Work Remote. Be Happy. (Ten Tips)

Juris is a distributed team. We work remotely. I chose this deliberately after fifteen years of experience as a founder. In that time, I’ve worked at creative agencies, had offices on Hollywood studio lots, in buildings downtown, and in my closet. I’ve bounced around early proto-WeWork spaces and eventually WeWorks, all over the place since 2006.

With Coronavirus, COVID-19, and pandemics in general in the news, there have been a lot of good posts recently on working remotely. I particularly like this one from Red Planet Founder Nathan Marz, “Why fully distributed is by far the best way to run a software team.” This has inspired me to write a bit about our experience as a remote team, and some of the tricks I’ve learned. But first, a bit about the choice:

Choosing remote to solve for happiness.

At Juris, we’re trying to build a “100 year” company. This is a fancy way of saying, “a company that will keep kicking ass if the founders kick the bucket.” This is doable in a number of ways, but at Juris we tend to like the version where we do it by focusing on “the happiness, health, and wellbeing of every member of the Juris Team, Juris Community, and all impacted by our technology.” Which you will find embedded in our mission. Basically, we take happiness very seriously.

In 2017, I chose to make Juris a remote company after 10 years of startup life, 3 years of law school, and a peek inside the corporate version of things. I think that the future of work is remote, and I’ve built Juris to fit. My experience since has only increased my belief in this notion. Like any scenario, it has tradeoffs. We can talk about operational efficiency and things like that to no end, but what it really comes down to is flexibility, and ultimately, happiness.

Life is short. We should solve for happiness when possible. In this equation, work/life balance is key. When I’ve let this balance fall off, I’ve found myself accomplished, but massively unhappy and unhealthy.

Choosing a remote structure for Juris was a deliberate effort to solve for happiness and prosperity. It’s not for everyone, but for me, and for everyone else drawn to the remote work option, it is very real, and we agree with Marz, it is “the best”. We hope a look at how we operate as a team who willingly chose to live the remote work life will provide some insight for those who might have no choice in coming months.

What it looks like.

The first thing to know is that “time” doesn’t matter the same way. You lose the nice clean clock in, clock out, dynamic of showing up in an office. Instead there are tasks. As long as those tasks are done, and on deadline, I don’t care how many hours it took, or where you did it. I am currently writing this in a bathrobe, at 2pm. Before that I went for a run. Who cares, this post will be ready on time.

But, time does still matter. There’s a rhythm to everything and it’s on the team (or manager) to set the tempo. Here’s how we do that:

Juris is currently a team of 4 founders. Our meeting spaces are video chat windows. We coordinate primarily via Slack, and the various departments have their own specific tools. We have stable “standup meetings” where everyone is present. In larger organizations, it’s common to do these every day depending on the team. Our current team stabilized around a couple of longer regularly scheduled meetings every week instead of the daily format.

This is what it actually looks like.

We’re always on Slack and popping in and out of ad hoc video chats and calls to work together on various tasks. As delivery deadlines loom, we spin up more meeting specific “decision” meetings, or work session meetings where we’re all in the same video chat, but working on our own tasks.

So, that’s our version. What else happens the rest of the day for everyone? I don’t know. I don’t care. But, they get their work done, and we launch products. So far, this has all been structural stuff. Let’s get to those tips and tricks!

Some Remote Working Tips:

Again, check out that post I linked to at the top. They’ve got a few tricks I decided to roll into our meetings. Like the “question of the day.” But, here’s a few things we’ve figured out, in no particular order.

1. Have fun.

This is a cheesy one to put up top, but even that makes my point. Who cares? Taking everything too seriously will break you. Incidentally, this is the key to mastering Slack (or any chat platform.) You have to think of chat platforms more like college or corporate campuses, more so than “email replacements.” For a remote team they are the closest thing you’ll have to a campus. Slack is not email gone crazy, Slack is insane spastic Internet community chat cleaned up for work. Animated Gifs and Emoji are always welcome. Stupid random channels and side conversations are important. Encourage them.

But this is about more than Slack. This applies across the board. At Juris we end most group meetings with a cheer. It’s stupid. And that’s the point. You have to try harder, and push your comfort zones to break through the limitations that do exist for remote work. If you are dealing with a transition out of an office (if only for a few months,) and maybe new software like Slack and Zoom, now is a good time to think about the culture of your organization. It will probably need some tweaks to make the leap to virtual. Have fun with it.

2. Chill out.

This relates to the above, and it is something that needs to be incorporated at the level of company and team culture: chill out. Like I said, time is different for remote work. While communications have gotten increasingly immediate, with tools like Slack, the need to shut them off and do work is very real as well. It is easy to let the quickness of the technology cause an unhealthy urgency to reply quickly. Talk about this with your team. Establish a baseline.

At Juris, internally, email is the slowest expected turnaround, call or text if there is an emergency. Slack is in between, answer when you can, but I’d rather you focus on your work if you are on deadline. Tag someone to bump the urgency just a bit within Slack.

3. Actually use the “video” in “video chat” for “meetings.”

I go out of the way to call them “meetings.” It’s a meeting, not a call. A call is voice only. Does the distinction matter? Probably not. But, it creates a difference between the time where we’re all in one place on video, and quick voice or text comms throughout the day.

Even if it’s only for a moment at the top of the meeting, everyone should jump on video to say “hello.” If someone is calling in because of their situation that day, not a big deal, but we try to be on video when possible. Screen shares are glorious once it’s time to get to work, but it’s important to us to start our time together by remembering that we’re all people here. So, look at the camera, say hi, then we can get down to business.

Also, video just keeps people accountable. We’re less apt to get distracted by reddit while someone is talking when we know the video is on.

4. Also use headphones.

Ideally ones with a mic. The software built into modern video chat platforms is pretty good at balancing an open mic in your room. (That means a mic that can hear your speakers and needs to react to reduce feedback.) But, they never quite work perfectly, which is why you can sometimes hear yourself on a chat. Headphones will fix the feedback. And a mic closer to your mouth will give you that nice radio voice, instead of picking up all that room echo making it sound like you are in a cathedral. You don’t need anything fancy, whatever came with your phone will do. 

If you want to level up from there, use something wireless. Airpods are great. I use gaming headphones. They’re a bit clunkier, but they’re great for audio quality, minimal lag, and a boom gets the mic close to my face. The tradeoff is that I’ve gotta be a CEO while looking like I came here to play Overwatch. It is what it is. (As a funny aside, I have a true radio quality mic I use for podcasts, but it’s actually too nice. It weirds people out in meetings.)

But, here’s the real kicker on the wireless cans: you can walk around. Which gets me to the next thing… 

5. Step away from the screen.

This might sound counter intuitive, but get away from your screen. Like, take two steps back, scoot the chair back. Be present. And carry on. No, this isn’t about improving your camera angle (we’ll get to that.) This is actually about distraction, and about meeting quality.

The point of the meeting is to bring the minds in the room together, but it’s easy to get distracted when you are sitting at a workstation. I have a couple of screens. I set one to full screen with the meeting feed, and I step back far enough that I can’t use the keyboard, or pay attention to other notifications.

Standing is also helpful for the next thing…

6. Over animate.

All credit for this one goes to Prof G on the podcast below, so I’ll mostly let him take it away in the video below.

If you’re the one speaking you have to over compensate. Video is missing the intensity and intimacy of in-person contact. If you’re the one leading the meeting, do some jumping jacks or something. Don’t bring your “I was just working on a doc and then I opened this window” energy to the screen, it’ll sap the energy from the whole meeting.

7. Get a space.

Home office, some kind of co-work space, a closet, whatever. It’s good to have a place to go that’s away from the rest of your life. For some this needs to be a different building, with a bit of a commute. For some, like me, another room in the house is available. At other times in my life it’s just been the understanding the headphones meant work, and no headphones meant not work. Closets can also be useful. I’m serious.

Okay, now let’s get to camera angles!

8. Set design it up.

Remember, your virtual presence in the meeting essentially includes your backdrop. If you have the space, have some fun. A good goal? Give everyone else in the meeting stuff to ask about as they’re just sitting there waiting for everyone else to show up. There are plenty of easter eggs in the screenshot above.

Also, look into purchasing some lights. My setup is overkill (I have a lot of leftover hardwear from my old life as a video producer.) But, if you hit Amazon you can find all kinds of cool, low cost, LED lighting solutions that can do a lot for your backdrop (and your face.) If that’s out of the question putting a lamp right behind and a bit above your screen is a good start.

If you use background replacement, at least have some fun with it.

9. At first, meetings might need a co-pilot.

Hopefully organizations can facilitate this, but your kid could probably do it as well. You know what, just listen to this:

10. Finally, walk around. (But further than last time.)

Take breaks, go for walks, play some video games, make some tea, call a friend. Take the time to shoot the shit with a teammate about something unrelated to work. These are the things you lose in an office. You need to find your version, and build them in. And this basically gets us back to happiness.

Working in an office is easy. You show up every day and a lot of things are handled for you. When you work remotely you have to own a lot more of your schedule to get work done. If you can manage this, you will have time for all of the above in any given day. It’s hard work, in a different way than the grind of showing up at an office, but in fifteen years I have consistently found that the people who can handle it seem to be much happier. 

Okay. Now it’s 3:45. I’m gonna go take a nap, then do a little more work before dinner. ✌️

Also this:

Further reading: Finding comfort in the chaos: How Cory Doctorow learned to write from literally anywhere.

Hear Adam and his co-host Brian talk remote work a year ago on their podcast Zengineering: https://anchor.fm/zengineering-podcast/episodes/073—On-Working-Remotely-e35cp7

And finally, if you want to help us test a product that might help out with some of your remote mailing needs, check out https://getjuris.com/mailroom – and ping me on Twitter (@thekerp) if you want to beta test.