Working from home today. Forever.
May 24, 2019
This article was originally posted on Medium
Sitting here on my couch with a cat crowding my hip (and getting her stray fur on my keyboard), I strain to remember a time when this was not how I spent all my working days. In September, it will be 9 years since I was cold-called into what has become the longest tenured, most rewarding, and most fulfilling career experience of my life. On a warm, late-summer day in 2010, I was clicking away at my computer in a generic office building, daydreaming about being anywhere else. Back before robo-calls made it unwise to answer a call from an unfamiliar number, a ring from my lightly used iPhone 3G prompted me to excuse myself from my desk and sidle over to the break room to see who was on the other end.
“Hi, am I speaking with Tim?”
“Yeah, this is Tim…”
“Hi, Tim, this is Jolene from Spatial Networks. We found your resumé online, are you still looking for design work?”
“Well, I, uhh…wait, I’m sorry, did you say design?”
I’d received numerous similar calls from recruiters asking me if I was looking for a new job. I was. Desperately. But every time, like clockwork, they wanted someone to work in their call center, or someone to go door to door selling buckets of who-knows-what. They didn’t want me, they just needed a thing that was close enough to a human being that it could make phone calls. When Jolene mentioned the word “design” I went from half-listening to fully panicking that the call would somehow disconnect and this opportunity would vanish. At the time I was already working a design job, but nearly every aspect of it was pulverizing my soul, so I wanted out in the worst way. I carefully positioned my fingers and cheek away from the End Call button and continued the conversation.
During the call, Jolene explained what Spatial Networks was, what the job would involve, and oh by the way, if I didn’t want to relocate to the Tampa area, I could work from home.
“Is this something you’d be interested in?”
While trying (poorly) to contain my excitement, I politely affirmed and we set up a phone interview for the next day. The call went well, and after an in-person interview at Spatial Networks HQ the following Monday, I punched my ticket out of career misery and into the unknown.
🎲 Rolling the Dice
“The Unknown” is an appropriate designation for both parties. At the time, aside from a few small client projects, I didn’t have much experience working remotely as a freelancer, let alone for an actual company. And, as I would discover shortly after my first week at SNI, they didn’t have much experience working with remote employees, either. In the years before they gambled on me, there were fewer than a handful of remotes that didn’t work out for various reasons. When they hired me I was the only one, and it remained that way for quite some time.
As with most things, luck plays a huge role in this story. I live about 20 minutes northeast of downtown Orlando. Because HQ was only 2½ hours away in Clearwater, FL, I was a safer bet than someone out of state. Not only could I visit the office more easily and on shorter notice, but there were fewer steps needed from a corporate perspective dealing with out of state procedures for taxes, payroll, benefits, and so on. The experiment was underway.
🤘 Searching…Seek & Employ
One of the fundamental recruiting hurdles for us is finding people with the right combination of talent, skills, attitude, temperament, sense of humor (this counts more than you think), and work ethic. We have exceptional people here and our goal with every new hire is to keep it that way. This made things tough for hiring managers early in my Spatial Networks career, as I sensed the desire to hire only locals to work from HQ, while looking at remote candidates as more of a last resort.
As time wore on, however, necessity came calling and the attitude towards hiring remotes gradually relaxed. With more avenues of talent opening up, we were able to attract some amazing people — a trend that continues to serve us well. Many of our current remotes are absolute linchpins, critical to the success of Spatial Networks and its products. Without the openness and flexibility of our leadership to allow this fundamental shift in hiring philosophy, our growth would stagnate and we’d always be on the back foot.
As of this writing, over ⅓ of our company works remotely. Considering Spatial Networks spent its first 10 years as an on-site only company, this is a remarkable achievement.
⚓️ All Hands on Deck
When it was only me, I enjoyed the remote working lifestyle from my own little island without much fuss. A handful of times per year I’d pop over to HQ for a day or two to get some face-to-face time, meet new hires, and workshop new product features. Sometimes I would simply go into the office because it had been a while and I missed seeing my peeps in the flesh. Though this routine evolved somewhat organically, everyone was conscious of the fact that I was on my own quite a bit and my presence at the office was not only welcomed but highly encouraged. In fact, TQ (our CEO & Founder) always made it a point to mention that it was nice to have me in the office if only for me to remember that I’m not alone out there. This thoughtful gesture was instrumental in helping me avoid the feelings of disconnection and isolation that sometime result from working remotely.
The knowledge gained from those early experiences proved invaluable as our remote numbers grew. Seeing the morale-boosting effects of my visits ensured that bringing everyone into the office periodically was a positive thing for the team and worth the cost of doing so. We began to coordinate HQ visits so everyone was there at the same time to maximize our togetherness quotient. Due to my proximity, I still visited HQ slightly more often than the out-of-staters, but we at least made sure I was there when they were. As we grew, however, we reached a tipping point and the relative informality of our office visit scheduling became untenable. Enter: the SNI Semi-annual All Hands Week.
Ever since we made this an “official” company event a few years ago, the feeling of camaraderie, collaboration, and being a valued part of the team skyrocketed. Every All Hands we have is bigger and better than the last, and we’re growing so much now that these are nearly becoming too big for our office space. That’s a good problem to have, if you ask me, especially when everyone genuinely enjoys working (and playing) with one another.
🤔 There’s Always a Catch
Even with the best support system, company-wide chat, video conferencing, and multiple office visits per year, working remotely still presents unique complexities and challenges.
One major distinction between working in an office with coworkers nearby and working from home with only the pets and dust bunnies is availability. By availability I mean the availability of your attention. At the office, you’re there. People can see you. If people can see you, they can talk to you. And if people can talk to you, they will talk to you. For any task that requires sustained concentration which is, you know, everything, this is less than ideal. You would think, then, that working from home would be a huge advantage by comparison. However, if your friends and family know you work from home, they immediately discard the “work” part from their memory and latch onto the “home” portion. This is a clear “knowing-is-half-the-battle” situation. Had I known to simply lie to those most precious to me for the last 9 years and say I was at the office during work hours, perhaps I could have avoided at least some of the random phone calls, house calls, honey-do requests, appointments, errands, pick-ups, drop-offs, and other such non work-related things people assume I can be doing between the hours of 8:30 and 5:30.
But I’m not bitter.
There’s also a certain level of personal discipline required to succeed as a remote employee. I’m not talking about the bare minimum of actually doing the work you’re supposed to be doing while unsupervised. If you have trouble with that part, let’s just say this might not be your thing. Instead, I’m referring to the concept of leaving work at work. This becomes tougher when your office is your home, so it’s important to make the conscious effort to set your boundaries accordingly. I’m extremely fortunate to work for a company that understands this inherently and doesn’t “punish” its remotes by expecting higher levels of availability.
I neglected to mention something about all that pesky talking people do at HQ: that’s one of the things I miss about working in an office. Even as someone who loves my fair share of quiet moments, there’s no work-from-home replacement for jovial coworker banter. We all genuinely enjoy each other’s company, so as distracting as water cooler talk is at times, it’s a welcome respite from the monotony of routine, and remotes do miss out on that. Slack is pretty decent at capturing some of these moments, but every time I hear a rousing swell of laughter while at HQ, it reminds me that there’s no replacement for the real thing.
🍀 Right Place, Right Time
Occasionally I daydream about how different my life would be if I’d never taken that phone call years ago. 100% of the time, I imagine my situation as worse by varying degrees. Strangely, however, the fact that I get to work from home isn’t one of the factors. The difference between career misery and career euphoria for me was a tiny shred of good fortune, as the planets aligned and allowed me to be part of this team of amazing people. Every morning I wake up excited to make my meager contributions to the meaningful work we do. And sometimes…I even put on pants.