Remote Work is Easy

With COVID-19 fears affecting many countries, the environmental impact of commuting, and a new era of isolationism from many governments; learning to work remotely is more important now than ever.

by Robert May on Afternoon Robot

For me, remote work is something to which I adapted quickly, but for many people it can take a long time and a lot depends on your company as well as your personality. It's hard to write tips for other people around something so closely tied to your individualism, but frankly working remotely is not that hard for people in tech companies. The technology has existed for a long time now.

The business

Being remote in a company that has an office just doesn't work, unfortunately. I've done it, and I wouldn't recommend it. Everybody in your business needs to be equal, and if half the company is in an office, all those small, inane conversations that make up the social environment will pass you by; it is frustratingly hard to convince people in an office to have their conversations via a chat system. There is absolutely no reason why your "company culture" has to revolve around seeing people face-to-face; all you are enforcing is presentee-ism. Learn to communicate better in writing, and in particular learn how to communicate your personality through writing.

The word "collaboration" is thrown around a lot in order to justify offices. This has resulted in the nightmare that is open-plan offices (shudder). It's not collaborative and you are wrong if you think it improves productivity. If you can't explain your ideas or storyboard things via text, first you should learn how to do so, and then for those rare situations where that isn't enough, realise that video calls have existed for years now. I'm increasingly convinced that offices exist primarily so business-owners can boast about it to their mates. Sometimes they'll throw other terms at you, trying to persuade their human resources that an open-plan office helps everyone "feel part of the team", that the company can be more "reactive", and how it's a "creative space". It's all nonsense.

Meetings are rubbish

"Many managers don't know what to do," he says, and when they are "unsure of their role", they respond by generating more meetings.

As Professor Patrik Hall explains in this BBC article, meetings are not productive. Meetings are really a form of therapy for people, and 90% of them are a waste of time. Stop trying to make decisions a group problem; be brave and put yourself out there, make your opinion heard and write it down.

Meetings are possibly more disruptive when remote than in an office, oddly. Small delays become infuriating because it's not obvious why they're happening. If your business is only partially remote, you're losing out on a lot of context from that meeting. At a previous company I was subjected to so many meetings that it formed one of the primary reasons for me leaving. I once had an hour-long meeting that was a summary of the previous 2-hour meeting for people who didn't attend it. Just say no.

At GitLab, most meetings are optional. I currently average between 1-2 short calls a week. It's bliss.

Asynchronous is justice

It helps to have a direct conversation sometimes, but for a surprising amount of your work you really shouldn't need immediate answers from other people, and the same from you. Don't be a slave to email or Slack, and don't let them phone you except for emergencies. Personally I have Slack muted (although the tab highlights if I get a direct mention), and I just check in every 30 minutes or so. The enemy of the people is notifications; turn them all off.

Managers, trust your employees

If you don't trust your employees then you have a problem. Results are what matter, not being seen in the office, and once the requirement to look like you're working disappears, remarkably most people get more work done. There's obviously a requirement to hire competent people, but managers need to trust in their team to actually deliver the work; how they go about it is pretty much up to each individual. Want to work from 11pm-3am each day? Play videogames while your test suite runs? Take the dog for a nice walk in the sunshine? Who cares?

Managers are one of the main antagonists in the fight for remote work, and it's usually a sign that they're bad at their job if they feel like they need to be in an office in order to manage someone. You should be able to trust your employees to deliver their work without you watching over their shoulder; if you can't, then you either have a deficit in your own skills or you failed at hiring the right employees, both of which are your problem. A light touch is all that's needed with a lot of jobs, and a good manager is there to facilitate, not dictate.

Yes you may get more out of someone by forcing them to work non-stop. It won't last, and they will burn out. That's a business strategy that apparently works in some areas (i.e. game development), but it's not very nice, and I think people should be treated like humans, rather than resources. Being remote in a company that has an office just doesn't work, unfortunately. I've done it, and I wouldn't recommend it. Everybody in your business needs to be equal, and if half the company is in an office, all those small, inane conversations that make up the social environment will pass you by; it is frustratingly hard to convince people in an office to have their conversations via a chat system. There is absolutely no reason why your "company culture" has to revolve around seeing people face-to-face; all you are enforcing is presentee-ism. Learn to communicate better in writing, and in particular learn how to communicate your personality through writing.

A simple guide to remote work for business

  • Cancel 90% of your meetings
  • All meetings should be short video calls, with the minimum number of people, and they start on time or not at all. Use Zoom because it actually works
  • All meetings should have an agenda and an expected outcome
  • Use a simple tool to manage your workload. Personally I really rate Pivotal Tracker because it automatically shows you what you can achieve in what timespan
  • Use email and/or a text-chat tool like Slack to communicate
  • Learn to work asynchronously as a team, and focus on your deliverables rather than how much time you spend working
  • Managers, and particularly project managers; loosen your grip on your employees. Focus on communication and openness rather than micro-management

Remote life and you

Welcome to remote life. You now have significantly more time in your day to spend on worthwhile endeavours. Fill up your world with good things.

Where you live

Congratulations, you can now live wherever you want. I live at the base of a mountain, with fresh air and plenty of places to walk.

The view from a lunchtime walk

You don't have to live remotely, it can just mean picking somewhere nicer in the city you like. Or you can live in a van on a beach and surf every hour. You will need a decent internet connection, but with ubiquitous 4G and good data packages in many countries, there's fewer excuses than ever to be stuck in one place.

Sleep

I get a good 8 hours of sleep every night. I roll out of bed somewhere between 8:30-9am every day. You can get up earlier if that's how you prefer it; it's your time now. Businesses take hours of your life every day by making you commute; that's time you can't get back and that they don't pay you for. Now you're embracing the remote life, that's your time to do with as you please.

Ka-chow! My office assistant, Heather

Get a pet

Talking to a pet all day is an extremely good way to improve your mental state, though it has the same downside that you find with teachers who work with young children; you start to speak to everyone that way.

Sort out where you work

Get a nice desk (or a standing desk), a good chair, good monitors. Set up the lighting in your room to be perfect; you don't have to suffer cheap LED strip bulbs any more! Ambient lighting is a huge boon to feeling comfortable in a room, so fill it with soft lamps. Get a good audio system and immerse yourself in whatever music you enjoy.

Get a good keyboard. Laptop keyboards are junk, and the position is unergonomic. I spent too many years typing on one and now I get intense RSI up my right arm if I use one for more than a single day. And hey, you work remotely now, your keyboard can be as loud as you like.

Hobbies

I've had people claim that working remotely would be boring. All that really means is that their life is boring, and the mindset of keeping work as your only interest is what leads to becoming a workaholic.

Hobbies that you can pick up quickly to distract yourself from work, clear your mind etc are a huge boon. Personally I play music, and when I chuck the kettle on I pick up an instrument and play for 5-10 minutes. This has the added bonus of getting those practice hours in. What I look for in a distraction is something that clears my head, that requires just enough concentration that it forces you to start over when you go back to your desk. Plenty of people do some of their best thinking in the shower, and I do mine when playing folk music to my cat.

Exercise whenever you want, however you want. Although maybe don't break your collarbone whilst mountain-biking; I can't recommend that.

Socialise and vary your workplace

If I feel like I need some people around me, I can go up the pub (it's a convenient 5 minute walk). Sometimes just being alone but surrounded by people is enough to reduce any feelings of loneliness, and the benefit of a pub is that you can strike up meaningless conversations with random strangers. Cafés are good. Coworking spaces are good. Being remote doesn't mean being in isolation (unless you have COVID-19).

Lunch in the market, during a day of café-working

Spend a day working in a city nearby, change cafés whenever you feel like it, take your time with lunch and enjoy yourself. Moving around during your work day can help you compartmentalise your work and you may even find you achieve more just by working in shorter bursts, such as in the Pomodoro technique.

Share more about yourself

Being remote can mean missing out on some of the small conversations you get in an office. Why not share more about yourself and what you're doing in Slack? In my department at GitLab we share what we did since our last standup (asynchronous text-based standups, obviously), which is a nice way to catch up on what is going on in our lives. This is something that works very well in an asynchronous, text world; I know from experience that most people don't engage in conversation well when I start talking at length about diatonic accordions, but in the world of text their eyes can glaze over without me ever knowing. And as you share more, you may find like-minded individuals from parts of your company that you never would have expected.

Let's get abstract

Learn to type faster

You're going to be doing more communicating via text, so get your typing speed up. You don't have to go crazy, but as someone working primarily at a keyboard it helps to be quick. Text chats can feel like vocal conversations when they flow quickly, and sitting waiting for someone else to type can be frustrating. This isn't to say you should be insisting on fast replies (learn to work asynchronously yo) but when you are having a live conversation it can be very disruptive to the rhythm when one person replies within seconds and the other takes 10x longer to type out their reply.

Learn to use emoji

This can be a contentious subject, but emoji exist and are popular for a reason; they help indicate the tone for your writing. Yes they can be overused or annoying sometimes, but the benefit from using them can be massive when you have differing levels of written-communication ability.

Embracing being alone

Being alone doesn't necessarily mean being lonely, but this isn't true for everyone. Becoming content with my own company is something that has come naturally to me for most of my life. I enjoy being social and being around people, but I find it draining; spending time alone helps me recharge. For me, time spent alone is time I can spend with myself and my interests. Accepting your own faults is a big part of accepting who you are, and that's very difficult.

If you aren't comfortable being alone, that's something you can work on. Go read a book in a café by yourself, take yourself to the cinema, buy yourself dinner. Nobody is looking at you funny, because nobody cares.

Fin

I love remote work and to me it makes an enormous amount of sense. I will never take another job that requires me to work in an office. There are always predictions about this year being the year when remote working really catches on, and maybe 2020 really is that year, but I doubt it. The lessons learned as huge swathes of people work remotely to avoid COVID-19 will be swiftly forgotten by management, and everyone will get back in their cars and sit in traffic for two hours a day, or squeeze into a tube and get sneezed on by strangers.

But I'll be here, taking lunchtime walks on mountains, playing bagpipes during office hours, and still getting my work done.