I've been working remote for 12 years now, starting with my first kid. It was really important for me to be there with my kids as they grow up and it's been well worth it. I'm amazed I have an amazing job at an amazing company (ps., we're hiring). I'm amazed I'm effective outside of our engineering offices (San Francisco, Seattle, and now Dublin). Today's opportunities in tech allow me to work in a large, growing and high impact company outside of an office. Sometimes I forget the benefits this brings and that it enables some special experiences.
Like our "normal" summer plans. Every year, after the kids finish school in the US we pack up and spend 6-8 weeks in Japan. We enroll my kids in school here. Not just any school, they're going to the same elementary school my wife went to! We started doing this when they were in preschool and continued through today. This year I'm a bit sad because this may be our last year doing this. Next year my son will be in middle school and already he's falling too far behind.
I'm grateful to do this but these trips are big disruptions to everybody around us. I won't miss the disruptions. My wife and I are extremely grateful we can provide this opportunity to our kids but it comes at a cost. I've always tried to be very mindful about the costs and how to mitigate the negative impact. Here's what I've learned to make this situation work out.
The round-earth thing kinda sucks
Timezones are hard and anybody who works in a distributed company people know this. Right now I'm managing several teams, which means I don't have as much flexibility in when I'm able to work. Each year my wife and I draft up a schedule that will work for everybody. The last 4 years this means I go to bed at 6pm and wake up at 1:30am. I begin work at 2am which is 10am pacific time. I'm still getting my normal 7ish hours of sleep, feel well rested. It still has problems.
Meals and social time creates a bit of tension. We set a target that I will be able to start eating before 5pm, which means food needs to be ready before then. If someone invites us to dinner, we explain the situation and we don't ever break the rule. Most of our friends invite us for lunch instead.
Who goes to bed at 6pm!? My kids wake up at 7am to go to school. We have 2 rooms available to us so I sleep separate from the family. They don't worry about coming in and waking me up and I don't worry about waking them up when I get up. I miss my wife, sure, but whenever we tried to sleep in the same room we just disrupted each other's sleep too much. Sleep is really, really important!
Lighting is also important! When I join a meeting before 4am it's pretty obvious that I'm working in the dark. People are concerned for my well-being. They worry they're interrupting and if it weren't for them, I would be sleeping. This is hard to solve and I still don't have a great solution. I've setup better lighting in my office, including an overhead spectrum-adjusting light and it helps a ton. I recently had a VC call with someone who had a great lighting setup. It removes all the weird shadows that occur at night when the primary lighting is from a computer screen. Cinematography was one of his hobbies, so easier to justify the expense. If this wasn't my last year, I would invest in a similar setup.
Work towards a higher quality daily life
I wake up early enough to get at least 30 minutes to arrange myself before work. My morning routine is pretty important to me and only having 30 minutes can be stressful. Waking up earlier is worse, though. Instead of trying to cram more into 30 minutes I've setup my work schedule to ease me into the day.
I have two 1 hour "Ask Before Scheduling" blocks on my calendar so I can have some non-meeting time to plan and prepare. The first is at 2am to 3am which is my planning time, when I respond to emails and review for what's coming up. Normally, I begin work before most other folks and it's a different workflow to come online later. Having a block of time to warm up is critical to not just reacting through the entire day. Instead I can plan and be proactive, which yields much happier days.
The other block of "Ask Before Scheduling" is roughly my lunch break between 6am and 7am. This is important to me, since I will forget about taking breaks and end up sitting for 7 or 8 hours straight without much more than bathroom breaks. The people I work with are pretty wonderful, and they do ask before scheduling. On the surface, this schedule sounds hard and people worry but it isn't bad. If I talk about the breaks it helps remove some of the worry. Now when I done with my 6am run I'll drop a message in a team channel or DM to a concerned colleague. Right now I'm pushing hard to beat my average pace of 8:07 on the local 5k route, which is fun to share progress around.
Invest where it impacts life
Outside of scheduling, I invest in my workplace to improve my life! This is pretty important in any home office setup. Years ago I bought a discounted, not great office chair. It was around $60. It causes serious discomfort to me through the day. It was (and is) a big mistake that I never spent a bit more on a better chair. I miss my standing desk but it isn't a viable option here. Don't be like me, save your ass some pain.
I invest in keyboards and other accessories. Wrist and hand pain is bad and will ruin my day. Nearly every year I have tried a different keyboard and I'm still searching for a perfect keyboard. 5 years ago I discovered vertical mice and the one I bought keeps me comfortable enough. I also invest good video conferencing experiences. This year I forgot to pack my open-back headphones and ModMic, and I miss them dearly. More importantly, I'm sure my coworkers miss them more. Although now they get to hear the birds chirping in the background so maybe it's worth it. A good, comfortable headset and a high quality unidirectional mic is a great purchase.
I'm pretty bad at having fun here, especially on workdays. At home I have a pretty good routine and hobbies that keep me sane. When I'm here, I finish my work day before noon. Then I have lunch. Then I have this expanse of time available to me until the kids are done with school. Then I feel lost.
What I've found through the years is that by having themes ahead of time helps a lot. 3 years ago we decided to go on a pursuit of all the Indian restaurants around. It was really fun! Last year was roughly to find a train station we hadn't been to and likely wouldn't, then picking a restaurant near and walk back until we ran out of time and then hop on the train. This year may be the year of pancakes, after having the most amazing pancake in Nagano last year. If I go to one new pancake-place a week, it'll be a good trip. It's really fun to explore new places with such a silly purpose.
Having a theme helps to reduce the scope of choices and narrow my search, making me feel more focused in how I spend my time. I have the luxury of 4 hours of unallocated time in the middle of the day after work before the kids are done at school and I want to spend that time well. Some days I'll just watch a movie with my wife, but most other days I need to be active or I get pretty grumpy.
This time block is pretty great if I use it well. Before arriving, I setup a few goals and have milestones per week. For my staying-in goals, this trip I plan on deploying an app on Google AppEngine and have topics to write new posts every week. The other interesting thing is I get Mondays off because the international date line. My work week is Tuesday - Saturday, so I can benefit from smaller crowds on Mondays -- which is helpful since the first pancake restaurant we went to had a line 20+ people deep right after they opened. Turns out I'm not the only one wanting delicious pancakes, but hopefully there are fewer of us who can show up at 11am on a Monday.
Planning really helps against falling into the trap of feeling I have so much time that we don't do much until the week before we head back. Next weekend is a 3 day weekend which I'm pretty excited about because we're going to try to find some go karting. I still need nudges to make the most of my time here. When I do go out, I find some pretty awesome things and have awesome experiences.
I'm sad this is likely our last year doing this but who knows what the future will bring us. When I was a kid I could have never imagined this would be "normal" -- I need to remember it's not normal, it's amazing!