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Making remote work work: An adventure in time and space (mongohq.com)
146 points by mrkurt on Jan 15, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

The hardest part about working remotely is convincing the non-remote developers to stay engaged. When everyone is in the same office except for one or two people things can fall apart. Hallway chats happen over coffee, decisions get made offline and things start to happen without keeping the remote people in the loop.

I like the idea of encouraging people in the office to, "work as if you're not here." The advantages will add up over time and not just for remote people: you'll have databases and logs of everything! Throw search engines on it, watch trends evolve and use it to be more productive!

> When everyone is in the same office except for one or two people things can fall apart. Hallway chats happen over coffee, decisions get made offline and things start to happen without keeping the remote people in the loop.

That is just bad practice even without remote workers. Chats are going to happen offline all the time, over coffee, over IM, or in the hallway. No matter what you should be reconnecting with the entire team about the choices. Whether that means a google hangout with your remote worker or talking to the guys you didn't go out to lunch with in the same office

> The hardest part about working remotely is convincing the non-remote developers to stay engaged.

Couldn't agree more. I could actually work one day per week from home at my last job, but interacting with everyone in the office was close to impossible, all communication was almost comically co-located. This isn't my style of working, even when in an office, so I realised I don't fit in and left.

At my current company I'm working remote all the time. The boss is remoting as well, which is a pretty good guarantee that it's going to work out. There's only one dev in the office in fact, so he doesn't have any choice but to communicate properly :)

There is the flip side of it too. This networking effect of having developer hanging around the business people and sales is also the added value of those developers.

As one of my manager put it, why would I hire a remote worker in the UK when we can just add more people to our office in Poland. ( Polish dev are just as good, well qualified and hard to find but they are cheaper )

To me "work as if you're not there" is just volunteering to prove your job can be outsourced.

> This networking effect of having developer hanging around the business people and sales is also the added value of those developers.

At my last on-site position (now I'm contracting remotely) the dev team was originally going to be in another city (London) from the rest of the company (minor EU capital), however because of this reason it was decided we should all be together. I rarely saw the advantages of this, or felt value from being around the business folks. Most decisions were made in hallway chats and we were kept out of the loop, except when something 'super urgent' needed to be changed and a PM walked over and grabbed someone. Disadvantages were apparent, as it was a lot harder to find decent Rails developers compared to London.

Flipping the flip side, actually your point is what I found most challenging from working remotely. You really need to probe each day that your work can't be outsourced that easily. I've constantly put myself over the last few years to ensure that I deliver value each day or each week at most. And that has proven incredibly productive for myself.

If you have a hard working person that understands that very simple concept then he or she can work from anywhere as long as he or she stays really focused, only then will hardly be beaten by a local folk or folks working on an office and subject to all sort of distractions.

"Hanging around" works in any kind of shared setting. Our non-engineering discussions are really accessible in Hipchat, which is cool.

"I like the idea of encouraging people in the office to, "work as if you're not here." The advantages will add up over time and not just for remote people: you'll have databases and logs of everything! Throw search engines on it, watch trends evolve and use it to be more productive!"

I've been working remotely since 2006. Probably 90% of the decisions I'm involved in happen over the phone, either one on one or in group conversations via Webex. So there are no logs.

I've only been doing it for a few years. Video chats still happen and phone-in meetings but a lot of things are captured somewhere: email, wikis, commit logs, trackers and the like.

Agreed, probably the biggest for us is IM logs actually.

Usefully searching and organising email is an open problem - there is probably considerable scope here for improvement and I'm sure enterprises would pay lots for some kind of meaningful email discussion trend mapping.

This is where the "async" bit comes in. Remoteness is a good excuse to work asynchronously, but people still have to think it's important to leave breadcrumbs.

The last time I brought this up when we were expanding our pool to include remote, the response I got was: "Yeah, but then we lose all the face-to-face benefits."

I wonder if I should challenge what these perceived benefits are.

There are definitely face to face benefits, so I wouldn't recommend pursuing the route of arguing that there isn't. Rather, arguing that working remotely also has benefits, that there are tradeoffs, and that the gains from remote working can outweigh the losses from no face to face time.

I just recently started at MongoHQ and have found the experience really interesting and wanted to share a few observations.

- Remote work makes a company more transparent. The documentation and writing that makes remote work possible has an interesting side effect of giving insight into all corners of an organization. While this might not be desired in some organizations, I think it empowers individuals to get a sense of the overall company goals and health and make the best decision of how to use their time.

- Remote work breeds trust. Instead of getting the trickle of information from closed door management meetings, you get a log of what is happening and a sense of what decisions are to be made and the implications.

- Remote only works if everyone is on board. I have been at organizations that tried to make remote possible, but it never quite worked as some groups refused to monitor the central chat for fear of it taking too much time. You do really need everyone on the same channels and using the same tools to maintain the level of communication required to make remote work.

There's a fun activity that makes the remote work day feel like a game. I call it "platforming," as in jumping from platform to platform.

Travel to an uncharted area of your city and bring your laptop. Set about 10-20 concrete objectives for the day. Each time you complete 5 objectives, you get to transition to a new place such as a coffee shop (or anywhere with WiFi).

This segments the day and makes it feel a little more structured, not to mention fun.

That's a pretty nice idea. I like exploring new places when I can (I usually work from a village in the middle of nowhere), so try to find a new place each day.

The only issue is getting coffee, settling in, then finding the wifi doesn't work >_<

> We have an apart­ment near our San Mateo office that any­one can use when they’re in town. Peo­ple tend to travel to San Mateo about once every 6 weeks on average.

This is one of the most important parts of the post IMHO. You have to see people at some point even if they work remotely or work occasionally from home. It's particularly helpful to coordinate travel schedules to get as many people in the office at one time no matter how small or large the company is.

Working remotely can be hard. Tools like the sqwiggle, google hangouts, doubles, hipchat all help.

The most important thing though is having the culture that includes remove workers in the day to day conversations. The water-cooler is where a lot of magic happens, and that's the first thing that you miss if your corporate culture doesn't embrace remoteness.

I worked remotely previously and figured that the best way to stay in the loop was just have the line open all the time and listen to the office chatter like a radio. I had small screen in the corner of office that showed when I was sitting by the computer to remind others that I was there as well. Most of the time my mic was on mute, but I had hotkey to chime in if I wanted to say something.

I also got access to ethernet connected security cams to take a look around the office.

People adjusted to it quite fast I think. At least everyone said it felt normal after week or so. Having blurry wall projections or even bigger integration between the two spaces would be even better, but haven't been able to try that out yet.

I think wikis and group chats help to recreate the water cooler feel.

I also want to chime in about sqwiggle: It was switched on all day at my previous job and I absolutely hated it. Might work if you live alone but having a camera pointing at you when you're hugging your wife or playing with your son for 5 minutes is horrible.

Not to mention the fact that you can be in mid-thought and suddenly "bing!" and someone's talking to you.

I did like the chat stream though.

Sqwiggle does have a "do not disturb" button. I use it pretty frequently when I'm in the middle of something. I turn it off when I'm just checking emails or doing the rote work of updating information, catching up on logs or what-have-you.

The always-on camera can be an issue if you don't have a private work area separate from the rest of the house. I had that issue before I moved into a new home. My wife, daughter and I were all living in a two-bedroom apartment and my, "office," was in the living room. I'm sure there were a few awkward moments caught on camera. Things are better now with my own office and I hardly notice it's even on anymore.

That being said I'm a huge fan of sqwiggle. :)

I do pair programming with my brother and we used Skype for face video and VNC for remote screen. Skype has audio problems (noise cancelling is bad) and VNC requires an external routable IP to let anyone connect and that is not possible in all situations. I found other tools, such as TeamViewer but they slow down my desktop considerably.

What tools are best for remote screen + cam video on an IP behind DHCP?

SOrry to be a broken record, but Sococo's product does all of this. IT uses P2P when it works; else it routes through a 'media node' when necessary, all automatically and on the fly. You can be walking around with your wireless laptop on VPN talking and video-chatting; stop at your desk and plug in, and all the streams switch almost-seamlessly.

Caveat: I work at Sococo (I architected the audio/networking system).

I've used Skype and Google hangouts before and haven't had issues (although I've been just screen sharing, not screen + video). If you have audio problems, you should get a headset. Even cheap ones are better than most laptop microphone / speaker setups.

Have you ever tried Screen Hero? We use that from time to time here and it works nicely.

screenhero is great too, no video, but it has voice

Hangouts are pretty good at this. We use them in groups, at least.

I think that team viewer works really well. But then again my company is MS centric so we use Lync and/or WebEx.

A great combination is Skype + join.me

tried gotoMeeting?

Remote work works great in the early days when everyone has their head buried deep in code and most of the team is scattered around the globe. But let's not forget how we homosapiens evolved - via collaborative face to face group interaction. It's like Facebook wont replace the real human touch component of building friendships and staying connected. Remote work will not be the shape of work to come.

When the team starts to expand you need human interaction. People need to engage in debates, intense debates that spark creativity and get to feel the energy in the room. That energy is the driving force which aligns everyone for the same common mission. Quarterly team assemblies are always great, as we revive the power of being in touch on a human level. Not 1s and 0s.

Cloud tools are great to exchange information but not to grow a company, culture and keep the fire fueled for a very long time. There are exceptions (outliers) but let's not use those since we know that to draw conclusions from data we need statistically significant sample of data.

Saying this, work environments are changing and need to change to allow a piece of isolation (just like meditation provides) and a piece of connection (that human component). All wrapped up in a flexible schedule so employees do not feel like prisoners.

As I get older I tend to be more selective of who I would like to share my time with. I'd rather make connections with my family and friends than my co-workers. For me it's just a job. It's not summer camp.

I'm certain creativity and collaboration don't require any phantom energy in a room of people to happen. The majority of people who build open source software have never met. And in projects like Apache, OpenStack, Mozilla and what-not there are thousands of contributors at every level.

I contribute to projects with people whom I've only talked with on IRC and through commit logs and code reviews. It hasn't stopped any of us.

I think you're mistaken that there is some evolutionary heritage that requires us to be in person in order to effectively collaborate.

Yap because in those projects one works best in isolation. Growing a company is a lot different.

Have you read this? The Lethality of Loneliness - We now know how it can ravage our body and brain http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113176/science-loneliness...

I'm not sure your link is relevant to him as he said he does not want to see too much his colleagues so he can see more his family and his friends. Therefore, he is not alone.

You're right on the button. I spend more quality time with people who have a meaningful impact on my life. It isn't a lonely life. I feel much more enriched by having the privilege and opportunity to be so selective.

Growing up I know my parents were forced to work and commute by necessity. They made friends at work because those were the people they were forced to spend their most time with and that's what most people do in that situation. It's not useful or necessary and it takes away from the time they could have spent with their real friends and family.

I'm friendly and professional with my co-workers. We get along. However at the end of the day our relationship is ephemeral in the grand scheme of life. In a few years they or I will leave the company and it's not like we're going to be sitting on the porch together when we're 80 and remembering, "the good old days." (Outliers not withstanding).

This is great news and it's a sign that this company looks into the future. Working remotely isn't just about the place where you work. It's a sign of trust that leads to higher productivity and engagement. Kudos

Working remote for a while now, first 10km away from the office (so, hopping in was always possible), now ~70~ km away (still easy, but I'm not there in a moment and actively try to discourage on-site meetings).

I have to agree with the article about possible distractions at home. Got a 1.x year old son, will have a daughter in < 30 days. I'm confident that I'm doing a good job, I really prefer working without the (especially in our company culture) regular interruptions in the office. But .. family and home office needs really strict rules _and_ the right environment.

We moved 11/13 for the most part to give me a room that is isolated from the daily noise of a family. If you're having a family and consider remote work: It is possible, but you need to make sure that your SO is on board and you need to expect some downtime while you're trying to adapt. I think it's totally doable, but anything but easy.

One of the best things weve done to help with the water cooler problem was to have a group im chat (hipchat). we try to avoid private im whenever possible. This means that not only is it easy to see what others are talking about, you can read it over after.the fact if youre busy.

Indeed ... Hipchat has proven to be a great way for our teams to communicate. Also, it creates a nice log of conversations for historical reference.

Secondly, Hipchat is a great central posting ground for all your apps, both internal and external services. The same apps that we have created to increase internal transparency on work being done are set to be relatively spammy in Hipchat, which allows the team to receive passive updates on activity with no extra work from individual team members.

Works nicely.

Chat can be laborious, but it has the advantage of being recorded and searchable.

Our product (Sococo) has group and P2P chat, but its also a voice/video tool so you have to remember to chat/paste examples etc for posterity.

Seconding you and jasonmccay. Not even two hours ago, I used it to, with ease, scare up some IM'd example data that I neglected to save elsewhere.

I think the Hackpad page/read ahead/agenda which becomes the meeting notes are a terrific way to collaborate when everyone is connected to a screen.

Has anyone used any Enterprise-wide tools like this? We've got stuff we absolutely must keep inside the firewall.

Our tool Sococo (I work there) works audio/video P2P so it all can stay inside the firewall.

But chat is generally aggregated/federated so ends up on an encrypted server in the cloud. That can be an issue to fix; either its saved on everyone's own machine (and not your pad at home when you want it later), or its on a server and theoretically 'at risk'.

What OS/platforms does your product support? is it web-based? couldn't find these answers on the site. thanks

Supports Mac, iPad, iPhone, WinXp/Vista/7/8. We run it on Linux but only in the datacenter as a 'media node', we couldn't settle on a presentation layer.

Also we've ported it to Android pucks for conference room stations, but not selling that - no deal with a vendor yet.

There's a web client, but the audio situation there is fragmented so now (sigh) you have to call in. Its OK if you're just attending a meeting but less tolerable for all-day use.

Any ol' wiki should be workable. Hackpad sure is low friction, though, and handles multiple simultaneous edits really well.

I agree that the commute creates a healthy firewall between work and personal life, this is why I recommend remote workers to find a coworking space to commute to.

Not only you get a clean separation between "home" and "office", but you also can socialize and have colleagues to go with to lunch. And you still have all the advantages of remote, because if you feel like working from home rather than the coworking space one day (or from a different country for a few weeks) it doesn't make any difference for the people you work with.

Interestingly, I consider the lack of such a firewall to be one of the benefits of working from home. If I am having trouble getting into the swing of work during the day, I can go play with my dog. If I'm thinking late at night about a problem from work and have an idea, I can go try it... no need to setup the computer because it's exactly how I left it earlier.

I would do this but the monthly cost of co-working space in my area is astronomical. Like around $500 per month for a desk.

The next best thing is to do a small co-working space plan. Something that's around 20 hours per month. On the other days alternate between your home office, the park, the coffee shop, etc.

When I worked from home (I don't now), I built a routine that was commute-like. Ending the day seemed like the most important bit, so I'd deliberately stop work, take a shower, and go do family time.

Congrats to MongoHQ for being bold enough to head in this direction

I've been working remotely for 2 years in Barcelona with the main office being in NYC. The 6 hours I have for myself before people wake up in NYC are incredibly focused and productive and I have 3 hours of overlap for meetings and catchup which seems to be working out quite well.

One important thing is to reach out and chat with people on a daily basis to avoid feeling isolated and also of course visit in person once in a while to have a bit of face time.

Are there any good resources on the legal and tax issues related to being a US based startup having remote workers overseas (say, the UK or Japan?). I've heard this can be a pain.

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