Friday, November 15, 2013

Work Life: Working Remotely

I have worked in the office or at client's site for most my career. The experience is as normal wherever I worked. I have the good chance to work remotely for over a year. Well, I work remotely most of the time because I technically still have an office that I go to once in a while. I just want to state that because it is not exactly the same as working remotely all the time.

I did not have a lot of problems transitioning to the new work-style. Overall, my work quality has improved and my time management probably is a little better. I do miss having some face-to-face conversations. I think one of the easy aspects of the transition is my seriousness to working professionally. Another factor is that the entire team is spread around the country with a handful in the other hemisphere, so we are all used to teleconferencing even when in the office.

In my line of work, I do a lot of teleconferencing with desktop sharing similar to GoToMeeting or WebEx. I work with a lot of people. I become more serious with formality the larger my meeting is. I will be a little more lax as there are fewer people. As a software release manager, my role entails a lot of meetings. I do not have to do a lot of active participation in most of the meetings, but still have my share of meetings where I am the host.

There are some annoyances working with some other remote users. Those with kids and dogs are particularly frustrating at times. Some users just cannot separate their personal lives from the background. When people cringe just by seeing you sign into the meeting before the voice is connected, that is a poor sign that something needs to be done. If their dog cannot stop barking, then the user needs to find another location to work. I am fine with people who had to stay home for an emergency or have some background sound due to other extraneous situations. I'll even let some construction or even just a bad day (or even two). But if you have loud background distractions practically all the time, then you need to find a different place.

Because I'm in meetings a lot, sometimes there is some downtime waiting for people to attend. During these times, I'd use the time to cleanup my work area which also happens to be the same area for personal use. The frees up a lot of time outside of work. Other times, I would just move over to my exercise fitness ball and do a few crunches. Not only healthy for me, but really helps give me energy to focus on my meetings. Because you are not far from other chores, I can also cook and/or do laundry during my lunch breaks. This also saves a lot of time outside of work and healthier. All of these adds up so by the end of the day, I can actually relax and not have to spend my time working on personal chores which are not difficult but time-consuming (like laundry which is two 5 minutes and most of the time is just waiting).

Because I can relax more effectively, I wake up more naturally and rarely have the afternoon burn out. I work more effectively which also helps me make more use of my time. So working home is quite beneficial for my employer.

The part that I miss is the interactions with other people. I do not feel as emotionally invested with coworkers. Interactions are a bit more impersonal which in turn actually helps me run my meetings more effectively. Although beneficial for the employer, there is slightly less personal feel to it.

If I could change something, it would be nice to have video conferencing but the companies bandwidth will unlikely hold up since we could have up to 30+ people in a meeting. Alternatively, maybe just a "white noise" video conference of your immediate team even if no one is talking. It will be virtually like being an office except you can actually mute if you need silence or "peek" over at someone and see what they are working on or just listen into their meetings without having to bug them about their schedule or for an invite.

Also, I think some people will have a little easier time empathizing with others. I've found that some people feel that they are singled out but not realize that the other person is just that way with everyone. They just do not see it because you cannot see that sort of thing from a remote location. There have been several conversations with colleagues where I just say that they don't have to stress on it because the person is like that to everyone.

So there are some new social norms remote users have to be more aware of. Because I have lost the visual aid, I have to be more careful on how I deliver my messages. Too quiet and they think you are not confident in what you are saying. Interrupt too much and they think you do not respect them (there is a very slight lag time that most people do not realize but makes it easier for certain types of people to interrupt others). Talk too much and you will likely lose your audience without even knowing it. Multi-tasking is very common in remote users.

A good sign that your meeting is losing its focus when more and more people respond with "sorry, can you repeat that?" There are all sorts of variations of the question but basically they are saying that they were not paying attention to the meeting and was working on something else.  This is ok if the person is not an integral person to the meeting. Those people should not be a permanent member of the meeting though. But when your crucial participants say that more frequently, the agenda of the meeting is somehow lost and should be restructured.

Another problem with remote users is that it is now so easy to attend meetings that you do not need to be attending. I've been on meetings where there were 50+ people and only 10 people really needed to be on that call. Worst is when those 10 people go even further off-topic or extend the meeting longer than necessary. Personally, I think if only 20% of the people on the call is actively participating then the meeting needs to be restructured. Also on this topic, I always find it ridiculous when meetings have both the team's manager, team members, and both are inactive. If that were the case, the manager should kick off his team and have himself or another member stay on to later summarize key points for the team. There is no reason for the entire team to be wasting time listening to a lot of topics unrelated to them.

Financially, it saves both parties. The company saves on office space and utilities while employees save on gas (and probably eating out for the younger generation). There will less complaints about working extra time here and there because they also save commute time (although employers/bosses should not expect this if they did not expect this in-office). Particularly for IT, this also makes it easier to transition to more flexible hours. Work four hours in the morning, then stay up really late for a late night install.

My opinion on working remotely is that it works for some people but not all people. In general, it works and should be considered as a solution but do not expect that everyone will thrive in such an environment even those you know who have good work ethics in the office.