Steve Grunwell

Open-source contributor, speaker, and electronics tinkerer

Adjusting to Remote Work: One Month In

Today marks one month since I joined #Team10up as a Senior Web Engineer. Before starting the position I was hesitant to switch to 100% remote working, so I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had over the last 30 days in the hopes that they might help put would-be remote employees’ apprehensions to rest.

Understand how you work best.

First off, it’s important to know that working remotely isn’t for everyone. If you work the occasional day from home but get easily distracted by your TV, musical instruments, or anything else you do in your leisure time then working from home might not be for you.

If you do have a hard time staying focused, try introducing rituals to your workday to help put you in “work mode.” I’ve heard that some people take a walk around the block at the beginning and end of the day, while others drive to a local coffee shop because that’s what they used to do when they went into an office. Meanwhile, some remote workers prefer to leverage co-working spaces in order to maintain an office environment (locally, The Salt Mines is filled with a bunch of tech-industry freelancers, companies, and professionals).

While “working in your PJs” is commonly listed as a benefit of working from home, I find I’m more productive if I actually get dressed (well, jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie) each morning. The key is to find whatever shifts your mental state into work mode and stick with it.

You feel far less alone than you think you will.

The thing that’s surprised me most about switching to remote work is that I’m not feeling isolated from my team, nor do I feel like just another engineer in the talent pool. My pod (a smaller team of 6-15 people, led by a strategist and a technical co-lead) has daily stand-up meetings (what did you work on in the last 24 hours, what are you working on in the next 24 hours, and is there anything preventing you from making progress) that last about 15 minutes, then we do longer, open discussions once a week on a topic picked by the group.

Beyond Google Hangouts, the entire company is on HipChat, with an all-company room as well as specialized rooms per pod, project, and interest (for example, I’m a member of the Music, Beer, and WordPress Core rooms). HipChat makes it easy to reach out to others with questions, share interests, or embed the occasional animated gif.

Our HipChat is connected to @10upbot, an instance of Hubot that can be used for all sorts of tasks, practical or otherwise. @10upbot can be used to notify us of new blog posts or deployments, but it can also generate memes, draw mustaches on things, and throw “!highfive”s. Last week I was playing with the WordPress JSON REST API and ended up creating the “Lema Me” command which can be used to search for articles on Chris Lema’s blog.

When you find yourself literally laughing out loud at what someone tweeted or a joke that was made in a HipChat room, you suddenly don’t feel like you’re working alone in your home office.

Find ways to make your mark.

I’ve always been a bit of a clown at work, but I’m also a strong performer so most managers have been fine with a little goofing off as long as I still deliver results. So far, 10up has been the same way: I’ve had stretches where I haven’t eaten lunch until 3:30 (or at all) because I’ve been so focused on my work, but I’ve also had days with 30 minutes or more of making jokes and dropping gifs into HipChat. The only difference between this pattern and any brick-and-morter company I’ve worked for is the side conversation might be with someone across the country or even on a different continent instead of the cubicle down the aisle.

I feel it’s important to find ways to “make your mark” on a company. Of course it’s nice if you’re known as “that engineer who can solve any problem,” but it’s equally important for people to know you on a personal level. I’m a fairly outgoing person, so I’ve relied on small-talk and thoughtful gestures (holding doors, making coffee, etc.) in past jobs, but I can’t exactly make coffee for everyone on my team in their individual homes. Instead, I have to lean on my other qualities, like being willing to spend the occasional evening taking a joke too far:

Inspired by a joke made in a team hangout the day before, I spent part of the Thanksgiving weekend releasing a novelty WordPress plugin, Son of Clippy, which uses Clippy.js to add Microsoft’s old Office Assistant into WordPress. As the icing on the cake, I listed my colleague, Lead Web Engineer Eric Mann, as an author on the plugin so the totally-useless “Son of Clippy” plugin would appear on his profile.

Anyone looking at the GitHub repository or my Tweets back-and-forth with Eric could see that he didn’t actually have anything to do with the plugin (I’ve also given him commit access to the plugin on both GitHub and, but everyone got to “tease” Eric for Son of Clippy on Monday morning.

Know when to call it a day.

I was warned by everyone I talked about remote work that it’s important to set boundaries between your work time and your personal time. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult for me to draw these lines (for instance, I didn’t want to look like I was being un-productive while hacking on Hubot, so I would only work on (and log time for) the bot after I had reached 8 hours on the day), but when your home office also happens to be the room where you typically watch movies, it’s critical that consciously call it quits at the end of each day.

Wrapping up:

These are just a few things I’ve noticed in my first 30 days, but I have (hopefully) years more of remote work ahead. What advice, experiences, questions, and/or fears do you have to share about working remotely?

P.S. We’re always hiring talented engineers, strategists, designers, and more at 10up, so you should totally come see our Hubot customizations for yourself.


Reflections on php[world] 2014


Published in php[architect] Magazine

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