Have laptop, will travel

Working from home sounds like the best thing since double roll TP to most folks. Commuting in your slippers? Slashing your clothing budget? Clipping your fingernails at your desk? Most people say they would sign up in a heartbeat.

And then there are the digital nomads - those dashing, dare I say sexy, technologists who wander the globe whilst collecting a steady paycheck. There’s even a fledgling dating site for digital nomads so you can find a fellow footloose travel companion.

NomadList even dishes up internet speed, cost of living, climate, and local attractions for locations around the world so you can shop for your next perch. Like I said, sexy.

I’ve worked remotely for the last year. On the engineering team at Olo, 22 out of our 40-odd engineers are remote. We use slack, google hangouts, zoom, screenhero, and sococo for meetings and collaborative work. We have WFH chats and monthly hangouts to share our home office setups and get to know each other. Even so, my remote work experience more closely resembles that of Benjamin Pollack in this blog post before he joined a co-working space. My work is challenging and engaging, my team members are awesome, and my paycheck is healthy. My mind? I’m starting to wonder about it.

A single place

My friend and SO James astutely observed that I am missing some of my places, referring to Ray Oldenburg’s places. For most people, their first place is home, their second place is work, and their third place is community. Working from home means my first and second place are the same, and due to my own social laziness, my third place is non-existent.

My connections

Much like Mr. Pollack, I moved to a new neighborhood and don’t have local social connections. More bluntly, I have zero friends in Denver. The reasons for that have varied over time, but the result is zero friends. Friendships and work relationships were effortless when I had over 20 years of history in a place. Starting over in Colorado, in a relatively new romantic relationsip with an avowed sociopath, has been challenging.

As for work relationships, Olo engineers are smart, dedicated, and very talented, but the nature of my interactions with them are completely different than they would be IRL. The context is always work. I don’t join them for team lunches, pass them on my way to the gym, or grab a beer with them afer work. I don’t see their family pictures on their desk, or know that their OOO setting is because their kid is in the hospital. The casual, daily contact that builds connection is absent.

My work

The ambient information that swirls around a co-located team is dead air on a remote team. The murmured questions, the quick huddle with the PO that changes the direction of a story, the coffee machine chat about the latest support ticket…the casually acquired information that enriches and informs my testing is missing. I have to work harder to get that information when I am remote - scanning slack channels, getting notifications for document changes, asking ‘stupid’ questions, attaching screenshots, videos, etc. to demonstrate behavior, etc. I think I am still an effective tester, but my methods feel very tool-centric rather than people-centric. I feel much less agile.

Influence and opinion

On a co-located team, there are infinite opportunities to listen to others, share information effortlessly, express unsolicited but hopefully welcome opinions, ask for quick feedback or confirmation of a weird behavior, or advocate for your pet process improvement. Meetings are informal and engaging. There’s a natural ebb and flow, except when you have that one team member who likes the sound of their own voice a bit too much. Even so, the team learns to subtly signal when they have reached the end of the runway and it’s time to move on.

In virtual meetings, the lack of visible body language makes it difficult for a polite southerner to know when it’s her turn to speak, so I often miss out on asking questions or offering bad puns (there’s no such thing).
Advocating practices like pairing ends up feeling empty, because even if I pair with someone, the positive dynamics of pairing aren’t visible to the rest of the team, so there’s no incentive for them to try it.

Remote teaming is different. Not bad. Just different.

Co-working

In 2017, I am resolved to try co-working. Sociologists suggest that co-working may not be a satisfying third place, since working adjacent to people without a unifying goal is different that true co-working. Dedicated co-working spaces, such as WeWork and ImpactHub try to bridge the gap by offering programs and meetups in addition to desk space. I’m visiting both WeWork and ImpactHub this week.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

As always, thanks for reading and sharing.