A lot has been said recently about remote work and globally distributed teams being the “future” of business, but the fact is that some people (and some companies) have already been doing it for a long time.
We recently shared tips for handling the transition from an in-house career to an all-remote company like Crazy Egg; today, we’re giving you the longer-term perspective on what living a remote life really means, personally and professionally.
In this interview, Crazy Egg’s Innovations Team lead John Butler shares his experience over 13 years of working remotely, and his insights into what makes a fully distributed company successful.
What’s your workspace like, John? Do you tend to stay in one spot, or move around?
When I’m in Oregon (my home), I work from my home office exclusively. I’m personally not a fan of remote work from cafes or shared workspaces. My home has everything I need to do my best: my computer setup, nourishing food, and most importantly the people I love (my wife and two daughters).
One of the biggest advantages of remote work is the ability to travel and still work. So while I always work from home, my “home” over the last 13 years has been over 20 different countries.
Among others, I’ve worked in:
- A high-rise apartment in Tokyo
- Beach fronts in the British West Indies
- A 12th century stone cottage in the Italian mountains
- An RV in the backwoods of Oregon
- Next to a castle in Poland
- A houseboat in Amsterdam
What is the biggest benefit you derive from working remotely? What would you say the advantages are over a typical office environment?
The biggest advantage of remote work is the ability to create the best working environment for you: from setup, location and schedule.
And that can change daily. I might work morning, or night, or I might take a break to get some exercise. Or maybe my 5-year old daughter asks me to draw baby unicorns with her. So I stop and draw baby unicorns with her.
On some days the most important thing I can due to perform optimally is to take a nap. So, I take a nap. Or maybe I need to shut out all distractions and focus without interruption. That flexibility isn’t available in a typical office environment.
Also, as I mentioned my “home office” has included many amazing places in the world. If I was a typical in-office employee I might be able to enjoy these places for 1-2 weeks at a time, but because of working remotely my family is able to explore those places for 2-3 months at a time.
What are common misconceptions people may have about remote work?
I think people overlook the fact that you still have to work. That part doesn’t change. And in some ways 80% of what you do doesn’t change. For example, when I’m writing code it doesn’t really matter if I’m sitting in an office or sitting at home – the work is the same. What does change is the ability to work in the best way for you.
I also think some people (including skeptical readers of this interview) might think that working remotely is more about play than work. The truth is, working remotely requires more self-discipline, organization, and communication than working in an office.
When you show up from 9 AM to 5 PM every day in an office, people see you working. And in some cases just showing up is enough.When you are working remotely, they only see your results (and results include your attitude, communication ability, organization skills, etc).
Remote workers have to be proactive in ensuring they know the highest priorities, what’s expected of them, and then exceed those expectations. And remote workers have to be self-sufficient enough to solve problems on their own without the support network of immediately available co-workers that an office provides.
Ultimately, for the right people, I believe remote work is a better system for both employee and employer.
How is Crazy Egg different from other remote jobs you’ve held? How is it the same?
The key difference is that Crazy Egg has been a remote-only company since 2005. There has never been a centralized office. In most companies that support remote working there is usually a central office (or offices) with the majority of the workforce or leadership there.
While some might view this as the best of both worlds, I’m of the general belief that compromise typically results in the worst of both worlds. You end up with two working processes: one for in-office workers and one for remote workers. This creates tension between the groups.
Without the physical presence it becomes much more difficult for remote workers to progress in their career versus the group of workers who are in the office every day.
Because Crazy Egg has always been remote (even before it was cool), all employees have the same process. Everyone from tech support to the highest leadership are all remote. There is no conflict because there’s homogeneity. Everyone is so used to remote work that it’s just not a big deal – it’s the norm. This is why it’s barely noticeable if you are suddenly on the other side of the world.
But on the other hand, there are still the challenges of communication typical of multiple timezones and flexible working schedules. Sometimes sending a Slack message seems less like instant messaging over the Internet and more like releasing a homing pigeon.
In your opinion, what characteristics does a company (or its employees) need to possess in order to run a highly functional, globally distributed operation?
There are many successful companies that are globally distributed. However, they often have offices. The all-remote global company is a relatively recent phenomenon, so the guidebooks and standard practices are still in rough draft form.
In my opinion the most important part of any organization are the people. With an all-remote company you’ve suddenly opened your organization up to a vastly larger pool of talent. If you had to build the best soccer team in the world you wouldn’t just limit that to the people who live in your same city.
While access to a global talent pool is a huge plus, I feel all-remote companies need to allow for more time to evaluate new hires. Remote workers are judged by performance, but that takes time.
If I hired a programmer who was working in the same office as me within a week, I’d have all sorts of signals about their performance. They would also be able to get up and running much faster, because anytime they hit a snag they’d have someone immediately available to help them.
With a remote company, after that first week you probably don’t really know. Maybe she’ll turn out to be an ace programmer, or maybe she’s spending all her time hiking.
I believe a successful company has to account for both of those cases and realize that evaluating hires might take some time. That’s why at Crazy Egg, we are big fans of the 30-day paid trial project. It lets everyone really test each other out.
Successful companies focus on more than just results. They focus on the people that get the results.
Even the most introverted amongst us are social creatures in our core. Without the day-to-day presence, casual conversations, lunch breaks, holiday parties, etc. much of that social glue is missing from all-remote companies. Experienced remote workers find ways outside of work to meet their social needs, but I think it’s a mistake for a business to overlook it.
I’m proud that the leadership at Crazy Egg understands that. It’s the difference between having a job, and having something you want to be a part of. It’s why after 13 years I’m still excited to work on making Crazy Egg better.