Staying Connected While Working Remotely

Remote work is a daily reality for the Spacer team because one of our developers works from Boston while our office headquarters and team are in New York. Additionally, earlier this year, I worked remotely for two months—fulfilling a lifelong dream of traveling in Japan.

In one way or another, remote work may be part of your professional experience too—maybe you are considering it for yourself, now or in the future, or maybe you’ll work with a remote colleague. There is already a wealth of information out there about how to work remotely, so instead this blog post will outline my team’s experiences with remote work, the challenges we encountered, and how we made it work for us.

SCHEDULE

We wanted to maximize the overlap between my work time and that of my US-based coworkers so that I could stay connected to the team. However, with a 14 hour time difference between NYC and Tokyo, I quickly discovered that I’m not built for an 8 hour night shift. Instead, I settled on a schedule that split up my day:

  • four hours of work in my early afternoon (1pm - 5pm Tokyo, 11pm - 3am NYC time)
  • four hours right around midnight (10pm - 2am Tokyo, 8am - noon NYC time)

That way, I spent half of my time working while everyone else was sound asleep in NYC and had the other half of my time overlap with my coworkers’ morning hours, when we scheduled most team meetings.

We also added daily engineering check-ins to our twice-weekly product standups—quick video calls for the eng team to update each other, surfacing problems that needed to be discussed during our precious overlap time. Since we already had a Boston-based engineer, much of our non-scheduled communication already happened over Slack or Zoom.

THE BAD

There were all the obvious downsides of not sharing work space:

  • Being in our office is fun, and I missed out on a lot of things by not being there—lunch conversations, board game nights, the puzzle table…
  • Problems solved by accidental eavesdropping reduce to near 0 when you stop being in earshot of most conversations (e.g. when you overhear the other engineering team discuss the same problem you are working on right now).
  • Since I was not in the office, someone had to do extra work to make it feel like I was: setting up slack calls to involve me in discussions, scheduling meetings around my sleep schedule, and making sure everything spoken in the office in person was documented in written word somewhere for me to find.
  • Many of my non-engineering tasks now had to be picked up by someone else. What would have been my share of attending recruiting events and interviewing new candidates now fell on the shoulders of my coworkers, adding to their already existing workload in those areas.

Additionally, I found that working remotely simply magnified some of the issues I was already trying to work on, that were usually kept in much closer check by quick, personal check-ins. For example, I know I was guilty once or twice of being so caught up in working on a feature that I forgot to keep my coworkers updated, causing confusion around whether I needed help. When every bit of information had to be consciously communicated online, it was easy to leave people in the dark—instead, I needed to create habits of consciously over-communicating.

THE GOOD

Getting to travel in Japan while contributing to my team was all I had hoped for, yet there were other upsides of working remotely I was surprised by:

  • The solitary work hours in the middle of my day became dedicated, gloriously distraction-free time, while all meetings, disruptions, and frequent mental-context shifting was focussed on the other chunk of my work day - effortlessly leaving me with a clean, productive, maker-friendly schedule.
  • I loved the freedom of truly being able to experiment with my schedule to work best with my productivity cycle. A tough problem can become much easier after stepping back from it overnight and approaching it with fresh eyes in the morning. With two work sessions a day, I got to experience that beneficial mental break twice.
  • Motivation never ran low when challenging myself with a self-imposed deadline of “get this feature done before your coworkers in NYC wake up”. I found it exhilarating to work when I knew no one else was.

In general, I found it remarkable just how much my team managed to allow me to continue to not only contribute to our work, but really feel part of the team—book clubs, all-hands, selfie-contests are all attendable via the magic of the internet even from half a world away.

THE LESSONS LEARNED

Make it as easy as possible to do work by removing any hurdle to getting started—in my case, that meant setting myself up with reliable internet everywhere (Japan has great pocket wifi options for that) and choosing AirBnBs and single rooms over shared hostel spaces so I had enough privacy to jump on a quick call easily at any moment. I look at remote work as I do any other skill—I can get better at it with practice and attention.

In that line, iterating and experimenting was the name of the game for figuring out how to most effectively interact with the team while remote.

  • Check-ins: For our team work, our daily in-person check-ins proved vital, and the most significant way of keeping communication constant next to Slack.
  • More check-ins: Scheduling time specifically to check in about how remote itself was going and what could be improved kept us honest and able to adapt, and surfaced the problems I mentioned earlier.
  • Process: Our previously established engineering task management process (a mostly kanban approach using Clubhouse), helped tremendously in keeping people on the same page across continents and allowed me to pick up new tasks without needing in-person communication.
  • Predictability: The more predictable and consistent I was with my exact work schedule, the more my coworkers could relax.

In the end, however, one of my favorite takeaways from my experience is knowing how supportive of a team I get to be part of every day, working with people who genuinely care about each other and me. Often I was overwhelmed by the amount of support and help I was met with from my coworkers in making my experience possible. I genuinely am so thankful that I got to make these memories, and it just caused me to want to support my coworkers in all of their endeavors even more.

Almost three years ago, during my initial internship, I wrote another blog post about my experience working here. Back then, I already was excited about our team culture and work atmosphere, and now—after finishing my degree and having returned full time—I still love it here as much as I did during those first 10 weeks. It was fun being in Japan, but it sure is great to be back in the office.