would be ideal but might not be practical right now. Invest in a few pieces of remote work gear that will make working from home more comfortable. Get a new chair, if you need. Put a shoe box under your laptop until your Roost stand arrives, and use an external keyboard. A bad office setup can harm you physically. The last thing anyone needs right now is a repetitive use injury.

Pick a place. Then—this is the important part—create a ritual where you leave that space to end your workday.

If you work from home, you’re always at work. But you need a way to delineate between work and leisure, even if it’s only superficial.

When I had a home office, I would leave that room, close the door, and not open it again until the next morning. If you don’t have a dedicated office, end your day by closing your computer and putting it away.

Put your computer away for the night in the Outbreaker Laptop Backpack or Outbreaker Daypack. Then put your bag under your bed or otherwise out of sight at the end of the day. Then go and enjoy your evening. I’ve found cooking to be a good distraction and stress reliever after work.

Work From Home: Have a Routine

When you’re working from home, you can easily find yourself eating lunch without having showered or gotten dressed yet.

I don’t want to be the one to spoil your new athleisure lifestyle or to tell you to dress up to go nowhere.

However, I find that having a morning routine and changing your clothes can help to change your mindset and bring more focus to work. Like the workspace advice above, you have to create some “lines” between work and leisure, even if those lines are artificial.

I’m dressed okay today but spent all of last week in the same uniform: long-sleeved t-shirt, gym shorts, and wool socks from LL Bean. Being comfortable is more important than being stylish right now. That’s fine. The important thing is that I took a shower in the morning and changed out of my pajama pants. That’s a low bar for success but is good enough for right now. Feel free to change again when your workday ends to signal to yourself that work is over and leisure has begun.

Maximize Productivity While Working Remotely

The coronavirus shut downs won’t be our most productive days, so we must remember to focus on the most important things. Do less stuff but do the most important stuff.

With so much going on, I’ve had to force myself to focus on 1-3 tasks per day. When your to do list feels infinite, your most important task is prioritization.

Cut down your to do list to 1-3 things that will fit on a Post It note. Just doing the #1 most important thing will give you a strong feeling of accomplishment. Maintaining a sense of control and accomplishment is important right now.

To help in this process, I recommend the Pomodoro Technique, a time management technique where you work for 25 minutes then take a break. Using a timer app like Be Focused is helpful.

Remember that the break between work “sprints” is part of the technique. It’s yours. You earned it. Take it and enjoy it. Then do your next 25 minutes of work.

These limits are arbitrary. The point is to create some structure in your work day.

Our friends over at Pack Hacker just launched a blog post 10 Tips To Help You Work From Home to help you figure out what works for you.

Separating Work from the Appearance of Work

In his excellent blog post about busyness vs. productivity, Fred has this to say:

At Tortuga, we have team-wide weekly and monthly check ins to keep everyone apprised of everyone else’s work. These updates create a healthy peer pressure, not to be busier than everyone else but to do a good job so as not to let down your teammates. I like to keep the entire team up to date and involved with each other’s work. This avoids siloing these conversations into 1:1 meetings and keeps everyone involved and contributing at the company level.

The weekly updates are done through 15Five where each person on the team answers three questions:

  1. What did you accomplish this week?
  2. What are your top priorities for next week?
  3. Where are you stuck? Where could you use some help?

Monthly recaps are also done by email but focus on team-level projects rather than on individual-level tasks. For example, the Product Team will let everyone know where we’re at and what’s in the pipeline. The Concierge team gives an update on our performance metrics and what we’re hearing from customers.

As we grow, the weekly emails will become unwieldy, and we’ll adjust to a more scalable system.

The important thing is to focus on the process and the results (good and bad) to get stuff done, not just be busy.

Collaboration Tools for Remote Work

Working remotely would be much more difficult if not for some of the collaboration tools available. Whether your company has a Slack channel or a system for sharing documents in place, you can increase your own organization and build bridges for collaboration with coworkers by leveraging technology.

Slack

Slack is the tool we use most frequently, and it has almost completely replaced email for us. Think of it as a private chat room where you can set up separate rooms for each project or topic. For example, at Tortuga we have separate channels for each team, as well as one for HQ and a Breakroom, which we use for general talking throughout the day.

Slack is incredibly useful because it allows you to organize and focus your chatter to a specific topic so you don’t have multiple conversations happening on the same email chain. Decisions also happen much more quickly when everyone can speak in the same conversation, as opposed to email where responses aren’t immediate. It has significantly reduced email for our team, and I can’t see us going back now.

Asana

Asana is a great project management tool that allows teams to document and assign tasks and sub-tasks to be worked on. We generally use the tool to keep track of all the different steps that need to go into a product launch, to manage our content development as well as web projects, and general to-do lists. The ability to assign tasks to certain people is also a great feature, allowing everyone to see what their main projects are for the week. There’s no limit to how detailed you can make a task, and, like Slack, you can create separate channels for different projects or topics.

Video Conferencing: Zoom & Beyond

Zoom is getting plenty of press for being the go-to video conference platform for remote work right now. We’ve been using Zoom for years. But there are other options.

Slack has a built in video conference option, open a call for everyone in a particular channel with one click. Zoom integrates with Slack too. Google Hangouts is another option that’s great for small teams. And of course there’s still Skype, but it’s not as good as it used to be.

WhatsApp

We don’t use WhatsApp for work at Tortuga but if it’s what you’ve got and you’ve been thrown into the deep end of the remote work pool with the coronavirus shutdowns, it is a place to start. Particularly if your people are already on there. Now might not be the time to invest in expensive tools if remote work isn’t going to be your long haul future. Think about the tools you already have and how they might be repurposed to serve during the crisis.

Google Drive

Google Drive allows us to store all of our documents in one shared online folder. We also keep drafts of blog posts, our project outlines, spreadsheets etc. in here so we can each access stuff when required. Any document that you need to share can be popped into Google Drive with permissions easily controlled.

Google Calendar

Shared calendars are a lifesaver for remote teams and people working from home. Each member of Team Tortuga has their own Google Calendar as well as the shared team calendar. This makes scheduling a 1:1 with a particular coworker simple and finding times for team wide meetings much easier. Be sure to block out any time that you are not available so that the people you work with can see when you ARE available accurately. Don’t want the whole world to know that you’ve got a doctor’s appointment scheduled? No problem, labeling it “personal” will protect the time block without oversharing.

Read more about our remote work tech stack in this blog post our CEO, Fred, wrote.

Working from Home With Kids

A lot of the remote work tips that are circulating don’t take into account a family dynamic that includes little people. It’s all well and good if you can set up your kitchen table as a temporary work space, download a few productivity apps and work from home in relative peace. It’s another thing to have junior tearing through the “office” with a pair of underwear on her head singing the Peppa Pig theme song on loop, or to be refereeing the twelfth round of “he took my toy!” between Zoom calls with your team.

Some days you might feel like a superhero, while other days might find you crying in the shower. During times like these, both are totally normal and totally okay. Be patient and generous with yourself and your emotions.

On Team Tortuga we have two parents working from home with kids. Jenn, who made it a lifestyle choice, traveling for a decade while working remotely with her four kids. And Kristen, who was already working remotely but is now doing so with a five and seven year old in the mix. 

It is possible to find a happy medium working from home with kids. Here are some of Jenn and Kristen’s best tips for how to keep all the balls in the air and your sanity too.

Forget Work-Life Balance, Cultivate Work-Life Integration

Work-life balance isn’t all that practical a concept when you’re working from home as a parent. Work-life balance doesn’t exist in a world where sippy cups, Algebra lessons, yoga, conference calls, work deadlines and quarantine all cohabitate in the same mental space. It just doesn’t. Trying to pretend that it does will just add stress.

In the new normal, life and all of its activities happens around us, all the time. 

We work at home. We school our kids online. We shop and have it delivered. Communities are moving online. Our phones tether us to everything. It’s all become integrated.

Working from home as a parent (when your kids are home full time too) demands work-life integration and a more holistic mindset around productivity.

Read more about balance vs. integration.

So what does work-life integration look like when you’ve still got to get some actual work done as a parent? 

Identify Your Most Productive Hours (& Use Them!)

When my kids were little I discovered that my most productive hours were the early ones in a day. So, I started getting up at five and knocking out a few hours of work before the kids were even up and moving. My husband’s most productive hours were between 8pm and just past midnight. He put in the bulk of his work time then. 

For most people, work doesn’t HAVE to happen between 9-5. That’s just when it’s traditionally been done! Question all of your assumptions about how and when your work is happening and experiment with variables that could increase productivity or allow for greater integration of the rest of the factors.

Find a Routine That Works

Most of us are creatures of habit. Our routines help minimize the number of decisions that have to be made in a day and move us through our paces to improve productivity. Or at least they can. 

As parents, we don’t have the luxury of controlling our schedules entirely. Babies wake up in the night. Toddlers are bright eyed and bushy tailed just as the sun comes up. School aged kids need structure, support, and interaction to move through their days alongside us. Routines keep us sane!

A routine for a family working and learning together at home doesn’t have to look like an hour by hour spreadsheet, it can be as simple as a pattern for your days. For our family, mornings were for work and school time. Afternoons were for adventures. 

Creating predictable routines for your kids will help them to anticipate when and how their needs will be met and increase the odds that your needs (including work) can be prioritized. 

Set Boundaries

Set boundaries with work and with your kids.

When work happens at the office, the boundary is quite natural and it’s easier to leave work at work and focus on family at home. When everything is happening together within the same four walls, it’s harder. 

My kids knew that 5-8 a.m. was my time to work. Thou shalt not interrupt. They knew that if the door to whatever room Dad was using as an office was closed, they’d better not open it unless there was blood or fire. “I’m on a call,” mouthed silently at an interrupting child became sacred words, the smart child would genuflect, cross himself, and back slowly and silently away from the parent in question. 

Setting boundaries with kids around your work routine requires patience, collaboration, and flexibility. As with most boundaries in a family, you’ll be most successful if you’ve got buy in from the kids and they understand that this is a team effort and they are helping generate the family income by giving you space to work. 

Talk with your kids, even little ones, about what your work from home requires. Brainstorm together how they might help meet those needs. Negotiate a boundary package that ensures that they feel included and rewarded for the effort they are putting in to create room for your work. If your kids feel included and like their needs are on the same table as yours, you’ll be more likely to be happy together and succeed together with work-life integration.

Communicate More & Better

With Your Team

Anyone who works remotely with a team will tell you that communication is absolutely vital. Well functioning remote teams communicate more and communicate efficiently. As a parent, working remotely with kids at home requires you to up your communication game, with family and with co-workers.

Over communicate with your team about your schedule and your kids’ needs. Remind them when you are available, the best methods for communicating with you, and what your boundaries are around the needs of your family is crucial. 

Consider shifting how you communicate with team members, away from real-time meetings and towards more asynchronous tools (like Slack and Asana). Asynchronous communication tools are one way to remain fully engaged with your work projects while respecting the necessary shift in the hours (and which ones) you are working. 

Schedule the in-person meetings and calls at the hours that are best for your kids. If you have to make an exception to that and there’s a likelihood that your kids will interrupt, front load that with your team. Kristen also suggests keeping the video off for calls that have to be made in the mix with kids and using the mute button to cut down on background distractions!

With Your Partner

If you have a partner working from home too, try to tag team the meeting schedule.

Using a shared Google Calendar that lets us see who’s got what going on when, for kids and adults.

Kristen and her husband are using a super simple system where they both write their call schedules on a sticky note on the wall at the start of each day. This lets them both check to see what the other person has going on at any time and helps them see who’s available to run point with the kids throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to work!

If you both have to get work done, collaborate on the schedule, be as flexible as you can with your usual routines, and take turns with the home team.

With Your Kids

Kids do not like to feel powerless or stuck. If they feel included and supported in the process of you working from home, it’s likely to go more smoothly for everyone. 

Communicate with your kids about what comes next in a day. If you’ve got a two hour work block scheduled and they are working on homework or playing independently, make sure that they know that what comes next is a bike ride together, or some other fun activity that they can look forward to. The work block has a finite end to it and then family time will take over for a while.

Let your kids know that they are your priority and you’re doing your best to adjust your work schedule around them. Talk to them about the fact that this won’t always be possible. Ask them what they need in those moments of exception:

“I have to take a call that is going to last a whole hour. You will have to remain quiet and not interrupt. Are you happier playing in your room, doing an art project, or watching a show?” 

This gives your kids some agency and helps them to feel like part of a team effort instead of sidelined again.

Want to make remote work your new normal? Jessie wrote about How to Petition for More Work on Your Terms at a Traditional 9-5.

Why Do You Work Remotely?

Everyone has different reasons. For some, remote work is a stop-gap to get through an illness, to extend parental leave, or, you know, survive a pandemic. For others, it becomes a lifestyle and career choice; empowering to live life on their terms.

Perhaps as you settle into the “new normal” of working remotely, you’ll find you want to make the shift more permanent. We thought we’d end this article by sharing some of our reasons for choosing remote work; perhaps some of these will resonate with you.

Lauren: Combining career and chronic illness

The possibility of working remotely gave me the opportunity to actually have a career. Living with an autoimmune disease, there are days where I have trouble walking, days where I need to take a few hours in the middle of my day to rest from extreme physical fatigue- things that would have been difficult to manage with an office job. Tortuga is not a job for me. It’s a piece of my life — one that I want to build and nurture, and I am so lucky to be able to do that in the environments that make me comfortable. I’ve worked from home, from coffee shops, from a bar beneath my hotel in Iceland, from hospitals.

I like to be alone, but I also love my team. The only real “con” for me is having to wait several months to see everyone together. My list of “pros” could go on forever: flexible schedule, working from where I can, the ability to travel while working — not to mention awesome things like the love and support from team members as we experience changes in our lives. I get to work with some of the best people I know (from a distance).

Angela: Integrating dance and travel

I work remotely so that I can optimize my time. Taking out the 2.5 hour RT commute every day means I can spend more time working towards my personal goals. It also enables me to work from anywhere. I have a habit of leaving the country for a few months at a time and it’s easier if I don’t have to quit my job every time I do that or worry about money while I’m traveling. It enables me to do this for longer periods of time and more often. I am also a professional freelance dancer. So, wherever that takes me, I don’t have to give up my supporting job.

Patrick: Towards a healthier lifestyle

I vehemently believe that there are drastic problems with office culture in America. From the assumption that it’s a good idea to be in the office 50–60 hours a week (it’s not for anyone involved) to the idea that work needs should always come before family and personal needs (it shouldn’t). American work life is really screwed up. This doesn’t even take into account the disastrous effects of a long commute which can have detrimental effects on your health and your relationships.

Even the idea that everyone in a company should work the same hours is archaic and flawed at best, discriminatory at worst. The degree to which American office culture revolves around so many concepts that we know to be bad for us as individuals, our companies, and our families is ridiculous.

As a creative, this set up isn’t without its downfalls. I love the serendipity that can come from other members of the team looking at a problem or a design concept with fresh eyes. We all think differently and, often, our best thoughts don’t come in meetings or when we’re “called on.” They come when we’re comfortable, relaxed and thinking about a problem tangentially. It’s hard to replicate that in a remote team, but we’re working on it.

Trust is very important. Remote work does not work unless every member of the team trusts each of their teammates to work in a way that helps achieve the team’s common goals. Working remotely with a small, flexible team like Tortuga allows us to learn what works for the company, the team, and as individuals, while eliminating all of the stupid things that are so common in American work culture.

Jeremy: Because: Productivity!

I work remotely because I have too much to accomplish to waste time trying to seem busy in an office. I also like to eliminate all the meetings and interactions that I don’t want to have.

I’m a very social person, so sometimes I miss being around people in an office. However, it’s easy enough for me to plan to see people when I want. The benefit of added productivity is well worth it for me.

Taylor: Freedom and career are not mutually exclusive

I work remotely because I believe in the philosophy behind the movement. I disagree that feeling free and having a career are mutually exclusive. I disagree that work should feel like a daily grind in order to be meaningful. I disagree with using busy and stressed as badges of honor.

I agree that career and work are a part of life, whatever that looks like for an individual, not the beacon around which we schedule everything else. I agree that technology changes everything, and so we should embrace that change.

I work remotely because I want to support the massive change in the way the world approaches the concept of career. And, of course, because it suits me.

Giulia: Efficiency & purpose

Starting to work remotely was a challenging decision for me. Going to the office everyday and desperately trying to clock in at 9.00 am sharp was ridiculous, but I had to do it to avoid the disappointed glance of my previous employer when I was ten minutes late. I feel that now I have become more efficient as I have deadlines and tasks to accomplish in time; before, I was just going to the office and doing the “homework/assignment” of the day.

I enjoy the awareness that even if I live far away from my teammates, we have a common purpose to achieve: building a successful company and in Tortuga Backpacks’ case, a distinctive brand.

Jenn: Core values & diversity

As an early adopter of the remote working lifestyle, I’ve watched the genre emerge along with the industries dipping their toes into the pool. Having spent 8 years traveling full time with my family, the ability to work from anywhere is key to our lifestyle design. In terms of choosing companies to work with, the first and most important questions center around core values and culture. Pulling together with a team of bright, motivated people who “get it” on the same level and have a vision for changing the world is a delight. Fighting the logistics of a remote team with folks who don’t is… well, not. I wouldn’t even consider partnering with a company on a remote team if there was not core value alignment.

My favorite part of diversified teams is the cultural diversity, daily conversations with participants on several continents, and the adventure of creating products and content that crosses borders at every stage, from development to service. That’s my kind of magic.

 

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