December 15, 2012

Day 15 - Remote Working the Right Way

This was written by Jon Cowie

Hundreds of people have already written at length about the pros and cons: why it's awesome or why it will cause the downfall of modern civilisation, etc, but this isn't going to be another blog post telling you why you should work from home. What I'd like to do, today, is offer some advice on how to do it right.

Remote working requires investment from both employee and employer in various areas to make it work, and that side of things isn't so well documented. I've been working remotely for Etsy for around a year and a half now, having previously always worked out of offices. I won't lie, adjusting to working remotely took some effort, and I'd like to share my perception of that process in the hopes that it might ease the transition for another would-be remote worker, or for a company hoping to introduce remote working. I have to apologise for taking a somewhat simplistic view of some of the issues / solutions discussed herein too - I only have a limited wordcount and every company is different.

To add a little structure to this post, I will break down the issues as I see them into three distinct but overlapping areas, and try to offer some thoughts on how these issues can be managed.


By far and away, the most significant (and well known) issue surrounding remote working is that of communication. When every employee works out of the same office, organic social interaction like chatting around the watercooler, impromptu hackathons around a text editor, and even catching snippets of nearby discussions are commonplace. When a member of the team is now located hundreds of miles away, this dynamic changes - all of a sudden knowledge you automatically assumed to be shared amongst the entire team isn't making it to some people, just because they didn't hear that conversation over coffee in the kitchen.

A lot of companies I've worked for and heard about stop the discussion right here - fixing this fracturing of communications patterns is seen too expensive or requiring too much management overhead.

here's the thing: These communication issues are not that difficult to fix.

From the employers' point of view, the primary methods of communication need to be moved online. At Etsy, for example, we maintain an internal IRC server on which a most of the day-to-day discussions take place on, even between team members in the same physical location. This may sound like it's taking an overly simplistic view of the issue, especially since this decision can require approval from multiple levels of corporate hierarchy, training of staff, etc, but the simple fact remains that it works. You'll never totally eliminate communications issues entirely, but you can certainly get close.

From the managers point of view, you're going to have to make the effort to keep in touch with your remote employees. You're not going to see them every day in person so you need to make time to talk to them on a regular basis and give them the chance to update you on their work, problems etc. A lot of managers do this already with 1-to-1 meetings, but when this is the only contact you may have with your employee outside of an IRC chatroom, this contact is even more crucial - your employee needs to feel just as important and valued as his or her counterparts in the office. The last thing you want is for them to feel isolated and ignored just because of their choice to work remotely.

Similarly, as a remote employee, you have just as much responsibility to ensure that you're doing your part to be heard. Nobody at work can see you, so they have no idea whether you've sat in your underwear playing xbox or you've spent the last 3 weeks solving an issue that's losing the company money.

Send lots of useful and informative emails. Talk to people on IRC. Communicate what you're doing! It might be something you wouldn't mention if you were in the office because everyone may have seen you were coding away when they walked past your desk, but you have to remember that as a remote worker, nobody knows what you're doing unless you tell them. On the flip side of this coin, don't spam your colleagues. You need to strike the right balance between compensating for not being in the office, and filling inboxes with how many cups of coffee you had that day.

Finally, video conferencing is key - Skype, Vidyo, Google Hangouts, etc. Learn to love it. Having meetings with your remote team members over video conferencing is invaluable for picking up body language, facial expressions, all of the things which make face to face communication so expressive and valuable. Your visibility needs to be more than just a faceless nickname on IRC.

Office-based employees can sometimes have the perception that remote-workers have a cushy lifestyle where they can sleep in late, do very little work and avoid meetings. You have the power to ensure that this perception is not directed at you.

Work / Life Balance

OK, so your company is now a Utopia of effective online communication. Your manager keeps in touch daily, your team is happy with your productivity, and thus far and remote working is a paradise of unicorns and rainbows.

Now, fast forward a couple of months. You've got settled in to your remote-working routine, and the work starts slipping a little. You have your Xbox right there, your boss surely won't mind if you take a slightly longer lunch today and play a little CoD, will he? Especially if you're playing against him... or maybe you're over-working having just finished your fourth 20 hour day - just one more bug to fix, right?

Stop right there, soldier! You've hit the work/life balance trap.

The fact is, you're human. We get distracted, and sometimes, we need a kick up the backside to straighten us out. You also need to balance this with downtime to relax. One of the responsibilities you take upon yourself as a remote worker is making sure you kick yourself as much as needed, and conversely that you actually step away from the desk every so often.

Luckily, it's not all down to you. In my experience, the culture of the team you're part of helps a lot too. At Etsy, I have the great pleasure to work with some of the brightest minds in the business. Colleagues I work with (and those in other teams too) are producing awesome work, day in and day out and you know what? I want to keep up with them. I don't want to be seen as the guy who doesn't pull his weight, I want to do awesome stuff too! It is very motivating working with a team full of people who are passionate about what they do and who both look for and reward that passion in others. If you're really lucky, your team will also let you know when you're spending too much time working and need to chill out for a while.

But what happens if your team isn't like that? What do you do if your team isn't motivating you enough to work hard and do awesome things without burning out? Then my friend, it is down to you. My first suggestion to solve this issue is to maybe consider finding somewhere that does motivate you and give you that healthy balance. (Etsy are hiring ;), but if that blatant hiring plug didn't work, how do you find that balance yourself? Well, first, go and buy "Time Management for System Administrators" by Thomas Limoncelli. It is literally essential reading for an operations professional. It covers a variety of techniques for managing the interrupt-driven workload that we all know and love, but it also covers a variety of ways to actually organise and structure your day. It's not going to give you all the answers, but at the end of the day, by choosing to work remotely you take it upon yourself to make sure you're getting work done and getting enough sleep. It's easy to say that one's innate sense of professionalism should be enough to achieve this, but as I said we're all human. Life is full of distractions, and this book will help you manage them.

You need to develop and maintain a structured and disciplined routine that doesn't suffocate you, but still ensures you get everything done. What's that you say? You're still getting distracted? Well, you could always go back to the office. As remote workers, there's only so much our managers can do to keep track of us. I've said it several times, and I'll say it once more. You are responsible for making sure you get your work done while staying healthy and rested enough to do so, and although there are tools and techniques to help with that, there is no magic pill. Effort goes in, awesome comes out.

A Celebratory Platform

The final point I'd like to make is more of a suggestion than a solution.

Make time to celebrate your team's achievements and showcase what they've been working on. This dovetails neatly with the work / life balance issue in that if you know that every Wednesday afternoon you're going to have to produce something for "Show and Tell" you'll be motivated to do so. It also helps with the communication side of things by giving you a regular opportunity to talk about what you've done, even if you're not so great about emailling updates. On top of all this, it gives the entire team a chance to showcase their talents and bask in a little appreciation, which everyone likes from time to time.

These "Show and Tell" times also gives you a good opportunity to discuss where you failed. It may be that you've just screwed up something massively, and none of your team members know about it and repeat the same mistake next week. Open and blameless discussion about failures is every bit as important as celebrating success.

The issues and solutions I've talked about are no guarantee of successful remote working, and I do not promise that they will cover all circumstances or company cultures, but I hope that I may have at least made remote working seem a little less scary and a little more manageable. If you're already a fellow remote worker, please do let me know if you've developed strategies and techniques that I haven't covered here - I'd love to hear from you!

Further Reading


Phil Byrne said...

I feel that home working/remote working is certainly not suitable for everyone but is becoming more and more popular and I think you have addressed a great point with regard to motivation and work-life balance.

If you are thinking about working from home or allowing your employees to work from the main factors you need to consider are if there is somewhere quiet to work and if you are self motivated. If you tick yes in both of these boxes or your employees can tick yes in both of these boxes then I think this option can be a huge benefit to both employer and employee

Anonymous said...

thanks for share.