Year over year, more companies are becoming remote work-friendly. With the soaring popularity of productivity technology, the ability to hire employees based on talent, rather than location, is a game-changer for companies competing for talent.
While the benefits of remote work are felt across generations, recent studies have focused on how millennials are responding to this change in the traditional office arrangement. According to a Deloitte survey of almost 8,000 millennials, remote work positions are a perk that helps retain these workers. In companies described as having the “least flexible work environments,” 45 percent of millennial employees plan to leave the company in two years or less. Conversely, 33 percent of millennials plan to stay 5+ years at the most flexible companies compared to only 27 percent of millennial workers who plan to stay 5+ years at the least flexible companies.
But beware! The tendency of a remote employee is to fade, slowly, quietly into the internet. You can follow every letter of your employee handbook and job description and still end up invisible, only rescued from obscurity when your manager reaches into your inbox. It’s up to you to stay engaged and visible. Here’s how:
1. Accept that you don’t know everything
When you’re physically isolated, it can feel like Programmer vs. The Universe, like you’re a pioneer left to hew a homestead from the forest, equipped only with an axe and Stack Overflow. Accept from the start that a product is a team effort, and call for help now and again. Even a veteran coder’s accumulated experience is probably less than the distributed experience of a team.
2. Ask those questions early, often, and in public
If you’re hung up on a tricky part of the codebase and ask a coworker for help IRL, someone in earshot might be able to interject a quick fix. DMs and emails don’t allow for ambient knowledge. If you keep your questions public, you can get help from unexpected places. Don’t be shy about answering questions in shared spaces, on team calls, or over video too — a public answer might save the next person from running into the same bug.
3. Show and tell
Did you read a good post about API design over lunch? Have you seen a good screencast lately? Share the link and write a summary. Some of our engineering team’s most lively discussions are prompted by a pasted link.
4. Get inspired, remotely
Your remote workspace is untethered from your colleagues in time and space — it’s easy to see that you’re not in the same beige conference room, but when you stretch your boundaries and run out into the world for inspiration, you can feel how far away you are from the long rows of tables. Move your laptop around your space. Sit in stupid places for five minutes until your legs fall asleep. Instead of staring at a blinking cursor while you formulate a sentence, throw on your shoes and run around the block once like I just did. Everyone needs inspiration and variety to sort out the problems of their workday, but remotes have so many ways to change their surroundings. When you find a brainstorming trick that works, report back to the whole team.
5. Foster a culture of low-pressure ad hoc screencasts
The easiest way to work through a problem can be to walk someone else through the code interactively. Videoconferencing is somehow still technologically fraught, but most tools handle a screen share really well. Make it okay for your teammates to ask, “Can I show you this component really quick?” No need for a meeting invite, just pop in for a minute or two — or do full-on pair programming, if you have time! Make these mini-hangouts as frictionless as possible, and you can reclaim one of the few benefits of an open-plan office.
6. Give status updates often
It’s easy — and tempting — to hole up with an assignment and go quiet for a week until it’s complete. In the office, your coworkers would know you’re busy, but if you’re just silent in Slack or Github or on calls, it’s hard for them to tell if you’re stuck, working on a different project, or went for a walk and never came back. Save them some worry. Give a short daily update, even if it’s “still working on this PR, and the timeline looks the same.”
7. Find equivalents for body language and gestures
We say things with our faces and posture in the office: “I’m trying to concentrate.” “This is going really well!” “Mind if I interject?” When you’re at home projecting these same vibes to a laptop screen, it can feel like you’re sending bizarre signals to your coworkers. Remember that you’re just an avatar most of the time. It can be hard to give subtle micro-updates, but an emoji reaction here and a short status ping there can go a long way. They can’t read your mind through WiFi. (Yet.)
Above all, don’t forget amid all the APIs and algorithms that your job is more than just code. Features are requested by humans, to solve specific problems. Sometimes bugs are the result of bad code, but often they’re caused by mismatched expectations or ill-fitting mental models. Business logic is dictated by, well, business. When you understand that there’s a person behind every card on your issue tracker, you see the need to get out from behind the IDE and work with those people directly. Even if your workplace is measured in pixels, there are people in there.
Drew Bell is an engineer at digital product studio Postlight. Postlight is headquartered in NYC, and Drew is based in St. Louis, Missouri.