I've worked fully remote for half a year now, and learned a lot along the way.
Even though I live in Berlin, so there are easily a hundred companies within 30 minutes’ from me that I could potentially work for, when I decided it was time for the next step in my career I didn’t choose to go with any of those companies.
To clarify, I see the phrase “the next step in my career” as very different to “a new job”. The latter, at least to me, implies a more lateral move, where my office, colleagues, and codebases change, but realistically little else. On the other hand, I was after some new experience to put under my belt, which is why I decided to take a remote job.
Coming from an engineering manager role at a unicorn to working remotely at a far, far smaller company hasn’t always come naturally to me thus far - but that was exactly the sort of challenge I was looking for.
So, seven or eight months in, let’s take the common preconceptions about remote work that friends and family have asked me about, and see how they stack up against my experiences thus far.
Preconception: “I could never be remote, I would miss the social interaction”
You got me. I do really miss the guy who would wander around the open office space with his laptop open, talking loudly on a Skype call without headphones. I also really miss pungent tuna salad guy, and the team loudly playing table football all afternoon while I’m trying to concentrate on my impending deadline.
Okay, sarcasm over, I do sometimes miss cracking open a beer with my old colleagues at 5pm on a Friday, and obviously I’ve met a whole bunch of my friends through work. But also, nothing is stopping me from heading to the old office to meet them on a Friday evening - that’s something I’d much rather commute for than a job! All in all, I wouldn’t recommend beginning working remotely in a new town or city, before building up any relationships. And it’s definitely more effort to keep that network active when you’re not seeing each other every day, but you can make it work.
It does help that nobody has to see me in the morning before I’ve had coffee. That’s probably better for everyone involved.
Having my own environment
I’ve always been more productive in my own space, not least because - as alluded to above - there’s a distinct lack of distracting sounds and smells in my apartment. The other side of me not being able to see or hear anyone else is, hopefully, that nobody can see or hear me. Having my own music on - without headphones! - and having the space and privacy to dance around the office while waiting for CI to finish… well, it’s one of those small pleasures in life.
My environment extends to the equipment I use as well. Not only do I get my choice of laptop, monitor, standing desk, and chair, but I can move to the sofa whenever I feel like it, and I can make a call from anywhere - no need to hunt for a free room to make it from! It’s incredible, in hindsight, how much time hunting for, booking, and kicking people out of meeting rooms used to take out of my day.
Preconception: “It must take a lot of discipline to work alone”
First and foremost, I’m not alone. I have a whole bunch of wonderful colleagues, who I’m in touch with for a lot of the day! Tools for remote work have got so much better in the past few years, and we’ve tried a lot of them. From remote presence indicators like Sococo and Pragli, to chat tools like Twist, Slack, and Discord, to video conferencing tools like Zoom and Whereby. In some cases, thousands of miles separate us - but in others, my colleagues are right in my apartment with me.
And, as much as would be the case were I in an office, I’m accountable to them. Sure, I have the luxury of being able to take an hour and watch some TV, but I wouldn’t let my colleagues down in the same way as I trust them not to let me down.
In fact, the discipline with being remote goes the other way: without the cues from those in the vicinity, and exacerbated by working across multiple timezones, there’s no indicator that it’s time to take lunch, or stop working altogether in the evening. The discipline comes with leaving the problem for the next morning, with exiting my IDE rather than writing one more unit test, with stepping out to take 45 minutes walking around the city rather than having a sandwich at my desk. There’ve been a great many days where I’ve honestly failed miserably at just, well, stopping. Having a clear separation between work and home is simply much harder when they’re one and the same.
So yes, it does take a lot of discipline, just not in the way those who came to me with that preconception meant. Still, this isn’t the hardest part of remote life, at least for me.
Knowledge sharing: the real hard part
For all the sophistication of today’s remote tooling, I’ve yet to find anything that quite matches face-to-face communication - at least when it comes to learning, teaching, and onboarding.
In person, I can pair with an engineer stuck on a problem, or work collaboratively on software architecture by leading an event storming session. To take a real example, teaching engineers about making changes to our infrastructure (i.e. with Terraform) and making sure they’re set up correctly to be able to make these changes locally would be a breeze collocated; the barrier of having to arrange a call, set up screen sharing and the works has significantly impacted the dissemination of this knowledge. It’s hard to overstate the impact of this kind of barrier to entry (it’s the exact phenomenon that can prevent exercising or eating healthily, for example, so not just pertinent to remote work). Relying on documentation is so often a non-starter in any team that it’s practically laughable, and while we’ve experimented with screencasts they’re not great for having the information you need for any given moment readily accessible.
While there are a few really neat tools for remote pairing out there, we’re still evaluating which (if any) work for us. Fingers crossed finding the right one helps solve this problem for me.
Is remote work for you?
The question to ask yourself is: what’s your goal, at this point in your career? Personally, I’d identified that remote knowledge sharing was going to be tricky, and that’s the challenge I chose to take on. If your goal is to learn and become a better engineer / designer / product manager / whatever, then honestly that learning is going to be so much more accelerated in person.
Additionally, despite what I said above, I can think of a couple of people in particular who probably would miss the social interaction of working physically with a team. These tend to be the more outgoing types who thrive off the energy of social interactions, rather than expending energy in these situations. So, as always, different horses for different courses.
Having that said, my experience - at this point in my career - with remote work has been very positive. Things change, of course, and I wouldn’t necessarily rule out working in an office again in a few years’ time, but for now, I’m loving having an environment conducive to concentration and the extra hour or more in my day that I’m not spending commuting. So, if you’re considering your first remote job, think about what you’re looking to gain from it. If you’re in a similar situation to me, it might just be for you.