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  • March 24, 2011

The Challenges of Working Remotely

Last Monday, Happy Cog’s Greg Hoy led a SXSW session about company culture. I wasn’t able to attend SXSW this year, but Leslie Camacho Working Remotely wrote up a detailed summary of the session. Of particular interest to me was the discussion about working remotely.

For the last five years, I’ve been working from home. It started back when I was the first employee at Airbag, and then continued after we merged with Happy Cog in August 2009. As part of the San Francisco team, I’m 3 hours ahead of, and almost 3,000 miles away from, most of my co-workers. My process and methods have evolved since the early days when it was just me on the East Coast and Greg Storey in our southern California office. As we added more people, I learned new ways and implemented new tools to become a more effective remote worker.

Fast-forward five years. As a Technology & Development Director at Happy Cog, I run and direct all of the development projects in the San Francisco office. I work closely with our entire team day in and day out. This does, of course, present some challenges. My days have me jumping from project to project, writing code, being on phone calls and sorting through email. Here’s some insight on how I try to organize my days to help me be as efficient as possible while working so far away.

The Quiet of the Morning

The mornings are quiet because San Francisco is still sleeping, so I use this time to get through tasks that don’t require consulting with my coworkers in San Francisco. The first task of the day is always email.

I sit down with my morning coffee and review email that came in the evening before. Unread email usually consists of new issue tickets from clients (we use Lighthouse) and Basecamp messages from clients or co-workers (like the milestone reminder that this blog post is due). I am copied on every new issue ticket submitted by a client so I can see what the problems are, fix them or discuss them with my co-workers when they start their workday.

I use my quiet time to go through the email and plan my day. If I try to immediately respond to and act on every email message that lands in my inbox, my day would consist of just reacting to several different projects without any organization or method. Spending the entire day just reading and reacting to email doesn’t sound like much fun at all. To prevent this, I don’t respond to email immediately unless it’s an emergency. Instead, I create tasks for myself in OmniFocus. I jot down notes for a later discussion with a co-worker (for the GTD wonks, I use the “Talking to [coworker name]” context) or ideas I want to bring up on our daily phone call.

The email step can take awhile, but I do try to limit it to one hour. After that, I close my email client so I’m not tempted to ride the “New Mail” button. For the rest of the day, I close my email client when working on a task, and if it is open, it is set to only check once per hour.

In the remaining time, I try to complete work that requires intense focus, like coding, reading, or writing.

Lines of Communication

Early on, I found remote workers need to over-communicate with their co-workers and vice-versa. Over-communication is a must. Leslie Camacho notes some discussion during the SXSW session on company culture:

Mozilla’s biggest tip for working virtually is to over communicate. Say it once, then email, then IM, then phone, then whatever it takes to be understood. Working in a completely virtual company myself, I highly endorse this tip.

How we communicate is also very important. Some methods are more awful than others, and they are all awful compared to being in the same room. Bank on that. But we can still make it work!

Here are the tools we use to make it easier:

  • Basecamp – The central repository of all knowledge and information about a project. Don’t put it in email, put it in Basecamp.
  • Campfire – Chit chat, silly banter, and a place to check in.
  • Instant Messaging (iChat) – Great for private conversations, but very disruptive.
  • Phone/Skype/Audio Chat – Should be used a lot and whenever there is a communication breakdown via other methods.

Did you notice I didn’t include email?

For real-time, intrusive chatting tools like Campfire and iChat, I suggest removing all alerts (bouncing icons, badges) and silencing all sounds. No one should be able to interrupt you at will. That’s what the phone is for, and, unlike iChat, it’s used much more sparingly.

Scheduling Phone Calls

To keep my mornings free to focus on work, I try to schedule all phone calls in the afternoon, if at all possible. Since I’m 3 hours ahead of the San Francisco office, this is easy to do. The first phone call of the day is at 12:30PM Eastern time for our daily check-in. The entire team in the San Francisco office spends 10 minutes discussing the tasks for the day. I always request that the rest of my phone calls take place in the late afternoon, and I try to bunch them up. This isn’t always possible, of course, but I make it my goal.

Taking Notes, Organizing Project Materials

For some reason, I find it harder to remember information from conversations if I’m not in the same room as the person with whom I’m talking. I used to keep a notebook with notes and ideas from phone calls, and it allowed me to always reference back to a phone call to verify information. Last year, I switched over to a software solution, because I found that searching is faster than flipping through pages.

My project documents, phone call notes, related emails, reference URLs, and anything else I might need get stuffed into DevonThink Pro Office, a powerful database tool by Devon Technologies. DevonThink is an over-achieving piece of software that allows you to easily store, tag, classify, and search for documents. It’s where I put everything: bookmarks (fed in via RSS from Pinboard), PDFs, images, text documents, phone call notes and email. It’s the hub of my attempt to maintain a paperless office.

Do you work remotely? If so, what tools and tricks do you use to manage your time and still be an effective coworker?

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