I’ve been working from home for about a year and a half. It’s certainly been a learning experience. In this post I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned. I’ll start by giving you a little context. Why I chose to work from home and my remote working situation. Then I’ll move on to why you would want to work from home, why you wouldn’t, and when you probably shouldn’t. Then I’ll cover how I try and make remote working work.
What is my remote situation? I’ve been working from home for about one and a half years. I live in Scotland. My teammates are in Leeds, Durham, London, Indianapolis, New York, and Austin. We cover three time zones. Some of my colleagues are in an office, others are remote. It’s approximately 50/50. We’re fortunate to have the support of our manager and each other for making this work.
Why did I take a job working from home? It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t think, “I’m sick of driving to work” or “I’m sick of my colleagues in the office.” The answer was much simpler. I got an opportunity. One I decided was too good to pass by.
Why am I talking about remote working? Because it’s not easy. I’ve spent a long time thinking about, reading about, and discussing remote working. Things that just happen in the office don’t just happen when you’re remote. More effort is required. I’m still working at it.
What is my personal situation? I’m married with three kids under five. Disclaimer, this significantly colours my experiences. I imagine working from home without kids is a very different experience.
Why work remotely?
Why would anyone want to work from home? There many benefits. Here are a few of them.
Flexibility. Flexibility and remote working don’t always go hand in hand. But, generally speaking, I would expect a remote job to be more flexible than an office-based job. In my current position, we are trusted to work our contracted hours. If you want to start work later, no problem. If you have an appointment in the middle of the afternoon, no problem. If you are suffering from a post-lunch slump and want to take a walk, no problem. Essentially it’s much easier to fit work around your life.
Family. Family and flexibility go hand in hand. Having the flexibility to provide more support and to spend more time with your family is gold dust. Particularly when your kids are in pre-school. I can walk my kids to school, pick them up, have lunch with them. You get the idea.
No commute. Who loves commuting? Nobody. It costs time and money. Nowadays I leave for work at 9:30 and arrive at 9:30. It costs me nothing. In my last job I had a 30 minute commute. As far as commutes go, it wasn’t a long one. Even so, a 30 minute commute is an hour a day, 5 hours a week, 20 hours a month, nearly 10 days a year! Then you have the cost. I purchased a car primarily for commuting. Not an expensive car, but the outlay is still significant. Then you have to pay to maintain it. Fuel, road tax, insurance, and servicing. Easily hundreds a year.
You can live anywhere. I was able to move closer to family because I worked from home. Selling a house, moving two jobs and three kids seemed like too much for my wife and me. Then my wife gave up work and I got a job working from home. All we had to do was sell the house! Of course, I’m hardly taking full advantage of the situation. Why not try living in a different city, or a different country? All you need is internet.
More job opportunities. How far are you willing to commute? 30 minutes? An hour? I once met with a contractor who commuted 2 hours each way! With an office job, you are limited by location. With remote work, you are limited only by time zone. Provided you are working with people who aren’t more than about four hours different you can probably make it work.
Increased productivity. This is somewhat controversial. When I tell someone I work from home, often the first thing they say is, “I couldn’t do that because I’d be distracted by the TV/social media/pets/kids/whatever.” There is some truth in this. You need discipline. If you’re not easily distracted, working from home can provide a quiet, comfortable environment to work in. Free from the distractions of noisy phone calls, cleaners and people tapping you on the shoulder. In this kind of environment, it’s easier to achieve a state of flow.
Freedom to choose your environment. Have you ever worked in an office where you couldn’t adjust the desk? Or couldn’t adjust the monitor? Or there was nowhere else to sit apart from your desk? No such problems exist at home. You are free to set up your working environment exactly how you want it and move somewhere else whenever you want. Perhaps the bed, the garden, or the beach, if you live near one and can get internet. The downside to this is that if you want some fancy equipment you incur the cost.
That covers the benefits of working from home. But surely it’s not all positive? No, there are some major drawbacks.
Social stuff. In my experience, the social aspect of remote working is by far the most difficult. I suspect that if you have a lot of social connections, it is much, much easier. I also suspect it’s easier if you worked in an office for a number of years, then made the switch to being remote in the same team. In this scenario you have already done the difficult bit, establishing relationships with your colleagues.
In the past I didn’t believe my colleagues were a significant contributor to my happiness at work. Not any more. For some time, a typical remote day for me would involve coding, talking on Slack about work, talking to colleagues about work and perhaps a stand up, where we talked about work. This doesn’t happen in an office. There are plenty of opportunities to socialise and talk about topics other than work. After maybe a week of only work interaction I’d find myself a bit down. I’d stress about things that usually wouldn’t be a problem. I wouldn’t enjoy activities I’d usually enjoy. Everything would seem like hard work. This feeling crept up on me. All because I didn’t socialise with my colleagues enough.
Discipline required. Compared to working in an office, working from home requires more discipline. There’s nobody looking over your shoulder telling you to get off YouTube. Nobody telling you to start work at exactly 9:30 and to go home at 5:30. That’s on you.
Time zones. If most or all or your team are in the same time zone, great. If some of your team are in a time zone that’s one to five hours different, it’s manageable. If you have team members in time zones six, seven, or more hours different you have a problem. Somebody is going to have to work late or early now and again.
Feeling left out. If you work with colleagues based in an office, there’s a significant chance you’ll feel left out at some point. Perhaps it’s an office party, or drinks after work, or a meeting where you can’t be heard, or a meeting where there’s no remote-friendly equipment, or office-only perks, the list goes on. It’s not a nice feeling.
When not to work remotely
That covers some pros and cons of remote working. There are some situations where I believe it’s not worth weighing up pros and cons. That’s not to say it definitely wouldn’t work. I just think it would be really hard.
If you don’t have a lot of confidence or experience. As a remote worker you need to be able to take the initiative, motivate yourself, be able to get on with work without someone looking over your shoulder, and ask for help when you’re stuck. It takes time to build up these skills. I certainly didn’t have these skills when I started my career.
Being the only remote worker on the team. This is almost guaranteed to leave you feeling left out. It’s not intentional, but colleagues working in an office typically don’t know what it’s like to be remote. It will take a lot of effort from the remote worker to mentor their colleagues.
Joining a company as the first remote employee. This would set off alarm bells in my head. Remote working requires a culture shift. A company must learn to trust you. Trust that you’re at your desk doing work. Not watching YouTube. This is a big step for a company whose employees are all office based.
Time zone difference of more than five hours. I’m not suggesting this is a hard cut-off, but simply noting that the bigger the time difference the more difficult it is to collaborate. I’ve worked with a colleague with an eight hour time difference. We had only two hours of cross over time if my colleague started at seven in the morning. Needless to say, those two hours were always full.
How to make it work
Now we’ve talked about some of the negative aspects of remote working. How do you make it work? Here are a few ideas.
Meet up with colleagues. When you start a remote position for a company that has an office, it is vitally important you visit for some face time. I cannot emphasise this enough. Even a few days is enough time to start building relationships with your colleagues. After you’ve settled in to the job, you should try and meet up regularly as a team.
Don’t talk about work all the time. I really struggle with this. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of talking work constantly. You have to intentionally make time to talk about non work stuff. This is so important for building relationships. Not only is work-based communication better when you know someone, you feel better when you have a laugh. What can you do to encourage more chat? Intentionally turn up early for meetings and have casual conversation. On a call, ask a colleague how their weekend was before launching into work. Add a weekly virtual happy hour to the teams calendar. The only rule is no work talk! Or how about randomly pairing with a colleague? Lately our team has been, fairly randomly, starting a Slack call in the team channel. Anyone can hop on and have a chat if they want. Or not, if they’re busy. People can jump on, have a chat, and leave the call running while they work. This works really well in Slack because the call is visible in the team channel.
Get out of the house. Cabin fever is not uncommon when working from home. Fortunately, it’s an easy problem to solve. You can go for a walk, go to the gym, find a coffee shop, a co-working space, or a local meet up. At Salesforce, I’m lucky because all staff have 56 hours a year to volunteer. What do I do with this time? You guessed it. I get out of the house by supporting two Code Clubs near me.
Regular one to ones. Having regular one to ones with your manager is important in any job and even more so when you are remote. Office-based colleagues have more opportunity to chat with their manager at the water cooler, at lunch, and after work. For remote workers, it’s important to keep in touch, get to know your boss, and let them know of any small issues before they become big issues.
Use video chat. Text chat is great, but sometimes you need to speak to someone face-to-face. The best way to do that is using video chat. Always use video chat if possible. It’s not the same as being together in person, but it’s the closest you’re going to get.
If one person in a meeting is on video chat, everyone should be. Sadly, audio equipment in meeting rooms is rarely perfect. It’s a painful experience to be on a video call with a bunch of people in a meeting room when you can only hear half of the people. In this situation, all remote people are immediately at a disadvantage. Have everyone jump on a video call instead. Then communication is on a level playing field.
Use the great tools that are available. There are so many great tools for remote working. My personal favourites are:
- Slack for chat, screen sharing, and video calls with a small group
- Google Meet for a larger group (up to 30)
- GoToMeeting for a really big group
- SnagIt for screenshots
- Quip for notes
- Confluence or Google Docs for documentation
- Figure it out is a Chrome plugin that shows configurable times in a new tab
- Google Drive for sharing files
Minimise distractions. This could be a separate blog post entirely. Distractions affect both office workers and remote workers, but are arguably more difficult for remote workers because there’s nobody to tell you to stop. Here are some tips for minimising distractions:
- Turn off push notifications on your phone. I’m talking about all social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, etc. Even consider turning them off for personal email, and turning off vibration notifications as well.
- Don’t work in a room with the TV. If you do, don’t turn it on.
- Snooze chat notifications during meetings. Have you ever replied to a message while in a meeting trying to concentrate on what someone is saying? I have. It’s a bad habit.
- Don’t keep your company’s chat tool open on your second monitor. It’s too tempting to answer all messages immediately.
- Don’t check emails constantly. There are many ways of dealing with email. One simple method is to decide how many times a day you will check email and stick to it.
Have a routine (but also be flexible). I think this is more pertinent if you don’t have kids. My routine is around my kids. Without kids, nobody is forcing you to start work or finish work at a particular time, so it’s important to have some self-discipline. Try to keep the start and end of your day fairly consistent, particularly the end of your day. Don’t get into the habit of working later than you should. Stick to your contracted hours. Doing excessive hours sets you on the path to burnout.
Visibility. I find this particularly difficult. There’s two aspects to this. Visibility inside your team and visibility outside your team. For visibility inside your team, it’s important to let people know what you’re doing. There are several ways you could do this:
- Daily stand up meeting
- Daily stand up channel in your chat tool
- Status channel in your chat tool. You post what you are doing, when you are doing it
- For visibility outside of the team you can speak up in meetings, in chat, or perhaps run brown bag sessions.
Be prepared to work asynchronously. With your colleagues working flexible schedules in different time zones they will be unavailable more frequently than if you work in an office. You have to work around it.
Thoughtful communication. When you’re remote, I find communication requires a little more thought. Here are some tips I find helpful:
- Use video chat as much as possible.
- Use the right medium. Email, text-based chat, or video chat? If you want to communicate something that all team members need to read but isn’t time sensitive, use email. If you have a problem that needs to be solved fairly quickly, try text-based chat. If you want to discuss something in depth, video chat is probably the best option.
- Email with intention. Who is the recipient? What is their knowledge? Am I making any assumptions? These kind of questions can avoid email tennis when communicating with colleagues in different time zones.
- Assume communication is coming from a good place. When you can’t see someone’s body language, hear their tone of voice, or see their facial expression, you lose a lot of vital information. In this situation it can be easy to assume the worst, so try not to!
- Share information. Not everyone can make every meeting. Not everyone is party to every decision. It’s easy to feel left out if you miss some important information. Counter this by sharing information in an appropriate place, e.g. Record a meeting or take minutes, or record decisions in a shared document.
Learn. There’s lots of great information about remote working out there. Go read it. Here are some of my favourites:
- Remotive.io — An aggregate of remote working blogs, plus remote jobs and a remote community
- The Ultimate Guide To Remote Working — Written by folks from Zapier, this is full of great tips
- Remote — Another great book by the founders of 37signals/BaseCamp
- How To Embrace Remote Work — Written by folks at Trello
Congratulations on reaching the end of this post. A lot of ground has been covered. If you are considering working from home or if you work from home right now, I hope you found the content useful. If you have any remote working tips that worked for you, I’d love to hear them.
This is the third post in a series of resolutions you as an engineer may want to make for the new year. Follow us on Twitter @SalesforceEng to make sure you catch the rest of the installments!
At Salesforce, remote working is considered to be a viable alternative work arrangement in cases where individual, manager, and job considerations are best suited to such an arrangement. Many employees at Salesforce incorporate varying degrees of mobility into their work, and software engineering is naturally conducive to remote working. See all open positions in tech at https://salesforce.com/tech.