The Great Remote Work Week - How We Did It

"Hey, everyone, we're all going home next week" - With this announcement from Compose CEO Kurt, so began an intriguing and insight filled week at the company. Remote working can be effective, but where you have a mix of remote workers and office based people it can be difficult for latter to understand the challenges that come from working remotely, let alone nomadically.

I live in the middle of the country and was hired as a remote employee, so this wasn’t a big change for me. Over the last 3 months, I’ve worked out of our San Mateo and Birmingham office - remote employees are encouraged to meet up in our offices and work together. That "come into the office" time is the inverse of remote work week, allowing remote workers to understand the office dynamics. It is great to set up shop and work with team mates, not just those who are usually in the office but also those who travel out to meet up. Most folks know or have lived the office experience, but the opposite is rarely true.

That means that, if we look at the numbers, just over half the employees don't know what it's like to work remotely. They may well use all the tools that the remote folk use, but the experience is different...

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Those 48% of remote employees are spread across five states, four countries and three continents, which is interesting in itself but an article for another time.

Sharing is caring and the first thing to share with the soon to be de-office employees was how to cope. We put one of our favorite remote working tools – Hackpad – to work and the remote employees all contributed hints and tips. We rolled together a whole bunch of useful advice. So how did it work out...

Roaming or homing?

Where to work is the first question. If you have a space at home which works for you then you could look at using that.

But if you want to get nomadic, have fun with it, go explore. Find the bars, coffee-shops and other spaces where there's Wi-Fi you can use. Challenge yourself to work in three different places each day. Remember, you are in control of where you work. If you can find a sunny beach with power and internet, go for that. Check out libraries and co-working spaces too.

By the end of the week, the Compose nomads had manage to explore and set up shop at coffeehouses like Peet's in California and the Alabama Biscuit Company (a particular staff favorite), an incubator space in the Bay area called Delores Labs, coworking space like The Workshop at Made in Tulsa, libraries, parks, bookstores, and, of course, home.

For those who worked at home, we had other advice – when you're at home you need to be quite explicit about how you define working and not working. Obviously this depends on your home, but solutions range from the quite visibly explicit – when the office door is closed, it's work time, if it's open, it's home time – to simply saying "I'll be busy". Even though they were technically working at home, some of the officeless Compose folk also took time to get out and visit the local coffee shop to get a change of environment.

Not alone

If you're use to working in an office environment, it's really different to work in a nomadic isolation chamber. No coworkers, no preverbial water cooler, no workstation - you're on your own. This was one of the hardest things for me to adapt to in the world of freelancing or remote working, and it was definitely an issue for those jumping in to remote work.

Fortunately, we have some great tools to help people stay connected, even remotely and these tools suddenly became much more important to the new crop of remote workers. As a company we always have text chat channels open with full searchable archives and rich media content (think a lot of animated gifs to backup the emoticon vocabulary). It's through those channels that we operate open conversations throughout the operation of the company.

For this experiment, we were all on Slack to chat with the whole Compose team. It's great, we're always connected and most of conversations take place out in the open, giving everyone an chance to chime in.

What became more important during the week was Sqwiggle, Sqwiggle is like an always on view of everyone else in the company's room. When idling, it takes a snapshot every minute or five and updates your image in the room. But, where Sqwiggle shines is that it lets you tap the other person, or persons, on the virtual shoulder and start a video conference with them. You will have to seek people out on chat and Sqwiggle to get the best out of it rather than passively waiting to be called.

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Everyone took to Sqwiggle over the week and it helped recreate some of the office interaction feel for remote working and it proved its worth over the week. But video conferencing brings us to another subject.

Being online

Bandwidth. Internet bandwidth is a resource more precious than a comfy chair and more valuable than a sound proofed room. If you don't have reliable internet bandwidth then you will find yourself unable to effectively remote work. In an age of Wi-Fi everywhere (except that coffee-shop that makes it a feature not to have Wi-Fi) you would think it would be simple for the nomad to find a wireless home.

A Mifi or a data plan that lets you tether your laptop to your phone is useful to have in a bind, but you'll still need to find that stable, solid internet connection somewhere that you can call a temporary home. And talking about home, even the stay at home workers will experience this problem – remote working tools can put unexpected strains on domestic internet connections. The rule of thumb is, before you settle in with your latte, test and verify your connection.

Get Comfortable

Once you've got your stable connection and you are chatting to the rest of the company, you need to get comfortable. Ergonomics is important to the nomad and the home-alone worker. Make sure wherever you are working isn't putting too much strain on your back, make sure surfaces can be aligned for comfort and be aware of any early aches. Also, ensure that, as you should in the office, you are getting up to stretch your legs.

And it's not just your physical environment you should look out for. TV and music in the background can help some people, but they can also prove to be a distraction which will keep you out of the zone. Spotify or Rdio can be your best friend if you want to focus. A playlist of lyricless music can be your sound-proof headphones. You will have to figure out what works for you though and it can take a while - and some experimentation. With television, one hint is avoid rolling news channels where the repetition of things trying to grab your attention will destroy your concentration (and your will to go on).

Make your own structure

Working from home or nomadically lets you structure your own day. Part of that structure should be things which make you feel at work at the start of the day and out of work at the end of the day. Our CEO showers at the end of the home-working day to give him a refreshing event to replace commuting home. You'll need to come up with your own routines. Do, for example, remember to go through the ritual of getting dressed as a way of "going to work". You can even get dressed and walk around the block to help you clear your mind before you get to your (home) desk. And do remember to let your significant other know when you are "in work" so they know you are supposed to be working – that's something they have to adapt to especially when you work from home.

How it worked out

By the end of the week, everyone who had been de-officed had a much deeper empathy for those who worked from home or took on the nomadic work-style. While some found the moving around in stranger-filled environments had an impact on how productive they felt, others took to the chance to expand the range of bike rides they took to refresh themselves. Some found that working remotely actually helped them balance the "people time" they had while others had to work out ways to ensure they left the house so they didn't have all "computer and cat" time all day.

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There's no one size fits all for remote working, but you can ensure that everyone understands what it involves. The great remote work week doesn't just build empathy for remote working though - it also makes sure that everyone has a personal backup plan for their working space, it gets people using your remote working tools better and it is a bonding experience for all. We recommend it for any company that is serious about remote working.