On working from home
Originally published in February of 2017
For the most part, I’ve been working from home since 2005. It started out innocently enough, I had a ‘real’ office in Boulder, but I was a startup and stupid enough to work insane hours with a 1-yr old son at home, so I started to bring my computer and display home on the weekends (this was before laptops were really viable in my industry). Bringing my work home on the weekend was a good way to still see him.
Then it became such a pain to move it all back and forth that I started to do three-day weekends, then four. Finally, I just begged out of my lease (incredibly nice landlord at the office park I was renting from) and moved home entirely. I tried other offices at different times when my kids were different ages, but I ended up back at home for one reason or another.
This was way before working remote was a thing; this was before Slack, Google Hangout, Screenhero, or any other form of reliable communication besides email and phone. I wanted so badly to be considered a “real company” that I fought it for a lot longer than I should have.
Fast forward to the days and weeks when my son starts school and I start watching him interact socially. At the advice of a friend, I read an article on introverts and extroverts, and not just my kid’s behavior, but my entire career started to make sense.
I’m a raging introvert, many of my problems from work were due to working at the traditional design studios. Put me in my dark little office with some music, a nice chair, a really big monitor, and I’m a happy camper. Put me in a brightly lit loft with two dozen other people, loud noises, meetings, and other distractions, and by the time I got home, I was a complete zombie and the only thing I was capable of was completely tuning out (usually with something 80 proof). I loved the work, but hated the environment.
I never take working from home for granted (or I try not to). There are benefits besides the above that are just too big to lose.
- I can drive my kids to school every morning. This is huge. It means that no matter what, no matter how crazy life is, we have a few minutes alone every day where it’s just them and me.
- I have time to run nearly every day. This keeps me sane and helps with the work-life balance, especially handy for someone like me who tends to have a hard time with balance and has, at times, definitely been off the deep end with how much I work.
- A lot of the design studios now have some great perks, but I’ll bet mine are still better. I have a mini-gym with weights and a punching bag, a full-sized pool table, a fully-stocked kitchen, the best coffee and tea, and my office mates are the furry kind, who never want an impromptu meeting but also never mind if I want a break to hang out on the porch for a while.
- I can keep my own schedule. This means I can start work as early as I want (which is pretty early), work for a bit, then drive the kids to school, sneak in a quick run, then get back to work for the day.
- There is no commute. This is not just a time saver (two hours a day if I worked in Boulder or Denver), but it saves gas and miles on my truck. When I worked full time in Boulder, I usually didn’t get home until 7 or 8. We’d eat a late dinner, then my kids would be off to sleep. Now I can see them as soon as they get home and I’m off (and home) by 5. It also means that I have time to catch the soccer games, the gymnastics, and the plays or concerts.
- Slack is awesome. Screenhero is awesome. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still enjoy face-to-face meetings anymore, but they definitely aren’t the only way to communicate anymore. Is it lonely? Not so much. I go to coffee shops at least once a week and still try to meet clients in person at least once a month. I also work with people via Screenhero and communicate all day via Slack.
- Client meetings can be way more fun. I’ll still visit with clients and do the traditional meeting of course, but I also have clients I run with, some I meet at the climbing gym, quite a few I’ll meet for tapas and happy hour, and even some who have become close friends over the years and we’ll go camping with our kids for a weekend.
When I was moving all my content to the new website, I pulled some old stuff (this post included). It's interesting for me to read in retrospective, because it's all still true for me. Soon after I wrote this I moved to the PNW to work for Amazon. Amazon has a lot of nice benefits, but working remotely is not one of them. I'm lucky enough to be on a team with a forward-thinking manager and director, so I still work from home a few days a week, but twice a week I go into Seattle. Some thoughts on that.
- I don't like big cities. Seattle is no exception.
- My commute is long (around two hours each way), but it's a great commute regardless. I bike to the ferry, take the ferry over, then bike to work.
- Communication matters and tech stack matters. Before Amazon, when I was independent, I'd work with clients in Europe and Asia and knew them better than people I currently work down the hall from. This boils down to communication. Pre-Amazon I'd use Slack and Screenhero. We'd screenshare a lot. If I had a problem or a question, we'd just quickly hop on a chat or call. Zero drama, everyone was happier. I knew their kids' names, what sort of music they liked, where they hung out on the weekend—we had a relationship. Not so much at my current job. This not only affects me socially, but if you don't communicate at work, your work will suffer. At Amazon, we're forced to use Chime to chat. It's pretty awful. Because it's awful, people don't use it. So, communication is lacking.
- Meetings are way better when everyone is remote. If everyone is remote and on Slack and you need a quick meeting, the conversation goes like this: "Hey, do you have a few minutes to chat?" And then you chat for 5 minutes or 15, whatever you need. In a more traditional workplace, you have to use some archaic software to set up a meeting, check calendars, and then schedule a meeting for exactly 30 minutes or an hour. And if you do that, the meeting generally takes at least that long. It's a horrible arrangement and usually means that even quick meetings are set a week in advance. This is not the way to move quickly.
- Deskspace is at a premium. The 'loft' style is often championed by middle managers as a way to encourage collaboration, but let's be honest, it's just cheaper. You can force more people into less space. As an introvert, it's a horrible work situation. Our office is over-stuffed and not the most fun workspace. I've worked in beautiful design agencies that were featured in magazines, and I still didn't like the 'loft' style workspace—this is much worse. Not to mention that from a business point-of-view, it has to be quite expensive to house that many employees. If you've been to Seattle lately you'll know that they can't build office space fast enough.
I hope businesses clue in. I'm lucky to be at Amazon and even luckier to be on a team with people that support my partial work from home lifestyle. But this is not sustainable.
- If people can work anywhere, then they can live in places cheaper than Seattle and you can get the best talent, not just the talent willing to relocate to wherever you're offices are.
- It's far better on the environment for employees to skip their commute entirely.
- It means that employees can support their community, not the place they work. For instance, when I go out and have coffee locally, that means that the local coffee shop does better, when I get lunch at the local restaurant, that helps them too. It means that the small community I live in becomes a real community, not just one for nights and weekends.
- It's far better on family life, that's way better than a foosball table or free beer.