My mom’s chicken soup has no equal anywhere else in the world
I can sum up my year of wandering the globe with that simple statement, but as it’s something that everyone discovers at some point in life and has nothing to do with location independence, I can try and be a little more insightful.
This article is based on a talk I did at WordCamp Torino on April 2nd, called “Gone with the wind: lessons learned from a year of location independence” in which I shared my takes from the past year on
Communication, productivity, and happiness.
In January 2015, I officially became a human. In other words, I was hired by Human Made – one of the top WordPress agencies in the world, 100% distributed with people working from several different continents and clients on both sides of the ocean.
Having contributed to WordPress and organised WordCamp Europe in 2014 with a global team of WordPressers from 6 different countries, I had already gotten a sense of remote work. I thought I was prepared and couldn’t wait to go fully remote, to be able to work from anywhere, make my own working hours and go travel the world.
Fourteen months later, after 21 countries on 3 continents, 12 conference talks, 4 organised events, 9 launched projects and 123,324 Slack messages (as of last week), here’s what I learned about winning at remote work.
Set expectations in writing. Meet them.
Not really a huge discovery for those of you whose main day to day consists of mostly client work. But what’s important in a remote company, is to do this with not just your clients, but your colleagues and mostly – yourself.
In a remote company how successful you are depends on your results. Nobody cares where you are and how you work, as long as things happen when expected and as promised.
At Human Made, we do weekly updates with our deliverables for the week (that we set for ourselves) and combine that with a report of what we did in the past week. Client communication loops are also weekly and if we can’t catch up in a call, we do it in writing.
Those weekly checkups are the pillars of our projects and help you structure your week and plan the following one better.
When expressing yourself in writing, always assume no harm is meant
Online communication is hard. Online communication across countries, cultures, languages and industry backgrounds is impossible. That’s why there are these simple rules to follow when talking to people online:
- Assume no harm is meant. Always. Strip the sentence of what you consider passive aggressive and get to the core message.
- Be constructive. Overcommunicate if you need to. To be sure if the other person means exactly the thing you’re assuming, state it and ask for confirmation. Do this, until you read “Correct”.
- Don’t take anything personally. In 95% of the cases, it’s not going to be about you.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Asking works better than demanding or stating expectations. Thanking someone for their effort to start the conversation goes a long way.
- When in doubt, be nice. Kindness is a universal language. In writing, it needs to be specifically expressed or it can be missed. Responding to aggression with kindness will have surprising results. Try it.
Communication is oxygen
In a remote environment, we use tools to replace the live interactions of the office. Blogs, Slack, Screen Hero, Zoom, Trello, Skype, Hangouts, Dropbox Paper cover our needs of live and asynchronous communication.
Oxygen deprivation is lethal. But so is overdosing on oxygen.
Because we need to compensate for the lack of facial expressions and body language, remote workers tend to overcommunicate to get their message through. There’s also the need for a virtual watercooler, which usually turns out to be the general chat channel. The urgency of live communication can quickly become overwhelming and that’s hurting the productivity and the health of the team. People feel guilty when they’re not able to respond to a message immediately or suffer from fear of missing out when they’re too far from the live channels. That’s why it’s important to set rules for yourself in terms of online / offline time and your availability for live interaction:
- Set Do Not Disturb mode for Slack (or Hipchat, or skype, or the other tools you use) and turn off all notifications once you get offline on all your devices
- Set clear expectations when you’ll be online and when not
- Be clear about the focus time that you need if you’ll be working but away from Slack
- Use asynchronous channels as much as possible. Which brings me to my next point:
Every meeting, every new turn of events needs to be put in writing so that the other members of the team can clearly see and know about it.
- New business development goes on the client Trello card
- Project development and progress goes into weekly meeting notes collected on an internal blog or Dropbox Paper / Hackpads
- Project specification changes go into the Project wiki on GitHub
Choose your daily goals early and carefully and stick to them
Keep your goals right in front of you throughout the day and avoid distractions until they’re completed. I use a Wunderlist for current tasks and love it: it’s web based and syncs across devices.
Learn and optimise
Self-check, monitor your ways and improve your processes. If you’re not already using a time management tool like Rescue time, try it for a couple of weeks. It’s going to help you learn more about the way you work.
Be prepared and take advantage of offline time
Work whatever happens. You can’t let the lack of wifi or the partying people around you distract you. They’re on vacation, but you’re not. Plan for offline:
- ABC! Always be charging. Don’t drain your computer battery while power is available. Keep your other devices charged as well.
- Offline is going to happen while you travel, so don’t let that surprise or disable you. No wifi means focused time for in-depth work on a task and coding / designing / writing without distractions. Embrace it.
- If you need to be online and can’t afford the offline time (client meetings are a good example), always have a backup plan. I have a wi-fi dongle with me at all times or I’m prepared for tethering from my phone even when I’m in a foreign country. A local sim card with data might cost you different amounts around the world, but it’s worth it and your colleagues and clients will thank you later. Do the research before you get to the next country.
Happiness and Self-care
The risks of remote work are real and you need to be careful and disciplined to escape them.
People in all time zones and collaborators all over the world mean there’s always someone to talk to, tasks to execute and another thing to complete before you stop for the day. Burnout is real in the remote work environment, it’s dangerous. Fear of missing out leading to no time off is also pushing a lot of remote workers to never close their laptops. How to avoid it?
- Watch out for yourselves. Is someone online all the time? Are they constantly replying to messages even though it’s night time in their time zone? Call them out on it, check why that’s happening.
- Encourage others (and yourself) to take enough time off. We have a minimum required holiday at Human Made (everyone needs to take at least 28 days a year) but our overall vacation is unlimited and as long as you give enough notice, you are encouraged to take all the time you need
- If you’re feeling unproductive, stop. You can continue tomorrow. Don’t force yourself into working if you don’t feel well. Remember: results are what matter.
Isolation and loneliness
One of the biggest challenges remote workers face is loneliness and isolation. Live human interactions are important, so create opportunities for them to happen.
- If you don’t want to travel, go to a co-working space where you can meet like-minded people.
- If you love to travel, do it with other people. In 2015, I took a road trip around Europe with my colleagues and for a month we worked together, met several different WordPress communities, explored the continent and had fun.
- Get together every few months to hack on projects and spend quality time. Each year we have at least one get together with everyone else, but we also plan monthly co-working locations with just a few people or drop by someone else’s house, work together and sleep on their couch for a week or two.
The most important thing to do here is to recognise the risks and actively plan against them.
At the end of the day and after crazy 14 months, the best thing remote working gave me was the appreciation for the place I call home. Being away makes it that much sweeter when you finally go back.
Because location independence can also mean enjoying your mom’s chicken soup for a week or two. And after just 14 months of being all over the world, in my book, that’s right next to my month of early morning walks on the beach in Thailand.
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