Why remote works

I’ve been at Chalkbeat for more than 15 months now, working remotely on a permanent basis for the first time, after two six-month stretches at the beginning of my gigs with GateHouse and Publish2 way back in late aughts.

In those early, somewhat forced “work from home for six months and then move to our office please” situations, I had no idea what I was doing.

In Santa Cruz, employed by Rochester-based GateHouse, I worked at East Coast schedule in a West Coast time zone, working from around 6am to 3pm, and then showering and taking our infant daughter off my wife’s hands for a few hours so she could make some progress on her Ph.D. thesis in progress.

Ancient, pre-Slack tools like GChat and AIM were my tools for staying in close contact with our team, but in truth I spent most of my time on phone calls with staff at our community newspapers in the Central and Mountain time zones, so it sort of worked. It was kinda exhausting.

Also, I recommend showering before starting your workday.

Then, in Rochester, working for Virginia-based-but-mostly-distributed Publish2, it’s kind of a blur. I remember spending a lot of time in coffee shops, which can get expensive. I had a desk in the spare bedroom that must have doubled as our office. There was a lot of Skype, both text from group chat and long group calls where we worked out product requirements and outreach plans. It was pretty intense.

Cut to the last year or so, and I’ve been fortunate to stand on the shoulders of remote giants — well, maybe “build out my home office in the basement of remote office dwellers” might be more accurate.

Of all the advice I fielded about remote work over the years, having a an office with a door that closes was one of the keys, personally. And I have one. In the basement of our exurban townhome, at the far end of a hallway, out of the way, through the laundry room. Before this, we had been using it for storage / a spare bedroom that hadn’t hosted too many visitors lately. And before that, when we moved in? It had been set up as a home office. Of course.

When I took the job, I painted the wall I would be staring at all day in a grid pattern with blue paint samples salvaged from a drawn-out dining room accent wall color selection project. And I built my own standing desk (after much googling) with a relatively inexpensive hunk of butcher block countertop and some giant shelving supports. There are also some cute little lantern light strings and some borderline kitschy geek art, Mars travel posters, Star Wars stuff, a World War I poster urging action, a bunch of artwork by my kids, rotating new stuff in over time, and, just because it’s giant and framed and I had never hung it before, my NYU diploma.

The dog works with me all day.

Those are just the basics. Like, how to set up your own work environment so you don’t go insane alone in a windowless basement room all day.

Working with a mostly remote team? That’s a whole different barrel of wax. How to build remote culture, how to maintain lines of communication (oxygen!), how to make sure your distributed team has all the tools and time and support they need to feel connected?

Start here:

Kavya Sukumar writes from Seattle about working with the East Coast Vox team. Among her awesome advice? Find a way to whiteboard together without, well, pointing a webcam at a whiteboard:

“Sketching can be a valuable tool for collaboration, but it does not always have to happen on a whiteboard or on the same paper. On the Studio, we have everyone draw on individual pieces of paper that are later scanned and added to a project’s documentation. Not only is this more participatory, it also improves documentation.”

Laura Bosco at Range (a design firm we work with at Chalkbeat) gets at a truly critical piece of remote work that I happen to think gets overlooked: If you’re running a diverse, distributed team communicating primarily over text, signals are easily crossed. Here’s one way to deal with that:

“Listen to your teammates and encourage them to share information on their backgrounds, their previous team experiences and how they prefer to communicate most days. Does a teammate’s culture influence how they approach conflict? What about how they make decisions? Identifying these subtleties, and knowing how to manage them, can be very beneficial during conflict.”

Over at the Trello blog, Stella Garber is, of course, recommending Trello among a suite of tools to use to track work across distributed teams, but putting that aside for the moment (Trello is great, so is Asana, so is JIRA, so is Basecamp, so are Google Docs, so is a big wall of post-its, your mileage may vary based on the size of your team and your needs), think about planning how you use these tools. Standardize your approach to reduce confusion!

“Design a plan together about how you want to use each tool, and then write down these guidelines in a document that the team can access anytime. The bonus is that it also creates a training resource for new people joining the team.”

From the oldie-but-goodie file, Stack Overflow’s 2013 post about remote work is canonical, especially the bits about making sure the in-office pieces of your team act like they’re remote, too:

“There’s no halfsies in a distributed team. If even one person on the team is remote, every single person has to start communicating online. The locus of control and decision making must be outside of the office: no more dropping in to someone’s office to chat, no more rounding people up to make a decision. All of that has to be done online even if the remote person isn’t around. Otherwise you’ll slowly choke off the remote person from any real input on decisions.”

And in 2014, Sara Rosso at Automattic wrote about having a daily routine that imposes a steady rhythm of work/life balance:

“Finally I got into a routine which always helps me get into work mode no matter where I find myself: I get up every morning, get dressed & presentable (brush teeth & hair!) and leave where I’m staying to get a coffee, ideally an espresso. My ‘commute’ is self-enforced and is as far as the nearest coffee shop. When I step back inside, I’m ready to work.”

Last, watch out for some of the remote work anti-patterns pointed out by Mak Arnautovic:

“Darth Overwork means well deep down. He knows there’s work to do, and he uses his once-Jedi powers to trick your brain into forgetting how to measure time and effort so you can do more work faster. Some may consider that a desirable skill. But the reason Darth Overwork is so scary, is because you usually can’t see him. You don’t know when your brain is being manipulated by him and when it’s not.”

Don’t be Darth Overwork. Be like Gillian, who works hard sitting in this chair all day, but also knows when it’s time to get up, go for a walk, and clear her head.

Gillian working hard in the home office.

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