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Successful Remote Working

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For both employees and employers, remote work requires intentional design and implementation to be effective. People find remote work challenging because the established mindset says that being in an office is how work gets done. Remote workers also need to prioritize their mental health, by taking breaks, getting exercise, and having a social life. Despite the challenges, when remote work is done well, the advantages to employees and employer are sufficient to make it worthwhile.

These were some of the key takeaways expressed by Charles Humble during his presentation at QCon London 2020, titled "Remote Working Approaches That Worked (and Some That Didn't)." Humble's opinions are based on his experience working at C4 Media, a remote-only company, and the parent organization of InfoQ and QCon. 

Because many additional people are working from home due to social distancing, QCon has made the video recording of the presentation immediately available on InfoQ.

The first starting point for remote employees is to have clear separation between home and work. This can be done through physical separation, by having a dedicated home office, or even working at a shared-work facility, such as Regus or WeWork. It is also helpful to have a transition point, something to replace a commute, that delineates the shift from being at home to being at work. Some people have found taking their dog for a walk, or simply going out the front door and coming in the back door of their house is enough to make the mental shift and start focusing on work.

Successful remote work is not just up to the employees. Companies and managers must make extra effort to exhibit transparency and establish trust, because you don't have benefits of casual conversation and body language like you would working in the same location. Psychological safety is needed for remote working, and this means managers must be prepared to be vulnerable. Once a manager shows they are comfortable sharing something difficult, then employees will be more comfortable reciprocating. Humble said, "You have to fundamentally trust people because you can't see what they do. They have to tell you."

Establishing a high level of trust among remote managers and employees starts with having good meeting rituals. Meetings should be conducted on video if at all possible, and start with a "check in" for each team member. The check in lets people state how they are feeling that day, and what else is going on that may be affecting their mood or productivity. Managers must lead by example, because what you do is more important than what you say. For more suggestions on meeting rituals, Humble recommended the High-Performance Teams mini-book by Richard Kasperowski, author of The Core Protocols.

An established calendar of regular meetings also helps create structure for distributed teams. A daily huddle takes the place of a "standup." Because remote teams build a higher level of independence than co-located teams, this may only need to occur twice per week to keep everyone aligned.

One-on-one meetings between employee and manager are extremely important, and must be treated as sacrosanct. These meetings are for the employee, with discussions about their career and other personal concerns. Humble had two absolute rules: The one-on-one is not a status meeting, and managers should never be allowed to cancel the meeting.

Strategic discussions are very challenging to have remotely, so these will usually occur when everyone involved can meet in person, which is every four months for C4, and coincides with QCon scheduling. C4 has an annual "all hands" meeting that lasts for four days, which also involves flying everyone into one location. This is obviously very expensive and a logistical challenge, but is extremely valuable. While everyone does not need to be co-located all the time, there are some situations which are only really effective when a team is all together. These include strategic discussions and just help re-enforce the bonds between team members.

Humble shared a list of tools he and C4 have used. Slack for IM; Zoom for video conferencing; Workplace for "water cooler"-like chats; Google Docs for remote collaboration; and 15Five for private retrospectives. While these work for his team, many options exist. The important thing is to try and find what works effectively in your situation, because bad tooling can have a serious effect on remote working.

While remote work is very appealing to some employees, it does come with some trade-offs. Although the time and costs associated with commuting disappear, new costs may be incurred from premium high-speed internet, a good laptop, a nice desk, and especially a good office chair. A subject not often, or easily, discussed regarding remote work is mental health. Burnout is a real, serious issue, and is endemic in IT. Trust and openness is critically important, and allows team members to recognize when someone is struggling, and help them cope, including seeking professional help. Loneliness can also be a problem, and it takes active effort to make your family and your social life a real priority. Pets, exercise, and getting into nature can also help improve mental well-being.

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