Being Present in Absence
Making it work as a researcher away from HQ in a highly collaborative team
Bukalapak Design has over 140 members including researchers, designers, content strategists, marketing designers, and operations team; most of them working from our headquarters in Jakarta. As one of only two researchers located in Bandung office, these are my notes about the challenges and lessons learned from working remotely day to day.
Being one of the biggest online marketplaces in Indonesia, Bukalapak houses nearly 2500 talents spread across 70+ product squads. Every other release, we would introduce new features onto our application, and as the product grows, it’s inevitable that some features would intersect and interact with others, making cross-team collaboration inevitable.
There’s a trick, so to speak, to working remotely in a highly collaborative team. Things change pretty quickly in the company, and it’s easy to get left behind. Granted, Bandung — Jakarta is relatively close (152.6 km, saved you a search) compared to the conditions other remote workers may be in. But from what I learned, it’s not about the magnitude of the distance, but the fact that there’s distance in the first place that can make remote working challenging.
The Struggles of Absence
Quick disclaimer: these are trade-offs that I agreed to when I chose to work in Bandung, so let me just say, these aren’t complaints! They’re merely anecdotes :)
The video call Saga
Since we have a massive product, maintaining and improving it requires a lot of discussions. For everyone involved, this means two things: 1) there are a lot to keep up on and 2) there are a lot of stakeholders to keep in mind. For the design team, this means one more thing: there are a lot of users to think about. For me, a researcher working remotely, this means yet another thing: there are a lot of Google Meet sessions to attend.
Technology is great and all, but even in this day and age, setting up a video call still takes up 5–10 more minutes than I’m willing to give. However, the amount of technical difficulty-ridden video calls isn’t the only and by far isn’t the biggest downside to working away from HQ. There are things that video calls can’t quite convey and deliver, and these are what end up as the challenges when working away from your colleagues.
Missing out on resources
Working remotely, the one place I can feel the constant presence of my fellow design team is the group chat. Most of the time, discussions are fully online and easy to follow. However, from time to time someone would post “I have these books on my table, feel free to borrow! First Come First Served.” And as people start tagging books they want to borrow, all I can do is stare longingly at the chat screen.
Sometimes it’s books, some other time it’s something bigger — like an internal workshop that I would join in a heartbeat if only it doesn’t involve filling out travel request forms and 6+ hours commute back and forth. Some other time it’s something simpler, like a get-together, game night, or karaoke party. These are unplanned most of the time, and definitely won’t qualify to be covered by the office’s travel expense. These are the ones that make me feel the saddest when I miss out (#priorities, lol). I wanna have fun with you guys :(
Discussions with remote coworkers are very deliberate. You need to agree on a time and make sure you’ll be uninterrupted during the meeting. Then you need to set up the hangout link and find a place quiet enough for a call. Then, as you wait for it to start, most of the time you’ll be itching to outline talking points and things you’d discuss. It’s very hard to be spontaneous with your discussions, because you feel like you’re taking up someone’s time that they have dedicated to you. You’ll want to plan it as much as possible.
One of the things I notice whenever I visit Jakarta is how much more talking I do. I would randomly join any discussion that I happen to overhear. Not sure how annoying this has been to my colleagues (sorry), but I hope they understand that this has been due to my discussion-deprivation. It’s a rare opportunity for me, to see this many people talking Design Stuff which I can join and leave any time! Fun times.
Minimum exposure to other, better researchers
As researchers, one of the first things we learned was observe, don’t ask. There’s always a difference between hearing the stories of someone doing something and seeing someone actually do it. I think that learning is similar. You can hear all about This One Researcher who does everything well, but it isn’t until you’re in a room synthesizing with her, or go to the field and join him on a user interview that you can really learn to do it like them.
Working remotely, there’s a very small possibility for me to work with these people. I have to rely on the stories from my friends, or settle for remote collaboration with these more experienced researchers, which is great! But just isn’t the same as working closely (and face-to-face) with them.
Secondhand, possibly stale gossips
The actual biggest disappointment.
The Efforts for Presence
I’ve only been doing this remote-working thing for almost a year now, so I don’t know if I qualify to share Best Practices of Remote Working to you. However, here are some things that I’ve learned and found very helpful in making this whole long distance relationship work.
Don’t multitask during calls
When you’re not in the room with everyone else, it’s really easy to give in to the temptation to multitask. No one’s going to know that you’re working on that research report while listening to this discussion, anyway. The truth, however, is that we often underestimate how hard it is to listen to a call.
Listening to calls, especially when there’s no slides or visual cue to help you follow the discussion, requires the entirety of your attention. Sometimes the speaker would mumble, or they stand a little too far from the microphone, or even all talk at once. There are a lot of things that would make it hard for you to listen, and there’s next to no chance you can do it while doing something else. Personally, if you’re not planning on focusing on the call, then there’s no point in tuning in in the first place — you’re not going to get anything from the call anyway.
Frequent check-ins and over-communicate
I have at least three weekly calls with my peers in Jakarta: one with just my manager, one with the researchers in my group, and another with all the researchers in Bukalapak. The design team also have a monthly meet-up, which I try to attend in person. All these check-ins really help me keep up with what’s happening as well as reminding people that I exist (out of sight, out of mind is a thing).
I’m pretty lucky to have a manager who doesn’t mind frequent one-on-ones. But if your manager is busier or less willing to give up half an hour per week for this session, the next best thing would be to find anyone in the design team who don’t mind updating you weekly. Some of my peers do bi-weekly, and it might work for them, but I personally find it very easy to miss things with bi-weekly check-ins. More frequent meetings also makes sure that my manager can quickly get me back on track if I’m falling behind at work.
Outside of these meetings, I also chat pretty frequently with other researchers in my group, from interesting things that could be applied on our product to irrelevant but juicy topics. Keeping constant communication with people in my group makes it easier for me to catch up when I come to HQ in person.
People will help you make it work
I used to think that asking people to work with me is the weight of the world on their part. After all, it must be easier to collaborate with people you can meet and have discussions with on a whim; people you can see outside your computer screen. However, as I worked on different projects here in Bukalapak, I’ve found that as long as you do your part, everyone else would help you make it work.
Discussions can always happen online. People are more than willing to spare fifteen minutes for a quick call when I need explanations about things. Sometimes I would be paired with a researcher located in Jakarta, so they can cover for me when face-to-face meetings with stakeholders are needed. If I was offered a project that requires me to be present in person all the time, this would be stated from the beginning, so I can consider it when deciding whether or not to take the project.
Bottom line, don’t let the fact that you don’t work at HQ stop you from taking fun, challenging projects. If you’re offered the chance, do your best to make it work, and others will help.
Your Part in This Relationship
If you have friends who don’t work on-site with you, here’s how you can make our life better!
If you’re on speaker, turn off your notifications
Remember the part when I said that some people would mumble or speak too far from the microphone? What I usually do is crank up the volume so that I can hear those people. At this volume, the sound of constant notifications from your laptop is nothing short of deafening. So please, help us preserve our hearing by turning on Do Not Disturb or turning off your notifications.
Update us about offline discussions
I’m well aware that random, spontaneous discussions are inevitable when you work together, and I think it’s healthy. However, it’s pretty sad when you join a call and everyone else know something you don’t. So if any offline discussion or aha-moments happen, what would be very helpful is if you summarize the discussion and update us on the group.
Give us a recap when everyone talks at once
In the heat of a discussion it’s perfectly normal to have multiple people talking at the same time. But it’s really hard to digest layered voices when you’re only listening through the phone. So whenever this happens, make sure that’s someone recap what you’ve discussed or decided at the end of the meeting.
Tell us stuff
Especially juicy gossips. A friend is starving.
Of course, more important than keeping up with things happening in HQ, you need to keep up with the work you’re doing, keep in touch with the people you need to be in touch with to do it, and update the people who needs to know what you’re doing. Working remotely or not, at the end of the day it’s how you cope that matters. This is how I cope with my remote situation. Do you have some tricks to share about remote working?