Right after finishing Rework I continued with their 2013 follow-up Remote: Office Not Required, for which I was much more excited. I have been working from home between zero and two days per week for about 2.5 years now. I absolutely love it and can’t imagine ever taking a job where I couldn’t do that. But that does not mean it’s all perfect. I’m still often struggling with working way too much at home, and communication is an ongoing challenge. All of which has become even more intense and apparent to me in the past two months, where not only me and my entire team/office worked from home 100%, but also most of the company.
My experience with this book was similar to the one before. No big discoveries, but lots of intense head-nodding along the way. I would definitely recommend it regardless of your stance towards remote work. An organization where remote work can function properly is a better place to work for everyone, remote or not.
Of course, this might not be as easy if you’re a tiny company with just one or two people responsible for dealing with clients. In that case, yes, you may well have to assign “regular working hours” to those employees whose chief function is to answer customers. But why subject everyone in the company to those hours? False equality benefits nobody.
Working remotely isn’t without complication or occasional sacrifice. It’s about making things better for more people more of the time.
“False equality benefits nobody” is such an important point, and not at all constrained to remote work. Let’s say you have two offices, and one of them happens to be next to a pizza place that offers free pizza under some deal. That’s amazing, and everyone should be happy about it. Sure, the pizza-less office might be jealous. That’s a normal emotion to feel sometimes. But we’re adults, we can be a little jealous and still be happy for the other office. Would it be good to find a similar deal for both/all offices? Certainly. But in the meantime, the free pizza should be enjoyed by those who can.
Culture is incredibly important when it comes to loosening the leash. The stronger the culture, the less explicit training and supervision is needed. In an ideal situation, managers-of-one are allowed to roam freely, it being understood that they’ll do a good job—one congruent with what the company stands for.
You certainly don’t need everyone physically together to create a strong culture. The best cultures derive from actions people actually take, not the ones they write about in a mission statement. Newcomers to an organization arrive with their eyes open. They see how decisions are made, the care that’s taken, the way problems are fixed, and so forth.
Very important, and it follows that you can’t solve cultural problems with more workers. If your problems are due to your culture, hiring more people will only lead to you having a bigger team — with the same culture and all the problems you have because of that. It’s very rare that a new hire will change your culture by much. If anything, hiring in that scenario might even be counter-productive. Any culture, good or bad, becomes a habit very quickly. Changing habits is no small feat, and it certainly does not get easier with more people who might cling to it.
When everyone is sitting in the same office, it’s easy to fall into the habit of bothering anyone for anything at any time, with no regard for personal productivity. This is a key reason so many people get so little done in traditional office setups—too many interruptions. Still, when you’re used to this mode of working, it can seem hard to envision a world where you can’t get an answer to any question, no matter how insignificant, the second you think of it. Such a world does exist, though, and it’s quite habitable.
First, it takes recognizing that not every question needs an answer immediately—there’s nothing more arrogant than taking up someone else’s time with a question you don’t need an answer to right now.
This is a really, really hard thing to shake. I absolutely hate it, but even I am so used to it from years of open office madness that I frequently do it. And of course we also emulate it when working from home by dropping one-liners in chat instead of writing a succinct email, or maybe an even better prepared document/issue.
I’ve started only looking into chat in the morning. At first I did morning, lunch break and before I signed off, but especially the last one was a bad idea because I’d take those messages with me into my free time, even if only in my thoughts. Lunch break was a bad idea as well, because often there would be no more lunch break then. So now I only check chat in the morning. It turns out that almost nothing in there is relevant. Most of it has become irrelevant by the time I see it, or I’ve gotten an email about it instead. None of it was ever critical, in which case the people who need to can always reach me by other means anyway. Simply by not responding to chat asap, people often figure out who the actually correct person to contact is, or realize that chat was the wrong medium in the first place.
Breaking your and others’ addiction to ASAP won’t come without withdrawal.
Ain’t that the truth. It’s so difficult. Hardly a week goes by without me sending someone something in chat, only to think “Fuck, why the heck did I just do that.” the second afterwards. Luckily we’re all very open about being in the process of learning how to communicate better, so I can just shoot “nvm, I’ll send you an email instead, sorry” after it. But still, I’ve likely interrupted someone. And I definitely interrupted myself. Because sending something in chat is very different, my brain approaches the whole thing differently. I’m mentally preparing for a loose conversation – which can be the correct tool sometimes, but for 90% of what we use chat for, it is not.
Another aspect I feel worth mentioning: Chatting with someone has a social aspect as well. I miss chatting with people, and I already did so on the days I was working from home before Corona. And that’s normal, it means you actually like your coworkers. Pretty good! If you wanna chat with someone, do that, and just that. If you want to talk about work during such a chat – go ahead, by all means. As long the primary goal is chatting, not the work aspect. Because when you mix the two, you get the worst of both: Unproductive unprepared responses about your work question, and a guilty conscience for wasting time just because you wanted to connect with someone.
Remember, there’s no such thing as a one-hour meeting. If you’re in a room with five people for an hour, it’s a five-hour meeting.
Being a good writer is an essential part of being a good remote worker. When most arguments are settled over email or chat or discussion boards, you’d better show up equipped for the task. So, as a company owner or manager, you might as well filter for this quality right from the get-go.
This means judging an application by its cover … letter. Yes, the CV might list all sorts of impressive stints here, there, and everywhere, but let’s be honest—it’s usually embellished and not a great indicator of how the candidate will perform for your company.
No, the first filter that really matters is the cover letter explaining exactly why there’s a fit between applicant and company. There’s simply no getting around it: in hiring for remote-working positions, managers should be ruthless in filtering out poor writers.
I’ve only been doing hiring myself for about two years now, but even after the 30ish candidates and I think less than ten interviews I’ve come to the same conclusion. As I said earlier, good standards for remote work are good standards in general. Someone who can’t write well will never be able to convey to me what they mean without having to drag me into a conversation or meeting. It is absolutely essential that you are able to clearly and concisely formulate your thoughts and ideas, no matter how smart and great those might be. You have to be able to communicate smart and great in written form, otherwise you will be costing too much time and causing too much friction.
If you don’t include a cover letter in your application, I would discard even the greatest CV I’ve ever seen. If you forget the CV but have a great cover letter, I’ll probably get back to you.
Morale and motivation are fragile things, so you want to make sure to monitor the pulse of your remote workforce. Waiting six months or a year for the next formal review is too long.
Further, formal annual reviews are usually too big-picture to pick up on the small things. Formal reviews cover such things as long-range goals, salary adjustments, possible promotions, etc. But the real dangers are the small things—the concerns that creep up between annual check-ins.
This is so true it hurts. Overlooking the small things can quickly snowball into having massive frustrations and a deep feeling of not being appreciated. Strong leadership is required here, you can’t just expect the workers to bring those things up themselves. No matter how open and honest you think your culture might be, you have to be on the lookout for the small things. They might be so small that people would feel ridiculous for bringing them up. Especially when there is no proper venue for when and how to bring them up. But small things can cause big pain.
Skype. The old standby is still kicking for a reason—it’s damn good! Excellent for international calling, conference calls, video conferences, and even basic screen sharing, it’s hard to go wrong with Skype when you need to talk to people who aren’t nearby. Extremely reliable, and widely adopted, and available for just about every platform under the sun.
Well, that didn’t age well, did it. I can’t remember the last time someone told me anything positive about Skype. I logged into my old account a few months ago for some reason, and about half of my contact list had all sent me the same message. Some weird Russian virus spam. So all of their accounts had been compromised, and from the looks of it, none of them had even noticed.
For quick text-based chats with one other person, it’s hard to beat Instant Messaging. If you’re a Mac shop, iChat/Messages is a good option. If you’re a Google shop, Gchat works real well. Or if you’re technically inclined, you can set up a Jabber server (ask your IT guys).