Working Remotely Part-time as a Software Engineer (Part 1)
Working remotely is no doubt the future of work. Cities are getting more crowded, collaboration is global and employee expectations to how they should be allowed to work is changing. As part of meeting this new future appear.in has given their employees a task. Work remotely and travel, and then document and research your findings on what works, and what doesn’t. In this series of blog posts I’ll talk about my expectations, experience and sum up my thoughts on working remotely part-time as a software engineer.
Ever since I started having the means to travel the world, I have loved it and started doing it as often as I can. Only problem is time. In Norway we are lucky to have 5 weeks vacation every year to spend as we wish, and I have been travelling a lot with work, but that thirst for more is still there. In the last three years I have visited Japan, South Korea, United States, United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, Finland, various places in Norway, and more. Common for all of them is that I have at some point worked while being there. From my phone or my computer. I work because I want to, we rarely if ever, have had mandated overtime.
And overall, it works just fine. Biggest gripe is finding a place to sit, and wifi to use, but as the world is moving forwards, so is free wifi coverage. So starting to work more remotely should be without any problems, right?
Managing Expectations and Trust
Being a software engineer most of my work consists of programming, a task that requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. Being in a place where I am constantly interrupted, having to move around, loud noises or other disruptions can take a serious toll on my productivity. Less productivity means I’m not living up to the expectations I have set for myself, or that of my team. This is a huge problem for me, because it means I experience negative stress when I can’t live up to those expectations.
However, productivity killers are also present in the office. We work in an open floor plan, so disruptions are plenty. But there is a big difference between being in the office and working remote: transparency. When I’m disrupted in the office, everyone can see that I am disrupted, and therefore the peer expectations for that day is lower. When working remote, that transparency isn’t there, and unproductive days due to disruptions outside my control can suddenly lead to a lack of perceived trust. Perhaps they are thinking I’m not pulling my weight, that I’m not doing my best, that I’m just here relaxing and enjoying myself instead of working my ass off to finish that feature in time. These feelings of negative stress can lead to working too much, and eventually, burning out.
To successfully work remotely, part-time or full-time, you have to manage these expectations, ensure transparency and establish trust between yourself, your peers, and your leader that you will be doing your best independent of location. Logically, I know that trust is there, but that little voice in my head keeps doubting that implicit trust, and convincing that voice will be my biggest challenge going forward.
One suggestion is to increase transparency by being on video. Brad, our permanent remotie, solves this problem by hanging out on video all day, only interrupted by lunch. We can see and hear him, and he can see and hear us. But making this experience better and less privacy invasive is something I really want to solve.
Another issue with being remote is knowing when to stop. Due to the problem with expectations as mentioned above, you can often end up working all the time, never knowing when to let work go, and let your life begin.
An important aspect of work-life balance is the amount of time a person spends at work. Evidence suggests that long work hours may impair personal health, jeopardise safety and increase stress. The share of employees working 50 hours or more per week is not very large across OECD countries. In Norway, 3% of employees work very long hours, less than the OECD average of 13%. (Source)
In Norway, we are usually very good at managing our work-life balance. Only 3% of full-time workers work 50 hours or more per week, and on average, we spend 15.6 hours every day to personal care and leisure, more than most OECD countries. At the same time, we spend most of our time working at work. Only 1/3 of workers report that they work from home, and those that do, do it on average one day per month. In the future of work, our theory is that this number is going to increase rapidly, perhaps even to once or twice a week.
At work, knowing when to stop is easy. You come to work about the same time every day, and you leave work about the same time every day. There is little magic to it. At our office, the lights turn off after 5 o’clock to conserve energy. They are easy to switch back on if you need that (and you are not in the now pitch black bathroom with no motion sensor), but it serves as a mental cue that it’s time to break off and go home.
Working remotely you don’t get these small mental cues. After all, a lot of us will probably go sit in front of the computer for a few hours when we go home anyway, and if you’re already there working, it can be hard breaking off. This is also true if you are working outside your home. Maybe you’re sitting at a café and it’s time to eat. Well why don’t you just eat while you’re here and continue working to get that bug fixed because due to disruptions today you just haven’t had the mental capacity to figure out the issue and oh my look at the time it’s already getting late I should really get some sleep and how come it’s getting dark outside?
I don’t know what the solution will be here, and if I’m able to cope with it yet. Working remotely means I have to be more structured with myself, think through not only my work, but also my well-being to a much bigger degree than I would do going to the office every day. We’ll see how that works out after this experiment.
One of my main concerns is staying social while working more and more away from the office. I’m a social guy and I enjoy the little interactions I have throughout the day with my co-workers. Whether that is asking what was so funny as the guy sitting next to me chuckles, or eating lunch and talking about beer brewing. As a remote worker you will constantly surround yourself with new people, and in Scandinavia we are not the most social types in these types of situations. Sure I get interaction from text-based communication channels such as Slack, or talking to someone to resolve an issue over video, but most of the time I’ll be working alone. This can be great for short-term productivity, but as the time away from the office increases, I fear my social needs will not be met adequately.
One study shows that if you have more weak tie interactions, that is interactions where you engage in actual social interaction, for example talking with a cashier, rather than treating the interaction as something efficient, will make you happier (source). Another shows that happiness is negatively impacted by frequent social interactions in some cases (source), and that less social interactions might actually make you happier. The answer does not seem clear-cut, and is dependent on a lot of factors.
“The findings in here suggest (and it is no surprise) that those with more intelligence and the capacity to use it … are less likely to spend so much time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective” (source)
But for myself I’m fairly certain that frequent social interaction is keeping me happy and healthy mentally, and I am concerned that working remote is going to affect my mental health negatively. So to combat this I have to be structured, not work alone when I do work remote, and make sure I set up healthy relationships and informal meetings outside of work with friends and family.
One suggestion from my colleagues is to ensure that we work remotely in pairs. Often we travel with someone else for work, or we just want to spend some time in a new environment. Why not get someone to tag along to that café you want to sit at? Or have dedicated video rooms for socializing?
Keeping a company culture is also something that can be hard when working remotely. GitHub, which has a long tradition of remote workers, say the following:
Company culture evolves over time, and the way remote work fits into that needs to evolve too, so you need to view it as a continual investment and a constant work-in-progress. I’m not sure that you could ever claim that your company culture or your remote working practices are “done”.
— Github on remote working culture
This goes hand in hand with establishing trust staying social. One thing I think will be extremely important is that despite talking together daily on video or messaging, we sometimes need to meet in person. Having monthly office days, or going on offsite trips to built culture and team spirit is even more important when most of your workforce rarely are together at the office at the same time.
So far our team has been hiking, cycling, kiting, climbing, and of course working on our offsites which takes us to new destinations once every 6 months. This is where meaningful social bonds are formed, making collaborating easier when you get back to your regular day-to-day routine.
As far as hardware goes I’m currently lugging around a Macbook Pro 15" from Early 2013, a Nexus 6P (which stands in as an excellent camera in a pinch), and a pair of Bose QC20.
In addition, I have a pair of Jabra Evolve 80 at work that have an excellent dedicated microphone, but I look like an alien wearing it. I also carry around some spare batteries for my phone, but I struggle to find some that are good enough AND support USB-C.
When I am working remote, there are a few things I consider essential to surviving: bright screen, battery life, noise cancellation and weight. I want a bright enough screen so that I can work outside in a pinch, I need great battery life on both my phone and computer. I tether my phone a lot, so battery life is a scarce resource. In addition, good and comfortable noise cancelling headphones are a life saver when working in a busy café. And lastly, weight is alpha omega.
There are a lot of things I want to carry around: dedicated microphone and a proper webcam, extra batteries, good headphones, a camera, in addition to some amenities such as water and food. But those grams and kilos really add up, especially when travelling, and it can in turn hurt your back and posture over time. Hardly a healthy life style.
Looking ahead, I want to take these considerations into account, packing less and smarter. The main driver for weight is my Macbook Pro, weighing in at 2kg. I really want to switch it out for a Macbook weighing in at only 920 grams in addition to improving the battery life of my now ageing monster, from around 2 hours to 10 hours (depending on usage). This could potentially mean I could carry only one charging cable with me at all times as well, as my phone can be charged by USB-C too.
Getting some proper headphones would be a life saver as well. Although they take more space, they are not that heavy, and will allow my ears some well-deserved rest as the in-ears can be problematic over time. Ridding myself of wires would also be a relief, less stuff to manage and to get in the way.
In any case, it’s doubtful any hardware upgrade is going to make a huge dent in how efficient or productive I am working remote, but it’s a good idea to go through the stuff you carry every day and ask yourself if you really need it, and make improvements where needed to make working remotely not suck.
As I’ve mentioned before, location has a lot to say when it comes to working remotely. Finding a good place to sit, where your posture and physical health is taken care of, in addition to good connectivity can be really hard when travelling. Café’s usually don’t want you to stick around an entire day, so a lot design their chairs or tables for discomfort over time, to make you get off your butt and out the door once you’re done drinking that coffee. There are some exceptions, but knowing where you find these places can be hard. During this period I’m going to research a lot of places, and find some resources where remote working is accepted and encouraged.
But location is more than just a comfy chair to sit on, and readily available wifi. If I’m going to make this into a lifestyle several days a week, I need to make sure I take care of my mental and physical health, and my pocket too! Co-working spaces are ideal, but cost money, and while the company pays for that now, perhaps not all companies will be so understanding. In addition, travelling away from home is one thing, but what if you’re home most of the time anyway? Having kids and travelling as a lifestyle don’t exactly go hand in hand.
Lastly, how is food quality? Usually when I’m working remote my diet is less than stellar. Coffee shops have some biscuits, maybe a sandwich if I’m lucky, while the office is much more geared towards healthy food.
I guess only time will tell, and I’ll try to keep somewhat of a log of what I eat so that I can track for myself how my well-being is kept up throughout this period. I will at the very least strive for healthier options when I can.
But I’ve talked a lot about my concerns and disadvantages now, what are the advantages of this new way of working? For me, it’s not having to commute for an hour every day on a crowded bus, having the freedom to wake up and go straight to my home office in the morning, then perhaps moving outside around lunch to one of the many local coffee shops and cafés around me. I expect my overall happiness to increase, especially since this new lifestyle allows me to combine work and leisure in a way I simply couldn’t before. Dreary meetings in a cramped office with bad ventilation is no more, now I can solve problems with my coworkers while sitting in Lisbon at a bench overlooking the city, from Tokyo at Antenna Wired Café, or just from the comfort of my local coffee shop.
I also believe that changing the way we work is not just what we want, but what we must do to meet the future. Cities are getting more and more crowded, and while our jobs are getting more technical and less manual, the actual need for physical presence at a cramped office is shrinking. Queues on roads are at a record high, and just building bigger roads is not the solution. Allowing people to work from where they can be their most productive and more importantly, their happiest is what we need to do, and I’m excited to take part in a journey to explore what that future will be like.
So to start off this period of exploration, I promised I would set myself some goals, then evaluate how I did some months in the future. These are the ones I’ve come up with so far:
- Say hello in the morning on Slack, and let people know what I’ll be working on today
- Say goodbye at the end of the workday, telling people how my day went, and what issues I faced today
- Dropping by the office on video at least once a day to hang out and listen to office chatter
- Try to solve issues not only on text but get someone on video to discuss
- Try to work with someone else when working remote
- Set clear start and stop times for my day.
- Find good places to work, compile a list for others to use
- Visit at least two countries, and one different time zone.
- Get some new hardware to aid working while travelling, explore needs and usage patterns
Do you have any ideas for stuff I should test out, or places to sit? Perhaps you can lend me your office for a day to test it out? Let me know in the comments below! And if you like the subject matter, consider checking out our companion publication over at The making of appear.in. Stay tuned!
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