Five Things I’ve Learned About Surviving the Telecommute
Over the past several years my wife and I went through this strange series of events where we swapped work roles – first she worked remotely for a Minnesota company, from our home in Seattle, and then we moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota and I started working remotely for my company back in Seattle. Our story is a lot like what you read about remote work, but it’s different to live it.
We lived on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, near Seattle, for about eight years. The small company my wife works for relocated from there to Minnesota, but she kept her job, working remotely as part of what became a virtual corporation. They were a very small company, but tech-savvy enough that, while not an IT business, remote work seemed like a natural arrangement. I think that shows just how far that idea has come. Like many U.S. families, we video conference with the Grandmas and Grandpas spread around the country, which she effortlessly applied to work, too. Her little company used “cloud” services without really thinking about that idea as anything new or special. It was just a natural fit. They valued her, she valued them, the tech was pretty easy. It was all win.
Fast forward a few years and our family was looking to relocate, too. Her company was not really the destination – we needed mainly to be closer to our extended families. “Closer” today often means flight time and number of connections (a.k.a. airport) more than physical proximity. Our families are spread all over the eastern half of the U.S. so moving to one or the other city was something we considered, but wasn’t really the only solution. We have kids, but we are also city people and we both really wanted the culture and amenities of a real city and a good, safe urban environment for our boys. Not too many cities have that combination.
“How the heck did you pick Saint Paul, MN?” is a question I get all the time. It’s hard to explain, but take the airport, proximity to East Coast, South and Northwest by one direct flight, the truly outstanding elementary school in our new neighborhood, the old Victorian gridiron neighborhoods of Summit Hill/Macalester/Groveland, a good friend from college, no fear of snow, and toss them all together in a geography salad, and that was our destination.
By freak accident, or fate, it’s also not far from my wife’s workplace.
We moved and we both kept our jobs, which was amazing. My wife is able to go into the office a few days a week now, though it’s a long drive, and I started telecommuting to my job in Seattle from Saint Paul.
Both of us have experienced the usual pros and cons of telecommuting. By now some of these things are well documented, but I think it’s hard to see how important those issues are until you experience them firsthand, either as a remote employee or working with a remote employee, and over a long period. It’s great, and it’s difficult at the same time.
I will say my employer has been really wonderful throughout this process – they are supportive, and they had to go through extra effort to make this happen for me, which they certainly didn’t have to do. We had some tentative few-days-a-week sort of telecommuting for a while, but I think I am the first true full time, long distance, different-time-zone sort of remote worker, with all the challenges that come along in that scenario. Because there wasn’t really an established environment used to remote work, with habits and technology and processes in place, we’ve had to work some things out as we go.
In fact every aspect of it, for me, has proven a double-edged sword, and I wanted to spend some time talking about why.
Coffee Shop? No.
First I have to get one myth out of the way: working in a coffee shop is OK -- if you want to work in an uncomfortable, noisy place where you can’t use the phone, the network is dodgy, your screen’s too small, coffee costs $4, and there’s no privacy. It only sounds romantic. Honestly.
I work from a dedicated space in my house in order to be focused and minimize distractions, and that has worked well. I’d say to even contemplate working from home you need a separate space, with a door you can close. The attic space where I currently work is great in terms of creating a separate work environment in the house. I have a real desk and an IP phone connected straight to the office. The space has some other issues, notably not being a layout where office furnishings, network and power work well, but we are moving to a permanent home a few blocks away, and in purchasing that house the “office space” was one of the main purchase criteria. We should be into the new place in late June.
On the other hand, working alone in a home office has some real social challenges, as I’ll talk about more below. It’s quiet. Really, really quiet, which can be too much of a good thing.
Losing the Commute
I have always – so far, anyway – avoided a typical driving commute. Spending hours on the freeway in a car is so awful, for me, I have always orchestrated living and working so as to avoid it, by living close to my office or to transit. Eliminating the commute altogether is obviously a fantastic perk of telecommuting. I am eternally grateful for the hours I’ve gotten back.
Here’s the strange thing, which others have talked about too: if you are the type of person for whom remote work will be successful, you probably are the type who has a passion for work, where work isn’t just time spent from eight to five. Passion for work is something that creates the discipline to work consistently without explicit direction, and to produce all on your own, regardless of schedule.
Those same traits also make the removal of the commute problematic. Life and work can start to merge together, and it isn’t always pretty. Leaving the house, getting in the car/bus/train/ferry and being forced to sit there, even for twenty minutes, is an important psychological boundary between work and life, where you – even subconsciously – leave one and get mentally prepared for the other.
This is something I really struggle with. I have a tendency to obsess about work anyway, and when it’s always right here, that can be a real problem. It’s particularly bad during the times when work is stressful. Working from home demands that your team evaluate you on your output as much as just your presence, but your perceived presence looks irregular, and that can cut both ways.
There are huge benefits to being out of the daily fray in the office, mostly in terms of productivity on heads-down work. Interruptions are minimal. I used to use the “Pomodoro” technique in the office, working in 20-25 minute sprints, but it was mostly as a survival technique against the onslaught of meetings, and email, and walk-up requests. I find in my new situation that I don’t have to do that, because finding solid blocks of time to do real work isn’t so much of a problem.
The other refreshing thing is that one important type of work – thought – is OK. I used to be in a cube, in an open office. One challenge was that some parts of my job require me just to think. Think about strategy. Think about how to design against some complex problem. Read books. When you think, you don’t necessarily look busy. It’s productive time, but you aren’t producing a thing someone can point at. So, time to think through problems without some pretense of tapping at the keyboard is really valuable. In the office I used to block time out and walk on a nearby bike path in order to have this time without needing to look “busy.” Now I can do this in the house, which is great.
Communication with my team really is a challenge. I have three-times-a-week calls with my team lead, and daily short calls with my team just to check in. It sounds odd, but these are a real requirement just to help offset the lack of hallway conversation that normally takes place in the office. If you are thinking of working remotely, I would advise making the extra effort to schedule time like this, because even though it sounds trivial, it’s really important to keep everyone on the same page.
The biggest challenge of all is missing on the rest of the hallway or cube/desk decision-making that can go on. I always had my ear to the ground in the office, and viewed part of my DBA role as trying to steer everyone to the right decisions about data and SQL Server, even when it meant heading something off that I overheard in the next cube. For better or worse, that part of my job isn’t possible remotely, and that can be a challenge.
But I’ll also lay this right out there: it’s lonely. At different times in life we have different social structures to rely on for friendships. There’s high school, college, church -- before kids my wife and I used to have dinner with friends or have the occasional party. If you’re 40+, with kids, work is a main source of social interaction and friends. There aren’t that many other social structures like it. Moving to a new city and essentially breaking that social interaction with my coworkers is tough, and there isn’t much to replace it.
Social media (and I’m hooked on it) doesn’t fill that void, I’m afraid. It naturally took over more of my free time with this move, but as months go by I realize there’s something depressing about it, and I need to limit the time I spend online.
Some things about remote work have helped our family life, but mostly it relates to basics like flexible hours and the time recovered from not spending an hour a day on the road. If you think that working remotely will help with child care expenses, I’d say stop – that’s unlikely. It’s not possible, for me anyway, to actually care for the kids in any reasonable way and work at the same time. There’s no way. I think I could do a poor job with work and a poor job watching them, and that serves nobody well. We have just as many childcare arrangements and expenses as if I drove to work.
But I do love the little perks. Many mornings I get to eat breakfast with the kids and put the oldest one, who is in second grade, on the bus. My wife and I have lunch dates, usually once a week, on a day we both work from home and the kids are at school.
On the other hand, there are times when I have to explicitly stop my wife or my kids and just say, “I really can’t do x because I am working. Truly.” And it is easier for them, just because I’m in the house, to ask or stop me, “Honey can you stop and …” Having my wife have work-from-home experience too really helps, but this can be a problem (both directions, I am guilty too).
For better or worse, when we really have an issue with the family, which sometimes comes down to just not having enough hours in the day, my wife or I can work in the evening to make up time or meet deadlines, and that is definitely a major benefit. It can, though, aggravate the whole problem of not leaving work at work and being free of it at home.
Tech, Tools and Email
This is the part all us gadget freaks gravitate to, I think – what tools make work-from-home possible, or make it better. Here the news is also mixed.
First, I. Love. Email. To a fault.
Imagine a medium where multiple people can collaborate on a solution and everyone is informed, where the outcome and the trail of decisions is documented in writing automatically, and the participants can all work on it asynchronously, without being interrupted. In a perfect world, it seems like email would almost do that. (I dislike the phone for all the inverse reasons.)
Working remotely makes it so easy to fall into an email-only mode of communication, and while I love that, it flatly doesn’t work well for some types of activity. For one, I find it almost impossible to persuade some individuals to do something through email. To act. I am very sorry to report that that still often requires a phone call or, ack!, a full-on meeting, with a manager, because email simply goes ignored. Among those that like email, email works, but with others, sometimes not. Fortunately my team lead understands this well, and I know I can ask him to set up that meeting or that call when we have to go that route. Email can also foster miscommunication in some circumstances, especially relating to tone and personal interaction. This email thing is clearly a habit I have to be careful about.
What about all those other tools? Tele-presence and all the funnily-named collaboration do-dads like Skype, Trello, Dropbox, Toggl and Producteev and Flow and Remember the Milk and Google Hangouts and Asana?
There is, unfortunately, a sobering reality here. The number and variety of online collaboration tools really has exploded recently with the growth in remote workforce and virtual organizations. But it’s been my experience that a company probably has to be young (in attitude, not necessarily age), nimble, small, has to be engaged in ideas about the modern workforce, willing to try new things, and has to deal with few secrets to contemplate using most of these services. Otherwise the obstacles are many: change, security, habit, ignorance, organizational inertia, isolation, policies, firewalls both real and imagined.
If you are in a company that is bigger, a company with security concerns, a company that cannot change course quickly, then it seems likely you might get the right to work from home but not get access to any of these cool new tools.
So, I have to say, in my case I have Lync (barely) for desk or app-sharing, and an IT group that is just now getting the hang of that, but no video, no tele-presence, no novel SaaS online project management whiz-bang anything, funny names or no. And I suspect that the work-from-home crowd may fall into two groups – those with the new tools in small companies or start-ups, and those in established companies like me trying to make it work with just RDP and the phone.
I don’t think this is related to my company’s commitment to my success working remotely, or to their support of it – it’s simply too hard to overcome the organizational inertia, which will be true in many organizations.
But with some good processes and habits, I think the minimal-tools predicament can still work. Process and habit, I believe, are probably 85% of the battle, and while coolio tools might aid that, I don’t imagine they are a substitute for it.
I do get jealous of my wife on this front, though, because a small company on a shoestring budget can do more with cloud-based applications like this than a bigger, well-capitalized one. Ironic.
I think of this as an ongoing experiment. I love my job as a DBA – though, to be sure, every job comes with some challenges – and in many ways it’s suited to remote work. I am finding it harder than I imagined, mostly because it’s such a solitary existence, and because the lines between work and home are so blurred as to be almost erased. I have to keep changing techniques and trying different things to make it work well.
It’s become clear that I should not wait for the next “teh aw3some” tool to come around, and instead focus on basics like process, communication, and habit to make the fundamental tools of RDP, phone and airplane work to their fullest.
P.S. I am grateful to SQL community friends Tom LaRock, Mike Walsh, and Aaron Bertrand for part of this remote work adventure.
Edit 23 April: A friend of mine reminded me how important it is to go back into the office and talk with people face to face. I thought I should add, since I didn't make this clear, that I do go back for three days or so every other month. That's vital to this whole arrangement. I try to pack those visits with meetings just so I can talk with people and get reacquainted.