Erik Aybar

Fighting the “Remote” in Remote Working

November 28, 2016

Photo by [Henry McIntosh]( Photo by Henry McIntosh

I’ve been drawn further and further into working remotely for about four years now depending on how you count. In that time, I’ve gone through my share of ups and downs between “remote 😃” and “remote 😞” and formed an opinion or two.

The word “remote” is loaded with negative baggage: something or someone that’s far away, distant; isolated. Something or someone that’s out of touch with the reality of how things really are. — Chase Adams Remote is Dead. Long Live Distributed

Photo by [Noah Silliman]( Photo by Noah Silliman

The distinction between “remote” and “distributed” made in Remote is Dead. Long Live Distributed. really resonated with me and got me thinking about my own experiences. It’s a good, short read. I recommend that you check it out:

Remote is Dead. Long Live Distributed. _A call to become a distributed

My Experience with Remote Working

I was in my first technical role just over five years ago. After about the first year, the concept of working from home began creeping in for a select few of us. When my first child was born, I began working from home periodically. I didn’t work from home often, but the idea that I could get work done from home had started to grow on me.

After that, I ended up working out of a satellite office for a northern Utah based software company. Anywhere from one to four of us would show up at a time in this semi-shared office space. It was nothing more than a single room with Wi-Fi, a few desks, and monitors for us to plug our laptops into. We were “remote”; totally separate from the rest of the company. This also afforded more flexible hours and meant working from the coffee shop and/or home was not much different than being at the office. This is when I started to realize that working remotely and being home with my wife and available for our son and soon-to-be daughter was a real possibility.

For the last two and a half years I’ve been working 100% from home as part of a fully distributed software development team. We also have a good amount of non-developer roles that are distributed, such as our sales team. Our main office is located in Solana Beach, CA but we have team members distributed throughout Washington, California, Nevada, Utah, and more. Now, I can’t imagine giving up remote working and the benefits that it has provided my family and I such as:

  • Availability for my family. I’m able to take my son to karate, help out with sick kids (or wife!), take a spontaneous trip to the park, and so much more that I wouldn’t be able to do in a traditional office setting.
  • Freedom of location. I don’t have to move my family to a tech hub to have a tech job.
  • Employment opportunities. I’ve been amazed at how many great companies and teams I’ve come across that support remote working (or are entirely distributed all together).
  • Work during my best hours. For me that is early mornings. Often, I’ll have a good 2–3 hours in by the time the rest of my household is waking up. That leaves me with plenty of flex time throughout the day for lunch and errands.

There is a lot of great material out there about the upsides to remote working and the growing movement towards embracing distributed teams. I want to share some ideas focused more around the potential pitfalls of virtual teams along with a few thoughts to address them.

Them vs. Us

I’ve experienced this myself at different times and at varying levels. A division occurs when one group of employees lives by a different set of rules than the others.

Frustration can stem from both sides of the division here. For example the in-office people can begin to resent the remote folk for being able to work from home and seemingly whenever and however they feel like it. On the other hand, us remote folk miss out on a lot of in-person benefits and human interaction that come along with an office environment. Examples: spontaneous lunches together, birthday and holiday celebrations, and other general activities that come along with being surrounded by actual humans.

Build bridges and relationships between remote and in-office employees. Try to blur the lines between the two. Just because you are in an office doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate with your remote counterparts and begin taking advantage of the growing remote opportunities/culture that your company is embracing. Similarly, just because you are remote doesn’t mean you can’t participate in at least some of the in-office activities and celebrations. I don’t think that the “remote” and “in-office” labels can be rid of entirely, but I feel like both sides can embrace, support, and learn from each other.

Remote Doesn’t Just Work

You can’t just sign off on the idea and send your employees home with a laptop along with your blessing to work sans-pants (The Year Without Pants). Succeeding with remote takes a lot of work and continual, conscious effort. Remote is not for everyone or every company and it will fail if you let it. In my experience this is largely underestimated by both employers and employees.

When you are in an office together, human interaction has a way of sneaking in on its own. You bump into your co-workers several times per day. Maybe you have a spontaneous, non-work related chat. It’s common for you to grab lunch or a coffee together.

When you are on a distributed team, living in different timezones, with differing communication preferences, things are different. This type of human interaction can be treated as an afterthought and left up to chance. It’s easy to go days without hearing a human voice, instead favoring text-only interactions on Slack, GitHub, or e-mail. It’s not hard to go weeks without having a real, non-essential conversation related to anything but work and/or the project at hand. Before you know it, it’s been a month since you’ve seen your co-workers face-to-face in a Hangout, instead being left knowing them only as their avatar.

One way to foster these human relationships is to periodically get together in person. Flying the remote-folk in to all get together can be crucial for building closer relationships (especially with their in-office counterparts).

The trip to Portland totally changed the dynamic within the team for me. I feel more connected to my boss and co-workers and more confident in myself. I’m thankful that InVision understands the importance of team companionship and was willing to give us this opportunity. There is something about sharing a meal or just walking to get coffee that helps people bond.

— Heather Roberts Beyond Hangouts: Invision’s First Engineering Offsite

Be aware of restricting relationship and culture building efforts to only “when we get together in person”. It is much easier, and vastly less expensive, to invest in remote culture and even start plugging the in-office employees into it. There are many aspects of remote working that can be applied to the in-office environment as well. The extra work and communication efforts that goes into a successful distributed team can have a substantial positive impact on the company as a whole.

Tips for Making Virtual Interaction More “Human”:

  1. Voice. Be aware of too much text-only interaction. Often, a 5-minute call can clarify an ambiguous text-based assumption and prevent a full day, or even week, of unnecessary churn. Hop on a call!
  2. Video. Seeing a human face matters. Having your human face seen matters. Do not underestimate this. Video matters.
  3. Emoji/GIFs. The majority of communication/interaction will be done via text. Add some personality to it! 😂🙊😎😈 And if a picture is worth 1,000 words, well… wield the GIF wisely:
  4. Personal. Don’t make it all about work. Try not to restrict communication to a bare minimum or only on an as-needed basis.
  5. Human. You can’t take the human out of human interaction. Make the most of your on-site visits and opportunities when the whole team gets together in person and/or virtually.

Extra Reading

This is just the first post in what I’m sure are many potential follow ups locked away in my brain. Have thoughts/feedback around remote working? Experiences and/or resources you would like to share? Reach out! I’d love to chat about it.

Erik Aybar

👋🏽 Hi! I'm Erik Aybar. I'm a software person working remotely from St. George, Utah. This is my blog.