Companies that support remote workers win against those that don’t

Years ago my boss asked if I could use a remote support developer in Europe for off-hours support of a critical system that processed data throughout the day.  He said that they had a sharp technical resource there who had normal working hours right in our support blind spot and that the candidate was interested in helping out.  I froze as the downsides flooded my mind:

  • He didn’t know our system at all.
  • I would never meet him.
  • We didn’t have much documentation of our systems.  All our knowledge transfer was done in person using heavy sarcasm and obscure hand waving.
  • We didn’t have a good ticket tracking system or history of service incidents we could point him at for self-study.
  • I wasn’t sure how I could judge whether or not he was helping or hurting.
  • I was afraid that instead of getting woken up in the middle of the night to solve a problem I would be woken up in the middle of the night to talk to him and explain the context because of the above problems.

All my objections were about how we weren’t ready to support him, monitor him, and grow him sitting where we sat as an immature support team. All my objections were things that we needed to change anyway and that he would serve as a canary and catalyst for these things to actually change.  We would be a better team by moving towards being able to support him.

***

With the developer job market being what it is  (i.e. a little nuts) some companies are offering work from home as an attractive add-on option – “Work from home Fridays”, “We support remote workers”, “Flexible schedule”.  This is being done as an after-thought and is not part of the core culture.

The difference between a company that can support a remote worker and one that cannot is not a small difference in perks: it is a chromosome-level difference. Companies that truly support remote workers win against those that don’t.

***

Having now myself been the remote person on the other side over the last 7+ years I’ve found a large range of differences between those that truly support remote work and those that just talk about it. Think of it as the difference between a watch being water-resistant [you can wash your hands with it on] and diving-level waterproof [you can operate it underwater].

The reasoning is pretty simple: in order for a remote employee to succeed a company has to have clear communication, a standard process, and a clear focus on results above other secondary concerns.

A company has to provide the following:

  • A pipeline of work that is ready to actually be worked upon (It is packaged with its context and links to how to find out information for any questions)
  • Clear expectations for results and the ability to track how things are progressing.
  • Clear communication channels: this might include some permanence and search-ability for work already done but also includes some form of ~democratic decision-making that includes those that includes more people than can fit in a conference room.
  • A teaching culture that includes helpful coworkers ready to answer questions and help out remote workers if there are gaps of context.
  • A Results-Only-Work-Environment (ROWE) culture that allows workers to get as much done as they are able, and processes feedback from those workers about obstacles they encounter.

All of those things are good for the company supporting remote work even without a remote workforce – they create less friction around communication and infrastructure and make results the top priority.  In the end a company that focuses on primary complexity will beat those that are optimized for other things.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Managing your Significant Other when working from home

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

When you start working from home you have to prepare those around you for the inevitable consequences of this new lifestyle. I’d recommend telling your neighbors, kids, pets, imaginary friend(s), team of personal therapists, and parole officer.

And of course the absolute most important person to prepare is your Significant Other (SO). A lot of people who try working from home give up after about a month and when you ask them why they say “I was driving my wife crazy so she threw a burrito at my face”. If you do not properly handle the work from home transition (aka “The Great Move Away From Pants) you will eventually have a burrito thrown at you – I just proved it with science.

When you start working from home your SO’s life is going to change in unexpected ways and they need to be prepared for this shift. The way you communicate, interact, and smell are all going to change in ways that they don’t expect.

Why? Because of mismatched expectations about the benefits to their lives.  The sad reality is that working from home does not offer many benefits to the significant other.  Maybe eventually you will look at them more and will be able to do cool things like eat lunch with them sometimes or do them small favors. But the reality is that telecommuting (i.e. riding your phone to work) has certain realities that lead to other not so pleasant realities for your SO:

Change for you Consequence for your spouse
You can achieve higher productivity because you don’t have to deal with others slowing you down You are less patient
Less physical interaction with others Your SO now lives with a slightly crazy person who thinks that eating cereal with eggnog instead of milk is totally normal
Cooler coffee breaks, low key lifestyle They slowly begin to become jealous of the fact that you get to listen to music/watch Oprah while working
No longer have to shave or get all dressed up They now live with a person who thinks track suits are a good look
Full-time access to Internet and kitchen Live with 120% more juvenile and fatter version of you
You are always around You are 140% more annoying

You can see these realities and mismatched expectations when you announce your transition:

Honey, I’m going to start working from home.

Your SO hears other things:

Sweetheart, I am now available to wait for packages and repairmen for you full-time.
Organic maple syrup, we can now talk on the phone for four hours a day divided up into separate conversations spaced 17 minutes apart even when I’m in the bathroom.
French Toast sticks you can eat on the go, We are going to save $400 a month that we used to spend on gas and soap so feel free to spend that guilt-free by yourself on something that upgrades our lifestyle permanently without chatting with me first.
Peanut Butter M+M Gift Basket, I have achieved more freedom in my life and you should let your jealousy boil slowly like in a rice cooker until it burns our intimacy like if you picked up a rice cooker and it was crazy hot so you dropped it on your head and wow that hurt.
Never-ending pancakes from IHOP, you know how when you call me at work you say I’m sort of a jerk and are different and sound stressed – you now live with that version of me!

The SO Management Plan

You need to make sure that your SO knows what working from home actually is and establish the below ground rules.

You wouldn’t like me when I’m working from home but will like what it makes me.

Tell your spouse / girlfriend / live-in monkey what working from home is – a risky challenge with a high payoff.  Working from home is stressful – you have to work much harder at staying in the loop, reading between the lines, networking, and focusing to get things done.  Managing the tension of working out of your home – where you used to just relax – is not easy. Let them know that focused/work version of you isn’t chill/at home version of you.

You working from home may offer no direct benefit to your SO but does offer massive benefits to both of you.

Working from home successfully is not easy and might not be all roses and free burritos for your spouse, but it does offer them some good overall relational benefits:

  • When you work from home you are more in control of your environment and schedule thus leading to an overall happier version of you
  • They no longer have to listen to you complain about co-workers (because cats are not co-workers)
  • You can, if managed properly, save an amazing amount of money
  • You can, if managed properly, have free time in the middle of the day to do other things (if you have a typical commute you can gain 10 hours a week to spend with your family, level up in your favorite video game, work on your novel, tweak your karaoke robot – whatever.  For those of your doing the math at home with an abacus: 10 hours is more than a typical workday that you gain.)

Separating work from home is a critical component of telecommuting success and is the only one they can help you with

Your SO can’t help you communicate effectively, stay organized, stay professional, and get more things done but they can help you separate working from non-working.  There are two common complaints that affect worker and SO: the SO complains that the worker continues working past normal work hours (since the office is right there) and the worker complains of being constantly interrupted by their SO during the day.  Both of these common failures are just cases of work and home not being separated aggressively.

How to separate work from home is a separate topic, but the attitude should be that during established work hours you simply aren’t there.  Any interruption should be run through the filter of “Would you have called me during work for this?”.  I have my SO text me just like she would have if I had been at work – don’t knock on the door.

I’d also suggest a month trial run in which you have very hard and fast rules about work hours, communication, and availability so that you set expectations firmly – i.e. as the worker don’t be helpful in the beginning.  The space this creates allows them to realize that after they leave you alone for a while you are able to establish yourself as a reliable telecommuter that you will be a more relaxed version of yourself.

Being left alone and in charge leads to super-productivity if you are intentional about it, and having more control means more freedom means more happiness, and will allow the sort of things that they desire.  When the Cheetos-dust clears most SOs when given the choice prefer a happy slightly crazy/stinky spouse to a clean miserable one.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

How to convince your employer to let you telecommute (LIKE A BOSS)

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

You have decided to work from home. Telecommute.  Listen to the kind of music you want to – dance the way your body tells you. Shower less, love more.

La-di-freaking-da – you still need to convince your traditional in-office boss to let you do it.

What your boss fears

Your boss thinks that working from home is all Saturday-morning: pajamas, fruit loops, SpongeBob SquarePants, drinking, gambling, loose women, not working, cursing off the Boss (“BWAAAHH this bar gets Wi-fi look at me on IM right now guys!”). (ed note: Saturday mornings are pretty exciting for me)

He has heard horror stories of people working from home just doing enough to get by, not returning phone calls, working on other things, quitting, etc. He fears that:

  • Your performance will decrease
  • You will lose touch and work on the wrong things
  • You won’t be there to help others

Therefore he is afraid he will:

  • Look really stupid to everyone else for letting your try it
  • Have to let you go and find someone else

We just need to fix these concerns one-by-one in a detailed manner. You need to think through and deliver a proposal  – and then you need to be a badass and execute it.  He is most concerned with Performance and Communication.

Performance: prove that it will increase

You need to show that for you working offsite is more productive. Tell him why and then show him its true.

Send him studies and a summary of their conclusions to show that it can work

Studies say that:

  • People who work from home don’t change jobs as often
  • People who work from home have better morale (which leads to nice things like staying alive, being less stressed, and having more ideas)
  • People who work from home end up doing more actual work / work longer hours (emphasize whichever one your boss seems to care about more)

Finding evidence is easy:

Show him how much it works for you

  • Ask if you can hole up in a conference room for the afternoon, and then show him scary results.
  • Ask if you can work from the coffee shop/hotel across the street, and then show him scary monster results.
  • Ask if you can work from home one day and then show him scary monster-who-is-taller-than-average results.

Communication

There are two fears about communication – one specific fear is that you won’t be productive simply because you will be out of the loop and the other is that you will be a roadblock that holds up others.

Over-Communicating Status

For status the simplest method is to email what you are planning to do at the beginning of the day, and email at the end of the day with what you did. This also acts as a clock-in/clock-out mechanism for the more paranoid set.  Over-communicating is a good place to start – you probably aren’t offering twice-daily status updates in person now.

Offer to share your to-do list. When you work from home you will need more structure than you had before so you will most likely be documenting more anyway. Use one of the many tools (RTM, Workflowy, Toodledo) that offer sharing so that your boss can (but most likely won’t often) see that you are in fact adding and deleting items that he recognizes.

Be available

For team communication it is harder to stay in the loop.  You need some infrastructure in place: broadband internet, slower internet or a close Wi-fi backup, Skype, clear phone, etc. You will need to have your cellphone with you all the time when starting out and will need to act like you are in the office: if you need to run a 30 minute errand or have a doctor’s appointment tell someone.

Smell the tasty politics

For on-the-fly information and politics it gets much harder.  Since clearing communication roadblocks across the team might (absolutely should) be part of your boss’s job you are indirectly asking him to do more work by communicating differently with you so avoid any special cases that require him to do anything just for you.

Take the initiative on your own to identify how real information travels around the office and make sure you can show him what proactive steps you will take. e.g. “I’ll still be on the morning call and I’ll message Cathy around lunch to see if anything comes out of the Thursday interdepartmental fist fight that seems to always determine our priorities”.

Being in-office also helps – offer to do 3 work from home days and 2 non work from home days. If the days are typically the same (i.e. there is no big planning meeting) offer to still come in on Mondays and Fridays. This calms his SpongeBob nerves as an irrational fear of ninja three day weekends is common.  On the days you do come into the office you should turn into a total water-cooler guy and try to catch up with people to see if there is anything you need to know.

The most badass move out there

So you give him your plan – I’ll work Tuesday – Thursday from home from 7AM to 4PM, be available over IM, on Skype as needed, dial into the stand-up meeting, share my todo list, keep in touch with Cathy about politics, call you once a week if I haven’t seen you, etc.

Setup a timeframe of one month in which you will execute this plan. Tell him that at the end of it if he feels that you got less done you’ll give him the vacation days you would have earned over the period back.  If you are a contractor offer to not be paid for 2 of the 20 business day in play, or 10% of your billed time over the period.  Also – you should fully intend and be ready to make good on this.

The reason this works is that you are putting a stake in the ground and providing a mutually beneficial outcome for both parties.  The boss knows that he is still in charge but has an employee that is taking initiative and will get things done.  The added benefit to you is that it puts you in the right frame of mind – the absolute most important thing to understand about working from home is that it is all about execution.

(The second most important thing about working from home is never missing an episode of SpongeBob.)

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Proper reentry for developers

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

If you are a developer or anyone else that does high-concentration work (writer, artist, maker or orange juice) you have to reenter the world at some point after your workday is done. Those of us with families can probably all think back on a time when we were writing software like mad only to see that it was 6:30 and thus time to check-in, logout, and go play with our kids. Only for the first 30 minutes to an hour we weren’t engaged with our kids and we were impatient with our wives.

In fact I’ve met those that appear to treat the people in their lives like computers – demanding fast responses and barking instructions at them while getting annoyed at how unreliable they are. After hours of doing development work you need to make sure you separate effective methods at work and at home.

Why are we jerks? Aren’t we working to support our families? Wouldn’t we rather hang out with them all day rather than sling electrons to the highest bidder? Well I’ve had trouble with this and I think it’s because the pace of both activities are just so different you have to be intentional about ‘reentry’.

Differences

Writing software means that you are in almost complete control of what is going on – your computer hums and obeys, you listen to whatever you want, you look at whatever you want. Your software if it has bugs are your bugs so you can’t yell at anybody but the cat (side note: recommended). In short you are in charge.

In addition you can control how much you have going on, and most of us choose to dive deep into the waters of NADD and have caffeine, music, and multiple threads running while we work. If you were to watch a video of me working you would think my job was to load test Windows 7. This is a high stimulus environment and its fun and addictive. You feel powerful and respected.

Enter family: you do not control what is going on. Your music is suddenly different. You do not feel in control and can’t Alt-Tab away from a slow-loading page. If your two-year old wants to start off a conversation by saying “Daddy daddy daddy today we today we daddy daddy today at school we daddy daddy today we went daddy oh then she said that the doggie…” then you should act like a normal human being and listen.

So, my tips for proper reentry.

Enter the vacumm chamber

Twenty minutes before you get home unplug as much as you can. If you drive home don’t check your email once you walk out the door and try to listen to different music (or ideally none at all or talk radio) to separate. If you work at home close up everything like you are about to stand up but don’t walk into the rest of your home until you take a few minutes and do something physical – sit-ups, pushups, Christopher Walken-impression, hiding under your desk, etc.

Begin reentry

When you get home greet everyone and go change clothes. This signals to everyone that Mr. Rogers is awesome and his legacy lives on forever and that you are switching from one thing to another. If you work from home I’d say change something even though you are probably wearing the most comfortable thing you have on (i.e. your moo-moo). I normally either put on or take off my cape (depending on what happened during the day).

Turn off your phone; like hit the button. During the day you are probably checking your email all the time and if you are like me you use your phone for this. Guess what – you aren’t working! So don’t check it. If you must go put it somewhere that you can hear it if someone calls but not close enough to see a little light blinking telling you that you got something that doesn’t matter such as a new Twitter reply or a virus. Unless your job description involves the phrase “nuclear launch codes” or “creator of Chipotle restaurants” let’s face it – your job isn’t that important and you should enjoy your rest.

Get some perspective

On the days when you can’t get this right: you have too much to do, the kids are crazy, the significant other is crazy, everything is chaos in both parts of your life you need to gain some perspective to snap yourself back to reality. I have a few, but here is one: there are many immigrants in this country who work more hours than you, for less money, doing harder work, in a foreign land, for the sole purpose of sending money to their families who they rarely get to see.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

How to work from home without going insane (purple monkey dishwasher)

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

So you’ve decided to work from home. As a rookie-veteran of working without a traditional office for one year I’m here to tell you that it is the greatest and worst thing that can happen to your work life – much like being transferred to a glitter-packing facility. What follows is a quick two minute guide of what you need to know before you take your pants off and turn up those old Hootie and the Blowfish albums.

Interruptions

Working from home completely changes your interrupt cycle. At a typical desk job you are interrupted constantly due to meetings, cake feasts, fire drills, people coming over to tell you about what the lake was like on Saturday, daydreaming about tripping said individuals, etc.

When you work at a location of your choice you can control what distracts you. If you want to work for 4 hours and not use the bathroom you can do it; if you want to work with 2 lbs of nachos taped to your face like a beard while wearing a sombrero filled with nacho cheese for snacking you can do this. Most people think they will be far more productive due to being able to control large blocks of time, but I found that the experience was quite jarring.

What you will realize is that outside of your normal distractions your body has learned to not focus for very long on anything. In my case after years of working in an environment where I was constantly interrupted I couldn’t focus on anything for more than 20-30 minutes (about the longest free period I had on average). I would internally interrupt myself constantly: twitter, facebook, doodling, trying to clean nachos that fell onto the keyboard from my nacho beard, calling the manufacturer of said keyboard after the ‘s’ key stopped working, writing a strongly-worded letter calling the manufacturer a bunch of “lazy jackae”, picketing outside their headquarters, etc. Typical stuff.

When you work in an office you don’t allow yourself to constantly be interrupted internally – you simply can’t watch every video that looks funny, you can’t read each article on The Morning News everyday, you can’t keep up with Hacker News like you think karma points are worth money.

The way to get over this is pretty simple – practice. I for one spent about a month making love to The Pomodoro Technique (meta: learning to make love using this technique is experimental and not recommended by most doctors) but it worked quite well for me in training my brain to recognize interruption events and stop them. Now I can go over an hour without eating a nacho.

Pressure

When you have a ‘bad’ day at a normal job you still feel a sense of accomplishment – you drove to work, you drank some coffee, you attended a few meetings, you chatted with some co-workers about how little progress you were making – you did some concrete tasks.

Working from home alone you have days that you feel like you get *nothing* done. As soon as you get going you are interrupted, you spend a few hours working on something that you later scrap and start over, you can’t figure something out. These days happen in an office but when you are alone with them they create extreme emotions. The thing you need to remember is that one day like this can be followed by a sugar-rush Work-From-Home monster day: a day in which you get as much done in a day as you remember getting done in a week at BigCorp. An entire feature imagined, mocked up, coded, then just plain mocked, debugged, re-tooled, polished, stabilized, and then shipped.

Crippling Depression – ride it like a wave

If you work at home for long enough away from other real people you will be surprised how much you will miss the interaction. The annoying “did you see the game?” water cooler talk and “OMG Its Friday!!” chit-chat that used to make you want to hide in a conference room is actually a pretty effective social convention to avoid The Question: “Why am I working right now when I could be doing XYZ?”.

While working you will have many moments when you will think things like:

  • I work from home now, I could go take a walk – right now!
  • I work from home now, I could go eat some yogurt – right now!
  • I work from home now, I could ride a bike – right now!
  • I work from home now, I could watch The Wire – right now!

In the spring these thoughts are tough and you will stare out the window and cry a single slowly descending tear before turning back to your semi-colon delimited job and push through. In a normal office you don’t think about the difference between working and playing hooky because the threat of getting fired for playing Grand Theft Auto III at your desk is very real.

In addition you will need to take steps to keep in touch with others in your field less you become a Work-From-Home monster like many that I have met. Signs you are becoming cripplingly depressed without realizing it from working from home:

  • You see a former co-worker and talk for 20 more minutes than would be normal. Even after they have gotten up and left the stall you continue.
  • You are way too active on twitter, facebook, g+, etc. and constantly send videos to your friends like you work at Tosh.0.
  • You watch TV instead of listening to music and you talk back to the characters.  You think you hear Ferb talk back to you.
  • You drink Diet Pepsi just to let the pain make sure you can still feel something.

If any of these things happen put some pants on and go to a coffeeshop.

The greatest thing about working from home is your kids. They are also the worst thing.

This might be a personal problem as:

  • I work on the same floor of the house as my kids typically play.
  • My wife currently stays at home with the kids.
  • Before I worked from home I never listened to music while working (due to a deep-seated and irrational fear of being caught singing out loud a Jon Secada song)

I was very stressed with the noise of my kids and the general stress that kids cause when you do concentration-based work. I felt like a bad Dad because I would have to tell them 8 times that I wasn’t “done yet” but was just coming out to go to the bathroom, refill nachos, etc.

Once I realized that working at home meant more time with my kids I just mentally substituted the time spent in the car with time on the floor with them, and my stress melted away awkwardly like reheated queso.

Less informal communication means more organization

I’m an organic and an improviser. I’m not naturally organized. But working from home in the absence of informal methods of communication means that you need to have prepared the following:

  • a to-do list that you can share (workflowy, RTM, etc.) in less than one minute
  • a general daily plan that you can recite at beginning, middle, end of day.
  • a weekly plan of what you want to get done and what you did last week
  • a plan for when you will meet with the client, boss, parole officer next

Enjoy it

I know that at some point my work from home life will be put on hold or go away. And I decided when I started that I wanted to do a good job and to enjoy it enough that when I looked back I wouldn’t say that I regretted much. To remind myself of this I wrote “San Diego means a whale’s vagina” on my whiteboard (since this kinda isn’t the sort of thing you can do in a normal office).

So go – enjoy it. And please just go take a shower.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Great discussion, as always, on Hacker News.

Republished on Lifehacker.