This past month, I celebrated my second year of working remotely. These past two years have been some of the happiest and least stressful years of my career. I've been able to achieve a work-life balance I'm happy with thanks to a more flexible schedule. I'm sleeping more, exercising more, relaxing more, and working more due to increased productivity. For being a startup founder, I deem that a huge success.
To provide context, two years ago, my Kopa co-founders and I had to decide between opening an office in San Francisco and going fully-remote. Since we're a software company, we didn't need an office, and for many reasons, we chose to go fully-remote and hire all remote workers. All our part-time and full-time team members and freelancers work from wherever in the world they feel most at home and can get their work done.
I no longer stress about taking off for an hour in the middle of the day to go to my dentist. I can go to the grocery store at 10 a.m. to avoid crowds later in the day, ultimately saving myself time. I've been able to visit my family, my partner's family, and friends all across the U.S. and Canada over a dozen times in two years without taking loads of paid time off (PTO) because I can work anywhere. On top of that, I actually get all my work done and remain passionate and excited about my job.
Backstory: Working in an office from 9-5 was not my jam.
I worked in offices for 5 years and never loved the office environment. I loved seeing my co-workers each day, but the office was never the space where I worked my best because there were so many distractions — noises, movements, conversations. As an introvert, I thrive when I'm alone in quiet spaces. Even at home, I wear noise-canceling headphones, and usually, I'm only listening to the white noise in the headphones. I feel at peace when I'm at home; it's where I feel most physically, mentally, and spiritually comfortable.
The 9-5 workday felt long and restrictive. I was mentally drained and ready to go home by 3 p.m., but I didn't want to break the status quo and take an hour or two off and then have to work at the office until 7 p.m. Everything felt so inefficient. I can't shut off my creative brain, so if an idea popped into my head after work, I felt like I had to push it aside because I was in my only "home" time of the day.
Between my commute, low productivity, and attempts at trying to cram in errands and exercise before and after work, I started feeling bitter about work despite loving my role and tasks. I knew I wasn't happy or thriving in my work environment, but up until the recent COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, most companies—even tech companies—didn't allow you to work remotely. For established companies, switching to remote work is an operations and culture nightmare.
I feel lucky that I had the chance to start a business and decide to go fully remote. But when we started to work remotely, I initially faced some challenges switching to the remote lifestyle.
First, I needed to embrace the change and allow myself to have a flexible schedule.
The biggest aspect of remote work that I initially struggled with was my schedule. For years, I was trained by the 9-5 workday, so naturally, I started working those hours.
Running a startup is tough work. I was exhausted, and my job was taking a toll on me. A tired mind and body is not healthy and can't sustain efficiently creating high-quality work. I needed to take care of myself to be better at my job and to be a role model for our employees.
Over the course of several months, I began to shift my schedule and figure out my new time management strategy. I started giving myself what I needed: the freedom to loosen my strict schedule. If lunch took longer to make than normal, I didn't beat myself up for it or rush through it. If I was exhausted at 4 p.m., I took a nap. I allowed myself to sleep in until 7:30 a.m. instead of forcing myself up at 5:30 a.m. to work out before heading to the office.
Within my personal life, I began calling my family around my lunchtime, which was a huge change for me. All of my family lives on the East Coast, so they're 3 hours later than me. When I worked from an office, I could only call them on the weekends because my morning was crammed, and by the time I biked home each night, the time was after 6 p.m. my time and after 9 p.m. their time.
As I adjusted my schedule and took more breaks, I noticed my increased productivity during work hours. I engaged with what I was doing instead of staring at the clock on my computer, waiting for 5:25 p.m. so I could start packing up my belongings to head home. I was working more while working from home, which is now common knowledge.
My new schedule yielded a version of work-life balance.
Over several months, I finally had a routine. For me, work-life balance isn't about completely separating work from life and not working at night. It's about finding a way to make the two work together in a state where I feel happy and fulfilled.
With this new remote work schedule, I do an incredible amount of work, still have time for family and friends, and (usually) all my daily tasks ... and I somehow had more free time for me. I actually have time to cook dinner, sit down and eat, and relax.
A portion of this saved time came from commuting. I also saved a lot of stress and exhaustion. Biking is hard on San Francisco hills, especially after a mentally draining day, and it's often dangerous. But the other commuting options aren't great. Now, I'm saving 1.75 hours commuting each day, which means that's 1.75 hours back to do something else.
An hour saved each workday equals 10.4 days saved per year.
Within 6 months of working from home, I felt rejuvenated. In the first year, I gained 500 extra hours of sleep and lost 15 pounds because I was wasn't constantly stressed about my schedule, I had time to prepare proper meals, and, well, I was sleeping more. I could efficiently work out every day because I had the time and energy to do so.
Over the past two years, I saved 876 hours from unnecessary tasks or chores, many of which were previously spent showering and making myself look presentable for the workplace. I reduced a 45-minute morning routine of getting myself ready to one that took 10 minutes. That lead to other positive effects: I re-prioritized how I was spending money and stopped buying unnecessary clothes, and I stopped wearing makeup every day. My skin and savings account are both very happy.
Sustaining my sanity: I set standards and hold myself accountable.
Adopting bad habits when working remotely is easy. You're not held accountable like you were in the office. Believe me, I wake up some days and only want to wear pajamas and work from the couch with some TV show on in the background. (Who doesn't love a good Tuesday morning binge of "Ozark" or "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"?) I could work for 12 hours a day and not be sure where the day went or if I ate lunch. Over time, I began adopting standards for working from home:
- No PJs. Jeans and a casual top are preferred, but sweatpants and athleisure are acceptable. Makeup is not necessary.
- Find where you work best and invest in that space. My partner and I work out of a 1.5 bedroom apartment, so we use the half bedroom as a home office. We bought Autonomous standing desks, Herman Miller ergonomic chairs, and 1 GB internet so we reduce the number of glitchy video conference calls. I often work at my dining table, and yes, when I'm feeling lazy, the couch too. (Note: I treat sitting on the couch like eating a huge piece of chocolate cake: doing either for an extended period of time or over and over again is detrimental to your health.) While I prefer to work at home, some remote workers love coffee shops and co-working spaces.
- Create a routine with breaks and stick with it. Getting up at 7 a.m. one day and 10 a.m. the next confuses my body. I still get burnt out from working at home, so I take breaks. If I need a nap at 3 p.m., I do. Working 7 a.m.–7 p.m. straight through was not sustainable, and working less on the weekdays and working more on the weekends doesn't feel good, either. I keep to my routine no matter where in the world I'm working.
- Do physical activity, ideally outside, for at least 30 minutes each day. My steps dropped from 11,000 steps per day when I worked out of an office to 3,000 steps per day when I started working remotely. So, I set an exercise goal for 30-90 minutes each day, and I usually spend this doing an indoor HIIT workout at home or playing squash.
- Improve your communication skills. In 1967, Albert Mehrabian came up with the “7%-38%-55%” rule determining that communication is made up of three parts: the actual words you use (7%), the tone of delivery in your voice (38%), and the body language accompanying your words and voice (55%). When you're on Zoom or Hangouts video calls, you become harder to read since you can't see as many body language cues. For someone with dry, sarcastic humor and often a monotone voice, I need to find ways of adding tone. On Slack, I try to use bold and italic styles, emojis, and GIFs to express more tone and emotion.
My remote work life works because Kopa's company culture makes it work.
At Kopa, we set up our calendars to have 9 "working hours" based on a normal-ish workday in our separate timezones. We all have some overlap with North American hours, and all our meetings must be scheduled within that overlap. This means that no one needs to answer emails or Slack messages or attend meetings beyond their individual 9-hour workday. This makes a huge difference because it doesn't feel like someone's looking over your metaphorical shoulder to see if you're working; you're free to go heads down and get your work done most of your day.
The ability to do this comes down to trust. We're a small team, so it's easy to hold each other accountable. We hire people who are passionate about what Kopa is doing; we know our teammates are not just here to clock in and out and get paid.
Remote work yields a different lifestyle.
While I can't imagine ever working in an office or cubicle-like scenario again and while I believe the future of work for many industries is remote, I also acknowledge that working remotely is not for every company or every individual. For large companies, the shift to remote work is an operations and culture nightmare. Individually, I know several extroverted people who are having a really hard time while working from home during COVID-19 because they gain their energy from physically being around others, which they're unable to do.
For me, working at a fully remote company has provided so many perks and has given me an amazing quality of life. Of course, I miss seeing co-workers in person. I miss chatting with them as we worked through lunch and sharing our recently-made recipes with each other. At Kopa, our company culture is one built around remote work. We don't have "water cooler" conversations since everyone is a remote employee, but we have daily video conference call meetings, constantly Slack each other, have discussions and collaborate in Notion, and have other video check-ins throughout the day. It's all different, but we make it work ... remotely.