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Goin' Remote: A Product Team Experiment

Here were our goals with the remote work experiment:

  • Understand what worked well for remote workers
  • Find out what was painful
  • Come up with ideas to make the remote work experience better for our employees
  • Find some relatively-distraction-free time away from the office to get in the zone

Working from Home - Photo by David Hunt

Things We Loved About Our Experiment

The team didn’t know what to expect. We knew the experience would be different from working in the office, but nobody anticipated just how different it would be. After a few days, a consensus regarding some of the pros of working remote began to emerge.

For many of us, especially on the first day or two of our experiment, productivity significantly increased when we worked from home. Personally, it allowed me to go heads down on some important, but not necessarily urgent, tasks that had sat on my plate for too long. Others loved how the lack of distractions allowed them to focus on intense development and design tasks. Just think about how often you’re interrupted when someone cruises by your desk to ask about your weekend or to seek for your help with some other issue.

Almost everyone on the team noted the lack of a commute as a huge benefit. Some were able to get in an extra half hour or hour of sleep without adjusting their typical evening schedule. Others kept their typical wake-up times but found they were able to get rolling with work earlier in the morning.

Things We Didn’t Love About Our Experiment

I mentioned one of our goals was to feel the pain of our full-time remote workers. Some issues will inevitably come up when working remote. Well, mission accomplished. Since our squad had never done this before, we ran into a number of obstacles during the week.

We use HipChat here at Hudl for instant messaging, and our squad’s chat room saw a major uptick in conversation during our remote week. We’re typically all co-located in the same office. Not being face-to-face was a major adjustment for us. We found that HipChat worked well for “status” meetings like stand-ups, but creative or problem-solving discussions took quite a bit longer to work through when we relied only on HipChat.

To adjust, we relied more on Google Hangouts for in-depth conversations. However, even that didn’t go perfectly. We had lots of issues, with microphone volume and echoing. Even the ol’ standby, GoToMeeting, didn’t work perfectly for us when we dialed in to our company’s weekly all-hands meeting. The microphone was muted for half the meeting and no one at the office realized it.

Hudl offers its employees a free, catered lunch. Besides the fact that we get tasty food for free, it gives people in all roles across the company time to interact. At previous jobs, I almost never got a chance to talk with our support or account management teams. When our team was remote, we missed out on that interaction. Everyone foraged for lunch at different times, so the team wasn’t at full strength for around two hours.

The biggest downside to this experiment was the fact that none of us took our office setups home with us. Most of us are used to working on two (or more) high resolution monitors, but at home most of us only had one screen. When you’re used to having that much visual real estate, downsizing changes your workflow puts a dent in productivity.

We also found that we weren’t able to access everything we needed to work effectively, even over our VPN. One of our developers ended up going back to the office for a day and a half so he could troubleshoot an issue we were having.

So, Why Should My Company Allow Remote Work?

As we just saw, there will be some bumpy patches when people work from home. However, we continue to see the advantages outweigh the costs. Here are the most noticeable long-term benefits we’ve seen:

Build trust. Allowing people to work remotely on occasion demonstrates that you trust them to be productive and not to be sitting on their couch watching SportsCenter all day. The same holds true every single day for permanent remote workers. If someone is abusing that trust, it’ll become apparent from that person’s work output.

Boost morale. No one likes the ol’ double-whammy—gotta be at home to meet the cable installer at a random hour between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m, and burn a vacation day to do it. If that employee can work remotely, she doesn’t feel like she’s getting screwed out of a vacation day. Plus, your company gets the added productivity bonus of that person still contributing from home instead of doing nothing while waiting for KableTown to show up.

Get stuff done. Sometimes, you need a distraction-free environment to power through a few tasks crucial tasks. Working from home provides that environment and allows you to focus on the most important that often get lost in a sea of daily office activity.

Recruit anywhere. You can seek out the best talent for your company regardless of their physical location. You don’t have to stop pursuing that talented designer in New York or California just because they’re not willing to move to our nation’s beautiful Heartland. You also gain the ability to retain talented employees if they want or need to relocate.

Decrease costs. Since remote workers may only come into your office once a quarter, they don’t require a permanent physical space in your office and also don’t use any of your company utilities or amenities. It also eliminates commuting and parking costs for the employee. Finally, there are no moving costs that your company will have to reimburse.

Protips for the Hesitant Remote Worker

If you’ve read this article and thought, “Well, that’s interesting, but remote work wouldn’t be effective at my company or for someone on my team,” my response to you is a challenge. Just give it a shot! Knowing what I know now, I’d try this experiment again in a heartbeat.

Let me offer a few recommendations:

Make sure your work environment is distraction-free. An office or bedroom away from anyone else home with you works great. You’ll be disappointed in the experiment if you’re sitting in a recliner in front of your TV with kids running around the room—just ask Trevor.

Get your gear together. If you normally work with two monitors and have a high-powered machine, make sure your environment at home is as close to this setup as possible. There’s nothing—nothing—worse than suffering a decrease in productivity because you’re constantly juggling application windows on a single 16-inch CRT monitor.

Do a dry run. It’s important to make sure you can access everything you need—VPN, code repository, databases, test environments, etc. before you start your experiment. This allows you to troubleshoot any issues with your IT or operations teams while you’re still in the office.

Communication is key. It’s critically important to keep remote workers in the loop, both within your immediate team and with the company as a whole. Make sure team decisions are communicated effectively, whether that’s asynchronously through something like HipChat or Basecamp, or in a “face-to-face” conversation using a tool like Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, or Sqwiggle.

If you work or have worked remotely, or even if you just feel strongly about the subject, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment on this post or send a tweet to @AndrewBrinkman.

Photo credit: David Hunt

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