As for me, Lucilius, my time is free; it is indeed free, and wherever I am, I am master of myself.
– Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, On Saving Time
Last week, we decided it was time to do a field test on our remote working efficiency. While we rarely all work from the same place at the same time, we hadn’t truly experienced a complete and prolonged physical disconnect from each other. So the whole team agreed to avoid the office for the whole week and work from a variety of alternate locations.
As Giant Hat has evolved over time, we have taken to thinking of ourselves as a “remote” company. That is to say, we do not require co-location in order to do good work. It is a matter of fact that we rent office space with more than enough room for all of our team, plus a few clients, and half of the St. Louis Cardinals. But on any given day, each of us may choose to work wherever they please, and whenever. So I guess the truth is that we work remotely and together in an office.
As noted by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in their 2013 book on the topic, “Remote”, despite some resistance to the concept, most companies are already working remotely anyway. This was the case for us. It’s not exactly that we made a decision to work remotely. One day, we just realized that we hire people to provide services for us (legal, accounting, payroll) who don’t work in our office, and we had never required our team members to be in the office either. Furthermore, we work with several clients around the country whom we have never met face-to-face.
So. Boom. We’re a remote company.
Why it’s important to make this distinction? I think it helps set expectations with our clients and partners. It helps set expectations with our employees and contractors. It’s a shorthand way of saying the way we work is flexible and relies heavily on modern communication technology and creative processes. It also makes sure our St. Louis address doesn’t stop an entrepreneur living in Calgary from considering hiring us.
For most knowledge and administrative workers, the technologies of modern communication that are used “in the office” everyday are actually remote communication technologies.
Worth counting too is the number of days you spend at the office emailing someone who sits only three desks away. People go to the office all the time and act as though they’re working remotely: emailing, instant messaging, secluding themselves to get work done.
– Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, Remote: Office Not Required
We use Slack, Asana, Github, Google Hangouts, and Gmail as our primary communication tools. Probably less than 1 out of 100 communications I have with anyone on the team actually happen face-to-face. We’re social animals, but we’re apparently also pretty shy.
Room for Focus
Being in an office with others can actually be detrimental to getting work done, and, with today’s popular open office environments full of sound and distraction, all kinds of conventions, processes, and technologies have sprung up to help workers let others know when they are not to be bothered.
At Giant Hat, we follow the headphones rule, and some others have gone so far as to develop an indicator light that plugs in to your computer and integrates with your productivity app to control the light’s color: red for “do not disturb”, green for “available”, etc.
But why not encourage people to stay home altogether? Personally, I try to work from home in the mornings and go into the office in the afternoons. I can get work done that requires heavy focus in the morning, and I push meetings and lower energy work to the afternoons.
Go remote. Get sh*t done.
The barriers to assembling a remote workforce are lower than ever, and adoption of remote working practices is infiltrating even the stodgiest of established Fortune 500 companies. It is fashionable, especially among software and tech companies, to operate with a geographically-distributed workforce. There are many advantages to this style of operation, from reduced office rental expenses, to a reduction in carbon emissions, to increased employee productivity. In fact, sometimes too much work is done.
It starts innocently enough. You wake up by opening your laptop in bed and answering a few work emails from last night. Then you make yourself a sandwich and work through lunch. After dinner, you feel the need to check in with Jeremy on the West Coast about that one thing. Before you know it, you’ve stretched the workday from 7am to 9pm.
– Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, Remote: Office Not Required
There is no doubt in my mind that this is the truth. In fact, just now as I was writing this section, one of our team members just announced he was “relocating for a change of scenery and to knock out some things.” By looking at Github and our team chat channels, I can verify he’s been at it since around 8am, and it’s now after 4pm. That’s a full enough day, and we’re not facing any deadlines (that I’m aware of, anyway). If people have engaging work and the freedom to work when and where they want, and all of a sudden it doesn’t feel like work anymore.
Managers need to be aware of the tendency for some of their workers to overdo it when they are freed from the requirements of the daily commute and psychological boundaries separating the “work” place from the home. And when you can’t see your team, you also have a harder time telling when they might need a break.
But wait, no. Because slackers.
Some people have argued that there are other types of people that will do much less work when they are working remotely. This is probably true. But when you don’t rely on someone’s physical presence to measure their effort, it becomes much easier to tell who is and isn’t pulling their weight.
You quickly learn better ways to measure productivity, and some managers may even be surprised to find out that they don’t even have any productivity metrics in place at all. They’ve just been blindly relying on their eyes to tell them that someone is working.
The purpose of #remoteweek
While we had been operating for quite some time without restrictions on time or place of work, we decided that we should really put it to the test. A whole week of the whole team, wholly remote, was needed. It would help us shore up any deficiencies in our communication processes and tools. And it would probably be fun.
What did we learn?
We did learn a few things.
- Make sure others know in advance what technology will be used for the meeting. Getting set up can sometimes eat away at the time available for the meeting. This is nothing new, but when all of your meetings are handled this way, you can’t mess around.
- So many meetings are truly unnecessary. So. Many.
- Some people are verbal processors. They find it almost impossible to share information or give instruction asynchronously in text format. If the words didn’t come out of their mouth, they feel like they never told you anything, and their anxiety level goes up. You need to identify these people (both internal and external) and make sure to give them lots of reassurance and feedback that you did indeed “get the message”.
- Whiteboarding remotely is hard to do. It is hard to capture the same fluidity and ease of working with an 8′ by 4′ whiteboard using an online drawing tool. And forget trying to point your laptop camera at an actual whiteboard.
- If you are talking about code, speak in code. Share your screen so everyone can talk about the same thing.
- You can pretty much get solid internet everywhere. But having a phone and wireless carrier that allows you to use your phone as a wifi hotspot is damn near priceless. Verizon and newer iPhones allow for this.
- Working remote is beautiful and diverse. It feeds the soul.
- We still need to have a homebase.
- We missed each other, despite plenty of daily online interaction. We are still human after all. We’ll now treasure even more the times when we are together in the same physical space.
Total team members: 5
Different work locations: 18
Meetings handled successfully 100% remote: 12 (twice we had at least one team member with a non-functioning microphone)
Meetings handled face-to-face: 2 (both new client meetings in St. Louis)
Overall, we learned that we need to improve some of our technology a little bit. And we need to write up more internal documentation outlining our processes and best practices so new team members know how everything works.
And yes, sometimes handshakes still do need to happen. But if a plane flight separates your hands, then it can wait. Business won’t stop.
You can do it, too
We think #remoteweek is something everyone should try out. Have your team purposefully stay away from the office for a week and see how it goes.
As you have probably already guessed, the rules are pretty simple:
- No one is allowed at the office for the whole week.
- All team and client meetings are scheduled via phone or video conference.
- Don’t just work from home all week. Try out a few different venues.
- Talk about your experience and share photos on social media with the #remoteweekhashtag.
We’ll see you out there, folks.