Ten years on a remote site

Original author: Viktor Petersson
  • Transfer
While still in college (go ahead, Broncos !), Alec and I launched a startup. We were young, inexperienced and naive. Our first project was called YippieMail: an email aggregator. Simply put, YippieMail displays all your mailboxes (e.g., Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, etc.) in a single web interface. This was before most providers implemented IMAP, so you could not use the mail client. Looking back, YippieMail seems like a pretty dumb idea, but thanks to it, we met with venture investors from Sequoia Capital and other funds. Keep in mind that around that time, Meebo attracted many millions from Sequia and DFJ, implementing exactly the same idea for IM messengers. So at that time, the startup looked promising.

In the early days of YippieMail (later renamed YippieMove , RIP 2008−2019), my ten-year experience of remote work began, sometimes I lived as a digital nomad .

When we started working on YippieMail, Alex lived in San Jose and I lived in Mountain View. If you are not in the know, these two cities are very close, but due to terrible traffic, the road can easily take more than an hour (or 20-30 minutes without traffic jams). It was then that we decided to work remotely, and not to rent an office somewhere in the middle. And they continued the tradition in all subsequent startups ( Blotter , and then Screenly ).

Although Alex and I now both live in London, we still only meet once every two months. Moreover, in my new company ( WoTT) we also adopted this philosophy of remote work, although both founders are in London.

So what have I learned over this decade of working and managing remote teams? Let's take a look at it in detail.

Remote - not for everyone

I want to note right away: remote work is not for everyone. Over the years, we came across several employees who could not work like that. In some cases, they themselves understood this and quit; in other cases, it gradually became clear that this was not a coincidence.

Usually people who cannot cope with remote work either do not have the necessary self-discipline, or are simply socially oriented and need to be surrounded by other people. In the latter case, working in a common office can help, but if you lack self-discipline and the necessary habits, most likely, the experience will still be unsuccessful. Young people aged 20–25 years usually suffer more from this problem than older people, although there are many exceptions to this rule.

The bottom line is that some succeed in remote work, while others work better in a regular office. This is difficult to verify in an interview, but everything becomes apparent in the first year. It is important for the manager to pay attention to this moment.

The company is either completely remote or not

If your team is not completely remote, then you do not support remote work. Many companies boast that they enable employees to work remotely. But the reality is that if the remote is not embedded in the DNA of the company, it will inevitably favor the members who are sitting in the office (next to the management). The reason is largely related to the flow of information. People chatting over a water cooler, for coffee, for a drink after work. This leads to an uneven distribution of information, because of which remote employees can easily feel abandoned, and other team members simply assume something as everyone knows, although this never got into official channels. In a remote culture, the information flow, as a rule, occurs in a more organized way or by e-mail,

Corporate events and employee meetings

Corporate parties are of great importance. Even if you have a remote team, meeting every year (or twice a year) is of great importance. Although video chats provide a higher context than email or instant messenger, it is still not a complete substitute for a personal meeting. When we held the first Screenly corporate event in the beautiful Lava villa in Croatia (a great place for corporate events), our employees first met each other in person, although they worked together for many years.

Looking back, we must admit the big mistake that we did not hold such meetings before, because after the corporate party, communication on the Internet changed dramatically. Since text chat is a low context environment, it is very easy to misinterpret the interlocutor’s messages and intentions. But if you meet this person in real life, everything becomes much more clear, you get the necessary context and can read the same message in a new light.

Now Screenly developers gather personally each quarter (approximately) for a week, and the whole company gathers annually. (You can read more in the article “How we work at Screenly” , which I wrote several years ago).

Greater Talent Pool

The hiring of remote employees means an increase in the personnel reserve. I am not the first to point this out, but here is one of the main reasons why it makes sense to support purely remote work. You are no longer limited to your geographical area. In the ten years since I started working remotely, recruiting tools have changed a lot. However, finding a qualified employee is far from easy. But if people from all over the world can apply for your vacancies, then you open the gateway. The reality is that 99.9% of applicants for remote work are those who massively send hundreds of resumes. Filtering them out is pretty easy, but at best you have a few worthy candidates for every 100 applicants.

Generally, a good filtering process involves strict screening issues. They must be unique, and preparation will take some time. This will help weed out all candidates who simply write “Call to discuss” at all points (or worse).

Yes, the selection process will take a lot of time, but tools like Upwork allow you to quickly reject candidates who are not making efforts (or obviously not suitable).

From experience, I am also very reluctant to work with agencies and prefer to hire employees directly. The reason is that in a number of agencies that we have come across for many years, there are only a few talented engineers. They screen, perhaps the first few weeks, and then gradually transfer the work to junior employees, charging the same rate.

It is also worth noting that with the growth of the movement of digital nomads in the database of Angelist and others, there were much more offers of purely remote work.

Last warning for hire: do not take people who choose your company only because of their remote work and schedule flexibility. Although not always, but sometimes this suggests that a person wants to relax in a working environment with minimal supervision of his actions (perhaps he is running his own business). You need people who believe in your mission and product, and remote work is just a bonus, and not a reason for choosing an employer.

(I deliberately did not mention the legal features of hiring remote employees. I am not a lawyer, so make sure that you do not violate local laws).

Some professions are better than others.

Remote work is probably better for programmers than other professions. My companies have always specialized in development. Yes, we also had a number of other posts, but in terms of the total number of engineers, they always made up the majority. And I noticed that it is usually easier for programmers to remotely control, compared to other positions (such as sales). This is probably due to several factors, but in general, engineers are more self-motivated and require less supervision. Of course, there is a big correlation with age. Regardless of position, older employees usually require less supervision and thus work better remotely than their younger colleagues.

Big time savings

Remote work saves a ton of time. Firstly, it should be noted that this is not necessarily work from home. Many of our employees preferred to work from a common office (including myself for a while). To each his own. But if you work from home, then every day you save a lot of time (and money). When I had an office in Shoreditch, the journey took 30-40 minutes in each direction. If you count the lost time for weeks and months, a lot comes out. At home for work, I have a special room, a home office (I highly recommend this when working from home). This means that the morning trip to "work" takes about 60 seconds, and this is taking into account the arrival in the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. What to do with the free time - decide for yourself, personally, I usually do sports 1–1.5 hours a day.

The power of routine and habits

Habits will make you an effective remote worker or break you. As mentioned earlier, the remote is not suitable for everyone. It requires much more self-discipline than regular office work, where you are constantly “under surveillance”. Over the years, I experimented with different habits, and at the moment I have developed a set of rituals that help me a lot (but I continue to experiment). The most important habit when working remotely is to mentally establish the beginning and end of the working day . It is easy to sit in pajamas or work all day just because you can, but in the long run this will lead to the opposite result.

For specifics, here is my current daily routine:

  • 07.00: Climb
  • 05/07: Reading (we follow the 7 habits of highly effective people )
  • 08.00: Download work tools.
  • 08.10: Training and shower.
  • 09.30: Beginning of the working day
  • 19.30: The end of the working day
  • 23.00: Hang up

Clarification : this does not necessarily mean that I work 10 hours every day (only occasionally). I'm still having lunch. In addition, on a particularly productive and successful day, I happily finish work at 17:30. Half-past seven is just a hard stop, and not a mandatory requirement to work like this every day.

As my good friend Milos noted , looking at the draft of this article, an early rise is not suitable for everyone. Changing your work schedule is also great. The point is not when you start your day and when you finish, but in habits that make you more productive.

If you want to learn more about the importance of habits, I highly recommend reading The Power of Habit.Charles Dahigg. Just a word of warning, do not dwell on performance books. I myself was a victim of such literature and immediately say that you will spend much more time reading than you will ever save.

Sleep matters (surprisingly, I know ...)

Perhaps this is not due to remote work, but rather to the culture of startups. Venture investors drove into the heads of young and naive 20-year-old kids that it was cool (and even sometimes necessary) to work all night and sleep under the table. It seems to me that this mod is finally leaving. Yes, you still have imitators of Gary Vainerchuk with their endless vanity, but I think (and hope) that they will die out.

In remote work, it is important to clearly finish the work day. As you noted above, I finish it at 19:30. After that, I don’t go into the office (only in emergency cases). I also try to look at any screens minimally in the evenings. As a youth, I often worked until late. But even sitting at the computer for more hours, I did less.

Disconnecting from work is very important. And it’s a lot harder when you work remotely.

If you want to know more about this, I recommend Matthew Walker's book Why We Sleep .

Distractions kill productivity

Kill the distractions. Work at home is a difficult task for many. It's easy to get distracted by extraneous household chores, but my distractions have always been digital in nature. Cal Newport, in his latest book Digital Minimalism, says how distracting mobile phones and social networks are. I know this from my own experience. For a long time, the phone was on the table next to me. And when he called, every time I lost concentration. Although I did not check the phone myself, it still distracted me. The salvation was the transfer of all distractions to the living room (that is, the phone and the Apple Watch) and just a periodic check of gadgets throughout the day. Another great way to kill noise is the flight mode on your devices.

Hackers will love tools like i3to filter noise on the desktop. I use i3 on my “developer workstation” (which is different from my other workstation).

Do not save on equipment

Although good equipment is always important, in the home office you usually have more control over the configuration than in the office where everyone gives you the first day. You will spend a lot of time in front of your computer. Your body will thank you for spending a little more money and buying:

  • Large 4K monitor (they have recently declined significantly)
  • Standing work table (I have one from Ikea)
  • Good ergonomic keyboard

This is the end!

That's all. At least for now. I am sure that I missed some things, but I hope this article will be useful for other (new and old) employees on the remote.

If you want to know more, I can recommend additional literature:

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