Andy Crouch - Code, Technology & Obfuscation ...

Remote Working For Employees

Cabin In The Woods

Photo: Andrew Ridley

I read a lot relating to remote work and the perceived benefits and drawbacks from a wide range of sources. It’s a subject that I am quite passionate about as I have been a remote employee for over 10 years. I currently run a fully remote development team at Open Energy Market that spans many time zones. My team is small but spread across the UK, US and Europe.

This gives me quite a balanced perspective of the pros and cons relating to remote employees and teams. I will spend the next two posts sharing some views from both perspectives.

In this post, I will start with views, tips and experiences as a remote employee.

How did I end up as a remote employee? Ten years ago I worked for a small SaaS company in central London with an architect based in York. We were the only two developers building out the MVP. After a couple of months travelling 3 hours a day, I decided to ask if it would be possible to work some days from home. I spent all my time talking with the chap in York so was not tied to the office. They said yes but if it didn’t work out then I would be back to being office based.

If you have ever had to use the Central Line in London day in day out you would find a way to ensure that it worked out.

I actually ended up pretty much fully remote right away. It wasn’t such a big deal for the company as they had experience of the architect being remote. The issue, for them, was me proving that I could deliver while not under constant supervision. Delivering I was. We completed the MVP ahead of schedule while maintaining their existing systems. Even as we grew the company from 4 to over 30 and the development team to 10 I remained remote. We also allowed other developers to work remote. Interestingly there was a number who were not interested and preferred the office. They didn’t seem to be able to focus on work while at home and found they needed more human contact.

This is a key point. No matter how much you would like to be a remote employee, it is not for everyone.

Right from the start, I took remote working seriously. I had a young family but still kept the same hours I would at the office. I had wanted to work remotely to improve my work-life balance. By doing this I gained 3 hours a day and reduce my outgoings considerably. So I built a routine that mimicked the one I would have worked in an office. This is key to you achieving when working at home. You can not roll out of bed and sit there in your PJ’s. That does not lead you to be in a productive mindset let alone set you up for good video calls. My routine was simpl. Get up, get showered and dressed in the same clothes I would normally work in. Have breakfast, take my son to school and sit down for 8:30. I would normally work through till 5:30 and then turn off my work PC and switch to “home” mode.

Due to this routine, my productivity increased significantly. There are many articles about the ability to focus that remote employees enjoy. Developer’s need to focus and research has recorded improvements of 50% - 70%. What we do is long, involved problem solving and is not suited to frequent interruption. This is also true of many “creative” types of job. Group interaction is always important to any team. However, when launching a small start up its whats delivered that makes the difference and helps to build a viable company. One key statistic for anyone eploying developers is that on average it takes 15 mnutes for a developer to regain their flow once interupted.

I’ve always made it a priority to interact with the teams I work with. Over the years I have used all forms of chat tools and video conferencing applications. From MSN Messenger to Lync, from Skype to Slack, I have used them all. Whatever the team is using I make it a priority to answer queries promptly and to interact on a social level daily. This helps with team bonding and builds trust that you are present and working. I also keep a well maintain shared calendar and update my online status obsessively. This helps people understand what I am doing at any given time which also helps build trust as I am not visible. Do not rely on email as it is a slow mechanism for interaction. Some will say that the constant alerts in a chat tool will be detrimental. I can understand that but I found that I can at least acknowledge a question without losing focus.

The drawbacks? There are some but in my experience, I have found the causes are down to other people. My family see me at home and so want to interact. My office based co-workers do not see me in the office and so do not always interact. The solution with my family was headphones. I have always had music playing when I work and so the rule is if I have headphones in I am not to be disturbed. My son was about 3 when I started which confused him no end that I was home. I made a point during his primary years to always take and pick him up from school. That way we could get some interaction during the day but he soon understood the headphone rule. The solution with the office-based co-workers is to make a real effort to interact with them. Call them up just to say hi, interact with them on social media. It works and is not really any different to seeing anyone by the phantom “water cooler”. These conversations still trigger great ideas and provide a way to share information.

The other, main drawback is actually maintaining the routine. While there are always occasions to work late, that can not and should not be the norm. When you work from home, it becomes quite hard to detach from work mode at 5:30. That took some learning.

My experience has been all with small, growing, teams. I have always been a full-time employee and not a contractor and so my experiences might be different to others. If you’d like to discuss working remotely or have questions please contact me via twitter.