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Remote Work: What's Hard, What's Great, and How to Stay Connected

More and more companies are embracing remote working. For those who are considering it or have just made the leap, there are a lot of resources to learn from, such as the Zapier's Guide to Remote Work.

Here are some of the pros and cons we've discovered in our seven years of being a mostly remote company.

Working from Home Is Hard

We truly love being a remote team. ❤️ But before focusing on the good stuff, I'll warn you: it's not all sunshine and rainbows. And not everyone is cut out for remote work.

We have been a distributed team since 2009; long enough to uncover many problems we face while working from home.

peldi-before-balsamiqActually, we were remote before we even existed! Here is Peldi working on the foundation of the Balsamiq Mockups codebase in Mexico, back in 2007

You'll Get Easily Distracted

Believe it or not, not having colleagues or a boss within earshot and sight of your desk can impact your productivity. For many of us, the hardest thing is staying focused and avoiding the "black holes" of social media, YouTube, online articles, etc.

Moreover, distractions can come at you from different directions. It may be difficult to focus with your family around, because they might think that you are 'free' from work. This is particularly true for those of us who live within commuting distance from Bologna, where we alternate days in the office and days at home. It can be tough for your family to adapt to this non-traditional way of working, and when you're working from home, they may assume you're available or at least not so busy.

Still, you have to work and get things done!

Your Work-Life Balance May NOT Turn out the Way You Think

So there is no external force (like an office routine) to help you stay focused. The flip side is that when the work day is done, it is harder to log off and stop working when you work at home, since your work and home environments are the same. This can impact your family life.

This is much more difficult for those who have trouble managing their time. You'll need a lot of self-discipline to balance work and family time, to keep "work" and "home" environments apart.

You'll Be Lonely

Working remotely can be very hard if you are a people person.

Val, for example, is probably the most social and friendly person at Balsamiq (if you've ever met Val or talked to her, you know what I mean). During her first few years, she struggled with loneliness. She placed too much emphasis on creating friendships with remote colleagues. She set herself up for disappointment. But, with time, she developed a perspective on her boundaries.

Things aren't that easy for introverts either. They like being alone and rarely get lonely, but sometimes they too miss the small talk with colleagues at lunchtime. And nobody likes eating lunch alone.

eating-lunch-aloneWednesday 26 October 2016, Bologna office: Paolo's lunch. Even at our Bologna office we happen to have lunch alone!

And, it can get worse! You might see your social skills degrade if you go too long without leaving the house. Like Stefano said, "Some days I only get out of the house to throw away the trash."

Teamwork Will Be Affected

Working with your colleagues can be a real challenge.

When we talk about remote working we tend to focus on what happens to individuals, on the pros and cons for their life. The truth is that working with people in a far away time zone can be slow and frustrating. Working on the same project far apart is much more difficult than doing it sitting next to each other.

In fact, the greatest challenge in Balsamiq is not remote work, but working in different time zones, as the two things don't have to go together. There are some benefits that come from working asynchronously, but we are challenged with a very minimal overlap between the US and European teams for real-time conversations.

Working from Home Is Awesome

OK, we've scared you enough. 😁 It's time to talk about the benefits!

You'll Be Free - in Many Ways

As Peldi said, "The ability to work from anywhere is something I will never want to give up."

working-from-the-hotelThere's nothing weird about working from a hotel, while waiting for your flight

You'll be able to organize your time at will. You can work from a waiting room while they're changing your tires or from the gym where your son is training.

You can wear comfy clothes. 😉 By the way, we are always looking for the perfect outfit for “office-less” workers: comfy but not too pajama-y. (Any suggestions?)

virgin-remote-workingVirgin's summer office in Biscarrosse (France)

Last but not least, working remotely allows you a great deal of freedom to pick where to live.

leidenRemote working with a view. Stefano and his family moved from Italy to Leiden, Netherlands

No More Commuting!

Stuck in traffic or on the bus with seemingly the entire city going to their offices? Not anymore!

Besides the fact that you'll be more gentle to the earth due to a smaller carbon footprint, working from home leaves you time to enjoy your hobbies and take care of the house. For example, Natalie puts that extra time into caring for her little farm, and to approach life in a slower, more present way.

sunset-farmLovely sunrise from Natalie's farm in California...

love-cucumber...and the lovely products of her land!

Shorter commuting also means it's easier to keep in touch with your family. Agnese, who lives across the yard from her grandparents, can check on them if no one else is at home.

At Balsamiq, those of us who decide to commute (because we live near the Bologna office) are free to choose off-peak traffic times or take a nice walk or bike ride to make the travel more pleasant.

Your Work-Life Balance May Be Better Than You Think

As Val said, "I have been remote since 2009 and love it. I'm completely in charge of my daily schedule, allowing me to fit in personal commitments and professional deadlines. I've kept my gym schedule, regularly spend time with my kids after school, and have been able to adopt a couple of dogs who keep me company during the quiet hours." What more could you ask for? 😄

cousteauPets like Cousteau, Natalie's cat, can ease loneliness

agnese-catAnd you can take care of your little friends while working! (If they let you use your computer, unlike Agnese's cat...)

You can organize your time and day, and be close to your family and small children. "They feel that I'm 'always there', and that's priceless." (Stefano)

You Are Responsible for Yourself

You won't feel like you have to "look busy" all the time, which can actually raise your productivity. But this benefit could sound bittersweet to some; it's certainly not for everyone.

The bright side is that you can do whatever makes you feel more productive, even if that's just staring out the window or taking a break to do the dishes.

Jess, for example, starts working early in the morning. She feels more energized, focused, and it's better for her family in general. "Those free hours I get in the evening are the best to share with the kids. You can work some more later, if necessary. But the heavy lifting will be done by then."

Tricks We Use to Work Better from Home

Here are some tips and tricks from your friends at Balsamiq on how to work from home without going insane or becoming an anti-social zombie:

  • Make the bed before you start working. More points if it's the first thing you do in the morning. You've already accomplished the first task of the day! Well begun is half done 🙂
  • Make sure you have a dedicated space that you (and the rest of your family) can call "the office", away from distractions. That door is what defines the boundary between being "at work" and being "at home". (You can't use the couch.) (Ok, only sometimes...)
  • Keep your desk as free from stuff as possible.

leon-deskLeon's desk (Richmond, CA)

  • Tell your family to act 'as if' you were somewhere else and that you will act accordingly (e.g. not even answering the door bell).
  • Turn off as many notifications as possible on your phone. When it's time to get real work done, quit HipChat / Slack / Basecamp / email / etc., put headphones on, and knock the project out of the park!
  • Take a lot more time away from your computer than you think you should. You think better when you're not staring at a screen.

Advice for Remote Workers

I asked my colleagues what's advice they would give to someone who was just starting to work from home.

Here are their answers:

  • Make sure you include some group social activities in your life: yoga, Zumba, lunch with friends. Humans are social animals!
  • Know how much willpower you have, because you'll need all of it! Monday is still the first day of the week and you will be all alone, nobody will help you get the day going. You will have to keep yourself in check. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not.
  • Work out a schedule and stick to it. Build a habit and be strong when, sometime between the first and second year, you'll feel alone. You'll get over it.
  • Trying to keep work contained can be a challenge when you don't have an office to leave at the end of the day. To do that, keep quite a lot of structure in your work hours and keep your work time focused. At the end of the work day you'll feel content with your productivity, and very easily you'll leave the office behind you (even though it is right there in your living room 😁), by shutting down all the work tools you use.
  • Keep a good to-do list going, because obviously there are times when you're not inspired during your work day to move on to some big or unpleasant project. Keeping a list of articles or videos your colleagues have suggested to read will help you break up your day, but still feel productive and happy at the end of it.
  • Be kind to yourself, especially when you've had an unproductive day. It's easy to forget how much time you used to spend commuting and talking around the water cooler. Don't expect to be productive for 8 hours straight just because you're working at home.
  • Working from home is not your only option. Go to a co-working space or a coffee shop or a library. You don't have to be alone!

stefano-coffee-shopAn old-fashion coffee shop, Stefano's temporary office

What We Do as a Company To Stay Connected as a Team

  • At Balsamiq we are optimized for working remotely. This is true even for those who live in Bologna, where we have our office. No one goes to the office five (or even four) days in a week, and that's fine. Super fine, in fact!
  • Communication is crucial for a remote team. We've spent quite some time looking for the best toolset for our team, because we have to rely on it. We currently use Atlassian Confluence for the internal wiki while HipChat is our little digital office space, but we've recently tested other tools, such as Workplace by Facebook, Slack, Basecamp, with more to come.
  • We get together once a year for a week for the annual Company Retreat. The main goals are to strengthen the bonds between the Balsamici, make shared memories and recharge our emotional batteries. And we always have a ton of fun!
  • We also have mini retreats, because sometimes it's more efficient to get a few key people in a room together for a period of time. We could do some much faster training, or attack a tough project together, or couple it with a conference and learn more about a new technology together.
  • We have a budget for Get Togethers. There might be times when we feel the need to spend some in-person time with some colleagues. Not for any particular project, but just to bond and avoid the loneliness that happens when working from home for months at a time. The budget varies depending on the employee's location.
  • We recently set up a software tool called Know Your Company, which helps you uncover insights into your company that you didn't know before. The tool sends us an interesting email twice a week. Questions can be very profound ("Have you ever felt like doing the right thing for a customer would be seen as doing the wrong thing for the business?" or "Do you think the company is the right size?" or "Have you ever been afraid to suggest an idea at work because you thought someone might shoot it down?") or about lighter topics ("Got a favorite recipe to share?" or "Have you ever met anyone famous?"). Answering is always optional. Know Your Company shares the answers with everyone at Balsamiq or just with our CEO, if we prefer. Every week we find out something new about our colleagues and uncover topics we could (or even should) discuss. So far we love it!
  • Another thing we've recently started is "Friday funtimes", which are 30-minute casual meetings with 4 or 5 randomly-selected Balsamici, to freely talk about whatever we want! It's a new way to foster communication and feel connected (smile) (this is an idea stolen from Trello's CEO Michael Pryor.)

Want to Learn More about Remote Working at Balsamiq?

I hope you'll find this useful!

If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave us a comment.

Francesca for the Balsamiq Team

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Comments (2)

  1. You can easily make remote working work by using tools like webex, R-HUB web video conferencing servers, gotomeeting etc. They help in easy conduct of online meetings, remote meetings management, web conferences, online meetings etc.

    Prasanta Shee
  2. Definitely well thought out. I enjoyed the wonderful balance of the pros and cons of remote work. I’ve been working from home for so long now, that I don’t think I could go back into a traditional office…..let’s just say the pro completely outweigh any cons.

    Plus, winter in Wisconsin makes remote work that much better. I don’t have worry about commuting in ice and snow…..or even worse, the car not start in the morning.

    Theresa Ferries