30 août 2015
This is a blog post that I wanted to write down for a long time now but never found the time to do it. This post is about my experience as a, time and location, remote worker (I live in Paris, most engineers work in San Francisco). For most people, working remotely sounds awesome. The reality is unfortunately more nuanced than that. Sure, the ability to define when, where and how you want to work is definitely a plus. But you also have to be disciplined enough to focus on accomplishing your goals and cope with the disadvantages of not being in the same location as your team. This post is all about describing these nuances to the best of my ability.
First let’s start with why working remotely is awesome.
- Working from home means that you save a good chunk of time on commute. When I was in the Bay Area last year, I lived in Menlo Park and worked in San Francisco. That means that I was loosing 3h a day just commuting. Of course it did allow me to read, work and meditate but that can be painful at times with the unexpected delays and accidents on the rails (the joy of Muni and Caltrain).
- Freedom to do things that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Because you save on the commute and because you work efficiently you can definitely use the freed up time to do things that you enjoy doing outside of work. For example, you can use the 1 hour commute to exercise before starting the day. Or you can walk your dog or spend some time with your children on their way to school, whatever makes you happy and energized.
- Working in a distraction free environment: yes you hear that right. Working from home is free of distractions as long as you work in a dedicated area, somehow separated from the rest of the house (more on that later). This is especially true when working on a different timezone. When you work on-site you are going to be interrupted a couple times per hour for questions, random discussions or just by the ambient noise. You are also going to be dragged down into meetings (some of them necessary, but others not so much) which means that out of 8 hours you will only be able to pull 2h or 3h of real work. If you don’t believe me, do this experiment: use a timer that you will start as soon as you start your day, pause on each interruption and resume when you get back to work. Do it for a week and calculate on average how many hours per day you have been actually working. From that perspective, working from home is a blessing, because you just sit down and get your work done. If done right, nobody will ever interrupt you and you will be cruising the entire day one task after the other.
All of the above is true, but we should not occult the dark side of working remotely:
- Most of the times, you will feel a disconnection with what’s happening in the company or within your team, especially if you don’t pay a visit to the office regularly.
- You will miss an important aspect of work which is socializing with your co-workers.
- Meetings will be painful. The challenges include seeing what is written on the board, getting your voice heard in a timely manner and other technical difficulties that can complicate even the simplest meeting. You will certainly enjoy this funny video that describes what conference call may look like.
- Hard to make your presence felt by others. Hard to drive a point across. Very few of your co-workers will know who you are or what you do in the company. Which sucks because anyone wants his work to be recognized to feel satisfied.
- Feeling the impostor syndrome. This is something that I found to be common among remote workers. Scott Hanselman, who is a full time remote worker at Microsoft describes it all very well in this post:
All this said, it’s REALLY hard to be remote. I propose that most remote workers work at least as hard, if not more so, than their local counterparts. This is fueled in no small part by guilt and fear. We DO feel guilty working at home. We assume you all think we’re just hanging out without pants on. We assume you think we’re just at the mall tweeting. We fear that you think we aren’t putting in a solid 40 hours (or 50, or 60).
Because of this, we tend to work late, we work after the kids are down, and we work weekends. We may take an afternoon off to see a kid’s play, but then the guilt will send us right back in to make up the time. In my anecdotal experience, remote workers are more likely to feel they are « taking time from the company » and pay it back more than others.
You might poo-poo the guilt, but ask around to your remote brethren. It’s there, they just don’t talk about it.
- Consequently to not being on-site you will probably feel a lack of engagement and motivation at times.
Advices to keep your sanity while working remotely (based on my own experience this is particularly adapter when timezone difference is involved):
- First, discipline is key. If you don’t have it you will suffer. Discipline to wake up on normal hours. Discipline to not be dragged into home related distractions. Discipline to take a shower everyday and to wear regular clothes that you would wear at work (instead of pajamas). But also discipline to call it a day after the work is done. In other terms you have to draw a line between home and work to make sure that you mind doesn’t stay at work all the time.
- Set up a dedicated work environment. Make sure the space meets the ergonomic requirements. This is what my home office looks like. Notice the separation between the office and the rest of the living room. It also has some nice ergonomic features which I will write about in another post.
- Before sleeping. Make sure that your next day is properly planned. Don’t improvise. Never improvise. You should plan when you will wake up, when you will start working, the different breaks you will take (like if you want to exercise or do a post-lunch walk) and try to come up with a reasonable work-life balance based on the goals that you want to accomplish and the meetings that you will have during the day.
- Have an on-site buddy. Someone who will represent you at standup or meetings that you can’t attend to. Use him/her as a channel to communicate with the team on what you need from others and what others might need from you.
- Communicate a lot. Send your status report everyday. Make sure you have regular 1-1s with your manager to communicate about how things are going and whether anything is blocking you as a remote worker.
- Travel as often as possible to your office. Seriously. If you are in the same city: once a week. Same state: once every two weeks. Different states/countries (but same continent): once a month. Different continents: once a quarter. This is super important to stay engaged with the rest of the team and the company mission. Loosing engagement and motivation is the worst thing that can happen to you as a remote worker as well as to your employer.
- If you feel cabin fever, go to a co-working space or to your local library. Anywhere with a good WiFi and reasonable noise level is fine.
- Make sure your IT sets up the right equipments and tools for meetings and all form of communication. At Lookout we use: HipChat for live chat, Zoom for meetings, and Atlasssian Confluence and Questions for sharing knowledge company wide.
- Set up a clear escalation path for urgent tasks. Whether it’s PagerDuty or dedicated inbox. Make it clear that after your day is over, the only reason for you to come back to work will be if anything urgent comes up. And define clearly what urgent means (it means it can’t wait until your tomorrow morning).
- Related to previous note, know when to stop working. For me it’s between 6 and 8pm. After having sent my status report and attended any relevant meeting scheduled during this reasonable time slot. As soon as you call it a day, don’t check your emails anymore unless you get notified about something urgent through the emergency channels (see previous point).
Keep in mind that these recommendations are based on my own experience and I am not claiming that they will work on everybody. Having said that, after discussing with many remote workers I can tell that most of us enjoy and suffer from the same things. Finally, if you live in the Paris area and work remotely in the tech industry, please leave a comment below or reach out to me privately, I really would like to get to know more people working under the same conditions to share tips and why not meet regularly to work together.