How remote work changed my life

Remote work increases both the quality of work and job satisfaction.

David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH on the internet) and Jason Fried have a new book: Remote: Office Not Required. This post is a hybrid: it’s a book review, but it’s also personal. I’m going to describe how working remotely (this past year) has affected me personally.

Remote - jacket image

Interruptions

Remote’s opening essay re-hashes Jason Fried’s popular TED talk: Why work doesn’t happen at workThe worst part about being in an office, says Fried, is the amount of interruptions:

Offices have become interruption factories. A busy office is like a food processor — it chops your day into tiny bits.

When I interviewed DHH earlier this year, he talked about the idea of “getting into a zone” while working. He described it as a highly focused, productive state of mind. And then he added another adjective: pleasurable. I love that description. Think about the last time you truly enjoyed your work. I felt like this last Saturday: I was able to sit down, late at night, and write about 500 words in an hour. In that hour I didn’t think about anything else: I didn’t check Twitter, email, or take breaks. I was just engrossed in my work; and it truly was pleasurable.

Jason and David make a great point about being “handcuffed” to the office and its interruptions. The remote worker, on the other hand, has the freedom to move away from distractions. Is the TV on? Go to a different room. Coffee shop is too loud? Go home to a quiet room.

Commuting hell

The biggest single improvement to my life this past year was this: instead of getting in my car and driving 1 hour from my suburb to downtown Edmonton, I jump on my bike and pedal to downtown Vernon in just 10 minutes.

Commuting every day was my biggest source of stress. Jason and David describe the commute as “soul sucking” and I agree. Sitting in a car, stuck on the freeway, you can literally feel the life being sucked out of you. I’ve never met a person who likes sitting in traffic.

It’s a bit surprising to see car affectionados like Jason and DHH criticize driving (Jason’s shared his fondness for luxury cars in interviews, and DHH drives race cars for fun). But the cost of commuting has been carefully researched:

the verdict is in: long commutes make you fat, stressed, and miserable. Even short commutes stab at your happiness.

My commute was about 2 hours a day. That’s me spending 10 hours a week, just sitting my car. That’s 480 hours per year. What a waste. Now I don’t have to wake up at 5am, before my kids are up, and I’m easily home in time for dinner most days. I feel like I’ve got a huge part of my life back.

We live in the future

Technology companies sometimes surprise me: we pride ourselves on using the latest gadgets, the latest software, the latest coding practices, and the latest development methodologies. And yet so many of these technology companies won’t trust this same technology to enable remote work.

Here’s our toolkit: Campfire (it’s like a digital water cooler), GoToMeeting (video conferencing meetings, and screen sharing), Google Docs (document collaboration and editing), Sprint.ly (task management for software companies), and email.

What I love about using technology for work is it clears away a lot of the old office abstractions, and allows me to work more efficiently. The most distracting thing in an office isn’t Facebook – it’s being angry and stressed out from the hour commute you just finished.

Workin’ 9-5

Dolly Parton was right: 9-5 is a crazy way to make a living. Jason and David point out two reasons why it’s better to work flexible hours:

  1. It helps you accommodate an individual’s family situation (need to pick the kids up from school?)
  2. It allows creative people to work when they’re “in the zone” (are you a morning person, or a night owl?)

The other day we had a crazy morning in the Jackson home. We had a hard time getting the kids ready for school and out the door, and there were a few meltdowns. By the time the dust settled I was in the office at 10am. Knowing that I could start at 10am, and finish at 6pm, relieved a ton of stress.

Vernon is my city

Remote makes a bold prediction about the “end of city monopoly”:

The luxury privilege of the next twenty years will be to leave the city. Not as its leashed servant in a suburb, but to wherever one wants.

Anyone who has a family knows the pain of being a “leashed servant in a suburb.” When I was in Edmonton, I longed to be within biking distance of downtown. But like any growing, affluent city (oil money), buying a family home within biking distance carried a serious price tag. I’m lucky to make a good salary, but there’s no way I could afford $500k-$700k on a home.

Vernon, on the other hand, is a small city of 30-40,000 people. I was able to buy a medium sized 3 bedroom home for well under $400k. I’m close to downtown, 20 minutes from the ski resort, and 10 minutes to great beaches. When you combine the opportunity to work remotely, with the great lifestyle somewhere like Vernon offers, it becomes a great place to live.

If you love surfing, why are you still trapped in a concrete jungle and not living near the beach? – Jason Fried and DHH

Last year, I snowboarded 21 days. That’s not a lot for a Vernon local (I’m hoping to increase that this year), but that’s the most I’ve ever ridden in my life. My 3 & 4 year-olds learned to ski last year. Working remotely has allowed us to pursue recreation now, while I’m still in my 30’s, instead of waiting until my 70’s when I (might?) retire.

Go where the talent is

Software companies are desperate for talent; and yet we keep moving our companies to San Francisco where there’s an engineering shortage (and insane salaries). What gives?

37signals is the company most people point to when they talk about success & profits in our industry, and yet they don’t have a single employee in Silicon Valley.

Amy Hoy echoes my thoughts perfectly:

Some of us not only don’t need to move to SF, we’d gnaw off our own legs before doing so.

Surprise, surprise: there’s talented people in places besides San Francisco.

Remote work, in an office

Remote work doesn’t have to happen in a coffee shop, or at home (surrounded by screaming kids). I mentioned previously that I work from a small rented office in downtown Vernon. It’s a private office, and it costs $200/month. The cheapest I could find in Edmonton was $550/month.

The book describes IBM’s savings on commercial space. They sold 58 million square feet for a profit of $1.9 billion. Since downsizing the amount of space they need, they’ve saved $100 million a year.

It’s not all or nothing, Jason and David say:

Embracing remote work doesn’t mean you can’t have an office, just that it’s not required. Remote work is about setting your team free to be the best it can be, wherever that might be.

Trade-offs

It’s refreshing to have the boys at 37signals talk about the downsides to remote work. It brings a sense of balance, and realism, to the book. They mention a few very real negatives to working outside of the corporate office:

  1. Lack of social interaction, and face-to-face mentoring you get in an office
  2. Lack of structure, and the responsibility of managing your own time
  3. The difficulty in setting boundaries – especially when working from home where there’s the demands of other family members

Facing the “remote work is crazy” arguments

One of the biggest arguments that people make against remote work is that the best ideas come from meeting in person; sitting around and spit-balling ideas.

Here’s the thing: have you looked at your company’s backlog lately? Often, the challenge isn’t coming up with great ideas — it’s finishing the work on the on ideas you’ve already committed to. In this way, having frequent brainstorms is less helpful. It’s frustrating, because your idea backlog gets bigger and bigger. You get the rush of coming up with something new, but you don’t finish the slog of grinding out what’s already in front of you.

I like how Jason and David put it:

Our attitude is, we need a clean plate before going up for seconds.

The second argument that managers often levy, is that when they’re watching their employees (in the office) they know they’re working. This excuse is laughable: you don’t get a sense of what someone’s accomplished by gauging the number of hours they’ve stared at a screen. You can only judge productivity from what’s actually been produced. 

There’s an even bigger problem here: who does good work when someone’s staring over their shoulder?

If you feel the need to constantly monitor an employee’s productivity, you’ve probably hired the wrong person. No sense in paying someone to do some work — and then have to watch them do it.

Jason and David address other common arguments specifically in the book: jealousy, security, answering the phone, home distractions, needing an answer ASAP, and company culture all get their own essays.

Remote work recommendations

There’s some great, practical tips for companies looking to set-up remote working environments:

  • Security: use hard drive encryption, secure logins, and device passwords.
  • The 4 hour overlap: make sure that all your workers have 4 hours of overlap with part of the team.
  • Use shared screens: tools like WebEx, GoToMeeting, Join.me and screencasting make this possible.
  • Work transparently: make all your work, discussions and decisions available to everyone at the company.
  • Have a virtual water cooler: I’ve mentioned this previously. Campfire is a great tool that allows remote employees to hang out, and “play”.
  • Start slow: start by letting local workers work “remote” for a few days a week. Make sure you try it for 3 months (give it a good shot). Also: don’t just try it with 1-2 employees, try it with the whole team.
  • Get your remote employees a good desk and chair
  • Provide a gym credit so people can exercise
  • When hiring out of country: “establish a local office or hire people as contractors.”
  • Pay everyone equally: don’t pay employees who live in cheaper locales less money.

There’s a ton more tips in the book. As a remote worker, they all resonated with me.

Built-in redundancy

I love their essay called “Disaster ready”:

Forcing everyone into the office every day is an organizational single point of failure.

A few weeks ago, the central office in Edmonton had a boiler problem that filled the building with smoke. Everyone had to evacuate; but not me. I was able to keep working, and answer emails and phone calls as they came in.

This is also true for sickness that might sweep an office: a few months ago when everyone had this nasty virus that was going around, I was safely quarantined, 800 km away.

Human interaction

I’m an extrovert: I get energized by being around people. People are surprised when I tell them that I spend most of my work hours, alone, in my office. “Don’t you get lonely?”

I would be lonely if that’s all I did: but I’ve been proactive about building good social networks around me. I host a developers lunch every second week. The last Thursday of every month is Geek Beers. I try to go for coffee 2-3 times a week. I also host a podcast where I get to talk to people around the world.

Who should read this book?

My guess is that most employees would jump at the chance to work remotely, if the opportunity was given to them. You don’t need to convince them.

It’s bosses that need the convincing. They’re the target that I hope read this book. David and Jason do a good job of describing how remote work can help a company, and its people, thrive. They show that it’s not just “for 37signals” – it can work beautifully at any company, regardless of size.

The employees are already on board; the question is if more teams will offer remote work as an option. I’m hoping Remote: Office Not Required changes that.

You can order the book here.

The principle that changed my life

On Okinawa Island there are a lot of people over the age of 100; 3x more than in the United States. Many have wondered: how do Okinawans maintain such a high standard of health?

Researchers have traced their longevity to a Confucian practice calledhara hachi bu. Roughly translated it means: “eat until you are 80% full.”

This means Okinawans eat only about 1,800 calories a day. The result? Their rates of cancer, heart disease, and dimentia are much lower than the western world. [Source 1] [Source 2]


However, this isn’t an article about restricting your calories (although, based on the evidence, that might be a good idea).

I’ve been experimenting with hara hachi bu beyond dieting. I’m far from a master, but I wanted to share what I’ve experienced so far.


As Westerners, we believe in pushing up against the limits, and going over them: we’re pedal to the metal, giving 110%, and our amps go to 11. We max ourselves out in every facet of our lives: our finances, our relationships, our health, and our careers.


I love to work. For years, I would go to the office in the morning, and spend every ounce of creative energy that I had. I gave it all until I had nothing left. If I had extra time, I would pick up a new project. Over the years I became responsible for more and more things. I was consistently promoted, until I became the youngest Regional Director in the country.

When I wasn’t at work, I filled my time with side-projects: I volunteered on committees, I founded a business with some friends, and started working on my Masters Degree.

During this time I’d also gotten married, and we’d had our first child.

I loved the busyness. I was firing on all cylinders. Spinning all these plates in the air. The world was my oyster!

And it all worked fine until…

…I cracked.

You see, I had no reserves. The problem with being maxed out is you can’t deal with anything new. I couldn’t fit anything else in. I’d squeezed my schedule, my finances, my energy, and my family to the absolute limit. And then a crisis: the business I’d invested in went bad. I had no extra room to deal with a crisis: all those plates I’d been spinning came crashing down. I experienced depression for the first time in my life.


As I began the slow process of rebuilding, I decided I would start practicing a form of mental hara hachi bu at work. I became conscious of the amount of energy I spent at the office. I would deliberately pace myself so I that I spent only 80% of my mental energy throughout the day.

There’s not really a good way of describing how I determine whether or not I’m at 80%. It’s a state of being mindful. I try not to overstimulate my brain: I pick 2-3 big things to accomplish a day. After that, I focus on little things that don’t require as much energy.

The benefits have been huge.

First, and most importantly, I have space for crisis. If something unexpected and urgent comes in, I have the mental wherewithal to deal with it.

Second, I do better work. Instead of being overstimulated, my mind is more focused. By acknowledging my limits, I spend my resources more wisely.

Third, I’m in it for the long haul. I’m no longer at constant risk of burnout.


Like I said, I’m still not a master, but I’m trying to apply the “80% full” metaphor to other areas of my life: finances, social commitments, and the amount of media I consume.

Do you think hara hachi bu could work for you? Have you tried something similar?

You can reach me on Twitter here: @mijustin or 

Photo credit: Michael Himbault

Heads down

I’ve been fortunate to interview a lot of great creative people: the folks building awesome software, writing inspiring books, and building impressive companies.

There’s one characteristic they all share: they have focused, uninterrupted, “heads down” time.

Here’s an email I received from Derek Sivers:

I’d love to do an interview! But could we wait just a few months?

I’m deep in the middle of my programming. Very head-down. Not much to say. I’d be a pretty bad interview right now.

But if you don’t mind waiting a few months, I’ll be more head-up with a lot of new stuff to talk about.

Is that OK? Ask me again after July or so?

Derek is one of the most generous people I’ve met: the kind of guy that will write a two page response to a question I’ve asked him. But he also understands that a focused mind produces great work.

Here’s the problem most of us have: we’re always “heads up”.We’re scanning Twitter, answering emails, saying “yes” to new requests, going to meetings, reading the news, jumping on a new side-project, opening new tabs, and getting distracted by pop-up notifications.

Chris Nagele, the founder of Wildbit, is a prime example of heads down. In his 2012 SuperConf talk he lays it all on the table:

Building an amazing product is about being focused. Avoid multi-tasking. Sweat every single detail. Make sure it’s perfect.

Despite what some people tell you, you do have to work hard. It doesn’t mean you have to work 15 hour days. It does mean that when you do sit down to work, you need to put your head down and work. Get the fuck off of Twitter! If you’re getting distracted every 5 minutes, you won’t get any work done.

To do this well, you have to prioritize, and focus on one thing at a time.What’s the most important thing you need to get done? Do that, and don’t get distracted by anything else.

First step: start heads up. Figure out your priorities: what do you need to achieve? What’s your timeline? If you’re on a team, do this together.

Second step: find a place where you can work free of distractions (if you work from home, and have kids, you might want to find a place outside the home)

Third step: dedicate your most productive time of day to working quietly, in solitude (ie. early mornings)

Fourth step: turn off notifications, close that email window, TweetDeck, and chat. Block tempting websites.

Fifth step: heads down. Commit to working distraction free. Focus on your goal. Start working!

Sixth step: finish what you’re doing. I’ve found that 10% and 90% done (respectively) are the hardest hurdles to overcome. Get over those humps, and keep going.

You can’t stay in heads down mode forever; you’ll eventually find your own rhythm: ie. focused creative time in the morning, less creative tasks in the afternoons.

If we want to achieve the success of great creators we need to emulate their habits. Let’s practice being heads down.

You really have to tune everything out, and just work. And you have to do that every single day. – Chris Nagele

How to end the remote work debate

3 rules for producing a great team

  1. Hire the best people
  2. Empower them to do their best work
  3. Give them a vision for helping the customer

Simple right? When you look through the lens of “how can we build great stuff?” as opposed to “which work environment is best?” everything becomes clear.

This debate is about management

What people are missing in the “Yahoo work from home ban” is that this is a management issue. It’s not about “remote vs non-remote”; it’s about having the flexibility to create great work. The HR manager at Yahoo thinks the solution is black-and-white:

Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
– Jackie Reses, Head of HR, Yahoo

Do you hear what she’s saying? It’s the old management diatribe: “I don’t trust you, and I know the best way to make you work.” But awesome, creative people, who take responsibility for their work, don’t build great things in an environment like that. If this is Yahoo’s cure for innovation, I think they’re doomed.

This debate has exposed something significant about managers: many of them are insecure! They’re scared about losing (a perceived sense) of control. They want to stick with what’s comfortable and safe. They would rather “do it their way” than think outside the box and empower their team.

What good managers do

I’m a remote manager of a team of ten. We ship a lot of mission critical stuff.
– Laura Thomson, Engineering Manager at Mozilla

Good managers hire great people, and empower them to do great work. This means hiring people so good that you could leave for a 2 month holiday and not worry about the office. Managers should be talking to their team, and asking them: “How can I help you make your job better?” If the answer to that question is: “We need a better office” than do everything you can to make a kick-ass office. But if the answer to that question is: “I’d like to work from home on Thursdays” than make it happen! Yes, every job, product, and company will have certain constraints. The point is to create as much job flexibility as you can so your people can succeed.

The only time a manager should fear a flexible workplace is if they’ve hired the wrong people. If you’ve broken Rule #1, all bets are off. It doesn’t matter what kind of office you have; mediocre people create mediocre results. Unfortunately, great people with mediocre management also create mediocre results.

It’s all about management: hire the best, equip them to do the best work possible, and give them a vision for where you’re going.

So companies don’t have to get caught in a tug-of-war between letting their employees work remotely or forcing them to come to work and collaborate. Collaboration can happen even among in-house employees and teleworkers. It simply takes a different managerial skill set.
– E. Glenn Dutcher, New Research: What Yahoo Should Know About Good Managers and Remote Workers

There’s a discussion on this post at Hacker News here

Don’t call it a comeback (working remotely)

Remote working has existed for centuries. And now is the perfect time for it’s comeback.

Before and after the Revolution

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, goods were manufactured by contracting individual craftsmen who worked out of their homes. The merchant would drum up sales, and would coordinate the production with at-home sub-contractors.

Even back then, home working was popular because it gave people more freedom:

The domestic system was suited to pre-urban times because workers did not have to travel from home to work which was quite impracticable due to the state of roads and footpaths. Workers had some flexibility to balance farm and household chores with [this other] work.

– Wikipedia, Putting-out systemhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putting-out_system

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution: production was centralized in factories and cities.  For merchant capitalists, this made sense: it was cheaper and more efficient to produce goods in one place, with machinery.

The Information Age came, but work didn’t change

We’ve been in the Information Age for at least 25 years. We’ve made huge leaps in technology. Many of us would describe ourselves as Knowledge Workers: we don’t work in factories, we work at desks in front of glowing screens. We don’t make goods with physical materials, but rather things made out of bits. The great thing about bits + the internet is that the materials and means needed for production aren’t dependent on location.

But here’s the funny thing: the way work is organized hasn’t changed. Despite all these advances, most of us still work in central offices. Employees leave their computer-equipped homes, and drive long distrances to work at computer-equipped offices.

It’s management that’s broken

CEOs, like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Apple’s Steve Jobs, think that a central office fosters more innovation and productivity. I think they’re wrong. We’re still early in the research, but recent studies seem to dispute their claim.

Studies and data aside, we know, at least anecdotally, that distributed teams can create tremendous innovation. Automattic  created the world’s most popular publishing platform. 37signals helped create a programming framework that powers “tens of thousands of  applications”. At both companies, the majority of their employees work remotely (or have the option to do so).

It’s not remote working that’s broken, it’s management habits that needs to change.

Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
– Jackie Reses, Head of HR, Yahoo

Managers have developed centuries worth of habits based on the central workplace. The hallmarks of office work (meetings, cubicle workstations, colocation) need to be seen for what they are: traditions we’ve kept alive since the Industrial Revolution. We need to question these institutions: are they really more innovative and efficient?

To succeed, we’ll need some practice

To give remote working an honest chance, there needs to be a paradigm shift. Managers need to practice new ways of organizing people, and producing results. Individual employees need a chance to practice self-management, taking initiative, and collaborating online. Developing new habits takes time and commitment.

What does success look like? Taking millions of cars off the road, because people no longer need to commute. Reducing stress and improving the mental health of employees. And ultimately, increasing innovation and producing better products (as shown by platforms like WordPress and Ruby on Rails).

Discuss this post on Hacker News.

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