Being a Remote Worker Sucks – Long Live the Remote Worker

Being a Remote Worker Sucks – Long Live the Remote Worker

February 27, ’13
Comments [68]
Posted in Musings | Remote Work

My voice coming out of a Polycom phone. Is anyone there? It's me, Scott!I’ve been a 100% remote worker at Microsoft for just about 5 years now. My last two jobs were both 7 year long gigs, so this isn’t the longest I’ve worked somewhere, but clocking in at a half-decade, it’s the longest I’ve worked remotely. Given that I haven’t yet been fired, it’s fair to say that I’m a pretty good remote worker.

I’ve been writing about Being a Remote Worker on the blog here for a long time.

Being remote is wonderful and it sucks.

This week former Google Employee #20 and current Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer declared that all remote workers need to head into the office (and in some cases, move house) before June.

If I got this memo while working Remote at Yahoo I’d quit that moment. I would probably quit with some flair as well. Talk about completely demotivating.

I see this ban on Remote Work at Yahoo as one (or all) of these three things:

  • A veiled attempt to trim the workforce through effectively forced attrition by giving a Sophie’s Choice to remote workers that management perceives as possibly not optimally contributing. It’s easy to avoid calling it a layoff when you’ve just changed the remote work policy, right?
  • A complete and total misstep and misunderstanding of how remote workers see themselves and how they provide value.
  • Pretty clear evidence that Yahoo really has no decent way to measure of productivity and output of a worker.

Ultimately, though, this comes down to trust, and trust can be found or lost on every page of a company’s policies. You were hired as a professional; are you trusted to be a professional? Working remotely requires your company to trust you can do the work not only without them seeing you, but also without constant physical interaction with your teammates.

I saw this tweet yesterday and I agree. Remote working isn’t awesome. There are great aspects, but parts just sucks.

Here’s why it sucks and what I do about it.

Why Working Remotely Sucks

There’s a few reasons why being a remote worker sucks.

Guilt Sucks

Animated gif of a worker not workingAll this said, it’s REALLY hard to be remote. I propose that most remote workers work at least as hard, if not more so, than their local counterparts. This is fueled in no small part by guilt and fear. We DO feel guilty working at home. We assume you all think we’re just hanging out without pants on. We assume you think we’re just at the mall tweeting. We fear that you think we aren’t putting in a solid 40 hours (or 50, or 60).

Because of this, we tend to work late, we work after the kids are down, and we work weekends. We may take an afternoon off to see a kid’s play, but then the guilt will send us right back in to make up the time. In my anecdotal experience, remote workers are more likely to feel they are “taking time from the company” and pay it back more than others.

You might poo-poo the guilt, but ask around to your remote brethren. It’s there, they just don’t talk about it.

Being Unseen Sucks – Out of Sight, Out of Mind

A few months back we had a standup meeting and a boss couldn’t get the web cam to work (It’s been 5 years but even now they usually spend about 10 minutes messing about with the webcam before giving up and just having me call in). All this while 20 workers who “showed up” stare daggers (I’m assuming) into the Klingon Phone and the guilt piles on.

Anyway, we were going around the table (remember I’m the invisible guy in the center of the table) and then the meeting ended. I was muted, and was like “Hey, guys? It’s me…Scott…I’d like to get you up to date on what I’m working on…”

“Guys?”

VPN is a Second-Class Citizen

No matter what your IT says, no matter how fancy your Smart Card is, or even if you have “Direct Access” enabled at work (basically your machine is at home, but always internal) you’re remote. Every week you’ll hit a site that doesn’t work unless you’re inside. You’ll be constantly prompted for passwords, you’ll be told certain scripts or installers don’t work as a remote worker.

I have to drive into the office at least quarterly JUST for the purpose of dealing with issues like this.

People Ask “When you are up next?”

This one is the worst. “When are you coming to campus next?”

I’m online all day, every day. I’ve got HD webcams, Lync, Skype, GChat, hell I got Chat Roulette, on every machine I own. You don’t think to call me for 3 months, but when you see me, you’re all like “let’s get you plugged into the project…”

I’m absolutely available anytime to talk. We can do a call, a chat, or best yet, a hi-def video call. Trust me, I’m at your disposal if you’ll only take a step forward.

Ways to make Remote Working work

They are watchingFirst, it DOES depend on the job. We have folks like Brian Harry who lives on a farm in the Carolinas, but he’s also got a large team over there. They aren’t on campus, but there are folks he works with closely. We have folks like Steve Sanderson who works in London for a team in Redmond, but his job is very focused and “the code don’t lie.” I suspect that directing a complete feature team while remote would be considerably harder than participating on a feature team. That’s one of the reasons I moved jobs and gave up my team. I feel better as an individual contributor with a clear focus.

Before I started on the ASP.NET Product Team, I used to run a team of folks when I worked in MSDN. Every one of us was remote. In fact, we were in all four corners of the US – Oregon, San Diego, New England, Florida.

Our jobs were discrete, directed and clear. We were laser-focused and each worked well remotely. Here’s some things that have worked for me and others.

Status, Status, Status

Remote workers need to make it easy for folks to answer the question “What is that person working on?” This is somewhat of a double standard, since they may have no idea what the person in the next office is working on, but that woman shows up every day, so she must be productive, right?

Regardless, when I ran the team, we’d send out a list of three things each Monday that we wanted to accomplish that week. We’d follow up on Friday with what happened to those three things – what worked and what didn’t.

Do be seen

I used to come up every month, but since I travel to conferences and customers a lot (plus budget issues) I go to Microsoft about once a quarter. When I’m there it’s a flurry of meetings as “relationship building.” That’s business-speak for talking, talking, talking so that they remember why they hired you. It’s comforting to the locals when the remote shows up. Try to get to the office when you can.

We made a “virtual portal” from Portland to Seattle so that anyone could peek in an see either side. We just need to circle it in Orange and Blue.

Team Building

When you ARE in a group, take any opportunity to “team build.” I used to think this was touchy-feely nonsense, but truly, shared experience in a non-work context can totally transform relationships. I try to hang out with the team whenever I’m in town, and just check in with them, their families, and other non-work stuff.

Find a Place to Be Productive

Often just being a home can drive you nuts. I try to get out a few times a week. I’ve worked from the mall, from Starbucks, from McDonald’s (free wi-fi, sue me) and from a park bench. I find that just having people walking around makes me feel more productive. Their movement and energy keeps me focused.

Try different places, find your place, but don’t be afraid to mix it up.

Get Feedback

During 1:1s with my boss I always come with lists and lists of what I’m working on and why it’s useful. There’s always this Spidey Sense that “well, it’s been a good gig, but this remote thing isn’t working out.” He’s very good and assuaging that concern, but it’s still there.

Make sure you’re getting feedback on your work and you know you’re on track with you’re working on. Ask for feedback. That means ASK. “Do you feel I’m on track with X? Are you happy with what you’re seeing with Y?” It’s hard but it’s important.

Know Every Collaboration Tool

We use Lync at work, but I also use Skype, GChat, Join.me, straight VNC, Windows Remote Assistance, CoPilot and a dozen others. If one doesn’t work for some reason, don’t waste time, just move to the next one. If someone starts to associate you, the remote worker, as a symbol for technical difficulties it will slowly warp their perception of you. Make it easy.

I have a small shared office space with a camera I can turn on remotely. This means a boss can walk in and “meet” me without them having to think. That makes it easier for a boss to work. Bosses need to manage, not mess around with cameras.

Be Available

A caveat to this one: Be Available During Work Hours. Don’t overcompensate and be the person who is online at 5am or answers emails on Sunday. Just make sure that from 9 to 5 you are 100% available via SOME way that your boss knows about.

How do you make remote working work?

Related Links

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