Life As A Remote Employee: Tales from the Other Side of the Desk

When it comes to being a remote employee I qualify in every sense of the word. I live on an island twelve miles out to sea in a community of barely 400 people. We have a single grocery store, a solo gas pump and a ferry that leaves just three times a day. And for my job? I work remotely from home as the Community & Content Manager for eCommerceFuel.

It wasn’t always like this for me. I worked as a writer for giant corporations for the past ten years before finding the job that allowed me to work from home. I tell people that being a remote employee has saved my relationship, my health and my sanity. If you’ve ever fantasized about what it’s like to work as a remote employee, here are some of the myths (I do not work in pajamas) and the truths (I kinda miss work parties) about what it’s like to have a laptop for an office.

 

My “Corporate America” Lifestyle

To be fair, I never disliked working in a corporate environment. It had a lot of great benefits. Employee banter across cubicle walls, paid vacations, a reason to get dressed in the morning. Over ten years ago I got my first full-time job working for a magazine before I had even graduated. Five days after donning my cap and gown, I went to work full-time.

Since I was saddled with student loans and a pretty measly salary, I lived at home for over a year, taking a 2-hour round trip train ride in and out of New York City. I usually got home after dinner and went right to bed, then I’d wake before the sun so that I could be back at my desk in time to start the work day.

My last desk in New York City

My last desk in New York City

I left the city life behind and moved to Maine, but my working situation still wasn’t ideal. This time is wasn’t a commute, but a long distance relationship with my lobsterman boyfriend that made things complex. His fishing grounds were on the island, and my job was located hours away. There was no option except to live apart and visit on weekends.

Something’s Gotta Give

After almost two years of living like this, we got engaged and something had to change. Since I was a writer by trade, it started to dawn on me that it was silly that I went into an office every day. My lobsterman didn’t really have a choice about where he could work, but I did. I decided to make the decision to leave my cushy job, my work friends, my employer-contributed 401K and go freelance until the right remote job came along, if such a thing existed.

Lessons from My First Year

Spoiler alert: the right ecommerce job did come along. I was hired not long after giving my notice from my corporate copywriter gig as the Community Manager here at eCommerceFuel. I’m currently typing this from my home office on the island. There’s a breeze blowing through the window. I’ll probably take a break in an hour to walk the dog on the beach. This morning I woke up early and did some yoga, without stressing out about clocking in to work at an exact time. And I’m fully dressed in normal clothes and not still in my yoga pants. For a remote employee, this is a good day.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I was at my desk by 8 a.m. sending new welcome emails and organizing an overflowing inbox. I hopped on my first phone call at 10 a.m. to try and work out logistics for eCommerceFuel Live 2015, our private forum conference I’m planning for 100+ likely attendees. Now I’ve got to finish some copywriting, work on a new email campaign, respond to members in the forum, attempt to finish this blog post, moderate the forum some more, desperately try and cure writer’s block by making a smoothie and try and cram four more hours of work into the day without any further distractions.

But I’m not complaining. Life as a remote employee is awesome, but as with any job, it has its downsides too.

The Pros

I take better care of myself

I don’t know if I successfully packed more than ten homemade lunches in my ten years at a corporate job. I was constantly running out to grab a fast food salad or just subsisting on snacks throughout the day. I didn’t feel healthy. By the time I’d get home from work, the last thing I wanted to do was hit the gym or go for a run. Instead, I just wanted to plop myself on the couch and relax.

The view outside my home office

The view outside my home office

Now I exercise every day. I eat healthier because my kitchen is downstairs. And on days where I do feel like being completely lazy, it’s okay, because I can pull out my yoga mat in the morning and make it up to myself.

I was worried that working from home would cause me to be a lazy bum, but it’s had the opposite effect. I don’t have the benefit of a gym at the office anymore, but I never used it before anyways.

I can set my own hours

For the most part, I’ve got flexibility when it comes to how I put together my 40-hour workweek. If I want to catch an afternoon ferry or grab lunch with a friend, I don’t have anyone at the desk next to me asking me where I’m going.

I’m a major early bird too, so powering up my computer at 7 a.m. feels more natural to me than waiting for coworkers to show up after 9 in the morning so I can get started. I’m someone that needs an afternoon break and I look forward to going on a walk around my yard or running to the store. Now I can tailor how I work based on how I can be more productive.

There’s a terrible standard set in many corporate environments that you need to be the first one at your desk and the last one to leave. And as with all jobs, there’s the inevitable down time. Now when I have it I go on a run or treat myself to two (or ten) viral cat videos. But I don’t need to just sit at my desk pretending to be busy anymore.

I get more time with family, friends and husband

Most people that work in an office have a commute, strict hours or a stringent schedule that impedes on time with their family and loved ones.

Without a position as a remote worker, I’d probably still be living away from my husband. Now I get to see him every morning and every night. We eat dinner together, which is something I still get excited about.

And we’re finally able to have flexibility with where we live. Though we’re tied to Maine in the fishing season (which is the best time to be here anyways), we can now leave in the winter to escape the cold now that my home office is portable. Last winter we spent five weeks in Barcelona. Not too shabby.

At our favorite Barcelona haunt, La Xampanyeria

At our favorite Barcelona haunt, La Xampanyeria

I’ve become a better problem solver

One dilemma that consistently came up at past jobs was waiting around for a problem to be fixed. Whether it was waiting for a decision from an analyst about what subject line to use in an email or waiting for supervisors to approve a headline change, there was always a constant bottleneck when issues would arise.

Now I’m forced to figure out how to fix any issues that arise on my own and I’m encouraged to do so. When you’re part of a remote team, there’s an innate sense of trust from your employer that you can get things done without handholding. As with any job, it’s not physically being at your desk that signals you’re doing your work, but the confirmation that a task actually gets done.

Working hours are suddenly way more productive

Remote employees are still held accountable for daily and weekly tasks and as part of a remote team, I find that I’m even more available to my coworkers than I ever was in an office environment.

In the past, 50% of my time in the office was spent in meetings. Depending on the day, I’d often stop at my desk just to grab lunch in between meetings. Not only did this kill productivity, but many of the meetings seemed like a genuine waste of my time. Plus, I’d find people waiting on me or find myself stalking someone’s desk, waiting for them to get out of a meeting because I had a question only they he or she could answer.

Now when I hop on a Skype call with Andrew, it’s to go over a list of talking points we need to touch base on. Before it would be commonplace for me to sit in a two-hour meeting and not say a word. Now I find myself spending a few hours a week discussing super topical points or pinging someone on Skype and getting an almost immediate answer to something.

The Cons

I have no friends

At least not at work. Sure, Henry the cat is purring behind me and Dutch the dog is often curled up by my feet, but I do miss human interaction on a daily basis. Even the time I spend with my coworkers on Skype is not the same as sneaking out to get a coffee with a cubicle buddy.

On days where I have a serious case of writer’s block, sometimes I wish I could just turn my chair around and bounce ideas off a fellow copywriter. Henry the cat is way less helpful in this department.

And don’t get me started on happy hour. Drinking alone is pitiful. When I want to unwind with a beer at the end of the day, it’s really just me, myself and I until a friend stops in or my husband comes home.

The loss of big corporate benefits

There are some really great perks to working for a big corporation. I miss my employer contributing to my 401K. I miss the office gym and even the office cafeteria. (Never thought I’d admit to that.) I miss having an excellent health care plan that was way better than the one I’m paying for now. At one job I even had paid “outdoor days” where I was paid to spend time outside. That was not terrible.

Admittedly, these are great perks from my past experiences, though not everyone working a corporate job gets treated this well. And to be fair, I do still have paid vacation time and a stipend for healthcare which is something I’m immensely grateful for.

But when you get off the corporate hamster wheel, you will inevitably give up a lot of the perks that come with it.

My new commute

My new commute

Self-motivating can be really hard

On days where I don’t feel like getting out of bed, it’s hard to get out of bed. When you work a desk job, it doesn’t matter how crummy you feel on a Monday morning, you’ve got to get up. Now it’s easier than ever to hit the snooze and roll back over since my commute only lasts 30 seconds.

And then there’s summer. Oh summer in Maine. We only get twelve amazing weeks of weather in Maine so on an 80-degree-and-sunny Thursday afternoon, I just want to be at the beach. It was painful when I worked in an office on these days, but when your car is right outside your window and your boss is nowhere in sight, it’s real tempting to just take a two-hour break and lay in the sun.

The truth is that sometimes I will. Sometimes I have days where I’ve been a slacker. I’ll do my tasks all morning and then enjoy the rest of the day. Then I’ll feel guilty about it, be stressed out about my growing to-do list the next morning and pray for a rainy rest of the week.

I tell myself that doing this once in a blue moon is okay. I try not to beat myself up about it. And if I’ve got to work for two hours on a Saturday or Sunday to make up for it, I’m happy to do it. Besides, once winter rolls around I can go days without leaving my house, so I like to think it all evens out in the end.

Winter in Maine is rough, but still beautiful

Winter in Maine is rough, but still beautiful

People don’t think I have a real job

Remote workers in this day and age are certainly commonplace if you work in an industry that uses them, but when I tell people my remote job requires me to work from home, I’m pretty sure they translate that to mean “Oh, so she’s unemployed.”

Lots of people ask me to do favors for them during the day. Friends expect me to be able to visit them for a midweek visit. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. As with any job, I have daily tasks and coworkers that expect me to be available during workweek hours. I feel really guilty if someone drops by the house and there’s a sink of dirty dishes. I imagine them looking around and saying, “She’s home all day and this is what her house looks like?!” I frequently hang my head in shame at the state of my domestic duties since I am home for most of the day.

But my workday can go by quickly. I spend mornings focusing on daily tasks and by the time lunch rolls around, I haven’t left my office in nearly five hours. So yes, the breakfast dishes are still in the sink. And they probably will be until after dinner.

Many of the stigmas about working from home are not true, for me anyways. I do get dressed in real clothes every morning, I don’t watch Days of our Lives, I don’t have enough free time to run a tight domestic ship and I do actual work every single day. But I do miss human interaction and getting dressed up for meetings. And yes, sometimes those cubicles did invoke a sort of “I’m part of a community” spirit. There are things about corporate America that I miss.

But if you ask me on any given day if I’d trade places, I wouldn’t even hesitate. I love my life as a remote employee and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even the chance to win first place in the office “Ugly Christmas Sweater Contest” for the third year in a row. Though hey, maybe this year I can host one on Skype.

Post tagged in: Articles, Entrepreneur Profiles

30 Comments

  1. Great post Laura, really good to hear the thoughts of remote working from the employee’s side, especially at a time we’re looking to hire. I can completely relate to people not thinking you have a real job. Even as a remote business owner, people seem to think that I just chill out on the beach all day everyday! The work relationship side of things is definitely an issue too, but I guess the forum community helps a little bit with it.

    At the end of the day it sounds like you get way more fulfilment from working remotely then you ever could have working in an office and I guess that’s one of the most important outcomes.

    1. Thank you, James! You’re right about the forum community. Even though I’m “alone” in my home office, I’ve got lots of people to chat with every day! 😉

  2. Really enjoyed this post Laura! My fiancé and I put in many years from our home office and garage warehouse and we always joke about a lot of these things to this day. Working from home is great, but like you said it does have its drawbacks. Most of which are minor compared to the freedom and joy that comes from being able to control your own schedule 🙂

  3. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for this great post. I work about 2/3 from home, 1/3 in the office in the real estate industry. I also run an eCommerce website http://www.thedeskconnect.com, so I can completely relate to the guilt of dishes remaining in the sink etc! I get paid by the hour for my real estate assistant position, so if I sneak in a few viral cat videos I feel like I have to compensate with a few extra minutes of my time. I really have to separate my time between my adjustable desk business and my real estate dreams. It’s an interesting balance, but I agree with you – the pros definitely outweigh the cons 🙂

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one that indulges in viral cat videos. Thanks for reading, Zach!

  4. I worked from home for three years, and I’m about to start a job that requires me to do it again. This article is right on, verbatim.

  5. I love this post! I spent 8 years working my own schedule. Now I’m back in the corporate world. After two years of sitting at a desk and feeling unhealthy, I have a new position that let’s me work from home 3 out of 5 days. I love it! I’m an early riser so I work from 6a – 10a then go to the gym for two hours. I can take a break when I want and I never really socialized at work anyway. I think everyone should be a remote worker!

    1. It really does wonders for early birds, Ken. I myself like a 10 or 11am break after cranking for a few hours too. Everyone SHOULD be a remote worker!

  6. This was such a great article. I was also a remote worker in the past and I hope to get back to being one soon. The part of the dishes made me laugh, its so true. Sometimes taking 10 minutes or so to put in a load of laundry or to do the dishes would act as my break, but sometimes I was so busy that I couldn’t even spare that! 🙂

    1. (Palm to the forehead) I just passed by an overflowing hamper, but I did manage to run the dishwasher this morning! Thanks for reading, James.

  7. Hi Laura –

    Really enjoyed the article as a lot of what you said resonated with me. I too started my career in NYC and now live in Miami, FL. I work for a UK ecommerce development company and I’m the sole US employee. I work from home and also a co-working space 1-2 x a week. Thanks for sharing your story! Happy to trade Florida lobsters for Maine lobsters any time. – Deb

    1. I always wonder about coworking spaces. I think if I lived in a city I’d definitely work at one a few days a week, just to mix things up! Maine lobsters truly are the best. 😉

  8. Laura, I’d go crazy without the office politics, banter, and the occasional water cooler talk!! Which is why I’m probably still working a full time job in addition to my business. I think that’s what you call entrepreneurship loneliness.

  9. Fabulous to hear your story Laura. Really lovely.

    Because we have flexible hours and work for ourselves many people get confused about what we actually do. They think that either my husband is a ‘stay-at-home dad’ or that he ‘sends his wife out to work’. All implying that he’s lazy and not a ‘real’ worker. We had two such comments last week.

    15 years ago I would hide the fact that I ran a remote team. People would think that I was somehow taking advantage of other people who couldn’t get a ‘real job’. It’s seems to be more acceptable nowadays, but there is still some confusion from people who have only ever experienced working for someone else in a 9 to 5 situation.

    As for the loneliness, I hear you. I had a beautiful view from my home office. Stunning garden. Kangaroos in the paddock (I am not kidding) and a view of the hills. But I missed people.

    So, now we have a little share office in our town. It’s really just a bolt hole but it allows me to get out of the house and see the other humans and feel part of the community. I can use the office whenever I like, or just stay at home. It’s nice to have an option.

    I will trade you a kangaroo steak (seared super fast on the BBQ with a dash of salt) for a Maine lobster!

    1. Sounds like a beautiful view, Katrina! I’m glad the stigma of remote teams has changed over time. And I’ve never had kangaroo before so it’s a deal! 😉

  10. Hello from Brazil. Your words were very inspiring. One of the downsizes I would mention is that kind of feeling you get as you look at your pc and starts asking yourself things like “have I really finished the job?” I think I work harder than I would if I were at a corporation. For what it’s worth, I run my own online store.

    1. You’re right about working harder when you have to hold yourself accountable. It’s easier to have more downtime when you work in a big team that shares tasks! Obrigado, Daniel!

  11. Very interesting read, Laura. I think the path you chose is very brave. I have a lot of respect for you. So how did you go about finding work as a remote employee? Is there a website or something? Connections?

    1. Truthfully, the plan was to go freelance rather than remote. I knew the idea of “remote jobs” existed, but I really just had set my mind to being able to make a living as a writer from home. I had enough editorial connections that I thought I could make it work. Finding a full-time remote position was a “best case scenario” and I when I stumbled upon the Community Manager posting, I knew it was a job I’d be good at. I believe I searched a lot on MediaBistro and other job listing sites for “remote” as the job location. I wish I had better tips for finding a remote gig, but alas I don’t!

  12. Great post. I thin a lot of ecommerce is motivated by working from home.

    I’m doing this backwards, went from corporate, to working alone for 5 years, and yes most of them were blissful, especially starting around year 3. By then I had gotten the hang of working alone, I used to take breaks and teach myself guitar and piano, I was horrible but I enjoyed it.

    But then I made a conscience decision to continue growing the company when I was at the point of needing employees. By that time was grossing 300k and really couldn’t do it alone at least not during the busy season.

    Now it is four years later and and staff of 7, plus summer help, and pinch hitters for special projects or to come in and work sales, and most days to be perfectly honest I long for that little ‘just me’ office. Although the baked goodies are good.

    I need to improve on just flat out working from home again, trouble is I only really like working from home in my fishing shack which is an hour away and a little hard to justify the commute.

    First world problems I know, still they seem real.

  13. Great call coming to Barcelona for a few weeks!

    I’m a remote worker on a permanent basis here, as my husband and I moved over to be in a more family-friendly city. Remote working has been the best change in our lives, allowing me to work in the mornings and be a mum in the afternoons. Totally get what you mean about people thinking it’s not a real job though…when I say “I work from home” they assume I mean I’m taking care of the kids/cleaning/cooking all day…

    Anyway, this is an awesome city for remote workers (I wrote about it here, if anyone is interested: https://carouselapps.com/2015/12/15/remote-working-barcelona/) so come and check it out if you’re curious 🙂