Tips for a healthy work-life balance for people starting at a remote company

Maintaining a good work-life balance is crucial to ensure that your energy remains high in the long run and you don’t burn out, and it’s a challenge when you join a distributed company. It is always tricky to keep the separation between work and personal time. But it’s even more challenging when you work at home. And the most challenging of all is when you don’t have a specific room that you can call your home office. So don’t discard the coworking option initially; it will help you get used to your new schedule and possibilities.

But I have good news: distributed environments give you lots of extra tools and the flexibility to find balance. You just need to learn how to use them and then be intentional in how you do so.

Understanding your new remote environment.

Don’t feel bad about not finding your place and pace immediately. A new distributed environment and likely an async communication model mean chaos. Your onboarding buddies and mentors (or whatever they are called around you) are there to help you get acclimatized.  

Chaos doesn’t mean a lack of order. Chaotic systems are dynamic systems that appear random and disorganized but are actually governed by underlying patterns and deterministic laws. So there is light at the end of the tunnel. 😀 

You need time and a bit of help to understand and harness all these new rules and structures. You don’t need to work longer hours: that is not sustainable. Instead, focus on being more productive and happier (these two are intimately related). Starting fresh and fully energized each day is about setting boundaries between your work and private life, feeling included and that you are a part of something, and understanding the impact you contribute.

There is no one-size-fits-all recipe to speed up the transition. But there are some well-tested tips. (BTW: Don’t hesitate to share yours in the comments below, and you’ll have your day’s good deed done ✓).

1. Remove your work apps from your cell phone.

Yes. Those. Slack, Basecamp, Trello, your work email, not to mention others specific to your company… 

:panic-mode: I REALLY REALLY REALLY need them! 

Are you sure? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ In that case, start by removing your work-related notifications or snoozing them outside of your working hours. Notifications are marvelously designed, crafted, and A/B tested… to capture your attention! And if your attention is on work-related issues, you never unplug! It would be sad if you were paying attention to a work project instead of your loved ones or your hobby during your spare time. Right? 

Using your spare time on work issues doesn’t make you more productive. On the contrary, you’ll very likely just be more tired the following day. Our company wants focused, productive people, not people working 24/7 and making mistakes because they are too tired, unhappy, or burnt out to be creative. Your company is all for work-life balance! If not, knock on our door! 🙂

If you are a team lead, lead by example. I got the message when my former division lead showed me he did not have Slack on his cell phone. Seriously, did I need it if he did not? Removing distractions makes you more productive and less stressed. But if you are a hardcore Data person and you won’t believe it until you see the data, check out Indistractable by Nir Eyal for studies, analysis, and some tricks and advice.

2a. Dramatize the boundaries of your working time: Meditation.

We need clear boundaries to have a good work-life balance. Let’s highlight them clearly to send our brain and body the message that we’re starting or finishing the workday. When you work in an office, your commute time and space serve as a signal that is difficult to ignore, especially when it takes several hours a day. When you work at home, you still need this frontier. But you can replace all that time you waste in a non-place (your car, the underground, walking time, etc.) with something else that reifies this border using less time and energy. 

One of my favorite boundary markers is meditation. It takes just 5 to 10 minutes before starting work and again at the end of the workday. Avoid jumping in and stopping abruptly, which usually means carrying all of your work thoughts and preoccupations into your family or personal time. You can meditate by yourself or using an app. I’d say Waking Up is my preferred one, but I’ve used Headspace, Insight Timer, Elefante Zen, and some others with identically good results. I’m proud and grateful that Automattic offers these as wellness benefits. But I’d still pay for it if this were not the case.

2b. Dramatize the boundaries of your working time: Other useful micro-actions.

Is meditation not your thing? Fair enough. Many other alternatives require your attention for no more than 3 to 10 minutes and give excellent results. You can compose your own toolbox and use different strategies depending on the day:

  • Starting the day by showing gratitude for a couple of things that happened the day before helps set boundaries and makes you realize how fortunate you are. I love the HappyFeed app because it is quick and effective, but you can use your journaling app (DayOne cannot be beaten), and in no time, you’ll have a gratitude repository that you can read when you feel you need a nudge in the right direction.  
  • What about welcoming your inner creativity and writing a few lines, just for yourself, to start your day? You could try to be poetic or keep it prosaic, but it doesn’t need a purpose: it’s just for you. Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, fully develops this idea and suggests writing a few pages a day, but you could also go with just a few lines of text. (Make it more meaningful using a notebook with soul.) You could even publish/release some of your short texts if you feel like it.
My elephant dung notebook was a gift from a good friend

  • We frequently utilize coffee to feel awake. We gulp it while reading the first emails / Slack direct messages, etc. However, we can convert our coffee into a magnificent ritual that acts as a boundary marker and a pleasant and meaningful experience. Use a significant mug with a story, feel the warmth caressing your hands, watch the fleeting nebulous steam, and abandon yourself to the so unique scent. Take a sip and feel the bitter yet amiable punch on your tongue. I grind my coffee beans every morning for my wife and me, and I sometimes imagine the red beans in the tree, the despulpado, or the farmer replanting the coffee bush. If you put aside 3-4 minutes and protect this time for a conscious experience, everything becomes a celebration. Coffee or tea are perfect sparks.    
  • You can devote these 3 minutes to reflect on a word or phrase. There are tons of motivational quotes (often mistakenly attributed, but this is a different tale) that you can use. I prefer being able to manipulate my objects of meditation, so these self-mastery cards were a good choice in my case. They are deep but not very cheesy, and I like them. Or, you can create your own. Or you can Google a list of words and ask your kids to create cards out of them.
  • You can start a GLAD journal. Like the gratitude journal, you can reflect on your previous day’s highlights. One thing that made you Grateful, one Learning, one Accomplishment, and something that Delighted you. I write my diary in Simplenote
  • Go for a walk. What if it’s raining, or you cannot go outside for some reason? Yoga, Stretching, or a dance break are valid alternatives 🙂

3. Add structure to your workday. 

I keep a remote working routine to guide and add rhythm to my journey. Give it a try! Outline yours without worrying too much about making it perfect the first time: it will be a work in progress. I used the routine in this post a while ago. After that, I used to do the one in the picture shown below. Revamp your routine as you see how it works or to ensure it meets your changing needs and aligns with your present state of mind.

An old working routine schema

If you don’t know where to start, let me suggest some things that have worked for me:

  • Draw your working routine when you think you get it: it’ll help you reflect on it. After that, take a picture with your cellphone to have it always in sight on your computer. You can use it as a screen background or open a window with the image as a part of your “starting the day” automated workflow (I use Alfred for this).  
  • First thing in the morning, I read emails, Slack messages, or any other communication. It could also be Basecamp, social networks in some cases, the WordPress Reader, P2 notifications, or messages from your project management tools. And most days, I don’t reread my messages until the following day (except for Slack DMs). This creates uninterrupted focus time, makes me productive, and prevents email apnea.
  • I decide what to do with every message I get. (Credit to Ari Meisel for the inspiration, even if he uses just Delete, Do, and Defer). My options are:
    • Answer (This would be equivalent to Ari’s Do)
    • Add something to a tasks list (In a Trello card / Asana / Todoist). (This would be = Defer)
    • Delegate it or pass it along. (Do)
    • Do nothing and forget about it immediately. In other words, Acknowledge—or not—and Delete.
  • So, once I’ve finished with the messages, I have a list of tasks. Some come from the “Defer” action, some from sprint activities or my tasks backlog. At this point, I decide what I will do that day, in which order, and then I stick with my decision. 
  • I start the prioritized tasks without the uncomfortable feeling of having “things floating around that I should take care of”. I’ve already decided what to do, and if something is not on the list, it is not as high a priority as those tasks on the list. And therefore, I can ignore it, at least until the following day.   

The key point is that I devote time to digest information (reading notifications) and reflect (setting priorities) before starting things. I’m convinced that, too often, we neglect reflection because we overvalue the importance of the time directly devoted to producing tangible outcomes. But when you think first, you can do things right and keep the flow that makes you productive and happy. You can use a tool like Full Focus Planner. But don’t allow the coolness to make you lose sight of the purpose: focusing on impactful work and not just staying busy. This planner incorporates space for you to define “rituals”—repeated actions that mark the start and end of your day/workday to help you transition from personal time to work time. Ring a bell?

4. Connect with your body.

When we work with knowledge, we tend to fixate on tricks, routines, tips, and habits to make our brain perform better. At 110% if possible. In so doing, we risk forgetting our body, where the brain sits. Be intentionally self-empathetic, self-compassionate, and kind to yourself. 

The first and foremost life hack I could share is so simple: Sleep. You can use one of the myriad of apps out there to improve your sleep. (My recommendation would be Sleep Cycle to set alarms to ring when they don’t interrupt a sleep cycle). Or you can follow a method like Sleep Reset. But there is no magic recipe. The best path to better sleep is to sleep more. Convince yourself to devote time to sleep, and you’ll have 90% of the work done. When in need, a short nap has the power to fix the day downstream. 🙂

The second life hack is also a truism. Sorry if you expected something more sophisticated. Enjoy! I couldn’t be more mindful and explanatory than Dan Walmsley in a recent internal (to Automattic) post: 

I have to have things that I’m passionate about, regardless of whether they’re related to work. And that makes my work better because work means more when life is worth living. You’re not just working to kind of make it to the next day. You’re working because you have a life you enjoy, and work is part of it.

Dan Walmsley

Sleep, enjoy, and… take care of yourself. And yourself is not just your brain, but also, and especially, your body. We must thank our bodies for being there and allowing us to think. If we connect inwards (with our body), we can feel grounded and fueled and be sustainably productive. So check continuously or at least several times a day:

  • Take ergonomics seriously: you need a good chair, table, keyboard, mouse, screen, light, etc. And don’t discard a virtual ergonomics evaluation! 
  • If you feel energized, refuel before it’s too late. If you deplete your energy, your productive day will be over. There is no way back. 
  • Hydrate.  
  • Breathe. Soften your muscles from time to time.
  • Look away from the screen at least every half an hour. (I love this browser plugin to get reminders to ease eye strain.)
  • Say to yourself, “You’re doing great” from time to time. And celebrate your success 🙂

Yep. I also have a hand-drawn note, in this case, stuck to my desk:

Connect with my body reminder

5. Talk to other people. Socialize.

We are born animals and just become humans through social interaction. You need to connect with others and do it enough to feel integrated and comfy. Genuine communication, not just about work, is a pillar of healthy remote activity and team building. In its absence, you can be swallowed by stress, negativity, and a sense of isolation. 

But don’t worry too much; communication is always a ping away. You just need to be intentional in the beginning and make it a part of your routine. Here are some ideas:

Photo by Katerina Holmes on
  • Use and relish your sessions with mentors or buddies. Don’t see them as imposed but as an opportunity to meet interesting and brilliant people who will help you feel more comfortable and welcome.
  • Taking part in casual random communication groups really helps in finding your place. What if there are no groups? You can suggest them ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (OR implement them for your newer colleagues if you are a more seasoned employee and want to make a valuable impact). Some examples we have at Automattic:
    • Life Chat: where you get periodically and randomly paired for a conversation. We use the Donut bot over Slack channels. There is a pairing for Data people, a general pairing group, or another one for team leads: you can join them all.
    • Distributed Postcards: same, but this time to send postcards on a given topic. We use a P2 blog to coordinate it.
    • If you have a hobby or a personal interest, chances are that there is a related Slack channel or a P2 blog where you can engage in exciting conversations. (At Automattic, we have tons of these channels—from #poetry to #women, #bluffers, or #sustainability, and blogs ranging from babies, pets, Brazilians to hot dogs or beards… just to mention a few.)
    • Check out your company’s Employee Resource Groups. At Automattic, we have resource groups around topics such as Neurodiversity, Queerness, Sustainability, and Physical Disability. Finding people sharing the same circumstances or experiences also creates powerful bridges.

Communication is Oxygen we say at Automattic. And it’s true. We become humans through communication

Remote Frog
  • What about building a blackboard/blog to share activities you can engage in with colleagues?
  • Use your team Slack channel. Don’t forget to say good morning when you start working, create casual conversation, and add your touch of charm! You’re probably worried about what your teammates might think of you. But they are likely eager to meet their new team member.
  • Is there someone around you’d like to know better, or do you think that you could learn something from or with? Do you share a hobby, or did you leave a similar comment on a post? Why don’t you drop them a few words that could spark a conversation or suggest meeting for a video coffee break?
  • Ping someone to say something casual, not work-related. You can make this a weekly activity. Can you keep a secret? I have reminders to do this, in Trello cards, but you can also use Google Calendar, for instance.
  • Shadowing sessions, i.e. walk-through calls with your lead or a teammate) are always a win. They help with imposter syndrome, speed up learning, and enable you to meet friendly people.
  • For non-native English speakers: we all have been there. Don’t feel ashamed if your brain melts after reading, writing, and speaking English for 8 hours. It’s helpful to meet and talk with people from your country/region and in your native language. Even short conversations or comments make a difference and could help you deal with new job stress. In no time, you’ll have written 14 million words in English. (This is what my Grammarly report says I’ve done.)

Bonus. Remote imposter syndrome could be harsh.

First step. Reckon Imposter Syndrome is real, It happens to the best of us. It also happens when you switch roles in the same company.

In the first few months, it’s common to wonder if we belong here. Maybe the hiring team made a mistake. But rest assured, you made it through the trial and worked hard to get here. It’s time to make a plan to work through any blockers and put one foot in front of the other. Again, talk to your lead. We can’t emphasize this enough.

Automattic’s internal “Field Guide.”

You can find lots of information about imposter syndrome, but I’d suggest that you start with something as simple as reminding yourself that:

  • The reason to be hired is that someone thought you are brilliant and you are able to nail it! If that person thought so, you are very likely competent and deserve to be where you are. 
  • You are supposed to make some mistakes, especially in the beginning. You’re not a robot, and nobody wants you to be one.
  • If you chill out and enjoy what you are doing, you’ll likely be more productive and happier. 

I love being an onboarding buddy or a mentor. Not just because of how rewarding it is to see that I can help other people. It’s also because of what I learn from their diverse and fresh perspectives, like this feedback I recently got:

I appreciate you helping me stay calm and encouraging me to have fun. 

From a mentee’s feedback

That would be a good recap, wouldn’t it? Take it as a mantra when starting a new distributed/remote job or any job at all! 🙂 Stay calm and have fun! In no time, you won’t want to be anywhere else

Would you prefer a video version of the above? There is one in WordFest: Tips to a Healthy Work-Life Balance for People Starting in a Remote Company (and for More Seasoned Remoters)

🙏🏽 A big shout-out to my friends and colleagues Jeffrey Zeldman, Shannon Smith, and Fırat Gelbal for your intelligent and generous reviews that have made this post meaningful and significant.

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