Working in a startup-culture company with open-offices can be a great environment for collaboration, growth and problem solving but, equally, has a lot of potential to be disruptive. Here's how my teammate and I established two weekly off-site work days and how we ensure that they are productive.
In an office, it's quite natural to be interrupted: teams have meetings, stand-ups are being held in open spaces or people simply need to run things by you - the sources of distraction are endless. That's why my colleague Simon and I decided to try and hermit for two days a week to get some grind work done. For this to work, however, we first needed to ensure we wouldn't inconvenience everybody else. That's why we looked at how things were usually run:
- Our company policy is that everyone needs to be at the office on Mondays and Fridays.
- We like to be available to help and contribute to the rest of the company as much as we can, so we are in the office on Tuesdays as well. This also allows us to close off any admin from the previous week and Monday itself.
That's why we work remotely on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
> Tip to make it work: Fit into your company's schedule!
In addition, we realised there are a three other key things we needed to put into place to make the most of our time away:
Block out dedicated focus time for your remote days
The idea of dedicated focus time for grind work comes from a book called deep work. The term refers to the kind of work that needs your undivided attention and strict focus: Which just so happens to be a lot of programming tasks.
That's why, when we enter deep work, we basically go radio silent for a little while. For Simon and me, it's easier, because we work together on the same projects and pair on complex tasks, like optimization algorithms for financial projections. This way, we can keep each other accountable for the work that we do.
> Tip to make it work: Blocking out time in our calendars is one of the most crucial pieces to making this work: We have to ensure that the time we spend working remotely is valuable and focussed. Having an accountability-partner also really helps!
- Note of caution: When blocking out days like this, you accept that the days that you are available will mostly be filled with meetings, planning sessions, customer support and a lot of other admin or shallow tasks.
Have available slots for other team members
That said, being part of a wider team means you need to be available to them. This also holds true for days that are blocked out for remote focussed work. This generally just takes that extra little bit of planning:
- One thing I have found valuable is to schedule quick 30 min check-ins with the team. This isn't quite the same as a normal stand up, it's a bit more in depth where you try help each other out.
- Scheduling pairing sessions can also be extremely useful. This helps foster collaboration in the team. It gives the team insight into what you are busy with, and you get to contribute to what they might be busy with.
Things can change slightly when you are a small team and a new team member joins. If you are responsible for helping to onboard the new team member, your remote work days are most likely going to come to an end for the first month of onboarding. It is important to pick it up again once the team member is onboarded. That said, even once you start working remotely, you'll have to schedule some time to make sure that your new team member is going along well.
Tip to make this work: Use your calendar and be disciplined about your time slots. Check-ins with the team need to be scheduled like any other meeting.
Make sure that everything you do is visible to the rest of the team
A major challenge when working remotely is that companies may doubt the value of what you are doing. They can't see you grind away at a complex problem or whiteboard a million solutions, so it's your responsibility to communicate the value of what you do to the company and your team when you are hermitting away:
- In stand-ups, be very verbose about what you did, go into some more detail than you usually would. Instead of the normal: "Oh, I whiteboarded some solutions", tell your team how many you explain your thinking.
- When you hit a wall and get stuck on something, let the rest of the team know. That way they can help you out, or simply be aware that things are going to take a bit longer.
- Also communicate whenever you finish a piece or move past the blocker you just had. This keeps everyone on the same page and helps them understand the progress that is being made.
- Let your team know when you'll be unavailable for a while. When you take a break or go out for lunch, pop a message to your teammates and also don't forget to let them know when you are back.
Remote work days are a tool for increased focus, not a time to slack off. For your company to trust you and this process, you'll want to make sure that you do deliver value in your time away. If you're less productive here than you would be in the office, this entire exercise could harm the trust relationship with your team and company.
> Tip to make this work: Follow a routine. Have an accountability-buddy. Whatever you personally need to do to get into "the zone", do that.
What our remote days have done for me
Our remote days have really made an impact on my life. They have:
- Improved the quality of the work I do. This is largely due to the fact that I can work uninterrupted for large stretches of time.
- Reduced my stress levels. Having no meetings or ad-hoc interruptions, I tackle the challenges that actually need attention. Knowing that there's a time and space for this, I can shift mindsets on the other days and respond a lot better to the commotion at work.
- Freed up quality time. Our offices are in Rosebank and I live in Pretoria. That equates to a 2 hour commute in the morning and 2 hours in the evening. The days I work remotely, I essentially free up that time so I can spend it in more meaningful ways.