Committing to Remote Work

In 2008 I had graduated college and accepted a full time role at Gray Matter Technologies*, where I’d become the first remote employee. I had interned with Gray Matter my entire senior year, we had built up enough trust that they were willing to let me continue working for them when I moved 4 hours away. Working remotely was exciting at first, but after just six months, it was clear that working remotely wasn’t for me. I left Gray Matter shortly after. I eventually joined the team at Formstack and as fate would have it, Formstack would embrace remote work a few years later.

When it comes to remote working, Mike Ehrmantraut said it best: “No more half measures”. A company needs to wholly commit to a new way of working if remote work is to succeed. Since I was the first-and-only remote employee at Gray Matter, we got a lot wrong. After seeing what it takes to make a distributed team work at Formstack, here is my take on the mistakes we made:

Work shouldn’t become isolated

Before I went remote, I was a software developer who’d work on some of Gray Matter’s biggest projects alongside a team of 3-4 developers. Once I went remote, I was often assigned to smaller, siloed projects that I could complete by myself. I slowly felt like a contractor, cranking out pieces of functionality rather than being on a collaborative team. A worker who feels isolated from their team isn’t going to be happy or productive.

Decisions should be made asynchronously

Teams at Gray Matter had great communication. We used meetings, phone calls, and instant messenger to communicate with one another. Developers sat in an open office, so face-to-face discussions and banter were quite common. As the only remote employee, I missed out on 90% of this communication. “Out of sight, out of mind” was a real problem. When a company is distributed, it’s essential to force nearly all communication and decisions to be done online, in an asynchronous way. Having a wiki or discussion board lets remote team members participate in important decisions and eliminates the need for a synchronous meeting. This can be especially hard if your company has an HQ or has teams who often work in-person. If that’s the case, always think about who isn’t in the room.

Work should be visible

When sitting in the same workplace with your colleagues, it’s easy to see work getting done (or at least see people pretending to work). When you’re remote it can be hard to keep track of what teammates and colleagues are working on day-to-day. Quick standup meetings can help, which was one of the motivating factors in building Jell.

When working remotely, the quality of work becomes the benchmark for productivity. Work should always be made visible. Making work visible helps in getting early feedback, and is a sign of the progress being made towards your goals.

Socially connect with your teammates

While I mentioned that your work can become isolated, so can your social relationships with your colleagues. At Gray Matter, I missed all of the “watercooler” talk on any given day. I often would hear about new hires, but never have a chance to meet them. Especially if they weren’t on my team. At Formstack, we have chat rooms that are dedicated to topics other than business: TV shows, music, fantasy football, and even a catch-all watercooler room. We also routinely get on a video chat and share a beer.

It’s not always easy

I’ve been working remotely for Formstack for the past 3 years. It’s taken hard work and trial and error to build an effective remote company. We’ve been fully committed to asynchronous communication, visibility in our work, and building of personal relationships.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent and introduce not-so-subtle references to Breaking Bad.

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