Life as a Remote Worker

Life as a Remote Worker

My “life as a remote worker” has just begun. A few weeks ago, the company I work for decided it was time for my small team to let go of its office and work remotely on a full-time basis. To prepare for this change and gain a better understanding of the intricacies of remote work I’ve decided to do some research.

My first reference was the book Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp (formerly 37Signals).

There’s been some debate over the tradeoffs of remote work, sparked by Yahoo’s decision to end remote work so “speed and quality aren’t sacrificed.” My experience was limited to the occasional stint working from home or working during business travel. I saw the advantages of sitting next to my developers, over-hearing potentially interesting and useful information. Prior to reading Remote, my position was similar to Yahoo’s – speed and quality must be sacrificed. I suppose that’s why I needed to do research; I was only seeing things from one side.

Remote: Office Not Required seems to cover a large number of the potential problems related to remote work. It takes several positions trying to convince the reader why companies should hire remote workers, why they should consider remote work, how to manage people who work remotely, the assumptions we make about in-office workers and finally how to operate as the remote worker. The last part was the most interesting to me – how to operate as a remote worker, the ups and downs, problems, solutions, etc.

Here are a few of the points I felt compelled to write down. The problems addressed are in bold and the descriptions, solutions or my comments are directly afterwards:

  • People’s homes are full of distractions – Recognize the potential problems and do something about it. Distractions can also serve the purpose of warning us that are tasks aren’t well defined or menial or something similar and it’s time to switch gears.
  • I need an answer now – (I fall into this trap often.) The habit of bothering anyone for anything at anytime. Not every question needs an immediate answer. Email can handle a large percentage of questions, a small percent will need quick responses (Instant Messaging) and an even smaller amount will need immediate responses (Phone and Hangouts).
  • I’ll loose control – This doesn’t make sense if you trust people. Besides people can still do nothing while sitting at their desks. Just because they dress up and come into the office doesn’t mean they’re doing work.
  • Thou shalt overlap – The authors say 4 hours per day is key amount of overlap for collaboration.
  • All out in the open – You need everything available to everyone at all times, otherwise the structure and workflow will be out of sync.
  • The virtual water cooler – Everyone needs a place to hang out for the occasional mindless breaks. Having a chat room, IRC channel, etc. where people can check in and out on occasion allow controlled social interaction and are a break from solitary work.
  • Forward motion – In a physical office there’s a normal flow of information that helps everyone stay current. Remote work looses that so Basecamp uses a weekly “what have you been working on?” email as a friendly reminder.
  • The work is what matters – As in what have you produced today? Focus on the output – although this can vary depending on the job function.
  • Check in, check out – Try to set limits on how much you work. Ask yourself have I done a good day’s work? If the answer is yes, you are done. If the answer is no, try to figure out where your time went and how it was managed so you can avoid problems in the future.
  • On writing well – Writing is more essential than ever for remote workers. Much of the communication happens over email/chat/discussion boards. When hiring for remote workers look to cover letters as writing examples.
  • Test project – “Pre-Hire” or give prospective hires a week to two-week mini project and pay them for it. Unemployed get 1 week, employed get 2 weeks and the exact project depends on what they’re being hired for. Make it meaningful.
  • Contractors know the drill – An ideal training ground for both the employer and employee to try remote work on for size. Both sides get to test drive each other.
  • Stop managing the chairs – The manager’s job is to lead and verify work, not monitor the people (also known as managing the chairs). Managers need to know the intricacies of the work, what needs to be done, what can cause delays, be creative with problems, and divide the work and many other things. (This seems like its applicable for both remote and in-office work).
  • Building a routine – One hack is to divide the day into chunks like “catch up”, “collaborate” and “serious work”. In testing we use similar time-boxed periods also known session-based testing and test management. Without clear boundaries between work and play it can be hard to get stuff done.
  • Staying Motivated – If it’s taking a week to do a day’s job, that’s a warning message. If motivation is slumping it’s probably because the work is weekly defined and appears pointless.

Another interesting point not listed above is the authors don’t recommend using remote work (or telecommuting) as a way to save money on facilities or people. (I’m sure the facility savings is the reason my company closed my office.) The author’s company Basecamp and the other often-cited example, WordPress, use their savings on facilities to organize regular employee meet-ups around the world. Instead of the primary motivation being cost saving, the authors argue employers should be able to find skilled, qualified workers regardless of where the company has a physical presence. Unless you live in an area with a lot of local talent (like Silicon Valley) it makes sense to widen your search. Even if you have some talent you’ll have to compete with other local companies and can you really afford to compete with companies like Google?

If you’ve paid attention to the telecommuting / remote work debate you’ll probably recognize a few of the bullet points. If you recognize all of them don’t worry the book has plenty more points, these are just the ideas that I felt compelled to write down. I’d definitely recommend it.

Continuing the research my next read is The Year Without Pants by author Scott Berkun on his year and a half working with WordPress. I also have a few books to read on productivity practices like Personal Kanban in a Nutshell which might apply. Have I missed any other good references?

Other resources:

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Jamie Larson