Lessons from a remote worker
Olivia Liddell is a Technical Curriculum Developer at Amazon Web Services developing innovative teaching and technical training courses for partners and customers who are trying to learn more about AWS products and services.
Over the course of her career, Olivia has provided her expertise as a Technical Curriculum Developer and Certified Ethical Hacker to audiences from diverse backgrounds and skill levels on social engineering and security awareness.
This week, Olivia sat down with Cal, Gun.io’s resident remote work expert and Developer Evangelist to provide her expertise as a pre-COVID member of the remote workforce to guide the rest of us that joined last year
Olivia shares how she takes advantage of the benefits and mitigates the blockers that are common with remote work through key workflow techniques and understanding what remote workstyle works for you.
Cal: When did you start working remotely?
Olivia: With my job, my team is spread all across the US and all time zones. We were always remote, even pre-COVID.
When COVID hit, I thought, “this is going to be a big transition in many ways for a lot of people,” but the good thing for me and my team was we already had a fully remote process in place.
Cal: Do you prefer working remotely or in the office?
Olivia:I personally prefer working remotely.
I’m very introverted, more than most people realize so it helps me to be able to have that time and space for myself to be able to be productive and get my work done without having to be distracted.
Earlier this year I was diagnosed with ADHD and also, what’s called APD, auditory processing disorder. So, at the same time with ADHD, I’m having difficulty with trying to focus and keep my train of thoughts clear. I’m also realizing I’m having things like auditory, sensory overload, and not being able to process multiple sound streams at the same time.
So for me, working remotely has been so good to not have to worry about being in a busy office where you’ve got different people shouting across the room. It’s been great to be able to craft my home environment exactly as I need it to be.
Cal: I’m also an introvert and that surprises a lot of people because I’m on stage an awful lot, as you are. When I get off stage after a talk, the first thing I do is go back to my room and just decompress for a few minutes.
I’ve not really thought about it, but maybe that’s why I enjoy working remotely as well too because I can control my environment.
Cal: You’ve got a wealth of experience working remotely. What’s the hardest part about it?
Olivia:For me, one of the most difficult things about working remotely can be making sure that I stay connected with my colleagues. Like I was saying, with being an introvert, it’s very easy for me to shift towards the angle of staying in my corner, staying in my bubble.
In a remote environment, I know that I need to be very intentional about the interactions I have with my colleagues. It doesn’t mean I have to go to every single virtual happy hour, but just making sure that I can take the time to connect with my colleagues, even just sending messages on Slack and saying, “Hey, hope you’re having a great day.”
When you’re in an office, it’s so easy to be able to have those interactions naturally when you’re at the water cooler, when you’re sitting next to someone. So I think taking the time to do that, it’s worthwhile because it helps to build trust with my colleagues.
Cal: What’s the best part about working remotely?
Olivia: The best part for me by far, is the work-life balance. Some people refer to it as life-work balance because they’ve prioritized the rest of their life over work.
When I was working more in an office environment, the amount of time I would spend commuting and just going back and forth and having to do things, like figuring out how I was getting my grocery order. Now, it’s a lot easier for me to balance that and be able to take the time for myself.
Over this past year, the topic of self-care has become something that we’re all hearing a lot more about. For me, self-care doesn’t have to be big, even something like taking five minutes out of your day.
If you’re in an office environment, you need five minutes to yourself. A lot of offices don’t have that kind of space where you can just go somewhere and close your eyes for five minutes.
Cal: What’s the one tool that you couldn’t do remote work without?
Olivia:This connects back to my ADHD that I was mentioning earlier: are you familiar with the Pomodoro technique?
Cal: Oh yeah.
Olivia: For anyone who’s not familiar, the Pomodoro technique is something that you can use to chunk up your work at periods of on and off.
For example, I set the Pomodoro timer on the website that I use for say, 15 minutes of dedicated focus, and then after 15 minutes have passed, I get a five-minute break and then I start the cycle.
I will admit, there are some days it’s really hard for me to focus. I will set the work timer to five minutes because I figure five minutes of dedicated focus is far better than me spending half an hour trying to figure out how to get started.
Cal:I find that if I sit down for the X number of time units, I can really dive in and focus, and honestly, if I can get started on a task, I can usually finish it.
It’s always that churn at the beginning of a project that is really hard for me
Olivia: When I sit down and when I know I need to use a Pomodoro timer, in my mind, I think, “oh, it’s going to be a whole full day of me on the clock, off the clock”, but usually, I only have to do two or three rounds.
It’s like a positive snowball effect where I’m able to autofocus and then I don’t need the timer, but the getting started part is tough.
Cal: Do you find working remotely is less or more distracting?
Olivia: When I first started working from home, I thought, “oh yeah, I’m good. I will be so focused and undistracted.” What I found is that, it’s so important for me to stay in work mode and not try to do all the house things that I need to do.
For example, when I’m working, I look into the corner and think, “oh yeah, there’s that stack of mail that I needed to sort, I can do that.”
It’s like being able to give myself a mental parking lot and say, “I’m not doing the mail right now, I’m going to just ignore it for the rest of the day.”
With being contacted by so many different channels, what’s helped me as well, is being able to turn off my Outlook mail notifications, so I don’t get the popups. I also turn off my Slack notifications, so I don’t get pop-ups, and sometimes, what I’ll even do is tell myself that I’m really just going to check Slack and email at the top of the hour and at the bottom of the hour. That way, I’m able to stay focused and not be so distracted.
Cal: That is excellent advice.
In programming and in any content creation, the more focused you can stay for the longer amount of time, the better you are.
Olivia: I also like that I don’t have to worry about distracting other people.
For example, I’m working on this really interesting course right now about intro to AWS game development and there’s some very highly technical concepts in there that to talk my way through. I’m sitting at my desk and talking this out loud.
Can you imagine if I were doing that in an office? They would be like, “Olivia, we love that you’re into this game thing, but please stop solving.”
So, for anyone who can relate, it’s great to be able to have that flexibility.
Cal: Do you have your own separate workspace or do you commandeer the couch or the kitchen table?
Olivia: One of the things that changed for me during the pandemic was that I moved because I realized that I was living in this very small, tiny studio apartment in Chicago. I’d been living there for about 12 years and decided since I’m going to continue to be working from home, I need some more space.
Now, I have the flexibility of working from my bedroom, a desk set up in the living room, I can work from the dining room table.
Most importantly, when the weather’s nice and not snowing in Chicago, I can work outside on the balcony. I didn’t have that before. I think about how a lot of offices, I know Amazon’s offices are set up like this, where you can have flexible workspaces throughout the day.
I think that for me, it is really important to be able to change a spot, and sometimes changing my physical location can help me to get a fresh perspective on my work.
Cal: Sitting out on the back patio when the weather is nice is really a mood changer. I can go out there and do that for 15, 20 minutes and I’m in a much better headspace. How do you avoid burnout?
Olivia: I would say the first part of my answer is, I make time to get out of the house and I’m very intentional about it.
For example, an indoor cycling class three or four times a week. It’s wonderful getting out and having a dedicated schedule to do that.
The second thing is if the burnout that I’m experiencing is related more to just kind of feeling stagnant and stuck. I think that it’s so important to learn how to have those intentional conversations with people who can help you to fix that.
In my case recently, I was feeling pretty burned out with the work I was doing. I was on the same project for the past two years and spoke with my manager about that to say, here’s how I’m feeling about this, here’s what I’m hoping we can have as an outcome for this.
In this way, it’s less of just venting and more of I’m asking for a solution here and I need your help. That was actually how I was able to get onto this game tech course and it’s great, and I just know if I hadn’t spoken up about it that wouldn’t have happened.
It’s important to speak up because especially when you’re working remotely, people cannot read your mind. People can’t walk past your desk every day and see, “well, Olivia doesn’t seem as happy lately.”
People don’t get that speaking up is so important and helps to avoid burnout.
Cal: What are some best practices for communicating in a remote environment?
Olivia: Communication is my happy place. When I think about best practices for communicating in a remote environment, one thing is to over-communicate, at least initially. Again, other people cannot read your mind.
Especially if I’m starting on a new project with people that I haven’t worked with before, I want to make sure that they know they can trust me and that they don’t have to guess, “well, did Olivia do this part or not?”
I will tell you where we are now. I will give you bullet points for what’s coming up. I will over-communicate.
I think also, it’s important to try to establish your own communication preferences and processes.
This is going to sound like a really picky thing, but one of my pet peeves is when someone will just send me a slack message that just says, “hello”, and then nothing else. Then, they wait for me to respond back.
The way that I brought this up with my team is, I spun it into a bigger conversation about, let’s all talk about our communication preference.
So, it was less of Olivia venting about what she doesn’t like, and let’s all have the chance to talk about what we could be doing to support each other better.
I got what I wanted and it worked out well for the team.
Cal: For the longest time, and I’m talking 10 years here, that was my style of communication for text-based communication. I would say—usually instead of “hello”, it would be “ping”.
My thinking was, I don’t want to interrupt what they’re doing, so I’m just going to ping them and when they can get to it, they’ll come back to me.
The problem I have, if they didn’t immediately come back to me and I went off on something else, I forgot why I pinged them.
In the past six to nine months, I’ll go ping someone, but then I’ll also say, “when you’re around, here is my question, my issue, my problem”, and I’ll let them know, is this high priority? Low priority? Is this a blocker for me?
Olivia: With me with ADHD, I’ll explain to them. The reason it helps me is it gives me more processing time to be able to look through the full requests and I can focus better.
Interested in working with Gun.io? We specialize in helping engineers hire (and get hired by) the best minds in software development.