Remote Working: One Does Not Simply Spend a Year Without Pants

My name is Luca Sartoni, I’m a Growth Engineer and I work at Automattic. Automattic is the company behind WordPress.com, Akismet, Polldaddy, Jetpack and many others. Our company is fully distributed and my 237 colleagues work from home, cafes, lounges, airports, coworking spaces.

Remote working is not unusual in our industry, most of the time is already happening in your organisation, you simply do not realise how remote people are, even when are sharing the same office space.

How many of you have a traditional office environment? Can you tell me what do you do when you are at work? You stare at your computer, you send emails, you chat on skype. Why do you need to be sitting at the same desk? Almost every activity you do at the office is already remote, just a few meters apart. We do exactly the same, amplifying the distance between us.

You can find a great book about remote working and in particularly about Automattic in “A year without pants” by Scott Berkun. Scott worked at Automattic for a year and took the chance to crystallise his experience in this book, it totally worth a reading.

I live in Vienna but I was born and raised in Ravenna, a small town on the coast of the Adriatic sea, a hundred kilometers south of Venice, Italy. When I visit my family I don’t need to take vacations, because my job is not impacted at all by my geographical location.

The common understanding of work makes things a little difficult to explain. People tend to think that not having a clear separation between work and private life is impossible, unpleasant, dangerous. I see many of my friends waiting for their holidays for months and then being depressed when it’s time to get back to work.

This feeling is totally unknown to me but it does not mean that I work all the time. I just have a relationship with my job that allows me to travel, have a good time, contribute to the well being of my company and enjoy my life to the fullest.

But as a computer scientist, marketing manager and reasonable person I’m always sceptical and every time things are too good to be true, I start looking for the catch. Is there a catch in remote working? Yes of course. More than a catch, there are a few issues that can spoil the dream of being delocalised.

Lack of productivity is the most common threat and it’s the most popular question i get about my job: if everybody works from home, how can you make sure people are not just watching TV all the time?

The second question is order of popularity is: “how can you make sure people know what to do and how to do it?”. Communication and project management.

The third question I get all the time is: “don’t you feel alone?” Socialisation.

So we have: productivity, project management, socialisation.

Productivity is the easiest one: office spaces and productivity are opposites of each others. Ringing phones, other people chatting with each other, limited personal space, corporate equipment, office hours. All of these are more limits to productivity than helpers. They tend to limit us more than enhance our potentials.

Project management is a matter of communication, and we all know that we are super good at communicating. Being in the same room does not help for sure.
Imagine a team of four have to build a wall. In the best case scenario they don’t have to speak a single word. One person will carry the bricks, the other one will prepare che cement, the other two will line up the bricks and carefully make sure the wall is straight. Every time they stop and they talk about how to do it, it’s a signal of bad planning.

Every time there are people spending a lot of time discussing how to do something, there is a lack of knowledge, a lack of planning or a lack of management. It’s never a lack of presence. Usually it’s the opposite.

Socialisation is the real biggie. It’s true that people can feel lonely and it’s very important to keep them socialising. In our company we encourage people to meet up on a regular basis and tighten up their relationships, this way becomes easier to trust each other when remotely located.

This three issues: productivity, project management and socialisation can be considered at two different levels: structural and personal. The company needs to make sure people are productive, organised and connected, but each of us experience that same issues at personal level.

So, we have to develop a set of good habits to make sure that each of us is productive, organised and social. The following tips are my personal techniques that I refined in the last few years. I don’t think they are absolute winners, but they work for me. My hope is they can help you as well, but remember you have to develop your own personal habits.

I clearly separate planning and acting. There is a time during my day where I carefully make a list of things I have to do. The list has short, medium, long time goals. It’s very crucial to separate the planning time from the operational time. If you fail at planning you’re planing to fail. I do that on my field notes, on my text editor, on SimpleNote, on EverNote.

I don’t want to depend on anything. The less dependencies I have, the more productive I can be. So I always have my bag with me, my tools and my essential kit includes: my phone, my laptop, my field notes, a pen. Then of course I have all the accessories: chargers, cables, headphones and so on. Most of the time I also have my camera with me. But my rule is that not a single piece in my bag is strictly needed. If I don’t have my laptop I can keep up with my phone. If I don’t have an internet connection I spend my time writing down ideas to process as soon as I have a reliable connection. I prepare email I have to send since forever, I do the planning.

When I work, I work. This means headphones on, time boxing and total isolation. I invested a little bit of money in my anti-noise headphones and I can isolate myself in any situation. Over time I trained myself in being able to isolate myself even without any headphone, it’s a useful exercise.

Many of you may know that Automattic’s internal communication is based on O2, a special theme for WordPress. All our work is well documented on our internal blogs. This routine helps me a lot to keep things together. I don’t have to remember details and I can always restore a project which has been put aside for a few weeks. It also helps other people to pick it up, in case it’s needed.

I’m sure you noticed I did not mention any particular tool during this presentation. I didn’t focus on anything in particular and there’s a reason. Usually people think that a distributed company depends on the tools they are using to get things flow smoothly. This cannot be further than true. The tools can change all the time, what needs to be in place is the right attitude.

Always think about productivity, project management, socialisation. No matter which tool you use to keep this three things rolling, they need to be the focus of your effort.

The final tips I want to share with you are on how to make sure you can get the most out of working in cafes and lounges. I tend to avoid chains like Starbucks or MacDonalds. They usually offer you connectivity but I don’t like them too much. I prefer local coffee shops where you can develop a more personal connection with the staff. If you show up a few times and leave a decent tip, they understand you are working and they don’t try to sell you more than necessary. You also learn quickly which is the best spot in the house, where you can plug your power adaptor and so on.

For this reason, Paolo and I, started a project called nomadworking.org where we try to review all the places we hang out at from our perspective of nomad workers. We quickly review the wifi connection, the availability of power sockets, the staff and so on. We already have a strong community of Nomad Workers and the site is growing fast. If you want to join us and contribute, you are more than welcome.

Just go to nomadworking.org and help us!

I presented “Remote Working: One Does Not Simply Spend a Year Without Pants at WordCamp Slovakia on the 26th of April 2014 in Bratislava

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