Scott Hanselman

Working Remotely Considered Dystopian

November 18, '13 Comments [50] Posted in Remote Work
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At the time of this writing, I work remotely from Portland, Oregon for Microsoft and have for over 5 years. While I haven't written any books on Remote Work, I think it's fair to say that I am well-versed in successfully working remotely and I am certainly a remote work enthusiast. I have written about the experience extensively on this blog.

Recently DHH, the creator of Ruby on Rails, co-wrote a book about remote work called Remote. Here's the digital "inside cover" from Amazon.

Today, the new paradigm is "move work to the workers, rather than workers to the workplace."

In Remote, inconoclastic (sic) authors Fried and Hansson will convince readers that letting all or part of work teams function remotely is a great idea--and they're going to show precisely how a remote work setup can be accomplished.

And from the Remote book site:

REMOTE, the new book by 37signals, shows both employers and employees how they can work together, remotely, from any desk, in any space, in any place, anytime, anywhere.

MicrosoftiPhoneAppsAwesome. Now we have tools that will move work to the workers like Google Apps, Office 365, and Base Camp. But it seems that workers are taking this too seriously and passing out in bed with their tablets on their faces.

DHH's most recent blog post is called Microsoft's dystopian pitch for remote work and it declares "For shame on Microsoft for cheerleading its [Remote Work's] most dystopian corruption." So, work anywhere, except where you apparently end up needing to work.

Two words that are guaranteed to get folks frothing: "Microsoft" and to a lesser extent, "Dystopian."

As a disclaimer, while I do work at Microsoft, I don't work on Office or know anyone over there. I don't work on any tools or apps that enable you to work remotely unless you count "The Internet." I am a remote worker. If my company disallows remote worker in the future, I will quit.

NOTE: As an related aside, if you want a another REALLY great book about working remotely, I highly recommend "The Year Without Pants" by Scott Berkun, a friendly acquaintance. It's a brilliant account of his time at WordPress.com, a company with only remote workers.

David's primary issue in his post is with this infographic, which is, at best, questionable. But David implies this is a celebration of bad behavior.

Microsoft is launching a new marketing campaign for Office 365 that celebrates working during your kid’s recitals, on vacation, and while enjoying the appetizer at a restaurant.

20% of parents said they have worked at a child's event or activity

Personally, don't really like this campaign either because it strikes at the behaviors that I sometimes do but I know are unhealthy in my heart. We need to ask, is this a behavior we want to enable? That's what's at issue here.

Have we uncovered a secret Microsoft plan to destroy work-life balance? No, but edgy ads like this make us uncomfortable because they catering to the fact that people do work remotely like this. Every time I go out to dinner I see couples sitting together in silence while they type away on their pocket supercomputers. No, it's not healthy nor should it be how remote work gets done.

But don't forget how the Microsoft ad opens.

Survey finds that more than half of U.S. office workers would be willing to work more hours — and one in five would even take a pay cut — to have more flexibility to get work done.

Again, you like that you can work remotely, but you don't like where people end up working remotely? Thing is, nearly every app and suite that enables to you work remotely has used the soccer game thing to the point that it's approaching trope status. Here's Google, with the same pitch.

Access your work from any device with a web browser – your computer, phone or tablet – and stay productive even when you’re away from the office. Need to attend a meeting from your kid’s soccer game? Edit a spreadsheet while at the airport waiting for a flight? Respond to an email from a hotel business center computer?

Need to attend a meeting from your kid’s soccer game?

Yes, it's bad (sub-optimal, whatever you want to call it) to work at your kids' soccer game. But it's sometimes necessary. Sometimes work-life balance means that work leaks into life and vice versa.

I think it's great if you can literally turn off all access to work at 5pm on Friday and turn it back on at 9am on Monday. Bravo and good for you. For me, it doesn't always work that neatly. I am happy that when needed I can chat someone at work, send a file, share a screen, or forward an email quickly without going into the office.

It's a odd ad campaign, I agree. It's inverted in its priorities. But, I like having the ability to put out a fire while I'm at a soccer game. It's clearly better than missing the soccer game completely. Having tools to get stuff done remotely means I am empowered. If I choose to use that power for evil, that's hardly Microsoft's fault (or iCloud or Google or Dropbox, etc) or the Internet for existing.

It's good that tools like this exist. But I agree with David that it's probably not a good idea to advertise or endorse admittedly unhealthy behavior.

DHH clearly doesn't like Microsoft, and that's fine. But rather than railing against the company that makes tools (and admittedly poor ads) about enabling remote work, why not direct that frustration at the companies with cultures that have workers up at 2am? Or even better, at the managers who demand this level of access?

For the record, when I'm not travelling I drop of my kids at school every day, pick them up at 3, go on fields trips (where I'm usually the only non-homemaker), and tuck them in every night after reading books.

Full Disclosure: I use Office 365 at work, Google Apps for Business at Home, access them all from my iPhone 5S and Surface 2 and store stuff in DropBox. I'm non-denominational.

I'll end with my unwavering agreement on what David said here:

It’s about spending the hours of work more productively, and then having more time free from its tentacles.

Sound off in the comments. How bright is the line between things work and things personal? Do you shut off and shut down, or are you working a little everywhere? How does this affect how you, and those around you feel about you and your work?


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Monday, November 18, 2013 12:22:05 AM UTC
I find that now that one of my kids is in school I am way more productive at home than in the office. The office just has distractions and too many meetings. When I have the opportunity to work at home, I like that i can fall out of bed, walk 10 feet to the futon in my office and start doing stuff.

I frequently get clients now that are not even in the same metro area or even country, so it's all about skype and constant, open communication. I feel like I overcommunicate when I'm remote, so my customers end up knowing probably more than they would if they worked in the same vicinity as me.

We have the technology to enable us to cut back on our commitment to physically getting to an office, so that we can spend more time doing the things that matter to us. In my case it's family time. I don't want to be absent from my home 12 hours every day for the rest of my life and I don't think many people do. The beauty of remote is you can be more flexible, and maybe eat lunch with a non-work friend or family member every once in a while instead of eating the same thing by yourself at Acapulco Fresh every day.
Monday, November 18, 2013 12:26:27 AM UTC
Nice article, Scott. I agree with most of what you said. I worked remotely at my last job for 9 years. It was great and I was commended several times for how productive I was. However, I am thinking that rather than looking to achieve work-life balance I'd like to strive for <a href=@http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pinYNwTcEDg">work-life awesome!</a>
Darin
Monday, November 18, 2013 1:11:44 AM UTC
That's what DHH does, he Rails. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
Harold
Monday, November 18, 2013 1:12:00 AM UTC
I work for a company that tolerates home working rather than being built for it, and the tools we have in place for remote working exist mainly because we have multiple offices. That's good in the sense that the culture expects office hours, but allows exceptions, which is I think how to make it work. If you have to work outside normal hours, you log it, if appropriate, get time back, but more importantly, you get a chance to reflect on your work-life balance when your office hours are breached.

What the adverts there are really missing though, and my 3 big advantages of review working are that it enables better scaling of teams (once you figure out the overhead of losing co-located ambient information), it avoids commutes and minimises travel (saving time and money) and it makes it a lot easier for me to arrange to get work done or deliveries made at home. A 10 minute disruption writing from home vs the 1 hour round trip and careful planning I'd need if I had to go to the office that day.
Monday, November 18, 2013 1:15:36 AM UTC
I like DHH allot and Jason. I have purchased their books before and even used Basecamp. I think they are being "media s!uts" (probably a term DHH would use himself) at the moment with the book out. They seem to be trying to grab headlines allot and promoting anything to do with the book.

My guess is that DHH has just blogged this for more media again and then this post has helped out again. No such thing as bad publicity.

I have been a remote worker for 7 years now and most of the tips, toolkit has been from yours and other blog posts because what works for you or I may or may not work for others so you can't read just one book, blog post, article and make a decision based on that.
PS I'll probably buy this book btw.
Steve
Monday, November 18, 2013 1:18:43 AM UTC
Instead of being mad at Microsoft, who apparently is willing to embrace remote workers to a large degree, he should wake up and get mad at the many tech companies going the other direction. My employer just said to us recently that anyone thinking they're going to work from home on even a semi-regular basis is in for a shock, because the answer is no.

Large companies and companies trying to recover from trying circumstances as their ability to adapt to mobile remains in question are saying no to remote workers. DHH, respectable in tech as he is, apparently doesn't know how Fortune 500 companies work, other than a few like Microsoft. People were amazed at Yahoo's recent ban on remote working, but they are not the only ones in the valley.

Monday, November 18, 2013 1:30:38 AM UTC
I've worked remotely for the past two years and love it. It takes discipline on both yours and your companies part. You absolutely must have a workspace that is designated as your office and your family has to know that while you are in that area, you cannot be interrupted except for emergencies.

The hardest part for me was to convince friends and other family members that I'm actually working and not playing games all day. If they ask me to do something during the work day, my canned response is "sure, I'll be glad to as soon as I get off of work today". "I can't right now; I'm working" is a very valid answer.

Having a manager (and other coworkers) that work remotely helps, too. While they all know that I'm available to them any time, if it's outside of my typical 8 to 5, they're likely to get voice mail and have to wait on me to call back. That usually keeps them from interrupting my supper or family time.

Everyone likes routines and I've found that if you have a regular routine, even remotely, people will learn it and won't usually bother you too much outside of that routine.

The hardest part I've found is time zone differences. My company is primarily Eastern time and I'm Central. No big deal - I just work 7 to 4 and everyone is happy. We have a few folks overseas and a few in California... those tend to be tricky but again, we all have our routines and work it out.

We use IM, e-mail, conference lines, and screen sharing a lot. No webcams. Funny thing, though... There was recently a corporate push to get webcams for all remote workers and just about all of them were against it. Apparently a lot of us don't like dressing "appropriately" for work. :)

I'm more productive with this job than any in-office job in the past. I also have way more on my plate than any in-office job before. It isn't for everyone, but working remotely has been a blessing to me. When I accepted this job, we immediately moved back "home", close to my in laws. Just a few weeks ago my mother-in-law passed away. The fact that we were here and my wife and daughter (and me) had those years to spend with her before she passed is invaluable.
Greg Kurts
Monday, November 18, 2013 1:30:42 AM UTC
I am privileged to work remotely to a large extent. What I think is under-emphasized here (directly, anyway) is that the soccer game and birthday party at which one might have to whip out the Office 365-equipped tablet are but one side of the coin.

The other side consists of those times when the flexibility of remote status allows you to decide to attend the pre-schooler's rehearsal. At 10:00 AM. On a Monday. And then take a long morning and get the shopping done, since you are out anyway. Then, arriving back home at 1:00 PM, pick up where you left off, and possibly work a little later to make up for the morning. Or, plan on using Saturday morning to do so.

"For the record, when I'm not travelling I drop of my kids at school every day, pick them up at 3, go on fields trips (where I'm usually the only non-homemaker)"

Exactly.

Employer expectations, job requirements, and personal work ethic all come into play with respect to how and when one can flex the schedule. But in examining this issue it is important to include both sides of that flexibility coin.

I do agree with you about the marketing, and I am slightly disappointed in DHH for taking cheap shots as MS without considering the above (not really surprising, though - he IS a vocal man with his opinions. And that's Ok . . .).

Monday, November 18, 2013 1:46:20 AM UTC
I think in typical Microsoft marketing fashion, they got the message wrong. Expecting remote workers to working 24/7 is not the correct message. I have been a successful remote worker for 11 years.
Brian K
Monday, November 18, 2013 1:49:27 AM UTC
The big win for working remote is not spending a few hours in the car every day. That time is just wasted productivity any way you slice it.
Eric
Monday, November 18, 2013 2:18:32 AM UTC
I work (as a contractor at Microsoft) as much as possible from home and I love it. I live about 15 miles north of main campus, and it takes me 30-60 minutes to get to work and 45-75 minutes to get home. I much prefer to reclaim that time working from home, which means I can sleep later and quickly transition from work to home, all the while not pissed-off & stressed each night from a brutal commute. While I think the marketing campaign above is off-base, the decision to work remotely is not, and has been a life-saver for me on numerous occasions (such as when in 2011, my dad passed away, and again this past summer when my wife's father passed away, both situations out of town).
Chris Huennekens
Monday, November 18, 2013 2:43:16 AM UTC
This is what scares me. I love my ability to work from anywhere but I often struggle with prioritizing friends and family over what I "need" to get done. I'm afraid of the day I forget to be conscious of these things and I get glued to my laptop or phone.

Learning how to balance work with your outside life is difficult but not impossible.
Monday, November 18, 2013 3:13:43 AM UTC
I'll second Eric's comment about commute time. Wasting 30-60 minutes one way just to sit at a screen, type, and then waste another 30-60 minutes going back home just doesn't make any sense. If there's a meeting, sure, in the office. But normal days. Email and IM can do the job much better.
Darin
Monday, November 18, 2013 3:41:44 AM UTC
I've been working remotely full time for about a year now. While there are ups and downs, I think this culture is something companies need to start embracing more. I had a manager in the past that refused to let me work from home. When I left that company I gave them an ultimatium. I could either go and accept a new job (where they paid more and allowed me to work from home) or I could keep my current job (not asking for a raise, only the ability to work from home). They declined (and oddly offered to give me more money). His argument was that my biggest asset was the ability to help other developers (training, removing blocks, troubleshooting issues, etc). I have to admin, he is right that I am better at fixing things than building things. In any case, he argued that I couldn't do this remotely. At my new job, I am in the same type of role (a team lead of sorts...actually I oversee a numer of teams now). When working remotely I feel as though I can help MORE people. The reason for this is because I can multi task. When working face to face, you typically can only help one person at a time. Working remote I am usually on a conference call, working on a project and have 4ish Lync conversations running.
Ryan Zaleski
Monday, November 18, 2013 7:04:38 AM UTC
How much of this topic would we be debating if this ad said something like: "Never miss another recital again. You now have all the tools you need, right in your pocket, if that emergency erupts at work."

I'm not a writer, but you get the point.

As you said, Scott, just invert the message and be thankful we can now see our kids grow up and earn a paycheck, instead of missing everything.
PeteK68
Monday, November 18, 2013 7:37:14 AM UTC
I do work anywhere since I become self-employed freelance. I travel a lot with my family, enjoy sea swimming in cold Russian autumn/winter/spring (yeah - it's cold almost all the year in St.Petersburg) months, and have fun with my family, relatives and friends. Moreover, at the same time I do a lot keeping things done from anywhere I am. I work as a .NET remote developer and recruiter at toptal.com, help to grow up our family literary agency, all bank/tax routine, and much more things every day. Sometimes it makes me crazy, but every my day is exciting and interesting. Now I know how to make decisions quickly, plan and be on schedule on the fly, how to maintain effective communication, how to manage my time. Remote working is the best way to spend time on work.
Monday, November 18, 2013 7:58:55 AM UTC
I was able to see both my children's first steps. I was there when they started uttering sounds that loosely resembled words. I am able to pick up my daughter from school and ask her how her day has been. My son is still very small, but in both their lives, I can have a direct influence instead of only a few hours between getting home after work and them going to bed.

Working remotely has allowed me to experience so much, and afforded me the opportunity to be involved in my kids lives, more than other people would be that work a 9 to 5 at an office away from home.

I by no means work at the kitchen table either. I have a fully functioning, self contained office space that I can close the door on at the end of the day and forget about work. So that takes care of the work separation from family life thing.

Lastly, if I do decide to spend a little extra time watching my kids play sport etc., I can easily catch up on missed hours. My company also saves on not having me work in their office. Think if companies required more staff to work remotely? Less office space would be needed. Less overheads for running an office (a natural by-product of less employees in the office). It is also better for the planet. Millions of people staying at home working remotely instead of sitting in a car on the highway emitting noxious gasses, heating up the earth's atmosphere.

Remote work just makes sense. Only forward thinking companies are aware of this fact and it is time that the rest come on board.

Monday, November 18, 2013 8:45:40 AM UTC
This isn't problem just with people that work remotely, everyday I meet people that go home from office just to continue working on work projects. The problem isn't just companies it's also individuals who can't say no and want to carry all the load. I think remote work is expanding how we live, but it has to be balanced just like normal office work. I personally like working remotely, however my company supports this poorly. I think that is worst possible situation where you can work but wouldn't want.
The ads are fine, people nowdays read ads like devil reads bible.
Kuukuna
Monday, November 18, 2013 10:26:36 AM UTC
Interesting topic. I run the risk of straying from the original question but I am very curious to the differences between the US and Europe in this regard.

In my experience working remotely is still a pretty limited concept in the Netherlands, and the remote workers I know are either working remotely because of cost cutting concerns (the call center employee who was moved off-site to save on valuable office space), or those who made themselves invaluable at their job and whose employer tolerates the guy starts to work remotely after a move instead of losing him entirely.

I know remote work can work perfectly fine (I did so myself for some time and have seen more successful cases), but it requires a certain professionalism (maturity) on the sides of both the employee and his employer.

Most employers silently assume employees have no such maturity (or intrinsic motivation), and like to keep tabs on them. The laziest (immature) way to do so is still to check if the guy is behind his desk. At least that way you have the illusion he's doing some work, and the alternative is going through the trouble of actually checking said work.

I have yet to see an employer embrace remote work as apparently Microsoft does on this side of the Atlantic, and I wonder if/why this is really so different in the US ? Are employers just more mature in this regard ? Or is it cultural because everyone is already used to distances being immense anyway (over here a 2h drive is long)?

PS: where can I find those remote working jobs on the Microsoft website ? ;)
Ruurd Keizer
Monday, November 18, 2013 10:40:21 AM UTC
Can't agree more Scott. "If my company disallows remote worker in the future, I will quit.". This flexiblity is the best thing I enjoy at Microsoft.
As rightly pointed out, the frustration should be directed at companies/managers who wants to have their employees at office till 2am or even the entire night out at office. I have had experience of such an environment too, which makes me more inclined to having the flexiblity of remote work.
Monday, November 18, 2013 11:03:03 AM UTC
Working remote full time is not all ponies and rainbows, and for me, I do consider it somewhat dystopian. When I'm at home, I'm at the office. Period. It takes a lot of discipline to "shut it off". Doesn't matter if I have a separate room, because my commute is mere steps from the bedroom or kitchen. So I'm "enabled" to work ever waking hour.
Jinushaun
Monday, November 18, 2013 11:06:10 AM UTC
I worked remotely for just over 5 years and enjoyed the flexibility it gave me. I had a young family and I was able to do the school runs and attend the school trips/shows etc. which was fantastic. However, getting that work/life balance is hard as offsetting the working day can lead to never 'switching off'. When I returned to working back in an office environment I quite liked the sense of leaving the work behind and having that physical separation. It's definitely down to the individual and what works best for them. I agree with some earlier posts that support from the company/managers/co-workers is essential - working remotely is frowned upon at my current job but that has more to do with the jaded views of my boss!

I've also been following the 37signals blog for quite some time - it used to contain a good mix of posts that covered product or UI design or their bootstrap series (which is still an interesting read). However, I find that the tone of their output now is quite 'preachy' and absolute. Different strokes for different folks, and all that.
Neil
Monday, November 18, 2013 1:52:02 PM UTC
Just because I'm at my child's event doesn't mean the event has begun. When my kids were in school, we would show up 15-30 minutes early before their event began to get a good seat (or because the kid had to be there early anyway.) So technically I'm AT the event, but it hasn't started, and there is time available for me to use. What should I do - sit on my hands?

Meals are a little different, but who knows what is going on in those cases. Maybe it has nothing to do with work. Maybe I am answering an email from my mom.

But yes, the ad isn't particularly brilliant.
Monday, November 18, 2013 2:14:09 PM UTC
Scott, this is such a great and thought-provoking post. Thank you.

I've been working remotely (in some of the same manner you describe) for the past 13 years. NetMeeting, CompuServe, and T.120 used to be my best friends before iPad, Skype, and LifeCam joined the party. I have so many devices now that I could pretty much fix a CSS3 float issue while on the bus in downtown Mogadishu.

I'm 46. I also have two children: a 3-year old boy and a 5-year old girl.

Throughout the years, I've tried all manner of work/life balance: such as the soccer game analogy of checking just "when needed", or switching everything off during weekends, or the other extremely stupid direction of taking my Blackberry 9000 into the hospital when my firstborn arrived into this world. Guilty as charged.

Here's my $0.02 based on what I've experienced:

1 - Regardless of where you work, or how you work, you ultimately teach people how to treat you. (more on this in a minute)

2 - If you have children, then it's imperative that you separate work from personal. That's your job as a mom or dad. Trust me, children will change your perception of time. If you don't have kids, then separate out your significant other or whatever else is important to you. With children, it really does change things. You realize that you have a finite limit and suddenly you are no longer willing to waste one single second on anything. That means putting away your smartphone and being 100% in the moment with them. Yes, work is also very, very important, but there's a time/place to be focused on work, and a time/place to be focused on your children. Don't mix the two. Ever. I can guarantee that you won't be lying on your deathbed 50 years from now wishing you had worked longer hours. Set firm boundaries with both your clients as well as your family. And stick to them.

3 - Smartphones, tablets, remote software, and IM clients are like credit cards: They either work for you (pay off balance, get work done quickly = $0.00 finance charges) or you work for them (staring at screens instead of life while scroll to refresh like a rat in a Skinner Box). Use them wisely and never mix personal with business if you work remotely---or anywhere for that matter. Same goes for social media. One of the best things I ever did was close my Facebook account 2 1/2 years ago. I only use Twitter and LinkedIn now for business. But for any other general social media, a la Facebook, G+, or similar, I would never add a work client or boss to my 'circles', 'friends', or whatever. If you use social media, make sure you do not mix it with business. It's a bad idea for many reasons but not enough space here to type it all out sorry. Again, would your attorney or accountant add you to their Facebook friends list? I mean, come on, seriously...

4 - For remote workers, define what a true 'emergency' (or in Scott's lingo, a "fire") is within the scope of your business. That is a big one that many remote workers forget. For myself, it's a site, database, or email system that goes completely down or serious security breach. Period. Emergencies should be both definable and few and far in between, or you are not running your business properly, not setting expectations correctly, or not staffing/automating your work correctly---and you need to change that. That's not the client's fault.

5 - Don't ever access, open, or respond to email on weekends or holidays. Email will raise your heart rate, take you out of the moment, and destroy your personal time in death by a thousand cuts. Your most important clients (or boss if you have one) will need to learn to reach you via phone in emergencies anyway. If it's truly an emergency, and you are, say, at a soccer game (to keep with that analogy), they by all means be available, take the call, and put out the fire---but do so in the parking lot, please. Keep that separation there at all times. And it better be a big-ass roaring fire and not simply someone else working when it's convenient for them on a Sunday afternoon. Oh, and get the smartphone the hell out of your bedroom. Leave it on the kitchen counter at night. Try that for 3 days and see if the world ends. It won't. And you might just reconnect with your significant other in ways you forgot about since 2007.

6 - Pick one day a week (Sunday is often good for many people), where you literally go off the grid for a good portion of the day---AND YES, EVEN FOR EMERGENCIES. Even if only for a few hours. I can't stress this enough. If you try nothing else I mention, do this. And you need to do this at least once every 7 days. I no longer carry my smartphone with me all day on Sunday. And it's been so beneficial and awesome that words can't describe it. Yes, there have been times I've returned to VMs, frantic emails, and green iOS SMS notifications. And you know what? Not once did the world end. Not once did I lose a client. Not once did I get fired. Why? Because when I do turn it back on I'm 100% there giving 300% Ritz Carlton service. And ultimately, that is more valuable to clients and bosses than being "available" multitasking half-focused 24/7 while people are screaming and cheering at soccer games in the background. Or at least it should be if you have the right boss/client. By having some time that you are totally off the grid, two things happen very quickly: 1.) You become empowered that you've taken control back of your time/life and what's important to you, and 2.) Your time/expertise is not taken for granted. And to my boss: if you are reading this, you now understand how you get such awesome kick-ass service during the week. Enjoy! :-)

7 - Stop taking your smartphone into the bathroom with you. Try it for exactly one week. Seriously. It will make you think. About a lot of things. If you can't do this, then you have a problem, and it's not with your bowels.

8 - Keep regular business hours appropriate for the time zone of your clients. And I mean as if you were sitting in a cubical at work. Stick to them like clockwork. And make sure your family also does not interrupt you during this time. Like your clients, you should only be interrupted in the event of emergency. This must go both ways in order for remote work to be successful. My wife understands that there had better be blood somewhere if I'm interrupted. Remember Jack Torrance in The Shining when he was trying to write and Wendy interrupted him? Well, look at how many pages he actually did get written. So, ok, he had a few other issues. But separate the message from the messenger. :-)

9 - Dress well. Wearing sweats to work (hey, it's from home, right?) may seem ok. But if you dress up a bit, you will feel like you are more in the zone. Dress professionally and you will think professionally, and ultimately act professionally. And if you do that webcam meeting thingy, all the better.

10 - Never use your phone to receive or answer text messages from clients or the boss. Ever. This is a big one that many will disagree with. But it works for me and I believe to be very important. Imagine trying to reach your doctor via SMS on a Saturday. Yeah, right. Well, why they hell is it ok for your clients to do the same with you 24/7? If truly an emergency, then both parties need to drop what they are doing and connect over the phone. This is the most efficient and fastest way to resolve a problem. Yes, I know there are exceptions and texting is faster for emergencies, and we live in a new age of 'work anywhere', blah blah blah blah. And yes, old gramps smoked 3 packs a day and lived to be 98. Come on...get your boundaries and priorities in order. Especially if you work remotely. If not now, then when? If not you, then who?

11 - When you are at work: be at work. Answer your phone immediately. I see often (usually in postings on sites like Mashable) time management articles that say things like "Switch off the phone and focus. Then, return the calls later on in one big batch." That's about the dumbest advice I've ever heard. Man, it's just so silly, selfish and complete BS. If everyone across the board did that, then it would be impossible to reach or speak to any business on the phone EVER. Answer your damn phone. It's not that hard. It's ultimately faster than email, and you are a professional regardless of where you work, remember? If you are in the middle of a coding session, then that should be blocked off on your calendar for a specific set start and end time---just like a meeting. Arrange your meetings and appointments and use your calendar as a home base for all your time management. But when you are not in meetings, then answer your phone without exception. That will be the #1 most valuable thing to your clients and they will actually start to project manage and set expectations around this new paradigm you define.

Oh, and if you have a client that routinely wastes your time (and prevents you from answering the phone in general for everyone else) then use caller ID and send them to VM most of the time. Nothing wrong with that.

I said earlier that you teach people how to treat you. When I first implemented some of the steps above, I did receive from a few clients a a couple of Extinction Bursts (definition).

However, in 100% of all cases, one of two things happened. Either:

1.) The client/boss/whomever really started to value my time, respect boundaries, and begin to see me in a more professional way, e..g, use and stick to appointments, etc. Business, projects, new work, and trust actually increased at about 2 1/2 times compared to how it was before. 50% because I was more efficient and 50% because they got better service.

or...

2. I encountered enough resistance and nastiness that I no longer kept that client or job. But I also no longer have as much increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and regret later in life, so I guess that's a good thing.

In 99% of all cases, it was #1 above. I'm more relaxed at work. More in the zone. More plugged in with my family, and much, much more productive and efficient. And this translates to more time (and more quality time, I must emphasize) for the things I breathe for: my kids, wife, hobbies, etc.

But....

You have to actively work at this to make it happen. It took me 10 years to figure that out. And it's not easy in this day and age with the mentality going around. But most things that are great take effort to implement.

The specifics I mention above are not for everyone. Not by a long shot. I'm finding that the older I get, the more important maintaining that balance becomes. But there's a right and reasonable way to set boundaries, and without being a remote jerk. Ask yourself, are you happy with working remotely? Do you feel respected by your clients? If so, then awesome. Code Complete. You are managing remote worklife effectively. If not, then you need to find what works for you. Don't spend ten years figuring it out like I did. Spend 6-months to a year at most. Read books on the subject and good blogs like this one. But get a plan in order and a work/life balance figured out. Do it in a fair and balanced manner that respects the needs of your clients, with the needs of your family and personal life.

Ultimately, you will become more valuable to them both.

Chris
Monday, November 18, 2013 2:22:13 PM UTC
Ignoring the jab at Microsoft, the "dystopian" future is what I'm concerned about.

First, I want to say how much I can appreciate all the comments written here as it seems so many of us remote workers share the same type of experiences. After more than 10 years of working from home and enduring what others have mentioned above about how non-remote workers think you goof-off all day or say they wouldn't have the discipline to work from home, I suspect that the inherent type of work in software development just lends itself very well to remote work.

But, while I've felt that I've had for years to defend my work ethic to others, I think what I haven't noticed until today is that I've (we've) won that battle and the spoils of victory is that people now know you're always on-the-clock; you may not always be working, but you could be. And that's not such a great thing. People now have an expectation that you could be working anytime and that even if you're currently not working, you could access your work quickly.

The result is that people no longer think you're sitting on your couch watching Oprah, but they expect that through the weekend you could bang out something for Monday.
Brad Rembielak
Monday, November 18, 2013 3:45:32 PM UTC
Hate it or love it, I think the "mostly remote, but meet when you need to" workplace is obviously the way of the future. How much time and energy are wasted just transporting humans back and forth from home to office, so you can communicate with your co-workers via chat or e-mail anyway?

I only work remotely occasionally, but on days I do, I have 2 more hours of free time and I'm not burning a bunch of gas just to haul my butt to a different computer that's an hour away for no reason.
Brad
Monday, November 18, 2013 3:50:03 PM UTC
Ruurd: "Most employers silently assume employees have no such maturity (or intrinsic motivation), and like to keep tabs on them. The laziest (immature) way to do so is still to check if the guy is behind his desk. At least that way you have the illusion he's doing some work, and the alternative is going through the trouble of actually checking said work."

I don't know if Netherlands is like this, but I worked briefly in the UK. We were out in Bracknell and most of the workers commuted there by train. The company had this policy that if you worked late, they'd pay for a hotel room. So it was sort of a "Home at Work" policy. :-)
Steve S
Monday, November 18, 2013 5:23:15 PM UTC
For starters, I think we have to identify what kind of employee we are discussing: Salaried exempt, salaried non-exempt, hourly, or contract. The expectations of those environments are and should be different.

Salaried exempt is essentially an on-going deliverables contract. There may be surges and spikes of time demand but the expectation is that it averages out over time. I think this is the target audience of this discussion.

The second variable is accessibility expectations. That is a separate concern and should be discussed and part of the agreement to work.

My question to Scott is: Are you really salaried-exempt, working on finite deliverables, or are you an hourly employee expected to put in {40!?} hours a week for your employer?


Ken Weston
Monday, November 18, 2013 5:46:54 PM UTC
Great Article Scott!
It's time we face that the world is not just changing, it has in fact changed. IMHO, remote workers are a
mutually benefit both parties, employer and employee, given both are disciplined in the practice. Enabling hardware and software tools are in fact liberating for both parties as well. But marketing..... Ah! Those who drink heartily from the marketing pitcher are bound to wind up with polar opinions on a multitude of subjects. Again, IMHO, marketing is something to be taken with a grain of salt. If we were all to take marketing seriously, then we'd probably be in various skirmishes over the dish washing liquid, liquid soap vs bar soap, shampoo, et al products we've been living with for years.
Thanks for the great article,
Please keep 'em coming.
Phil
Monday, November 18, 2013 7:20:14 PM UTC
Hi,

Which technologies are on demand for remote work? Ruby on Rails, PHP, Front End Developer, Android, IOS, Python?

Thanks
suero
Monday, November 18, 2013 7:38:23 PM UTC
I have been working from home for the last 9 years. I go to the office maybe twice a year. The arrangement seems to work as I guess if it didn't then I wouldn't still be here 9 years later. Remote working is tolerated by the company I work for as the general rule is that developers do not work more than 1 day as week from home. I'm just a historical exception. Remote working, works for me but it's not for everyone. There are a lot of distractions at home. When I say distractions, I probably mean potential distractions. I've coped because I treat it like any other job. I get up in the morning and "go" to work. I stop for lunch and finish work and then "go" home. Am I in front of the screen 8 hours a day? No, but the time I am in front of it is productive. In an office you are in front of the screen, but not always working. I can honestly say I get more done now than I ever did in the office. I'm happier. I see my kids grow up. I can take them to school and pick them up.

The biggest problem is that everyone thinks you're at home so you must be doing nothing and therefore are available.

I, like Scott, would leave the company if I could no longer work at home.
Steven
Monday, November 18, 2013 7:38:48 PM UTC
I've been working remotely for 7 months, probably is not long enough but so far I think that I would not be able to work in a cubicle again, lots of interesting opinions here. For me, I have two rules:

Respect of personal time, I think companies are willing to respect your personal time as far as your allow them. If you work at lunch, dinner, weekends.. your are teaching your company that they can reach you at any time.

Tune up you work space: I literally work 8 steps from my bed. A room with everything I need to get the job done, that is my -very bright line-. I enjoy that room and my coworkers will appreciate no background noises on any calls.
César
Monday, November 18, 2013 8:16:12 PM UTC
A thoughtful post Scott - thanks for writing on this. I've worked remotely 2 days a week for about 12 years now. I have made no apologies of taking advantage of this to make time to be at my kids' events. And I have made sure that I always deliver more than is expected at the office to more than compensate for it.

One thing I object to though is the notion that it is bad to work at your kid's soccer game. I think this is an unnecessary judgment that we make against ourselves (I feel guilty at times). It helps me to remember that I likely would not be there at all if I worked in a bygone era where I was not allowed to work remotely.

That said, it's all about creating the world as you wish it to be. If I am working too much at home because the tools enable me to do so, I cannot blame to tools or their creators. I am free to not work. It is my choice. If on the other hand I want the flexibility to be at my kids soccer game but still deliver the demands of my job as I have agreed to fulfill it, then I may choose to go to the soccer game but keep an eye on my email. There are always tradeoffs, and I alone can manage them responsibly. I don't always, but I'm getting better at it.

And your voice helps me clarify why I make the choices I do Scott, and that is no small thing to be grateful for.
Todd Price
Monday, November 18, 2013 8:44:25 PM UTC
Your kid scores a goal, looks toward where you're sitting with pride and notices that you weren't watching because you're looking at your phone.. how disappointing for the kid. What a sad state of affairs that we're glued to gadgets and neglect the simple happy moments in life.
Abdu
Monday, November 18, 2013 9:13:15 PM UTC
I agree with Abdu. I've witnessed far too many times during our kids' soccer games, swimming meets or dance recitals other parents who are deeply absorbed in their phones - whether answering email, updating a spreadsheet or playing Angry Birds - and they miss something their child does. Maybe they scored a goal, got hurt or simply sought validation. No matter. The look of disappointment and frustration on that child's face is absolutely heart-breaking.

I say this as a dad who was once guilty of the same crime. I used to be on my phone texting my wife or swiping through Twitter during our kids' events. For the past few years, though, I've made it a point to first put my phone in a jacket pocket and be there, in the moment, for my kids the entire time.

There will come a time, sooner than later, when your kids will do the same to you; connected elsewhere and distant when you need them to be close. When that day arrives, you'll suddenly know how they felt all those years that you spent ignoring them.

Work will always be there. Always. Sadly, it's your kids who will not, so make it your priority to grab that time with them while you still can.
Monday, November 18, 2013 9:47:24 PM UTC
I am one of six children. My father never made it to squat. I have five and went to everything.

Balance. Your call. Always your call.
bill
Monday, November 18, 2013 11:33:44 PM UTC
Thanks for the post, Scott. It's a great topic and provocative on a number of levels.

I agree that the behaviors described in the survey seem pretty unhealthy. Unhealthy to human relationships in that they involve disconnecting from other human beings who are present. Unhealthy to human minds in that they shorten periods of focused attention and perpetuate the myth of multitasking. Unhealthy to productive work for the same reason.

I also agree that Microsoft should not be singled out for promoting unhealthy work habits in its employee base and customer base. It's hard to know whom to blame here. It seems like we are in a pretty materialistic society, addicted to "productivity." Individuals trying to maximize productivity and corporations trying to facilitate them are just part of that systemic addiction.

Perhaps the dysfunction is in our society's failure to fully manifest our truest values.

In previous works of DHH and Jason Fried, they hinted that productive work is an ideal with inherent value, akin to learning. I find that ideal true and attractive, but I wouldn't rule out that they are hungry for publicity here, either. They should clarify the distinction between their ideal of productive work and addiction to productivity.

The ad seems to observe a pattern of behavior, and leap to the conclusion that people will pay for this behavior to be facilitated. This is a common fallacy of product marketing--giving people what they seem to want, or even what they are asking for, instead of what they actually need. People want to text-and-drive, but that doesn't mean anyone can or should sell a product on how easy it makes that behavior.

It should be noted that Microsoft may be targeting Enterprise IT, who can most easily sell investments that promise "higher productivity." Whether the statistics are true or desirable or not, they will get the attention of the target market.
Monday, November 18, 2013 11:52:56 PM UTC
Scott, DHH makes an excellent point. I don't know why you waffle about it. The Microsoft ad is stupid and displays zero insight into home working.

Working at home does not and should not mean interfering with parental or social responsibilities. In fact, it usually means the opposite.

This ad looks like it was written and approved by people who have never worked at home in their lives, and who are dismissive of the concept.
Tony Healy
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 3:09:02 AM UTC
The company I work at discourages working from home, and I believe, would not even consider working remotely. Recently, I alerted my manager to a few weeks where (due to other commitments by my young family), it would be beneficial to work from home one a day a week. Much to my surprise this became a very big deal. In the end, the company's reluctance to accommodate this request made my wife and I work out other ways to handle the situation.

We use Scrum, but not exceedingly well. The preference is for co-location, and hence the discouragement of working from home, working remotely, or otherwise not working at the office. Its ironic that I now partially manage a team in India.

Whilst not actively looking for work, I'm keeping my eyes open for other opportunities. There have been a number of incidences like this that make me believe this company is not in my long term future.
Phil
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 11:43:35 AM UTC
Do spending one or two hours a day to move from home to work, go and back, considered Utopian?
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 11:50:32 AM UTC
First of all: brilliant topic!

I have been working remote for about 3 years now, and I wouldn't even consider a job where I would sit in a office anymore.

As a developer I cannot fully decide when I hit the golden zone or that sweet moment of Zen, to be able to have my office in my pocket or just a few steps from my living room have improved my life in so many ways.
Preliminary why this concept work for me is because I'm not comfortable around other people (light Aspergers) and because it's so easy for colleagues to come up talking to me face to face rather than IM me when I'm in the office, it really drains me of energy speaking to them - which means that I loose focus and it takes at least 30min (some times over an hour) to get back in the moment of absolute zen.

If this happens two or three times a day it means my workday is completely ruined.

I know the people situation isn't a problem for most people, but it is for me - so working from a home office in Sweden at one of the worlds leading financial services with the head office in New York within the InfoSec sector has changed my life in a fantastic way - I'm not the social awkward guy at the office anymore; I'm the specialist consultant who can think outside the box.

I got to give a lot of credit to the guy who hired me, he knows when I produce the best solutions and under what circumstances which I'm grateful for.

When I go out for dinner or any other event with my fiancée I always switch of work mode.
Robin
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 1:14:21 PM UTC
Thanks for the post. This really hits a number of buttons for me. I read and follow much of what the folks at 37 Signals are up to. But I am getting increasingly tired of the lazy world view that is "Microsoft bad -- not Microsoft good". People are passing moral judgments on you based on whether you happen to have a PC or Mac on your desk.

For the record: I am a SQL Server/web application developer. I use SkyDrive, DropBox, Google Drive, an iPad, an iPohone and, whatever else I feel comfortable with.

If I could work from home I'd do it in a second. I have a special needs child, and being there to help getting kids off to school and home again would be a big life improvement.

The problems this marketing campaign represent are not Microsoft problems, but a larger cultural issues. The management world knows they can no longer chain you to your desk. So they're trying to adapt by tethering you to your devices.

Microsoft often makes an inviting target. But by tying his rant to Microsoft, DHH reduces the discussion to a Biggie vs. Tupac thing.
Mike Henderson
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 5:45:35 PM UTC
I'm one of those who has no real issue with giving the company more of my time with the offset that I might need more personal time once in a while. First, my brain doesn't deliver insight on a 9 to 5 schedule. I'm at times more likely to come up with the solution to a work problem after dinner while helping my 6 year old with homework instead of while bludgeoning my eyes with thousands of lines of code. Likewise, most of the emergencies in my life are going to take place while I'm at work. If I have the flexibility to keep my personal life on track AND turn in off hour solutions, I find that a perfectly acceptable trade.

I couldn't possibly work remotely though. It's an effective way of compartmentalizing work and life for me in a way that both know their place most of the time.
Clint
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 10:59:50 AM UTC
@Chris - great list. I've been working remotely for 15 years and there were still things in there I didn't think about (like "dress professionally even when working from home").
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 1:04:47 PM UTC
I currently spend 3 hours a day commuting by car to and from work. I wish the remote working was an option for me. 3 hours a day, and while I like listening to the radio in my car, is too many hours NOT writing code.

There are no technical reasons why I couldn't work remotely. I just need to find an employer with a different viewpoint.
Richard B
Friday, November 22, 2013 6:14:37 AM UTC
It seems like almost every comment is pro remote working. I, too, love the option to work remotely and typically WFH 2-3 days a week. However, I also really like to head in to the office 2-3 days a week and maintain the personal connections there. I find my WFH days are more productive, and my work at the office days are better from a social perspective and help establish business relationships and are also key to maintaining my general happiness.

I feel like I would go crazy working from home every day and would probably find some sort of coworking solution if I was employed with a company that did not have a local presence. Do that many people really prefer to WFH 5 days a week?
Eric S
Thursday, November 28, 2013 1:05:43 PM UTC
Sure the possibilities of remote working are great. but in fact those possibilities often end up in 24/7 reachability and working. In Germany there is already a discussion on disallowing companies to contact their employees in free time by law... (Most Germans want free time as free time and nothing else, also we do not realy like the cloud concept very much)

I think all those technologies can be very usefull for people with a job like yours. But i also believe IT is focussing to much on that at the moment.
Max
Monday, December 02, 2013 4:49:51 AM UTC
Good thought provoking post. I doubt that very many (high tech employers or otherwise) endorse remote working for their employees. Kudos to Microsoft if this switch is really true. I will now put on my "PCT"[1] hat and tell you why the concept of remote workers will remain ghettoized (for the most part) for eternity:

(1) Remote workers scare employers and contract organizations because it means they lose social control. There are probably some very good reasons for having your workers together in one place most of the time: teamwork, availability, ready supervision and monitoring, better network security... But most of those problems could be overcome by a work from home culture and infrastructure. What really scares employers is that their workers may actually become more productive and want increasing salaries. Mind numbing commutes, under standardized (and usually poorly equiped) office space and ergonomic conditions, belittling management power trips, "team building" (WTF does that really amount to after all?) are much more difficult to dish out on a remote worker. After all, an entire society of productive remote workers would have less reasons to be personally loyal to any corporate culture. Corporations would have to bid for the greatest competence from a nearly anonymous face and that could cost them. The concept of remote working really scares many employers who could use it more.

(2) Widespread remote working could destroy current dominant forms of socio-economic control. Let us examine two specifically: (1) high urban real-estate prices and (2) high energy prices. Hey, I've commuted (daily) to Microsoft from Bellingham (192 miles rt) for a couple of contracts. Nearly killed me and broke us to be honest. But if you own stock in energy and car companies, widespread remote working is your death knell. High urban real estate prices are the bread and butter of corporate finance. We should all know this by now. Think what happens to the banking system if we could *all* contemplate living in Bellingham as opposed to SiliValley or Redmond? Don't think for a minute that the stock holders of large (high tech) corporations don't understand those implications. Geographic diversification of real-estate wealth scares those who need large cities to provide their interest payments and consumer culture. Local means and (control of) production might actually return some production from China. In effect, remote working will never be widespread for the same reasons most needed light rail projects or affordable housing never is attainable in a capitalist society.

(3) Last and most controversially (as some of you have stated), families will be damn well happier and raise more productive, independent children if their parents were able to spend more time with them. To the power elite, the concept of healthy, well-cared for families and children is terrifying. Intelligent children grow up to be intelligent parents: they care for their communities, they would have time to educate themselves on politics, they participate in their children's well-being, they are more likely to work out their marital problems. Solid families and communities might actually care for the poor in their own communities instead of just driving by them while finishing their mind numbing commute, watching some television and going to bed.

Remote work is for the self-made entrepreneurs and that special lucky class of workers right now. This has nothing to do with the technology. For proof of that just realize that most open source projects are essentially created solely by "remote workers". Remote working is the equivalent of communism for the power elite. I'd be willing to bet that ten years from now; the percentage of remote workers will only be slightly higher (if higher at all) than it is now.


[1] "Paranoid Conspiracy Theorist"
Ryan M. Ferris
Thursday, December 05, 2013 7:06:32 AM UTC
This is a meta-comment: Scott, as exemplified by the comments to this post, you have a fantastic readership.
Monday, December 30, 2013 10:46:35 PM UTC
I read this book as well and saw DHH's tweets about the Office marketing campaign. I found this marketing a little bit odd. Maybe the examples should have been different. Almost as "work while delivering your newborn". I wrote an article about remote work here, from personal experience. I hope it helps someone considering working remotely http://www.tomordonez.com/blog/2013/12/16/the-guide-to-working-remotely/
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.