Earlier this week I was a guest speaker at “Remote Work 101: Finding and Acing a Remote Role” online event organized by Women Who Code Vancouver.
The panel consisted of another speaker – Saba El-Hilo – a Senior Staff Data Engineer at Mapbox who specializes in building data-intensive applications, tooling and pipelines. The webinar was moderated by Malinda Coler – a founder of LessonsUp who’s mission is to close the generational tech gap by applying language-learning frameworks to tech lessons.
Together we spoke about ways to find remote job, techniques around staying motivated while working from home and things that we do and don’t like about distributed work.
The event was not recorded but I collected the questions that were asked during discussion and put together my answers below.
How did you end up in remote position? Did you actively seek it out?
I started to work remotely 4 years ago in July 2016. At a time, my husband and I relocated from Miami to New York City. I was not involved in tech industry before the move and wanted to switch careers as we were starting a new city chapter. My education is in Computer Science. I wanted to get back to my roots.
I started to research online what it takes to get the job in tech. After several days of reading and looking around I came across PowerToFly – a recruiting company that is there to connect Fortune 500 companies and fast-growing startups with women who are looking to work for companies that value gender diversity and inclusion.
Eventually I made it passed the vetting process and was assigned a PowerToFly Talent Agent. I had a few calls with them so they could understand what type of work I was looking for and see what kind of relevant experience I had so they could tailor the job search for me.
Long story short, they found me a Happiness Engineer role at Automattic. Happiness Engineer is the equivalent of a Technical Support Engineer. Automattic is a fully distributed company behind site-building, e-commerce and blogging services such as WordPress.com, Tumblr, WooCommerce, and more.
I was at first unsure about the opportunity to work remotely when I first read the job description. But my name was written all over it and I loved company’s mission to democratize publishing. I decided to give it a try and the rest is a history. As of today, I am still employed by Automattic.
I highly recommend giving PowerToFly a try. The Talent Agent I worked with was very resourceful, knowledgable, patient and sympathetic. I know I would use their services again for my next job search.
How does one find a remote job?
As I mentioned already, PowerToFly is a good place to look for remote job.
Another great resource that I can recommend is Remote Jobs GitHub repository that contains a list of tech companies that are semi or fully remote-friendly. The repository is maintained by one of my colleagues at Automattic who is very good at keeping it up to date.
What should one look for in a remote position?
A common misconception I find people have about remote job is that it is not real. Maybe not anymore since so many people had to switch to work remotely during the pandemic time that we live in now. But I definitely noticed the fact that people didn’t take me seriously in the past when I was saying that I worked remotely.
I am hoping to bust that myth with my answer below.
The requirements could be different for everyone but what I would look for when looking for remote work is:
- Company should provide benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, vacation time and whatever other standard benefits provided in your country that any other non-remote company would offer. This can be tricky for worldwide companies depending on the structure of their business but as a general rule of thumb this is a must to note.
- Company should reimburse employees for a home office setup and equipment including desk, chair, monitor, computer, keyboard and any other devices needed for work.
- Automattic also has a monthly co-working allowance that can be used towards working at a co-working space or buying coffee when working out of a cafe.
- Competitive salary – if you are going to work remotely it doesn’t mean that you should be paid less than if you would have worked in a non-remote company.
- Company meetups – working remotely in my opinion only works if team members can meet in person from time to time. At Automattic we meet about every 2-4 months for team meetups, division meetups, conferences and even an all-company Grand Meetup.
It is also important that a company has a collaborative and supportive culture:
- Trial period – it is great if the company offers one. That way you could learn more about company’s culture and see if it works for you. So as their remote work style.
- The reason behind being a distributed company should be that the company values diversity of the teams as it understands the importance of it in order to build a product that appeals to different types of people.
What do you love about working remotely? What do you hate about remote work?
- Flexibility – I can start to work at any time, can finish at any time, can take 2 hours break during the day if needed. I can go to a doctor’s appointment without the need to take a day off. I can work around errands that need to be done when needed. I can work in the evening. I can work at a time I am most productive.
- Work while traveling – I can take my work anywhere I go. I used to live in New York City, then relocated to London, UK due to my husband’s work, then back to New York City while being employed by Automattic. You can make these life changing events while working remotely – it is amazing. If you like nomad lifestyle, you can travel around full-time while working.
- International team – My teammates are located in Brazil, India, Denmark, Spain, UK and US. It really broadens your perspective tremendously. Learning about different cultures through your colleagues is really great. It allows you to challenge your views and look at things through a perspective of another culture even in every day things when you look at how people work next to you on the team. It helps to develop empathy. You become more diverse and inclusive of others and their views. It’s been a wonderful journey of personal development for me in the past 4 years at Automattic and I am very grateful for this experience.
- Isolation – Loneliness could be real. I do miss a chatter in real life with my colleagues. I especially miss it around product launches. It would have been great to celebrate a release with your co-workers by going out or having some kind of team bonding activity. Remote work doesn’t immediately allow for that.
What surprised you the most about remote work?
I was surprised that remote work actually works! Previously, I was working only with people in a certain geographic area and now all of a sudden I was helping a person from Australia on the other side of the screen. I was living in a tiny studio in Manhattan at a time working at my kitchen table (during trial period at Automattic) and was in a constant awe that this was possible and that I was a part of it. Overnight the world became so big on one hand because I started to look so much further ahead but also so small on the other hand because it was so accessible. I am still in the same state of awe until today 4 years later. I love it!
How do you stay motivated and on task?
I think remote work works best for those who are self-motivated, self-driven and don’t require a lot of guidance. I don’t have an immediate answer to how to become that person. But there are few tricks that I can recommend that help me along during the day:
- Home Office – you should have an actual place at the house where you will only work. It may not necessary be a separate room. It could be a desk that is dedicated just for work. The goal is trick your mind that that desk means work time. I have one like this in our apartment and I rarely spend time at it outside of work hours.
- Create a routine and stick to it – it takes time but it is important. While you can work at any time, I find that it is imperative to create set working hours. I actually work 9am to 5pm like I would at the office and I am ok with that. But tt could be 12pm to 8pm for someone else or even 3pm to 11pm or with a long break in the middle of the day. Whatever that is, the routine helps.
- Dress up – I see a lot of article appeared online now where people just started to work remotely and they recommend to keep things as they are if you would go the office including dressing up. In my opinion, this is different for everyone. When it comes to me, I definitely can’t work in my pajamas. Pajamas for me means “sleep and relax time”. Mentally, it is very difficult for me to start working while in pajamas or a bath robe. But I also don’t dress as I would when going out to the office. For example, I don’t wear jeans at home. Instead, I wear comfortable clothe such as t-shirt or a hoodie and it works for me.
- Something else I like to do if I am in a “need to work really hard today” mode is getting my hair in the pony tail. To me, it represents some kind of a structure and readiness to concur whatever comes my way. It sounds silly but it works!
- Communication tools – it is very important that the company you work at has the right communication tools in place since the majority of work and communication is done over text.
- Switch between tasks – I intentionally work on several tasks in parallel at any given time. This allows me to switch between them if I get stuck on anything. I often find myself coming back the original task with the new perspective when I come back to it later.
- Take breaks during the day – in the regular office environment breaks happen naturally. You may need to go to the meeting at another room or go get a water or chat with a colleague. When working remotely, the work happens at your desk and it is up to you to take the breaks you need.
How do you connect with colleagues?
There are many more tools we use other than the ones I list below but the main day-to-day ones are:
- Slack – chat-like services for teams for immediate communication.
- Zoom – for team meetings and larger gatherings.
- P2 – one of the key tools we rely heavily on – it is WordPress for Team Collaboration. It replaces emails for us and allows for asynchronous communication to happen across time zones and teams.
What does work-life balance look like for you?
This is a very broad topic but some of the key points around that for me are:
- Setting work hours is important in order not to overwork which is very easy to do when working at home.
- Not working at the “work desk” in the evenings when doing personal things on the computer.
- Not working on the weekends – this is really a key for me. Weekends are there to recharge, not to catch up on work.
What do you miss about being in the office?
I miss chatting to colleagues at any time in person, going out to celebrate product releases and team bonding activities. Basically I miss being around my co-workers.
Are there any resources they can recommend, for people who are looking for remote work, and also for people who are currently working remotely?
There are several that come to mind right away:
- Distributed with Matt Mullenweg – Automattic’s CEO podcast focused on remote work. Here is a link to Spotify but it is available on all other major podcast platforms.
- Distributed.blog – to compliment the podcast mentioned above.
- Accidentally in Code – blog of Cate Huston who is leading DevEx team at Automattic. She often writes about remote work. Here is a recent post that I particularly enjoyed: How to fix five of the most common pain points of working from home.
- Valentina Thoerner’s blog – blog of Valentina Thoerner who is a Head of Product at Klaus. She is a remote work evangelist and there is always so much wisdom in her work around it.