Remote Working: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Last week brought us yet another piece of research on the personality traits needed to be a home worker.

The article in question was published in the journal Computers and Human Behavior and written by Thomas O’Neill from the University of Calgary. The conclusions (here reported in inc. by Laura Montini) offer nothing “earth shattering” however…

One unexpected finding, the researchers said, was that people who indicated that they have neurotic tendencies actually work well remotely. O’Neill had predicted this group of people would have trouble concentrating, but that wasn’t the case.

This got me thinking about the ‘bad’ idiosyncrasies that I now demonstrate after 7 years of remote working. Some are an intrinsic part of my nature, but others I’m sure have developed over time.

A quiet cat

My cat being quiet

The Good

Before I go in to these I wanted to group the characteristics mentioned time and time again when it comes to remote working.

There are all those characteristics that you need to get the job done without someone looking over your shoulder: Focused, not easily distracted, self-disciplined, motivated, committed, an independent worker who requires minimal supervision, hard working, self-starter, management skills, organised, responsible, comfortable with self-imposed deadlines, decisive, a quick learner, prepared, productive, trustworthy.

Then there are those characteristics that stop you from feeling isolated: Sociable, extrovert, networked, positive attitude, communicative, articulate, collaborative worker, team player, forthcoming, frank, unreserved.

Then finally there are those characteristics that help you cope with a different way of working from most people: Adaptive, flexible, open-minded, innovative, creative, original thinking, cutting edge, tech savvy.

So I think I have a fair number of those, however I also have a few that don’t seem so great.

The Bad

I definitely do have neurotic tendancies, I worry too much and my husband sometimes says he thinks I have mild OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I am very driven to get stuff done, maybe too driven, and I find it hard to relax. I always have to have a project on the go, I always have to be busy. This article on 4 Winning Personality Traits of the Successful Telecommuter sums it up nicely:

To be a successful telecommuter, you have the type of personality that feels compelled to finish what you start, no matter how much it may inconvenience you to do so. When you begin a project, you will never rest until that project is finished. You may be sick as a dog but will keep working until the job is finished, knowing that the deadline is too critical to miss. You simply refuse to fail. You are someone who will stay up all night if that’s what it takes to complete a project.

Related to this I tend to block out the world and get so focused on work that I wonder if I am letting my family relationships slip. I tend to take on too much and tend to say yes because I know I’ll fit stuff in – at the expense of all else!

I also wonder if I’ve become less of listener, maybe because I don’t have to listen quite so often. That seems strange as I spend most of my day with my headphones on in calls, but quite a lot of the time I work independently with no-one to bounce ideas off. Maybe I could do with spending a little more time letting ideas mull around, waiting for feedback. One of my biggest issues has always been that I act too quickly. That might sound like the answer to an interview question (“so what’s your biggest flaw?” “well, I’m just a little too perfect!“) but it can be a problem, Over the years I’ve learnt to let things rest for a little longer – don’t publish that report yet – you’ll get some more feedback in the middle of the night that it might make sense to include. Remote working doesn’t help here. You spend a lot of time waiting for people and you can’t pop your head round their door to ask them to hurry up. It can leave you frustrated and impatient.

One other strange thing – since working at home I now find that I work best in silence, in fact any noise drives me mad (this article on Radio silence and the remote worker picks up on this). I just can’t stand my cats miaowing or next door’s builder drilling. I wear noise reduction headphones most of the time to stop the non-silence getting in. I do wonder if I’d ever be able to return to an open plan office. As well as a silent room I also need a tidy room and find it hard incredibly off-putting if there is a mess around me – back to the OCD there.

My final concern is that I’ve become a bit of a ‘settler’. This article entitled Remote workers need more than just the right personality – they need ground rules talks about the possible negative effect on career advancement.

The old adage out of sight, out of mind can be especially true for those who are working offsite. Telecommuters run the risk of being passed over for promotions and job opportunities. This can happen because of an unsupportive attitude on management’s part, who may perceive the choice to work from home as lack of career commitment. But it is also true that not all jobs, especially the higher up the corporate ladder, can be successfully managed from a remote location.

Have I given up the ghost when it comes to career moves or are things just on hold for now?

The Ugly

And the worst thing of all…I’m now a serial snacker. Maybe it isn’t a personality trait or characteristic but it is an issue!

So what about you? What’s your good, bad and ugly?

References

Tactical Travel Tips

I now work on an EU project leading on dissemination and community building.

This basically means I travel a lot (this year I’ve been to Luxembourg, St Petersburg, Athens and am off to Helsinki next week). This is probably not as much as some people but a lot more than I used to. Also most of this travel is in Europe rather than in the UK.

St Petersburg

St Petersburg

As I move kicking and screaming into the frequent flyer bracket (I don’t like flying and it’s not doing my eco-credentials much good!) there are a few lessons I’ve learned that I thought I could share with you…

Apologies if some of these are obvious but I’ve learned the hard way!

Data

Data Roaming is still bloomin’ expensive!

photoI turn off every mobile data switch the moment I sit down on the plane. So this means switching off mobile data, 3G, data roaming, Bluetooth, push data and all related things. I also switch off updates – updates always tend to pick their moments! This stops me accidentally accessing data when confused and lost in foreign cities. This has meant I’ve avoided ‘bill-shock’ (this is apparently an actual word now – unpleasant surprise of a very large phone bill) so far.

I do use wifi on my phone if available – but even then feel a little bit paranoid.

If you do want to use data roaming there is apparently an EU cut-off regulation you can opt in to. EU regulations mean providers have to warn you when you’ve nearly used €50 (approx. £50 incl VAT) of data in a month when roaming overseas. When you hit this mark, your mobile provider will cut off your mobile internet service until the next billing month begins, unless you have already pre-arranged a higher limit.

Lower costs are likely to come in by December 2015 if legislation approved by members of the European parliament’s industry committee is rubber stamped by full parliament on 3 April.

There is lots of useful guidance on data roaming about, I found the Roaming Expert website helpful.

I also now use Mapswithme on my phone – this allows you to download maps of cities in advance and then navigate them as if you are online.

I always check a hotel has wifi before I book. I connect with home using Skype or facetime. I try to never call.

Money

IMG_2300I warn my bank where I’m going. I’m with Lloyds and there still doesn’t be a way to do this online but I visit the bank every now and then and tell them about my forthcoming trips.

I also have some spare Euros that I keep so I don’t have to rely on a cashpoint as soon as I arrive. I take 3 bank cards as a back up. I store all my receipts in a particular place and photograph them too. I upload photos to online storage while away in case I lose my camera or phone.

Work

I prep in advance so that I don’t have to do too much complicated stuff while I’m away. So I draft blog posts, papers etc. and have them pretty much ready to go. You can’t rely on the quality of a connection when away from your computer. I now use LastPass (after a disaster a few years back) – this means I don’t spend hours trying to figure out passwords because I’m on my laptop. I ensure updates on my laptop are all done before I go!

I now have several adaptors and sometimes take an extension lead if I’m going to a conference.

Food

I’ve finally got BA to realise that I’m a vegetarian after selecting this option on their website many times, but I always take a few snacks with me just in case. I also empty my water bottle out for security and fill it up when I get through – saves cash! I try and find veggie friendly restaurants in advance.

Travel

If I’m arriving late at night I now get the hotel I’m staying at to book the taxi. This saves me having to fork out lots for a dodgy taxi. Planing routes from airport and hotel is useful too!

With work colleagues in front of the Acropolis

With work colleagues in front of the Accropolis

Entertainment

I download iplayer programmes on my laptop so I can watch them in my hotel room – beats foreign programmes and BBC World news on a loop. I also stock up on my laptop on downloaded papers I’d like to read.

I try to schedule my travel so I have some time to have a look around, there is nothing more soul destroying that visiting a beautiful place and only seeing the airport.

And finally I have a gig glass of wine on the plane – this stops me worrying about crashing and all the things I’ve forgotten to do!

Travel suggestions from other people have been published on this blog before. Take a look at:

Meet me at the Watercooler

I’ve recently had a guest blog post published on the Digital Epiphanies blog about how we at the Open Knowledge Foundation facilitate virtual informal discussion.

I’ve mentioned the Digital Epiphanies Project before when I was interviewed as part of their research. It’s an EPSRC- funded project that is attempting to enhance understanding of the “paradoxical and double-edged effects that new technologies and digital practices are having on work-life balance“.

I’d like to repost some of the thinking in behind my blog post here, for those who missed the original.

As those of you who read my blog will know the Open Knowledge Foundation is probably fairly unique in that it is a truly virtual organization. Our staff sit on 4 different continents and over countless timezones. We communicate primarily using online tools and face-to-face is rare for us.

To support our remote/virtual working we have a suite of tools that we utilize, some are for administrative purposes, such as Xero for expenses and Toggl for timekeeping, others are to help us with our work, such as Google drive for documents and Google hangout for meetings, and Trello for project management.

Watercooler moments

The area that always proves to be the most tricky to facilitate is discussion, especially informal discussion, or the ‘watercooler’ discussions as people like to call them. In the past the term ‘watercooler moment’ referred to a controversial event in a television programme that people would discuss at work the next day. These discussions took place next to the drinks dispenser or watercooler. Being able to discuss those exciting TV moments in a group has slowly disappeared as an activity due to changes in television watching (the rise of streaming services and playback TV), but the need to chat hasn’t. Every organisation continues to need a watercooler.

Prior to my joining the Open Knowledge Foundation they had tried out other IRC chat services. Most had faded by the time I started. People do use things like Twitter and Google Plus but these tend to support discussion with external people, not internal colleagues They’d been trying for some time to answer the question: how do you create a chat space internally?

The current service of choice is Grove.io. Grove is an IRC server that has rich functionality. It gives you archives of your chat history, search, user accounts, channel access management tools, GitHub integration. You can also chose to use the web client or a desktop app, and get notified when someone mentions you by name.

watercooler2

At the Open Knowledge Foundation we have quite a few ‘chat rooms’, some for work team chat, some for cross-team chat for example on community or tech, and we have a watercooler room. The watercooler room has the byline ’100% social chat. No work stuff’. I’d have to say that this isn’t always the case primarily because the boundaries between work and pleasure are pretty blurred for many of us. This is partly because most of us work for an organisation that is fighting for a cause we passionately believe in: the opening up of knowledge. Politics, technology and the state of the world are fair game. However there are cat pictures, silly web links and lunch dates on there too! The quality of the conversation aside encouraging informal chat remains difficult – people are busy and prioritise work activities. Unfortunately, as many of us know, the bonds created by ‘just having a chat’ are those that build better working relationships.

After our last all-staff meet up the subject of social chat came up (again). Suggestions were made that we use a more feature rich platform for our non-work related communications (Diaspora or an inhouse tumblr were mentioned). There seemed to be a reluctance to change platform, but people were all up for social chatting.

So the question isn’t how do you create a chat space internally? It is how do you get people to use a chat space and share a side of themselves that isn’t work facing? Or how do you get people to take their eye off work even for a minute in a virtual organization?

OK, so here are a couple of things that bright sparks at the Open Knowledge Foundation have been doing. One of our team is a DJ on the side and he shares Spotify playlists with us most Fridays. These playlists are great and get us talking. We even ended up with a staff-playlist at our face-to-face event.

Someone else has started a form of virtual Chinese whispers called ‘Eat poop, you cat’ (don’t ask!), which requires people to draw a picture for a sentence. The sentence gets passes along a virtual queue of people and there is lots of silliness involved. We are almost ready to complete our first game, the results hold be interesting and hopefully funny!

We also had a virtual Christmas party in Google hangouts with virtual party hats and real Christmas carols.

These activities can result in more chat on Grove.io and actually give us a much needed break from work.

So what activities and services are you using to make sure that the watercooler remains an important destination?

Still Making Remote Work Work

I need to start with an apology.

I’ve been neglecting this blog of late. My excuse is that I have been a bit too busy working to think about the way in which I work. I guess it’s a common problem. Being busy often means that we carry on doing what we know rather than switching to a new and potentially better way of working. Sometimes I feel like I’m all out of ideas too. That’s no good.

Anyway a colleague shared this great post with me yesterday. It’s called Making Remote Work Work (nice title – feeling a little jealous I didn’t come up with that one – so have stolen it in homage!) and is by Christopher Groskopf from Source. He shares some great tips on how to work effectively from far away. Some of them ‘’m doing already and have never put down on paper, others are actually new ideas – and I’ve felt a little inspired.

I mean look at this one:

Pro tip: if you’ve got school-age kids, schedule yourself for the half-hour they get out of school for the next ten years. In practice nobody will even notice you’ve done this and it will save you the hassle of having to reschedule a meeting because you have to pick your kids up.

I’ve recently started doing this and it makes complete sense. I can be pretty flexible time-wise but 3- 3:30 is a no go area for me, I just can’t do calls or anything, so I may as well be upfront about it.

He also suggests getting a multi-timezone clock. This is such a good idea, I use apps galore but time-zones are like a black hole for me. A clock would be brilliant – it’s on my birthday list.

timezone

Curioso elemento el tiempo by leoplus, Flickr

Anyway it’s a post definitely worth reading! If only I had the time to write one as good ;-)

In other news apparently “Commuting makes you ‘unhappy and anxious’” – unsurprising really, but now there is data to back it up. This recent article in the Guardian reports on a study on the wellbeing of workers led by the Office for National Statistics. The research was based on data from the Annual Population Survey in which people were asked where they worked, how long they travelled for, how satisfied they were with their life.

The research found that when compared with those who worked from home, commuters were less satisfied and happy, and when compared with each other, for each extra minute they travelled commuters became less satisfied.

So I’m still happy working remotely, and I’m still trying to make it work, just sometimes I’m too busy to report back.

Hangs head in shame!!

Boost Remote Productivity with Beautiful Home Office Blooms

So it’s Saturday and maybe time for some light relief!? Rheney Williams has written a guest blog post for us on how you can boost remote productivity by having beautiful home office plants and flowers. Rheney enjoys sharing her DIY craft window ideas with others and writes about her projects for The Home Depot. Rheney has been busy this past year updating her Charleston, S.C., home with all manner of custom lowcountry touches.

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African violets

When you’re a remote worker, more often than not, you’re working online from a home office. And even if you have the most conducive conditions for working remotely (peace and quiet!), we’ve all experienced that part of the day where you just need a boost. Whether it’s a mental boost because your brain has been working overtime or a creative boost because your imagination’s well has run dry, sometimes all you need is a bright pop of color to push your productivity back into forward motion.

Basically, when you work and write online, it’s important to surround yourself with an environment that fosters free-thinking and a potted ‘office mascot’ may be just the thing you need to cheer you up and spur you on during the day! In addition to the bright burst of color that the blooms provide, plants are notorious workhorses in the air purifying department. And when you’re cooped up inside all day, a little bit of fresher air goes a long way! I’ve been considering candidates for my own home office mascot and I’ve finally narrowed it down to the perfect choice for me: African violets!

I have a casement window that is just begging for a bit of windowsill dressing and the violets are it because although it is a bright window, its placement and direction on my house means it almost never receives direct sunlight. This is important for these little violets as they love bright conditions and indirect sunlight. Even if you don’t have a large, indirectly lit window, violets could still be the perfect choice for you too because they are some of the easiest indoor flowers to grow and don’t require full-on sunshine (or two green thumbs) to keep them alive. Their needs are a bit unique but once you address them from the beginning, the ongoing maintenance for African violets is minimal. Here’s a glimpse into how I planted my home office mascot for my windowsill and a few tips for establishing one of your own.

Inviting Violets

Purple and blue are two of my favorite colors and two great options in your working area. The rich depth of the purple and the calming brightness of the blue, in pastel shades of lavender and sky, respectively, provide just the right amount of inspiration and creative spark when you need a pick-me-up but they don’t demand attention or scream at you the way other bolder colors seem to do. So I started building my mascot’s ‘home’ by painting a clean terra cotta pot with blue and grey chalkboard paint.

2. Basic*Tip: For African violets, make sure you use a shallow pot (or one designed specifically for African violets) because the more standard height pots are too deep to provide their optimal growing environment.

After that dried overnight, I gathered everything else together and started adding the colorful details. Using the Frog tape as a guide, I taped off alternating segments around the rim and painted the insides with white craft paint. I removed the tape and painted over the remaining grey strips underneath with lavender craft paint. Finally, I painted a thin line of the grey in between each of the white and lavender stripes.

3. Supplies

Allow the rim to dry thoroughly before moving on to planting your flower. Cover the drain hole(s) with a flat stone to allow for the water to enter and exit while keeping the soil in the pot where it belongs. Fill the pot 1/3 or ½ of the way with potting mix. You can use the kind designed for African violets or make your own with an equal parts mixture of peat moss and perlite or vermiculite. Carefully place your plant into the pot and gently scoop soil around the edges, tamping down with your fingers as you go. Continue filling and tamping until the soil is about ½” below the rim and be careful to avoid getting dirt on the leaves and fuzzy stems.

4. Planted

To create the most accurate representation of the African violets’ natural moist, humid habitat, line the bottom of a deep saucer or dish with pebbles for the pot to sit atop. To recreate my natural environment, however, I replaced the pebbles with shells I collected from my native South Carolina coastline!

5. Shells

The goal is to provide a raised bed for the pot that is filled with water to just below the pot’s base so that humidity swirls as the water evaporates below. This is also how you should water your violets ñ from below, never above.

*Tip: If you ever do get water on the leaves or petals, do your best to dry it immediately as this can damage and burn them (if in direct sunlight). Keep an eye on the water level and when it drops, simply refill the base. When you first plant your violets and every couple of weeks, add several drops of African violet food to the water to ensure it receives the proper nutrients.

6. Final

And that’s all you need for a freshly potted, bright office mascot that’s sure to boost your spirits and your creative productivity in no time. What type of flowers do you want to plant in your remote office?

Virtual Robinson Crusoe

For those of you that missed it there was a great remote worker story in the papers over the weekend.

French businessman Gauthier Toulemonde wholeheartedly believed that “workers, given the right equipment, can labour more or less anywhere“, so headed off to a desert island to prove his point!

The Guardian writes:

It took six months to identify a suitable island, a 700-by-500-metre island in the Indonesian archipelago (the Indonesians made him promise not to reveal its exact location) 10,000 miles from Paris, and a few more months to prepare.

Deserted Beach Saona Island by Ian Bruce, Flickr

Deserted Beach Saona Island by Ian Bruce, Flickr

On 8 October, he left his home in Lille with four towel-sized solar panels, a windmill, a laptop computer, a tablet computer and two satellite phones. He was also carrying two tents to protect him, and the equipment from the humidity and the seasonal heavy rains.

He writes about his experiences in his blog (in French) Web Robinson.

The experience, on the whole, was a positive one though Toulemonde did live in fear of the electricity going off! He also had a lot of problem with the rats who co-inhabited the island (see this Daily News post which gives a slightly less positive spin on the venture.) He concluded that “it is indeed possible, though not necessarily desirable nor particularly cheap, to relocate staff “offshore“.

And after 40 days on his desert island his thoughts were that:

Life can get a bit dull without someone to say “bonjour” to every morning.

Doing everything virtually has its limits. Working from a distance is certainly doable, and with the internet and Skype you are never alone. But I’d say 40 days is about the limit.

But it’s not the same as physically meeting someone. Nothing can replace human contact.

Hmmmm, I think Ramblings of a Remote Worker came to that conclusion a long while back, but I still wouldn’t say no to a month on a sunny shore. ;-)

5 Years of Ramblings

The other day I realised that Ramblings of a Remote Worker has been going for 5 years now! I was away at the time (19th September – I was in Geneva) and forgot to mark the occasion. I’m not sure if this blog has been particularly useful to anyone apart from me. [As a person who doesn't have a great memory I've found it invaluable to record my activities and thoughts - I often look back and say "aaah so I did attend that event"!] Nevertheless, useful or not I’ve kept blogging and so I should give myself a pat on the back for staying power. I wanted to create a great infographic to celebrate the 5 years and set out with good intentions using Easel.ly, a way to create and share visual ideas online. I got distracted and the results aren’t that exciting but never mind…

To compliment it here are few choice snaps from my Remote Worker Pinterest board.

pinterest2