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Thinking Remotely

Jay Cuthrell
September 27th, 2020 · 12 min read

I’ve had a chance to think more about the past few months that for many might seem as though it has lasted for years not just months. This post is about thinking remotely.

First, I want to be clear that I’m incredibly fortunate and privileged to be able to even had the spare time to think let alone write this post. See also: It’s easy for me to say this as a long time technology consultant that has spent the majority of my career in telecommunications as well as information and communications technology (ICT) being a “road warrior” operating far outside of traditional office settings.

Second, if you work with your hands making things or various service industries outside traditional office setting, I may not have much to share other than my respect and profound sympathy. So, if that sounds like you reading this — thank you in advance.

Third, if you are reading this and fortunate enough to still have a job that was in an office setting doing knowledge work, the sudden shift to working away from the office is probably jarring. Patterns have changed and I’d like to share a few words about thinking remotely.

Pattern Before

An incredibly simplified view of the pattern before might look like this:

  • waking
  • regular life
  • commuting
  • arrival at the office
  • contributing in a formal office setting with cubicals, open seating, collaboration spaces, meeting rooms, break rooms, etc.
  • departure from the office
  • commuting
  • regular life
  • sleeping

In prior years, there were seemingly endless posts and articles describing how to live your best regular life. Those quality of life pieces might seem quaint or illogical at this present time.

Pattern After

Likewise, an incredibly simplified view of the pattern after might look like this:

  • waking
  • irregular life
  • contributing remotely most likely from a dedicated home office, spare room, spare table, couch, back seat of a vehicle, or other ad hoc setups never intended to be permanent, etc.
  • irregular life
  • sleeping

Once regular life went away it was replaced with irregular life. Even then, fitting some quality of life into the pattern is probably harder to fit in regardless.

Thoughts for Today

In late March 2020, a post from Sarah Emerson became the first of almost four dozen headlines to follow on the topic of “remote work” on Techmeme.

Techmeme headline in 2020

Contrast this post to March 2017 coverage of how IBM viewed remote work and pushed in a very different direction.

Techmeme headline in 2017

So here we are in Semtember 2020.

Typical company reactions might range from forming a team, panel, or formally assigning a leader to come up with a plan for getting remote work to, well, work. Or, if recent coverage provides an example, companies might look to established pioneers such like GitLab as a type of management consultant for remote work.

While I’m not advocating a dedicated Head of Remote Work needs to exist within the job family definitions of an human resources there will be a need to generalize the culture of remote work even more in the future. So, I’ll focus on four key areas of thinking remotely: spaces, networks, sensing, and sustainability

Adaptation and Improvisation

Let’s take a look some ways to adapt to the current remote work realities and how improvising with tools and techniques that might help with the transition. From how we start our day to how to fill our day with both social and work interaction, there are several areas to consider different approaches.

Waking moments

First, stop craving Doom Scrolling sessions when you wake up and resist the tempation to grab your mobile device. Make a folder of apps called WAKE UP and put in the apps and services that make you feel good.

Second, your commute might be to the next room or to the table right beside your bed or even a couch or kitchen counter. It’s okay to take your time.

Commute Times

The lack of a commute gives back, potentially, hours to work on a personal project or reading for the sake of reading. Use that time wisely.

If you were a commuter, it’s not out of the ordinary to miss that commute either. So, consider taking your vehicle for spin around the block before you head into the home office.

Lunch breaks

For lunch, why not try a Zoom group? While watching another bunch of humans eating and drinking over webcams on monitors might seem odd, consider that going to lunch with a group wasn’t that uncommon before.

Are you a brownbag lunch type? Not a problem. Keep at it.

Were you a social lunch type? Consider a setup like a kitchen stand for your mobile phone (use WiFi) near where you would eat your lunch AWAY from your laptop. Don’t be the person that dumps pasta all over the keyboard of your work laptop. 😉

Watercoolers

If you have access to a watercooler or a break room in the traditional good old days there has to be an equivalent or analogous option in the all remote or digital world. All work talk and no play talk makes for a dull day.

There are several options available thanks to the advent of ChatOps or other chat oriented operational tools.

  • Slack has promoted an “IRC for muggles” friendlier way to stay connected that appeals to everyone from Sales to Engineering.
    • There is a freemium version to get you and others hooked on the idea after attempting group chats with a finite scrolling history.
    • Next, the paid options offer a durable history of chat complete with GIF meme insertion and WYSIWYG inputs and all of the richer Enterprise grade features with tiered pricing to match.
  • Microsoft Teams has all of the Enterprise features one would expect of a Microsoft product or service that appeals to the most common use cases or lowest common denominators.
    • For an Office 365 shop, this is probably the lowest cost option to explore.
    • Adoption and persistence of use will vary depending on the use of other Office 365 products and services — YMMV.
  • Discord has a ways to go before there is a corporate or Enterprise ready feature set.
    • Being able to play music with voice channels is pretty much like the office radio of days gone by or even the overhead Spotify, Pandora, etc. playlist
    • Just keep in mind the primary audiences for the tool are gamers that needed gamer features.

No matter which one (or more) of these options are in use, the key to success is creating a channel that is meant for the watercooler, the random, the daily wtf, etc. These channels are meant to encourage whatever banter helps keep a healthy mix of work and play together in a commons just like the breakroom of olden days.

In addition, as some organizations are already highly global in nature, the use of ChatOps tools will help with some of the timely needs that asymmetric plain email use cannot address. As such, it is important to invest time in understanding the best ways to use the ChatOps tools in the same way you’d want to learn how to make more coffee in the machine when the last cup was poured.

The notion of a packed conference or trade event is shifting to digital approximations. The human to human networking was always the draw in most cases where a keynote or the highly over packed agendas and talk tracks prevented consuming all the sessions.

Just ask Keith Townsend aka @CTOAdvisor about the digital approximations of virtual conferences. He would know.

One of my favorite parts of any event is the obligatory sponsored vendor lunch where you give up a badge scan for a free meal and are seated next to people you may not already know. Thankfully, there is Lunchclub AI which facilitates one to one video meetings in a lunch style format.

While it might seem odd to seek out yet another video meeting these days, here is the draw of Lunchclub AI in a nutshell:

  • Simulation of sponsored lunch tables at a conference
  • Self-select “birds of a feather / special interests group”
  • Easy G Suite Meet integration (but you can use Zoom as well)

Using Lunchclub AI, I was able to have virtual lunch meetings with people from ViaSat, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft Azure, Sealed Air, KPMG, Jungle Disk, RelativityHQ, and WP Engine. The meetings took place over the course of a few weeks because eating 8 lunches back to back would be gluttonous. 😉

If this sounds interesting, I’ve got a referral link you can use: https://lunchclub.com/?invite_code=jayc11

Referrals earn what are called Clubpoints. Yes yes yes. It’s a points system or currency system of sorts.

So far, I think the current (growth gaming design pattern) points system for Lunchclub AI works out as follows:

  • Earn points for various actions that grow the platform userbase

  • Spend points to

    • essentially decline the wider AI in Lunchclub AI for narrower model

      • you are allowed to pick a specialty you want to have lunch with
      • Again, sort of like picking up the tab for an exclusive lunch meeting)
    • get more meetings each week than your normal allowance

Oh. I just reached 30 points which is enough to pick up the tab for lunch with a speciality selection. 😄

So, if you already have 30 Clubpoints perhaps you can take me out for lunch by gaming the specialty selections to conform to my profile attributes?

Connectivity and Community

One of the most challenging parts of transition is the sudden need to satisfy competing interests in the new home office environment. Indeed, it’s no longer enough that Netflix or basic web browsing works at home — now it’s about business.

Stipends, VPN, SaaS, and Broadband Tuning

Working from home might be challenging for several reasons depending on how much bandwidth you had in your prior office working environment. For example, going from an office LAN to working from home over a Vexing Productivity Neutralizer (VPN) might feel like trying to run in a swimming pool as you experience slower web or application performance.

What to do?

First, before getting into networking discussions ask around and find out if you can get any form of subsidy for your home office environment. It could even be as simple as asking if your favorite office chair or other ergonomic items could be loaned to you for your home office. If so, consider getting a home router that can provide more detailed statistics on your broadband use, top consumption clients, etc.

For example, when I worked for Dell Technologies one of the perks was a one time stipend to offset home office expenses. This is not a suprising perk because Dell has been thinking about the future of work for decades. Even now Dell continues to evaluate the timing and terms of a return to traditional office buildings using an Inversed Risk Matrix. A stipend can go a long way to getting a nice home router and loading a firmware that gives you great insights into what is taking up your precious home Internet connection.

Second, find out if your workplace can take advantage of persistent VDI or even split tunnel capable VPN to limit work related Internet traffic to the VPN itself vs. attempting to require all Internet traffic flow through the VPN first.

Third, find out if your workplace can forgo VPN technology entirely by moving to a SaaS platform such as G Suite from Google or Microsoft Office 365. By going this route, you gain the advantage of using modern applications that never require updates or a dedicated piece of software on your computer. In fact, you’re able to bring your own device (BYOD) and it all just works. Perfect? For 95% of typical knowledge work and office work needs — it might just be the right answer.

Fourth, find out how to get a pi-hole and apply for a network performance probe installed at home. Both can make a huge difference in your Internet experience and understanding performance trends as seen by a neutral third party and by blocking annoying advertising at the DNS level.

Fifth, create your own specific Down Detector dashboard to have a mini Network Operations Center tab in your browser that is on your work device and another home device if possible. For the most important services like your ISP be sure to bookmark their own status pages.

Examples:

Virtual Resource Groups

In addition to the watercoolers, there are going to be resource groups that are virtual as well. You just have to find them and use them by reading and contributing.

One great resource for remote managing leaders is Rands Leadership Slack. Other great resources might be your own company support groups or even affinity groups on LinkedIn.

The key for a virtual resource group is to be present when you need that experience of a group that might not be entirely driven by work or about work. Perhaps you’ll find it in Twitter or Facebook or in apps like Signal, WhatsApp, etc.

While part of Zoom now, I’m still partial to Keybase. 😄

Presence and Partitions

The notion of presence in an office has recently shifted from sound of someone in a nearby cubical to the silence or invisibility of a geographically vague approximation. The familiar partitions of work and non-work as a balance can all too easily shift to unsustainable levels. So, let’s explore a few concepts around the notion of status indicators.

Status indicators

Status indicators are the best example of human driven edge computing. Wait. What?

Yes.

I started thinking about this when @CTOAdvisor aka Keith Townsend posted the following question on Twitter:

Keith's question

Let me explain…

Edge computing is a marketing term used to describe doing your computing at the place closest to where the data is being generated.

I like using a backronym at this point because edge computing is older than the marketing term seeking to describe what it is.

EDGE:

  • Endpoint
  • Deployable
  • Generally
  • Event-driven

Confluence of hardware with just enough stack for remote sensing / telemetry / in-situ machine learning / AI feedback loops, etc. will push many Edge standards for use cases in Enterprise, service provider, and consumer segments. For example, you can set up a simple at home event trigger that updates your status or you elect to set your own boundaries.

In the earliest days on the Interwebs, it was not uncommon to set up a webcam that pushed a JPG to a remote FTP site that was then embedded on a simple website as a type of virtual fish bowl. This was the ultimate real time presence indicator because you could see someone seated at their desk with a (typically) Connectix webcam displaying a grayscale 160x120 pixel or 320x240 pixel representation of their physical proximity to a large CRT monitor, keyboard, mouse… and probably a lot of empty soda cans.

Webcam days

So, for a modern twist why not consider a similar edge computing platform like that now? It’s relatively simple to to set up a low cost IP camera with a PTZ control, upgrade the firmware with a hacks style firmware, and livestream to Twitch or similar streaming platforms.

Twitch example

Out of Office automation

You can be in the office and also be out of the office. Let me explain…

For example, let’s say you decide you only want to engage in Microsoft Teams group chats or in a specific channel in Slack. GREAT! Now, let others know this if they send you an email:

Out of Office Greeting examples:

Hi, I am throttling email at this time so please find me in #austin-watercooler on Slack or DM me if my presence indicates I’m avaliable. Emails will be read within 72 hours.

Hi, I’m not using email as much these days and won’t read your message for at least another week. If you need to get my attention, please find me in Microsoft Teams in the “Austin Office” team and @ me in the “Need Help” channel.

Hi. I use Discord. You know the drill. LOL. 😆

Delayed delivery

Sending out emails when you should clearly be sleeping might cause concern with your team and your managing leader. Consider delaying delivery of that message.

Further, understanding the time zones and global nature of your work should always be top of mind. Since some team members might interpret your email as action required right now, it would be unfair to send a detailed request just before they were trying to get some sleep.

For example, almost all modern email tools now have a form of delayed delivery to maximize the intended receipt time. In fact, you can now use delayed delivery in Office 365 and G Suite.

Productivity and Balance

Now let’s explore what it means to be productive and to achieve balance in a world that feels unbalanced.

Tracking and taking vacation days

Know your state of residence laws and the studies that prove the point of time away from everything work related. Take your time away as what you’ve truly earned. You deserve to use your time away.

Pay yourself first. Don’t put off vacation days even if it is just a stay-cation at home in another corner of your home office to play with a fun project you enjoy.

Hard stops

Respect begins when the time investment of a meeting has a start and stop. Follow up items can literally be an extension to honor a stop.

When you consider the great GANTT chart that represents a team effort, it is best to respect other team members and their time. Flexibility is fine but make sure it is not a one sided flexibility at the expense of others.

Owning your calendar

Time investments are precious. That means you should guard your calendar to ensure you control your time investments.

The most advanced managing leaders of leaders maintain their calendars with extreme precision. For example, VMware CEO Patrick Gelsinger is the canonical calendar control commander… the point is to find your approach and protect your time for thinking, planning, and growing professionally.

A great practice to consider is setting aside a FREE section of your calendar in a color coded way that occurs daily when you permit others to invite you to their meetings or find time on your calendar when you publish busy/free information.

Once you are working in a home office, the hours you work will very likely go far beyond what you had in an office for all the reasons stated above. So, owning your calendar is important to ensure that your calendar does not own you.

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