Tenets for Working Remotely

This was written by one of our system architects, Michael Richman, and originally posted on the Bitly engineering blog.

For the past 15 years, I’ve worked as a remote employee. I currently live in Denver and work for Manhattan-based Bitly. Before that, I was on a Virginia-based team at AOL for 11 years, working from Philly, Dallas, Philly again, New York and then Denver. During that time, I built up some personal tenets for working remotely which have served me well. They are in some ways simple, but when applied consistently, I have found them to foster quite a positive experience for those working with me as a remote individual.

Here they are, captured for others who might benefit from them:

1) Make sure your online presence is accurate. If you’re online on IM, you should really be there. If you’re away from your desk, put up your away message or sign off. You should be almost as easy to reach as people in the office.

2) Call in 5 minutes early to every meeting. When people join a conference call, you should always already be there, on the call, ready to go. You want people to react this way about you, “Of course Michael’s there. He’s always there.” With Skype, this translates simply to, “Answer the moment they call.” With Google Hangouts, it applies directly — be the first one to join.

3) Speak up on calls. Make your presence known and heard. If you never have anything to say, why are you there?

4) If you can’t hear, tell them you can’t hear. If what people are saying has any importance, you should be able to hear it. Same goes for seeing on video calls. If you can’t see what’s being discussed, try to get it remedied.

5) Be productive. If there’s ever a question that you’re not getting your work done as expected, you’ll be the low-hanging fruit precisely because you’re remote. I survived layoff rounds at AOL practically every 6 months for years. I was never concerned, because I knew I always delivered.

6) Make regular trips to the mothership. In-person contact is still needed periodically. I have found about every 6 to 8 weeks to be a pretty good interval.

7) Make your core hours match the company’s core hours. This isn’t always possible, depending on the time difference, but you should strive to achieve at least 3 or 4 hours of overlap. When I worked with a QA group in India for a time, where the time difference was 12.5 hours, we all adjusted our work hours so we could achieve a 3-hour overlap. Before we did that, question-and-answer cycles often took literally 2 days. To answer one question!

8) Figure out what you need others to do differently. You may need to make people aware that working with a remote individual may take some work on their part as well. They may need to be reminded to take extra time to think, “Does Michael need to know about this decision we just made while brewing coffee?” If you are invited to a meeting, is there a call-in number set up? If Skype, who is calling whom?

I find that it doesn’t much matter where I’m working — which tends either to be home or Starbucks — as long as I am able to follow the above tenets. That means if connectivity is important for a given day (which it usually is), it’s my responsibility to make sure I have access to reliable connectivity. If I’m supposed to do a 4-hour planning session, home is the right choice. Solid coding session? Starbucks affords just the right amount of ambient noise, random distraction and caffeine.

It’s worth mentioning that being a remote employee is certainly not for everyone. It takes discipline. You also definitely miss out on at least some of the camaraderie of the in-office experience, which at Bitly is saying something. I haven’t once, for instance, partaken in Drink Cart Friday. This is a problem. Perhaps I need to adjust my travel times….

Oh, and we’re hiring. (Are we hiring remotes? I guess that depends on your tenets for working remotely.)