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    Remote work - Tales and tips of an adept

    Boris Schulz

    Written by:
    Boris Schulz

    Having a good remote working culture is a benefit for any company at any time, but right now it might be the difference between IT companies that keep producing valuable output and those that lose a lot of money.

    How I got to love remote work

    For quite selfish reasons I have always been a big fan of remote work. My friends kept saying that they envy me because as an IT guy I can work online anywhere. And while I agreed, I secretly wondered why I was not working from "anywhere" but from the same office every day. 

    Then I got into a 24/7 on-call job and suddenly the same companies that would not allow remote work expected me to be available - well, 24/7. I was told that they do not care what I do as long as I am available when the phone rings and as long as I can work wherever I am. Those words echoed in my mind and after some months of doing on-call work from interesting places I figured out what I need to change in my team to really work from anywhere.

    Among those interesting places was a Japanese culture festival in Berlin where I sat on the stairs, hacking away at my laptop while left and right I was surrounded by Sailor Moon and Pokemon hunters. My team did BBQ and parties outside and we were always able to respond to 24/7 calls. Eventually we got used to having someone sit with a laptop on their lap under a tree while the rest was enjoying a summer day in the park.

    I started to slowly expand remote work, I gathered best practices and read up on what others do. And one sunny day I sat on the beach in France, with a mobile phone for network connectivity in my backpack and a Macbook on my lap, participating in a meeting just like I would from back home. Nobody ever complained as I managed to stay productive.

    What I have learned

    These days remote work is not about freedom and beaches, but the same mindset and rules can apply. These rules are not meant to be a manual on how to introduce proper remote work at your place - that takes a bit more than just a blog post, but I think this is a good time to share some of my experience and tips. 

    1st rule: Build trust and strengthen communication

    This may sound weird but when you are out of the office people tend to forget that you are working. When you work remote, nobody can see you raise your fist in anger at the stupid bug that took you half a day to fix. Nobody can see that you are deeply lost in thought. Nobody can see you working late at night to meet the deadline. So you need to tell the rest of your team. 

    The reverse is true too. You need to show that you are working by not dropping the output that people have come to value from you. If you suddenly take longer to finish every piece of work, this will be noticed.

    It’s essential to create an atmosphere of trust and to keep in touch with your entire team. Daily stand-ups are one way to achieve that. With daily calls, the whole team stays motivated, everyone knows who is working on what. 


    2nd rule: Make sure to get social contacts

    Everyone feels the lack of real social contacts when they work remotely and do not participate in any form of real-life-meeting of people. Most of us underestimate the value of coffee talks, lunch or just laughing together in the office. When all this goes away even the most die hard misanthrope will get lonely.

    I used to meet a lot of my friends online for gaming or just talks and I thought that this rule would not apply for me. I was wrong, as I found out one day when I noticed that I really looked forward to going to the bakery because there were people to talk to. During the quarantine, it can be good to plan some social time online with your colleagues too, like an online breakfast, or a Friday beer.


    3rd rule: Do not go cheap on your equipment or network

    I confess to taking a lot of joy from good hardware so this was never a problem for me. I always recommend looking at gaming grade hardware. A headset that someone uses 8 hours a day, for days and days in a row to participate in a raid in World Of Warcraft must be good. 

    You can pick whatever you want or whatever your company policy allows but do not go cheap. And by that I do not mean that you need to spend a lot of money on some big brands. You need a good headset, a good camera and a good tool for video chats. The best tools for video chatting that I found were free.

    If you are at home with your family, consider what suits your needs: open-back headphones let you hear kids in the house while still being able to have a call, while noise-cancelling headphones let you concentrate.

    In the end good audio and video quality will make the difference between an enjoyable remote meeting that is productive and a complete waste of time and money. We all had bad remote meetings where the audio kept dropping or it was hard to even understand the other end. With good hardware, however, you will be able to do a Friday beer with live music and it will make people happy.

    When working from home, if you have a spouse on a video call with their co-workers, a kid watching tv, and a teenager playing FPS, and you’re on two VPNs - one for your company and one for a customer, then you might end up with bandwidth issues (read about bufferbloat projects).

    I also suggest a good mobile connection to have a reliable fallback for when the local hotspot dies. You will likely encounter network issues at one time or another that your mobile phone does not have. That can even happen at home these days. So spend a few bucks more on a good phone and a proper contract.


    4th rule: Working remotely is harder for some than others

    Remote work takes a lot of discipline and you need to believe in it. If you, as a company, have promoted your awesome office culture, then do not be surprised if a rushed push for remote work will take some time.

    Invest the time and the effort to set up a good remote culture. Show everyone that it can work and then support the ones who struggle. We are all human beings, we all need social contact and for some of us it is really hard to read the emotions and subtexts from someone that is not actually there, but joins via video chat. Deal with it.

    There are more things to keep in mind, like taking time for regular exercise and getting fresh air. And if you want to implement a remote culture you need to invest some time and be prepared for setbacks. But in my experience, the only thing that is really a blocker for remote work is a manager that believes it can not be done.

    If you do need help with setting up a proper remote culture for your team, contact me.



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