Succeeding as a Remote Worker

When I made the transition from my previous job to New Relic, I knew it was going to be a big change. First and foremost, I was joining an elite group of individuals working on some of the best software on the planet. And if that wasn’t enough, it was also going to be my first experience being a full time remote worker.

Although I’ve telecommuted before, it was usually only two or three days per week. Even then, I was only 25 miles from the office and could head in if I needed to. At New Relic, I’d be over 1,500 miles and two time zones removed from the nearest office. Naturally, I was a bit apprehensive of what I was in store for. But now that I’ve been on the job for almost six months (and still here!), I can share how it’s going and what the challenges / advantages have been.

Before I dive into why I’m a fan of telecommuting, a few words of caution. Not everyone, or every company, is suited for remote work. To be successful at telecommuting, you need to be a self-starting, self-directed and very disciplined individual. You also need co-workers who are understanding and willing to make it work on the other end. And as a team, you need to be creative and patient in solving problems, not just the ones you’re coding.

The Advantages
I’m definitely a person who enjoys isolation when working on tough problems. Like all things in life, I believe collaboration works best in manageable doses. When working remotely, my focus time comes that much easier and there are huge monetary savings as well. My commute has been reduced from many miles to, well … footsteps and my gas expenditures have gone wa-a-ay down. Coupled with that, my car has less wear and tear and my insurance costs have dropped since it’s no longer used as a daily driver. I could also argue that by being at home my life has less stress in it. And I’m able to eat better food and stay healthier thus reducing my healthcare costs which saves the company and myself money.

The Challenges
When working remotely, it takes more effort on both sides to stay engaged. But the burden will always fall more heavily on the remote employee. There’s also a greater sense of isolation. Working from home 40+ hours a week can get a bit lonely. (Granted, I do have two cats and two dogs in the house, but the conversations end up being rather one-sided.) To help with this, I prefer to keep the radio or business news on in the background to provide some ambient noise.

Differences in time zones and work schedules can also pose a problem. In the past, I liked to start work around 6:30 in the morning. This was in the same time zone as my colleagues and although early, there was an acceptable overlap where we’d all be available. Since I live and work from Wisconsin, I’m two hours ahead of my New Relic team. If I were to start at 6:30 am, that would be 4:30 am Pacific Time. As such, I’ve adjusted my start and stop times accordingly to allow more time for collaboration with the rest of the team.

Having your home serve as your office has another big disadvantage. At times, it’s all too easy to stay connected too long — either before or after your workday. When it’s not crunch time, you need to be able to ‘close the lid’ so to speak. This means, unless there’s an emergency, at the end of the work day you need to sign off and shut down your laptop to ‘go home’.

Making it Work
When I’ve spoken to other telecommuters, many have shared experiences where remoting did not work. I bring this up to highlight what we did differently. The main reason for our success is due to the fact that I’m in the office everyday!!!

You’re probably saying, “Whoa, wait as second. I thought you’re 1,500 miles away …” Well yes, but thanks to modern teleconferencing technology, I maintain a virtual presence in the office every day. We’ve established a dedicated Skype connection between Milwaukee and New Relic’s Portland Engineering Center. In Portland, we’ve repurposed an old laptop that serves as my link to the office. With this I can see directly into the space of the .NET team. I see and hear just about everything that happens in our area, just as my teammates do on the other end. Another great example of how New Relic strives to innovate in everything we do!

Succeeding as a Remote Worker with Skype

When I was brought onboard, we were fairly confident we could overcome the obstacles presented with remoting. During my initial two week ramp-up in Portland, one of the topics we addressed were additional steps we could take to ensure our success. We talked about the possibility of this dedicated connection and within a few days of returning home we were up and running. I can’t stress enough how much this does to close the distance. Not only does it connect me to the office, it also helps me start and end my day. Like my teammates, I go to work in the morning (via Skype) and leave (shut down) in the evening.

Using Skype, Google Hangout and the like, I really don’t miss out on the action. In fact, it’s quite rare when there’s a meeting or conversation that I can’t take part in. I’m in the same room as the rest of the team and can take part in any impromptu meetings or conversations that take place. I’m also much more accessible. If someone needs to talk, they can simply ‘come by my desk’. With this setup, it’s truly amazing how much I hear in the office. If I close my eyes, it almost feels like I’m right there with the rest of the team.

Beyond the technology, I also make regular trips to the Portland office. When there, I try to maximize face time with others. And between trips, I’m always keeping an eye out for ways to stay engaged from afar and make my presence known. If you’re working from home, never let it get to the point where people forget who you are.

Although remote work isn’t for everyone, with the right effort and right mindset, it can work! We’d like to hear how telecommuting has worked (or not worked) for you. Let us know in the comments below.

Matt Sneeden is a QA Developer at New Relic. He supports the .NET Agent team, specializing in building continuous integration and automated testing systems. When not wired in, he can be found exploring the outdoors of southern Wisconsin. View posts by .

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