Remote learning: Staying sharp while you’re on the bench

By Matt Eland

Every so often, we hit times in our careers when life doesn’t go the way we want. It could be a sudden change in employment status, an unexpected illness or injury, or even something as unforeseen as what we’re experiencing now in early 2020, with large organizations mandating that teams work remote to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Half a decade ago, I hit my own “speed bump” to my professional development when I found myself in a hospital, largely paralyzed, from a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome (also called GBS). While I obviously would have preferred to not “benched” by this condition in the first place, it was a reality I had to deal with and make the most of quickly. 

Luckily, I was able to make the most of it by using remote learning to stay relevant, passionate and valuable to my employer, both while I was on leave, and as I rejoined the workforce (on a remote part-time basis and then later going back to the office full-time). Many of the points I’ll talk about below are a direct result from my time trying to stay connected with the development world, continuing to grow my skills and working to rejoin the workforce. 

With that, let’s talk about how to effectively learn and grow while working remotely on a short-term or long-term basis.

The reality of being remote

Remote work is becoming more sought after and accepted as a practice within the technology industry, but it comes with pros and cons. 

Remote workers can be more productive, spend less time in traffic, are less likely to spread illnesses, have less impact on the environment and feel more fulfilled — but they can also find it harder to communicate, engage in conversations about new technologies, ask for help with problems or bounce ideas off teammates. Anything related to communication or collaboration takes more energy to initiate and coordinate, which makes them less likely to occur.

How does this relate to remote learning? By replacing the inherently social structures of a physical office, team stand-ups and in-person collaboration with tools like Slack and email, knowledge sharing and learning new things becomes harder because sources of new information are harder to reach. If you aren’t careful, remote work can quickly become ubiquitous with isolation and knowledge silos — and your skills can become irrelevant, outdated or unpolished.

Opportunities for learning and tech skill development while remote

Thankfully, there are some solutions to these problems. Here are some of the ways I stayed engaged and improved my circumstances by taking an active approach to remote learning:

1. Engaging on social media

The development community on Twitter is fantastic. I can take a random technical question and throw it out on Twitter and get a number of responses and library links within a few hours. Additionally, by following fellow technologists, I learn of libraries and trends that I’m not personally familiar with.

Getting started is pretty easy: Pick a few prominent developers in your community and follow them. Authors and conference speakers tend to have the most active Twitter accounts. From there, you can see who they’re following and follow related people until you have a steady stream of technical information.

As with any social media platform, you’ll need to be careful that Twitter doesn’t become a time sink; I recommend creating an account that is only oriented towards technical content, or creating a dedicated Twitter List of technologists, to help keep you focused.

2. Podcasts and audiobooks

Many people enjoy listening to podcasts while developing or commuting. If you’re remote, you’re less likely to be driving places, but you can still listen to podcasts as you’re getting started in the morning or taking a break for lunch.

I listen to audiobooks from Audible on leadership, business, communication, statistics and other skills that help me beyond purely being a programmer. I often listen to topics that are different than other topics that I’m reading about in order to add some diversity to my learning.

3. Online courses and conference talks

Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean you can’t watch conference videos or other learning content. In fact, the quiet environment makes it ideal for watching dedicated learning videos without outside distractions. As someone who has spent an extended time in the hospital and out of the workforce, I can tell you that online videos help you stay connected and inspired even while separated.

Many conferences will publish their videos to YouTube, Pluralsight or other platforms, and a growing number of companies are now utilizing online learning platforms to give their employees access to additional learning materials. At several points in my career, I’ve made explicit arrangements with my manager allowing me to watch one hour of online video content every week. This adds up over time and helps keep you connected, aware and enthusiastic about technology.

4. Finding your community

You may not think of connection as a significant factor, but in my experience being part of a larger community is absolutely essential to us as people — and particularly to software engineers. I’ve found that I do my best work when I have someone to bounce ideas off of, get second opinions and have someone available to challenge my assumptions and thought processes.

In short, having a community to remain connected with helps keep you passionate, challenges your assumptions, and gives you the benefit of everyone else’s continued learning and growth. As mentioned before, you may find this on Twitter, but you can also start a channel on your company Slack with like-minded people who want to learn, or find a developer community on Reddit or other forums.

5. Books and blogs

Used programming books can be amazing. Buy a few related to topics you’re interested in, then keep them around for a rainy day. Read a chapter over lunch, or even just a couple paragraphs while your code is building or tests are running. Books can teach you new ways of doing things, help you learn things over time at a greater depth, and serve as a reference point when you are stuck.

If you’d prefer to keep it online, blogging communities like host an amazing community of writers who seek to explore all manner of technologies in depth, and the site allows you to easily write content yourself.

Using remote learning to impact your future

Unplanned remote work or forced downtime can be frustrating, demoralizing and isolating. But I’ve found it to be one of the best opportunities to turn lemons in lemonade, from a professional development standpoint. While recovering from my own illness, I gained new skills and a greater confidence that eventually led me to seek out leadership, public speaking and mentorship opportunities I may not have otherwise.

If your remote work situation takes place under less-than-ideal circumstances, I hope you can find some usefulness in the tools I’ve shared in order to make the most of your time at home.

(And the name of practicing what I just preached: If you have other ways you’ve found effective in helping you learn and grow, I’d love to hear them. You can reach out to me on Twitter at @Integerman or via my site at

About the author

Matt Eland is committed to helping people achieve greater things. After more than three decades of coding, Matt put away his mechanical keyboard and made teaching his primary job as he looks to help others grow.