On Scott Berkun and Working Remotely

remote working

As disappointing as it was to be laid off recently, not working has provided me with a lot more time to read, both here in the blogosphere and offline (those bound-up paper thingies called “books”).  When I was working, it might take me a month or more to get through a book.  But today I did something that I haven’t done in many years:  I read an entire book straight through in a single day.

Some of this reading was accomplished at the kitchen table, some on the living room sofa and some seated on a pew outside the entrance of the church next door, while batting away moths that persisted in landing on my book, on my shirt and in my hair.

The book in question was Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants.  Sure, I was curious about how Matt Mullenweg started Automattic and I was interested in learning a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes of the bloggy world we so love at wordpress.com.  The real reason I picked up this book, however, was to experience Berkun’s take on working remotely, what he refers to as “the future of work.” 

You see, I am considering pursuing an employment opportunity that would be almost entirely online, “working from home.”  And despite the obvious advantages of such an arrangement, I harbor more than a little trepidation.

I am duly impressed by the “distributed” environment in which Automattic’s employees can be (and often are) all over the world, collaborating with the aid of such tools as IRC and Skype.  (IRC?  Seriously?  Is that dinosaur still around?  I’d rather not think about it.  Too many stories of misspent nights on IRC in the not-so-halcyon days of my youth.)  And yet, Berkun points out that something is definitely missing when coworkers type to each other.  It is difficult to gain a full understanding of another’s remarks when such cues as body language and tone of voice are stripped away.

There has to be something exciting about collaborating with colleagues in Europe, Asia and Australia, right?  I would think that the cultural diversity involved, rather than constituting barriers, would contribute depth and breadth to the conversation.  Not to mention that, when working on a product, it is helpful to have firsthand feedback on ways in which the interface and documentation could be interpreted very differently overseas than it is in the United States.

But then there is the fact that Automattic is a “flat” rather than hierarchical organization. It is one thing to provide and receive assistance from colleagues when everyone is on the same level.  It is quite another to have to constantly report to a boss, and to monitor employees, who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

On a personal level, how would I deal with the challenges of working remotely?  Would my work habits fit in with this mode of operation?  Berkun is right on target when he admits that working remotely is not for everyone.  To succeed at remote work, he points out, people must be “masters of their own habits to be productive, whether it’s avoiding distractions, staying disciplined on projects, or even replacing the social life that comes from conventional work with other friendships.”

Bingo!  My chief fear about working remotely is that I am simply not disciplined enough to be successful.

To date, all of my employment has been within established work hours in a traditional brick-and-mortar office environment.  About five years ago, however, I experienced a tiny taste of what it’s like to work remotely, and it did not go well.  My wife was in the hospital for a few days, and rather than using vacation time and absenting myself from my projects entirely, I promised to work online in between running back and forth to the hospital.

Bad decision.

Aside from the obvious distractions (the doctors were trying to figure out whether my wife had fallen victim to the H1N1 virus and my mind was not really on work), I quickly discovered that when I was not at work physically, I was not there mentally either.  Even though I had access to the corporate intranet and was supposed to be working (our crude collaborative efforts consisted of instant messaging), I found myself drawn to such other occupations as:

  • Sleeping
  • Playing turns in my ongoing email Scrabble tournament
  • Reading blogs
  • Messing around on Facebook
  • Did I mention sleeping?

After four days of this, my wife was back at home, I was back at work, and I breathed a sigh of relief on both counts.

Berkun posits that some folks need to have that barrier between their home life and their work life, and for them, a traditional work environment is more suitable than working remotely.  My wife, however, says that I just need to buck up and learn some self-discipline.  She may be right.  Perhaps I could do this if I just set my mind to it.

Think of how practical this would be if I could pull it off.  We now live in a small town in northern California, surrounded by family, and with expenses a heck of a lot lower than they would be down the road in Silicon Valley or San Francisco.  I could be working right now, in the middle of the night, on a laptop dangling off a TV tray, sitting in our living room listening to Steely Dan over headphones.  Or sitting in Starbucks with a soy latte.  Or out in the fresh air on the church pew next door, batting the moths away.  And who knows?  Maybe we’d finally be able to fulfill our dreams of living part of the year by the ocean in Pismo Beach.

This working remotely thing is starting to sound better and better.

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2 thoughts on “On Scott Berkun and Working Remotely

  1. Pingback: Ars Gratia Artis | A Map of California

  2. Thanks for writing about the book.

    A key part of making the teams function remotely were the occasional meetups that we had. Meeting people in person helped establish some of the intangible elements of camaraderie.

    There’s also the fact that the culture is very collaborative, so from your first day you find the chat rooms and meet friendly, helpful people, all of which shifts how you feel about your own work and how much support you have, even if you’re not in the same building (or country).

    But at least at Automattic, remote work works because they hire people who really like to do whatever it is they do. That helps people overcome some of the early hurdles in learning to work in your own physical space.

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