The one about my experience working remotely
In this article I'd like to talk about my personal experience with remote work and how my opinion on the matter has been changing (or evolving) considerably since I started working as a software developer back in 2009. I consider that there are three clearly differentiated stages in this process and have the feeling that many other people will have gone through a very similar process.
Let's start from the beginning.
In those early years I don't think I was even aware of the existence of remote work. At that time I only wanted to learn as much as possible next to my mentor, Eddy.
A few years later, around 2012, I started looking for a new job, but I honestly only considered in-office jobs in Gran Canaria, where I was born and raised. At that time I wasn't thinking about a possible relocation either.
I used to live relatively far from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the island's capital, where all the action usually is, both for studying and working, so I was already used to long commute times. I really hated that part, to be honest.
During that summer, I started working on a new project for a product that was starting from scratch and for around a whole year I went to the office every day. Eventually, I stayed on as the sole developer on that project and with the complete trust of the CTO, I started a hybrid work model, working 2-3 days from home every week. Overall I'd say the experience was good during that second year in the company, because I was avoiding commuting every day, saved me some amount of money, and I was able to eat better; but I felt I had too many distractions at home.
Around the same time, my mentor started working remotely for a Swiss company. I remember him telling me very positive things about that job, but honestly what I envied the most was the salary, as it was much higher than the usual with any company in the Canary Islands. However, I felt it was something I wasn't eligible for mainly due to my poor English.
Going fast forward a few years, I moved to Madrid in the summer of 2016, after a couple of more in-office jobs in Gran Canaria. One of the main reasons for choosing that city was that I wanted to have access to better job offers. Shortly after arriving I got yet another in-office job at Neural.ONE with a daily commute of one and a half hour, and I stayed in that company for 3 years.
Also one of my best friends started working for a German company, also from Gran Canaria. His salary was quite higher than mine, with better perks and all while living in a place where everything was more affordable. Even then I was still reluctant to remote work because I only considered remote work for foreign companies. My English level had improved but I felt it wasn't good enough.
I highly valued spending time in the office with my teammates, where there was a very good atmosphere and I wanted to have something similar in whatever came next, although there were things that for sure could be improved, especially certain interruptions that prevented me from focusing on what I was doing. The way I see it, one of the most common problems of in-office jobs.
After my time at that company ended, in March 2020 I got a new in-office job at Instapack. Little did I know that my life and that of the rest of humanity would change forever just one week later.
During the pandemic
Disclaimer: I'll only talk about events from the year 2020 in this section.
The pandemic precipitated the remote revolution, the so-called "Great Remote Work Experiment". Lots of companies had to shift to remote work and many of them weren't ready.
In my case, I had only been working at Instapack for a week when I was notified not to return to the office due to the overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases detected in the previous days.
Only a couple of days later, the lockdown began in Spain and was gradually extended to the rest of the world.
And just like that, I got my first real experience with remote work. Definitely not under the best circumstances.
The team consisted of 3 people:
- CTO and product owner.
- Technical advisor and DevOps engineer.
- Full stack developer (just me).
The communication was mostly asynchronous with the technical advisor, as he lived in Canada and was actually working as a developer for another company. Either way, he reviewed every pull request I made, attended all the weekly meetings where we would discuss progress, and answered any technical questions I might have.
The communication was mostly synchronous with the CTO, especially if I had any doubt related to the domain, as she was nearly always available.
I can say that I got all the help I needed, but I still remember feeling alone at times. The project was starting from scratch and I had no one working on the code next to me. I already knew what it was like to work alone on a project, but I definitely prefer to work as part of a team.
There are a few ideas extracted from Remote book that express what I felt those days even better than I could do it:
In reality, it's overwork, not underwork, that's the real enemy in a successful remote-working environment.
Working at home and living there means there's less delineation between the two parts of your life. you'll have all your files and all your equipment right at hand, so if you come up with an idea at 9pm, you can keep plowing through, even if you already put in more than adequate hours from 7am to 3pm.
If work is all-consuming, the worker is far more likely to burn out.
The best workers over the long term are people who put in sustainable hours.
Make sure that real work only happens when you're in your dedicated home office. No checking work email or just getting a little more done in the living room or your bedroom.
The gray line between work and play can be hard to see on the best of days, but almost impossible when you use the same computer for both.
I became a workaholic during the first couple of months, at least until we were allowed to go outside again for a couple of hours every afternoon.
Once the lockdown was over, I began to disengage from work more easily and, against all odds, I started enjoying remote work.
If you think about it, it was pretty intense for a first real experience working remotely. It was something I wasn't looking for, most of the time I had to communicate asynchronously without being used to that way of working, and on top of that, I couldn't leave my apartment to clear my head or do some exercise for months.
A post-pandemic world
By the end of 2020 I went fully remote when I started working at Domestika, that has been a fully remote-first company from its beginnings.
In the engineering team, we should try to have 4 hours (from 10am to 2pm) in the work day that overlap to allow for synchronous communication. In practice, most of us were available most of the day because everybody was based in Spain. Anyway, we had a lot of flexibility when it came to organizing our working day if needed.
We used to work following an agile approach, Scrum-like, and with each ceremony we expected to keep the team aligned.
A daily stand up every morning at 10am was aimed to build accountability and trust in the team. We used to dedicate 10-15min to talk about different stuff and make some jokes. After that, we would check the tasks present in our product backlog.
At the end of every sprint, we would dedicate some time to the sprint retrospective to talk about what had worked during the sprint, what could have worked better and what definitely hadn't work as we would expect.
Besides, in the team we built opportunities to get together remotely with informal video calls to "have a coffee" together and had off-topic channels on Slack for almost anything you could think of.
We also regularly held online meetings called donuts with random people in the company, so we could get to know colleagues from different teams and talk about anything but work.
Domestika used to hold company-wide in-person meetups once or twice a year before the pandemic, but they never organized a single one during my 3 years in the company.
The only time I met my teammates during that time was at the end of 2022, when we organized a meetup in Galicia for a few days. Other than that, I only went to the office in Madrid twice because some colleages from Barcelona were visiting the city. I met a lot of people I had been working with for years and it was very nice.
No one on my team used to go the office anyway and I'd have had a daily commute of one and a half hour. So why bother?
Regarding the communication within the team we tried to be extra careful in the language that we chose to use, specially when asynchronous communication came into play. We tried to level up our communication skills.
We used asynchronous channels, such as GitHub/GitLab, Notion or Slack, for all project-related communication. For instance, I tried to be verbose with the rest of the team in Slack, communicating any relevant progress in the task at hand.
Those channels usually were public, letting everyone see them. That way it was easier to see what other folks were up to and jump in to help on a good occasion.
A detail to bear in mind is that team members should be conscious that asynchronous communication means that sometimes the other person is not immediately available to respond, and not expect them to.
On the other hand, synchronous communication such as a video call can be a great way to have some face-to-face time with the team, dedicate some time to pair programming, make the refinement of a task or might be the fastest way to diagnose a technical issue.
Although synchronous communication can make it harder to keep track of all the conversations that are happening at a given moment, creating stress around the fear of missing out, and leaving little time for focused work.
For that reason, it's really import to reflect online convesations offline with the outcome and the reason behind any decision made in a ticket, documentation, or other place where it can be easily recalled later.
I'd like to list next what I consider are some potential benefits and drawbacks of remote work.
- Better work-life balance.
- No commuting, saving time and money.
- More home-cooked meals, especially without reheating.
- Feel like exercising more regularly.
- Take a break away from work whenever needed.
- Easier to stay focused (childless/single person).
- Ability to apply for jobs anywhere in the world from home.
- No afterwork with the team.*
- Workaholism risk.
- Burn out risk.
- Feeling alone or isolated risk.
- More difficulty to disengage from work.
- More distractions with family.
- Require people to work differently, so there is a learning curve.
- No afterwork with the team.*
* Arguably it could be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the person.
In short, I can say that nowadays I'd accept only a fully-remote full-time job with flexible schedule, preferably working with a team with at least a 4-hour time overlap with the UTC time zone.
I guess you can have flexible schedule working in-office/in-person as well, but that's something that has never happened to me.
I'd appreciate the possibility of going to the office whenever I feel like it, either in the same city, in another city or even in another country.
Working in an office is a perfectly legitimate way of working but it's just not my preferred way of working anymore.
I'm not interested in a mandated hybrid work model either.
However, I could agree to go to the office for a short period of time upon starting a new position, to get to know the rest of the team. Assuming the rest of the team is in the office during that time, of course.
At some point, I'd like to be a digital nomad at least part of the year and take full advantage of the perks of being a remote worker.
Thriving remotely requires to understand what makes you feel more productive, connected and able to maintain that way of working indefinitely. It requires introspection, and it requires you to also be able to force upon yourself habits and routines that, like exercise, will strengthen you in the long run.
Thank you for reading and see you in the next one!