Remote working

Posted on by Matthias Noback

Recently I read Ouarzy's review of Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson's "Remote - Office Not Required". I'd read their previous books, "Getting Real" and "Rework". They're all a joy to read. Short chapters, nice little cartoons. Just a lot of fun, and inspiring too. Not many authors make as much of an effort as they do to condense their message and reward the reader for taking the time to read an actual book. It's insulting how much work some authors expect you to put in before they will reveal their secrets!

Since I've been working remotely since last October, I was curious to read more about it in a book by people who have a thriving business with lots of remote workers. At least there should be some useful suggestions in it, and some reassurance that some of my own remote working troubles were nothing special. I found both in this book. Together with some powerful quotes from the book, I wanted to share some of my own discoveries about remote working with you in this post.

Motivation

A big part of the book is about countering some common arguments against letting people work remotely. There's a lot of resistance to it, which ultimately boils down to trust issues. Managers all too often seem to be "managing chairs" as Fried and Hansson call it. Employees should be behind their desks, hands on the keyboard, from 9 to 5 every weekday. Preferably longer, or you'll be marked as "unmotivated".

There are many flavors of management-level trust issues, and letting people do remote work would be many a manager's nightmare. I think it's safe to conclude that Fried and Hansson mainly see advantages in it though. The starting point should be to realize that "Most people want to work, as long as it's stimulating and fulfilling". If an employee is slacking at home, unmotivated to do work, they will be unmotivated at the office too. The effort should not be in keeping the employee behind their desk for 40 hours a week, but to re-motivate them for their job.

As a contractor I've been demotivated several times, but this was a long time ago, when I was paid much less, and the tasks I had to do were quite boring (often because they were never-ending exercises in pointlessness). And with being demotivated came procrastination, lack of communication, and severely decreased effectiveness.

Distractions, focus

For the project I'm currently working on, I don't need any more motivation. This quote from the book really hit home: "In reality, it's overwork, not underwork, that's the real enemy in a successful remote-working environment. [...] The fact is, it's easy to turn work into your predominant hobby." Remote working has me working very hard. I think the main issue is focus: since my working environment at home is quiet, and away from other family member's activities in the house, I can really concentrate on something and "fix it".

In a regular office working environment with some kind of "open floor" plan (the managers can watch you sit behind your desk...), there are so many things that disturb me. No matter if a phone call is interesting or not, I will consciously or unconsciously follow it and get the gist of it. Same for conversations between co-workers. Any discussion that developers will start, runs in my own mind in the background, and when I get invited to join the conversation, I already know what it's about. This may seem nice, but the cost is high: I can only focus with half my brain capacity on the problem I'm currently working on.

All of these pretty standard "office life" distractions are not to be found in my personal office. But highly focused working comes with a cost. I can't do 40 hours a week of it. Which is why I often have to remind myself to take things a bit easier.

Private and professional life

Even though I work hard, I rarely make more than 40 hours, more often it's between 32 and 36. But I sneak in some hours for open source coding, or blogging. Sometimes my son voices his concerns about that. And last week he said: finally! You're chilling! (I had taken off my shoes and socks and was watching TV on the couch...) I think these are good signals; they're telling me that I'm not pulling the plug hard enough.

The other way around never happens by the way. "If you don’t have to be anywhere at a certain time, you can easily end up lying in bed until close to noon, just casually working away on the laptop. Or you can let work drift into that evening you’re supposed to share with your spouse and kids." Routine comes easily with a family. The youngest will be awake well before 7:00, and I'm usually the one who gets up with her, so it's only natural to open my laptop at around 8:30.

Still, it will always be hard to close the laptop, since there's always this one more thing that isn't completely "done" yet. That's where the book's advice will be very useful: "Look at your progress toward the end of the day and ask yourself: 'Have I done a good day's work?'"

Everything out in the open

Something I've heard other remote workers say: remote teamwork is possible, but you should make every bit of information available to anyone. The book talks about this in terms of removing the single point of failure. This isn't something you'll do once; you'll be doing it forever. There's always something else that will keep the team from functioning under unforeseen circumstances. Examples of single points of failure:

  • There's no shared password vault.
  • There's only one person who can deploy the application.
  • There's only one person who can update the project documentation.

Of course, it's not about that one person, it's about how the project is in danger if these single points start failing.

In the book the following advice gets repeated many times: keep everything out in the open. This means: share what you're doing, share what has to be done, share a piece of domain knowledge you have gained while talking to the product owner, share that you're stuck, share when you're working and share when you won't be. I personally think that the quality and quantity of what I share can be improved, so, note to self: work on that! By the way, sharing isn't something that only remote workers need to work on. I've seen many regular teams working together in an office where "sharing" was not part of the every day activities...

An interesting trick I learned from the book was that although you can share most things by means of written text (in a clear fashion, with sufficient detail), sometimes it'll be nice to show your progress in a screencast. Although I'm usually not working on visual things, it could still be nice to talk teammates through some things you've worked on, some new way of doing things that you've introduced, etc. "Show what you want to show, narrate the experience using the computer's microphone, and voilà, everyone will be on the same page about what you've been working on." I recently tried this and according to my teammates it worked well - it takes some time to practice though; for instance during the first take I was worried that it would become a boring screencast, but instead I was clicking and moving so fast with my mouse that it became impossible to follow what was going on....

Trust

What should also be out in the open if you're doing remote work, is what you're doing, what you're achieving.

"[...] show them work often. This is the best way to chip away at a client’s natural situational anxiety. Look, they’re paying you big bucks for your work, and it’s totally natural for them to begin feeling anxious the moment they send you the deposit. So show them what they’re paying for. When they see the results of your efforts, they’ll feel a lot better about the relationship."

When I applied for my current assignment, I totally didn't realize that trusting me to do the work would be an issue. After reading the book I think this was very naive of me. For a company it's a major investment, and I'm completely out of sight most of the time. The company that hired me didn't hesitate at all when I said I wanted to work remotely most of the time. I didn't realize it at the time, but:

"Because of the trust needed and the good work practices required, a contractor can be fairly safe in assuming that a company cool with remote work is just cool in general."

And this turned out to be the case. So let me take this opportunity to thank Finance Matters, Victor and Maarten van Koolwijk and Hedwig Hulpiau for your trust, and for being generally nice managers.

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