A few years ago, a coworker said to me, "Don’t you think it’s strange that this office is so quiet? It’s a little depressing."
I used to work for a small company in a huge office with high ceilings, no cubicles, large windows and big, beautiful plants.
We had weekly deliveries of groceries, free (really good) coffee and soda, great travel budgets and the company was profitable.
Yet, it was eerily quiet every day - uncomfortable, even. There was no camaraderie that the open office environment was supposed to promote.
It was like there was some sort of unspoken agreement that we were there to just do our jobs and go home.
The point of this is to illustrate that although you may have a great office space, you may not always be able to create a great place to work.
Fast forward to today, where even though my home office is still quiet, there is a genuine sense of mutual trust and friendship that exists among my coworkers.
We’re a virtual team, and we’ve created a working environment as good as or better than any team in an office.
There are many benefits to remote work, and here are a few that we value:
Commuting via car can be great - you have a little time to drink some coffee, listen to music, and get geared up for the day.
Until the cars start slowing to a snail’s pace, and the usual route now has a construction detour, and the bridge starts to open right when you approach it.
Getting to work via metro or bus can be great too - except the days the bus is late, or the driver pulls away without seeing you running and gasping for air, arms flailing, so you have to wait for the next one.
Oh yeah, and the red line is only running every 20 minutes today because of the ice on the tracks, and you have to wait at your stop’s platform that’s outside and freezing.
How about biking? Definitely the way to go if you have bike lanes where you live, and the weather is nice most of the year.
Then you’re (hopefully) taking the time to shower when you get to work, yet it’s likely that shower wasn’t cleaned by the last person who used it.
My commute? About 15 feet. No traffic, construction, bad weather, or dirty showers.
All the New Online Technology
Gone are the days when I thought it was cool to use IRC. Now, our team uses all kinds of cool tools to communicate and get work done.
First, there’s Slack. What oh what did we ever do without you? You allow us to be always on, in addition to telling us everything that’s important in our business - from what type of beer John and Tony had at the London pub to who tweeted about us to who just signed up for a Lucid account.
Then there’s Skype, with your fantastically clear audio. I don’t think I’ve used my phone for work but a handful of times.
Lucid, of course, handles both our internal and external meetings plus what action items we’re working on.
Time with Family and Friends
It’s important to spend time with the ones you love - I shouldn’t have to tell you that. Commuting to and from work takes time away from your personal life, and you don’t get that time back later on.
You only get one life - work shouldn’t be your only priority.
There are a few drawbacks to remote working, although not many:
The Team is Too Damn Effective
We’ve hired some great people. They get things done. And sometimes we find ourselves wondering what to do next.
Because we can and have hired people for their talent, not their location, we get a lot done in a short period of time. Is there such a thing as being too productive?
We Are Forced to Communicate Clearly and Often
Because there are no visual cues from body language, our team tends to communicate in multiple ways - with chat, emoticons, VoIP, and regular weekly meetings.
We always know what everyone else is doing because we assign action items and tell each other what we did and what we plan to do next.
Very predictable, I know. Where’s the novelty here?
The Daily Wardrobe Has Gone to Hell
Let’s just say my fashion sense has gone from “look at my new shirt” to "please don’t call me on video today."
Timezone Differences Are a Pain
I have an entire morning in which to work, free of distraction. I wish someone would walk up to my desk to interrupt what I’m doing to tell me about their kid’s school play last night (or their thoughts on politics, or the new religion they’ve started).
Getting in the “flow” or “zone" where you can fully concentrate is highly overrated.
My Eating Habits Are Unreasonably Healthy
Because there’s time to throw a whole chicken in the oven or whip up a roasted beet and goat cheese salad at lunch, meals have become painfully nutritious and wholesome.
I’m no longer taking my microwavable Cedarlane chile rellenos to the office or dining at the closest establishment yet again, and because of this my poor waistline has been shrinking.
What we’ve learned
In all seriousness, although there are tons of benefits from working remotely - fewer cars on the road, lower overhead costs, flexible schedules, more focus - there are also challenges.
Remote work isn’t for everyone. To build a great remote team, you must:
Hire good, technically competent people
If the people on your team are ineffective, having them remote will make this worse. It’s very easy to go invisible as a remote worker, and hard to tell the difference between quiet and incompetent.
The people on your team must be computer literate, comfortable adopting new technologies, and have a decent internet connection. They must be reasonably articulate and manage distraction well - easier said than done, but without this one your remote team can’t work.
Great teams thrive on radical transparency. It can be difficult to keep everyone in the loop at all times, so be proactive and err on the side of over-communication.
Meet more, not less, and maintain one or more common places for posting updates and tracking work status.
Expect accountability and build trust
Trust can be difficult for remote teams, especially those that don’t know each other well.
Building a culture of accountability and creating a clear path to getting things done will help keep your people structured and happy.
They will know what’s expected of them, understand that coworkers depend on them, and feel satisfied when they’re challenged to produce. In the process, they create the trust they need to excel.
Create and respect a Do Not Disturb mechanism
Tools like group chat can create the expectation that anyone can be interrupted at any time to answer a question or chit chat.
Create and agree on a way for people to shut their virtual door, so to speak, so they can focus on detailed tasks when needed.
Humor can go a long way to keep the team’s spirits high - never underestimate the power of a good joke.
Face Time Still Rules
No matter how excellent your remote team may be, getting the team together every so often can do wonders for creativity and productivity.
When you’re at a retreat or only together for a short period, you tend to share more meals, more down time, and great brainstorming sessions.
We love the way we work, but there’s no replacement for kicking back with my coworkers in person with a good burger, some Oregon Pinot, and a butterscotch budino.