September 12th, 2013 by Rich Armstrong

Fog Creek’s Ad Hoc Remote Work Policy, or, Working From Grandma’s House

Not grandma.
Not grandma.

source

Once every few months someone walks into my office and says, “Hey, I’ve got this (reunion|wedding|grandparent). I’d like to figure out how to spend some more time with my family. Can I work remotely from my grandma’s house for a few days?”

I always said yes, and got pretty uneven results. When someone wasn’t productive, it was usually due to unforeseen circumstances that seemed obvious after the fact. So we started a list of things you’ll need for a short stint of working remotely. This list is a “policy” inasmuch as it represents all the things you need to do in order to be “covered” while working remotely for a short stint. If something foreseeable comes up that’s not on this list, then it’s our problem, not yours.

Two important things that this is list is NOT applicable to:

  • Working from home waiting for the cable guy or a mattress delivery. That all happens under your usual flexible work arrangement.
  • Going somewhere you’ve never gone before, like a cabin in Iceland or an apartment in Paris, where you don’t know what the infrastructure will be like. We’ll call this “working from Borneo”. We’re not against Borneo, mind you. It’s just not what we’re talking about here.

One thing this list is kinda applicable to:

  • Permanent remote work. After writing this all down, we realized that almost everything we’d recommend to the short stint people applies to people working remotely. We’re still learning from them, so might have more to say later.

Requirements

  • A computer to work on. Duh.
  • “Approval” from your team lead. We’re not big on bureaucracy here, but this is just common courtesy.  Most of what you’ll have to do is covered below in “known availability”, but you should start with talking to your team lead.
  • An internet connection capable of easily handling a Google Hangout. Since we’ve opened up to remote workers, Hangouts have taken the place of conversations in the hallway and standups in someone’s office. Downstream is usually not the issue. Most basic internet plans are at least 5 mbps down, which is no problem. Being able to participate in a video conference usually means more that 1 mbps up. A lot of cheap internet service only offers 1 mbps up. How do you know if Google Hangouts will work where you’re going? Do a test Google Hangout with a person at the place you are going to be! (If there’s no one on the other end to do this with, the place you’re going is either vacation or Borneo (see above).)
  • Access to the resources you need to work. Make sure you can:
      • log in to your laptop as a local administrator without connecting to the Fog Creek network. This is especially true for Mac users, as Macs do not cache your credentials
      • connect to the VPN from your new location. Not all Internet connections, or routers, are created equal and not all will allow you to get on the standard VPN
      • RDP into your HQ machine, if you don’t have everything you need on your laptop

    If you’re unsure about any of this, talk to the sysadmins before you discover you can’t work remotely.

  • A headset. The built-in speakers and microphone on your laptop/monitor suck. The added friction of talking to someone without a headset makes your team members not want to invite you to a Hangout, which means you miss communication that you would normally have received.
  • A dedicated room with a door that closes. At Fog Creek, devs have offices with doors that close. People who aren’t devs are surrounded by coworkers who’ve learned to keep from inadvertently distracting each other. Your aunt has not learned this, so it’s probably a good idea to sequester yourself as much as is feasible. You need a place that is as distraction-free as your normal work environment, and maybe a little more.
  • No child care responsibilities during working hours. You can’t take care of kids and work at the same time.
  • Known availability and overlap with your team. Set standard hours and make sure people know them. If you’re not going to be working the hours you normally work, overcommunicate this to your team by posting in chat (ex: “Going to the gym for an hour”). Nothing is more frustrating to team productivity than chat messages like “Has anyone seen X?” “When is X getting online?” “Can someone else take this bug? X isn’t responding.” Try not to pop in and out. Work sustained sessions with only a few significant interruptions (e.g., lunch, dog walking, gym, light-saber fight with your nephew).
  • A dedicated phone that fits into your position’s workflow, where applicable. If you are an employee who spends a reasonable amount of time on the phone, it should be relatively easy for people to get you on the phone and for you to call them. This might require you to contact the sysadmins for phone forwarding. We haven’t done a lot of this yet, so we’re not awesome at it. Maybe you can use your experiences here to make the next person awesome?

 

Suggestions for Short Stint Remote

When you’re used to working in the office and you leave it, you’re like a snail without a shell. Consider these suggestions a temporary exoskeleton. These suggestions are not because we don’t trust you. We trust you. To get a desired effect, we often accentuate parts of our behavior that don’t come naturally. We might be introverts at a networking event, forcing ourselves to start conversations with strangers. We might be on camera, forcing ourselves to oversmile like idiots. Most of these tips are to encourage unnatural but beneficial behaviors.

  • Don’t be coy. Awareness is largely covered in “known availability” above, so this bullet point covers your mental state. You might be tempted to downplay your absence from HQ. Puritan work ethic runs pretty deep with some.  Fact is you can ship like an animal from places like Hawaii or Cape Cod (where this document was started). But you might be embarrassed to talk about it, or you might be put on the defensive by someone saying “Great beach weather.” Ignore it and ship code. Clamming up or playing down helps no one. It’s the opposite of what we want; it’s the main reason we have a policy. If you’ve met the requirements above, you’re covered. You are not slacking. You are working. You should not be shy about letting people know where you are and what you’re doing because of what they might think.
  • Put a note on your monitor saying where you are and for how long, in case people wander by looking for you.
  • Have boundaries. The people you’re going to be around might not understand that, yes, you will actually be working. Don’t worry. Your in-laws/parents will be impressed by your work ethic!
  • Over-communicate and/or over-deliver. At HQ, you have a few ways of staying involved and available (face time, informal chats, lunch) that are not available to you remotely. You still have stuff like chat, commit messages, code reviews, cases, Trello boards, etc. If you’re a Creeker, chances are good you’re a low-key person who doesn’t crow about their achievements. You might want to flip that bit for this stint. That can be hard, but it’s important to keep involved. The best way to do this is….
  • Have a deliverable. This frees you from having to assert your productivity via chattiness.

That’s it! We put this stuff out there so that you can effectively take advantage of the flexibility offered by your work arrangement and continue to be productive as part of your team. If you learn something while setting up your environment, or while working remotely, that you wish you’d known earlier, please let me know. The list you see above is a work in progress.