At Parse.ly we pride ourselves on having a distributed team. In fact our CTO, Andrew, wrote an excellent piece on whether fully distributed teams are viable. Two-thirds of our team is distributed across the US, Canada and Europe. However, we also have a “home office” in NYC, and this is where our business team typically works.
That all changed when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. The outer boroughs were cutoff from our office in Manhattan and all subways were shutdown. That meant everyone in NYC at Parse.ly was forced to work from home for the entire week. This post is less about the affect on the Parse.ly team and more of what it meant for me to move from working in the Parse.ly office to working from home.
A quick history of Parse.ly first. When Andrew and I first started the company we were, for over a year, working from home and in coffee shops. We couldn’t afford an office and were forced to work around the city when we wanted to meet, and at home when we didn’t. Thinking back, it’s quite amazing to me how much we were able to get done in some of the worst working environments possible. Neither of us had large apartments and shared it with other people. When we did want to meet up, it was actually pretty difficult to find a place that offered wifi and had space to work. A lot of meetings that were originally intended as productive work sessions ended up unproductive brainstorm sessions due to a lack of wifi. And back in 2009 there weren’t really as many opportunities to co-work with other startups, work in startup spaces, or find like-minded folks. In fact there was only one place, Gramstand, that we found through Cooper Bricolage (sad to think this hasn’t been updated in over 2 years), and that was shutdown within months. Suffice it to say, the caveat here is that though the working environment matters, an amazing one is not necessary to work. Parse.ly was built in the crappiest conditions possible and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
Yet, there are clear reasons why working from home works and doesn’t. The week after the Hurricane reminded me of many of the advantages and disadvantages. The single largest realization (reminder, even) though, was that working from home takes a serious amount of discipline.
One of the easiest ways to discipline yourself is through routine. Toms Baugis, a Parse.ly engineer living in Berlin, talks about how routine can strength your ability to work at high level of productivity in his LifeHacker post, Find the Right Routine to “Surf” Productivity. I found this was critical for me during the week of working from home due to Sandy.
The first couple of days almost felt like a lazy Sunday during a typical week. When I have a free Sunday I usually spend the day lazily responding to e-mails, finishing admin tasks, and straightening out my schedule for the week. During the first few days of working from home I began to find myself in a rut of just completing menial tasks and not getting serious work done. I quickly came to the conclusion that this was because working is modal, and I was just not in the right mode. I was in my lazy Sunday mode, and not in the I’m going to kick some ass at work mode that I usually am during the work week. I quickly changed some small things to help jumpstart me into the right gear. I wouldn’t start working until I showered, left my apartment to get a coffee, and wrote down three things I wanted to complete in the morning. This had an effect of getting me ready for my workday and setting my mind on accomplishing the tasks at hand.
Probably one of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from people working from home is that there are just too many easy distractions. There’s TV, a fridge full of food, a bed to nap on, video games to play, no direct pressure to work (through co-workers or managers), etc. Distractions are waiting around the corner, urging you to take the bait. And, if you don’t keep them in check, they can certainly win. Thinking back on the early Parse.ly days though, I remembered how I used distractions to my advantage. I was the most productive when I use some variation of the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique uses small sprints of work broken up by short breaks. I used to employ this all the time when I was working from home, but found that I no longer required it at the office. Being back home made me realize why – it’s the distractions. The Pomodoro Technique gives you the ability to take all of those distractions and embrace them. You can work for 30 minutes and then take a five minute break to eat a sandwich. Or work for an hour and then take a 15 minute break to play video games. Essentially, you can work and play all in the same space – it’s actually quite amazing.
Because working is modal and your body and mind gets used to working “at work.” You limit yourself to exploring how different environments can influence how you think about problems. Working from home, though, gives you full reign over your environment and that means the change in environment can change your approach. Deciding to work from a desk vs. on the couch vs. outside vs. at a coffee shop can all have a strong effect on how you react to the task at hand. I found that the more rigid my environment (for example working at the desk in my chair) the more I was inclined to work on concrete tasks, while working outside or on my couch gave me the flexibility of exploring the problem.
Finally, and almost overlooked, is the fact that working from home just means more time. I spend almost 1.5 hrs commuting to and from work everyday. That 1.5 hrs is saved if I stay home and can be dedicated to a variety of things; for example more work, health, or leisure.
Working from home, at first, was a cause for concern. I was troubled by the fact that I couldn’t concentrate as well as I could from work, when it used to be a snap back in the day. However, after a few days of getting into the swing of things, I realized not only how working from home was plausible, but why it can be beneficial. Moving forward, I plan on dedicating a day every week or two to strictly working from home. Unfortunately, because almost every day is filled with in-person meetings, I can’t afford to do more than that. After a month or two, I plan on doing a quick update on the value of working from home sporadically.
Let me know what your tricks and thoughts are about working from home in the comments below.