I’ve been working remotely for more than two years now, and I thought I’d add my own experience to the rather large amount of similar posts out there on the web.
First some background. I’m a long time Coveo employee, and before going remote I worked on-site for many years. I’m a Canadian who, having married a frenchwoman, now lives in France. My job is split between development and some management, with a strong emphasis on the former. I head a 7 person strong team responsible for our Salesforce integration, JS UI front-end and REST backend, and also our mobile apps.
One particular (I think) aspect of my own situation is the 6 hours time zone difference between me and the home office. Also, I should note that most Coveo R&D staff are on-site, although we do have some other remote developers but none as far away as me.
When thinking about remote work, communication is always the first thing coming up, so I’ll dedicate this post to this topic.
Find ways to build social ties
When I started working remotely, I learned quickly that you can’t depend only on email, scheduled meetings and phone calls to properly interact with coworkers. Social relationships are built on more than strict information transfer; and you need to form ties with your coworkers in order to create a productive environment. In an on-site setup this happens through casual conversations (the coffee machine comes to mind). In short, you need a way to hang out with the folks.
Here at Coveo we use Slack to host chat rooms dedicated to various topics. Each team typically has a room that members use to discuss various topics. Other employees can also use that channel to ask questions, enquire about issues they are having, etc. Discussions often fall outside of strictly work-related subjects (we even have a #phones channel), and that’s a great thing for remote workers, as it replaces in part the casual conversations you’d have up in the hallway.
Now, for 100% remote teams, maybe Slack (or any similar service) is good enough, but in my case I’m working with a bunch of folks sitting right next to each other. Often they’ll find it easier to just discuss something instead of bringing the discussion to Slack.
What I came up with is using a permanent Google Hangout running on an old laptop sitting in the office near my teammates. Whenever I’m working at the same time as folks in Quebec, I’ll connect to this hangout and let the audio feed play on my laptop speakers. I also put the video feed in a small window in the corner of one of my (numerous) screens. This way, the hangout feels like a window to the office. I can hear conversations between my teammates, and jump in whenever I like (which I do quite often, being of the opinionated trollish kind).
Some might think that’s creepy having a coworker essentially eavesdropping all conversations, but when you think about it I’d hear the same stuff if I was sitting there, and whenever I’m connected my face is shown on full screen, so it’s pretty obvious I’m “here”. In fact, I never had anyone complain about that situation. I did frighten some of the cleaning staff while doing tests, but that’s another story.
On top of that, 4 or 5 times a year I jump on a plane and go spend a week or two at the office. It’s essentially a social operation; there is not really any task that requires me to be onsite, but to me it’s essential nonetheless. By going there I’m able to meet people with whom I’d otherwise never talk just because we work on unrelated things. I try to use the opportunity to go and meet new hires, although with the company growing it’s becoming somewhat harder. Also, having the opportunity to go drink a beer with the guys really helps with the whole social relationship thing I’ve mentioned earlier.
Be good at email
The last thing I wanted to mention is that, as a remote worker, you need to be good at email. Even with all the futuristic stuff I mentioned above, email is going to be a big part of your life. Personally this is something I haven’t mastered yet, but I’m getting better… I think.
Sometimes, there is a situation or an opinion that I need to convey to someone. When I was on-site, I’d just barge in that person’s office and trust body language and frantic hand movements to put the right emphasis on things. By looking at his/her reaction I’d get a good feeling of how my message was being understood and interpreted. Not so much with email.
My first reaction to that was to include as much information as possible in my emails. I created long, flowing dissertations painstakingly explaining the minute details of whatever was my subject. And nobody read them. Hell, you’re probably not even reading this far into this post.
So my advice is: keep those email short, and to the point. Re-read them, and remove every word or sentence that isn’t important. You’ll certainly omit details, but you’ll be able to reach people. There is always replies or followup discussions to work on the subtler nuances.
There are so many much more things to discuss about being a remote worker. In fact I removed whole paragraphs from this post; I might use them in a followup sometime. Anyway. That’s it for now.