metal & gin

a random collection of thoughts Powered by Obtvse

Work. Life. Balance.

I'm a self-employed contractor, the nature of what I do means I work for lots of different companies. One thing that I find constantly fascinating is company culture, specifically attitudes to the work / life balance.

Remote Working

There's been a lot talk just lately around the subject of remote working, first there was 37 Signals announcing their third book: Remote: Office Not Required, all about remote working and how in this day and age employees need not be in the same physical location, or indeed even the same timezone! (a belief I hold very very strongly).

The second was new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer announcing that she is stopping all Yahoo! staff from remote working in an internal memo which was leaked.

One of the biggest drivers for me leaving the world of full-time, permanent employment was to find a better work / life balance, and I've found that a huge and important part achieving that balance is the freedom to work remotely.

Being able to work remotely has enabled me to launch and run a business in my spare time, learn new skills, and enabled me to spend more quality time with my partner, pets and friends.

I think we're finally at a tipping point where the remote workforce is being appreciated as a valuable addition or indeed replacement for the traditional 9-5 at their desks workforce.

But we're not quite there yet, let me tell you about a recent experience of mine.

Normally when I accept a contract I ensure that there is an element of remote working involved, or that the company I'll be working for is at least open to the idea.

At the beginning of 2013 I accepted a contract to work for the Money Advice Service, It was a 100% onsite (i.e. no remote work) contract. After just 3 days I was ready to leave and searching for my next opportunity.

MAS had issues besides the lack of remote working (or flexibility) that drove me to leave, but I'll cover those another time). The thing I want to focus on is the lack of remote working.

Whilst at MAS I would spend more than 4 hours a day commuting to work, 4 hours a day. Thats's 20 hours a week, 80 hours a month! Ten whole working days a month spent travelling.

And people all over the country are doing this, day in and day out. It's insane. Luckily the internet industry (in which I work) is far more open to exploring new ways of working, and companies taking the (minimal) risk are reaping the (massive) rewards.

As an example, I'm a horrible morning person, so I would generally get into MAS for between 9:30-10am depending on trains, because of my commute I would ensure I leaved on the dot at 5pm. Even if I wanted to I couldn't work any longer than that.

Contrast that with when I work remotely and I'll start around 8 and finish around 6/7pm. I don't even notice I'm working longer half the time.

It's not just that you tend to work longer hours when you're happy, comfortable and at home. Productivity also goes up.

I can get more actual work done from home then I ever have done in an office environment, there are less distractions, less meetings and because someone can't just walk up to my desk and ask me a question, there are less broken stints of hardcore programming time.

I think it's really easy to make it work for everyone involved, I have 3 things I like to ensure when working from home:

Asynchronous communication is king

Skype, iChat, Basecamp, anything like that. This enables people to communicate with me asynchronously.

Asynchronous communication works because unlike walking to my desk and hassling me, therefore breaking my flow, I can come to your question as soon as I'm not in the middle of something.

My clients will use this type of channel 90% of the time, and it gives them a constant, always open way of communicating with me.

For times when more is needed we'll use video chat (Skype or FaceTime) or a voice call.

Transparent, accessible planning

Being a remote worker means you have to be self-starting.

A huge part of this means having access to the planned work streams. As great as Kanban Boards, Agile Planning Wall and other such "index card stuck to a wall" type planning solutions are, they don't really work if you're not all in the same room.

To solve this any planning or story management needs to be online. Trello, Pivotal Tracker, JIRA anything like that will do. I've even worked on contracts where we've used Google Drive spreadsheets to manage work.


Closely related to planning, I need to ensure that my client can see (with ease) exactly what I'm doing, and what I've done.

A combination of the above and something like Github enables all facets of my clients business (planning, qa, other developers) to see what I've been working on.

Because all of these tools are online, and offer commenting / discussion tools (around say a story or a commit) it actually enables better communication then if people worked in little black boxes and had to hold a meeting to get everyone on the same page.

Remote working has been fantastic for me for the past three years, with about 80% of my working time being spent working from home.

I'm really pleased to see a wider discussion happening at the moment about remote working.

I know I'm not alone when I say that not only does remote working give me a happier, more balanced life but it also enables me to be more productive and produce better results for my clients.

Win win.

Starting to blog again

Over the years I've had many blogs, or I should say i've had many attempts at blogs. Eventually I've given up on them due to either lack of time (a really weak excuse, which I'll get in to in a minute) or because I've forced myself to try and blog about one particular thing like rails, or tried to run multiple blogs at once (professional, personal etc.)

Not anymore.

From now I'm going to maintain this blog, and only this blog and I'm going to try really hard to write at least every week, if not more. To help me achieve this and to set my thinking on the right path I've come up with some "rules" for myself.

The rules

  1. I will not try and use my blog as a technical playground, i'll find a blogging platform I like and only tweak it when needed
  2. I'll write about whatever I like and not restrict myself
  3. I will try and make the time to blog frequently

The platform

I settled on Obtvse , it's simple, clean and focused on writing first. It's also open source so I have the freedom to tweak it as I see fit, and it's written ruby, so will be easier for me to tweak should I need to.

Trying to find the time to write

I recently read an article which annoyingly I can't find anymore, it was about rising early, or sleep patterns or something like that.

Anyway, the point is that the author mentioned that they awoke early in order to write a blog post everyday. Eventually I'd love to get to that point, but for now I'm happy to just write more often.

So that's my plan, my promise to myself. To give this another chance. Expect future posts to be about... what ever might be on my mind.