I mentioned this in a post last year detailing my move to Seattle, but I’ve now been working remotely as a software engineer for NimbleUser for over 16 months. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve crossed the threshold for having been a remote employee for longer than I was an employee that showed up physically to the office everyday.
Work is great; I love my job. I get to fly back to Rochester every few months for work-related events and catching up with coworkers, and I use it as a convenient way to see family and friends as well. But, working 2,500 miles from my team and manager definitely has its challenges.
Here are some things I’ve learned over the past year. Maybe you can use some of these tips to be more successful and productive in your career, and perhaps you may even have a few tricks of your own to share.
1) The methods used to communicate with your coworkers is probably not going to be the same as when you didn’t work remotely, but it is absolutely critical to figure out how to communicate effectively.
It used to be so easy to shout over at Joe and ask him a question about some detail I didn’t quite understand, or to ask Sue if she would look over the current design I was prototyping. When working remotely, I can’t just talk out loud to my coworkers – they won’t hear me – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Now, I schedule frequent video conference calls with my teammates to bounce around ideas and make sure we’re all on the same page. This is perhaps more convenient for both myself and my team. Instead of randomly interrupting Joe throughout the day, he can simply ignore my request for a video call until he is finished with the task he’s working on. Google Hangouts is a really great video conferencing tool, especially because screen sharing is built in as well.
My company uses other modes of communication, and it’s helpful for even our non-remote staff. We use Hipchat for our day-to-day conversations. Need to work on something important and not get distracted by noise? Simply set your status as Busy and you’ll stop receiving alerts and notifications when there’s a new message in one of the chat rooms that you’re logged into. As another pro, it’s helped us to considerably cut down on the amount of emails we send each other!
2) Along the same lines as tip #1, make sure it’s clear to everybody what you’re working on. Additionally, don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it.
A rule of thumb that I’ve heard repeated several times is that if you get stuck spinning your wheels for longer than 15 minutes, seek out help. Or, if there is nobody currently available to help you, move on to something else.
This rule is especially easy to break when working remotely. Let me repeat again: Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. As a remote employee, you shouldn’t feel hesitant to pester somebody via email, instant message, or phone call if you need assistance. Remote employees should be treated as if they were right there in the office working alongside everybody else. (Side note: if your work environment is such that you don’t feel like you are a true part of the office, then perhaps your company isn’t handling remote employees appropriately.)
The main concern that I had when I started to work remotely was that I was afraid my peers were going to think I was never getting any work done. That was a silly concern, especially since the work I do is completely visible to everybody else. We use Jira boards to track our progress as tickets moving along multiple columns (from “To Do” to “Done”, with various transitions in between), and so it’s easy to see when work is progressing forward. It’s also very easy to see when work isn’t progressing.
My team participates in what are called daily standups, a core component of agile development. Every day at 10am Pacific, 1pm Eastern, my teammates and I all share 1) what we’ve accomplished since the last meeting, 2) what we will accomplish by the next meeting, and 3) if we have any roadblocks. Not only is it a great opportunity to talk to my coworkers, but it helps commit to goals for the next day, and alleviate any problems we may be facing.
3) Lastly, don’t spend every day locked up inside your house. Find a coworking space! Coworking spaces offer all of the benefits of working in an office, without all of the office politics.
Don’t get me wrong – I love working from home. If I ever have to do laundry on a weekend, then I must have royally screwed up my schedule for the week. Working from home is a great way to conquer those household chores that everybody hates doing. I’m also incredibly productive at home, and a large part of that success is likely a result of having created strong boundaries between work and life – I have my own office, and I’m only ever in the office if I’m working. I am rarely on my work laptop elsewhere in the apartment.
However… being home alone all day can be boring, even though I have a cat to keep me company. Let’s face it – she sleeps all day except when trying to annoy the heck out of me, or when she wants to be fed. And, even though I may see my coworkers through video chat every day, it’s not the same experience as face-to-face human interaction. You need that.
Sure, you can go to coffee shops and work. But what if you need to use the restroom? You can’t just leave your items unattended, they might get stolen. What if you have a really important meeting? The wi-fi is certainly not reliable, and it’s probably noisy in the cafe as well. It’s probably not very private, either.
Hello, coworking. I love Office Nomads in Seattle. It is my new office. Even though I may only spend 2 or 3 days there a week, I consider it my main office. The people are now some of my closest friends and acquaintances in Seattle.
The membership options for most coworking spaces are very flexible – so while there are some entrepreneurs and remote workers who need a dedicated 24/7 desk, there are also some of us who only want to drop in to a space a handful of times of month. Most coworking spaces can accommodate both of those options.
Office Nomads is member-run. We help organize our own events. There are volunteers who help take out the trash, man the front desk, and give tours. We are responsible for doing our own dishes and making coffee, just like any other office. But there is a sense of belonging here – this isn’t a Starbucks. Membership isn’t free, of course, but the coffee is included, as well as printing and wi-fi. Meeting rooms galore. Phone booths. People from all varying fields of study – from ornithologists to journalists. Free food. Beer. Yes, beer. (Who doesn’t like beer?)
There are coworking spaces popping up all over the world, so there’s a good chance there’s one close to you as well. Honestly, if I hadn’t found a coworking space like Office Nomads, I might not be still working at my current company as a remote employee. I’m pretty sure #3 might be the best advice I have to give you.
Maybe I should have put it at #1?
Anyway, those are my top 3 tricks that I’d like to share about working remotely. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what has worked best for you!