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Thoughts on Remote Working

Matthew Revell speaking at HydraHack in March, 2017
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About this talk

Remote working is the new norm: let's take a look at the good and the bad of working remotely.


Okay. Thanks a lot for listening to me as the last person. My name is Matthew Revell, as it says up there, and I'm going to talk a little bit about working from home. Now, are any of you coffee shop workers, remote workers, home workers at all? Cool. Excellent. Okay, so you can tell me where I've got it wrong and actually help me improve. I've been working from home about 11 years. I'm by no means an expert on this, but you're bound to pick some things up when you've been working from home longer than you've actually worked in an office. So I've done it at four companies so far, one of which was just as an experiment for a couple of days a week, and then after that, just fully, entirely immersed in remote working. And for three of those, I managed distributed teams. So for example, at Canonical, my team stretched from Sao Paulo in Brazil through to Hobart in Tasmania. And if you can find a time to arrange a call for everyone in that geography, then please let me know. So yeah, I've had a bit of experience of working as an employee in a remote situation. And then now I run a consultancy where I work with clients, and partners, and so on all across the world, and that has its own challenges as well. And I'm also running a conference in Birmingham about remote working. I'll be at The Rep on June 7th. So apparently, remote working is the new normal. Four point two million people, according to the British Chambers of Commerce, now work from home at least at some point. And 91% of British businesses have one person who spends some of their time remote working. Nineteen percent of British businesses have more than 50% of their team working out of an office. So it's gone from being this kind of weird thing to actually just something that people tend to do. We now recognize that human beings can perform well in different circumstances than being chained to a desk. It's not Victorian millwork. It's generally work that we're doing with our brain. And I spoke to a guy the other day, and he says, "My brother is a welder on submarines, and he does it sitting in an office using a robot from a computer with cameras and stuff and all of that, but he doesn't actually go down and weld the submarine. He does it from his desk." Then you have surgery that's done remotely. So it's not just for us people who are bashing out words or bashing out code. It's for people who do real jobs as well. But I'm not going to present like a whitewashed version that makes it all seem okay. I'm going to present the good, the bad, and the ugly. And before I do that, I want to present some reality here. It isn't this. There's this whole thing of being a digital nomad. You will acquire a lifestyle where you have four hours of work a week and you're earning residual incomes from all this bullshit that you've done. That doesn't happen, all right? We're still in a world where people actually have to do stuff to earn money. Okay, some people might have some kind of clickbaiting site where they have lots of Google AdWords, but hey, ad blockers are coming. This is about real people doing real work in ordinary situations, not about these unicorns who want to go and live in Thailand and do nothing useful to society. So the good, the good, well, the good is that you get to work with some of the best people in the world. It doesn't matter where they are. Your team can be the people who are best for that job. This is a photo from my time at Canonical, the people who do Ubuntu. I worked on the Launchpad team. And in this photo are people from Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, Argentina, Sao Paulo, Staffordshire, me, and some weird guy from the Isle of Man who had a lot of money, Mark Shuttleworth. And yeah, so the good is you get to work with a really wide variety of people. Brilliant. Another good thing is you don't have to set your alarm clock really, really early to get up and then get on the train and sit squashed with people. You just kind of get up and you have a 30-second commute to your office. That's quite cool sometimes. You can fit more into your life, whether it's you choose to work more or you choose to sleep more. You get some of your life back. The counter, of course, is that I actually quite like a commute. You get to listen to the radio and de-stress and all of that. So it is important to build time into your day where you're not just going from, "Ah, I'm working. That was stressful," "Ah, the kids are on me and I'm cooking dinner for them," and all of that. It's good to get a balance. Let's put it that way. You could also do other things like actually be aware when the delivery person is lying about you not being in. You're there to let the men in or to shout at them down the street of, "Hey, I'm actually here." So you get more flexibility in your life, and you get to have this balance between the obligations that you have for the things you do for money and also your existence as a human being. But the bad, the bad, I don't know if you've seen this series from The Oatmeal, but he talks about working from home. And you... well, I'm not going to say you. I'm going to say I. I have found that working from home has left me, at times, less than socially able to get on with normal reality. I'll go along after a period of not seeing people. I mean, I live with my wife and children and so on, and I'm not a hermit exactly, but I'll come along and I'll meet people and I'll just say the weirdest things because I'm not used to normal human interaction. I feel like I've lived most of my life either over IRC and now Slack. And honestly, that's not good for human beings, so you have to balance it and you have to be able to have some world outside of your tunnel vision on the screen. And, okay, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it's something you have to be mindful of. And again, that kind of feeds into that you may not have the same networks that you would have otherwise because you don't meet people at work in the same way. My friends from work are all over the world, and so I see them very rarely. And so it can become harder to build a normal social life. Okay, we don't meet everyone in our social lives through work, but it certainly helps. And so you can end up living in a place and not actually being a part of the society that you're surrounded by. Instead, you're part of this other world that is delivered through varying levels of reliable internet access. And of course, with three kids or whatever, dogs... My dog is really bad at recognizing whether there's a threat outside or not, and so she just woofs at everything. And very regularly, I have to work downstairs. Even whilst on the Skype calls, you sit and say, "Shut up." And so yes, it can be difficult to balance that home life and that work life. And so I deal with that partly by getting out of the house as often as possible, going to a co-working space, going to a café, whatever it is. But one thing that I...a lesson that I think can be drawn from the full video of this is the people that you're on the video call with, or the <i>BBC News</i> interview, are actually human beings as well, and you can relax a little bit. My daughter very often comes up and just stares at the people on the video call, and I'm like... But you just have to accept that we are humans. And I think that's what remote working is about, is accepting your humanity. And of course, you get interrupted at work all the time as well, in an office, not just in a home office. So you always got that person who's coming up to you, disrupting your flow, whatever it is. So actually, I get more work done at home, even if the kids are a bit noisy during the school holidays, than I do sitting in an office where people are talking about all sorts of things that frankly, because I'm antisocial now, I don't care about. I'm not really antisocial. I try hard not to be anyway. And then the ugly, so I had mentioned about kind of finding it more difficult to get out and about and so on, but it can actually lead to cases of depression and so on, where you end up becoming somewhat home-atized, if that is a word. And loneliness will set in, and so you need to actively work against that. And one way is by coming to meet-ups and getting out there and making sure that you're part of something bigger than yourself, part of something bigger than this online world that you're a part of because normal social interaction is helpful and healthy. And also, you can end up being separated somewhat from your colleagues. So if you work in an organization where some people are in an office and some people are remote, and maybe you have a conference call, if you've had a conference call in those circumstances, then you'll know that all the people in the room together are maybe having side conversations and maybe being rude about you. That could happen. And so the productivity gap isn't one of home work as being less productive. It's a productivity difference. And there is a gap between the people who are in an office together and the people who are distributed. So you need to do extra work to overcome that. And also, you can sometimes feel, working remotely, that you're doing things through a pair of gloves if there aren't good enough procedures in place to make remote work the default setting. And so if you're kind of being bypassed from all that in-person communication that goes on in an office, then you can become less effective through no fault of your own. You have to work twice as hard to get the same things done. So yeah. So that's Location: remote. If you want to come, £75 which gets you in with the code "hydrahack." Sorry for the plug. But it's Have a look. It will be good, I'm sure. And also, I want to mention Hackference, which Mike's organizing. October 20th, come and have a look at that. That will be really great as well. Thank you very much for the chance to speak to you. Thanks.