Surviving your first winter as a remote worker

Posted by on March 22, 2019

Many of FreeAgent’s engineering team work remotely, spread all around the UK, generally visiting our Edinburgh office once a quarter.

FreeAgent Remote Engineer map

(FreeAgent’s remote engineering team – blue arrows show full-time staff, yellow show contractors.)

I joined FreeAgent in April 2018 and this was my first experience of being a remote worker. Even though I’d sometimes been able to do one day a week working from home in previous roles, the reality of full-time remote was quite different from what I expected.

Being a remote worker is amazing. I certainly don’t miss the four hours a day I used to spend commuting to London and back, but some aspects of being in a physical office environment alongside work colleagues were hard to leave behind. I felt like I needed to replicate these in order to be happy and productive. I assumed that because I had a (company supplied) brilliant office chair, decent working space and desk with great IT kit, that this was all I needed. Wrong! There were some surprising other things that I gradually discovered, and experimented with, some of which have really made a difference to how I work, to my mood and doubtless to my wellbeing also.

Now that we are (finally!) entering spring, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the tactics that helped me survive, and thrive during my first winter as a remote worker.

Eat healthily during the day

My activity level initially dropped more than I expected, being a remote worker. Working in a big office means walking up flights of stairs, a couple of 10 minute walks to/from the station, or from car/motorbike parking, and that all stopped when I started working from home. After 3 months, there were definitely a few pounds gained! I had more time, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time preparing healthy, and what I thought were boring, meals. I soon learned that lower carb / lower sugar eating helped me feel more positive, especially at lunchtime.

Here is one lunch that takes little preparation time, yet tastes great.

Salmon with roasted vegetables

  • Heat oven to 180C (fan)
  • Place a salmon fillet on a sheet of baking foil that will be large enough to wrap around the salmon and make a parcel with a bit of air space
  • Pour over a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice and a sprinkling of mixed herbs
  • Wrap silver foil around the salmon to loosely seal it, and place on oven-safe tray or dish
  • Cover a baking sheet with silver foil
  • Place a few shoots of asparagus or tenderstem broccoli (or both) on the silver foil
  • Couple of sprays of low calorie olive oil or other oil
    Add some lazy garlic or some chilli seeds for optional extra excitement!

Place salmon in oven for 6 mins, then add the vegetables and cook for a further 12 mins (so 18 mins in total). Done!

Salmon and roasted vegetables

I tend to pick up fruit and vegetables 2-3 times a week from my local supermarket, or the town market (on the day it runs). This is a chance to exercise, go outside, and chat to real people face-to-face rather than via Google Meet!

We also have a Slack channel at FreeAgent that discusses food and healthy eating, so there are colleagues to discuss menu options, recipes and suggestions with. It’s certainly added to my recipe collection. One of my colleagues even runs his own recipe blog – take a look!

Have your workspace at a comfortable temperature

Not so difficult to do in the summer months, but I found in winter the room I have for an office took ages to get properly warm, even with domestic central heating. Your working space may need to be warmer during the working day than the rest of your home – getting cold when working at a desk doesn’t feel productive, it feels miserable! The answer? A basic heater with a thermometer. This allows you to get the room up to 20-21 degrees (or your temperature of choice) and keep it there.

Heater control panel

Have the right lighting in your workspace

This was something several of my colleagues helped with, via our internal #remote Slack channel. As autumn evenings started drawing in, I noticed I could do with more decent light in my home office space.

I use a LIFX light as my main light and I generally have it set to the daylight colour temperature, which my eyes and mood prefer. The LIFX has a massive range of adjustments for colour temperature, brightness, as well as special effects. Being able to control via Siri is hardly essential, but it does provide some entertainment! Occasionally there are special offers, either via LIFX directly or via Amazon.

Colour temperature setting

I use an LED desk light which, again, has selectable colour temperature and is dimmable.

Some folks have put strip lights behind their monitors for bias lighting but I haven’t felt the need to do this. The combination of my desk light and decent main light has been great so far.

I love good music around me (I’m a musician and former sound engineer), and since I’m not in a shared office, I don’t have to confine myself to headphone listening. A major feature of the office is:

  • Yamaha HS7 speakers – active studio monitors. Each speaker has two separate amplifiers built in, one for the bass speaker and one for the treble. The philosophy is that you hear exactly what the recording engineer intended.
  • Speakers are fed by an AudioQuest DragonFly USB Digital-to-Analog converter.
  • The majority of my music comes from Spotify at present, but I’m looking to trial one of the higher-resolution streaming services, namely Qobuz Studio or Tidal during the coming months.

All in all, this is what it adds up to:

Home desk setup

Oh, by the way… having your chair set up properly and your monitor at the right height is also amazingly important. More luxurious brands of monitor stand are available!

Not only is this a comfortable space for me to work from, it gets a thumbs-up from the cat also!

Cat snoozing on my desk

Include regular exercise in your day

I try to go on at least two walks every working day, to keep active and avoid “never going out of the house” syndrome. I’ve found two things helpful in keeping me motivated to do this.

Firstly I have a smartwatch that tracks my exercise. I find it encouraging to see I’ve done at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Some folks at FreeAgent buddy up around exercise, even the remote staff. At the moment, my buddy for exercise is my watch, but perhaps later in the year I’ll branch out here.

Secondly, having a decent coffee shop almost 15 mins walk away is a great excuse for some exercise! Dual incentive, though I must try to avoid the amazing cakes!

my local coffee shop

Everything above has come about because of my new role at FreeAgent, the opportunity to work remotely, and the amazing colleagues who are not only interested in cutting code and developing product features but are also happy to share ideas and discuss suggestions to make your whole life, not just your work life, happier and healthier.

If this sounds like the sort of work/life balance that you’d love to have, I should probably point out that we’re hiring!

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