Virtualised Flexibility

Over on Darren Neimke’s (a fellow Readify guy) blog, he has been talking about the concept of a virtualised office.
This morning (well last night, depending on when you went to bed), Darren posted "The Virtual Worker Manifesto", a statement of ideals and guidelines that are helpful in building in boundaries in your virtualised worklife. We need these rules in place because without them we can end up having work truly be a 24×7 thing – the opposite to what one of the drivers is about the very concept.
Darren’s list is really solid and well worth consideration for anyone looking at working from home. I wanted to throw a few extra thoughts and comments into the mix from my own perspective and experience.
1) Email work items to colleagues anytime, just don’t expect an immediate response.  There’s no guarantee that they are on the same cycle as you anyway. 😉
I agree completely, but there is one extra advantage of working in a virtualised office where everyone uses the same communications mediums that I find even better than working in a "real world" office. Rather than emailing a request for information to a specific work colleague, I can email to the list. That way, I can sometimes get a quicker response and the onus isn’t on the one person I might have gone to in the office to answer me.
As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I posted a question in this very way yesterday and Geoff Appleby, a fellow Visual Basic coder responded. The thing is, my mind initially went through a check list of who might be able to answer my question and settled on Paul Stovell because I had spoken to him about generics in the past. In this instance, Paul was busy with something else and so I could have been waiting for a while before he responded (or worse, if I had called him or gone to see him in a physical office I could have interrupted something he needed to be concentrating on). Posting to all of my colleagues, I got a reply within minutes and I was on my way.

2) Don’t phone your work colleagues about work related matters after hours.  Family time is precious.

I also agree with this one, phone calls after "official" work hours are very intrusive on family time. But – don’t be surprised if you email for help and someone sticks their hand up either. I have ended up with phone calls well after "respectable" hours because I and someone else were both working after the family had gone to bed.

3) Zero your Inbox daily.  Or put better… stay on top of things.
How I would love to do this! I suspect it’s a sign of doing too many things if you cannot maintain a clean and tidy Inbox, and while my Readify one is fine, my other stuff isn’t.

4) Subscribe to the alerts – blogs, IM status changes, shared calendars, etc – of your co-workers to keep abreast of what they are up to. This will reduce the amount of time that you need to spend writing emails and engaging in phone conversations and will reserve those activities for only special occasions.
Agreed. 🙂

5) Delegate anything that you can delegate before starting your own work – this is no different to the bricks and mortar rule.
This is actually a lot harder than it sounds – until you get used to it. For a lot of people it’s natural to look at a task list that has been assigned to them and consider it all up to them. If you practice this by perfoming a five minute sanity check on every list you get, whether it’s for home or work, it will become a subconscious action soon enough.

6) Don’t spend your entire day processing email.  Go for extended periods where you are physically disconnected from your email client.  You don’t need be the author of each alternate message in an email thread 🙂
LOL, but agreed. For me personally, when I am working in my preferred model, I have a set time for email and phone calls. This is when I am working from home – I usually get up around 10am, and between the hours of 11am and 3pm, the priority for my work efforts is email/phone. That means if an email comes in during that time I will deal with it straight away. Between 3pm and 9pm it’s family time. I try not to do any work in this interval, and email is certainly at the bottom of the queue. From around 9-10pm through to around 3-4am I get my hardcore coding done. It’s a controllable quiet – meaning I can have utter silence if I wish, or adding headphones*, rock on with some majorly loud music. It’s a zone that is, by default, free from interruptions. I shutdown Outlook, usually set Messenger to Away and get on with coding or writing. Intermittently (perhaps on an hourly basis but it can be less frequent if I am focused on something) during this time I’ll check email and if I have time I will respond.

* Headphones while you work. I know a lot of corporate offices don’t allow people to work with headphones. The idea is that wearing headphones means you can’t participate properly in a team environment. People who want to talk to you specifically need to interrupt you doing something specific, and you miss out on any peripheral activity that might be going on – especially stuff that you may actually be the best person to respond to. In a virtualised office this is not a problem because the way people signal that they want to talk to you is via other means.

Besides, saying that people need to interrupt you listening to music to talk to you actually shows a lack of understanding on how their interaction affects you. If I am totally drilled down, focused on some weird bug, if someone comes up to my desk and starts talking to me, I lose focus and concentration and therefore my efficiency is reduced. This occurs regardless of whether I am wearing headphones. On the contrary, in physical offices that allow headphones, I would only be interrupted by something that was truly important. I understand what the corporate is getting at, I just don’t agree with it 100%.

7) Take advantage of the best of what virtual has to offer.  Have lunch with your family.  Work from the beach.  Grow a beard.  Chill out!
Exactly! And as you relax, your working life becomes more enjoyable too.

8) Shower daily.  Yes… DAILY – and while you are at it get out of the house too!
Ah, this is something I agree with but sometimes don’t do. When you’re working from home, sometimes it’s easy to wake up with an idea, jump on the computer to get it down and then realise it’s dinner time and you haven’t showered. Being clean is actually really conducive to working well. In my experience, those days I forget to shower are the days that I end up feeling a little out of place, or even stressed. The stress part comes from not actually having taken a break – not even for a shower.

Getting out of the house – fresh air, different perspective on things, new scenery, etc – is one of the most powerful things you can do when you work from home, but it’s also one of the most difficult to justify until you get used to it. Even now, after 4 years of working from home, I sometimes feel guilty about taking an hour’s break to go walk along the beach. Whenever I do it though, I come back refreshed and revitalised.

9) Invest in creating a pleasant working environment.  Don’t skimp on your virtual habitat.  Buy a water cooler, a nice painting, and invest in having a pleasant view.
This is what I’m working on at the moment. We’re building a new house, and one of the essential parts going into the planning phase was to have a good sized office that would allow me some freedom, but at the same time was somehow disconnected from the rest of the house. What we ended up with was a two-room office that is reached by a long corridor that runs down between the bedrooms.

As I walk down the hallway I am going "to" work – it’s a transition space that, due only to its size and shape, cannot be used for work or home. Coming "home from work" is done in the same way. And yeah, having a two-room office might sound like luxury and it probably is. 🙂

10) Re-think how you communicate with your co-workers and choose your communication medium wisely.  No need to choose a synchronous medium when an asynchronous one will do.
Which is why email, blogs, Sharepoint, and even IM are so cool. I sometimes use IM as a shortcut to email. I know the person I wanted to talk to isn’t at their computer – they might be marked as Away or Sleeping, but the topic isn’t important enough for an email trail to be started, so I shoot them a quick IM to say something like "hey, when you’re free, can you please give me a yell."

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39 Responses to Virtualised Flexibility

  1. Darren says:

    Great article Andrew!

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