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’s opening essay re-hashes Jason Fried’s popular TED talk: Why work doesn’t happen at work. The 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.
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.
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:
- It helps you accommodate an individual’s family situation (need to pick the kids up from school?)
- 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.
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:
- Lack of social interaction, and face-to-face mentoring you get in an office
- Lack of structure, and the responsibility of managing your own time
- 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.
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.
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.Published on October 28, 2013
Twenty dollars in an envelope
People are happy to pay for things that are good. Don’t be afraid to charge for your services.
– Jason Fried, 37signals
Kyle and I recently interviewed Jason Fried, of 37signals, for our podcast Product People. He had a great story about how he built his first product (when he was around 13!). Here’s the transcript:
Justin Jackson: Have you always been making products? Is this something you have been doing, you know, since you started 37signals or was there stuff you built and sold before that?
Jason Fried: When I first got started in computers I was in junior high school, I’m 38 now, so I guess that was, I don’t know, 25 years ago or something that I got a computer. I started messing around with it and one of the things I wanted to do was I wanted to keep track of all the different tapes and CDs that I had.
So I eventually got on AOL, before the formal Internet was around, went to the file section, searched in the Mac section for like music organizing tools and I found some stuff and downloaded those things. They were mostly based in FileMaker Pro, which is a data base. I had FileMaker Pro so I could run them and I just didn’t like them. I don’t know what it was, they weren’t attractive, they weren’t easy to use, they were complicated, they were doing far more things than I needed.
I just needed this really simple thing. I wanted to look good, and be fast. I ended up just figuring that I could figure out how to make this sort of thing myself. I had File Maker, I started screwing around, started learning how to do it, and I eventually made a product called Audio File, which I started using to catalog my music collection.
I basically wrote a little text file, a read me file basically, and in there I said, “Hey, if you like this it’s $20.00. Send me a check, or send me $20.00? and I put my address down. Then I uploaded it to AOL, and see what would happen. I had no idea.
Then one day I got a check in the mail, well I got an envelope in the mail from a guy in Germany, and I didn’t know anybody in Germany. I hadn’t heard of anyone from Germany, I had never been there. And so my parents gave me this envelope, this air mail envelope, and I open it, and there was a print out of that read me file and $20.00.
That was the start for me of selling software. After that I started taking off, and it didn’t put me through college or anything, but I had a nice amount of spending money, extra spending money in college just from this $20.00 shareware tool that I made. I probably made 10s of thousands of dollars or more selling it over the next few years.
Justin: You’re kidding me, actually 10s of thousands of dollars selling this little shareware app?
Jason: Yes, 10s of thousands of dollars, $20.00 a pop.
Justin: Did that seem significant to you? I would love to make $10,000.00 now!
Jason: Oh yeah. I’ve always had jobs too, so I’ve been working since I was 13 at grocery stores and shoe stores and gas stations and all this stuff. I had part time jobs anyway. I would have had spending money, but it was great to have extra money coming in, to have a significant amount, and for it to be sort of this passive money in that I didn’t feel like I was working for it. I had already done the work, making software.
The money just kept coming in, unlike my part time jobs where I had to go after school and work for four hours or something every day. That was a real nice thing. It was great. It was killer. I bought a bunch of stuff I wanted like a stereo or whatever, just a bunch of garbage probably.
The thing I realized early on is people are happy to pay for things that are good. Don’t be afraid to charge for your services. Don’t be afraid to charge for what you produce. If those people who don’t want to pay for it want to complain about it, that’s fine. They don’t have to buy it.
There are plenty of people out there who appreciate something good and are happy to cough up some cash for it, because they think it’s worth their time and it makes their life better.
Want to hear more?
You can listen to the full interview with Jason Fried here. You can also subscribe to our show on iTunes. Follow @productpeopletv on Twitter.
Jason blogs at Signal vs Noise, and co-authored a book on business with DHH. They’re writing their 2nd book now.Published on March 4, 2013
Where would you rather work: 37signals or Zappos?
I took both of these shots: the photo of 37signals was taken when I visited in 2010, and the picture at Zappos from my recent visit in early 2012.
My latest visit reminded me of Ryan Carson’s post that compared photos he’d seen from both offices. He wondered which approach was better, in terms of developing happy employees. Here are my thoughts, having spent an entire day at both companies.
(more…)Published on February 17, 2012
I worked a day at 37signals, and I liked it
Recently 37signals opened their new office. It’s beautiful and functional… [but] I now believe Zappos’ chaotic and messy offices are much more effective at promoting happiness and innovation. – Ryan Carson, Think Vitamin blog post
In February, Ryan Carson of Carsonified wrote a post that compared photos from two offices: 37signals and Zappos. His conclusion was that the flamboyant Zappos office produced happier employees.
This was timely for me; in November I was in Chicago and was invited to spend the day at the 37signals office. Jason Fried gave me a tour, I spent time hanging out with the team, and I had the opportunity to do some of my own work in the office.
(more…)Published on June 5, 2011
The sex and cash theory
I’m a big fan of Hugh MacLeod’s sex and cash theory:
The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs. One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills.”
- If you’re a photographer, you can look for the “sexy” job of shooting art photos (cool job, but not high paying), or you can shoot weddings (drag job, but lucrative)
- If you’re into food, you could start your own restaurant (high risk but sexy, potentially low paying), or you could get a management job at Sysco.
- If you’re a graphic designer, you can design band posters or you can design brochures for a bank.
Are you a creative person looking to make a living? It’s OK to do cool projects in your spare time; but when it comes to making money, start thinking differently. Matt Linderman says: “Instead of working with a thing you love, think about how to work in a way you love.”