As I’m writing this, COVID-19 is spreading across the globe. Companies partly or fully shut down their offices, and have people work from their homes. Others might self-isolate by choice. In any case, you might now find yourself in a situation where your team is suddenly a remote-working team.
I’ve been working remotely for the last 3 years. It’s been a great privilege and pleasure, but not without its issues. There’s a bunch of challenges that I’ve gone through, and I’m very much still learning.
In this post I’ll focus on my personal experiences. I won’t go into tips on everyday routines, suggestions on tooling, or how to convince your boss. I don’t have any quick advice, no evenly-numbered list of things you should do each day. But I’m hoping this post will give you some inspiration and useful considerations when setting out on your remote work journey.
First, I’m an introvert with a limited capacity for social interaction. I love hanging out with people, and I consider myself socially competent, whatever that means. But social interaction drains me quickly. The work I do, and the way I prefer doing it, requires a lot of concentration. There are definitely social elements that require face-to-face interaction, but the majority of my work activities involve thinking, communicating, designing, and the occasional pressing of buttons.
Remote work is thus a huge enabler for prolonged focus and productivity in my life. Working from home, I’m able to get into the zone. This is something that never happens in a big open-plan office. I may get work done, but I’m not nearly as focused as when I’m alone.
Working remotely also supports the way of life I prefer. There’s a myriad of possibilities opening up when you go remote. However, I’ll save those for another day.
You might be in a remote-working situation for other reasons, perhaps because of COVID-19. It might be temporary, something you get through, and long back for normal co-located work. Or you might be in this for the long run. Whatever your situation, if you are working remotely, fully or partly, why not make the best of it?
Asynchronous Written Communication
As mentioned before, a big part of my productivity and happiness is being able to concentrate. This means no interruptions. It doesn’t, however, mean no communication. Communication is key in my work. It’s not only about organization and scheduling, but also communicating ideas and design, giving feedback on documents, and reviewing code.
That’s why I prefer teams that favor asynchronous communication. Everyone communicates when they have time and energy, like before or after breaks, and doesn’t expect immediate replies.
In the best case, synchronous communication requires a lot of, well, synchronization. You have to agree on times for conference calls or mob programming sessions, and if it’s co-located, agree on where to meet. In the worst case, it’s plain interruption. Still, I do enjoy the occasional pair-programming session.
Hand-in-hand with asynchronous communication goes writing. While I can send my colleagues a voice mail, the more realistic scenario is that I write to them. What medium I choose depends on the purpose, the contents, and the audience:
Direct message: This works well for small nudges, e.g. “Hey, I couldn’t find any recent commits on your branch, are you sure you’ve pushed?” There’s no use in anyone else reading this message, so why not keep the noise down. In many cases, though, what gets sent as a direct message should be a public message.
Public channel message: Be sure to set up a low-friction communication channel for the entire team. This is great for all kinds of updates and questions in everyday work. You never know who can or has time to answer a question, or who needs to know what you know. Err on the side of sharing too much information. Also, use a tool where the messages are persistent, as you might want to go back and search the history.
I realize that there’s a psychological safety aspect to team communication. Everyone in your team might not feel confident and safe in posting or commenting publicly. I can’t give much good advice on this topic, so I’ll just leave it as an important thing to consider.
Shared document: This is the more heavy-weight option, and I use it for project documentation, design documents, and lengthy feedback on others’ work.
It’s the higher-friction choice, so why not send a public channel message? For me, this is mostly about stress. In most modern office suites, commenting is built in, and reviewers can add feedback in their own time. Even better, if inline comments are supported, small threads of discussion are localized to the relevant parts of the document. If discussion happens in a chat system, it feels like everything flies by, and you have to respond within the hour, or the moment will be lost forever.
Further, it’s much easier to catalog and browse documents than to search chat history. Important design decisions can be read many years after they were taken, acting as an architecture decision log.
Recently, I’ve introduced a light-weight RFC process for our team’s design documentation. If you’re interested, check out the meta-RFC and template.
Email: I try to use this only for communication outside the team. It’s the common denominator of communication in many organizations. I find email terrible for persistent many-to-many communication, especially to give feedback on documents.
Reconfiguring yourself and your team from synchronous to asynchronous communication structures can be challenging. You’ll need to work with this actively, constantly nudging each other in the right direction. You might need to get comfortable with new tools, improve your writing skills, and be more careful in how you express yourself and interpret others. I tend to read in too much of a serious tone in written communication, thinking that people are discontent or otherwise unhappy. Written communication is hard.
One concern about remote work is how to stay focused. After having worked remotely for a few years, I’ve learned a lot about myself. In my spare time, like 95% of it, I’m doing something that I consider productive. But I don’t feel stressed about it, and my focus is high. When work is motivating, it feels the same, and I generally have little trouble keeping focused.
Thus, I’ve been searching for what motivates me. After a bunch of detours, I’ve learned that it’s not Haskell, functional programming, or any other technology. It’s not about things being hard or complex, or colleagues being smart or having brilliant academic or industry track records.
For me, it’s working with respectful and inspiring colleagues on a shared vision, and achieving observable results. Working on products that’ll inspire and help others in their work or daily life. Things that fit with my views on politics and society.
The worst experiences I’ve had, remote or on-site, have been either toy projects that would never see any real use, or projects with toxic management or overall culture. Those projects have often been very interesting in terms of technology, but to no avail.
For you, motivation might be something completely different. I’m not saying you should do exactly what I did. Find your own priorities and ways of keeping focused. It takes practice.
Distance in Time and Space
In remote work, you can be distanced not only geographically, but also by time zones. Both kinds of distancing pose challenges.
Except for times like these, with self-isolation measures to slow down COVID-19, I think it’s imperative that you meet your team face-to-face regularly. Time zone difference implies geographical distance, and geographical distance makes it harder and more demanding to meet in person. Depending on your personal or family situation, long-distance or long-duration travel might not be an option.
Time zone difference in itself can be problematic. Much of your communication gets interrupted and delayed, with replies not being available until the next morning. You might be tempted or forced to stay longer at work, or begin earlier, depending on the offset.
I’ve struggled with feelings of isolation and depression due to time zone difference. If you’re alone in your time zone, it can be hard to maintain a feeling of connection and well-being. Conversely, I’ve worked with geographical distance, but in the same time zone, and felt very connected and energized.
Be careful about distance. Find ways to stay connected.
A major thing I’ve learned about remote work is that it functions as an amplifier of my feelings.
In good projects, working part or full-time remote amplifies the good aspects of the project. A good day of working remotely is often way better than a good day in the open-plan office. Conversely, in bad projects, remote work makes everything ten times worse. On a bad day working remotely, I’m all alone in the void. I have no comfort, no shoulder to lean on, no one to have a quick coffee with and get things off my chest. I’ve tried co-working spaces, but the water cooler conversations just didn’t do it for me.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to support each other online, but I think it’s harder. This is the main reason I need to meet my colleagues face-to-face, even if it’s not very often. In bad projects I’ve been in, being on-site and having colleagues to lean on has been my only safety net.
Find Your Own Way
If you’re anything like me, and if you’re going to work remotely by your own choice, carefully pick your projects and teams. Both the risk and the reward are amplified.
If you find yourself thrown in to remote work, find ways of improving your team’s communication and collaboration. In many regards, it’s not the same as co-located work. Find your own setup, don’t blindly follow this or any other post. Then, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!
Good luck, and stay safe!
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