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A Year of Working Remotely

This post lists the key insights from this article, by Mike Davidson, VP at InVision.


It’s been exactly one year since the author joined InVision, and after learning the ropes of remote work at an 800+ person all-remote company, he wanted to share some thoughts on how placelessness may affect the way we work in the future.

First, let’s dispense with the easy part: despite what you may read on Twitter, remote work is neither the greatest thing in the world nor the worst. We are not moving to a world where offices go completely away, nor are we going through some sort of phase where remote work will eventually prove to be a giant waste of time. In other words, it’s complicated.

The way to look at remote work is that it’s a series of tradeoffs. You enjoy benefits in exchange for disadvantages. The uptake of remote work over the next decade will depend most on the minimization of those disadvantages rather than the maximization of the benefits. Reason being, the benefits are already substantial while many of the disadvantages will be lessened over time with technology and process improvements.

Work Overhead

There is a certain amount of “overhead” involved in having an office job. You usually need to wake up at least an hour or two before the workday begins. Then, when the day is over, you often do the same thing in reverse. To make things easy, let’s call this 90 minutes on each end. That’s an extra 15 hours a week! For reference, there are days when I wake up 10 minutes before my first meeting of the day and it’s no problem at all.

Lopping that 15 hours off is probably the part of remote work that is the most unconditionally positive. You could try and rationalize your commute by saying it’s when you catch up on all of your great podcasts or whatever, but you don’t need an actual commute to do that. You could spend that time in the morning on a walk and then go for a run in the evening and it would be a lot healthier.

Math-wise, if you assume that most employers do not consider overhead time as part of the ~40 hours you’re getting paid for, working remotely can reduce your true work week by about 27%. If you already work remotely and you were to consider taking a traditional job again, you’d be agreeing to a whopping 37.5% longer week!

Daily Habitat

The advantages of remote work get less clear when you evaluate your “daily habitat”. If you compare a Google office, for instance, to a tiny apartment shared with two roommates and a screaming baby, I bet most people would choose the Google office. On the other extreme though, what if you compare a cramped office with poor ergonomics and bad lighting with a comfortable home on a ranch with alpacas and a nice fish pond out back? In other words, there are a wide range of variables that will determine whether your home office habitat is more enjoyable than an office would be.

So… in order to answer the question of whether you’d like office life better than home office life, you need to ask “what is the office like” and “what would my home office be like”?

Meetings

The aspect of remote work the author was probably least excited about was video meetings.

Happily, however, internet connections have gotten more reliable, and with Zoom, the software is pretty good now too. As for the power dynamics, that’s where working at an all-remote company has helped tremendously. Instead of 9 people in a room together, reading each other’s body language, and one person halfway across the world stuck behind a screen, everyone is in the same boat. It’s a nice equalizer.

In fact, during one conversation they were having around inclusion, a couple of people cited videoconferencing as one of the big reasons they felt more empowered in meetings.

The author will say this about video meetings though: the first hour or two of video meetings every day are a joy. But the days when he has to do 4 or 5 hours on Zoom, it gets tedious.

I think the evolution and improvement of video meetings — especially in remote work situations — is going to be a huge lever in pushing companies towards more remote work over the next decade. Although video meetings aren’t nearly as bad as they once were, there is a LONG way to go here. We’ll see things like three-dimensional holograms and other stuff that will blow our minds.

One other thing about meetings in remote companies: working remotely has made him realize how unimportant and ritualized so many meetings are. Often times, he will get 90% of the way through scheduling a meeting in Google Calendar only to ask myself “can’t we just update each other on this project throughout the week via Slack?” Even staff meetings seem unnecessary sometimes.

Countries and Time Zones

One of his favorite things about working at an entirely remote company is interacting with people from entirely different cultures every day.

There are challenges with hiring and getting hired internationally though. The first is local employment laws. It’s much easier to hire people in a country if you’ve officially set up a corporate entity there. That’s a bit of work. It’s a bit easier to hire people on contract in countries where you don’t have an entity set up, but there are downsides to that too. The bottom line is: even in all-remote global companies, it’s going to be easier to employ people in some countries than others.

Time zones are another challenge, and it’s almost all downside there. The simplest rule of thumb is that the further away people are, the more challenging it’s going to be to coordinate with them. People will need to shift their work hours to be able to work with the main timezone of the company.

Connection to Teammates

While it may not be “family” in the genetic sense of the word, going on stressful missions with people is bonding in a very similar sense. Every win and every loss brings you closer.

While the author loves the ~800 people he works remotely with at InVision, it feels different than what he’s experienced in the past. On the one hand, he is in awe that he gets to work with amazing people from Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and both Americas every day. But on the other hand, he’s only interacting with two-dimensional electronic representations of them on a daily basis.

Once a year, the entire company gets together for a week and it’s fantastic to see everyone in-person. In addition to that, between smaller team get-togethers and one-off work trips that he takes, he probably sees at least one teammate a month… sometimes many more.

The entire team at our “IRL” Conference in Arizona earlier this year.

Even though we have tools like Slack to help us keep up with what all of our teammates are doing, it’s different than being in a building together. It’s better the more independently you can work, but it’s worse if you need to be in communication with teammates for most of the day.

Importantly, this is also one of the reasons why it’s risky hiring junior people into remote roles. We tend to hire the most experienced people we can find, because in a remote company, you have to be able to paddle your own boat most of the time.

Productivity

Part of the beauty of remote work is that you have access to people you’d never have access to if you required they live in a certain city.

This has interesting implications for SF and other tech hubs vs. the world. People in SF would tell you they would still have the talent advantage over you because they can hire A+ talent AND co-locate everyone together. This may be true right now, but a) it’s very expensive, and b) it may not be as true in the future when living in SF becomes even more cramped than it already is.

In terms of being super-productive in remote environments, the biggest lever is to work as asynchronously as possible. Carve off large chunks of work that you can do on your own without having to check in every hour or even every day. For design reviews, do some of them over video, but collect as much feedback via asynchronous comments as you can.

Tools

The thing that has taken the most getting used to at an all-remote company is all of the communication that gets done over Slack. The author is not sure if Slack has made me more or less productive. It is likely that it has had effects in both directions.

On the positive side, it’s a very well-designed product for what it does and it makes non-face-to-face communication a snap.

On the negative side, it does feel like a second inbox. It also feels like an excuse not to document decisions properly.

Slack as a tool has the same core problem that Twitter has: it’s too easy to use it in a way that isn’t helpful. Slack has done a good job of trying to lightly push you in healthy directions, but the author still hasn’t had the aha moment where he couldn’t imagine his life without it.

To Slack’s credit, they provide a service that is so flexible that it’s really up to you and your company to use it in a way that adds the most value.

Happiness

The two things you want most in a job are impact and happiness. Building on the aspects above, the three factors would most determine happiness are:

  • The qualities of your home-office habitat.
  • The qualities of your company’s office habitat.
  • What sort of human interaction you want/need from co-workers on a daily basis.

You probably need at least two of those things to fall in your favor to enjoy your chosen path. Additionally, all three could change at any time, and the second one is very dependent on what company you’re talking about.

Another important factor in determining happiness is how hard of a line you want between work and home life. One benefit of traditional office environments is that when you physically leave the office, it’s not too hard to flip the switch and go into “home mode”.

8 min​ read

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