On working remotely

As I mentioned recently, I’m a regular reader of Hacker News. Yesterday one of the links on the front page was to a blog post by a UK-based employee of Etsy. He (Jon Cowie) was explaining what it’s been like to work remotely for a tech company over the last three years.

The post resonated strongly with me and I just wanted to pick out some parts from the post and compare/contrast with my own experience working for the Mozilla Foundation for almost the same amount of time.

Logistics

We’re a heavily distributed team with people spanning 4 time zones, although I’m currently the only person outside the US, which means my work day is between 5 and 7 hours ahead of the rest of my team.

Mozilla is even more distributed than Etsy, it would seem. Normal working hours start for my colleagues in San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver at the same time as they finish for my colleagues in Germany. Needless to say, there’s a need to be flexible! (I’m based in the UK, in a market town in the North East of England.)

The Good

The fact that I’m 5 hours ahead of the rest of my team has also turned out to be a benefit to my productivity here too – because I’m usually the only person on the team at work until 2PM or so in the UK, my entire morning is a block of time without any interruptions where I can get through tons of work. I’m also a morning person, so my brain is freshest when I start work.

This isn’t quite the case for me – my colleagues in Germany are an hour ahead of me – the majority of my colleagues are still asleep when I start work. If you’ve never experienced this, then it’s wonderful. You can get so much done without meetings and other interruptions!

I often joke that a bad commute for me is having to walk around a clothes dryer on the way to my desk, but there’s a serious point to make here – rather than spend 2 hours a day commuting as I did when working in London, I have a 10 second walk to my desk. This also gives me an extra 2 hours a day to play with

The commute thing is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I kind of miss the liminal space inbetween home and work – especially for listening to podcasts, gathering my thoughts, etc. On the other hand, being able to work when you want from pretty much anywhere is amazing.

Another major plus point to remote working is the flexibility that it affords – I’m always at home to receive deliveries. Car needs to go to the garage? No worries, I can pop by…. Individually, these are all very small things, but the cumulative effect makes the trials and tribulations of daily adulting much easier to deal with.

As Jon says, this is difficult to explain on an individual level, but it makes life so much easier. (I love the phrase ‘daily adulting’ – even if it does sound a little seedy…)

The Bad

The fact that your home and your office are in the same physical building can often lead to cabin fever in varying degrees. In my case I don’t find this too problematic due to my aforementioned tendency to naturally avoid crowded and noisy places, but there are occasions where I just need to get outside of these four walls.

I don’t have quite this problem as my home office is physically separate from our house. Still, I mix it up a bit by spending part of the morning working from either the local library or Wetherspoons (cheap, unlimited coffee; decent free wifi; comfy seats). Like Jon, I also exercise before lunch, ready for my colleagues to come online.

One of the toughest parts of my particular working situation, and that which I’ve had to be the most disciplined about, is stopping work at 6PM and not starting again until the next day.

Taking an “almost militaristic” approach to this (as Jon says he does) would be difficult for me. I certainly aim not to work after 6pm, but circumstances sometimes dictate it. For me, with two young children, I’m more interested in being around for them between 6pm and 8pm than I am protecting 8pm to 10pm. It’s horses for courses.

I’d really like Mozilla to implement something like timezone.io (the code’s on GitHub!)

When you have people working across physical locations, timezones and even countries, communication gets harder. People aren’t able to gather around the water cooler, it’s easy for people to feel left out if they’re the one who isn’t in the office, and including remotes in meetings and discussions can often be tricky.

The way that I always explain the difference to people is that, when your communications are mediated by technology, every interaction is intentional. What I mean by that is you can’t just wander over to a co-worker and ask how they’re doing, or bump into them in a corridor. Sometimes this is great and a real aide to productivity. But sometimes it can feel isolating.

Thankfully I have some colleagues who regularly ping me on IRC and Skype just to talk through various things (work and social stuff). We also have a Friday meeting which is at the end of the day for Europeans and midday for those on US Eastern Time (New York / Toronto). This usually involves talking about non-work stuff with alcohol for us and lunch for them. It’s a nice end to the week.

Conclusion

Be prepared to work at it, and be awesome to each other. Remote working can be an amazingly empowering and positive experience, but it doesn’t come for free. Effort in, results out – from both company and employees.

Like any position in any organisation, there’s ups and downs working remotely for Mozilla. As Bryan Mathers commented when I interviewed him this week it doesn’t work for everyone. It takes a level of maturity and emotional stability that, to be honest, I sometimes struggle with. When most of the signals you’re getting are text-based you can read too much into things. I’ve heard that more than half of face-to-face communication is non-verbal which I can definitely believe.

But despite all of this, working remotely is absolutely fantastic. It means I have no excuse not to be insanely productive. There’s nowhere to hide when it comes to carving out time to go to the gym. My time is (largely) my own to get on and get stuff done. I’m judged by what I produce rather than when I do it.

It may not fit with all industries but I think that, if you can make it work for you and your organisation, it’s a huge bonus.


Do you work remotely? Would you like to? I’d love to read your comments and questions in the section below!

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  1. I love the idea of working remotely and I’m really keen to explore this type of thing in the future, I just have no idea what I’d actually do. I’m so used to working in universities/other public sector places that I feel that I’ve become institutionalized to the 9 to 5 office life – but I actually know that I’d be much more productive if I was able to work more flexibly.

    How did you end up working for Mozilla after being a teacher?

    • After working in schools I worked in an office environment within a university. I contributed as a Mozilla community member and then was asked to join the Mozilla Foundation learning team (as was). I guess I was very fortunate.

      There are places to look specifically for remote jobs, although they tend to be mainly technical, sales, or fundraising. One way in might be a ‘community manager’ role? One site which has recently launched for remote-working jobs is http://jobs.remotive.io

      • Ooooo that site looks good. I’ll keep an eye on it. Need to stay in my current job for a while, but wouldn’t rule out working remotely in future.

        Thanks!

  2. Thanks for linking to timezone.io – Great blog post Doug!

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