Christian Heilmann

On working remotely and efficiency

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I am a lucky, lucky man. I do the job I love and I do it from where I live. Well, technically – with my travel schedule I mostly do it from hotel rooms, airport lounges, trains and coffee shops. In any case though, I am lucky. My company supports and pays people who do not work in an office with everybody else. Even more astounding – my whole team does this: six people in six time zones.

At a meeting we all had we discussed that phenomenon a bit and my boss gave a quick internal lighting talk on the subject of working remotely. We also had quite a few conversations about this when we had our 1:1 meetings and I want to share a few of the observations we both had.

A lot of companies don’t like people working remotely as it is disruptive to a normal office schedule. It can also breed jealousy in the people who have to commute every day to the office. When you offer the option to people though it is amazing what can happen if you play your cards right:

  • More output – I find myself constantly feeling guilty of not doing enough (and that is a common feeling). Being visible in an office and available for quick meetings gives you a false comfort of having achieved something. You might not have – you have just been busy. If all people see is what you produced (this could be code, documentation, emails or whatever else) you concentrate much more on the production rather than the talk about it. True, this might mean that things get written that are not 100% what is needed, but at least things get done.
  • More documentation – as everybody is distributed and not on the same time zone it becomes much more important to document what you do. This leaves a trail of what has been done before that can be used to hand over work to others if a person gets sick or leaves the company.
  • Efficient use of communication tools – instead of meeting in a room at a certain time or impromptu the channels of communication of the web become much more important to have a quick chat. In Mozilla we use Skype, IRC, various messengers, phones and video chat. Again, as we are relying on these for information and communication we use them more sensibly than you normally would. Your status on a messenger is a very important tool to tell your colleagues what is going on and avoid them asking for help and not hearing anything for hours. Messaging evolves from a distraction into a lifeline.
  • Collaborative writing – we tend to use Etherpad before and during our meetings to take care of deliveries, goals and actions. By having everyone edit at the same time you collect an amazing amount of information quickly without having a single “meeting note taker” and then hope people will read it. When you were part of the process you are much more likely to read up later on.
  • Sequential production – being in different time zones means you can work on the same product in sequence. I can write a text in London in my morning and send it on to my colleagues for review in the afternoon. They can hand it on to another person to add more content and I can finally review it the morning after and put it live. By the time the whole of Europe has tweeted, talked and commented on it the US uptake will be much higher because the content already comes with better reputation.
  • Independence and trust – when you are not sitting next to another you are much more empowered to work on your own terms. This can be in a cafe, in your bed or on a train. As people can not look over your shoulder and constantly see what you are doing it breeds a culture of trust. You just expect your colleagues to do right as they are mostly reporting to their own peace of mind.
  • Life is less disrupted – companies spend a lot of money on on-site restaurants, gyms and dry cleaning. All things to keep people locked in a golden cage and make their lives easier although they have these things at home. My favourite example is missing deliveries when I am in the office. Not every company delivers to addresses not connected to a credit card. So many a time I missed a “9 to 5” delivery of some product as I was at work and had to wait till the weekend until I had time to pick it up from the depot. Now I just work and get things delivered without me chasing after them.

Jason Fried covered a few of these things in his “Why work doesn’t happen at work” talk and while a lot of it should be taken with a grain of salt, I for one am very happy with what I am doing right now.

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