Interestingly I already wanted to write about working from home already before the current crisis. I had the luck to start with it in 2011. I then began working for Canonical, a world-wide distributed company. My direct colleagues had been spread from New Zealand and Australia via several locations in Europe to North- and South-America. A fantastic feeling. Actually I’m working for Loodse, not as large but 100% remote too. And I enjoy working with all my different colleagues.
But right now the motivation for many is a different one. It’s the virus crisis which forces people to stay home and to work there. Not all jobs allow to do so, but IT jobs like mine or many other typical office jobs do. So this possibly is a chance to establish remote work even more. Until today many executive boards have been too sceptical about it.
Why do I appreciate remote work so much? It’s being close to the family, having a self designed office, quiet and in my case with self-chosen hardware. Additionally I’m avoiding the daily commuting. Here I multiple times had a distance of one hour, 10 hours lost time per week, not talking about the additional cost. So useless and dumb. Beside that I also like the freedom regarding the time or the working place, I will write more about it later. And a special benefit is the feeling. Your team isn’t determined by the location. It’s determined by the specialisation of the people, their knowledge, their interests. And as mentioned before you may have international colleagues you’re working with each day.
One interesting topic is the infrastructure. Many companies do have their own data center. So they need enough network capacity and the technology to enter it from outside. VPNs and terminal servers are one way. The other one chosen by many IT startups is to use external services like Google Apps. And there are a lot available for office, HR and recruiting, sales, customer service, travel booking and cost management, documentation, and communication. And for development teams there are tools for code management, code review, and CI. So you can avoid an own central infrastructure.
But still the employees need their hardware. Distribution of central managed computers and mobile phones is one way. Another one is supporting people in buying their own computer or using their private ones for the job too. As we all know we have individual preferences. And as long as those match to the environment it’s no problem.
Surely communication is more simple when sitting in one room or you just have to walk around the corner. But there are possibilities. You can establish instant messaging, group chats in channels, or individual and group video calls. When your team is spread over multiple countries and time zones you’ve got to take care regarding appointments. 3pm is not the same everywhere, especially in the time of switching between standard time and DST. So it’s best to plan with UTC as fixed time zone. And take a look at bank holidays of invited members. Sounds difficult? Maybe a bit more inconvenient but handable, just care for it.
Also when having your video group calls, unique as well as regular ones per day or week, then try to make them short. It’s difficult to participate in long video discussions, especially when a discussion moves away from your scope. So try to first cover the status exchange for all or the general discussions and then setup individual calls for smaller groups who need more discussion.
Another aspect of distribution is the sharing of information. Not all can always participate in the meetings and calls, follow all chats, or be part of detailed discussions about decisions. So always take notes and document ideas, concepts, and decisions. Here wikis are very simple and useful.
So far a quick overview over some of the business aspects. But there are also several individual ones. One of it is the daily routine. Sure you’ve got a lot of freedom when you’re working and if you do it in a leisure suit (or even less ). But it’s better to do it like in a regular office job. Chose your standard wake-up time in the morning, go to the bath, get dressed, have your breakfast, and start your job. Sure it may be different in your individual case, but at least try to find a standard way to start your day and then get into your work mode. So you can focus and separate spare time and work. Also then your colleagues know when they can reach you best.
Beside your start the end is important too. Log your time and finish work. It’s important for your work-life balance. Otherwise you quickly loose control, work too much, and loose your energy and motivation.
As for the time you’ve got a lot of freedom to chose your workplace. Sure you may work on the couch in front of the TV. But you can imagine the problems here. It does not really help to concentrate on your tasks. Best is an extra room, your home office. Quite, with convenient furniture and, at least in my case, music. I’ve also bought a height-adjustable desktop at IKEA helping to work standing for some time each day. It doesn’t cost too much. If you don’t have an extra room, then try to find a silent edge. Before my office room I’ve worked in our walk-in closet on a home-made table. Other alternatives seen at many colleagues are for example sleeping rooms or little edges in the living room. And when the virus crises is over a co-working space is a very good alternative too. Here they provide infrastructure and you have got other people for daily smalltalk around you.
Yes, I’ve said you should have your standard time and your standard location. But please also enjoy the freedom of working remotely. You can move or break your working time in case you need it, for example for visiting doctors, garages, or barbers, the quick shopping of bargains, or simply to have a break to enjoy the sun. It’s wonderful fuss-free.
And beside several changes in your working time you also can change your working place. In case you’ve got the opportunity you can work on the veranda. Or you can meet colleagues in a coffee shop to discuss topics or simply cultivate your contacts, once it’s possible again. It all increases the motivation working from home.
While there are many benefits it’s important that working from home does not lead into isolation. Use your possibilities to contact the colleagues and enjoy talking about topics which are not related to your work. It’s like standing with a cup of coffee in the door of the next office room and talk to the colleagues there about movies, music, or hobbies. Only that it’s virtually and distributed. Instant messaging, text chats, and video calls help a lot.
When messaging or chatting please take a bit care on how and what you’re writing. You may know it from private chatting and social messaging. The people don’t get your facial expression or your voice. This easily can lead to a misunderstanding. So once a conversation gets unpleasant say sorry and try to rephrase it. Or ask for a quick video call, it helps. Typical team meetings, daily or weekly, should be using video calls too. No long time, just exchanging news or the current status of a process. It’s more simple than writing it. In case of special topics to discuss the concerned participants can continue in an extra call.
All meeting protocols and other results should be maintained online too. Here you can use tools like the Google Docs or similar, or a wiki. This way the information reaches all people of your team, regardless of location, time zone, or individual reasons for missing a meeting.
While I’m working our cat Flora often sleeps in my office on the rack behind me. And from time to time she likes to jump on my lap or the desktop, especially when I’ve got a video call. But that’s never a problem, nobody cares. It’s the same when your partner or children rush in or the doorbell rings by the postman, also no problem. Just a quick sorry, mute the microphone, care for the interruption, and return to the meeting. Remote working people normally are very understandingly here, they know the situation.
Real life meetings
So only one part left, especially when the virus crisis is over and we can travel again. Remote companies should establish real life meetings from time to time. Those may be in smaller teams or sometimes with the whole company if possible. Even in pure remote companies it is very important to create a better team spirit. This is hard to establish via video. In real life people meet from face to face, talk about much more than only work, have fun, enjoy good meals, and drink wine or beer. Events together like sightseeing tours can amplify this.
For German speaking people I also have got the slides of my talk about this topic on the OOP 2013 conference. You’ll find it on SlideShare. Translation should be simple.