4am on a Friday morning.
A time seldom witnessed by many. Bin men. Builders. Infants, and their long-suffering parents. Insomniacs. Night shift workers. Ravers. Revellers. Road warriors and holidaymakers.
Blue light from the laptop screen providing the only illumination in my tiny studio flat.
I sat cross-legged on the floor inside the cupboard. Computer propped on a wooden chopping board to avoid slowly roasting my nuts. A harsh lesson, learned the hard way.
The modem cable snaking under the door provides a link to the outside world. Back in the olden days, before computers communicated via magic, they were physically tethered together by cords.
My lady wife slept in the bedroom/dining room/lounge room on the other side of the cupboard door. The sounds of her syncopated snoring ensured I remained awake, even in those rare hours when her stress-induced insomnia did not.
Worriers will always find something to worry about, whether real or imagined. She had plenty to worry about.
Working as a reluctant freelancer can be stressful. When visa conditions preclude getting a permanent job, there are few other viable options available.
Every day a performance review. Unpaid invoices and unexpected bench time are ever-present threats.
Visa uncertainty is stressful. Your ability to lead your chosen lifestyle determined by the subjective judgement and ever-changing whims of the immigration authorities.
Success buys a stay of execution until the next visa renewal, or simply the next attempted return from abroad.
Rejection means being told to pack up and leave the country. Scant notice. No way back.
The notion of planning for the future, acquiring assets, and maximising tax-efficient pension contributions is farcical when you can’t even be sure which country you will reside in three months from now!
Being a woman in a man’s world is stressful. The only female at a very blokey site in a male-dominated industry.
Innuendo. Monotonously dull talk about football. Off colour banter. Spiked drinks. Wandering hands.
A lecherous boss who lowers the thermostat to ensure nipples are on high beam during meetings and presentations.
I tapped away on my keyboard, approaching the tail end of a 96-hour coding marathon.
Writing in arcane languages.
Committing crimes against punctuation.
Using made-up words like awk, grep and sed.
I would love to claim that I was hacking together an incredible software creation the likes of which the world had never previously seen. A creative endeavour fuelled by passion, drive, and an almost religious zeal to see the product of my imaginings brought to life.
Alas, that would be a lie.
The truth is I was doing a swan impersonation. Serene above the water. Furiously paddling below.
I had dived in the deep end, landing a job I wasn’t remotely qualified for. Amazing opportunity. Big money. Proving once again that confidence counts for at least as much ability. Often more.
My one saving grace was that the client knew less about what I was supposed to be doing than I did.
Unfortunately, that didn’t alter the deadlines. I was teaching myself a lot in a very short space of time.
Desperate to do well.
Desperately afraid of being found out.
Mostly just desperate.
It was a remote working job, billed on a time and materials basis.
One week in six on-site at any one of the client’s offices scattered throughout Scandinavia.
The rest of the time working from home, at the end of a dial-up modem cable.
My only contact with my peers and colleagues coming via mobile phone calls or instant messaging.
I hadn’t been outside in four days. I hadn’t changed out of my pyjamas in at least that long.
The line between work life and home life had blurred to the point of non-existence. Sharing a single room with the ever-present menacing glow of my laptop. The constant temptation to just check if the latest build had completed successfully or the batch job was running as expected.
Time zone tennis meant my mobile phone sporadically pinging from the moment the first Finnish early riser woke up until the last of the Norwegian night owls left the office.
The job was lucrative, educational and rewarding. But in a very gruelling, relentless and stressful way.
The importance of boundaries
I hadn’t yet learned to set my own boundaries and limits on how I would invest my time. The lesson that other people’s problems were not my own had yet to sink in. Arbitrary deadlines were still taken seriously, rather than recognised for what they really were: figments of somebody else’s imagination.
My fridge was only ever a half dozen paces away. The temptation to graze was constant. Driven more by boredom, restlessness and habit than hunger. Fortunately, I had not yet reached the age where my metabolism had slowed down, and I started to wear my beer.
The solution to the grazing turned out to be simple. If there were no snacks in the flat then I wouldn’t eat them. Using natural apathy rather than will power is an easier way to break bad habits. The self-imposed logistical challenge of having to go to the store if I wanted a snack gave me pause. Did I really want the snack that much?
Usually, the answer was no. Those rare occasions it was a yes made it into a special treat, “not everyday foods” returning to their rightful place as a reward rather than a crutch or constant comfort.
The blast of a klaxon shattered the early morning silence. Conjuring up mental images of doomed submariners battling water leaks far beneath the ocean, or panicking civilians scarpering towards fallout shelters.
A noise which instilled urgency and promised imminent doom.
It was my lady wife’s alarm. She liked to get into the office early. To be seen to be the hardest worker. A faulty perception she had not yet seen through. Still clinging to the fantasy that anyone can make it to the top, if only they worked harder and wanted it more than everybody else.
The snoring stopped. A tortured groan at the realisation that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. Stumbling footsteps and swearing as she rolled out of bed and tripped over the modem cable treacherously snaking across the floor. The sound of banging, rummaging, and more swearing at the discovery that her breakfast had provided fuel for my all-nighter. Be fast or be hungry.
Shortly after my lady wife headed off to work, my laptop blasted out the triumphant sound of Homer Simpson shouting “Woohoo!”.
My computer torturing marathon was over.
My code worked.
The client’s deadline had been successfully met.
I pumped my fists in the air and nearly asphyxiated myself with body odour.
Time for a long-overdue shower. To get dressed and escape the confines of my tiny flat.
Time to make some changes and set some boundaries.
Time that I recognised that I choose how I invest my time. What I do. When and where I do it.
Getting paid for an uncapped number of billable hours worked was a trap I had fallen into. Money distorted my priorities, so that time away from the computer was viewed as lost earnings. Holidays viewed as prohibitively expensive because of forgone billable hours. It was silly, unhealthy, and unsustainable.
Running to escape
I laced up my trainers and for the first time ever I went for a jog. Not because I was running for the bus, or late arriving at the departure gate. Simply because it was 9:30 on a Friday morning, and I could.
I wish I could tell you I loved the endorphin rush. Revelled in the alive feeling of blood pumping through my veins.
Alas, that would be a lie.
I hated every minute of it.
Sucking down exhaust fumes.
Dodging around gormless pedestrians and lost tourists.
The feeling of being breathless and incredibly unfit. Of aching knees and burning chest.
When I staggered home half an hour later I resolved to go running again the next day. Then recognising how pathetically weak-willed I was at the prospect of exercise, I signed up for my first half marathon to scare myself into actually doing it. It worked, fear is a powerful motivator!
My initial 100+ hour working weeks and marathon coding sessions produced an increasingly automated set of tools and processes. The output remained the same, but an ever-increasing proportion of the work was performed by the computer.
By the six month mark, I had automated myself out of a job.
All I had to physically do each day was check a log file to ensure everything was running smoothly and nothing had broken. This took almost five minutes, after which the rest of the day was my own.
I flagged to the client that they no longer required me, or anyone else, to perform the role. I had fully expected to be thanked for my efforts and shown the door.
However, the client was thrilled at the consistency and efficiencies provided by the streamlined automated process. They proposed an ongoing arrangement where they would pay me to be contactable (and sober) for 40 hours per week.
During that time they would get me to work on discrete projects. How, when and where I performed those projects was entirely up to me.
This was real remote working. Asynchronous. Flexible working hours and location. Work that was entirely deliverable orientated, rather than simply marking time during the daily 9-5 grind in an office.
That remote working arrangement ended up lasting for over two years.
Billing from home
Fortunately, I grew out of my immature quest for “more” at the expense of quality of life.
My approach evolved into focussing on delivering value rather than maximising billable hours.
I gained an understanding of the importance of balance between work, learning, socialising, and playtime. I also got much better at taking regular holidays.
I wish I could tell you that these lessons set me up for a lifetime of happiness and contentment.
Alas, that would be a lie.
It is true that these experiences made me more self-aware, and heavily influenced my approach to all the clients and projects I have subsequently taken on.
However it also forever ruined my ability to put up with day-to-day corporate bullshit and busywork that fills out the work week for an alarming number of otherwise intelligent white-collar professionals.
Busy-ness being mistaken for value.
Inflated ego and self-importance being mistaken for urgency.
Being seen to be doing something becoming more important than actually getting the job done.
A loss of perspective about the relative importance of the task at hand. Will anyone actually die if that “dead” line is not met? Didn’t think so.
Remote working in the true sense of the term can be a wonderful thing. But only for those who are able to maintain for themselves a sensible balance and perspective.
For the insecure, who are worried about being out of sight out of mind, it can provide a megaphone for noise and distraction. “Being seen” to be doing something is hard when you’re working from home.
It can also provide ample places to hide for the lazy worker or incompetent boss.
Communications issues, disconnects, and time lags can become endemic problems if left unaddressed or unresolved.
Sometimes a half-hour face-to-face meeting will solve a problem that endless hours of video conferences and emails cannot. Learning to recognise those times is an essential survival skill for remote workers.
Ultimately remote working it is about delivery. Getting the job done.
Providing the work is being done is “good enough” then it really doesn’t matter where it is being carried out.