5 Things That I’ve Learned About Working Remotely

In the past couple weeks there was an uproar in the tech community after it was learned that Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer was halting the “work from home” program and telling staff to get to the office. The response among techies was swift and mostly negative as the prevailing opinion was that this sort of “be at the office” mentality was archaic and a poor way to attract top talent.

That said, I‘ve been working (primarily) remotely for the past eight months and definitely see the pros and cons. Microsoft’s Scott Hanselman wrote an insightful post that states that while working remotely is nice, there are also lousy aspects to it. I personally think that not every person, nor every job, makes sense for remote work. If you have poor time management skills at the office, they’ll be even worse when working remote! Also, if the role is particularly collaborative, I find it better to be physically around the team. I simply couldn’t have done my previous job (Lead Architect of Amgen’s R&D division) from home. There were too many valuable interactions that occurred by being around campus, and I would have done a worse job had I only dialed into meetings and chased people down via instant messenger.

In my current job as a Senior Product Manager for Tier 3, working remotely has been a relatively successful endeavor. The team is spread out and we have the culture that makes remote work possible. I’ve learned (at least) five things over these past eight months, and thought I’d share.

  1. Relationship building is key. I learned this one very quickly. Since I’m not physically sitting with the marketing, sales, or engineering team every day, I needed to establish strong relationships with my colleagues so that we could effectively work together. Specifically, I needed them to trust me, and vice versa. If I say that a feature is important for the next sprint, then I want them to believe me. Or if I throw out a technical/strategy question that I need an answer to, I don’t want it ignored. I won’t get respect because of my title or experience (nor should I), but because I’ve proven (to them) that I’m well-prepared and competent to ask questions or push a new feature of our software. I also try give at least as much as I ask. That is, I make sure to actively contribute content and ideas to the team so that I’m not some mooch who does nothing but ask for favors or information from my teammates. I’ve made sure to work hard at creating personal and professional relationships with my whip-smart colleagues, and it’s paid off.
  2. Tools make a difference. All the relationships in the world wouldn’t help me if I couldn’t easily communicate with the team. Between Campfire, Microsoft Lync, GoToMeeting, and Trello, we have a pretty dynamic set of ways to quickly get together, ask questions, share knowledge, and track common activities. Email is too slow and SharePoint is too static, so it’s nice that the whole company regularly uses these more modern, effective ways to get things done. I rarely have “real” meetings, and I’m convinced that this is primarily because there Tier 3 has numerous channels to get answers without corralling 10 people into a conference room.
  3. I‘m measured on output, not hours. I found it interesting that Mayer used data from VPN logs to determine that remote workers weren’t as active as they should have been. It made me realize that my boss has no idea if I work 75 hours or 25 hours in a given week. Most of my access to “work” resources occurs without connecting to a Tier 3 VPN server. But at the same time, I don’t think my boss cares how many hours I work. He cares that I deliver on time, produce high quality work, and am available when the team needs me. If I meander for 75 hours on a low priority project, I don’t earn kudo points. If I crank out a product specification for a new service, quickly intake and prioritize customer requests, and crank out some blog posts and KB articles, then that’s all my boss cares about.
  4. Face time matters. I go up to the Tier 3 headquarters in Bellevue, WA at least one week per month. I wouldn’t have taken this job if that wasn’t part of the equation. While I get a lot done from the home office, it makes a HUGE personal and professional difference to be side-by-side with my colleagues on a regular basis. I’m able to work on professional relationships, sit in on conversations and lunch meetups that I would have missed remotely, and get time with the marketing and sales folks that I don’t interact with on a daily basis when I’m home. Just last week we had our monthly sprint planning session and I was able to be in the room as we assessed work and planned our March software release. Being there in person made it easier for me to jump in to clear up confusion about the features I proposed, and it was great to interact with each of the Engineering leads. Working remotely can be great, but don’t underestimate the social and business impact of showing your face around the office!
  5. Volunteer for diverse assignments. When I took this role, the job description was relatively loose and I had some freedom to define it. So, to make sure that I didn’t get pigeonholed as “that techie guy who works in Los Angeles and writes blog posts,” I actively volunteered to help out the marketing team, sales team, and engineering team wherever it made sense. Prepare a presentation for an analyst briefing? Sure. Offer to write the software’s release notes so that I could better understand what we do? Absolutely. Dig deeper into our SAML support to help our sales and engineering team explain it to customers while uncovering any gaps? Sign me up. Doing all sorts of different assignments keeps the work interesting while exposing me to new areas (and people) and giving me the chance to make an impact across the company.

Working remotely isn’t perfect, and I can understand why a CEO of a struggling company tries to increase efficiency and productivity by bringing people back into the home office. But, an increasing number of people are working remotely and doing a pretty good job at it.

Do any of you primarily work remotely? What has made it successful, or unsuccessful for you?

Author: Richard Seroter

Richard Seroter is Director of Developer Relations and Outbound Product Management at Google Cloud. He’s also an instructor at Pluralsight, a frequent public speaker, the author of multiple books on software design and development, and a former InfoQ.com editor plus former 12-time Microsoft MVP for cloud. As Director of Developer Relations and Outbound Product Management, Richard leads an organization of Google Cloud developer advocates, engineers, platform builders, and outbound product managers that help customers find success in their cloud journey. Richard maintains a regularly updated blog on topics of architecture and solution design and can be found on Twitter as @rseroter.

7 thoughts

  1. Of course I have to reply. Having done work with you & Tier 3, remote was very benificial to our efforts and made our efforts actually possible. I know there would have been no way whatsoever to have had the community involvement, gotten so much moving forward by being chained into an office. Of course Jared & team know this well so it makes the ongoing efforts at Tier 3 honest and straight forward.

    Now I’m with Basho, which I think might even be more distributed from a team perspective. We’ve no central office, no team room, everybody is 100% remote and the engineering team, marketing, and others do a damn good job communicating and moving the ball forward. In both cases, great team at Tier 3 & Basho.

    Amid all this though, I also worked with stellar teams at two other places I worked at, and we were 100% in office. When we left the office, we where done for the day. But we continued to have camaraderie after hours. That was the team at Russell Investments & SCP Pool Corp. Absolutely great teams. Could they have been better or worse having remote workers? Well, in some cases they did. That’s what helped me recently when I went into a brain storming session after Scott Hanselman dropped by the coworking space to hang out for a few and discuss these very things.

    The real key to being remote or in the office isn’t about the location, it’s about… http://compositecode.com/2013/02/27/only-yahoos-work-in-an-office/ <- you'll have to go read my conclusion here, that's why I made the blog entry. 😉 heheee.

    Richard, as always, great write up!

  2. I’m glad that you’ve responded to this issue Richard! As I understand it, Yahoo! *management* were also working from home clearly failing to measure productivity responsibly. Forcing *all* team members to work from the office seems unfair to me when clearly managers were asleep at the wheel.

  3. I work for Citrix and I am a full-time “work shifter” as we call it. Most of my team is in FL.

    #3 is key. It greatly depends on your environment, culture and management, but when people see you daily looking at a computer, they assume you are doing “something.” When you are remote, you are what you produce. This is fine for lots of small tasks, as there will be a stream of completed items coming from you regularly, but when you work on larger items, you have to do a lot more PR on yourself about how you are progressing along and the amount of work involved. Unless you know your environment permits this, you can’t disappear for a few weeks and come back with a big finished project. Whether it makes sense or not, it comes down to your management and culture. Some places are very good at managing remote workers, but your post is very accurate. “Face time” matters. Even if it’s once in a while and on your own dime, make an effort to meet face to face with the folks you interact with on a regular basis.

  4. Great post. I agree that having the right tools make communication much smoother. If I can share my screen, files, camera all in real-time without loosing connection over the web, then I’m sold.

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