Notes from a remote UX engineer.
working remotely.jpg

When I tell people I work remotely (as in 3000 miles away from our HQ), it seems to elicit either an enthusiastic "that's cool!" or a pitying, "oh, cool." It's certainly a mixed bag--though so is working with everyone in one location. 

Contents of the bag:  

Item A: Separation between work and home

For a while, I worked from a co-working space. A big benefit of coworking spaces is they give you a separation between work and home (if you find yourself getting cabin fever frequently, find a co-working location stat). I prefer my few-minute commute from home to workspace to a twenty-minute commute to co-working space, but to each their own.

Now, my home base is also my work base, and work sometimes blends with life. For me, that's okay for a bit, especially if I'm excited about the work I'm doing. Also, this scenario gives me the flexibility to change my location whenever I need a change of scenery.

 

Item B: Designing Contextually 

As a designer, seeing people interact with things as they would normally provides better data than seeing them interact in a strange-to-them workspace. If I'm doing any user research, I tend to go to people's workplaces or other contexts that they may be more comfortable and natural in. I probably don't go out enough (and still often feel obligated to be near my desk for some reason), but not feeling tethered to your space is fantastic for design. In the future, I'd love to travel to other markets and make sure we're creating solutions that work with that region's habits. Of course, if you're perfecting pixels for a bit, it's probably best to be in front a nice monitor and plenty of desk space.

 

Item C: Communicating through tin cans

The major downside of working remotely is losing out on a lot of those passing conversations that occur naturally in face-to-face environments. These conversations build camaraderie and understanding; things get lost with only electronic communication (especially if it's only over chat/email). Google Hangouts is a super easy way to chat, but somehow the activation energy is still pretty high for people to remember to just call you. If you're the only remote worker, you can sometimes feel that people forget you or you're missing things. Over-communication is the best way to combat this-- over chat, video, and conversations outside of your schedule meetings. If you feel a bit out of the loop or if you need to do more high-touch work that would go much faster in person, schedule a visit to work together. Going back to Boston regularly helps a lot, and tends to energize me for a few weeks. I also worked with the company in Boston previously, and really liked it. Having familiarity before going remote helps. 

If you're working with an internationally-distributed team (or even domestically), you will likely run into misunderstandings of social norms of communicating. Even within the same location, an easy example is a lack of response to an email-- is that a silent yes or a silent no? Typically, this can be cleared up with a quick pop into that person's office. Remotely, someone could be incommunicado because something cropped up but forgot to tell one person, and all sorts of misunderstandings can crop up from a single incident. It's a minefield, and probably the biggest downside to working remotely. Still, the remedy seems to be to visit and work together as possible and to over communicate otherwise over amazing technology (domestically, we tend to take same holidays and the same days for Daylight Time Savings for granted).

 

Geography and the sun

Speaking of time differences, I prefer as much overlap time as possible, and it's not bad West Coast to East Coast-- but international can be awful. Delays can be an entire day, which is the worst if you're blocked. Personally, I'm a bit flexible especially for days that I'm blocking someone-- and I experiment with my sleep schedule to also try to have a social life while waking up early (born night owl here). This is far more of a personal decision on what your hours are going to be and how much overlap/delay that you and your company is comfortable with.

 

Flexibility for talent

For companies, the upside of allowing employees to work remotely is that they can cast a wider net for talent. Likewise individuals can work for companies that are out of their own geographic distance too--ones that could be super cool. Github and 37 signals are some well-known companies that are fully distributed teams-- they seem to have awesome people and do really well. It might have some pushback for potential scale problems, but a lot of companies have several co-located teams that must communicate across timezones. 

 

Fewer interruptions

I guess this would also apply to co-located places too, but we've pushed meetings into blocks to enable bigger blocks of time for flow. It's easier to do the few-minute setup once or twice a day instead of several. I've also found that working remotely is awesome for flow because there aren't as many interruptions. I do feel compelled to answer the pings on chat, but it's certainly not as crazy as working in Boston. I do think the visits are important to have that in-person communication, but it's certainly to renew social bonds and build upon the foundation of mutual understanding. The type of work that co-located and distributed work lends to is certainly different, though.

All in all, remote has its ups and downs, but it's valid way to scale your company or to widen your net of companies to work for.

 

Comment