This is my personal experience of 5 years of remote work. I don’t claim everyone goes through those 5 stages, but hopefully, the lessons I learned can be helpful to someone.
The pandemic led countless companies to innovate on collaboration and management, by letting people work from their homes. Very soon, we saw innumerable articles in the press on companies and on personal blogs about the benefits and weaknesses of remote work.
I’ve been working remotely for 5 years now. I was living in Paris with my wife, and when our first son was born, we sped up our plans to move away. We basically wanted to get a better quality of life. Avoid wasting hours a day on a commute. Quit the aggressiveness of people in large cities. Purchase a property for an acceptable price, which could be large enough to host our guests, families, or friends, and offer a garden in which our kids could play.
We were actually fortunate.
Back then, working on Blackfire.io with Fabien Potencier as CEO, I asked him: “You know, my life plans aren’t in Paris. Now I’m having a blast working on Blackfire with its team. I want to move to Nantes, but I’d love to keep being Blackfire’s CPO. Is that something you’d consider?”. I couldn’t enjoy his answer more: “Well, I’m currently living in San Francisco. Do you really think it makes any difference for me that you’re in Paris or Nantes?”. During a couple of months after, most of the Blackfire team made the switch, and we became one of the early remote-first companies. To the point that when the virus hit, we were all like: “working from home? Yeah, I do that for 3 years already”.
On her end, my wife had the same kind of opportunity: her consulting company had both an office in Paris and in Nantes. See it as luck, god’s will, stars’ alignment, or anything you believe in; two months later we had signed for purchasing our house, and found a nursery for our son, with all locations being within walking distance.
I set my office on the ground floor, with a window wide open to my garden. And I went through five stages of apprehending what remote work actually is.
We moved when Blackfire was preparing to spin off from SensioLabs. It was quite a stressful and exhausting period, but my new life situation made things amazing.
I had had a couple of home working experiences, that I really enjoyed. Much more focus. Many fewer interruptions from colleagues who have something absolutely urgent to ask you and will stand in front of or next to you until you give them your attention. No need for noise-canceling headphones: the noises around you are birds, not a printing machine, an elevator, or people discussing in corridors anymore.
Better, you can:
- drop off and pick up your kids at decent hours, with all of the time spared on the commute;
- spare on lunch money and eat healthier, as you don’t have to find some street food or restaurant near you;
- do whatever you want during breaks (Netflix? Yeah, sure. Mow the land? Why not? Exercise? Definitely.).
And very soon you remember your past condition. You had the impression you were working your butt off, making countless hours at work, ending your day totally exhausted. You were going out with friends in town, once in a while, but not so much anymore, especially with a newborn at home.
And now, you take a 30 minutes break in your garden in the middle of the afternoon? How dare you? You’re procrastinating! You’re taking advantage of the situation, and not actually building value for your company! You don’t deserve your salary!
I’ve had that feeling for a couple of weeks, maybe around month 3 or so. But at the same time, my performance at work increased, and I was getting very positive feedback from my team and manager.
It took me a while to realize that actually, the laser focus I had experienced in the past, before being “fully remote”, was even sharper. That when I was starting my workday, I no longer was starting it stressed or frustrated from that accident I barely avoided while driving to work. Or due to that person I bumped into in the subway, because it was so much more important for them to step in without letting anyone out. That, like 80% of the mornings, traffic was terrible and it took me an hour instead of 20 minutes. That I wasn’t wasting dozens of minutes procrastinating on other things (may it be actual interesting social interactions, or useless ones like social media).
Basically, all of the time where I wasn’t working for negative reasons, damaging the rest of my “productive” day, had been replaced by probably the same duration of positive and relaxing activities, making me more performant for the rest.
Removing social interactions at work first felt really useful. Not that I stopped talking to people. In product management, you just can’t stop that: it is a key part of what you do. Talk to customers, talk to your dev team, and talk to anyone in the company that has something to do with the product (like 90% of the staff in software companies).
It was again one of the critical ingredients in laser focus and efficiency.
It took me a while to realize that I actually had lost something. Grabbing that coffee with a colleague felt like an insignificant thing in the day. Waving at someone when going to the office as well. Going to the restaurant with part of your team could even sometimes feel like a waste of time and money. But now that all of those things were gone, loneliness grew in me.
Worse: as much as we moved into a great city that has a lot to offer to its inhabitants and where my wife had a past network of friends, I had no friends of my own there. So the people I had direct human interactions with were my family, the cashier at the grocery store, and the nurse. I mean, of course, we were inviting extended family members and friends over at the weekend, once in a while. We were sometimes going out in the city. But this was very limited.
That led me to even more focus on work. I was trying to balance out the lack of satisfaction from the lack of human interactions with the satisfaction of doing more at work. Most of my break time moments, whatever they were, shrank or disappeared. I started traveling a lot for work (yeah, before COVID).
To some extent, I had a blast. There were so many things I could tackle at the same time! Product Management? Check. Marketing? Check. Sales? Check. Partnerships Management? Check.
You guessed it from the first words of this paragraph: it wasn’t really the right way to go. That drained me. Yes, I had many successes. But there was never enough. Especially since that wasn’t repairing anything on social interactions.
This part took a bit more time to develop than I wanted, as I started it a couple of months before the pandemic hit, and we went into lock-downs and social distancing. But it’s been like breathing after a long apnea.
Talking about social distancing, one of the first things I did was to get some Krav Maga lessons. Yeah, that doesn’t seem so friendly and is rather violent. For those who already practiced fighting sports, you know what you get out of it. For those who never have: you get caring people. Probably more than in any other type of sports I practiced in the past. The friends you make there are very quickly true, reliable friends. You can talk to them. They will be there to help you, with many things.
The next key thing, once the pandemic started to quiet down, has been to start meeting with other parents, at our kid’s school. Guess what? Many of them share a lot of things with you already, starting with the fact they have kids the same age! Better: they’re often living next street!
And finally, since a couple of months, we can travel again. Meeting in person with my team made me realize I really missed that. Yes, I love my work setting, and ability to focus. But a face-to-face meeting, sharing a meal together, or having a fun activity is so important, that It should happen on a regular basis. I would recommend it at least quarterly.
Tip: get comfier than you have ever been in a company office
It took me 4 years to understand that. Yes, I’m a bit slow. Does it cost a lot of money? Possibly. Is your body at stake? Definitely. You’d probably rather save half a month of salary that you’ll invest in a decent work setup than spend the rest of your life with backaches and other permanent physical impacts.
I won’t advertise any specific brand or product, but here are a couple of things that changed my life:
- a professional-grade microphone;
- a high definition webcam;
- sound speakers;
- a proper keyboard and mouse;
- a 34 inches curved monitor;
- a top-screen light bar;
- a footrest;
- a gaming chair;
- a gaming desk;
- LED lights with different temperatures;
- Coloured LED lights for a comfy atmosphere;
- an extra-large, marvelous photo of underwater turtles that I can stare at for hours;
- an extra desk on which I can put away anything, and keep my working desk as clean and empty as possible.
Oh yeah, as much as possible, you want fiber-Internet also. But unfortunately, that doesn’t depend only on you…