In the April issue of Inc. Magazine they did a great feature story about virtual companies, actually going as far as turning Inc. “virtual” for the production of the April issue. The entire article is a great read and touches upon many of the aspects of running a remote company, but I found the reactions of some of the Inc. staff who were working from home to be particularly interesting. Here are a few quotes from the article:
…”The hardest aspect was just getting my family to accept that while I am now physically at home, I am not really available,” says Rick Schine, a senior editor. “There were moments of sheer joy — like overhearing my son practice his piano downstairs — but there were also unexpected tensions.”
…”In a strange way, I felt more tied to my computer than I felt before,” says Kasey Wehrum, an Inc. writer. “I was spending all day in my tiny apartment, not talking to anyone. I felt weird.” He had expected to use his lunch hour during the virtual month to go to the gym or take care of chores. Instead, he rarely took a lunch break at all.
…”I got my work done, but I really didn’t interact with that many people virtually,” says Lindsay Silberman, a reporter who joined Inc. just two months before our experiment began. “Not seeing people every day really hindered my ability to bond with everyone else.”
…Cutting down the volume of communication also makes it easier to do certain kinds of work. I was much more productive as a writer at home, where I found myself able to stay focused for long stretches of time, often becoming so engrossed that I would work late into the night, forgetting to stop. On the other hand, when I wasn’t writing, I felt isolated; my mood swung wildly from extreme satisfaction one minute to dire self-doubt the next. These feelings are common among remote workers and require regular, deliberate attention from virtual CEOs.
…But most Inc. employees said that, although an office in the abstract sounds like a rather depressing place to spend the majority of one’s adult life — easy to mock, difficult to love — they had nonetheless found room in their hearts for this peculiar institution. “I liked the freedoms that working from home presented, but I felt like my life became less dynamic,” wrote Travis Ruse, our photo director and the guy who conceived of the pictures in this article. “My job really became just about my job. I missed the distractions and surprises that my co-workers bring to the day. Part of working is the social aspect of doing something collaboratively. I missed that very much.”
We run a quasi-virtual company. On Monday’s when we’re all in the warehouse we resemble a very traditional company in the sense that we are all physically present, we have team meetings, and we make money by packing and shipping physical goods. As I noted in my post about my typical week, the rest of the week we don’t see each other and everyone works very independently. We have various methods of communication that we use, which closely resemble how a completely virtual company might work.
It’s an interesting balance, however it’s one that I don’t think about too often. Then I read an article like that and I realize just how different we are than most companies.
The weird thing is, I don’t feel any of those things from the quotes…but I used to.
Read the archives from 2006 and 2007 and you’ll find plenty of those types of statements. After I read the article, I found myself contemplating what has changed. I narrowed it down to two options: 1) we’re more successful so there’s less stress, or 2) I’m just more used to it. I’d love to say that #1 was a factor, but I don’t think it was. In their case, they all already worked for a successful magazine. It wasn’t so much about their work, but everything else that work used to entail: getting ready in the morning, commuting, water cooler talk, going out to lunch, meetings, etc. If you do that for 5/10/20 years, that becomes your “normal”. For me, it was my normal too. When I left my job, I had a hard time transitioning. Everyone I know who has made the same transition has had the same trouble.
Thing is, it’s really just a matter of time before working at home becomes your new “normal”, and once that happens, the thought of putting on biz-casual clothes and driving to an office every day sounds just as horrible as the thought of working from home in an isolated environment used to sound. Inevitably, if you’re to be successful, you create a physical work environment that effectively separates work and life.
Then there’s the social aspect. For me, this was the hardest part, but even that can be overcome with a little work. Get involved in a few things that get you out of the house, work at coffee shops or the library, and make sure to make yourself get out and spend time with friends and family. It’s really not any harder to meet and interact with people, you just have to take a different approach. If anything, I’ve come to truly value all of the good relationships I do have and put more effort into cultivating those. Rarely would I just contact a friend out of the blue and try to arrange lunch or coffee, but I do that routinely now. Same goes for your work interaction – it’s different, but different doesn’t always mean worse. You have to make the most out of the time you do have together (our Mondays and team dinners out) and learn to communicate effectively via other mediums.
This lifestyle definitely isn’t for everyone, but I think a lot of people immediately write it off because they’ve tried it for a few days or weeks and determined that they missed their work environment too much. Or, they’re so focused on starting their company that they don’t bother to devote any attention to how this major transition will impact their life. If this is something you ultimately want to do, you have to be willing to put the time and effort into developing a completely new work-life balance. And if you do that, it can be freaking awesome.