More Effective Remote Working

COVID-19 was many people’s first introduction to the working-from-home experience. I’ve been lucky enough to have been working from home exclusively since 2009 and at US-based companies (e.g. GitHub) since 2012. I’ve also been an EU-based open-source maintainer since 2007 and maintaining the globally-distributed Homebrew package manager since 2009. These experiences have helped me learn some tips on how to be more effective working remotely that I’d like to share with you:

  • ⚙️ Evaluate performance on output, not on working hours: When everyone’s not colocated in the same place for meetings, pair programming, etc.: you don’t need everyone to work the same schedules. As long as there’s enough overlap for some synchronous meetings, most work should be done asynchronously at the times and places that are most productive for that individual. 40 hours spent “working” unproductively can be worse for the business than 20 focused hours spent working at maximum efficiency. Introspect when and how you are most productive and encourage your teams to do so too.
  • ✍️ Write more, meet less: A one-hour meeting can technically be recorded but passing around a recording is rarely the best way of transferring information. Instead, consider writing documents which can be linked, shared, edited and kept evergreen for discussion. Keep synchronous meetings to a minimum in terms of regularity and attendance, and save them for tasks which cannot be done asynchronously or individually.
  • 📧 Slack and email are async, not sync, tools: Email and, increasingly, Slack are not well-loved tools because they are often ineffectively used as synchronous, interrupt-driven tools requiring an immediate response. This destroys focus, concentration and individual productivity. Don’t send messages saying “Have you got a minute?” unless it’s incredibly urgent that you schedule a sync call now. Instead, ask “Hey, about the meeting yesterday, can I grab your thoughts on the migration when you have a minute?” and expect it may take 24 hours to get a response. Getting Slack and work email off your phone will also help with work-life balance. If it’s critical you can be contactable 24/7: have a more focused tool for that purpose e.g. iMessage, WhatsApp, PagerDuty.
  • 🤪 Use emoji to convey emotion: I have been told, particularly when my profile picture looked a bit grumpy, that I can “write like an arsehole”. People can read brevity (combined with a grumpy profile picture) and assume anger, irritation or disappointment when it’s unintended. Emojis can help with this. Regular use of 😂😍🎉 etc. can be used to explicitly convey your emotion and gratitude.
  • 🛬 Meet in person (sometimes): Even if distributed around the globe, like GitHub and Homebrew are, it’s important to have as many people as possible meet in person once a year or more. Technology is wonderful but it’s hard to “get” people to the same extent when you aren’t able to read body language and other signals. Try to make the best use of this colocated time together to do things you can’t do normally e.g. synchronous brainstorming. Primarily focus on getting to know each other better and improving human relationships, particularly across traditional organisational boundaries (yes: sales and engineering can be friends!). Hopefully, this has given you some ideas of how your distributed, remote, hybrid or even colocated culture can operate a little more effectively.