The Thursday afternoon Advancing the Work from Home Option Birds of a Feather (BoF) session, led by IBM engineer Lauren J. Schaefer, offered a chance for attendees to share tips for working from home, to network, and to brainstorm on how to encourage other organizations to offer opportunities for working remotely. Although Lauren led the BoF, attendees actively contributed to the discussion in smaller groups and then summarized what they discussed for the room of approximately 80 women.
When the BoF started, Lauren encouraged the attendees, who were scattered across the tables throughout the room, to gather together and fill the seats at fewer tables to help foster the smaller group conversations. I sat at a table full of women from Thomson Reuters, Apple, Microsoft, and GitHub, for example. Lauren took a poll of attendees and we learned that the majority rarely work at home, several occasionally work at home, and a few women (myself included) work from home full-time. The women at my table reflected the mix of attendees gathered in the room.
Lauren said that her goals in the BoF were to build a work from home community, share tips and techniques for being successful remote employees, and, most ambitiously, to develop a plan for making the work from home option available for new employees of other organizations.
When we broke out into our smaller discussions, one attendee at my table asked how we were able to focus on our work instead of, for example, running into the kitchen to do the dishes piling up in the sink. Some of us have dedicated work spaces, which helps, whereas others found that working away from colleagues made it easier to focus on work. And as one member of my table pointed out, working in an office provides plenty of distractions and interruptions of its own.
I confessed that working from home gives me clutter blindness, so I don’t notice how much I messed things up between Monday and Friday, and I’m not really tempted to go do the dishes (sadly, a true story). If you work from an office, on the other hand, you walk into your house each evening and see it with fresh eyes.
We also discussed how we “fight loneliness” in our remote work environments. Although I don’t feel lonely, I did admit that meeting people in my community has been challenging because I spend so many hours home alone. To help get out of my fortress of solitude, I’ve started doing volunteer work, plan to join a local running club, and will start having regular meetups with other Red Hat employees at a local coffee shop.
Several of us talked about how we don’t feel detached because we do stay in contact with colleagues throughout the work week in a variety of ways. Video calls, for example, are a great way to get face time without leaving the comfort of your home office, and seeing body language over video makes it much easier to interpret tone in text messages. In addition to a weekly video call (with the option to dial in and avoid the cameras), my team communicates with regular conference calls, which stick to an agenda and a pre-determined length.
Attendees in the room who work in similar arrangements use a variety of tools, including FUSE, BlueJeans, HipChat, and Jive. Documenting meetings and discussions (in a wiki or Etherpad, for example), makes it easier for team members who missed a call to get up to speed, and for the follow-up calls to pick up where they left off. Chat rooms, IRC, mailing lists, and email allow remote workers to stay connected to team members throughout the day.
With any of these communication methods, team members need to be clear on expectations for response time. Even in IRC, a colleague can appear to be online, when she’s actually grabbing a sandwich in the other room or looking at a different screen. Outlining expectations in advance will help colleagues know how long they should wait before sending a follow-up message to colleagues.
Landing Remote Gigs
An attendee at my table asked how to find opportunities to work from home. Although some companies post locations with job openings, other companies or hiring managers aren’t clear about whether remote work is an option. Tech companies who are attempting to woo top talent will benefit from seeing the work-from-home option as an employee benefit.
For any remote employees, documenting and sharing productivity helps with team collaboration and when it’s time for a review. Again, regular team meetings (via phone, video, or in person) will help, but even a weekly summary email could be the right solution for a team.
I’ve found that a routine is important for my productivity, so my work at home day is structured much like my old office hours were: morning coffee, shower, and commute (across the hall, into the office), “clock in” (log into IRC) at 8AM, a drink or snack or stretch break later in the morning, a lunch run followed by eating at my desk while checking email, afternoon break, and then logging out at 5PM and leaving my office to “commute” into another room.
Several BoF attendees mentioned how the remote work option allows flexibility to work when employees are most productive. For teams with employees scattered around the globe, early morning or late night conference calls might help with collaboration, or working on a project after colleagues log off could help minimize distractions for a couple of hours during the day.
People Are People
Attendees generally agreed that meeting colleagues in person helps with remote collaboration, so if this face time doesn’t happen during a new hire’s orientation, it should happen at a conference, retreat, or visit to an office. In my experience, the sooner team members meet in person, the easier it is to collaborate remotely.
If your organization doesn’t currently offer remote work options, consider digging into data to explain why allowing work from home is good for business. And if they still won’t budge, consider other options. Competitive organizations know that landing top talent means being a little flexible, even when it comes to where that talent chooses works.