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The Remote Experience: Vol. 1

Getting acquainted with working remotely.

If you haven’t already read the preface to this series yet, allow me to get you up to speed with the ultra-condensed version:

+ I’m going to be working remotely for 6 months
+ I moved from Vancouver, British Columbia to Windsor, Ontario to do so
+ I wasn’t initially thrilled with the idea
+ I’m going to write about it

To ensure I’m covering the full spectrum of my experience, I’ve laid out some points below by using a revised version of the Coaching Feedback Model. I’ve also included some general notes, a breakdown of the tools I’m using and a note about the lessons I’ve learned.

Let’s go.

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What went well

+ My productivity went through the roof
+ Team communication was stellar due to daily stand-ups
+ Kanban boards are a great way for teams to visualize project progress
+ Zoom is an incredibly powerful tool for video conferencing
+ I got to spend Christmas with family I haven’t seen in years

What was tricky

- Zoom is great 90% of the time, the 10% when it’s not is infuriating
- Missing the Unbounce Holiday Party sucked
- Working by yourself all day can make you get a little stir-crazy

What I would do differently

≠ Tell more people that I would be working remotely (surprise!)
≠ Connect with more people who have previously worked remotely
≠ Make more of an effort to stay in touch with colleagues at head office

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I absolutely loved coming into work each day while working at Unbounce HQ in Vancouver, Canada. There’s nothing quite like being surrounded by a group of smart, driven people who know how to work hard and have fun. As great as it was, it wasn’t without it’s own flaws.

For me, one of the only downsides I experienced working at head office was the growing feeling that I wasn’t doing my best work, in part because of how easily distracted I was during the day.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we’re throwing a massive party with confetti and loud music — but when you put that many talented people in a room together, they’re going to get a little chatty.

This is perfectly fine for most of my colleagues, but for some individuals an open-office filled with a constant stream of noise and conversation can lead to them feeling distracted, exhausted and insecure. As someone who identifies as an INTP personality type, this was absolutely the case for me.

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Turns out I’m not alone. In 2012, Stanford researchers conducted a 9-month study of 249 service sector workers and found that remote workers were 13% more productive than on-site workers.

I unfortunately didn’t measure my productivity before (nor would I even know how) but I can definitely say that after transitioning to remote I’m now able to complete more work, with higher quality, in the same amount of time and I feel much more accomplished because of it.

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I still believe that working in an office surrounded by your peers is a much better experience overall, but I would be remiss if didn’t share how productive I’ve felt since I began working remotely.

Since the Community team is a team of two (who also sat right next to each other in the office) daily stand-ups have never been a thing for us. In fact, just the 2 reoccurring meetings we had each week seemed like a bit much at times.

But after transitioning to remote, stand-up’s have become one of the most important parts of our day. We set aside 15 minutes at the beginning of each day, but we often extend that to be a bit longer so we can chat and get completely caught up. This is in addition to our weekly 1-on-1’s and any other meetings we have that week.

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Quick photo ops are easy when you’re not 4000km away.

While it’s not feasible to have daily stand-up’s with my direct manager, it’s still important to keep him up to speed as well. Since I’m working 4000km away, it can be quite difficult for management to feel like they’re completely up-to-speed on what I’m working on day-to-day. To combat this, I created a daily mini-blog that I fill out at the beginning of each day that covers three simple things.

  1. What I worked on (yesterday)
  2. What I’m working on (today)
  3. What my blockers are (if any)

Each morning at 9AM PST I send my manager an agenda for the day to keep him 100% in the loop with the work that my team is doing. (I should add that this was never requested of me, and it might be a bit meticulous, but it gives me peace of mind that my manager is kept in the loop.)

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Sometimes the simpler the tool, the better. If I had to pick one tool to visually track the progress of my teams’ projects it would be our Community Kanban board.

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A Kanban Board is a simple workflow visualization tool that enables you to track and optimize the flow of your work. Our team uses Realtime Board for the simplicity, which is a vastly different approach from solutions like Asana or Basecamp. It might not be as effective for managing huge projects with many moving parts across multiple teams — but for our daily tasks and OKR’s we couldn’t ask for a better solution.

We use a video-conferencing tool called Zoom to connect Unbouncers from all over the world. We’ve tried Google Hangouts, Skype and a few others, but none offer the reliability and feature set that Zoom does. When the connection is solid, the entire experience is nothing short of fantastic.

For example, each month we have an all-hands at Unbounce called Town Hall with the goal of building alignment across teams by reporting on company objectives progress, sharing feedback and reinforcing our core values.

To be honest, I was kind of expecting this to be quite difficult to follow from afar, but all the work our IT and Senior Leadership Teams have put in to improve the remote experience has really paid off.

In the case of Town Hall, everything was super easy to hear and see, including all the questions from the audience. It actually felt like I was right there in the office watching it with the rest of my colleagues.

However, the technology is far from perfect. There have been a few times I’ve been in meetings where one party has a weak connection, causing the audio/video to freeze or stutter in-and-out non-repeatedly.

It’s only happened a few times, but when it did, it drove me f***ing crazy.

There were also a few times where individuals forgot to create a slack link so I could actually join a meeting in the first place. Taking the initiative to be included in meetings actually ended up feeling a little exclusionary.

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Video conferencing working flawlessly for 8 people definitely deserves a round of applause.

Tip: Meetings, presentations and lunch and learns should have Zoom links created and shared in advance so the entire team can participate.

I’m not going to lie. Missing the Unbounce Holiday Party sucked. Our team parties are the bees knees and seeing the photos from this years’ party was a serious kick in the pants.

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I was going through some serious FOMO that week, until I saw.. this photo.

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Thanks, Jess. It’s like I was actually there. 🤓

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Tools & Apps

I touched on a few tools, such as Zoom and RealtimeBoard, but one of the keys to working remotely effectively is having the proper tools at your disposal. Here’s a look at my current software stack for remote work.

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Lessons Learned

  1. Working remotely is not as bad as I thought it would be.. but it’s definitely not easy if you don’t have a role/team that supports it.
  2. Working remotely is not for everyone. If you’re not a self-starter or genuinely interested in the company or the work that you’re doing, you’re going to have a really bad time.
  3. Working remotely can be really difficult for certain roles. I can’t say this from experience, but my gut tells me that working remotely could be extremely difficult for someone who manages a large team or requires a lot of face-time with different stakeholders in the company. The only way I can see this working is if the entire team is 100% distributed.
  4. Set clear communication guidelines from the beginning. Consider implementing daily 15 minute stand-ups to stay in sync with your team.
  5. Limit your working hours (yes, really). When you live and work in the same location, it can be difficult to turn your brain off during your downtime. It’s okay to work late, but don’t make a habit out of needing to stay caught up just because your office is 10 feet away.
  6. Zoom is great (for the most part), especially when combined with the /zoom slack command to start a new video chat right then and there (thanks for the tip, Ryan!).
  7. Work remote become a hermit. I spent way too much time indoors over the last few weeks and I’m beginning to go a little stir crazy. To combat this, I joined a gym and make a conscious effort to get outside and socialize with humanity once in a while.

In Conclusion

My first month of working remotely wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be, but I’m still not convinced that it‘s something that’s right for everyone. Being successful in this environment requires a mix of the right role, a supportive team foundation and a ton of self-motivation.

And while I do enjoy the extra boost of productivity, I find myself missing Vancouver more and more with each passing day.

We’ll see how the next few months pan out.

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About the Author

Justin Veenema is founder and Production Manager at BrandStories™ — a video production company that helps brands unleash the power of video marketing. He’s also a photographer, educator and advocate for pineapples on pizza.

You can connect with him on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.

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I help people and brands tell stories online.

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