Remote Work Like You're Remote

A few weeks ago Heroku hosted a large on-site event for many of its employees - this is a fairly unique event for those of us with the proud title of Herokai. Heroku is a subsidiary of Salesforce; while Salesforce employees mostly work in physical offices, Heroku is unique in that ~65% of our employees work remotely. These on-sites happen at best a few times a year, and it's a special opportunity to meet folks in-person and enjoy each other's company.

One evening on this off-site I was chumming it up with a few of the folks on the Heroku Support team - we were enjoying a session of anecdotes about home ownership fails. The conversation progressed, and one of my team mates ended up sharing that he is often pulled away from work when his young daughter sneaks into his office and demands that he praise her for whatever small trinket she had discovered. I pondered this for a moment, and then blurted out, "I'm pretty proud to work for a company that lets us focus on being good parents."

It's no secret that remote work is becoming more prevalent in the workplace - that certainly varies by industry, but from a macro view it is a visible trend. I personally have worked remotely for about half of my 10-year career, and have enjoyed seeing the ecosystem of remote work mature. One of the common themes I've seen as more guides and content come out around how to work remotely is a desire to act like you are working from the office, even if you aren't. This isn't a surprising trend, especially for companies that are transitioning from physical offices to remote. There is a legitimate worry that freshly-minted remote employees will drop in productivity. Whole products have been created to try to bridge the gap between remote workers and traditional offices. New remote employees are often urged to get a dedicated office or coworking space so that they can seclude themselves from the distractions of home during work hours. Remote employees are asked to work 9-5, be available for 9am stand-ups, or join the company all-hands regardless of their timezone. These things all come from a fairly simple, and accurate, fact: Working remotely is incompatible with the way people work in physical offices..

But here's the rub: if we're locking ourselves in our basement offices for 8 hours, praying that the kids stay quiet, and hooking ourselves up to constant video chats... are we really enjoying the benefits of working remotely? Or did we accidentally trade a snack-stocked and spontaneously-collaborative office for a dank spare bedroom and a massive pile of guilt? How did we convince ourselves that remote work is better, when mostly we just feel bad for being too distracted to work and too distracted to be "at home"?

Shortly after starting my job at Heroku, a few things happened that helped me resolve this anxiety. Most immediately, I noticed that my manager often... wasn't there. I mean, of course he was available if I needed him, but often times I checked his Slack profile and it said he was away. He'd return 20 minutes later and unashamedly post a picture of himself mowing his lawn on a beautiful day, or take a meeting while his kids played at the beach, or talk about the date he just took with his wife. It was clear that my boss was ducking out a few times every day to just go do regular life things. This was a powerful realization - I didn't have to lock myself in my office for 8 hours straight every day. I could help my wife carry in the groceries, or work from the playplace with my kids, or just sit on the couch and tickle my son while I answered support tickets. I could be a dad, a husband, and a Platform Support Engineer - not just one at a time.

A few months into the job I also had a water-themed basement disaster. My boss was gracious enough to let me rebuild the basement in the mornings and work afternoons & evenings (this was my idea, and he supported me). During this time I learned that I actually was more productive working in the evenings after having a nice dinner with the family. Whether it's a physical thing or a mental thing, I'm more focused in the evenings and sustain productivity longer if I have a few hour break in the middle of the day. Being released from the office norms allowed me to realize this about myself. I've persisted this schedule a few times per week even after the basement was finished. Now I spend my mornings taking the kids to the zoo, or dating my wife, or trying to keep up with the pains of home ownership. I feel healthier because of it, and I remain more productive - I'm not guilty at work or at home.

Remote work is fundamentally about flexibility, and I think most companies understand that. Before that flexibility can be realized, though, teams need to be built upon a foundation of trust. Every company is different - some people clock in and clock out, some have clients that only work certain hours, others have users that need help available immediately. The realities of your business can't be ignored - some daily routines might really be necessary. The important bit, and what I believe is necessary for remote companies to be successful, is that people are trusted to respect both their personal needs and the needs of the company. Flexibility is not incompatible with demanding customers; it bears the same productivity benefits regardless, but it only works if there is mutual trust between managers and employees that everyone will find a way to effectively do their job in a personally healthy way.

For some folks, healthy effective work might be done in a dedicated space from 9-5. For other folks (many, I'd guess), their day shoud look different and probably a bit less structured. We make a grievous mistake when we steal the flexibility out of remote work, and replace it with an arbitrary structure that might be more traditional. Remote employees flourish when they're trusted and encouraged to know themselves better, and format their work/life based on their personal situation. It's important, especially if you're transitioning to remote work, to take a step back from your day-to-day practices. Take time to examine which of those practices are actually encouraging good health, and which of them are constructs that just make you appear productive.

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