What It’s Like To Work, Future-Style

Me riding a square bike in the future. (Taken at the Museum of Mathematics in New York)

I recently started working for a “distributed” company, which is sort of a dream come true for a Third Culture Kid like me. The company that is “distributed” means that it’s scattered across different locations, and everyone works wherever they are. As someone who’s pretty much always had a normal desk job, the transition was pretty rough on me. It’s now been almost three months, and this new gig has completely changed the way I work, and for the better. It has convinced me that more and more companies will be structured this way in the future. Here’s what I’ve learned from working future-style:

1. Focus on the work, not the hours
When you work remotely, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend sitting at your desk — the only thing you have to show for your day is what work you’ve actually gotten done. So, to minimize the time I spend staring at a screen that makes my neck and eyes hurt, I work as efficiently as possible. By setting my own schedule and not having any distractions (i.e. chit-chatting with colleagues), I’m twice as productive than I have ever been.

2. Leave Email Behind
Email blows. Someone once told me that it’s a personal to-do list that anyone in the world can add to. It’s also a black box where information is locked away — no one else can get access to information that doesn’t really need to be private anyway.

At Automattic, we don’t email our colleagues. We use IRC in place of hallway conversations, Skype in place of private meetings or quick emails, and a discussion board in place of department-wide emails and project management tools. I love this so much. By freeing the team of private inboxes, we’ve optimized collaboration. Folks can look up the information they need to see how a project’s going, and someone can quickly step in when a colleague is out on vacation.

3. Document Obsessive-Compulsively
Ever forget what was discussed at a meeting? Or, what a client talked to you about? When you work remotely, it’s essential to write everything down to share with your colleagues virtually. If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen. I’m loving this new habit because the process of writing things down encourages me to slow down, organize and clarify my thoughts before proceeding.

4. Learning Can Be A Slow Process
Learning the ropes of a new job virtually is a painfully slow process. When you talk to someone face-to-face, you get a lot of contextual information, and information is exchanged pretty quickly. When your colleagues are showing you the ropes over chat, you get only what you see on the screen, and the information exchange is pretty slow, since you’re typing.

I thought I was moving at a snail’s pace my first few weeks, but I realized that besides learning the actual material, I was also developing entirely new work habits that I would need to function at my virtual job. My first few weeks were a crash course on how to communicate with your colleagues virtually, how to use the internal communications appropriately, and where to find information in our “virtual office.”

5. I Don’t Need a Physical Office To “Do Work”
One of the most freeing things about working remotely is that I no longer have to cut trips short to make it back to the office Monday morning. During Thanksgiving, I spent the week in St. Louis, working from Jared’s parents’ kitchen counter for a few days. In the winter, we left for a ski trip earlier than usual, and I just wrapped up the work day on my laptop in the car (I wasn’t driving). For Christmas, I traveled to meet my parents in Las Vegas, working from a lounge at the Wynn for a day. I love being liberated from a physical office because I’m more focused on doing my work, instead of getting to the office to work.

6. Set Boundaries, Otherwise You’ll Be Working 24/7
When your office travels with you, you need to set up boundaries. When I was in Las Vegas, my parents were constantly trying to get my attention while I was trying to get work done — it’s hard for other people to understand that even if though you’re around, you’re actually “at the office” working. On the flip side, while I was on a ski vacation, it was really hard for me not to check-in with the office while I was supposed to be disconnected. When working remotely, you have to set boundaries, otherwise you will end up working all the time.

7. Gizmos and Gadgets Are Taking Up My Carry-On Space
Because I am on the road so much, and working from all sorts of crazy locations, it’s incredibly important to have internet access wherever I am. If I don’t have internet, I can’t work. Within two weeks of working at the company, I set up my iPhone with a Personal Hotspot, so that I can tether my laptop to my phone to work from everywhere. Within a month, I got packing cubes and GoToobs to help me pack efficiently and travel comfortably. Within two months, I purchased a mophie for extra battery life on my phone, which kept dying from being used constantly while I was on the road. I never thought I’d grow up to be my dad, but my carry-on is now full of gizmos and gadgets to help me travel and work easily.

8. Staying Healthy Is Harder
When I worked at the Test Kitchen, I was on my feet all day. I either walked, biked, or bussed to work, I ran up and down the stairs all day between my department and the kitchen, I bounced into different departments to check in with my colleagues, I packed and shipped goodies to bloggers constantly, and I booked it into meetings because I was always a minute late. Nowadays, I take a train into my co-working space, or walk upstairs to the home office, and then I’m pretty much seated all day. Jared and I got matching Fitbits for Thanksgiving and he’s constantly doubling my walk score without even trying. I’m also noticing that my shoulders ache more than they ever have before. Needless to say, fitness is now something I have to pay close attention to. Besides my regular yoga-and-dance-class pseudo-regimen, I’m considering running another half-marathon next year, or getting a personal trainer to whip my ass into shape.

9. It Can Get Really Lonely
As if it weren’t already obvious to everyone who knows me, the Myers-Brigg test defines me as an extrovert, someone who “gets energized by being around people.” Being alone at work has probably been the hardest adjustment for me so far. Some days, when I work from home instead of the co-working space, the only person I’ll talk to all day is Jared. On these days, I get pretty stir-crazy, and a little sad. In the last few months, I’ve been more pro-active about going to dance class, running errands or bugging friends to for breakfast, lunch, coffee, dinner, game night, pasta night, drinks, just to get out of my head, away from the screen and feel more like a normal human being. And think this better — I shouldn’t be dependent on work for social interactions, and I’m encouraged to spend more time with my friends.

10. Being In Control Rocks
Working remotely isn’t for everyone, and it’s definitely taken me a while to adjust to it. But, I love being in control. I can plan out my schedule, my location and my work day to what works for me. If I don’t like something, I can change it. It’s made me more proactive about finding ways to improve how I work, and I’m learning how to be better at it every day. I’m also getting lots of great advice from my colleagues, since everyone has gone through this before. Basically, it means that as long as I put effort into improving it, working future-style will only continue to be more and more awesome.