On Working Remotely, Cofficing And Creativity

I’ve been an advocate on working remotely for over 15 years now.

My first two HTML sites that I built for clients as a student were in 1999. In 2001 I was fixing computers and reinstalling OS and software apps, part of that was done from home or with Remote Desktop. In 2002 I started writing a weekly security bulletin for IDG, and 2003 was my half-time job from home for a media outlet working on two of their websites.

Since 2008 I’ve been working remotely full-time, and I’ve been through all phases of remote work: freelancer, consultant, part of a semi-distributed or 100% distributed team, and over the past 5 years I’ve been leading my distributed WordPress development agency DevriX.

Why Remote?

Other than the usual advocating that remote work is better, I had a few good reasons to switch to a remote work model.

new-york-city-commute

In 2005-2007 I used to commute for about 3 hours a day. In 2007 I had to work on a project at the office while both my clients and bosses were in other countries. My clients were in South America while I was doing 9-to-6 hours at the office, and most of my work was actually supposed to happen in the evening, even though I didn’t have company access through a VPN (or anything else other than an email).

It was a waste of time.

I tried to discuss the remote work opportunity with my managers and our CTO since they let me do 30 hr/week, but they claimed that this will affect the office moral among the other workers.

80% of office workers complain re: temperature
80% of office workers complain re: temperature

I was also in a constant fight with the other two guys in my room on casual things like the room temperature, light or humidity. We had different preferences and none of us was effective when it was too bright or cold, but we couldn’t find a good balance.

To avoid the evening traffic, I got used to watch a movie after work since leaving at 6:15pm led to reaching my home at 8pm, and leaving at 8pm – after peak hours – I was getting back home before 8:30pm.

Travelling with my car did not allow me to read books or educate myself better since I was busy, you know, driving. And smartphones and mobile Internet weren’t advanced enough for online streaming, the latest audio books and such.

And that’s how I switched to full-time freelancing.

Learning Remote

Working for myself was obviously way different than what I expected it to be. Every aspiring freelancer believes that clients are great, work is just waiting for you once you change your LinkedIn title, the project management comes naturally and you are completely comfortable with completing every single project within the agreed budget and time frame.

Working remotely myths on Oatmeal
Working remotely myths on Oatmeal

Biggest lie ever.

I started to read a dozen blogs on freelancing, educating myself on running a one man show and managing everything. There was a lot to learn though – 9-to-6 is a boring model, but your work is waiting for you when you enter the office, and you’re done after the clock ticks 6pm. You don’t bother directly with clients (most of the time), care about company financials or deal with the operations and logistics. It’s different than running an actual business and covering the monthly costs.

Freelance Folder was one of my first resources together with Freelance Switch (that got acquired and partially killed by Envato). I got into various resources on client negotiations, personal time management, financial stuff and more that was new to me.

Later on I bought dozens of books covering freelancing and working remotely. The last two books that I tend to recommend when it comes to remote working are Remote and The Year Without Pants. I got into monitoring everything related to remote working from Automattic, GitHub, 37signals, Buffer and other startups and innovative companies embracing the remote working model.

I have given several talks on working remotely, running remote teams, freelancing and working productively. My last talk was on Saturday for a conference in the mountains, where I gave my session over Google Hangouts on Air and I set up an IRC client on my blog for questions after the talk. I used to run the local Freelance community for a while and in 2011 we did a great conference with over 130 freelancers and a full day of various talks on freelancing.

It’s been a long journey and I’m just as passionate about working remotely as I was back then. I meet other freelancers, consultants and agency owners all the time at coffee shops, and we often collaborate on amazing projects together or brainstorm on business topics.

Energy And Productivity Management

I had to experiment with different ways to work remotely and measure my creativity. I spent months trying Polyphasic Sleep and other sleeping regimes, Pomodoro and other time management structures, and different working environments.

Freelance Freedom's comics about the real life
Freelance Freedom’s comics about the real life

I figured out that I can do a 16-hour work day if I sleep for an hour or two in the afternoon. I was efficient between 2pm and 5pm and after 10pm. I experimented with sport/exercises and different food habits as well, sorting out my most productive hours, my “energy supplements”, my nap schedule and more. It’s hard to stay motivated and productive without the right process in place.

I even spent two years reading more on psychology and NLP, which helped me immensely with my client communication skills, training abilities and overall control over my own mind.

In a year or two I knew myself well enough to plan my time properly, work whenever I’m most productive, schedule calls and meetings without interrupting my work flow, and still manage to keep myself productive when there’s overtime and tough deadlines, combining some food supplements, exercises or naps when needed.

Nowadays, having to manage over a dozen people and deal with clients, planning, deadlines and finances, I can still catch up with everything and make myself available when needed without harming my productivity levels too much. I am aware whenever I feel fully charged and when I’m tired, I know when I can multitask or it’s better to focus on one thing, and I’d rather close my lid for an hour and watch the sky than discuss something important while being exhausted.

One of the worst problems for a freelancer (or a general worker) is burnout. If you don’t know yourself well enough and can’t figure out when you’re burning out, that could lead to months of ineffective work, or even complete inability to touch a keyboard. I know a few people who had to spend 6-9 months being unable to work, until they can recover from their burnout. They had to quit jobs and just do nothing for a while – unemployed, as their minds refused to compute anything related to work. They were unable to complete even trivial tasks or understand basic concepts, something that even a junior can easily grasp and tackle.

Part of Our Open Source Culture

Working remotely is a natural model that fits the Open Source culture. A good number of open source projects have started with contributors around the globe, or at least working from different cities. They were playing with a project together until it got traction and other remote folks got involved with it.

Often those projects are ran by people from different teams, companies, even jobs. A good example is WordPress itself, with Matt Mullenweg in the US and Mike Little from the UK working together, with other contributors joining them from other parts of the world.

In December Matt mentioned a post by Paul Graham ranting against the anti-immigration policy. Since about 95% of the work force is outside of the US, Paul is struggling with finding talent and asking for changes in the visa process and work policies.

However, Matt responds with a common solution for our work style:

I agree that the US deserves dramatically better immigration policies, but in the meantime I’m confused with the head-in-the-sand approach most tech companies are taking simultaneously complaining that there are lots of great people they can’t bring into the US, but being stubborn on keeping a company culture that requires people to be physically co-located.

Matt runs Automattic, a fully-distributed company with 310 employees working from all over the world and building products such as WordPress.com, one of the top 10 most visited sites in the US. When I say distributed, the folks have team members in numerous countries and over a hundred cities:

automattic-map-employees

Remote workers are evaluated in a different way than people in an office environment. Instead of forcing the 9-to-5 model, we – remote managers – establish Results-Only Work Environments. We value results, not time spend. We respect creativity, and not just presence. We realize that the global world is available 24/7, and solving problems is what matters, not just filling in a room with people.

Scott Berkun, the author of “The Year Without Pants” hired by Automattic to lead a team and write a book about their work style, wrote a long overview on “Why Isn’t Remote Work More Popular?” While brainstorming over the state of business in the States, he makes a logical observation on the type of work that most people do at the office:

How much of your daily work is done through a computer screen? 30%? 50%? At any moment you are working through a screen, you could be anywhere in the world while you’re doing it. Whatever benefits there are of being in the same office, when working strictly through a screen those benefits are neutralized.

Every mobile device and laptop is by definition a remote working tool.

Most of us spend the majority of our time on a laptop, or on the phone, writing, designing or doing anything else that does not depend on other people. There is no reason to stay at the office. Most people argue that meetings are essential, even though the majority of the studies prove that 70%+ of the employees hate these and consider meetings as a waste of time.

In my guest post for WP Elevation Distributed Team – Embrace The Globe, I shared the profit report by Cisco when they switched to telecommuting model, and another very important research study that we should remember:

75% of the heart attacks and strokes happen between 5am and 8am.  People are so stressed about waking up and heading to the office before the next traffic jam that their health is put at serious risk.

An hour long meeting with 10 people is 10 lost hours. It could probably fit in about 10 minutes, or discussed in a project management system, or announced via email, or even a Google Hangouts that does not expect you to be in the same room. And there is no need to schedule meetings every two or three hours, or expect people to drive in the morning and take unnecessary risks since they’re afraid of missing (or being late for) a meeting.

Sean covered some major problems for people failing to embrace the remote work style for Harvard Business Review and it’s clear that some companies are unable to adjust their management model for effective communication and collaboration, or understand the cultural differences around the world. There is no secret sauce really, it’s all about priorities and making it work while following the best practices for leading remote teams.

Cofficing

After trying to work from home for a while, visit my friends’ offices or working from co-working spaces, I found a few coffices where I was incredibly productive. And I wrote a few posts for fellow cofficers, such as the 6 Tips for Working From Coffee Shops at WP Elevation.

cofficing-bar-nargileWorking remotely is all about self-management and being able to focus completely on work, isolating everything else around you. Spending a week or two at home was tough for me – cooking lunch, doing some laundry, even watching a movie during the lunch break. Meeting family members in the evening or doing other house work led to spending less focused time on work.

Working with other people around me was often distracting for me as well. I was constantly alert and in standby mode, waiting for people to ask me any questions, show their progress or anything else that would interrupt my work. Unless I’ve allocated a time slot for that, I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be.

Cofficing is my passion since it combines the best of both worlds. There is no way for me to do some work at home or watch a movie, and while there are other people working around me, none of them is going to come and ask me anything. I was on my own, doing whatever I have to do for the day.

Cofficing turned out to be a whole movement, with a solid and incredible community, similarly to the one in the Open Source world. As I shared with The Coffice for my latest interview:

I distrust the office environment and 9-to-5 business hours. It’s counter-productive and inefficient. Most jobs nowadays are creative, and working from different Coffices can boost imagination and stimulate creativity. Also, working from Coffices a few days a week can provide a feeling of belonging and professional camaraderie.

TheCoffice.biz is one of the new websites for Cofficers, and Sam’s taking interviews from different folks working remotely. The site is actually a map for coffices – coffee shops where people tend to work on a regular basis, and it accepts contributions for coffee shops in different countries. I’m sure that it will grow to be a solid database of coffices all around the world, helping people to discover great places around them, or work while they are traveling.

Lisa Evans wrote a great article on Entrepreneur – “The Best Places to Work Aren’t In the Office“. I did mention some tips there, and other entrepreneurs shared their secrets for working in the car, the library or the train, being productive and efficient without working from the office.

the-coffice-resort-book-page

About two years ago I wrote a short book called “The Coffice Resort” that includes my guide for working from coffices. If you’re interested in trying out the Cofficer lifestyle, I’ve shared what I’m looking for in a coffice, and different gadgets and techniques that would help you to be productive from your closest Starbucks or local coffee shop.

Bottom Line

While cofficing is not for everyone, you need to spend at least two weeks working remotely in order to get used to the culture. If you get an extra week in the summer working on a pet project, or traveling for a month while having to work in the meantime, give it a shot and see how it goes.

And if you’d like to know more about productive cofficing, read the Coffice Resort and tell me how does it work for you. I’ll answer your comments here and hopefully, you’ll become a fellow Cofficer, too!

P.S. I have given other interviews on cofficing for different media outlets like The Coffice and Capital.

14 thoughts on “On Working Remotely, Cofficing And Creativity

  1. What is your coffee per hour rate? I feel guilty when I keep working for a few hours but don’t want another coffee!

    1. I have a few tips here actually. Starbucks and Costa (and similar coffee chains) are a bit more expensive, and I usually spend about 3 hours in a coffee shop. So I usually get two cups of coffee, or a sandwich, coffee and water.

      It really depends, but that’s an example.

      Some of the other places I go to are about half the price of Starbucks (or less) so it’s less of a problem, especially if you find quiet places that are not crowded – then you’re not interrupting the cash flow of the coffee shop.

      I also work daily from a hookah (nargile) bar and it’s normal to smoke a hookah for about 2-3 hours, or even more. 🙂

    2. Make sure you buy all your food at wherever you are working too. I try to eat breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner at whererever I’m working. Then I order drinks during the gap times. Buying just drinks would result in me drinking too much.

      It also depends on where you are. I live in Berlin where many cafes don’t seem to mind people meandering around geeking out on their computer whilst barely buying a thing.

      1. Right, food is a better option if available at the coffee shop. Plus, they have some breakfast or lunch promos at some of the places where I’ve been.

        Drinking too much is not a problem for me, since I tend to drink more water and other non-soda drinks, last time I checked that was a healthy habit.

  2. I still can’t believe that cofficing is for me. As you have said it yourself, it is not for everyone. However, the idea itself is somewhat enticing when you think about it.
    I definitely would not want to leave the warmth of my apartment during the winter months even if it raises my productivity. 🙂

    1. It surely isn’t for everyone. Especially if you don’t have to travel, do meetings and such.

      Whenever I travel, I have to be able to work from everywhere, and when I have meetings, I’d like to be productive before and after them, checking on the team, progress, assigning tasks and such. Or between meetings.

      That said, I’d like to be comfortable with as many different work styles as possible, since that makes me more productive, even if I prefer a given model. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this! I’ve never thought about different sleeping patterns, rather my concern as of late is just sleep in general as I’m still working the expected 40 hour work week in an office haha. I am definitely discovering that remote is the way to go, both for my commute and more productivity. Although I’ve worked remotely from time to time, I’ve never done it full-time so seeing so many resources in your article are a great help! I’m definitely interested in Automattic – so wondering if that book is more from a manager’s perspective or will developers get something out of it too?

    Also, I’d be really interested in what computer setups have worked well for you in WordPress development? There’s a lot of resources on sleeping/eating/productivity practices for working remotely, but I’ve yet to see an article from someone about what kind of software they use, what kind of hardware they use etc?

    For example, I have a older 15″ Macbook and even with spaces, I find it difficult to flesh out pixel perfect websites due to size and memory slowing it down. Sometimes the fancy souped up computer in an office definitely helps out, question is what’s it souped up with? And if I want to work in a park, how can I guarantee steady internet connection without using some shady wifi spot? Same with coffee shops – what’s to guarantee some hacker won’t be stalking my computer as I work? If you could provide any insights, that’d be awesome. I think worries about security and whether my computer can handle full time remote is my main concern before I can really make the jump.

    Thanks again. 🙂

    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for the kind comment 🙂

      My first few years as a cofficer were related to full-time development work, so I can confirm that it’s not only emails and chats. In 2011-2012 I’ve noticed that spending 6 hours a week in Starbucks resulted in half of my commits during the week.

      Especially when there is no power socket near me, I feel more productive being pressured by time. A tight backlog can be followed without distractions with various constraints.

      My interview for The Coffice actually includes my technical setup too – https://www.thecoffice.biz/blog/cofficer-profile-c1315 – so you can see what I use at the coffice. Similar advise is available in the Coffice Resort book linked above – what to look for at a coffice and different strategies.

      Speaking of Automattic, I’ve met more than a hundred people working there using notebooks for their day-to-day work, since they’re used to being distributed. I’m not an Apple person myself, but most people are productive enough with a notebook and have enough computing power for whatever they do. Not to mention that you can do tough complications at a remote server that would do the heavy lifting and yield the result for you.

      The main connectivity questions are related to finding the right coffice with a decent wifi, and purchasing a good data plan (or a 3G USB stick or a modem). I tether part of the time and use coffice WiFis whenever needed. Security-wise, there are paid VPN providers that could cost about $10/month providing security tunnels so that your data is safe.

      So combining the wifi for data-heavy tasks with tethering or a VPN for sensitive data is a way to go. 🙂

      1. Hi Mario,

        Sounds like a WiFi USB might be a good place to start for me – and perhaps some computer cleanup. Your interview just reminded me to buy a headset. Also good tip on the power socket, that’s worth a try for me as well as I tend to be distracted by the internet if I have unlimited time and 90% power. 🙂

        Will definitely look into VPNs too. Thanks for the in-depth answer.

  4. Useful stuff here Mario! You’ve put a lot of time in to understand yourself better, which is the key to being able to make adjustments and tweaks to becoming even more productive and see what works best to keep improving. I’m trialling a co-working space a few days per week for productivity and networking benefits, and I might fill the other days with some cofficing to see how that goes too. Great article!

    1. Thanks, and happy to help. Trying out different environments is essential, and getting to know yourself better is essential for your growth on every level.

      People are often limited in an artificial way – just because they don’t know themselves, or can’t explain what is happening around them. Once you dig into that and explore the unknown, everything becomes straight forward and you gain access to new resources and abilities, so to speak 🙂

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