Treat everyone as remote

Leave a comment
Remote working

This article is part of a series on remote working.

Second-class citizens

In the past, a common challenge that remote workers have faced is feeling like they are several steps removed from the rest of the physically colocated company. This manifests repeatedly: day in, day out. It reveals itself in the nagging instinct that discussions and decisions are happening in person without giving remote workers the ability to have their input. It can come from the worryingly empty email inbox during challenging periods, or the strangely quiet chat rooms. It arises when joining a meeting via video call to see ten tiny figures sitting around a conference room table, sharing one microphone.

This is when remote working sucks. You feel like an other; unlike all of the other “normal” staff. Perhaps even like a lesser member of the company. This isn’t right. However, none of this should be attributed to malice. After all, for decades we have been used to working together in offices. Old habits die hard, especially if they aren’t being challenged.

I remember a long time ago when the magnetic hub of our company was our HQ in Brighton. The anecdote in mind happened when we were hiring rapidly after receiving a funding round. We had monthly induction sessions for new starters that walked them through what the company did, the software we built, how we marketed it and sold it — all of that good stuff. These inductions were organized well, planned and practiced, and generally speaking were a fun, informative experience.

That is, except for the month when we started onboarding some engineers in our smaller Stuttgart office. They would turn up to the meeting, join the video call, and wait for the person leading the session in Brighton to join. But they never did. Messages were sent that were unanswered. Everyone’s laptops were closed. No malice, just forgetfulness. But that forgetfulness, repeated daily, compounds into larger frustrations about “being remote” in comparison to other members of staff that are not.

Equality

We should be aiming to treat everyone equally.

What this needs is a mindset shift. The title of the article says it all really: treat everyone as remote. That’s how you solve the problem of any worker in your company feeling like they are “remote”. You simply act as if everyone is, thus cancelling out the prefix: if everyone is treated like a remote worker, then really, they’re all just workers. Equal. No longer do the remote workers need to continually put in additional effort in order to gather information that they have missed, or to remind people that they are still there, or that their timezone is different. Instead, they just do their work just like everyone else, and interact with others like everyone else.

Even though this is simple, it isn’t straightforward. It’s a little bit like if you’ve ever tried to meditate. It’s simple: just continually focus on your breathing. But it’s not straightforward: your mind wanders and you get caught up in thoughts. You bring your attention back to your breath, and guess what, your mind is generating thoughts again.

Treating everyone as remote requires a mindset shift in every individual in the entire company. It means that every action and interaction should be done in such a way that equally benefits somebody regardless of whether they are present in a physical office or not. This can best be explained by example, and at the time of writing we’re living through the largest remote working experiment in the technology industry: a global pandemic.

Below is a screenshot of the first remote cabinet meeting of the UK government from March 2020. At this point the country had been put under the first initial lockdown measures, indicating that everyone who was able to work from home should do so. In what should now be a familiar sight to most people, the meeting was being conducted via Zoom.

Most participants of this call are remote, and are therefore acting in the correct way to treat everyone as remote. However, there is one group of participants that are not abiding by this rule. On the top row, second from left, the Cabinet Room has joined the meeting via a traditional meeting room AV setup: one fixed camera and a microphone in the middle of a shared table.

Whereas all other participants have a microphone and camera each, allowing them to properly see and hear each other, being able to understand the facial expressions of the person sitting farthest away on the Cabinet Room table requires some serious CSI “enhance!” magic. Do you reckon that everyone else on this call got frustrated with not being able to see or hear them properly? Do you think that they may have experienced, perhaps for the first time, one of the frustrations of being a remote worker when others do not treat everyone as remote? Ah, yes. That.

So this is the first big thing when it comes to truly supporting remote workers. The entire company needs to adopt a mindset where they treat everyone as remote. Every action via code, written or spoken word should provide an equal interaction opportunity to anyone regardless of their location.

Actions and initiatives

This can be done by performing some of the following actions and initiatives.

  • Give your declaration of intent. You can’t expect anyone to begin changing if you don’t talk about your intention clearly. As explored in my initial post reflecting on a year spent remotely, there are plenty of reasons for beginning to act like a remote-first company, even if that may not be your final trajectory. Tell yourself, your team, and others that you know that you are going to be changing your working practices to better support remote workers. Like our meditation example above, this may be simple, but it isn’t straightforward. You may find yourself having to repeat this message, in combination with taking the actions below, for it to really sink in.
  • Shift to asynchronicity. Synchronous communication is essential, but maybe not always as essential as you think. Adopt a mindset where you question all of your synchronous communication — such as video calls and instant messages — and see whether you can move to more asynchronous alternatives such as email and writing documents. Not only will this reduce the time that you spend in meetings, which can be draining and interrupting for everyone’s flow, it will produce more artifacts that can be shared and read more widely at a later date.
  • Make your time and commitment expectations clear. Shifting to more asynchronous communication means that the time taken to close the loop may be longer. However, it’s more inclusive, and often better thought through. Working with your colleagues to help them understand that this is purposeful, and most importantly, perfectly normal, is something that you’ll need to do. State your intention that it’s OK to not read something if it’s not specifically important to an individual. Also say that it’s OK to take until the end of the week to read and comment on a proposal. The net effect is increased autonomy and flow.
  • Choose appropriate tools to support remote collaboration. I often take for granted that we are already avid users of Google’s office suite, which has excellent collaboration and commenting capabilities. The same is true for Github, Slack, Miro and Figma, and others. However, some companies still make it extremely hard to collaborate effectively, such as by emailing around local copies of documents which then require a copy to be made and so on, until you reach final_version_7_FINAL.doc. Champion better tools and demonstrate them to your colleagues to drive bottom-up change. Ask those with the power to make decisions and spend budget to help you.
  • Habitually produce artifacts. With everything that you do, ask the question as to whether you should be creating a useful artifact for the future. Whether that’s recording a meeting so that people can watch it asynchronously later, or writing up that design document to develop your thoughts with others, or creating that Architecture Design Record, create them. Artifacts are so useful so that you understand where you’ve come from, where you are currently going and where, eventually, you want to get to.
  • Instill meeting and video call etiquette. Don’t be like the Cabinet Room. Have each participant have their own camera and microphone, and mute when not talking. If useful, write up your agenda and thoughts beforehand so that the meeting can run efficiently. Use a spotter to check whether there are people on the call that aren’t being heard and invite them into the conversation.
  • Broadcast information to the widest possible group. Think about who is hearing, seeing and reading your communication. Could it be useful to a broader group of participants, even if it’s just optional information that they can read if they’re interested? If so, don’t repeat yourself in the future; broadcast it immediately at a wider level. A DM could become a message in the team’s chat room. A team chat room message could instead go out to the whole department. Remember that people can just not read something if they don’t want to. That’s fine.
  • Continually take visible action. Most importantly, just keep doing all of the above continually. Soon your habits will catch on and others will follow.

Homework

Now, on to the exercise. Pencils at the ready.

Spend some time thinking about your own workplace, department or team. How would you rate yourselves against the intention of treating everyone as remote when compared to the continual actions and habits that you are taking? Is there a void here? What needs to be done to change that? Also, assuming you’re reading this sometime around the time that it was written, how have these habits changed when you compare your workplace now to how it was before the Covid-19 pandemic?

Think about some changes that you can implement right away in order to close the gap between intention and action. Then do them.

In the articles to follow in the remote working series, we’ll unpack all of the rules and approaches in finer detail. If you want to follow along for the ride, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll let you know when there are new posts available.

2020: a year spent remotely

Leave a comment
Remote working

This article is the beginning of a series on remote working.

Ah, a new year is upon us. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, we have been able to increment that damned zero to a one.

Without a doubt, 2020 was one of the most challenging years in recent memory for people from all walks of life, regardless of their location or socioeconomic situation. We were all affected. Even if the virus missed us and our loved ones, it was impossible to evade the side-effects that it had on society and the economy.

Companies that previously seemed so integrated in our daily lives to ever fail made unprecedented job cuts, ejecting talented employees into an unstable jobs market. Those who kept their jobs faced hours cuts, and the subsequent reduction in pay, in order to be able to cover their childcare. Who’d have previously imagined schools and nurseries closing for months at a time, and exams being cancelled? How many parents had ever had to think of a Plan B?

And it’s still not over. There was, and still is, less time, less money, and more stress.

Most, if not all, of us in the technology industry had to work from home for much of the year, often in environments that were far from ideal in a multitude of different ways. Few people had the money or space to immediately create dedicated places to work that were comfortable, ergonomic and free from distractions. Many people don’t own their home. Colleagues sharing houses navigated a shared pain. Some became councillors as well as housemates. Colleagues living alone became more isolated. Those in relationships felt the strain.

Stacks

These layers of change, challenge and unpredictability stacked together to heighten stress and anxiety: nothing seemed certain any more. If that wasn’t enough, there were bushfires, racial inequality and the never-ending doom scroll of politics continually inhabiting our mental space. And we still had to make money. We watched as our clients struggled. Retailers were unable to open their stores and sell their products. So why would they continue to buy ours? We saw our agency clients have their projects dry up as companies around the world tightened their purse strings in order to weather one of the most uncertain economic climates in recent history.

The dominoes wobbled precariously. Some fell.

But, somehow or another, we all muddled through. Occasionally, when the waves of stress broke for just a moment, some of us wondered what our lives could be like in the future once all of this was over. As offices began to reopen in the summer after the first wave of the pandemic subsided, not everyone was in as much of a rush as they had originally thought to get back in. Even the darkest moments have glimpses of light, and those glimpses were of a future where perhaps less time would need to be spent commuting; where working hours could be more flexible; where we could communicate more asynchronously, and most importantly, where we could see more of our family and loved ones every day.

A number of companies took a bold step to become fully remote, with many more promising an indefinite remote-first future. This meant that from that moment in time, remote working would become the default rather than office-based working. There are clear advantages to the bottom line of a business if office rent is no longer weighing on the income sheet. However, it wasn’t just money driving these decisions to lean into remote working. The mental gap between “those remote companies over there” that we read about on Hacker News or in books, and those of us working in office-based cultures that felt they could never change, was reduced because we had no choice but to become them ourselves. In fact, I guess you could say it even was a matter of life and death to do so.

And what happened after we all went remote? Nothing blew up. Absolutely nothing.

Even the most hardened and old-fashioned executives saw that even they too could have a positive experience whilst stationed at home. Perhaps for the first time they understood what it was like to be employed in a different location to the company’s headquarters; to not be, for once, the magnetic geographical center of power and decision making. They felt the pain — but also the liberation — of being part of a truly distributed company.

Putting the tools to use

From where we currently sit, it seems that the future is more distributed. We’ve experienced that it is possible to do our jobs in technology whilst sitting at a desk somewhere other than an office. After all, we’ve had the tools to do so for many years but we’ve never had to put them to full use. This doesn’t suit everyone. But I believe it suits enough of us to make it impossible to exclude remote workers from the technology workforce of the future. Doing so will have a significant impact on the talent that we can attract.

However, breaking away from the norm of synchronous, in-person interactions has highlighted a major skills gap. Working as part of a remote workforce isn’t a simple matter of simulating the way in which we’d work together if we were physically colocated via digital means, such as endless hours of video calls to simulate the ad-hoc conversations we were having at our desks. Instead, there are new communication skills to learn and a different mindset to adapt in order to work remotely effectively, efficiently and, most importantly, healthily.

Learning these skills gives us a chance to be optimistic about the future. There can be a new normal. By being able to be an effective, productive, and healthy remote worker, we increase the opportunity of finding interesting and rewarding work no matter where we are located in the world, all whilst being able to spend more time with those who are closest to us. We get more flexibility in where we choose to live. Perhaps we could live that house, rather than that city studio apartment.

I believe the skills to be an effective remote worker are equally as applicable in the office environment too. After all, your colleague may be remote, even if they are just in another office. It’s the same deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re a manager or an individual contributor. We can work better no matter where we are, and still build amazing software.

And here’s one of the most exciting parts: a distributed future can further increase diversity in our industry. Not everybody can uproot and live near a major city, just as not everybody can uproot and attend a prestigious university. Despite a person’s potential, the traditional way of learning and working is biased towards those with money and mobility. But this can change. You don’t need a computer science degree to be an excellent programmer. There is more material available for free online and via reasonably priced online courses than has ever existed in our collective history, especially for those getting into software.

This, coupled with the prospect of an industry that I’m sure will increasingly embrace remote work, presents us with the opportunity to bring those that have been previously disadvantaged into a lifelong career that is rewarding and well paid. We can make a gigantic impact on society through our industry. I think that’s something that we can all get behind, especially those of us who are in a position to hire and elevate others in organizations.

I want to enable a future where your location and background is truly no barrier of entry to our industry, because all you need is a computer and an internet connection.

So let’s make it happen.

What’s coming up

I spent 2020 reading, discussing and experiencing what it’s like to be a remote worker, and I’d like to turn that into a series of articles on this site, which will be hosted on the remote working index page. If you’re interested in being notified when a new article becomes available, then come and join the Engineering Manager mailing list. I only post when there’s something new for you to read.

I’ve got a big list of content I’d like to cover, from remote onboarding to synchronousness, but if there’s anything specific you’d like covered, just let me know.

(Oh, and we liked remote working so much, we moved quite a long way away. Have a look at my location on my Twitter bio.)

See you soon.