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So you're a Remote Worker Now

April 05, 20209 min read • by Loris Cro

Make the most of the global remote-working experiment.

A virus goes pandemic and now you’re not allowed to go to the office anymore. Welcome to the remote worker’s club. I’ve been a member for nearly 1.5 years, and it’s been one of the best work experiences of my life. No commute, the comfort of your home, cooking your own meals; what’s not to like? Well, for some, a lot. I’ve had a fantastic experience but it’s a peculiar equilibrium and you might have already discovered that it’s not really working out for you.

Is the secret to productivity a boss that keeps you on track? A good pair of headphones? Maybe putting on your “work clothing” in the morning and changing after you clock out? I think not, so let me try to put things in perspective and talk about what you really need.

1. Good communication with yourself

When you’re working remotely, you’re spending most of your time alone. You might have your family with you, but they are most probably not directly involved with what you do. From the moment you sit in front of the computer, you’re alone with yourself. It’s hard to keep pretending that you like something when you don’t and there is no social pressure to make you act like you do. Some people have spent all their life forcing themselves to like their job and so they never exercised this muscle. The result is that the change makes them feel confused and think that at home they just get distracted too easily.

To be fair, that’s not the full story. Sometimes you might just be tired and feel like watching YouTube all day even though you do like your job. Furthermore, some people might feel more comfortable than others in trying to learn how to do things in solitude. If you’re somebody who truly loves interacting with people, supporting (and being supported by) them, then yes, working remotely is going to cause some stress and in the long run it might make you just want to look at social media all day.

Regardless of which bucket you fall in, remote work will force you to look at yourself in the eyes. If you’re somebody who is able to find a sustainable compromise with yourself, then rituals like changing clothes when clocking off might help reinforce the agreement, but for everybody else those are just tricks that they’re at the same time too dumb to pull off, and too smart to fall for.

Learn to understand what you really want to do and how far you can push yourself. While you don’t need to be an ESPer, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because it’s “you”, that you are fully in control. As a recommendation, start by regularly asking yourself “What do I want to do next?”.

2. Good communication with your colleagues

When you work remotely you can’t see your colleagues sitting next to you. There is no natural coffee break where you both get up and exchange some thoughts while you walk to the coffee machine. This is just one example of the many types of non-verbal communication that we leverage in an in-person environment to support our verbal communication.

When you’re part of a remote team you have to be much more deliberate with your communication. As software engineers we should already be familiar with this concept from networked communication: hosts can’t “see” each other and so you need heartbeats and other strategies to know the current state of the network. Software engineers working under agile methodologies have been partially addressing this problem with the daily standup.

The ability to communicate is one of those soft skills that I’ve always seen considered as vaguely important, but I assure you it’s a non-trivial skill to acquire and in a remote job you will need it sorely. My recommendation for “horizontal” communication is to set up weekly 1:1 meetings with your colleagues where the only item on the agenda is to chitchat for a while and tell each other how things are going. It might seem awkward at first, maybe even a waste of time, but that’s what allows you to know the state of the network.

Just make sure to not mix this type of informal meeting with status update meetings because one is not a substitute for the other, as I’ve already complained about.

3. Good communication with your bosses

If your company wasn’t allowing remote working before, chances are that one of the reasons was that management felt like productivity would go down if people weren’t sitting at their desk for at least 8h, five days a week. In 2020, in tech, this is an idiotic, antediluvian line of reasoning, but I will nevertheless acknowledge the rationality behind it.

As I’ve already said, working from home is a wildly different thing than working in an office. You really need a good fit with your role to do well in the long term, and you do need to be more effective when communicating. As of yesterday, this was not the predominant work model and so it was much harder to hire effectively for it. Many workplaces are empires built upon workers that fit their role badly, where communication is often an afterthought, and where hierarchical pressure is the main, overwhelming force that keeps things together. I’ve done enough consultancy to have seen first hand the meat grinder upon which we have built modern tech.

Those types of hierarchies would crumble when put under the extra constraints that remote work imposes and so the management’s self preservation instinct kicks in and makes it stay away from an unnecessary risk. But what about now?

Remote work forces a new equilibrium. You can look at your open-space office and make sure people are not wasting too much time chatting in front of the coffee machine, but you can’t do the same when they are working remotely. I’m sure a few managers are still going to try to look at the green dot on Slack or some other equally bad proxy, but the reality is that in this new situation the only effective way of gauging productivity is to know how to quantify outputs.

If your manager never understood how much work you actually did, then I have some bad news, maybe for you, but most certainly for them.

COVID XIX: A hope for a new format

I’m a computer scientist and I imagine my audience is mostly people working in tech, but I’ll try to parrot some concepts from the media industry: moving in-person activities to on-line requires us to rethink how (and what) we communicate. The medium has changed and so must the message.

The practical constraints of this new situation have already begun to impose a change in how we work. We can try to hold unto the good things we had before, but eventually we will have to let go of what doesn’t work anymore and open to what now does.

Think about the differences between theater and TV. Until yesterday we all drove to the same place, relatively well-dressed, looking at the scene from multiple angles at once, chatting with who was sitting next to us. Now we’re at home, in our pajamas, looking at the only angle that our colleagues’ webcams offer us.

Could you imagine if all live TV shows were structured like theater operas? We all would find it a weird, less effective way of doing TV, and yet I’m sure that your business is trying right now to maintain the same exact processes it had before, just with Zoom added to the mix.

If you want to hear successful people explain more in detail how a good remote-first workplace looks like, check out this podcast episode titled “The New Future of Work”, where Sam Harris interviews Matt Mullenweg from Automattic. I found it pretty much on point.

Personally, I can’t complain. My company is globally-distributed and as I said, it’s been a good 1.5 years. I’m a Developer Advocate, which means (among other things) that I travel to conferences and try to speak about topics related to what my employer sells. As you can imagine the travel is not happening anymore and that whole industry had to shift everything to an online format. The results are… not great. Granted, there hasn’t been enough time to do much else and I’m sure things will get better, but for now events are airing theatrical operas, basically.

It’s funny to me seeing a lot of professionals in this industry scramble to learn how to use OBS, Discord, Twitch, Mixer, etc. I’ve been watching Twitch for a long time and, what until yesterday was a waste of time, now seems almost a good investment? I wonder how they will react when someone calls them pepega in chat for the first time.

I don’t think that the world will change drastically after the global lockdown ends, but there will be some serious shifts in some industries and no better time to be creative than when new constraints invalidate old assumptions.

While being a better worker won’t make you save any life, it will hopefully make it easier for you to provide for yourself and those you are responsible for, which in the current climate it’s a non trivial achievement.

I started my own Twitch channel where I live code stuff and my first project was a multi-language library that I think came out fairly well so, if you have some time to kill, come gather bugs with me.

Loris Cro