My Five Rules for Remote Working

A couple of weeks ago, there was a stir (again) about remote working and its succes and/or failure: it was reported that Reddit, the website where many people lose countless of hours, were forcing all their employees to move to SF. After a similar thing happened at Yahoo last year it made me think about why remote work is such a huge success for us at Activiti and Alfresco.

You see, I’m a remote worker for more than five years now. First at Red Hat and then at Alfresco. I worked a couple of years as Java consultant before that, so I’ve seen my share of office environments (checking my Linkedin, it comes down to about 10 different office environments). I had to go to these offices each day.

Comparing those experiences, I can – without exaggeration – say that I’m way more productive nowadays, working from home. Many people (both in and outside IT) ask me how I do it. They say “they couldn’t do it”. Maybe that’s true. Maybe some people need a lot of people around them. But for the kind of job I am into – developing software – I believe having a lot of people around me doesn’t aid me in writing higher quality software faster.

Anyway, like I said, I did some thinking around it and I came to the following “rules” which I have been following all these years which I believe are crucial (at least for me!) to making remote working a success.

dilbert_remote

(comic from http://www.dilbert.com/ )

Rule 1: The Door

Having a separate space to work is crucial when wanting do serious remote working. Mentally it is important that you can close “The Door” of your office space when you finished working. It brings some kind of closure to the working day.

Many people, when they work from home, put their laptop on let’s say the kitchen table. That doesn’t work. It is not a space that encourages work. There are distractions everywhere (kids that come home, food very close by, …). But most importantly, there is no distinction between when you are working and when you are not.

My wife and kids they know and understand that when The Door is closed, I’m at work. I can’t be disturbed until that Door opens. But when I close The Door in the evening and come downstairs, they also know that I’m fully available for them.

My door!

My door!

Rule 2: The Gear

The second rule is related to the first one: what to put in that room. The answer is simple: only the best. A huge desk, a big-ass 27″ monitor (or bigger), a comfortable chair (your ass spends a lot of time on it), the fastest internet you can buy, some quality speakers, a couple of cool posters and family pictures on the wall, ….

This is the room where you spend most of your time in the week, so you need to make it a place where you love to go to.

My setup

My setup

Often, I hear from people which company allows for remote work that their company should pay for all of this. I think that’s wrong. It’s a two-way street: your company gives you the choice, privilege and trust to work from home, so you from your side must take care that your home office isn’t decreasing anything compared to the office gear you have. Internet connection, chair and computer monitor are probably the most important bits here. If you try to be cheap on any of those, you’ll repay it in decreased productivity.

Rule 3: The Partner

Your partner is of utmost importance to make remote work a success. Don’t be fooled by the third place here, when your partner is not into it, all the other points are useless.

It’s pretty simple and comes down to one core agreement you need to make when working from home: when you are working from home you are not “at home”. When you work, there is no time for cleaning the house, doing the dishes, mowing the grass, etc … You are at work, and that needs to be seen as a full-time, serious thing. Your partner needs to understand that when you would do any of these things, it would be bad for your career.

Many people think this is easy, but I’ve seen many fail. A lot of people still see working from home as something that is not the same as “regular work”. They think you’ve got all the time in the world now. Wrong. Talk it through with your partner. If he/she doesn’t see it (or is jealous), don’t do it.

Rule 4: Communicate, communicate, communicate

More than a team in an office, you need to communicate. If you don’t communicate, you simply don’t exist.

At Activiti, we are skyping a lot during the day. We all know exactly what the other team members are currently doing. We have an informal agreement that we don’t announce a call typically. You just press the ‘call’ button and the other side has to pick it up and respond. It’s the only way remote work can work. Communicate often.

Also important: when you are away from your laptop, say it in a common chat window. There is nothing as damaging for remote workers as not picking up Skype/Phone for no reason.

Rule 5: Trust People

The last rule is crucial. Working remote is based on trust. Unlike in the office, there is no physical proof that you are actually working (although being physically in an office is not correlated with being productive!). You need to trust people that they do their job. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to check up on people’s work (for us, those are the commits) and ask the questions why something is taking longer than expected. Trust grows both ways.

The second part of this trust-story is that there needs to be trust from the company to the team. If that trust is missing, your team won’t be working remote for long. At Activiti, we are very lucky to have Paul Holmes Higgin as our manager. He is often in the office of Alfresco and makes sure that whatever we are doing is known to the company and vice versa. He attends many of the (online) meetings that happen company wide all the time so that we are free to code. There is nothing as bad for a remote team as working in isolation.

 

Conclusion

So those are my five (personal!) rules I follow when working from home. With all these bad press from the likes of Reddit and Yahoo, I thought it was time for some positive feedback. Remote work is perfect for me: it allows me to be very productive, while still being able to see my family a lot. Even though I put in a lot of hours every week, I’m still seeing my kids grow up every single day and I am there for them when they need me. And that is something priceless.

Does this sound cool to you? Well, at Alfresco we are still hiring people to work on Activiti!

11 Comments

  1. Jim Kath October 22, 2014

    I agree with all of the above. Number three is definitely the topmost important item; sometimes your spouse just won’t understand why you can’t address the “honey do” list because after all, you ARE at home. They really need to be on board. I’ve been working remotely for about ten years with various companies and for three of those years I even lived in a foreign country and simply adjusted my hours to match those of the office; they hardly noticed the fact that I was on a completely different continent. I have been a coder for thirty years so companies can see my track record and speak with past employers about my reliability. I not only am available for them while at my desk (in my dedicated room for an office) but by cell phone on the off-hours in case they need me. I have also worked in at least 20 other jobs over the past thirty years where I had to sit in an office all day (and some places I even had to wear a suit and tie every day, yuk) and I can without a doubt say that telecommuting has made me more productive plus all the other benefits that employers don’t think about like the office space they don’t need to pay for, the coffee they don’t need to pay for etc; if more people at my company telecommuted my employer could downsize to a smaller office space and save a ton of money. I don’t understand Yahoo and Reddit other than maybe their employees are young and directly out of school and don’t yet have the discipline to work from home; because it does take a lot of discipline at first but eventually is habit. The only thing better than telecommuting is a 4-day work week… that’s the next thing I’m going to try for 🙂

  2. ilx October 22, 2014

    This is so true. I’m working remotely for 8 months now and have the same experience. You need supportive partner, separate room, inspirative work environment and you need to communicate.

  3. Joram Barrez October 23, 2014

    @Jim: Thanks for sharing, awesome! A four day work week you say …. hmmm that does sound appealing 😉

    @ilx: Thanks! Glad that the ‘rules’ do hold for more people!

  4. Lisa November 16, 2014

    Nice read! I’ve been working remotely for 7 years. I agree with all of these ideals. #3 is funny though because if your spouse doesn’t get it then you have much bigger problems than figuring out how to best work at home. Sort of like saying, you really need a home to work at home. 😉

    Also all the talk of a comfy chair made me think that trying out a standing or treadmill workstation might be good for part of the day.

    Thanks for writing on this topic!

  5. Patty December 18, 2014

    Love Your 5 Rules

    I’ve been working remotely for 14 years now, with the occasional trip into a client site. It took me a few years to strike a balance–initially finding it challenging to deal with the possible distractions at home (laundry, cleaning, personal phone calls, etc) but then ending up at the other end of the spectrum–not being able to “shut work off” (working with an international team contributed to this as meetings often happened at all hours of the day and night).

    I have found that it helps to have a routine and to make a point to take breaks–walk around the neighborhood, eat lunch in a different room, etc. Managing by results is also much more important than managing by “face time”…which supports Rule #4 and the importance of communication. All the other rules can be in place but if communication isn’t there (up and down) then things are bound to break down eventually.

  6. Joram Barrez December 19, 2014

    @Patty: Awesome! 14 years, that makes you quite the expert.

    Your point about eating in a different room makes a lot of sense. You need to physically get away from your desk even more if you work from home.

    And your point about managing by results should indeed be in my list here, now I think of it.

    Thanks for your comment, really appreciated.

  7. Shanmuganath January 19, 2016

    I also love your 5 rules, I have been working in office for 12 years, I am trying to get work from home for first time.

    your point in closing the office door in the evening makes lot of sense. You have to get work and family well balanced.

    thank you for your writing.

  8. Zoeldev May 4, 2016

    Thank you for this awesome article.

  9. Zain August 1, 2016

    @Jim Thanks for sharing such nice post.

    This post really helped me to remain positive about my remote job.

    When I was at location-based job before, usually I spent 2-3 hours daily in travelling/traffic. I had a shorter day (21 hours) than normal human beings do (24 hours). Thanks to my new remote job which undone the effect of shrinking. Remote job is changing my way of life. I like it very much. I feel more productive and having much more time for doing stuff. My days are expanded.

  10. Ayo Ogundele September 29, 2016

    This is very handy.
    Its very important that people like me looking to start working from home know all these rules and more. There somethings that i would have never though of when I eventually get a remote job, like letting my partner know that when work starts, I am actually at work and should not be asked to do house work.

    Thanks for this

  11. […] people equate remote and flexible working with “working from home”, once a euphemism for a duvet day where you check in by phone to keep up appearances. Maybe that […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *