Making remote work for you

Working remotely presents tricky challenges. Setting up good boundaries and making sure you know when to be present, or when to switch off, can go a long way towards helping startups make a success of not having all the team in one physical location.

Twingl was born remote. It’s in our DNA. Last year Greg, Matt, and myself all lived and worked from the same place in Wellington. It was a great contrast.

Recently, we let our lease expire, and went back to working remotely. This was largely practical: we don’t know in which country we’ll be living, in three months, and it’s one less thing to worry about. As it turns out, ‘remote’ is working very well for us.

Here are some some practical tips for other startups on making remote work for you.

Housemates, workmates

The advantages to being in an apartment: you can set up a War Room for big sprints. And work in your robe.

Doing the “startup in an apartment” thing is a mixed bag.

On the plus side, you are around your co-founders all the time. You’re in tune to how they feel and it’s easy to collaborate. On the down side, you’re around your co-founders all the time. You’re basically married and raising a kid together.

Here are a few things we noticed.

Emotional contagion and ambient awareness

Excitement is contagious: you feed off each other’s energy. There’s little friction to starting a chat, and you can get immediate feedback when you bounce a new idea around.

You can also sense when people are becoming burned out. And you can see how long work really takes.

We learned our development timelines were unrealistic, not because Greg (who is an absolute trooper) complained... but because Matt could hear typing through the wall till 3 am every night.

The cans of Monster stacked in Twingl HQ told us we needed to correct our expectations.

Empathy is paramount

Living and working together makes your co-founders more visible. You get a sense of their lifestyles, habits, and triggers. This creates better mutual understanding—but you must cultivate this empathy.

For example: I get excited at the bookends of my day, when Matt and Greg are waking up or winding down. I was guilty of mistiming conversations as a result: pitching bold ideas at 11 pm at night.

If you abuse synchronous conversation, you create needless stress.

The importance of good boundaries

Startups are hard, and you need quality rest time to do your best work. Without boundaries, you can’t switch off. The mere spectre of a spontaneous work chat keeps you on alert 24/7.

Living with people outside of your startup can help. One of our other flatmates was Glassjar’s CTO, Matt Galloway. To be honest, the late night, idea-laden chats with Matt were the #1 thing keeping me sane and balanced.

The right tools for the job

Remote working has its own challenges. Its lower bandwidth means there’s much less implicit communication. This means you need to pick the right tools and be a bit more disciplined. But the pay-off can be worth it.

If you want to do remote, make sure you choose the right tools for the job.

We use Slack as our virtual “office.” Alongside Slack, we highly rate iDoneThis, which is like a daily diary for what you did that day. We also have all of our Github commits pushed to a Slack channel.

This is how we use Slack. #standup is our check-in channel, and pipes in everything we’ve done that day.

Slack and iDoneThis give you a good foundation of “ambient awareness.” Once you’ve solved that, you get to my favourite thing about remote work.

Communication is asynchronous

Mistimed communications are a thing of the past: because you control when you check in.

Take my nocturnal excitements, for example. I can paste a 1,000 word rant into Slack at 3am, then Greg and Matt can consume it on their own time.

And during the day, it’s far easier to get into Flow when you know you’re not going to get tapped on the shoulder.

In fact, when we were working in the same place, we kept our “remote habit” of messaging each other on Slack when we needed help. It was a boundary which worked wonders.

The importance of boundaries

When you’re remote working, you’re not going to get surprised with a conversation at an inopportune time. But you might feel compelled to jump at every notification.

The key here is mutual expectations. This week we had an impromptu chat in Slack about contactability. We mutually agreed to turn off notifications for @tags, and use them for “I need your eyes on this, at your convenience.” Urgent stuff warrants a direct message or a phone call. And we are generally aware that after about 6pm, we do human things like eat or exercise.

Write to think

Being remote forces you to write to think.

Writing things down is one of the surprising advantages of working remotely. The risk of miscommunication forces you to “cook” your thoughts to completion. (Note: As with all things though, “it depends.” Some types of chat—where you’re bouncing ideas off each other—just need to be synchronous.)

The gaps in your thinking become painfully obvious, when your thoughts are text in front of you.

Even if you don’t work remotely, I highly recommend writing more. It works for Jeff Bezos.

Some closing tips

  • Check in and be open. Be open about how you’re feeling and what you’re struggling with. Rowan Yeoman preached the importance of this at Lightning Lab. A pattern he suggests is open any meeting by saying what you’re “Sad, Mad, Glad and Afraid” about. It makes the implicit, explicit. (Common Ledger wrote a great piece about how they do it.)

  • Do stuff “out of work”, together. You’re not going to be bonding over beer and pizza; but you can chill out in a Minecraft server or battle for supremacy in Civilisation.

  • Be VERY careful mixing remote and non-remote. When half your team is in one place, you will naturally shift towards the “low friction” path of communicating in person. When this happens, people fall out of the loop and communication suffers.

Remote is low bandwidth. Necessity forces you to develop good processes and habits. Yet, none of what I’ve said above is exclusive to remote work.

If you’re in the middle of a massive sprint, nothing beats being in the same physical location.

But you don’t need to be tethered to one place to do great work. And there are amazingcompaniesout thereproving just that..

Remote takes discipline, but it pays dividends.

How have you made remote or shared living work for you? Share your tips and tricks in the comments—or post some of the resources that you’ve found!