Tags All Entries

Remote Work

Introduction

This document is a primer on working remotely effectively. I attempt to summarize the avalanche of one-main-point articles/blogs that have proliferated in the pandemic. There are two other primers linked in this document worth reading/skimming: Remote Work Guide and managing working remotely. Finally, there are also long form handbooks for teams that were already remote, such as GitLab’s.

Self

Routine

  • Try to keep steady or at least predictable hours
  • Create start and end ceremonies for the day to get into the mindset1
    • One person suggested having a lamp that is on during work and off when not working as a signal2
    • Keep your “commute” - Go for a walk or other “resetting” activity to start/end the day3
  • Avoid notification fatigue and mute notifications when working deeply1
  • Take regular breaks but avoid mixing work and non-work activities1
  • Dress up for work 1,3, while you don’t need to wear formal attire, changing clothes can be an important context clue on when work is starting/ending.
  • Prepping lunch the night before avoids a disruption to the flow of the day4. This is a subjective choice, some may prefer the break.
  • Turn some meetings into walking meetings4 for exercise and fresh air.

Hardware Setup

Work focus

  • Working remotely can require us to work on more items and be comfortable with either a) solving problems ourselves b) be comfortable with longer periods of being “stuck” and switch to other unblocked activities 1
    • This implies more adaptability to context switching and diligence about following through on your blocked items
    • On the other side, we should seek to unblock others whenever possible since they are experience the same constraint

Team

General

Communication

Favor proactive communication and unblocking, you have to help yourself more and go out of your to help others since you cannot organically pick up “help needed” tells from them1.

Be judicious in communication medium (Email, Slack/Skype, Phone Call, and Video Conference) based on message and the goal (especially within the context of whether to chose sync v. async)1.

Writing

Context

Favor communicating more context over less. Gathering context and follow up questions becomes that much harder with async communication1, so if you as the writer preemptively meet this need, you can cutdown on the back and forth.

Context checklist1:

  • Why this?
  • What happened previously?
  • Where is the relevant data? (links!!!)
  • What info is required?
  • Who needs to be informed?
  • Action items (What needs to be done/decided)
  • What/Who are the dependencies/dependent of this?
  • Don’t assume/ask for a solution. Explain the problem and what you did

Disagreement

Remote disagreement communication is harder over asynchronous channels because of the activation potential (do I really want to go to the effort of composing my thoughts in writing), the feedback lag, and the lack of tonality. These awkward forces need to be resisted and weakened so that healthy disagreement can occur6.

One more idea is to have a “safe word” when someone disagrees with the direction of a project or program. This can signal their intent for constructive disagreement and prime the person(s) receiving the feedback to remember that the disagreement is intended to be constructive6.

Meetings

  • Hosting / Administrating

    • As the host schedule meetings at x:05 or X:35 and get there at X:00 to make sure all technology is set up for a distributed meeting7,8.

    • Use video meetings sparingly, the overhead is high and favor lower overhead meetings such as phone or chat where possible9

    • Assign a facilitator or “spotter” to help the meeting along and look for when remote people are waiting to speak7,cite: 8.

      • Alternatively, establish norms for getting “air-time”
    • Given the likelihood that the Distributed folks missed something during the meeting – which is a thing to be fixed – the distribution of the meeting notes are a critical feedback loop for everyone in the room7.

  • Videoconferencing

    • Mute by default / only unmute when you are speaking4,9.

      • It has been suggested that conversation might be more organic with mute not being default and the use of AI software to filter out background noise[8]. This may be a good idea for long run smaller meetings (pair programming), but seems fraught with peril in larger meetings where disruptions are much more likely. Favor mute until this approach is proven.
    • Have a clear background and try to define a space for your call if possible7,9.

      • Reduce on-screen stimuli, turn off self-view and in general favor plain backgrounds for other’s sake10.
    • Smile and nod vigorously to allow speakers to have a more organic experience of presenting or speaking to the group4.

    • Note taking is easier and less disruptive during meetings, use the opportunity4!

    • Avoid multitasking, video conferencing invites the quick-switch to Slack/Teams/Email, but the switching costs can de-rail the meeting and your productivity in it10.

    • Virtual social events should be opt-in. This is COVID lockdown specific, but the fatigue of video conferencing for work all day can leave participants less than enthusiastic about participating10.

    • Avoid defaulting to VC for external calls10.

    • Take breaks, attempt to build windows into your schedule or offset the meeting times from the hour as suggested above10.

For technical workers, the switch to remote work was already in progress in the 2010s and was only accelerated by the pandemic. Hackernews job postings featuring remote work went from 35% to 75% pre to mid-pandemic11.

While remote work is often derided for reducing spontaneous interactions, it does allow for new forms of interaction:

  • Remote screen sharing
  • Collaborative / transcribed brain storming

Interactions were effortless, but not necessarily better12.

  • Idea of having meeting free days in the week13

Remote Decision making

In remote meetings, be particularly sensitive to the fact that silence does not mean acceptance or consensus. Silence can mean distraction 14.

References

1.
2.
3.
Goldguss, A. Work in the Time of Corona. Alice goldfuss (2020).
4.
Zhuo, J. Managing Remotely. The looking glass (2020).
5.
6.
7.
Lopp, M. A Distributed Meeting Primer. Rands in repose (2019).
8.
Frisch, B. & Greene, C. What It Takes to Run a Great Virtual Meeting. Harvard business review (2020).
9.
Chen, B. X. The Dos and Don’ts of Online Video Meetings. The new york times (2020).
10.
Fosslien, L. & Duffy, M. W. How to Combat Zoom Fatigue. Harvard business review (2020).
11.
12.
Godin, S. Intentional connection in the digital office. Seth’s blog (2021).
13.
14.

Links to this note