Thursday, February 28, 2013

On working remotely.

After the announcement last Friday from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer that will effectively end telecommuting at the company I've been thinking again about the pluses and minuses of the whole working out of a home office thing.  I haven't worked out of a regular office since the Spring of 2000 so I have a bit of perspective on the issue.  And it may not be what you would expect.

First off, my situation at Blurb is quite unique.  From the beginning my role was to act as liaison between Blurb, our print partners (now global), and our key suppliers.  That meant going to where the action was, either at the printing location, at a trade show, or at the supplier's headquarters.  I was not only remote from our San Francisco base but often on the road away from my Seattle home.

So the idea of moving my family to a new location only to be absent from there for much of the time is a non-starter.  I even included a provision in my employment contract with a pre-negotiated resolution if the time came that my position would be required to move away from the Northwest.

Years of first managing remote employees around the world and then being remote myself prepared me well on how to manage the sensitive situation I had entered.  To be a successful remote worker takes a bit extra when it comes to making sure it's easy to be contacted, being an expert listener and interrupter on phone conferences, and in general just sensitive to the fact that you need to adapt to others rather than vice versa.

I actually agree pretty much with Yahoo's change of policy.  There are a lot of things that don't happen well when one or more of the key people are not live in the office.  And I expect that more often than not the remote workers don't have all it takes to make this lifestyle work for both the employer and the employee.  So here are a few tips on how to work successfully as a remote based on my personal experience.

  1. Always be available.  Always. Weekends. After-hours. Get used to responding quickly. Use your mobile phone as your office phone. As I like to tell folks "It's like I'm in the same building you are but I'm on a floor the elevator doesn't go to."  I'm always reachable.
  2. Use instant messaging and Skype liberally.  Don't make folks pick up the phone to ask you simple, quick questions.  Also this is your "water-cooler" to keep up with events at the home office that you may otherwise miss.
  3. Be teleconference pro.  Don't expect that everyone will know how to set up a teleconference, especially if you are the only one remote in the meeting.  Set up an account with and always be ready to make a conference bridge on a moments notice.
  4. Be a good listener. When you are remote that means not being distracted.  Listening to proceedings of a meeting via phone, especially with a big group, is a skill.  Don't do email.  Don't start browsing the web for even a few seconds because that's when someone will say, "So Bruce, what do you think?"
  5. Learn how and when to interrupt. Just get used to it, you won't get the chance to chime in with your pithy remarks anymore. But when you need to be heard be ready to jump in, talk for a few seconds and briefly stop to make sure your aren't talking over someone else, and get right to your point.
  6. Working remotely can hinder your upward mobility. It's not impossible to move up the corporate ladder while working outside of the main office but it's a much tougher task.
  7. If you work out of your home office make that place "work only". You need to separate work and home life.  If you don't have a private room to use figure out a way to separate how you interact with your space for work versus non-work.
  8. "Walk home from work."  I'll credit my wife for this one.  When I'm in Seattle we are both at-home workers.  When it's time to end the work day we get outside and walk for a half-hour.  It makes a clean break from work.
  9. Never get up and go right to work.  I've worked out of my home office for 13 years and I have never got out of bed and headed directly to my home office.  I always start my day as if I was leaving the house with a shower and shave.  And, please, don't work in your pajamas or sweats.
  10. Know when you need to be at headquarters.  This is a subtle skill but it's really important.  Have your finger firmly on the pulse of what is going on at the home office and trust your gut when you feel you need to be there live.
  11. Don't rub it in.  A lot of folks would love to have the option of working from home but most jobs are not best suited to do so.  So don't make a big deal of it. 

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