Ten Years of WFH Lessons

Suddenly become a home worker? Then you might be wondering how to do it right. At Heroku, more than half our team works remotely from home offices, cafes, and co-working spaces. Many of the questions you have right now are ones that we’ve been thinking about for years.

So, here are four tips from the Heroku team on how to make distributed work effective, fulfilling, and fun.

1. Ritual matters

If you work in an office, each day has a similar cadence. You leave home, commute, maybe grab a coffee, greet the same people on the way to your desk, and ease yourself into the day.

When you work from home, ritual is just as important. Maybe more so. Up until now, your home has been a place where you hang out with friends and family, do chores, sleep. To be productive, you’ll need a way to signal to yourself that, for a few hours, home is also where you focus on work.

There’s the obvious stuff. Shower, get dressed. But perhaps less obvious is the need to demarcate your day and your space. 

It might be tempting to review a pull request over breakfast but you’ll quickly burn out unless you stick to predictable working hours. Start and end your work at the times you would if you were in the office. Get up and take breaks. Eat lunch away from your screen.

Similarly, you need a dedicated space for work. If you don’t have the luxury of a dedicated desk, then choose a spot that you can clear during your work hours and that is free of distractions; or as free from distractions as possible. If you can work behind a closed door, all the better to signal “I’m working” to yourself and anyone else at home.

So, tip number 1 is to build a ritual that bookends your working day.

2. Be intentional about communication

In an office setting, much communication is unintentional.

Think about it. Simply being sat at a desk in an office is a form of communication. You’re saying, “I’m working, I’m here, I’m productive”. Then there are the quick chats in the kitchen in which big decisions are made or the meetings where someone’s raised eyebrow says a whole lot more than their words.

Communication in a distributed team takes more work but, done well, can lead to deeper understanding.

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. You need to communicate availability to your colleagues. Say “hi” when you start work, use Slack statuses to indicate when you want to focus, wave a cheery “goodbye” when you leave for the day.

The harder part is understanding each other, staying informed, and collaborating. That requires a change in communication pace and culture. Remote communication is lower bandwidth than in person communication. Yet your brain, pattern matching monster that it is, will fill in the gaps. Rather than make assumptions, ask questions.

If something seems stupid, assume you misunderstood then ask questions until you understand what the other person intended. When you have something to say, think about how to avoid ambiguity. 

Tip number two is to be intentional in how you communicate.

3. Get comfortable with asynchronous work

If an office is a monolith then a successful distributed team is like a set of microservices. You don’t need to know when your colleagues do their work or even how they do it. The important thing is the output and the expectations set.

This is not something you can control alone. Really, it’s largely down to the culture led by your manager. But a successful remote team balances leaving people to get on with their work versus explicit times of synchronous communication. Officer workers complain about meetings but for remote workers they’re a rare opportunity for high bandwidth communication. Need help working something out? Have a video call with a colleague. Want to keep the team up to date with important news? Schedule a weekly call.

No successful distributed team lead is hovering over their reports’ virtual shoulders.

Tip three is to accept that the work is what’s important. How and when it happens, within explicitly set expectations, is irrelevant.

4. Go out of your way to be a team

One downside of distributed working is that you could spend eight hours at your desk doing nothing other than work. All those little social interactions –– signing the card for Karen from accounting, catching up over the latest Better Call Saul episode, politely refusing Nigel’s overbaked cake –– happen less easily.

Not only does that make loneliness more of a problem but it’s harder for a team to bond. Rather than leave it to chance, in a remote environment you must go out of your way to interact with your team.

Schedule time for a coffee over a video chat. Sounds weird? Well, it’s not really about the coffee. It’s a chance to switch off for a few minutes and chat casually with a colleague. If you have a daily stand-up, extend the Friday edition by ten minutes so everyone can chat about their weekend plans. Okay, sure, right now their weekend plans are largely going to be variations on “having a quiet one indoors” but it’s the opportunity to be human with each other that is important.

Tip four is to make sure that it’s not all just about work. Take time to hang out with your colleagues, even if it is by video chat.

Working from home is great, if you get it right

You’re used to working and you’re used to being at home. So, combining the two should be easy, right? 

In our experience at Heroku, it turns out that it takes effort to work from home in a way that looks after your wellbeing while also helping you to be productive. Effective distributed working is also a joint effort. While you must make adjustments on your side, as someone working from home, a company’s leadership must instill a culture and set processes that set remote workers up for success.

Many people working from home for the first time right now are not doing so through choice. Both managers and team members have been thrown into a situation they weren’t expecting. That makes support from leadership, and a company-wide understanding of both the challenges and triumphs of distributed working, even more important.

In this unusual time, working from home is probably just one of the many changes you’re getting used to. However, rather than being an uncomfortable change, working from home can be an opportunity to get more done and spend less time commuting.

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