Users’ Advocate: Working Remotely Is Real Working

I’m feeling a little defensive.

Usually I’m excited when I start a column because I’ve come across something cool and I want to share. Defensive might not be the best state of mind, but it’s got the juices flowing now and my fingers are banging on the keyboard.

What’s got my hackles up?

I overheard this conversation at work:

Coworker A: “Where’s Coworker C?

Coworker B: “Oh, he’s working from home today.”

Coworker A: “So is he actually working or…?”

And there it is: the implication that “working from home” is code for “slacking off”.

It was an honest question. So why did my coworker’s unintentional slight, not even directed at me, get me stewing? Why do I feel defensive?

After 20+ years of technical writing, of sustained, on-time productivity, of continued innovation, and burgeoning enthusiasm, I shouldn’t need to defend anything. I shouldn’t, but have I really ever thought about it much? Why do I hate the implication that working from home is just a hyperlocal staycation in your PJs?

The implication gets my dander up because I work from home close to 5% of the time, about one workday a month. Friends tell me I have an enviably flexible schedule. I know this deep in my bones because I worked years at many jobs with not-so-flexible schedules.

I prefer the flexibility.

And I believe telecommuting is more than merely a benefit conferred to me by my job function and my seniority. It’s a powerful tool in my tech-writer arsenal for delivering good content to my users and ensuring user success.

But am I just fooling myself?

Is there some truth at the core of that negative perception? Am I a better writer in the office or at home? Can a writer be an effective users’ advocate when working from home?

According to a report from Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs, the number of telecommuting workers in the U.S. has seen a 115% increase since 2005. That’s only 2.9% of the total workforce and I’d be willing to bet that the percentage of knowledge workers is much higher, but working from home still feels special. So if your employer prohibits or your position precludes working from home you have an entirely different challenge. But if telecommuting is a possibility, maybe an option you haven’t considered or a benefit your employer is on the fence about, maybe my indignation-fueled thoughts can help.

Perceptions and Reality

What do others think about your work habits? How does their perception affect you? How can you manage that perception?

When you’re at your desk, perception isn’t an issue. It’s pretty simple. You’re visible. Whether you’re writing or playing Candy Crush, your butt in the swivel chair signals your commitment with just a casual glance from your coworkers.

Also, in-office time is a status symbol to a certain mindset. I’ve watched coworkers compete with each other, beating their chests over how many hours they’ve spent in the office, how early they came in on a Saturday morning, and how late they stayed. How can you compete with that? Do you even want to compete with that? There’s not much you can do to change their minds or their values. You just hope you don’t report to them.

If you’re not in the office, people don’t see you (obviously), but you’re not “out of sight, out of mind”. Your coworkers expect to see you, but they don’t, so they fall back on their imagination. When you’re working from home, you give your coworkers a chance to imagine what they would do if they were at home. And it’s too easy to starting thinking of all the things you could get away with if you didn’t have someone watching over you.

“When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

There’s an undeniably strong core of truth to this saying, but let’s consider that you’re not the average mouse. You’re a little surfer mouse on a little surfboard. A cresting wave of deliverables and commitments is heading your way. You know you have to paddle like crazy because, whether or not the cat overseer is watching, that wave is going to pound you if you don’t.

The challenge for our surfer mouse is demonstrating to all the other mice on shore, preoccupied with their own jobs, that you’re not just lounging in the sun but that you’re actually doing the work. The best way I’ve found to do that is by staying connected.

Connection versus Communication

When I say “connected” I mean both technology-enabled connectivity as well as good old-fashioned interpersonal relationships.

Technology allows me to work from home. I stay productive because of broadband Internet, remote desktop functionality, and my smartphone.

With technology I can demonstrate to my coworkers and to my management that, although I’m not taking up space at my desk, I’m still responsive and productive. While video chat apps like Apple FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and Skype have revolutionized remote collaboration, my daily bread-and-butter is still email: emails with content for review, all-hands emails announcing doc releases, emails that complement development processes and make it clear to everyone that I’m on the job.

So technology enables connectivity when working from home, but a hard truth for the telecommuter is that real communication involves so much more than just connectivity. You’re a part of a team, and one of the most effective team-building exercises is the daily grind.

Officemates share a wealth of experiences that bind them together: the commute to work, the local weather, lunch options in the area (or lack thereof), and executive eccentricities to giggle over. The office presents so many opportunities for interaction with its choke points (like entrances/exits, restrooms, the coffeemaker) and congregation areas (like break rooms and meeting rooms). These are the places where small talk happens. Although often reviled as a time-wasting inanity, small talk remains one of my most powerful tools.

Office small talk often blossoms into full-blown conversations about shared interests and experiences. Small talk breaks the ice between you and coworkers and makes your coworkers much more approachable. Approaching coworkers is one of my key job functions.

Approachable coworkers can make your job so much easier, not just in traditional tech-writer ways when you’re looking for technical or domain expertise for your content, but also in the nuts-and-bolts practicalities of doing your job.

For example, that coworker you share the electric kettle with in the breakroom is not just a fellow tea drinker, she’s in charge of the accounting system for expenses and capital outlay. When you need to upgrade your tools, she has answers to your questions, such as the dollar-amount threshold for expensing software purchases. That other coworker who shares your passion for fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi? Not only do you get to swap recipes with him, he’s also the Director of Operations. If you need some advice when setting up a feedback server, he and his team have solutions.

So is there a work-from-home equivalent to these connections? Yes, but in my experience, you have to work harder at it –to be more deliberate about being friendly and personable. I have to be extroverted in my communications. I take small, calculated risks by injecting personal details and careful, appropriate humor into my emails and phone conversations. Nearly all of the time, the target of my communication is obviously relieved that there’s another human being on the other end of the line, not just a faceless drone.

I’ve learned that one account manager is a die-hard Star Wars fan. Excited talk about the latest movie numbs the sting of a customer-reported API doc bug. Another account manager is an audiophile, so chatting about our favorite headphones eases the transition to the crux of the call: a new doc request. One coworker is from New Zealand, so we commiserate about the rare All Blacks rugby defeat or exult in America’s Cup yacht racing triumph and along the way we segue into how documentation fits into product strategies for the coming year.

It looks like the office holds an edge over working from home for communication and practical connections. However, with much of our business activity globally distributed, I apply this conscious, work-from-home communication style even when I’m in the office. Overall, I’d say it’s a wash.

Distraction

When I hear people express their prejudice against working from home, I wonder why these folks seem to think the office is a temple of productivity, a purpose-built space for focus and application.

Even a tiny bit of experience smashes this idea to pieces.

When I’m in the office I’m surrounded by a buzzing swarm of distractions: my phone ringing with calls from salespeople, support, and technical account managers, HipChat pinging at me, email scrolling.

My company has low cubicle walls, the drawbacks and benefits of which could inspire an entire column. Suffice it to say that distractions are heightened: coworkers catching up over the weekend; talking about the NBA championship; using speakerphone to take calls and sift through voicemail; starting meetings and leaving the meeting-room door open; leaving their mobile devices pumping out hip-hop ringtones on their desks.

Then you have the distractions that crack your concentration and threaten your sanity no matter how tall your cubicle walls. Ever tried to parse out the details of a new API while someone reheats steamed fish with fermented black bean sauce in the microwave or tries to set the break room on fire with microwaved popcorn?

Distractions at home abound as well: garage-band neighbors, dogs that bark all day, package delivery knocking at the door and ringing the doorbell, incessant phone calls from IRS scammers and duct-cleaning services.

In fact, other temptations and distractions are unique to your homespace. My cats enjoy laying on my keyboard and pushing stuff off my desk. When I’m working at my home workstation, all of my favorite games are just a few clicks away on Steam. With no peer-monitored public space to keep me disciplined, I could binge that latest Netflix show on the big TV in our living room. Who’s going to stop me?

That little surfer mouse stops me, that’s who. I have commitments and responsibilities at work and at home. If I don’t get the work done, the work that other folks are expecting of me, the work I actually enjoy doing, then bad things happen. Apart from those negative consequences, I also have to live with myself.

Truthfully, the single most powerful distraction I’ve experienced at home is my loved ones.

Home Office image by Joanna Alderson on flickr.comEveryone in the household has to make the transition from work in the office to working from home, and that’s difficult. Significant others, even when trying their best to lay low, can distract just by their presence. They are significant after all.

Small children are noisy and they just can’t understand that Daddy or Mommy is on an important call or is working under a tight deadline. Large children are noisy too. In fact, as I’m writing this column, I’m listening to my son whoop and shriek and groan as he and his teammates compete in round after round of an online game.

When I first started telecommuting, my home office defined “expedient” and “cheap”: a bare IKEA table jammed into the corner of our dining room. I was totally at the mercy of every household distraction.

Our solution is, frankly, one of the most expensive. When we remodeled our house we added an extra bedroom/office. So now, even though my kids are older now and less dependent on their parents’ attention, I can dive into my home office, close the door, and block out all the noise and media-inspired drama.

Does the office or telecommuting win in the distraction category? I think telecommuting holds an edge here because you ultimately have more control over your home environment.

Typical Homework

Some work must be done on-site. A construction welder can’t weld girders in a coffee shop. Even with recent advances in remote surgery, it’s not likely that surgeons will be removing gallbladders from their living rooms any time soon. A writer, however, can work just about anywhere, and many aspects of technical writing are not tied to a physical office space. When I have a pile of this sort of work to do, it benefits from the focus I can bring to bear when I’m at home.

Writing

My sources are lined up. I’ve gone the distance with the development team over the latest sprint, laying down a lot of documentation groundwork. I have access to an integrated, feature-complete beta of the release. Any questions that come up are not likely to be fundamental blockers and can be handled with an email. It’s time to write a draft.

As long as I have access to a keyboard and authoring tools, I can write anywhere. I’ve been desperate enough to work in a text editor on my iPad. Given the choice, however, I prefer a comfortable, more feature-rich environment like my workstation at home, even if one of those features is a cat who insists on laying across my keyboard.

Editing

I’ve got a rough draft. Now it’s time to do some substantive editing and copyediting before I send out a review draft to my experts and deciders.

You might call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I need a change of pace so I’ll often print out some content and mark it up. I even have a nice pencil sharpener for my red checking pencils. If I’m in the office, I’ll take my papers and my pencil, kick off my shoes, lay on a couch, and get to work.

I attract a lot less attention when I do this at home.

Production

In years past, a release meant a documentation deathmarch. All those PDFs weren’t going to build themselves. I spent way too many 18+-hour workdays juggling last-minute edits and proofing and tweaks and builds, finally driving home in the quiet, cool darkness of 2am.

I don’t miss those years past.

These days, building the docs still takes several hours, but I’ve worked hard over the years to automate most of the process so the it doesn’t take my undivided attention. While my Python scripts churn out the branded output for our customers, I quality check the docs, prep them for delivery, and then quality check the delivery before I announce to the world that the latest editions are hot off the press, so to speak.

All of this work is essential and it requires absolutely zero interaction with anyone else. In other words, it’s a perfect candidate for telecommuting.

A Partial List of Working Remotely Benefits

I was tempted to call this section “intangibles” and, frankly, from an empirical standpoint some of these points are hard to measure, but for the person who feels the effects of them they are far from intangible. This is where the benefits of working from home start to pile on.

Morale

I might not be able to cite the research and numbers to back it up, but I’d be willing to argue that an engaged and happy writer is a better users’ advocate.

Wardrobe

I’ve worked with people who believe strongly that you cannot be professional unless you wear a uniform, either an actual uniform or the uniform of business attire outlined in your employee handbook. Whatever “professional” means to these folks, I interpret it to mean “do a good job”. I’ve known plenty of professionals who looked the part and who I wouldn’t trust to make me toast.

A writer friend of mine was sincerely impressed that I wear button-down shirts to work. I don’t dress to impress. It’s part of my role as the users’ advocate, a cross-functional, pan-organizational worker who one minute will be chatting with the senior IT guy in a superhero T-shirt, cargo shorts, and Birkenstocks, and the next minute called into a meeting with senior management and customers. I dress to not offend or distract.

None of this is much concern when telecommuting, unless you have a video conference scheduled.

I’m not going to deny that when I look good, I feel good. Studies have demonstrated links between what you wear and how you think (The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing). I’m also not going to deny that it’s prudent to dress appropriately. Just as with good doc, you need to consider your audience. I will say that I do draw inspiration from my flame-print lounge pants and, when I’m staring down a 16-hour day of editing and production, they are really comfy.

Disease

Some days I’m sick enough not to make it into the office, but not flat-out bedridden. With deadlines and other responsibilities looming, I’ll work from home. I really appreciate being able to stay at least marginally productive in quarantine. I know that my coworkers appreciate my choice to self-quarantine as well.

Commute

I have friends and coworkers who spend four hours a day commuting to and from work. If you take a bus or train with Internet connectivity, that time isn’t completely wasted, but public transportation is generally not a good option where I live and work. My 22-minute drive at 5am is a 90-minute drive at 7am and a 75-minute express bus ride. When I telecommute, I save myself the stress and expense while I apply that commute time to getting stuff done.

Conclusion

So is there some truth at the core of that negative perception? Yes, but there are ways to counteract it and to educate your coworker in the ways of the responsible and productive telecommuter. The effort pays big dividends.

Am I a better writer in the office or at home? Neither. I’m a different writer in the office and at home. I acknowledge that I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I spent 100% of my time remotely, but that’s not my purpose. My telecommuting complements my office time, allowing me to pack work into my life more efficiently. With working from home an option, I can tackle problems big and small with more flexibility, creativity, and enthusiasm, deriving more effective and consistent solutions to those problems than I could otherwise.

Can a writer be an effective users’ advocate when working from home? Absolutely.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is Manager, Technical Writing at Integral Development Corp. in Palo Alto, California. He has worked for 20 years to bridge the gap between user intent and user success with technical communication. Phil has written about hardware and software, managed a team, and created a full range of content from user guides and help systems to API doc in multiple programming languages and messaging technologies. His ongoing passions are lean documentation and process automation. Phil lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and two kids.

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