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My two cents on why I love fully distributed (remote) work
In the past 3 years, I've worked from 7+ countries, 15+ cities, and countless cafes/random desks/tables.
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I haven’t worked in an office since February 2020. It’s been over three years of doing this, and I continue to be a huge advocate for fully distributed work.
Before I dive into my reasoning, I want to call out the wording I use here: in the early days of TestBox, we made a very deliberate choice to call the company “fully distributed” instead of “remote.” This was in large part because of Matt Mullenweg’s thought leadership on the topic. Our tl;dr at TestBox is that “remote” can have some negative connotations because of the way it is used to refer to desolation, while “distributed” captures the deliberate choice that we’re making as a company.
Over the last three years, I’ve had the chance to try out a few different versions of distributed work. Of course, I experienced the lockdown version. After that came the road-trip-and-work-from-different-places version. Then, I took it to another level and flew to Europe for a few months and worked from a different timezone and continent altogether. I’ve also done the work-from-childhood-home-with-parents version. And to top it all off, I’ve now experienced the work-from-home-while-everyone-else-is-in-an-office edition.
Honestly, I have enjoyed all of these versions greatly. For me, the top benefits are:
Having a work schedule that is flexible – as a fully distributed company, we have guidance around “shared online hours,” which are typically from 11am until 5pm Eastern. Outside of that window, it’s up to each person when they want to be online and get their work done. We’re careful to make sure that no big decisions or discussions happen outside of that block to be inclusive to folks across all timezones. I’ve experimented with working everything from Eastern to Pacific time and will adjust my work schedule based on my travels or other demands in my life at various points in time. Living on the east coast now, I generally prefer to work a hybrid of Eastern and Mountain time depending on the day. On days when I need a bit more personal time in the mornings, I’ll work Mountain time, which syncs up nicely with a few others on the team.
Being able to explore different places without being on vacation – this may sound surprising, but I actually find vacation travel quite exhausting. Being off from work typically means a packed travel schedule, or at the very least, a sense of guilt if I travel somewhere and don’t spend the full day exploring and seeing new things. My husband and I traveled for a few months in Europe over the past two years and we made a rule that we’d stay in each place for at least two weeks at a time. This gave us a chance to explore each place while “living normal life,” which meant getting to actually know our neighbourhood in each city. We used those two weeks to find our groove with the local way of living, from figuring out public transit to shopping at the local market/grocery stores, while thoroughly exploring our temporary home. For us, we really enjoyed having evenings or mornings to do touristy things, while sticking to a regular routine with our work days the rest of the time. It generally feels a lot less overwhelming than full-time touristing.
Having the opportunity to spend more time with family and friends – whether it was living at home with our families or staying with friends for a week at a time, I got a lot of quality family and friend time over the past two years. There’s nothing quite like being able to work my usual work day from someone’s home and then closing my laptop at the end of the day, ready to make dinner together or go out to check out a new spot nearby. If lucky, I could even get in a lunch or breakfast with my hosts. Back when I had to go into an office, I would never have been able to sneak in these special moments for catching up and spending time together. These sorts of visits would have been compressed into weekends rather than spaced out over the course of a week.
Not having to carry a backpack on my commute – laugh all you want. This is less about the commute than the having-to-carry-heavy-things part. Ever since high school, I disliked having to carry a heavy backpack around. I used to do all my textbook homework at school so I wouldn’t need to carry my textbooks home. I would take pages out of my binders to bring home instead of bringing the full binder. I didn’t mind my commute when I worked in person (also…I will admit that my commute was a very pleasant seven minute walk for the bulk of my time in San Francisco), but I did mind having to carry lots of things back and forth. Nothing beats having my desk right in my apartment.
Being at home all day – I love being able to eat snacks from my pantry when I want, being able to change if I didn’t pick the right outfit for that day’s weather, and being able to squeeze in a quick at-home workout between meetings on a day when my schedule permits. It’s flexible, it’s more peaceful (because I’m not overly stimulated by other people, distractions, or noise), and overall it’s less energy draining.
Eating more home cooked meals, especially for lunch – most days, lunch is a very haphazard meal that’s thrown together quickly. A bowl of pasta or noodles with blanched vegetables and a fried egg captures a lot of what I eat on weekdays. That said, I really appreciate being able to get in more home cooked meals, even if they’re quick and very simple. On the whole, I eat more healthily now that I work from home and have access to my kitchen to prepare lunch.
Getting to travel for work – the way we’ve been able to balance being fully distributed with still having a tight knit team culture is by having a few team get-togethers each year. I really love being able to travel for work – for me, work travel weeks are a chance to go all-in on work. That means I’m usually a bit delinquent on clearing my personal inbox, keeping up in group chats with friends, and staying on top of home chores when I travel. On the flip side, I’m able to enjoy lunches and dinners with my colleagues and have some really fun conversations about not just work, but also our lives and all the other things we’re doing outside of our jobs. I really like being able to go all-in and be in a focused headspace when I travel for work. Additionally, at TestBox, we rotate where we go for our team get-togethers since we don’t have a hub where people are concentrated. I’ve really enjoyed seeing different places and always having somewhere new to explore.
At the end of the day, there are also significant benefits from a company’s perspective. For TestBox, we save a ton of money by not having a physical office, which makes a meaningful difference as a venture-backed startup thinking about runway. We have, of course, had to be really deliberate about creating culture and making sure that the team bonds. We’ve always had standing time on the calendar for socializing to make up for the spontaneous interactions that are more likely to happen in person than over Slack. A few examples include:
We have a recurring weekend catchup where the team gathers and shares what they did over the weekend
We have regularly scheduled games time where we get together to play games every week
We do socials and fun team events every so often to celebrate new people joining or just to spend some extra time together
In a fully distributed setup, you need to create structure to enable social time, and that can feel odd at first. Once it’s ingrained in the culture, it starts to feel like a new normal and all of these different habits are now second nature for me.
Of course, there are times when I miss socializing with my coworkers and being able to grab a few minutes with someone to whiteboard or talk through a problem together. That said, we’ve found lots of ways to get around that (in addition to what I list above). We build in a lot of time at our quarterly team onsites for socializing. Outside of onsites, when we have topics that require a lot of brainstorming and whiteboarding, we get together in person to “co-locate.” Otherwise, when we are in need of a quick live discussion, we’ve been embracing Slack Huddles lately or we’ll just do a quick phone call. We are also always looking for ways to introduce more effective asynchronous collaboration into the mix as well – whether it’s new tools for documentation or flow charting or new process flows that allow us to solicit input from different teams without pulling everyone into meetings.
On the whole, I don’t think we work any less productively than we would have in person. In fact, it’s pretty awesome that sometimes we get to fully focus in a way that we wouldn’t be able to in an office. There are times when I give the team a heads up that I’m going to be off Slack to go heads down and I can really get into the zone. (Pro tip: If you do this, throw your phone number into your Slack status in case of anything urgent coming up.)
All in all, while sometimes I miss certain parts of being in an office with my coworkers (I didn’t even mention the opportunities to find free food), it’s been a really worthwhile tradeoff for me. I couldn’t imagine losing the flexibility to make my work life fit elegantly around my personal life, having a really optimized work environment that works well for me (i.e. my home), and being able to dive 100%+ into work on the weeks when we’re in person together. It’s made me happier, improved the quality of life overall, and significantly helped reduce the Sunday scaries, which I think really speaks for itself.
I know there’s a lot of other perspectives on this, so take all of this with a grain of salt. There are definitely certain jobs/industries/roles that lend themselves better to this sort of setup than others, and I know a lot of it depends on each individual. Dive into the comments with your thoughts, especially if you’re someone on the other side of the spectrum!
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Personally, I’m a huge fan of distributed work and I could go on about how much it’s improved my quality of life with the increased flexibility. Setting up a fully distributed company well requires being deliberate as you build the culture and set norms. If done right, there are significant benefits to the company as well as the employees.