Sunday, May 4, 2014

Working from Home, Two Months In

Ok, before this milestone slips away from me, I've got to write up my findings.  Because that's what I do.

Granted, this blog has posts about everything from travel to technology, from Team Foundation Server to personal enrichment, from corporate motivation to Chicago traffic.

One overarching theme I'd like to think is interwoven through all these posts is the importance of being happy and productive in your life.  Living for the things that you value, and making the most of your time and passion.

I've long theorized about what working from home would be like.  I've talked to dozens of people about it, hosted a Codemash Open Spaces session about it, watched endless presentations on the topic, and read books on the topic.  From the Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, to the Four-Hour Work Week, to The Year Without Pants, to Remote, I've read a lot on the topic.

I thought enough about it to at least want to give it a shot.

A year ago, I got my opportunity to give it a trial run: a part-time coding gig with a cool company out of California.  The interview was remote, the coding sample was remote, and the onboarding process was remote.  I spent hours working for them sitting on the couch, in the basement, or on my front porch.  I'd work in the evenings after my 9-5, or in the mornings on the weekends, or while waiting for my son during his scout meeting.

And it was fun.  I really enjoyed the focus I got from working remotely.  So when it came time to leave my previous employer, I knew that the ability to work remotely was going to be one of my base criteria for what a new job would have to look like for me to even be interested.

Note: remote work is harder to find than I thought it would be.  Of the many companies I talked to, a very small fraction of them enabled remote work.  Given the benefits that can accrue to an employer, not the least of which is more engaged and enthusiastic employees, I was shocked.  Butt-in-seats management is still firmly entrenched within organizations.

But persistence paid off.  I had time, and I spent it finding the right opportunity.  On March 3, I started at my latest gig.  My new organization has an office downtown Chicago that I've driven to a few times, but for many weeks, I've done my work from the basement of my house.

I have to admit.  It's the greatest thing ever.

Full disclosure, there's more than remote work contributing to my excitement.  I'm working for a much smaller organization.  They know exactly what we need to do, and have pretty awesome processes either in place or in flight.  On top of that, my new colleagues are all brilliant, and I can learn a lot from each of them.  And am learning a lot.  In all these regards, it's very different from where I came from.

As such, I can't necessarily attribute how awesome things are to the remote work.  So I thought I'd try to take a balanced look at my experience with being remote a couple months in:


More exercise:  Right out of the gate, there is more time available to exercise.  Between having built a treadmill desk for walking as I work and doing things with my colleagues like the squat challenge, there's more of a focus on getting moving than I had before.

More work:  Maybe I mean "more productivity" here, but I feel as if I get so much more work done. When you're not faffing about in the office getting stopped in the hall about ten different things, you can really get stuff done.  With nothing distracting you, it's amazing how in the zone you can get.

More family:  I'm putting this one in the more theoretical category, since I joined a team in full-barrel crunch mode moving toward a product launch, but I'm confident that in the weeks ahead, now that we're calming down, I'll be able to spend more time doing things like getting the kids off to school and having coffee and lunch with my wife.  I'm looking forward to that.

More freedom:  At home, you don't have the same level of scrutiny over your internets as you do at an office.  If I want to stream trance music over the speakers or listen to talk radio in the background, I can do that.  I'm not restricted to only receiving corporate mail over Outlook, and don't have to worry that all of a sudden or will suddenly be blocked by the Corporate Nanny-Wall (both of which have happened to me).

More flexibility and fewer clothes: The school also called me to come pick up my daughter, who had strep.  I went over to get her and was back coding in about 10 minutes.  And she was upstairs resting while I was there. That is some flexibility right there.  That was also the first time I've ever had to say, "Shoot, I need to run out. Where are my pants?"  (I often work in running shorts because I use the treadmill desk on and off.)

Smaller environmental footprint:  This doesn't appeal to everyone, but I like to try to reduce my environmental footprint. Not because I'm an environmentalist, but because I am resource-conservative at heart, in the sense that I only like to use what I need and use what I do need efficiently.  When two weeks went by without having to put gas in the car, a little part of me did a happy dance.

Email:  Working with my team, we depend on chat, and are in direct communication all day, every day. As such, the need for email is basically nil.  We use it for broader, more consistent and more persistent topics, although for real stuff, we tot it up in Google docs and throw it in the cloud.  I can't tell you how little I miss having a life run by Outlook.  I've been moving away from it mentally for a while, but to finally get away from it is so lovely.

Dress code:  My whole working life I've been biz-cazh.  High school was shirt/tie.  I always felt that I got more in the spirit of working when dressed up.  Like formality was learning.  Sure, when I was in grad school, I wore shorts and T-shirts to teach labs, but that was Tucson, and no one wears a lot of clothes there.  But I did have the aforementioned "pants" epiphany.   I often wear running shorts so I can walk while working, or even wear jammies up until lunch because they're comfy to walk in, too.  Don't judge.


Diligence:  I don't know that it's a con, really, but diligence is a key requirement of having the right personality to work remotely.  It's been written about endlessly, that there's a real need to physically separate from the rest of the home to enable you to retain focus on your work.  Also, being diligent and focusing on your work can be really exhausting.  Being extraordinarily productive from home is well more difficult than being in the office.

Balance:  This is kinda the flip side of diligence.  I'm struggling a little bit because I'm an early riser, but the business hours for my org are 9-6.  What that means practically is that I am often up early, and since I'm up early, I jump online and start working, sometimes at 7:30.  Also, while I totally believe in the need for breaks, folks all take lunches at different times, so I hear the siren song of the chat window. I find myself in the basement and working longer hours that I probably need to, and certainly longer than is sustainable, but I'm enjoying what I do.

Chat:  So the way we communicate on my team is through a chat app.  This is very nice in that it is always open and on.  Once you get the hang of it, you can see what's going on peripherally and it's not really different from overhearing chatter in the office.  But sometimes... Sometimes you look at what someone's typed in the chat window and go "huh?" because what they've chatted makes no sense.  At least out of the context of sound and expression. Another thing that can be burdensome about chat is that when there's a flurry of conversation that you don't want to be part of, you may need to turn off the notifications or sounds.

Cleaning service: One of the things I didn't realize was that my work area in the office didn't stay clean on its own.  In the office, we had a cleaning service.  If I dropped a Dorito on the floor, no worries. Gone the next day.  In a home office, if you spill your coffee, guess who's mopping that up.  I hadn't thought about that.  Not that I have a lot of coffee-soaked corn chips on the floor, but I noted the need to be a lot more careful when eating around the work space.


Costs:  You'd think that costs would be basically a pro.  I haven't really analyzed the data, but I think I'm net #winning for the cost side of things.  I don't pay for dry cleaning anymore.  I wear fewer outfits per day.  I'm paying less in gas.  Car insurance has dropped.  I have to pay for food, but since I generally eat up leftovers that were getting thrown away anyhow, I think I'm doing it for free most days. That said, I have to have and maintain my own office, and any associated costs.

Loneliness and isolation:
I was warned very sternly about this.  The idea of being in my basement, not interacting physically with many people, is supposed to somehow be a drag, but I find it kinda the opposite.  I mean, with the chat and video and voice calls, I interact with my team at a rapid fire pace.  The rest of the time, I sit here by the window, lost in my head and the code and the issues I'm dealing with.  For me, it's a great mix.  So far, but I hear that like traveling, it can get old.  If it does, I'll be sure to post about it when that day comes.

Shoot, those are my thoughts on remote work so far.  I'd love to hear from you, though, on what your experience has been.  Hit me up on twitter or in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed hearing your thoughts about remote work! I have been 100% remote now for 14 months and have been loving it. I agree with and have experienced all of the points that you made. My biggest surprise was how social that working remotely can really be with constant chat and video calls. It has been refreshing to do almost no work over email. Streaming music or podcasts while working without wondering if someone is monitoring your bandwidth usage is great too. Having the flexibility to run pick up kids or chaperone field trips has made a difference in my life.

    Like you, I have struggled at times with the "balance" part. Many times I feel that I am most productive late in the afternoon and end up working right up to dinner time, even after starting early in the morining. It is also sometimes too easy to jump back at night after the kids are sleeping. Luckily, my company is very supportive of work/life balance and encourages us to not put in the extra hours.

    Really enjoyed the post!