Last year, around August, I started working in a primarily remote setting. It was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, but unfortunately it isn’t something very normal here in Portugal (although I think there are signs pointing to some future improvement), so given the chance, I took it immediately.
Although there are lots of posts on remote work already, I guess sharing my experience (especially given it has some particularities) won’t do any harm, and given, as I mentioned it still isn’t very normal in my country, maybe I can shed some light to some compatriots that happen to stumble on my blog.
Specificities of my remote situation
A good starting point for this post is probably introducing some specificities of my remote work situation, as I don’t feel it’s quite like the usual remote “dream job” posts, digital nomad stuff.
I work for a portuguese company that’s mostly specialized in outsourcing people to work in projects directly in the client’s facilities, but also provides other kinds of services, like the nearshore department (which I’m part of), creating teams to work on projects with international clients. I’m part of a team that works with a swiss client, being divided in smaller teams that spread across multiple projects where we work hand-in-hand with our swiss colleagues.
Like I mentioned, we don’t work in the way people typically describe remote teams, we resemble more a traditional collocated team, just not being physically together all the time. For starters, we have an office and several team members prefer to work from there (not my case though). Another common property of remote teams, particularly when the members are from different countries, spanning multiple timezones, is the focus on asynchronous communication. Again, we work in a more traditional way, even if we don’t have to start and stop working at exactly the same time, our working hours mostly overlap with one another.
At this point, I normally go to the office once a week. In those days I’m a looooot less productive, not only because I’m now really used to work at home and feel more focused (more on that later), waste a ton of time on the commute, plus I end up catching up on things with my colleagues.
This more traditional way of working has some pros, but, of course, also some cons. On the pros side, I’d highlight being an easier adaptation for new colleagues that join the team coming from a non-remote setting, as even if we’re not always together, we’re a chat or video call away.
For the cons, well, most of the usual cons for non-remote settings, except for being able to skip the commute (which by itself is huge, at least for me).
At some point I’d like to work in a more typical remote setting, with a focus on async communication, greater schedule flexibility, interact with more diverse team members and so on, but for now, I’m not completely dissatisfied.
Communication is of course a really important topic, even more so when talking about distributed teams. In our case I don’t feel we’re in a terrible place, but we could surely do better.
Recalling what I mentioned regarding how we work in a more traditional way, we use a lot of chat, be it written or voice/video. This has the benefits of agility, as we can quickly talk to a colleague, share the screen and pair program for a bit when dealing a more difficult problem, or just generally talking about stuff.
One downside of this traditional approach applied to a remote setting, and something we must be really careful with, is having information that’s not conveniently shared with the team, ending up being “private” to some members. As we just chat with each other, sometimes, some decisions made in those conversations might not be communicated appropriately to the rest of the team. This isn’t really a remote only problem, as it could also happen in an office, but in that case it might be easier to pick up on such things, because people are talking close to the others.
Another thing to keep in mind, particularly in this mixed approach in which some colleagues are in the office and others are remote, is that even the ones that are together should preferably act as if they were remote. For instance, in meetings, when people are together in the room, it might be harder for the ones that are not there to intervene in the conversation.
Communication tools are one critical aspect for a good communication in any setting, particularly remote.
In the context of the projects with the client, we currently use the Atlassian suite of tools (Bitbucket, Jira, Confluence and so on). Might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in general they get the job done if we use them wisely (although I have a bit of a hard time finding anything in Confluence 😛).
Regarding chat though, the tool is just not good. We’re using Skype for Business and, between bugs and lack of features, I feel like it’s really not a good tool for the job, even worse considering there are a lot of better alternatives. I’ve used Slack in the past, so going back to Skype for Business (which I also had used in the past) feels like a massive downgrade. In hindsight it makes sense, as Microsoft is focusing on Teams, so hopefully a transition to this newer tool happens at some point.
Now in the context of my actual employer (above was only relative to our client), even though we don’t actually use project related tools, we have some communication tools, so we can talk and share things within the company. We’re now using Workplace by Facebook, which I guess works well enough and provides a familiar space to share things, although I wish we used something not from Facebook (for what I’m assuming are obvious reasons). Ignoring the Facebook part, it’s good to have such a tool. I think we’re not using it to its full potential yet, not a lot of interesting conversations have sparked in there, but hopefully that can improve.
Still on the topic of communication in a mixed setting of office and remote people, but from more of a socialization point of view, its good to try to be inclusive of everyone. For instance, have a joke to share? Share it on the chat (probably in a specific channel for that, to avoid spamming everyone), so everyone can laugh, reply, add another joke and so on. Want to start a discussion on a not particularly work related topic? Share it on the chat (or some other communication tool), so everyone is involved, can give their two cents, feel like its part of the team and knows their colleagues. This is something we’re not terrible at, but can probably still improve.
A multi-language environment
Now this is a topic around communication that I haven’t seen a lot around, maybe I’ve read the wrong posts, or maybe this isn’t commonly an issue.
Our client has nothing remote about it besides working with us for a couple of years now. Being a more traditional company, most of their internal processes are in their native language, in this case french. That certainly works well while they keep it in Switzerland, but as soon as it involves collaborating with people from a non-french speaking country, that starts to be a problem.
In terms of the development teams, there is an effort to speak and write in english most of the times, particularly in the teams that have portuguese collaborators, but even though I really appreciate the effort, it’s not always good enough, particularly if we’re expected to be capable of helping in every step of the development process, not just typing out some ifs and elses. For the collaboration to really work and everyone feel that their contributions are valued and expected, be it in terms of development, architecture, or just really understanding the problem at hand, everyone needs to be “speaking the same language” (pun kind of intended 🙂).
Focus, breaks and boundaries between professional and personal time
When it comes to focusing, I’ve read about many people that struggle to focus when working from home. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any advice to give in this regard, it just seems to come naturally to me ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
I’ve been used, since a kid, to spend time alone doing my things - homework, LEGOs, gaming, university projects, even football target practice (of the european type of course 😛) - so spending the time alone in my home office working is just same old same old.
Considering the years I’ve spent working in open spaces - because for some reason companies think that’s the best environment, which, spoiler alert, it isn’t - and being able to focus with all the noise (not really a fan of having to use headphones the whole time), being in my quiet place is orders of magnitude better.
If I don’t want to be in complete silence? Well I can put some music on, some podcasts or even some conference session, and I can use the speakers too, instead of those things in my head!
On the opposite side, some people don’t have a problem to focus but have on taking breaks, which is also pretty important to keep some sanity.
I don’t feel I’m too bad at it, but did need to do some adjustments. When I started I took few breaks. Too try and improve on that, I created an hourly reminder on the work laptop (so I only have it when working) to get up and look away from the computer. I don’t always respect the reminder, but I do take more breaks than before, so it seems it has at least some effect.
Don’t think the breaks only matter to get some rest and have little impact on actual work, because they do have impact. Constant focus on the the problem you’re trying to solve may cause tunnel vision, and you’ll end up missing the bigger picture, coming up with a lesser solution. Facing a difficult problem? Take a step back, go for a walk, jot some notes on paper. You might even come up with a great idea when in the can 🤣.
Also, while on the subject of taking a break, don’t eat lunch while working, if for nothing else, to avoid messing up the keyboard 🙂. Lunch is a perfect moment for a bigger break. I take further advantage of this, as I live close by to my parents, so I not only eat better than when I go to the office and take the meal in a tupperware, but also spend a bit more time with them and take a walk to get to their house.
On a similar vibe as the breaks, some people struggle with the separation between professional and personal time.
I never really felt this. One thing that might help on that regard is the fact I have a work laptop, which I really just use during work hours. Everything not work related I do on my personal laptop or desktop. With this setup, in the morning booting up the work laptop means I’ll start working, then in the afternoon I shut it down and I’m off work.
Also, I’m pretty much against overtime, so in the afternoon, when the time comes, I shut it down and get on with the rest of life, which is more than work. The few times I work a bit more are 1: I’m in the middle of something complex and don’t want to forget where I’m at (can count the times it happened this year with the fingers of one hand) or 2: I’m helping out some colleague, and of course won’t leave them hanging.
I’m pretty sure that you, like me, have plenty of other things you like to do, so go do them, time is limited, make the best use of it. Even if your hobby is similar to what you do at work (e.g. coding), do it for yourself, like doing a side project. Giving all your waking hours to work doesn’t seem that healthy to me.
The time to get to work will of course depend on the distance (and accessibility) from home to the office, but avoiding the commute is a common advantage of working remotely.
For me, it’s no different. Not being the only reason for my old desire of working remotely, it’s one of the main ones. I take, on a day everything goes well, one hour and a half to get to the office. By skipping the commute, I get back three hours a day, which I can use on anything else, be it learning new things, writing some post, recording a video, exercise, you name it.
If I had to do that commute daily, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to do the amount of things I did this past year, namely regarding the blog and the YouTube channel. Particularly the blog, I already had it for a couple of years, but didn’t post as regularly as I’ve doing since started working remotely.
And it’s not just the time, it’s the fatigue. Such a long commute, using a plethora of public transportation (on a single trip to the office, I take the bus, then the train and finally the subway), is very tiring. On the days I go to the office, I get home and all I do is “die” on the couch. Good thing I have the rest of the days to do something useful, because on commute day, I wake up at dawn, go to work, get back home, dine and sleep, nothing else goes on that day.
All this time and fatigue takes a toll, not only on ones personal time, but it also indirectly impacts the professional life. Even if we disregard having a tired worker, the time that people who like to learn new things could use is reduced, so we have an interested professional who could be a much better asset if only they could avoid wasting time to sit in an office doing the same they would do remotely.
Home office setup
Just before wrapping up, maybe some will find it interesting to quickly go through my home office setup.
Having a productive and comfortable setup is important for me. Never really did the “working from Starbucks” thing, but even if I can write a blog post or hack some things together in such an environment, I prefer a dedicated place where I can focus, have some external monitors, keyboard, mouse and the like. Just for those curious, I’ll describe it below, but each person has different needs, so maybe I use too much stuff, other people might prefer less and others more.
My current home office setup is leaps and bounds better than any of the setups I’ve had in any company office (except for my currently provided laptop, which, how will I put it… is 💩).
Starting with screen real estate, besides the (meh) 15 inch laptop screen, which I have on top of a cheap Amazon stand, I have a couple of external monitors: a recent 27 inch and an older 22 inch that still gets the job done. I probably don’t need to sell you on the double monitor setup, cause it’s great, but really, it’s a must have at this point, I feel significantly less productive if I have to work with a single screen.
In terms of other peripherals I’m using:
- a mechanical keyboard - with RGB and all of that, because, why not? 🙃
- a couple of mice - a regular one and vertical one, to give the wrist a rest
- an external microphone, which has better quality than the laptop’s builtin one (ok, I have two external microphones, the other one I use to record the YouTube videos, but it’s overkill for voice/video chat 😛)
- 5.1 surround speaker set - ok, I wouldn’t consider this really part of the “office setup”, I have had these for years, but their in the office, I use them on the day to day so, officially, they’re part of the office setup
- headphones - which I don’t really like using (not these in particular, but headphones in general, I prefer speakers), but use for voice/video chat, to better focus on what people are saying and avoid feedback
The internet connection isn’t something spectacular (theoretical 120Mb down, 10Mb up), but gets the work done, and apparently has less issues than the office network.
One thing I don’t have at this moment, but am looking into getting is a standing desk, one of those that can go up and down, so we can be sit for a while, then lift it up and stand for a while, thus avoiding being sit down the whole day.
I guess that’s about it. This is just my experience for the past year. I’m by no means a remote work specialist, but thought sharing my experience, particularly as I think it’s a bit different from what I usually read about, could be useful.
Do you have some other ideas, particularly on the focus/breaks/boundaries topics, which are where people seem to struggle more? Please share, I look forward to learn more about the subject.
Thanks for stopping by, cyaz!