Book Report: Remote: Office Not Required

Remote: Office Not Required Cover

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Summary

If you’ve thought of working remotely or having a remote team, this book is right for you. If you’re dubious about the benefits or if you want to build a case for remote work, this book will go through all the concerns, benefits, excuses, and best practices for successfully building a remote work team and culture. This is the book you wish your managers read before they told you they wouldn’t support working from home.


Remote Work Is Good for Humanity

Why now?

Why is remote work such a big topic now compared to before? 20 or 30 years ago, the only options for remote work were via landline telephones. This meant only audio information and a huge amount of data loss. Today, we have personal computers and smart phones that allow us to have a visual and audio communication with anyone, anywhere.

So, why haven’t we all switched? Learning to use technology for large scale communication and productivity is hard. On top of that, older generations may be hesitant to adopt a work policy that makes them obsolete. Finally, there is a lot of fear in losing control of your workforce when you can no longer see them.

Environmental Benefits

  • Reducing long commutes by supporting remote work prevents excess greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Allowing remote work prevents population growth around already crowded metropolitan areas and reduces long commutes for everyone.

Personal Benefits

  • Commuting makes people fat, stressed, and miserable. Not commuting will make you happier in the short and long term with the bonus of saved time.
  • By not commuting, you save gas money and maybe don’t even need a second car or any car at all.
  • Promoting asynchronous communication through remote work allows people to have more flexible schedules. You can take time to pick up children from school, take that afternoon surfing course, or finally accept your night owl sleep schedule.
  • Why wait to go to your retirement city when you could live there now? Remote work allows you to live where you want sooner than retirement.

Employer Benefits

  • It is harder to poach remote employees for a few different reasons: you can’t be lured away by in person conversations, employees working remotely are happier with their job, and employees want to hang on to their remote positions.
  • Employers don’t need to maintain a full scale work space for it’s employees, including no need for cleaning staff, utilities, rental fees, concerns about sufficient parking, etc.
  • The workforce is disaster ready for any disruption to a single geographic area.
  • Remote workers broadens the talent pool. It increases employee happiness and retention.

Work Culture Benefits

  • When the cost of meetings becomes higher, you suddenly have more efficient meetings.
  • Remote work allows for variety and customization in your work environment. This boosts creativity, accommodates diversity, and create a culture of inclusion.
  • Having remote workers increases the diversity of the workforce and creates a better product through that diversity.
  • By removing the social engineering and politics present in onsite offices, such as causal drive by conversations, employees are valued for their skills rather than their politics.

Fear Of Change and Loss Of Control

This section will be pairs of excuses (fears) and counterpoints to address those fears.

Excuse: We can’t suddenly ask the whole company to work remotely.

Counterpoint: We can start by having some remote teams or even slowly shortening our in-office work week to work out the kinks first.

Excuse: Great ideas only happen with in person collaboration

Counterpoint: First, this isn’t true. In fact, being out of the office offers more opportunity for creative thinking because moving to a different setting can often prompt new ways of thinking. Secondly, even if this were true, we can only work on a couple of great ideas at a time. In that case, we only need to meet to generate “great ideas” once or twice a year.

Excuse: People are just going to slack off more

Counterpoint: We need to accept that people are going to slack of and be lazy no matter where they are. If their work isn’t engaging, they won’t want to do it. If your employees are slacking, it’s about lack of engaging work, not about where they are working.

Excuse: Remote workers are a security vulnerability.

Counterpoint: There are many products and services available to protect employee devices regardless of location including drive encryption, multi factor authentication, and remotely wiping devices.

Excuse: We need to be available during certain hours for our clients.

Counterpoint: The same person doesn’t need to be available during those hours so you can set a rotation such that at least one person is available during those hours. You can also set expectations with the clients about hours of availability.

Excuse: If I let some people work from home, everyone will want to.

Counterpoint: If there is something all your employees want to, is it really such a bad thing to give to them when you can maintain productivity?

Excuse: Not all jobs can be done remotely so none of them should be remote.

Counterpoint: Every job inherently has different responsibilities, privileges, and access to resources. Remote-friendly is just another characteristic of a particular job role and shouldn’t be denied just because all roles at a company aren’t remote.

Excuse: Without face to face interaction, we lose our culture.

Counterpoint: Company culture isn’t about face to face interaction. It’s about how we deal with tasks day-to-day. If you have a communicative culture, you can still have that remotely but it’s written or video communication instead.

Excuse: But we spent money on this office building.

Counterpoint: That doesn’t mean you need to keep spending money on that building. Second, consider renting it out to recover some of the money lost. Finally, with increased productivity of your workforce, you’ll be able to cover the costs of that building.

Remote Pitfalls

Self-discipline: You do need to be able to self-motivate into doing work you need to do. On the plus side, working remotely means you’ll have more energy to motivate yourself and will likely be more engaged in your work.

Loss of face to face time: You need to learn to communicate effectively in writing and verbally. This means you need to replace your facial expressions, nuanced hand movements, or interpretive dance moves with written or spoken word.

I’m not “mom” between 9 am and 5 pm: Living in the same place where you work can confuse your family. Making sure you aren’t rushing to your children or pets every 5 minutes and training them not to bother you in your “office” time will be needed for this to work.

Cabin Fever: Employees need to be able to choose different work arrangements to ensure they don’t get cabin fever. Employers can offer budget for shared work spaces like WeWork or provide incentives like a fitness reimbursement to ensure employees are staying active.

What is life?: Working remotely from home can blur the boundary between work and life. Each individual can come up with ways to create an invisible boundary, like a home office, a particular computer, or, as an example from the book, a different set of slippers for work time.

Writing Really Matters: As a remote employee, most of your communication will be written either for person-to-person communication or through documentation. Really work on those writing skills and try to showcase them in writing samples such as cover letters or statements of interest.

Remote The Right Way

There are a few things you and your team will need to learn to ensure remote work goes smoothly. Some of these things are the responsibility of the employee, others require a cultural change from management.

No ASAP: People will no longer be easily available at all times. Change the team culture to avoid needed answers ASAP and prioritize when they ask for in person responses. This can also be read as “learn to unblock yourself”. Ways of achieving this are having excellent documentation and FAQs for your team or ensuring there is some wiggle room in deadlines so people don’t feel pressured to be unblocked ASAP.

Partial Overlap: A lot of people will have different schedules. Target a 4 hour overlap between collaborating teams. This might mean some time zones are out of reach for candidates.

(Screen) Sharing is Caring: Always share your screens in meetings or record screen casts to communicate visual ideas. Do not allow in-person meetings to fail to share screens.

More Sharing is Caring: Ensure common instructions and all decisions are recorded in an easily accessible location so no one is blocked on waiting for information.

Virtual Water Cooler: Employees need a way to interact with each other outside of work topics and a way to “productively waste time”. This means setting up slack channels, for example, for off-topic conversations.

Intentional Face Time: Plan to create an opportunity for all employees to meet up with each other in person once or twice a year. This can be a conference or an all-hands with extended time for planning or team-building. The cost of this event will be covered by what you save not maintaining offices.

Measure Done, Not Time: Measure worker productivity by work accomplished and not time in the office. Performance reviews should value skills that are remote friendly such as written communication and independent decision making.

Be A Good Manager: Managers are no longer managing butts in seats. They have to take more time to get to know their employees, get a sense of how they are doing, monitor work being done, and minimize interference unless actually needed. In short, managers need to be good managers.

Reimbursement and Relaxation: Make sure there are clear reimbursement policies for home office setup with guidelines on good ergonomics for a home office. Encourage employees to pursue interests outside of work by reimbursing gym memberships or travel.

Not A One Man Show: Do not try remote with just one person. Make sure there is an entire team trying remote work to see whether it is effective. Additionally, have the manager of the team work remotely to understand the challenges his or her employees may be facing. Using contract positions to see how remote work might look like before supporting remote with full-time employees is an option as well.

Explicit Content: Be explicit and clear with expectations to everyone on the team and everyone the company works with. Tell clients what to expect for regular work times and out of hours response times.

Remote Interviewing: You will need to have an in person interview at some point but, up until that point, you can use remote friendly screening techniques. Using small remote tests such as writing samples or Hackerrank coding tests will show some of the basic skills an employee will need.

Motivation: Encourage engagement by allowing employees to pursue their work interests. Managers should watch out for procrastination or low quality in a former high performer as this will indicate lack of engagement in work, not a decline in worker quality.

Bad Juju: It is harder to sense bad juju building up on teams that are remote. Managers will need to keep a close eye out for potential misunderstandings and frequently check in with employees to see how they feel about their team dynamic.

Level The Playing Field: Ensure remote workers are given the same opportunities as onsite workers for collaboration. Keep track of all decisions and notes, even if they were hallway conversations. Prioritize a working A/V system over a quick sync up without the remote workers included.

End Road-Blocks: Seek out and remove incidents where employees are blocked on another person on system. Don’t require permission for vacation. Have an automatic reimbursement process. Define clear procedures for handling critical events.

Recommended Reading From This Book

Summary of Working Outside The Box: A Study of Growing Momentum in Telework

Article date: January 21, 2009

Remote working is a way to save costs across all industries, specifically on real estate costs. To successfully work remotely, a significant portion of employees must be able to do their job fully remotely for extended periods of time.  There is a misconception that remote workers will get distracted but teleworking can actually improve engagement, allow employees to control distractions in their environment.

Today there are a few crises that companies face that will push them towards embracing remote work. As companies are growing more quickly than the job market can provide skilled workers, they need to look elsewhere. Relocation is expensive so remote work provides access to a wider candidate base. Another problem is supporting an increasing cost of living in metropolitan areas. More people coming into an area increases housing costs and commute times. Supporting remote work will keep real estate costs low and prevent growth in the cost of living, and by extension salaries. The last problem is disasters. With different locations, if one location experiences a disaster, the others will still be able to keep your business going.

Listed benefits of teleworking:

  • Cost savings in employer assets and maintenance
  • Commute cost savings
  • Continuity during disasters
  • Retention and attraction of talent
  • Lower carbon dioxide emissions
  • Lower traffic congestion
  • Better job satisfaction
  • Improved work/life balance
  • Maximized geographic resources
  • Innovation in the workplace
  • Access to skills previously unavailable

IBM

  • 40% of workers are remote
  • Allowed working couples the flexibility to keep working rather than force 50% of the workforce to leave to take care of children
  • Immune to business real estate cost hikes due to availability of remote work options

Government

  • Government uses some telework but not optimally
  • 1 day per week doesn’t allow for full benefits like real estate savings

How to do teleworking well

  • Update how you evaluate employees to focus on work done instead of time spent
  • Establish career development goals to prioritize skills valuable in remote work
  • Move as much training online as possible
  • Set clear expectations on reimbursement policies for home offices
  • Regularly check in with employees to avoid a hidden crises in the company
  • Establish HR codes for each remote position to plan real estate and budget
  • Automate administrative functions to ensure no one is ever blocked
  • Implement ongoing telework training with coaching and guides for manager

An Independent Venture: Flexible Work Arrangements – Working from Home

Continuing with this series of posts, I’ll describe some of the flexible work arrangements I’ve investigated. Thus far, I’ve explained that once I determined that my job was the main source of my unhappiness in life, I started researching how to change it.

I was working in a large tech company that was typical Monday to Friday, 7 – 9 hours of work per day. This company offered me all of the benefits of working for a large, established company that was successful enough to liberally fund its development groups. Given that this was a very comfortable position, I started off looking at ways I could make it work for me but also change the situation. Previously, I described ways of making small changes to your work life to reduce stress without any significant job changes. The changes here are more significant and will require working with your managers or potentially your HR department.

Working at Home

If you find that you are unhappy at work either because of your commute, your coworkers, or the work environment, you can look into working from home. This can take a few different forms and which works best will depend on the problem. Here are a few things I’ve tried.

Work from home in the morning to reduce commute stress

I noticed that my commute was causing me some stress, especially on days with bad weather. My commute time would go from 1 hour to 1.5 hours. Sometimes I’d be squished between smelly commuters in an overheated bus. Or stuck waiting on an off-ramp for 30 min. I decided I could try to change this by working from home in the mornings just until after rush hour and still make it in time for team stand-up.

I approached my boss about this asking if the work arrangement would work. Since no one in that team booked meetings before stand-up unless absolutely necessary, the arrangement had no problem and I got the green light immediately. Here’s a comparison of what changed:

  • Work start time: 9 am → 8 am
  • Commute time: 1 – 1.5 hours → 40 min to 1 hour
  • Commute method: Bus or car → car
  • Daily cost: Bus (free) or car ($20) →  car ($20)
  • Likelihood of finding parking in my building: 100% → 0%

Did this work? No. I exchanged my commute stress for more costly commuting and stress finding parking. Interestingly, I later found that if I rode a motorcycle, I would get free, guaranteed parking. Unfortunately, that does have an increased risk of death. [Disclaimer: I currently ride a motorcycle to work from time to time when I want to come in late]

Let’s try a different tack.

Work from home to avoid going to and being at work

Since working part of the day didn’t work out, I upgraded to trying out the full day. It turns out a lot of people like working from home or at least not having to work from their desk. Several of my teams have had a policy where if you don’t have meetings in a day, you don’t need to be in. Virtual stand-up was supported on these teams. Generally, I made use of this as often as I could, which was probably 2 – 3 times per month.

When I approached my managers on each new team and described my circumstances with stress and work, they said they understood and wished they could accommodate me. Usually they would say I could work from home if there were no meetings but I had to be at work during team meetings. On some teams they said they didn’t trust that the team would be productive if everyone started working from home (apparently the natural escalation from accommodating my needs is that everyone is going to want to work from home).

I decided to talk to HR about what I could do to force the issue. I did have a doctor or two that could certify that I have a need to reduce my exposure to stress at work so I could swing it if needed. HR at more than one company said that I could go the medical route but if my manager wasn’t willing to support the accommodation, my performance would suffer.

Conclusion: this is a good option but ultimately not in my control.

Can I just work from home all the time?

I never tried this. If working for myself doesn’t work out, this is what I’ll be aiming for. So, why didn’t I try this out?

Doing a fully remote job is definitely on my radar. One of the catches I’ve noticed about some remote jobs is that they require you to be at an office from time to time. This can range from once a year to once a week. Depending on your location and life situation, this can be challenging.

For my next venture of working for myself, I will primarily focus on working at home and going to meet clients when necessary. This won’t be easy or simple. I will need to make sure not to fall into the traps of working where I live like getting distracted by my cats, sleeping in too late, or just not being in the right mindset. There will likely be a post from me on that topic later on.

Next up: An Independent Venture: Flexible Work Arrangements – Working Less