working as a remote employee

What Working as an Remote Employee is Really Like

Up to this point in my career, I have been an office worker. My work life has been about commuting by car to uninspiring office buildings year after year. Although I never had traditional 9 to 5 jobs, the mindset in the companies I have worked for (even the ones I founded myself) was that work is done in an office by employees. In some cases, flexibility and opportunities to work from home were offered. But, working in one physical environment with fellow employees was considered to be the norm. Everything changed as I started my new life as a remote worker at Squads. There was no other choice since Squads has no employees and no offices. At Squads, people work in small, stable teams of freelance designers, developers, and growth hackers. Even our administrative operations is working as a distributed team. The work is 100% digital, so as long as we have a good Internet connection we can work from anywhere. People at Squads work from home, during travels around the Globe (these species are called digital nomads), and at co-working spaces. It has been an interesting experiment and experience so far for me coming from a traditional work environment. In this post, I want to share some of the things I learned in my first year as a remote worker.

Shift your Mindset

As with all behavioral change you need some time to adapt and change your routines. In the beginning, it was hard for me. Although I worked from home more and more in the past, working primarily from home is a different thing. I felt not connected and sometimes even lost without an office and direct contact with colleagues. Although I got more work done than ever before it didn’t feel very rewarding. After a while, I got used to the flexibility and found my new balance. Now at least twice a week I start the day with some fitness or swimming. Then I do my first block of computer work. I break for lunch or do some shopping. Then I start the second block. And after diner, I continue to do some work in a third block, since my productivity in the evenings is good (I am not an early bird). I discovered that I need to switch off the notebook at 10 pm at the latest to get enough time to clear my mind and sleep well. Also, at least one day a week I work at a co-working space with some face-to-face meetings. This gives me the feeling that I am not a lone ranger, allows me to meet interesting people, and keep my pulse on the Startup scene.

More Hours in a Day

My experience is that I simply have more time to do my job due to the fact that I have to commute less. Since I live in the countryside I used to travel between 2 and 6 hours per day to the office and client locations. In my various jobs, I jumped into my leased car in a shiny suit to go everywhere. Year after year I was driving at least 60,000 kilometers. At an average driving speed of 80 km/hour that is 750 hours in the car every year. I used to encounter some traffic jams every day, so the 80 km/hour might even be estimated too high. What if I could use those 750 hours for work/earning money. At a rate of 150 euro per hour that brings in over 100K euro per year. But, I could also have used the time for learning, sports or just being with my kids. Now I commute less and do it more efficiently. Many of my meetings are (video) calls via Skype or Google Hangouts. I use public transportation now for most of my trips. A first-class train ticket turns the train into a great workplace with WiFi and good coffee. This gives me dramatically more time in a day to do work. But, I also have time now to do sports, help out with my kid’s school work, and serve as a soccer trainer. So the results for me are better productivity and better work-life balance.

Culture and Community

It’s almost a year now that I have worked as a part of Squads. I have come to believe in our model with no office and no employees. We are resource-light and able to grow exponentially as we don’t have to worry about office space or purchasing office equipment. Around 70% of my colleagues at Squads I have never met in person. 25% I only met once or twice. The remaining 5% I have seen the most often during the year. Still, I find it inspiring that we have been able to develop a strong culture and sense of community. I have found our keys to success are common goals, pairing sessions, distributing our workload, communicating, and sharing (not only work-related but also fun stuff). And with one or two Get-Togethers per year, we experienced memorable bonding moments. For instance, we had a “Get-Together” in Croatia in 2015 where I met some members of our team. We have a strong community of 40+ people now and I am very interested to see how it evolves as we get bigger. At a certain size, it might become more difficult to retain this sense of culture and community. But, there are already some ideas on creating multiple tribes consisting of squads of 4 to 7 people. We’ll take on that scaling challenge as it comes.

Improved Transparency

One of the things I find very nice about remote work is improved transparency. In former companies, I had colleagues sitting 10 feet apart that didn’t know what the other was working on. In Squads, it’s all transparent. In Slack, Trello, Github and Google you can automatically see what others are working on. This makes communication and cooperation so much easier. You simply reach out online to pair or discuss some things around a certain project or client. Also, you don’t have to miss out on meetings anymore. When you can’t make something important you can just review the recording. We have our most important meetings and demo’s recorded in Skype or Hangouts. If you are not able to attend a meeting, you can always review the recordings. The nice thing is that you can use fast forward, a functionality I would have loved to have at some of my onsite meetings ;-).

Tools & Equipment

From what I have said so far you probably already understand that software tools and hardware equipment are critical for remote work. At Squads, you must be comfortable with using software tools like Skype, Google Docs & Drive, Slack, Trello, Github, and Pipedrive. I can’t imagine my work life without some of these tools. I will cover the software side of things in the next post on our blog. For now, let me go over some of my gear for remote working:
  • ICT equipment: I have invested in my ICT equipment since this is key to a comfortable life as remote worker. At my home office, I have a 21” iMac that is a pleasure to work on. For my digital nomadism, I use a 13” Macbook Pro with a retina screen. It’s robust yet very portable. Both have the same software and documents available through Dropbox & Google Drive. My iPhone 6 is critical for communication. I even take some of my online meetings on it when I am traveling. Also, when I don’t have a WiFi connection the 4G on the mobile works well as an alternative.
  • Headset: for online meetings and calls I have a headset with a microphone. This makes the calls a much better experience for me and for the people I meet with. Don’t be too cheap on this purchase or your calls will suffer. Get the good stuff from companies like Sennheiser.
  • Lighting: When you meet via video it is nice to have good lighting. Good lighting makes a first online video call almost like meeting in person. You can find some tips here.
  • eReader: I have all the business books I want to read on my Sony e-reader. When traveling it is an excellent companion for the time I don’t actually work.
  • Moleskine: although I am very digital, I also like to take pen to paper sometimes. The Moleskine notebooks are excellent for writing when you are ‘on the road’. They allow me to organize my thoughts and capture the essentials of meetings.
  • Power Bank battery charger: I have been in situations with low battery on my iPhone and one critical call about to take place. To prevent me from connecting my device to power sockets in very strange places, I bought a Power Bank. Now I always have a recharging opportunity in my backpack.
  • Backpack: you might already have a way to carry all this stuff. I invested in an expensive backpack which has become one of my best purchases ever. My SwissGear backpack is just like the Swiss army knife and has a place for everything the remote worker needs.

What’s Next

As 2015 comes to an end I look back on a great first year as a remote worker. I experienced many of the good things described in the book ‘Remote: Office Not Required’. The increased productivity and better work-life balance are key to me, but I also love the way we have been able to create such a fabulous community. Next, I will try a bit more of digital nomadism and also dive into the digital nomad community. With a family at home, it is not always easy to be away, but I love to explore the World. Next year I want to spend some time in the USA, Austria, Scotland, Italy, and Bali. I will start to collect my experiences on the TravelSquad blog. Maybe some other Squads members will join me, you never know. Hopefully, I will be able to find the right balance of digital nomadism next year. In the meantime, I will keep on improving my remote lifestyle. So, please share your tips with me and I will continue to do the same. Have a Merry ‘onsite’ Christmas and a Happy ‘remote’ New Year! Check out more remote working tips on our blog Start working with a remote development team.