Monday, January 11, 2010

A Year Alone

January 13 will mark a year that I have been working remotely.  It's been interesting.  I looked back on some of my posts during this time and remembered how I felt when I wrote those posts.  Since June I've been working remotely - but in the same city as my office.  This has allowed me the best of both worlds and I highly recommend remote working in this way. 

I thought that after a year I would jot down some of what I've learned and a few tips for those in similar shoes.

  • If possible, use a VO/IP connection to your office so that your co-workers just need to dial your extension.  If VO/IP is not possible arrange to keep your extension and forward it.  Either use the capabilities of your employer's phone system to forward seamlessly (Avaya calls it EC500) or forward to Google Voice or similar (if you need a GV invite send me an email.  I've got a few).  The goal is to make contacting you as easy as possible for your co-workers.
  • Become a virtuoso on your phone system.  Of all features - know how to make conference calls for cripes sake!
  • Don't expect your co-workers to provide you with any information about what's going on.  They are used to seeing you in the office and assume that you know the full story.
  • Have at least a weekly meeting with your boss and specifically ask him/her what is going on.  What projects are in play that week. What meetings are going on. Who is doing what.  Put it on your list of questions and maybe explain why you always ask the same questions.  I'm terrible at this and always think I'll remember.
  • Call your buddies in the office a couple of times a week (put this on your calendar) just to chat for a few minutes.  Ask them the same questions that you ask your boss.  You are missing about a half dozen "walk by" meetings a day.  You have to make up for that.
  • Find and use remote meeting tools.  Don't force them on anyone else.  If you are attending someone else's meeting remotely - it's your job to contact them and setup the meeting tools for your use.  (my favorite is DimDim. Works like gotomeeting but it's free for meetings up to 20 - including a conference bridge!)
  • Don't waste too much time on video conferencing.   Skype is great.  The screen sharing feature is great and the voice quality is outrageous but unless you are doing an interview,  forget the video.  It's intrusive, and makes both parties self conscious for some reason. I've found that it's actually detrimental unless there is more than one party on one end.
  • If you can arrange it - have someone setup a PTZ web cam in any meetings you attend. (Thank you Rob!)  For some reason my personal understanding of what happens during a meeting goes from about 60% to about 90% when this is available.  There is also the added bonus that those in the room see the camera move and it gives you a physical presence on their end as well.
  • When you are on the phone.  Close your door and hit Mute when not speaking.  Just this morning I got to enjoy the sounds of a mother "whispering" to her daughter and some jackass eating (crunching) cereal during a technical troubleshooting call.
  • Realize that by working at home you have just gotten back the time it takes to dress for the office, as well as the commute time.  Use it.  Sleep late.  Work in your PJs. Get in some extra reading time, or arrange to drive your kids to school and get that little bit more time with them.
  • Working at home also gives you back the time that you would spend in "walk by" meetings and general BS contact you would have at the office.  Replace this with minor home tasks (or by calling your "buddies" at the office as above).   If not you will find that you have issues.   I actually have a hard time remembering to eat lunch since there is no-one around to remind me.  I also had difficulty early on - working myself out of a job.  I would sit down and concentrate without breaks and then find I had a weeks worth of work done only a few days into the week - and my back was excruciating.   Now I (try) to get up once an hour, at the end of phone calls, or when I complete a task and go fill the dishwasher,  change loads in the washing machine and sometimes go out for lunch.  This makes my day match up better with the office (and it helps to keep my house in better order).
  • Control your hours.  This sounds obvious but is MUCH harder than you think.  I have been reminded many times by my kids Saturday morning - or at 9pm when they have been waiting patiently for dinner...  Watch yourself.  If it starts to be a problem I suggest setting an alarm for say 6:30pm everyday.  make a deal with yourself to turn off the PC no matter what at that time.  I personally have to shut down my workstation.  If I leave it running the temptation to "just check" on things is too strong.
  • Exercise.  You get more than you think working in an office.  Running up a floor or two for a meeting.  Going to the lobby to visit the caffeine pusher.  Walking to the printer and on and on.  Mitigate this.  Schedule a dog walk mid afternoon.  Move your printer downstairs. Whatever will get you out of your chair and moving for 15 minutes every once in a while.  If not - join a gym or just go for a walk with a friend and meet them every day.
  • If you can work from home in the same city with your company.  Find a place to land in the office - take your laptop and keep regular office hours every week.  Let everyone know when you will be there.  Pick a meeting or two in your department and attend in person.  Done appropriately no one will even know you work from home.

I've made a few mistakes but overall after a year my co-workers have adjusted and are used to including me via speaker phone.  My telephone setup has been so successful that I now regularly get asked where I'm at.  Ive been so available that the only downside is that I get calls at times that I never would have in the past.  Maybe it was living in a different time zone that caused this.  I often get calls on my office line at 8 or 9pm - or worse 5am... 

Overall this has been fantastic for me.  I've been able to be available for my sons.  I get the dream (for a geek) of having the quietest office possible.  Now that I'm in the same city with my home office I also have the luxury of being in the office when I need to physically touch stuff or when I just need human interaction for a day.  

I think it's been great for the company too.  They don't need to provide the office to me (even though they do keep a small area just for me anyway - thank you!) and they got to keep a long time - trusted - employee, that might otherwise have had to change jobs due to life circumstances.  I'm not trying to overstate my importance to my employer here.  If you've never managed a group you won't understand how important this can be.   Just do a little googling on "employee retention" and you will start to see - at least from the monetary aspect. 

I also want to make sure that I make it clear - my boss at the time my life required such a dramatic change - was many things.  A good boss, interested, compassionate, a good friend, and above all, smart.  I want to publicly thank him for being so forward thinking.  I also want to thank my current boss (who's been with me for most of this past year) for the things he's done to help make this a success.   Which brings me to my final tip:

Working remotely when you have been an office worker for years requires more than the right equipment and a willing employee.  It requires a team.  An engaged employee willing to put extra work into the arrangement.  Searching for solutions and being creative.  It requires a manager that wants the relationship to be successful and co-workers that know and trust you.  If you are missing any of the above...  Well, good luck.

Thank you to my team!

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