It’s been almost two years since I began working remotely. A year as a part-time employee and the next was a full-time job. With companies like Toptal, Mozilla, GitLab, Basecamp living as a proof that success isn’t defined by the number of hours your employees clock in, we’re seeing many companies at least consider this tradition.
This post sums up my experience working as a full-time remote employee at VIPERdev, what I loved about it and what I absolutely despised.
What is VIPERdev?
VIPERdev is a fully remote software development startup based in Hamburg, Germany. Founded by Lasse Schuirmann, in the summer of 2017, VIPERdev started as a small company with 3 employees and has now grown into a mature company with ~20 contractors and full-time employees.
How do we keep up with a fully remote team?
This is certainly one of the most challenging questions to answer. As a fully remote team, we are often met with people from vastly different timezones, often times with ~10 hours of difference. One of the core values of VIPERdev is being fully self-selective and asynchronous. i.e. everyone gets to choose their own working schedule and often times doesn’t need everyone to be online at the same time. However, we do share a few core hours where everyone needs to be online to discuss their progress and report back on any hurdles.
What did VIPERdev offer? Were there any caveats?
If there’s a single word that I feel encapsulates remote work, it’s autonomy. Working remotely gives you the freedom to design your life, both inside and outside of work; partially because working remotely naturally blurs those lines.
Even if you have a boss while working remotely, your number one accountability partner is yourself. I believe this is what allows some people to naturally thrive, but just as importantly, others struggle in a remote environment. If you’re considering remote work, consider whether your tendencies align with this lifestyle.
The lack of imposed structure in remote work means it’s even more important for you to develop your own structure and expectations outside of work. If you don’t, you’ll often find that your personal aspirations are the ones to slip to the wayside. Make sure you select your personal goals and allocate time to them.
Within your scope of work, learn to identify different types of activities and how you respond to them. This is a personal exercise, so be honest and objectively label the things you struggle with. For example, I know that I can spend 8 hours straight on coding, but find it exhausting to work on the same problem for more than 1 hour straight. I recognize this and actively take breaks or shift when needed.
Let me be clear that autonomy does not mean doing less; it means the freedom of doing things in a better, more optimized way. One thing that I have learned from observation time and time again, is that despite working miles away from one another, it is incredibly easy to tell who is working hard and who is not. If you plan to transition to remote work so that you can relax and do nothing, you won’t be fooling anyone but yourself.
One of the pitfalls of remote work is the social structure. With no more team lunch breaks or coffee machine chats, remote work can feel very lonely. The transition to this lifestyle requires calibration, but I would encourage you to set up both your digital and non-digital life to account for this.
To compensate, what VIPERdev did was to set up an online discord chat room where people can virtually bond together. Call them what you want: coworking, weekly catch-ups, etc., but the important part is to account for the time that is meant to foster relationships.
I believe there is one other notable factor that remote workers should actively improve on — encouraging empathy. When you’re not physically working next to someone, whether intentional or not, there is less awareness of the person’s feelings or time. It takes active involvement to turn this equation around.
Moreover, working remotely is built on the idea that impact is king and in most cases, personal (not group) impact is what is measured. This can create a negative dynamic that I have seen multiple times over. In an office, you’ll see someone stay late to help their teammate but with remote work, most “giving” goes unnoticed except to those benefiting from the giving. Without active acknowledgment of giving and reciprocity, remote work can quickly become a zero-sum game.
Remember that not everyone chose to work remotely for the same reasons so accommodate if your coworker still needs to sign off by 5 or needs to go pick up their kids. This sounds self-explanatory but isn’t always second nature.
Finally, don’t compare your remote lifestyle with an in-person lifestyle through silos. Although improving, I don’t think the social nature of remote work will ever be directly comparable to in-person interaction. However, working remotely offers so many other benefits, so acknowledge its pitfalls but don’t dwell on them individually.
I like to think of remote work as a new relationship that you’re embarking on. It’s a relationship that is not guaranteed to be better but has the potential to be. Consider remote work a new lifestyle that spans both the positive and negative; so long as it’s a net positive, learn to accept and actively improve on certain facets.
As for physical health, once again, VIPERdev freely provides its employees with a bike to commute to places and often has virtual runs where people take a jog or run for the same time in different places.
The company doesn’t pressure its employees to work when they don’t feel well both physically and psychologically.
Is remote work an endgame?
Working remotely operates on your life in a way that an adjective operates on a noun. It’s a descriptor, but there can be many descriptors in your life. Working remotely allows you to design your life in different ways, but ultimately won’t bring you happiness on its own. So, as you look for remote work, keep in mind your true “why”. For example, it allowed me to:
- Spend more time with friends
- Move between places from time to time
- Learning ground work at startups so that I can eventually start my own business
I want to make it clear that getting a remote job will not solve all your problems, but what it does give is a space to operate and meet your other objectives. Even if you work remotely, you still need to work on your skills, relationships, and goals because they won’t develop without effort.
Above all, you don’t need to sacrifice your integrity to work remotely. This may seem obvious, but your happiness will actually stem from what you are actually doing day in and day out, not where you are physically working. Removing a commute or a degrading office is certainly positive, but keep in mind that finding a great job and not being remote is often much better than finding a bad job while being remote.