My 7 rules for remote-work sanity

If I need to get out of my office, I’ll take the dog for a walk

I work remotely, and have done, on and off, for a good percentage of the past 10-15 years.  I’m lucky that I’m in a role where this suits my responsibilities, and in a company – Red Hat – that is set up for it.  Not all roles – those with many customer onsite meetings, or those with a major service component – are suited to remote working, of course, but it’s clear that an increasing number of organisations are considering having at least some of their workers doing so remotely.

I’ve carefully avoided using the phrase either “working from home” or “working at home” above.  I’ve seen discussion that the latter gives a better “vibe” for some reason, but it’s not accurate for many remote workers.  In fact, it doesn’t describe my role perfectly, either.  My role is remote, in that I have no company-provided “base” – with chair, desk, meeting rooms, phone, Internet access, etc. – but I don’t spend all of my time at home.  I spend maybe one and a half weeks a month, on average, travelling – to attend or speak at conferences, to have face-to-face (“F2F”) meetings, etc..  During these times, I’m generally expected to be contactable and to keep at least vaguely up-to-date on email – though the exact nature of the activities in which I’m engaged, and the urgency of the contacts and email, may increase or reduce my engagement.

Open source

One of the reasons that I can work remotely is that I work for a company that works with open source software.  I’m currently involved in a very exciting project called Enarx (which I first announced on this blog).  We have contributors in Europe and the US – and interest from further abroad.  Our stand-ups are all virtual, and we default to turning on video.  At least two of our regulars will participate from a treadmill, I will typically actually stand at my desk.  We use github for all of our code (it’s all open source, of course), and there’s basically no reason for us to meet in person very often.  We try to celebrate together – agreeing to get cake, wherever we are, to mark special occasions, for instance – and have laptop stickers to brand ourselves and help team unity. We have a shared chat, and IRC channel and spend a lot of time communicating via different channels.  We’re still quite a small team, but it works for now.  If you’re looking for more tips about how to manage, coordinate and work in remote teams, particularly around open source projects, you’ll find lots of information at the brilliant Opensource.com.

The environment

When I’m not travelling around the place, I’m based at home.  There, I have a commute – depending on weather conditions – of around 30-45 seconds, which is generally pretty bearable.  My office is separate from the rest of the house (set in the garden), and outfitted with an office chair, desk, laptop dock, monitor, webcam, phone, keyboard and printer: these are the obvious work-related items in the room.

Equally important, however, are the other accoutrements that make for a good working environment.  These will vary from person to person, but I also have:

  • a Sonos, attached to an amplifier and good speakers
  • a sofa, often occupied by my dog, and sometimes one of the cats
  • a bookshelf, where the books which aren’t littering the floor reside
  • tea-making facilities (I’m British – this is important)
  • a fridge, filled with milk (for the tea), beer and wine (don’t worry: I don’t drink these during work hours, and it’s more that the fridge is good for “overflow” from our main kitchen one)
  • wide-opening windows and blinds for the summer (we have no air-conditioning: I’m British, remember?)
  • underfloor heating and a wood-burning stove for the winter (the former to keep the room above freezing until I get the latter warmed up)
  • a “NUC” computer and monitor for activities that aren’t specifically work-related
  • a few spiders.

What you have will depend on your work style, but these “non-work-related” items are important (bar the spiders, possibly) to my comfort and work practice.  For instance, I often like to listen to music to help me concentrate; I often sit on the sofa with the dog/cats to read long documents; and without the fridge and tea-making facilities, I might as well be American[1].

My rules

How does it work, then?  Well, first of all, most of us like human contact from time to time.  Some remote workers will rent space in a shared work environment, and work there most of the time: they prefer an office environment, or don’t have a dedicated space for working a home.  Others will mainly work in coffee shops, or on their boat[2], or may spend half of the year in the office, and the other half working from a second home.  Whatever you do, finding something that works for you is important.  Here’s what I tend to do, and why:

  1. I try to have fairly rigid work hours – officially (and as advertised on our intranet for the information of colleagues), I work 10am-6pm UK time.  This gives me a good overlap with the US (where many of my colleagues are based), and time in the morning to go for a run or a cycle and/or to walk the dog (see below).  I don’t always manage these times, but when I flex in one direction, I attempt to pull some time back the other way, as otherwise I know that I’ll just work ridiculous hours.
  2. I ensure that I get up and have a cup of tea – in an office environment, I would typically be interrupted from time to time by conversations, invitations to get tea, phyiscal meetings in meeting rooms, lunch trips, etc..  This doesn’t happen at home, so it’s important to keep moving, or you’ll be stuck at your desk for 3-4 hours at a time, frequently.  This isn’t good for your health, and often, for your productivity (and I enjoy drinking tea).
  3. I have an app which tells me when I’ve been inactive – this is new for me, but I like it.  If I’ve basically not moved for an hour, my watch (could be phone or laptop) tells me to do some exercise.  It even suggests something, but I’ll often ignore that, and get up for some tea, for instance[3].
  4. I use my standing desk’s up/down capability – I try to vary my position through the day from standing to sitting and back again.  It’s good for posture, and keeps me more alert.
  5. I walk the dog – if I just need to get out of my office and do some deep thinking (or just escape a particularly painful email thread!), I’ll take the dog for a walk.  Even if I’m not thinking about work for all of the time, I know that it’ll make me more productive, and if it’s a longish walk, I’ll make sure that I compensate with extra time spent working (which is always easy).
  6. I have family rules – the family knows that when I’m in my office, I’m at work.  They can message me on my phone (which I may ignore), or may come to the window to see if I’m available, but if I’m not, I’m not.  Emergencies (lack of milk for tea, for example) can be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
  7. I go for tea (and usually cake) at a cafe – sometimes, I need to get into a different environment, and have a chat with actual people.  For me, popping into the car for 10 minutes and going to a cafe is the way to do this.  I’ve found one which makes good cakes (and tea).

These rules don’t describe my complete practice, but they are an important summary of what I try to do, and what keeps me (relatively) sane.  Your rules will be different, but I think it’s really important to have rules, and to make it clear to yourself, your colleagues, your friends and your family, what they are.  Remote working is not always easy, and requires discipline – but that discipline is, more often than not, in giving yourself some slack, rather than making yourself sit down for eight hours a day.


1 – I realise that many people, including many of my readers, are American.  That’s fine: you be you.  I actively like tea, however (and know how to make it properly, which seems to be an issue when I visit).

2 – I know a couple of these: lucky, lucky people!

3 – can you spot a pattern?

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

8 thoughts on “My 7 rules for remote-work sanity”

  1. I love the comment about your commute lol! I just became a Red Hat employee and also work remote. I joke that I am 16 steps to my 2nd job so I can relate. I may have to think about the tea station as I love tea – even though I am American 😉

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  2. Hello Mike, thanks for the great write-up! While I am not new to remote work, I am new to Red Hat and greatly appreciate the global view they have on remote workers. That is not to say that I haven’t had some 5 am meetings, but I too also set timeslot boundaries which I stick too (not my first rodeo – sorry a very American expression!). I like the idea of #3 because I can find myself stiff after realizing I have been sitting in the same spot for 2-3 hours without moving (I am also an avid blogger so this flows into the post-work situation as well!)! I will definitely look into that! I make sure I have 30-60 minutes before I start my day to enjoy breakfast and a cup of coffee (sorry, American and a francophile) – but I do switch to tea in the afternoon. Thank you again for the reminders about how to properly work remotely!

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  3. Delightful. Also American but my husband is British so we have a lot of tea (made properly!) at home. I just started full-time remote work in July and this has given me some food for thought.

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  4. Another US-based Red Hatter here. Tea is also my preferred drink and have my electric kettle at the ready. Though I must confess that I’m on a Chai kick so I am not sure that truly qualifies as “proper tea”. My commute is 22 seconds as I walk past the giant killer dust bunnies in the hall. I also enjoy a sit/stand desk. While my office is separate, I only wish it was in my garden. At least I can see the vegetable garden from my office windows. Since my SO has every allergy known to mankind, no dogs or cats in our home. Though I do make homemade, organic dog biscuits for the dogs that walk by daily. If you come across the pond, let me know and I’ll send you home with some mutt munchies for your pup.

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  5. I am a Red Hatter based in Norway, just moved here from the US. I work Norwegian hours, as light is so important up here north, I need to get out and get some light. In winters that’s less important, as it gets dark at 14:00/2pm anyway.

    I have a room set aside for my office. It looks out over my garden and the forest, so few distractions. I have a VariDesk, so I can stand and sit. I too use an app to make sure I get up and stand. My commute is similar, but I run into roadblocks at times, when my two cats decide to stop in front of me on my way to the office. Yes, then I complain about the rush traffic 😉

    My drink of choice is water. We have excellent tap water in Norway, and it gets me up from the chair. I do like a good cup of tea, though, I learned that from my stint at RH UK (we were in Guildford in those days). What I find useful is that when I go into the office, I’m at work, and when I leave, I am not. I do keep the distinction strict, or I would be working all day, every day. I’ve got a TV in the office for important events such as skiing, I’m Norwegian after all. It is usually turned off. But it’s there so I can keep the private separated from work.

    My aforementioned cats will visit me and demand cuddles and play, so I do take breaks for that. Once in a while, I do pop out to the store to meet people. I have a supermarket nearby that serves good sushi, so I do go there and watch people for lunch, now and then.

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  6. I have worked from home, sorry remotely, since 2002. I’m not even sure I could go into an office at this point. For full disclosure, I am an IBM contractor, employed full-time by another company. I see that the author and several commenters work for Red Hat. I really hope that the Red Hat ideal of being able to work from anywhere spreads back into IBM. I hope that you are not eventually caught up in IBM’s colocation strategy which would require you to work in one of its major hubs. IBM lost a lot of good talent over the last few years because of its strategy. Please prove to IBM that you can be productive even though you’re not all working in the same office!

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  7. Hi,
    Thanks for the write up. Red Hatter and remote too, been remote for over 10 years at various companies. I think that the two most important rules, in my own experience, are 1 and 6. They are really the two sides of the same coin: preserve a good work-life balance. You don’t want life to interrupt your work all the time or it will cause stress. You don’t want work to squash your life either, for obvious reasons.
    I was a remote worker for years with Hewlett-Packard. Not being strict enough about rule 1 ended up being a real problem. I remember one time when I had a conflict for a meeting in the 6-7PM time slot for me, France time, and meetings in the 7-9P time slots as well (basically the whole morning, California time). So I asked to move the meeting one hour up, and a colleague replied that 8AM was not too convenient for people in California… In my experience, Red Hatters are more aware. At the expense of a lot more emails 😉
    For me, the major obstacle for rule 6 was dire emergencies like spiders. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what really is an emergency (does giving your opinion about a haircut qualify as an emergency?)
    Thanks again.

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