How to Work Remotely and Still Be a Boss

I love reading all the “day in the life” posts other bloggers write. I’m fascinated by people’s routines and the order in which they do things. I also just love seeing what my friends are up to. For the past few months, I’d considered writing a similar post. I actually started the post several times but worried it would be too boring. Everyone will just see that I work too much! is what I was actually worried about, haha. But then I realized that my own personal routine is probably a lot different from most people’s, because I work full-time from home and manage two blogs + do some freelance on the side, and I have a handful of lessons (and tools!) I want to share with anyone who might do the same.

First, a little backstory for those of you who are new here. Two years ago, after moving to Toronto for my then-new job with the company I still work for, I started to notice how unhappy I was. It wasn’t the job. I wasn’t homesick. I just didn’t feel good in Toronto; the city didn’t fit my lifestyle. I was up at 7:00am, out the door by 7:45am and in the office just after 8:30am (if the TTC cooperated). I worked all day, left around 5:30-6:00pm and didn’t get home until 7:30pm (stupid King streetcar). I ate a late dinner, tried to write a blog post or reply to comments and occasionally squeezed in some TV. Then I passed out around 11:30pm and repeated that Monday-Friday each week.

The part I struggled with the most, in that routine, is that I was out of the house for 12 hours/day “for work” and at least 2 of those were spent commuting – and I both lived and worked in the city. Could I have moved closer to the office? Sure. But my rent would’ve doubled and I knew we weren’t going to stay in that space forever, so it would’ve been a short-term solution to the bigger problem: I realized I wasn’t a city person. Even if I had lived across the street from the office, I didn’t love that my weekends were then spent either indoors in an attempt to escape the cold winter weather, or at bars, boozy brunch spots and tiny crowded parks.

Toronto felt like a place where people worked hard then played harder. I wanted to work well then get outside! So, I asked my boss if I could move back to British Columbia and work remotely. She agreed, so long as we mapped out a plan. I moved on March 26, 2013 and have been working remotely ever since.

Year 1

When we first started talking about taking my position remote, one of the things my boss was most concerned about was that I’d get lonely. She’d heard/read that a lot of remote workers felt isolated when working from home, and missed out on meeting and talking to people every day. At the time, we only had one other person who worked remotely on our team (there are now 5 of us) and he had a desk at a coworking space, so we agreed that I should get one too. Since my plan was to move to New Westminster, I decided to work at The Network Hub.

The first month of working remotely was definitely the hardest. I was sleeping on friend’s couches, trying to find a place of my own, eating too much takeout, trying to keep up with my blog and barely finding time to exercise. I was also waking up at 5:30am and starting work at that time. I assumed that because I’d worked 8:30am-6:00pm in Toronto, I needed to work those same hours remotely. I also assumed that I needed to be online/available at all times, or my boss/co-workers would think I wasn’t working. Neither of those assumptions was true, but it took a long time for me to realize that.

Even after I moved and settled into my own place, my “day in the life” routine was still a mess. I started work too early, broke my day up at awkward times in order to commute to my coworking space and back, and stayed online long into the night because I wanted everyone to know I was available. Things got even worse after my car accident because I was in so much pain I could barely move, so I was literally on my computer almost every hour I was awake. For that reason alone, it’s not surprising that I eventually had a panic attack, which was my body’s way of telling me this routine was not good.

Year 2

After the panic attack, I knew a couple things had to change. First, I couldn’t start work at such an early hour anymore. I’ve always been a morning person, but 5:30am was a little much even for me, so I asked my boss if I could push it to 6:30-7:00am and she agreed. “Nothing happens at 9:00am our time, anyway!” (<– And this is true.) Second, I decided to go to my coworking space less often. I loved meeting everyone there and having a couple people to say hi to and chat with every day, but multiple moves took me further away from the space and the commute had started to add stress to my day.

Shortly after entering my second year of working remotely, a friend moved up north and offered to give me his desk and computer chair. I hadn’t had a desk and chair to sit at since… I think the summer of 2008!? For six years, I’d done homework and written my blog from my laptop on the couch. Not surprisingly, the desk was a game changer. It added structure to my day in a way I didn’t know a piece of furniture could. Having somewhere to sit forced me to buckle down and work. Almost as soon as I got it, I gave up my desk at the coworking space.

Since switching to working from home full-time, it’s been a little bit of a struggle to create my new new routine, but I’ve continually tweaked and modified it so I can squeeze in everything I do/love most. Here’s what it looks like today, as I enter my third year of working remotely.

Year 3

5:30-6:00am – Wake up naturally. My alarm is set for 6:30am, but I usually wake up before 6:00am. I try to stay in bed until then, rather than jump up and rush around.

6:00-7:00am – The first thing I do in the morning is make my bed. I will not walk out of my bedroom until I’ve done that. It might sound a little “woo woo,” but I genuinely think that I sleep better at night if I crawl into a bed that’s already made. There’s also something about looking at a messy bed that just makes me feel like my entire life is a mess. (Oh, the ways our brains work.)

After I finish making my bed, I get dressed (<– This is key when you work from home). I wear the same pair of jeans every day, and swap between a few shirts, so I don’t waste time thinking about what to wear. From that moment on, I do whatever I want before 7:00am rolls around. I typically read a book or listen to a podcast, while I sip my coffee and eat breakfast (either two hard-boiled eggs or a banana*).

The one goal I’ve set for myself is to try and stay offline until 7:00am. There will always be work to do, emails to read, and blog comments and tweets to reply to. The internet never rests, but we have to. It took a long time for me to build this routine, but now that quiet hour first thing in the morning is my favourite part of the whole day. Seriously, the internet can wait.

*This is also where I’ll note that I eat almost the same thing every work day. It might sound boring, but meal planning on the weekend takes all the decisions out of what I’m going to eat during the week. It not only helps me save time by taking out any guesswork and meal prep, it also leaves me with only healthy options, so I’m never left scrambling or running downstairs to grab takeout.

7:00-9:30am – When 7:00am rolls around, I open Gmail and start working. The night before each work day, I add 3-4 things I want to tackle the next day to my Todoist list, so I always know what I need to do. (Can you tell I try to avoid decision fatigue? I swear it’s a productivity tip that works.) I quickly scan my inbox and make note of anything else that might be important then get started.

I don’t have an exact routine for what work I do first, but I know I do my best writing and editing first thing in the morning, so I try to schedule up our company blog first. We publish ~30 posts each month on our site plus send out 5-10 guest posts, which are all written by myself and my team of freelancers. If I can tackle a bunch of my writing/editing in the morning, I know it’s going to be a good day.

Break #1 – Whenever I finish what I’m working on around 9:30-9:45am, I take a break for 10-20 minutes. Sometimes I’ll do dishes and tidy up the kitchen, other times I’ll do an errand like take out the garbage or go get something from the grocery store for dinner. But similar to the way you’d take a coffee break at work, I force myself to get up and walk around for a few minutes in the morning.

9:45am-12:00pm – After my first break, I work for another 2-2.5 hours. Mid-morning is when I plan most of my meetings because it’s already the afternoon in Toronto and that’s what works best for everyone in the office. So, content meetings (we use Skype or GoToMeeting) and calls with partners/freelancers all happen mid-morning, along with whatever writing/editing I need to wrap-up.

Break #2 – I heart taking lunch breaks. Seriously, it took close to a year for me to feel comfortable logging off for 30 minutes because I felt like I needed to be online and available at all times. After making so many trips back to Toronto, though, I remembered that people in offices take real breaks! They walk away from their desks and go eat and chat with other people! So, that’s what I do.

Around 12:00-12:30pm, my stomach reminds me that I’m hungry, so I get up and walk away from my desk. I’ll make either a turkey + avocado sandwich or a greek salad (with protein like chicken or chickpeas) for lunch, then curl up on the couch, turn on Netflix and text a few friends. I might only watch 15-20 minutes of a show while I catch up with friends, but it’s my mini-mental break.

12:45-3:00pm – After lunch, I tackle whatever emails still need my attention. In a podcast interview, I heard Chris Brogan describe an inbox as “the delivery mechanism for other people’s priorities” and that really stuck with me. So, even when I see emails pop in throughout the day, I’ll quickly decide where they sit amongst my own priorities and deadlines, then read them more carefully in the afternoon.

I finish the work day by making sure I’ve crossed off the original 3-4 things from my Todoist list and adding 3-4 more for the next day. On Friday, I send an email to my boss that outlines everything I did that week, as well as a list of what I want to tackle the following week – and that’s what I use to pull my 3-4 things from each day, when that new week rolls around.

It’s taken me a couple years to get here, but I now work from 7:00am-3:00pm each day and am more productive in those hours than I ever was/am in the office. That’s 4 hours/day or 20 hours/week less than how long I was out of the house for on a work day in Toronto, including my old commute time – and I’m more efficient than ever, because I get 8 hours of (mostly) uninterrupted time to work.

3:00-4:30pm – When 3:00pm comes, it’s time to workout; I know this because I have an alarm on my phone that goes off Monday-Friday to remind me! I think it’s important for everyone to get 30 minutes of exercise each day, but it’s especially important for those of us who work from home. Without it, we would literally not move. (I once got less than 1,500 steps in a day!)

Fortunately, there’s a great gym in my condo building, so I just change and head downstairs. Sometimes, I skip the gym and go for walk/hike around the lake that’s not far from my place. I usually workout for 50-60 minutes then head back up to shower.

4:30-6:00pm – After I get cleaned up, it’s time to work on Blonde on a Budget. Since I typically only publish one post/week now (on Monday’s), I don’t have to worry about writing, but I do have to reply to comments, answer emails, etc. I’m also always doing little tweaks to the site (or big ones, as you can see today) and I’m finally setting up my newsletter (that only took me 900 years!).

6:00pm-Bed – Similar to my goal of staying offline until 7:00am, I recently set a new goal to get offline at 6:00pm and it has changed my life. By “get offline”, I mean no email, no social media, no blog, no nothing. If that sounds tough at first, it might be… except that whenever I go back and see what happened on Twitter from 6:00-9:00pm, the answer is nothing.

The minute I walk away from my computer, the night is mine. Sometimes I write or have freelance writing deadlines, but I mostly read, listen to podcasts and hang out with friends. I will admit that I have spent a good chunk of time working on a new budgeting tool for Blonde on a Budget, as well, but I know more summer evenings will be spent going for walks/hikes.

Anyway, by disconnecting from the internet at 6:00pm, my body and mind have more time to decompress and relax. It’s only been a few weeks since I started this, but I’ve already noticed that I’m sleeping better – sometimes for 8-9 hours/night! I’ve also found that I’m more inspired by new blog-related ideas because getting some distance from the screen gives me room to discover what I really want to do.

On the weekend, I usually have one day where I’ll go for a hike with a friend and then laze around for the rest of the day, then spend the other day writing my weekly post and working on other side projects. But I’ve created this intentional balance between work, my personal business, and fun, and nothing is stressing me out these days. 🙂

How to Work Remotely and Still Be a Boss

Sometimes, I feel like people hear that I work remotely and just assume I have the easiest job in the world, or that I should be extremely grateful for the opportunity to work in my pyjamas. While I don’t deny that it is a luxury, to some degree, working from home can also be really hard:

  • You miss out on face-to-face conversations amongst co-workers, which means you’re the last person to be told most things (from a change in work priorities to personal announcements)
  • You miss out on meetings with clients/partners, which hurts your chances of building those relationships
  • You miss out on team socials, which takes away opportunities to establish personal relationships with team members and build new memories together
  • You’re constantly disrupted by technological fails (Skype freezing, GoToMeeting dropping conference calls, etc.), and
  • You feel like you have to work 10x harder and produce 10x as much as before, to prove you’re actually working.

Instead of letting that stuff get me down, I, instead, try to take as many opportunities as I can to be proactive about asking for what I need/opening up lines of communication about all topics, so everyone knows I’m invested in our team and our mission. Some ideas to consider include:

  • Being the first to reach out and ask about a meeting you know a few team members went to, especially if it was with a client/partner
  • Taking the initiative and reaching out to clients/partners, so you can establish a relationship with them and make sure they know you’re available to help
  • Sending the odd message or email to your friends on the team, to check-in and just ask how they are doing, what’s new in their life, etc.
  • Asking each individual team member what they did at the end of the week, and compiling a weekly wrap-up to send out to the whole team (I do this every Friday and people love it!), and
  • Communicating with your boss regularly, and explaining if/when you’re having trouble creating boundaries for work at home (your boss will want to make sure you only work a regular amount of hours).

And if I could give only one piece of advice, it would be this:

No, that doesn’t mean you should only work when you have the energy to; it means you should pay attention to how you feel at all times, so you can establish a routine that will help you stay productive throughout the day. Working from home is hard! It’s so easy to get sucked into your screen for 8-9 hours and barely move. If you want to successfully work from home, you’ll need to continually assess your routine to figure out when you’re most productive, where you should squeeze in breaks throughout the day, how you can stay healthy and, most importantly, what will keep you motivated.

Oh – and only get a desk at a coworking space if it’s within a reasonable distance from you. If you have to drive for more than 20 minutes, you’ll never go – take it from me. And if that’s the case, and you are going to work solely from home, you need a designated workspace away from everyone else in your home; it will increase your productivity tenfold.

That was a doozy. Any questions? 🙂