My girlfriend and I want to move to another city. Not a few miles to the next big city, not to the other side of Holland, but a country on the other side of Europe: Sweden. That's about 1600 kilometers (1000 miles). And it is also not fancy Stockholm we chose as our destination, but a region which is quite remote and desolate. Where there are more trees than bytes in the air.
My employer knows about our immigration plans. I don't want to leave them, and they don't want me to leave. I like my job and love my co-workers. And I like the Friday hamburgers, daily ping-pong matches, good coffee, banter, and drinks after work hours.
So why not keep working for MyOnlineStore and move to another country? That is the solution we came up with.
It is 2020. I am a web developer. Fully online focussed. There are few things that stand in the way of working remotely.
But will I not miss the hamburgers? And my co-workers and friends? Is a daily standup possible with one member of the team not in the same room? Will I fall asleep at my desk? Will I eat all the snacks in my house?
I hear you thinking: "The first remote worker? Me and my thousand co-workers have been doing this for years now!"
I am by far not the first to start working remotely, but I am the first one at MyOnlineStore. The company made a shift from being an oldskool 9-to-5 company to a more modern and true agile approach since a few new managers were hired last year.
So this story is about being the first person in a company who starts working remotely.
Before making the big move to Sweden and finding out it doesn’t work I wanted to try this cool new thing. A period of experiments started and I was the first to work from home (a few miles from the office) for more than an incidental day or the afternoon after a visit to the dentist.
Up until now, nobody worked from home for more than one or two days. Yes, I am the First Real Remote Worker.
So there are two issues we anticipated beforehand:
- technical difficulties: can we find proper soft- and hardware?
- the social aspect: when will I go mad?
I think the subject of hard- and software for conference calls has been covered enough, so this will not be a "best conference call software of 2020" kind of story. I do want to tell you about the little struggles we had and how we dealt with them.
The second issue was a lot more impactful for me, but we will get back to that later.
We quickly found that the software we already use for communication in our team (Slack) has a big advantage: it offers the ability to click on a phone icon and call a single person or start a conference call.
The only downside of using slack’s video calling I noticed is that slack does not offer the possibility to see my teammates during a call when somebody is sharing his or her screen. We often do this, for example when discussing the backlog. The PO opens the backlog, shares the screen so I can see what they see and they also put that view up on the big screen in the conference room. This works fine, but I found that it's hard to discuss something when you can't see the people you're talking too. Also doing a demonstration of new functionality for the entire company sucks when you can't see your audience.
We are still working on these issues. Maybe we are going to use other software, maybe we'll hang a few webcams at strategic spots in the office and start streaming this, I don't know yet. It feels like we're 99% there and just need to improve on these small issues and make it feel 100% natural and seamless.
The ease of video/audio calls online surprised me a bit, being an oldtimer that had been scared by the crappiness of online conferencing years ago when the web wasn't as evolved as it is today.
Conclusion: hard- and software can't be a problem. As long as you have a decent internet connection you're set.
We found out that being remote in a close working team is not really that different from being in the office, but what happens if you live in isolation for weeks in a row?
I was kinda worried about this one, to be honest. I am not that kind of developer that thrives when locked up in a windowless basement with a red stapler.
I need people around me. I need to chat. I need to vent frustration from time to time. I need to show my newest lego kit. I like to have fun with my co-workers. I love staying late for Friday drinks.
So I am a socially dependent man. What will happen to me when not being surrounded by people? Will I start talking to myself? drooling?
I've been working remotely for 1,5 months now and it turns out that it's not that bad! I haven't gone mad and killed somebody. Yet.
I think this has to do with the close contact I have with my team. We run sprints of one week, where Fridays are used for a retrospective, refinement, etc. and these days are full of conference calls and consulting coworkers.
A co-worker and I have even developed a paper-rock-scissor-like sign language to play planning poker.
Also, I call him a lot. Mostly just to discuss some coding issues, but also sometimes just to have a chat about everyday stuff. We get along great and it is always fun to hang out, even if it is through a webcam.
Conclusion on this topic: It's not as hard as expected. I miss my precious Cheeshouse hamburgers, but that might be a good thing for my body.
Working remotely also greatly enhance self-reliance. It doesn't matter how good the soft- and hardware are there will always be a small threshold to call a colleague to ask him or her something.
I experienced this a few days ago. Normally, to start the development environment of our component library, I have to enter
yarn dev in my command line. But after pulling the master and getting the latest version, this resulted in an error.
Normally I'd ask my fellow frontender who's sitting 2 meters away from me in the office building "What happened to the start command for Bricks?" and he'll say "Ah yes, I changed that command. Forgot to tell you that, sorry!"
Now I opened the
package.json file, looked up the appropriate command which has changed to
yarn start:components. Problem solved. Didn't disturb my co-worker. Everybody's happy.
This is just a small example, mostly born from laziness, but I've noticed that I try to figure stuff out by myself more than I did before I started remote working. So this raises self-reliance and the quality of the questions that remain also increases.
I found that working alone greatly increased my ability to concentrate on my work. Not being interrupted by co-workers or other things that happen in a busy office building made a big change for me.
Our office building is in the city center of a small city, close to the police station and the fire department. Loud cars, blaring sirens, obnoxious motorcycles, we get them all. This distracts me always, despite the noise-canceling headphones and other measures I took.
My home office is at the back of our house and nothing visual happens there. I also live in a very small town, where it always is very quiet.
Apart from the increased output, I notice this when I miss my (lunch)break times. Only a notification for a new e-mail or a Slack message breaks this concentration.
When needed I also shut myself off for all these concentration-breakers, it was enough to quit the mail app and Slack. Doing this in an office building is hard without physically moving to another (empty) room.
One thing I think is very important is that I have the luxury of a separate room in my house, designated as a home office. The room has a big desk, a comfy office chair, a good view outside, a proper audio system and everything I need to make my work pleasant.
One concentration killer is other people in your house. We don't have kids, but sometimes we have kids/family over. So when I am working and my 4-year old niece wants to show me the drawing she made for me, it is very sour and saddening to tell her to not disturb me and leave me to work.
Luckily days with such distractions are quite rare. I guestimate that 95% of the workdays are without any distractions other than the mailman.
The big brother in my laptop. I think this is something very personal to me, but probably also something that some people can relate to. Maybe it is something caused by Dutch work ethics (which are very relentless), I don't know, but it's something that I struggle with.
There is a stigma around working alone or from home. People tend to think that Remotees work less hard than people in the office that are constantly watched by others. Take extra long walks with the dog, watch youtube all day or even take naps.
So what happens in my mind is "They must never think I am not working on my computer!"
So I keep one eye constantly focussed on Slack and its notifications. As soon as one of my teammates sends me a message or calls me, I must respond immediately. Otherwise, they will say "See! Proof! He's not doing anything! He's probably in his workshop welding stuff or working on his car! Booo!"
This is a downside of being remote for me. Despite knowing that these thoughts are unfounded. I know people trust that I do my work and deliver. I've proven that by completing sprints every time. There are no unexplained blanks in my weeks at home.
So this is something I need to work on personally. I have to get more confident that people trust me to do my work. I'll have to tell my colleagues that this is a struggle for me and ask them to tell me if there are any doubts about my commitment.
Remote working is great! As a conclusion a list of pros and cons:
- Working in a pleasant environment that is optimized for me
- Increased productivity
- Increased concentration
- Listening to my music on speakers
- No more 8-hour headphone days
- A higher quality of questions and more self-reliance
- Glitches or bugs in software make for awkward situations sometimes
- Lack of body language and other subtle stuff when you don't see the other person(s)
- Tempted to eat more candy/snacks since they're at hand
- I miss all the birthday celebrations with cake and other treats
- No more delicious hamburgers at that one joint close to the office