Flexible working conditions are one of the many perks for Metova employees. With approval, we can work away from the office from every once in awhile, to a scheduled number of days per week, to only seeing the office once every couple of months. Managing communication, environment, security, and schedule are key to making working remotely from home successful. Director of Technology, Ron Unger, the first Metovian hired to work remotely 100% of the time, gave us some insight into making it work.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication
Asynchronous and Synchronous communication are incredibly important to understand and use properly. Synchronous communication is when both parties are speaking back and forth directly without delays. Think of face-to-face meetings and phone calls. Asynchronous refers to modes of communication where both parties do not have to engage at the same time: e-mail and chat programs are great examples.
Asynchronous communication can be great for productivity, because you are able to respond when you choose. It helps reduce interruptions, and it also allows for easy communication among distributed teams, because both parties don’t have coordinate a time to communicate.
Be careful to not force asynchronous communication to work like synchronous communication. When using chat, don’t have the expectation that you’re going to get near-instantaneous responses. During normal business hours, you should get responses reasonably quickly, but a great way to approach asynchronous communication is to fire it off and then have other tasks to do while you wait to hear back.
While asynchronous communication is the bread-and-butter of a distributed, high-productivity team, there are definitely times to switch to synchronous communication. Recognize that if you and the other party are trading chatmessages or e-mails for more than a couple of minutes, you may be better off just picking up the phone or getting in a Google+ hangout.
Plan for Asynchronicity
Because asynchronous communication is such a big part of working remotely, you should plan your work accordingly. That means having a couple of tasks you can work on at any given point so that you’re not stuck while waiting for answers to your questions. It also means planning your work so you know what you have available and can schedule effectively.
Communicate Your Status
An important thing to remember when working remotely from home (or in another building, etc) is that others cannot see you, so they don’t implicitly know that you’re away from your computer or for how long. Particularly with your asynchronous modes of communication (e-mail, chat, etc.), be sure you convey your status to others. If you are taking off the day to play the just-released version of Battlefield, consider setting an out-of-office message on your email so your customer doesn’t wait to hear from you all day. Use your status message to indicate you’re away at lunch, on a call with a customer, or planning to drive to a coffee shop.
Certainly one of the biggest perks of working remotely from home is that you get a great deal of control over your environment. Maybe you like working from the house, or from a bookstore, or at an Internet café. You have the flexibility to change that whenever you like.
But with any environment comes different kinds of distractions. To be effective as a remote worker, you have to recognize what distracts you, and you have to deal with those things. If you’re working from home, you may have kids or a significant other vying for your attention during work hours. You may have a needy 50 lb husky that thinks she’s a lap dog trying to climb in your lap one minute and howling at a passer-by the next. If you’re out at a coffee shop, you may have a lot of conversations going on around you. Recognizing and dealing with it may mean closing the door to your office at home so your family know not to bother you and your husky doesn’t know your lap is available or it may mean remembering to take headphones when you go to the coffee shop. Be honest with yourself about how well you’re managing the distractions of your environment, and make adjustments to help your productivity.
Create an “office”
If you’re working from home, it can be really helpful to create an office for yourself. Your house or apartment may or may not have an entire room you can devote to this, but create a space that is just for work. It’s not for gaming or for sleeping or for watching TV… it’s for work. Creating a space like that can really help you mentally shift into and out of “work mode” at the appropriate times.
Remember coffee shops, libraries, etc.
While home is probably the most consistent and controllable environment for working remotely, don’t forget about coffee shops, libraries, Internet cafés, and other options you have. There are days where it can really be worth it to have a change of scenery and get out among people. These options are often viewed as a perk of working remotely, but changing your environment can be good for your brain if you’re not feeling productive or if you’re hung up on something. Many times, the act of getting out of the house and driving somewhere can help put you in the right frame of mind for getting work done. Think of it as an occasional commute to trick your brain!
Human Factors & Ergonomics
Stretching out on the couch with your laptop can be pretty appealing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But keep in mind that this is your job, and it’s not just an hour-long session on Reddit. You’re going to be doing this 40 hours a week, so save yourself some neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome, and find somewhere you can work comfortably with halfway-decent posture.
Professional Environment for clients
You are a professional. If you get to work most of the day without wearing pants, that’s awesome, and nobody has to know. But make sure nobody knows.
That means that in the instances where you are interacting with others synchronously make sure your environment is professional. If you are on a call with your customer, make sure you are somewhere quiet where you can hear them and hear yourself think. Driving in the car or trying to talk over your kids during a call is not a good way to impress your customer. If you’re going to be on a video chat, make sure family members aren’t going to walk by without pants (or less).
The office provides a number of things that you may take for granted. When working remotely from home, you take on the responsibility for those things, so be aware of them. One of them is security.
As part of Metova’s new developer setup computers are set to lock their screen after a little bit of inactivity. You may also have hotspots set up to put your screen to sleep. If you’re out in public, be cognizant of having others seeing the company’s business. If you’re going to get up from your table at the coffee shop to order a cookie, make sure you lock your screen. You have been entrusted with access to information that is important to the company as well as to your customer. Don’t take that lightly.
Recently everyone at Metova was also given directions to set up an iCloud account to enable the company to remote-wipe laptops in case one gets lost or stolen. This is highly recommended.
Don’t leave your stuff lying around in public
Be smart about your stuff. If you’re out in public at a coffee shop and staying within line-of-sight of your gear while you order a drink, fine. If you’re planning to be away from the table for an extended period of time, take your stuff with you. Don’t leave your laptop obviously sitting in the back seat of your car. Put it in the trunk where it’s not visible.
Make sure your schedule overlaps with those normal working business hours. Even if you like getting work done between 6-10pm, make sure you are available to answer HipChat and e-mail relatively quickly during the day. Metova has core hours that provide a good framework for ensuring that developers are accessible during normal business hours.
Boundaries & Work-Life Balance
The work-life balance can get skewed many different ways, but generally the cause is the same: not respecting boundaries. These boundaries are much easier to see and recognize when you’re driving into the office on a daily basis. Work happens at the office, and your home life happens at home.
Without this physical distinction, you may have more trouble recognizing when you’re not respecting one of these boundaries. It can be easy to drag out of bed late, eat a slow breakfast while surfing the web, clean up the kitchen, drag your feet in the shower, take a smoke break, and then sit down to work. The problem is that by then, it may be noon, and you’re going to feel like you’re working the entire day to get your hours in, and that may be frustrating to you when it inhibits your making evening plans with friends or getting enough time with your family. Or you may end up working a shorter day, but then you have to play catch-up on the weekend.
On the other end of the spectrum, without a well-defined physical boundary, you may feel like you’re at work all the time. If you’re waking up at 7am and answering emails, then working throughout the day, then responding to HipChat at 9pm, you may realize you’ve given yourself what feels like a 14-hour work day.
This is just an issue of personal discipline, but you are responsible for creating that structure for yourself. You have to find something that works for you, that doesn’t leave you feeling burnt out or resentful in either direction. Having a schedule to follow can help (telling yourself at 9am, “I am ‘at work’ now.”), as can having a physical routine, such as mentally being “at work” when you are in your home office. Some people even walk around the outside of their houses or make a trip to the store to give themselves a faux commute. When you’re at work, try to resist the distractions of home, and when you leave work for the day, be sure to actually leave it.
Value of Face-Time
Just like recognizing when it’s time to switch from asynchronous to synchronous communication, there are occasions where there is a lot of value in being physically present in the office. If you’re ramping up on a new project and/or a new technology, a few days in the office can be worth their weight in gold.
Remember that you’re also a part of the company’s culture, and people in the office want to see you sometimes too. If you can make it in once or twice a year (or more often!) for company events, which helps everybody put a name with a face, and that’s good for everyone involved.
Tools to Remember
Know what tools are at your disposal, and know when to use them. Metova finds Google+ Hangouts, GoTo Meeting, and HipChat essential for communication with employees and clients. Recognize when a 5-minute screenshare with a Google+ Hangout is going to save you 30 minutes of hand-waving in chat. Use the company calendar so you can see that Caleb is taking PTO today and won’t be able to give you new work. Make sure you are a part of any company e-mail lists or chatrooms so you are aware of important things going on.
Get a Google Voice number to use for work. If you find yourself in a situation where a customer needs to talk to you, you can provide that number to avoid giving out your personal number.
I can’t stress this enough. When you are working remotely from home, your written word is how you are perceived. Spell things correctly. Use good grammar. This stuff actually matters. Your customer is already effectively remote compared to you, so you should be taking the time to write intelligently no matter where you are working.
Thoughts for Non-Remote Employees
Having on-site devs and employees aware of their remote team members can be a huge factor in a remote worker’s success. The key item is always communication. Remember that verbal conversations in the office are not shared with someone remote, so the more team conversations you can have in chat, and the more you can document decisions in the company wiki, the more successful your team will be.
If you work remotely from home occasionally, your insight into communication challenges can be very valuable. If you’re in the office and the president announces to the floor that tomorrow is BLT day, remind him that he needs to use a medium that includes people at home or in other offices; no one wants to miss out on bacon!
Working from home can be done effectively and be a great option for independent or remote employees. Being hyper aware of communication, the effect of your environment on your work, work-home balance, and the tools available to you will help ensure you continue to enjoy and be effective in working remotely.