Brian Dunagan

June 8 2014
Making Remote Work

No commute. No distractions. Just you and your computer and maybe your cat. If you’re like me, you’ve read about the many virtues of telecommuting, maybe in Remote Work by 37 Signals or GitHub’s blog posts, and you think it sounds like a great gig. Well, it is, but there’s an asterisk. Reading about telecommuting and living it are a bit different.

I work from home. Every day. I live in Cambridge, England, while the Retrospect team is located in San Francisco, California. I moved to England three years ago. Since then, I’ve only visited the office a handful of times. All other interaction is online.

Remote work is a great gig, but it does take effort and discipline to make it work. Here are three things to keep in mind.

1. Minimize Commutes

Commuting is exhausting. I’ve used both public transit and car: forty-five minutes on subway (BART), two hours on train (Caltrain) and subway, and an hour by car (680). All three variants were exhausting. They sapped hours from my day and required constant but mindless attention. Mass transit included. Riding a train or subway resolves the every-second-requires-attention problem of driving, but other issues crop up to prevent extended working or relaxing, from remembering to get off at the right stop to overhearing loud phone conversations to simply finding a seat. Not fun.

With telecommuting, you can work at home. My current office is in my house. It works well, with no travel time. Some prefer a different environment, like a coffee shop. I used to work at a Starbucks on my occasional work-from-home day in San Francisco, but the commute wasn’t negligible. Driving took ten minutes; parking took almost as long; finding a table was hit or miss; wifi involved setup. All that time adds up.

Measure your commute in minutes from end-of-morning routine to at your computer working.

2. Minimize Distractions

Offices are distracting. You get into work, chat with colleagues, have an ad-hoc meeting, go out to lunch with more chatting, grab coffee, chat more, have another ad-hoc meeting, have a scheduled meeting, and sometimes you are at your computer. Things just come up, every day. I worked in a cubicle for six years before the move to England, and I rarely had more than an hour without interruption. Uninterrupted time is essential for complicated mental tasks. For this individual contributor work, telecommuting removes the distractions that plaque office environments and lets people focus. Being remote lets me focus.

Your remote environment needs to minimize interruptions and distractions. I aim for two to three hours of uninterrupted work before lunch and after lunch. My situation is a bit unique with the rest of my team offset by eight hours, so their 8am is my 4pm. After 4pm for me, interruptions become inevitable. I consider this ideal: a solid amount of time for focused productivity with a couple hours left over.

You need those extra hours because not all distractions are bad. Ad-hoc discussions are good. Hallway chats are good. Getting lunch and grabbing coffee with your team are good. These activities build better products and better teams, and none of these are natural for remote workers. Instead, you have email, IM, voice, and video chat–all good distractions in moderation. One reason 37 Signals built Campfire was to create a more cohesive distributed team; that’s why GitHubbers use it. Chat rooms make distributed chats far more natural. I have daily video chats with my team in San Francisco, and I would feel much more disconnected without them.

Minimize distractions but only in moderation.

3. Good Tools

Use good tools. You want to work from home? Get a comfortable chair, a nice desk, a good computer, an external monitor, and a pair of headphones. Without good tools, you’ll be less effective, and you won’t like work as much. I have a large IKEA desk and a Herman Miller chair. Yes, Herman Miller is expensive, but I can sit comfortably in the Mirra for ten hours a day.

Your company should use good tools as well. Retrospect uses GitHub Enterprise for source control, Bugzilla for issues, Mediawiki for internal documentation, Google Apps for communication, and Heroku for the website. Each deserves a bit of detail:

  • Git and GitHub Enterprise: As I said in a previous post, these tools are excellent and ideal for telecommuting.
  • Bugzilla: JIRA is more common these days, but the team has used Bugzilla for more than a decade and is very comfortable with it.
  • Mediawiki: Mediawiki centralizes all of our internal documentation (including MRDs and PRDs) into a versioned diffable repository, and watch lists alert people to changes over email.
  • Google Apps: It costs $50 per person per year, and that would be worth it for just Gmail. We would pay the same for just Google Hangout as well. We also use Google Calendar for all meetings.
  • Heroku: Heroku makes it trivial to have a Rails website. It costs more for sufficient resources, but updating the website is literally pushing a branch to a remote Git repo. They take care of the rest.

Retrospect is a small company, and we get to decide which tools work well for us. Without these tools, remote work and distributed communication would be much more difficult.

Remote work is not a panacea. If you work from home on the weekend, it’s remarkably similar. Just think of it as every day. There are many advantages. No commute. No distractions. You can sit on a nice chair next to your dog. But collaboration and camaraderie are hard. There are no hallway meetings or chats over coffee. Telecommuting takes discipline and balance to get those hours of focused productivity while maintaining good team communication. Good tools help.

Migrating Retrospect from SVN to GitHub Enterprise Git Tip: Logical commits with git stash
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