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Mike's home office
It doesn't take very long before working from home full time starts to feel totally normal. After five years of it, I'm only reminded how unusual it seems when I talk about it with people who have never done it.
In this post I'll respond to some of the most common questions or comments I've received about working from home. I've also added some quotes from my colleague Angie, our Marketing Admin, about her experience as a relatively new employee.
This is the question I probably get the most. I actually have two, seemingly-conflicting, answers to this question.
Answer #1: "He doesn't"
Leading a team of remote employees, especially across multiple time zones, is not a job for micro-managers. It's just not possible to check in on everyone throughout the day or track the state of their status dots in Slack and keep your sanity. The "Management by Walking Around" (MBWA) strategy does not apply. This means that you need to trust your employees to keep themselves accountable, often before they've even proven that they can.
Many people I talk to (freelancers or former freelancers, mainly) are usually surprised to learn we don't require any kind of time tracking or screenshot software during working hours.
One rather counter-intuitive trait of remote workers is that we often get more done in a typical day precisely because "the boss" isn't watching. People are usually their own worst critics, so meeting your own standard for a solid day's work is often harder than reaching someone else's. When I worked in an office, it was easy to give myself "credit" for working based on the number of hours I spent in my chair that day. But that rationale doesn't seem to apply at home.
Answer #2: "Of course he knows"
Keeping track of employee performance must be hard for every manager (I don't know, I've never done it). Even when all your employees are in the office, can you really know how many of them are being productive? Most of today's jobs can't be measured simply by how many widgets each employee produced. Yet every boss still finds a way to figure out whether their employees are doing their share, and remote managers are no different.
It's pretty easy to tell, IMO. My queue would be piling up, sponsorship payments and agreements wouldn't be happening, swag codes wouldn't be ordered or emailed to folks, I wouldn't be able to answer questions about my work or the projects I'm working on. It's no different from an employee who comes into the office and sneaks around on FB for 8 hours a day. It doesn’t take long to tell if someone isn't working at all.
Eventually it becomes clear if someone isn't pulling their weight, especially in a small company like ours. Sure, we all have "off" days (or even weeks at times), so we're not measured on the basis of a few tasks. But one of the benefits of working in a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) is that it doesn't matter if we work fewer hours than others, take more vacation days, or have a few unproductive days, as long as our overall contribution is up to the pace that we set.
I get this comment mostly from people who have worked from home a few days here and there. When you work in an office 90% of the time and then have a day to work at home, it can feel like a day off. You're distracted by all the things in your house that remind you of not working, so, of course it's hard.
Image credit: © The Oatmeal
But if your home is your office (hopefully just a part of it, and not the couch or the bed) and you work from home on a consistent basis, then you'll adjust to getting things done there. Back to question #1 above, if you're not pulling your weight, your boss will know and that's a hell of an incentive to figure it out.
It's no different from when I was working in an office setting and couldn't concentrate. The difference is that if I'm distracted by something, I can usually stop long enough to get it done, whereas in an office setting, I was bound by certain company rules or guidelines, and I couldn't handle "personal business" at times other than my breaks or my lunch. I find if I'm distracted by something, I can stop myself and take care of it, and when I get back to my desk, I'm more focused.
There are many articles out there about the importance of establishing a routine that facilitates getting stuff done. My approach is a little less about the routine than the mindset, but, regardless, building habits through repetition is key. (See more tips from our team on successful remote working.)
So, in short, you develop the discipline because you have such a big stake in it.
There seems to be a misconception that the nature of working from home is so different from working in an office that it must entail a different schedule. The dominant variation on this is that since home = office, a remote worker will either choose to, or be forced to, work late, start early, or work only in odd spurts throughout the day.
The truth is that, for most of us, standard office hours are the norm. It's the time when our kids are in school, our spouses are at work, the sun is up, etc. It also makes it much easier for us to collaborate when we have a common schedule with those in our time zone. This doesn't mean that we never deviate from this schedule - having the flexibility is great when needed - it just means that most of us just go to our "home office" the same way that the rest of the world goes to their "away office" (without the commute, of course).
The other theory about working hours is that working from home is mainly for people who work with people in far-away time zones. It would be strange to go to an office at midnight, so if you have to work with a team half-way across the world, it makes sense that you'd do it from home.
I think that this scenario exists, but is rare. At Balsamiq we prefer to have our teams roughly located in the time zones that allow for the easiest communication. We have people in Europe who provide customer support during European working hours and people in Illinois and California who provide support during the span of the U.S. work day across the four main time zones here. For the same reason, our development team is located exclusively in Europe.
Having a time window (even if small) for all of us to be available is very important though, which is why we have defined the "golden hour" of 8:00am - 9:00am, U.S. Pacific Time / 5:00pm - 6:00pm, Central European Time as the time when everyone should make an effort to be online and available. This handoff time gives us a chance to have meetings, pass on important information, or ask any questions that we need answers to.
Generally speaking, yes. It may seem like you're stealing time from the company by doing your laundry or dishes between projects, but that can actually be productive time as well. I sometimes say that I do my best work when I'm not working ;-). What I mean by that is that those breaks away from work give your brain a chance to synthesize ideas and information that you were processing while typing or reading at your computer.
Is my house clean all the time now? Hahahahahaha no. It's about the same, only now I tend to declutter and do a round of dishes at my lunch, instead of cramming it in during the evenings.
Additionally, I find that the cure for not being productive at work is often not trying to force yourself to be productive, but to free yourself from it by doing something that's explicitly not work related. Taking 30 minutes to do some work around the house is often even more effective than surfing the internet for an hour, which is what many office workers do when they're not feeling productive.
At Balsamiq we even explicitly give employees freedom to use five hours per week for exercise and another five hours for professional development. In a results only work environment it only matters what you get done, not how you use your time to do it.
The short answer is: yes. Loneliness was listed as most common challenge in the Buffer State of Remote Work 2018 survey. It's one of the top difficulties that Francesca mentions in her blog post about remote working. People who get energy from others around them especially struggle with the change, but Francesca also adds "things aren't that easy for introverts either."
It's something you have to be proactive about in a way that office workers don't. But with remote work on the rise, resources for alleviating the loneliness of working from home are also. Some people here have partners or neighbors who also work from home, creating a community of work-from-homers. And many of us take advantage of the budget we are given for coworking spaces in order to replicate the social aspects of an office in a novel way.
Do you work from home? Are your answers different from those above? What kinds of questions do you get asked and what are some of your favorite ways to respond? For those who don't work from home, would you like to if you had the opportunity? What questions do you have about it?
There's so much more to this conversation... let's continue it in the comments!
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Great post – I especially liked the bit about the MBWA aspect of a “real” job. If more managers actually embraced that (trusting people to do their job) in the workplace there would be fewer people looking to either work from home, or just quitting their jobs entirely. The last 9 – 5 I really loved was ruined by a micromanager…and my inability to deal with bureaucracy just for the sake of it lol
On the subject of loneliness, that’s definitely a thing. I think that you need to have real balance in your life before working from home. For me finding that balance means using some form of co-working space in the very near future. I love working from home, but I think it’s healthy to get away from your home a few times per week.
Plus it gives me an excuse to drink coffee I can’t find closer to my home 🙂
How do I find a company that supports remote work?
Can non mid/senior employee work remotely?
Employees of all levels can work remotely. My advice is to find a company that is completely or mostly remote. In those companies it’s not a “perk” only available to senior people, but a common way of working. Here are a few of my favorite remote job resources: