Things I've Learned Working From Home

In 2007, Maija and I moved to Finland, and I've been working from home ever since. What started as a 3-month trial that we assumed wouldn't work, has become a litmus for my organization; both our Executive Director and our CFO now work remotely, commuting back to the office only every few weeks. I'm lucky enough to get to stay home most of the year :) On my last few visits to the office I've been struck by the differences in what can be accomplished in the office, and at home.  I recently came across a post from Justin Wise, asking for product suggestions that could help remote workers. It got me thinking about the things I have to do intentionally, as well as the things my office counterparts struggle with. I'll share briefly some of the things I've learned, and then respond to Justin's request for products that would help.

What Works Great

  • The industrial revolution. I am at least "way more" productive when working from home. Email bows beneath my fist, and my task list is consumed like wheat before so much fire. Some of my counterparts in the office frequently complain at the sheer amount of stuff I can get done, leaving them in the dust (office dust too, which is worse than home dust). Last month we started trialing "home working days", where the guys on our tech team work one day a week from home, to see if they can get more done in those days.

  • New kinds of new ideas. Having more time to think and be creative means I come up with new ideas, new ways to solve old problems and so on, typically on a larger scale than I did in the office. I was a great problem solver in the office, but the ideas I got then were helpful on a more micro-scale; they usually arose to solve the problems of the moment. Now I find myself dreaming and crafting new futures, rather than just new ways to get through today & tomorrow.

  • Prioritizing. When you get to hold everyone at arm's length, you can control the flow of chaos to a much better degree, and can decide exactly what will get your attention, and when.

What is a Challenge

  • Clear communication. Not being able to just walk into someone's office, or talk to whomever you want when you want means you must be more strategic and intentional in your communication. It means you can't just rely on email. You need to schedule face time with people, use video chat and instant messaging. More than anything else, you need to use clear, direct and unambiguous language when you're writing. What we're learning though is that just about everything that you must do to communicate better when working from home applies to working in the office as well. If everyone spent the 20 seconds it takes to schedule face time with someone, rather than just barging into their office, imagine the important work that we could all GET FINISHED.

  • Team building and encouragement. This is the single most important challenge that I've found to date. How can you build a cohesive, well functioning, tight-knit team when you are not physically there? And how can you avoid treating people like the tasks they accomplish, rather than the human beings they actually are. In the past, when I was my team's direct manager, we saw a huge boost in their productivity in the two weeks I would spend in the office, and then a notable decline over the next 3 months until I returned. I put this down 90% to the team atmosphere, and 10% to the "when the cat's away" issue. The best way we've found to alleviate this so far, is to have a local team manager on-site, who then reports to me as Director. The current manager and I have excellent rapport, and it seems that together we're finding success building the team, encouraging individuals, coaching them towards career goals, and so on.

  • Trust. This is a fascinating challenge, because working from home means you HAVE to learn how to trust things to others. In many ways, you could consider this a strength to working from home, but if you're like me and you like to control things (to ensure quality, of course), then it's a challenge. You need to learn how to raise up teams and individuals who understand your goals, purposes and vision. When I first started working from home, this was manifested most often due to things that needed fixing, that I couldn't physically touch. I had to trust others to be my hands and feet, to get things done. The chief difficulty here is that I could have fixed it faster myself had I been there... but if I had, then John would have never learned, and I would never have developed my patience. Faster isn't always better. In my current responsibilities, the issue is in letting someone be my mouth, which I find much harder. If Sarah is chairing a meeting in my absence, do I trust that she will effectively communicate the things that I need her to communicate? Will she use my language, or hers? Will she communicate the essence of what actually matters, or will she fluff around on details? If your team can't communicate what you need them to, the way you need them to, I wager it's your fault, not theirs. You need to up your game, get your team on the same page as you are... and then get out of the way so they can have a shot at it. Jump on that WebEx call, but mute your mic, and let things play out. Trust them. If they're not deserving of your trust, I'd question if you deserve to be their manager. (This has been and remains a very difficult issue for me... what I write here is what I aspire to, and have not necessarily mastered.)

What's Missing

  • Better presentations combined with video. Sometimes you really need to be in that room with a whiteboard and action cards and your presentation-software-of-choice... but you can't be. We're trying recorded video messages from department directors as a more interesting way of communicating otherwise mundane news to the wider staff, but even then, sometimes your face isn't enough. I need a tool that lets me combine my video, with other video and graphics, presentation elements, animations etc. to get my message across. Maybe Movenote fills that void? Not sure yet.

  • Super-wide-angle webcams for video conferencing. We have a couple of conference rooms in the office that are routinely used for video conferencing. They can see me fine, but I struggle to see the relevant people in the room. It's not feasible for us to give everyone in a meeting their own camera, or to invest in a 360 degree camera and the associated software. In very large rooms we've set up multiple laptops with webcams so remote people can get multiple views of a room... but this isn't perfect, and doesn't work in a small room that's full of people. Super-wide-angle lenses and webcams would be very helpful here, to let me see everyone standing or sitting around the table.

  • Better screen management tools. I typically have video open on my primary monitor, and then content relating to the discussion on a second screen. When doing data comparison or project analysis, I find myself wishing for a third monitor. I need something to help me manage the content of my displays. I'm fairly attached to keeping things fullscreen, but if it works well enough I can be convinced. Google+ Hangouts with Extras looks like it might be useful, letting me combine a Google Doc with video chat.

@JustinWise, I hope that helps give you a couple of ideas for products that may help! Justin shared a great infographic about the shifting culture of home-work, and I'll post it here too. I think that many organizations could benefit by adopting a mixed-location workstyle for their employees.