August 30, 2021
As I just recently changed jobs, I felt the need to write about a topic I do care a lot about. Remote Work is the hot topic right now. It’s everywhere. The pandemic taught us that working from home, or at least not having everyone work from the office is doable.
I wanted to reflect a little bit on my experience and things I’ve noticed.
Talking with my parents about jobs or career, is going to be different than talking to my friends or peers. My dad for example has been at this one company since he started working. Over 30 years. At the same company. You might think - that is insane! And to a certain extent it is. The average duration of jobs is hovering between 2.5 and 8 years. You can split this by age group and get even more granular. The takeaways is: The younger you are the shorter your duration at a job is.
Why is that? I could probably write a whole article about it. But here are a few that I found in my research:
This list is much much longer. It’s also not the point I want to make. I think you get what I mean. It’s easier and more important for younger generations to do the right thing. To be aligned with the company you work for.
Now “recently” remote work came into the mix. The pandemic suddenly showed that a lot of people can actually work from home. While I would be very careful in using the pandemic as a selling point for remote work, it had an effect. Of course working in times of COVID-19 is not what remote work is about. There is much more to worry about. But the underlying thing, that work is not necessarily bound to the office, was proven.
Ed Zitron writes in his quite honest and frank post (Link), that offices exist to trap people. And I think that is the case - at least in bigger and older companies. He says that when we work in an office, we change our lives to make sure that our commute is easier. We rent apartments to be closer to work, or get a nicer car so that the drive is pleasant. We adapt to the neighbourhood, go out for drinks and eat. We make friends. We also naturally build our families around where we work - the school our kids will go to, where our partner likely will find a job or work too. This could go on and on. The meaning of all of this? Working in an office means that our life’s center of gravity is our work. Remote work adjusts that center of gravity to whatever benefits our life as a whole. And that is the beauty of it.
I’ve heard so many stories from people that started working remotely and then decided to move either out of a city, or to a place they always wanted to live in. There is somehow a return of freedom happening once you go fully virtual.
To tie this back to my original idea for this article. The office feels controlling. Remote Work doesn’t. Quitting your office job and then looking for another one is hard. You built your whole life around a certain area, how can you possibly find a similar job in the same small perimeter. Or well, commute for a long way.
Referencing my dad again (sorry dad!). That company he is still working for. A part that was close to my hometown got shut down roughly ten years ago. What do you think happened? First he freaked out because it looked like he had to send out applications, and secondly he freaked out even more because likely he won’t find a great job close to our little city. End of story, he still works at the company (as you can guess from my intro above), but has to drive 3 hours every Sunday and Thursday. He has another small apartment close to that office, and a separate household to take care off. The younger generations that are reading this might think “THIS IS INSANE”, and I hear you. I would never for the love of it decide to do the same. Funnily enough, his son (that’s me) decided to focus a lot on remote work. Talking about extremes.
Offices are build to lock you in. They get you with table-tennis, snack bars and “cool” office environments. Open Space. Sleeping Pods. But now with remote work in the mix, companies that want people to work from the office - again - need to offer more. What that is - it depends. But very likely do companies need to offer better values, a better culture and a mission people can rally behind.
I’ve been talking about how my generation is changing jobs more frequent than others. Let’s get even more personal here. I have to admit something. Buffer, the company I worked for, kept me for close to 6 years (just one month short). Now that is still not the 30 years my dad has on his account. But still! It is longer than the average of people the same age in a similar industry. Why? Oh I am glad you are asking.
This is the other side of the coin. Remote Work companies and their culture - if done well - have a huge retention rate. 6 years at Buffer was more normal than it was the exception. I had someone in my team that was there since the beginning, almost 9 years. People stay voluntarily because they can build a life and have work be part of it. Not the other way around. And that takes the stress out of it. Also companies that operate virtually tend to also focus on the most important aspect. People. They don’ spend a lot of money on renting the nicest looking office downtown.
Why should I change jobs then? I worked were I felt happiest. I had a good salary. I enjoyed to collaborate and work with the people there. Had a great manager. A healthy and modern culture. What else would I want?
While all of this was great, at some point, or at least if you are eager to grow, you hit a ceiling, if the company or your surroundings aren’t growing with you. Buffer as a company wasn’t growing a lot in terms of people.
Overall I am very grateful for the personal growth I had while at Buffer. I definitely came out a different person, then I started out. In 2015 I started as an iOS engineer, not knowing a lot about what I would want. Then slowly made my way over to the Android side. One year and a few months in, some reshuffling happened and I somehow got the chance to try that management thing. The rest is somehow history, as you can see in the articles I shared here on my blog. People management and leadership became and still are my passion.
As I said above, Buffer wasn’t really growing in size or opportunities. From the Engineering Manager role I started out with, I grew through various steps to a Senior Engineering Manager role managing multiple teams. I worked with other EMs and our VP on engineering-wide initiatives like our Career Framework. Once I hit that level, there wasn’t much to grow into. Having also grown with the company in the past 6 years, I’ve seen a lot. And I asked myself: What else is out there?
What I longed for was to be challenged again. Learning and tackling things that felt bigger than my current skill set. Stepping out of my comfort zone. That was the moment I thought - ok I probably have to start and look outside of Buffer to find this.
Buffer had a lot to offer. A lot I would have to say no to. My worries were - will I find something similar again? When I joined Buffer in 2015, not a lot of fully distributed companies were around. Luckily things have changes in 2021.
That worry to find something similar subsided pretty quickly. The past 6 years, advocating for remote work and the pandemic resulted in a lot of change in the work world. Startups and companies that were hiring remotely were plenty. And even the cultures that were being built by people from my generation aligned well with what I was looking for.
I followed Remote for a while, and really admired their mission. I’ve met the CEO and knew that their vision for remote work was something I really aligned with. I followed them and was cheering them on from the sidelines. Through some personal connections I got connected with them. Had a few conversations and luckily they were interested in bringing me onboard.
And now? If this would be a movie, I would pack my things into a brown cardboard box and leave the Buffer office, right? Then the week after take my brown cardboard box and go over to the new Remote office, to sit in my new office. Luckily this is not a movie, and I am working remotely.
All of this of course happened virtually. My cardboard box were a few digital documents, some last minute Zoom chats with colleagues and leaving my contact details with the team. The really nice thing was that my office wouldn’t change. I wouldn’t need to move city or anything. My desk would stay the same. My camera and mic setup would stay the same. Even the same coffee machine. Nice. No need to adjust to a new physical environment. Easy! That’s the benefit of remote work. Being able to change jobs without the need to completely flip your life and routines on the head. In the end one day you close Slack, and the next week Monday you open Slack. That’s it.
I had about 4 weeks to wrap things up at Buffer. Outside of basically running through a big brain dump, I focused on the relationships I build. Who are the people I wanted to have a last chat with? There were two sentences that I said the most:
I thought about that for a while. Of course over the past 6 years you build relationships. Maybe even find friends. So how do you stay in touch with them if you don’t “see” each other in Slack. Theoretically it shouldn’t be too different. As I said the distance between two people wouldn’t change. Just the mode of communication has to evolve if the friendship should continue. But that needs effort and intention.
While I would love to say it’s easy. In reality it’s not. Starting a new job, having a life and things to take care of, makes it tricky. We have this saying in German “Aus den Augen aus dem Sinn” (literally translated - Out of sight out of mind). And in the world of remote work, you also don’t happen to say Hi on the street, because you likely be in another city, even another country or continent.
So yeah. Staying in touch virtually is hard. We are already living online, and if the friends and people you would love to talk to are also only online, you get exhausted. That happened to a lot of us during the pandemic I guess. If you really want to, it will happen. Being intentional and reaching out once in a while is going to helpful.
I am curious to look back in a few years to see with whom I am still in touch from past companies or teams I worked in.
The clock is ticking. 5 days left. 2 days left. And suddenly it is your last day. What happens now?
Honestly, it feels a bit weird. It is just you at your desk, probably in your apartment. An era is coming to an end, but no one around to have a little fun with. Well not in the way I am thinking about it.
For me it was particularly awkward because I finished working at Buffer in a “slow down week” were almost 80% of the company were on vacation. My last day and Slack was a tumbleweed and crickets moment. But that’s ok I prepared for it. I planned to turn off the lights and wave one last time.
That looked like me recording two Loom videos for the teams I managed, to leave them a last goodbye. As most of them were offline. I signed out of all the tools that I used at Buffer. Wrote a message to my manager Katie, as she was just coming back that week from a sabbatical. And then 6 PM. CMD + Q. 👋 Goodbye Buffer.
Cleaning the desk. And heading into the weekend. Because Monday I am back in the same seat, just with a different set of virtual collaborators.
You know what the nice thing about a company, that is onboarding what feels like 10-15 people a week, is? The onboarding process is 5 ⭐️’s. On the Friday, before my start date, I already had some instructional emails in my inbox that allowed me to prepare. I also had all my new equipment, that got shipped to me a few weeks back. I was basically ready to go. As I was eager to start, I went ahead and prepared a few things over the weekend. Installed the necessary applications, read up on a few things. Just, to not having to do all of this on my Monday morning. I was literally getting my desk set up in the office. Only that it was happening virtually.
The interesting part, the thing I was nervously excited about, was understanding how the culture on the inside was. How will I fit in? Will I be able to understand the hidden norms? Oh god I have to start building relationships from zero!? I am basically starting from zero with everything.
Most companies have values. Values lay the foundation for the existing company culture. You use them to hire people. They define how you communicate and interact with each other. Values will build the growing grounds for everything else that comes.
Remote doesn’t hide them. They share them publicly. Kindness, Excellence, Ownership, Transparency & Ambition. That helped me to prepare and adjust. Even their handbook is publicly available. Why would they do it. Well why not. It only has upsides. People that want to work at Remote will get an idea of what it is like, at least theoretically. Finding out about how they communicate, how they collaborate and what options there are for career growth. The handbook definitely helped me to understand more about the company and answered questions I had quickly.
In virtual teams, documentation or handbooks are your backbone. It’s what the company and team work is based upon. That’s why you see so many new tools or projects around better documentation. Imagine those companies wouldn’t have that. They would just be a bunch of people spread across the globe, each doing it their own way. That’s not productive.
So yeah, understanding the culture requires a lot of reading. Reading the handbook. Reading various other documents that were linked in my onboarding task list.
This is not all though. It is a good starting point. But as a leader, your work starts there. Right here. Having digested all the information, being ready to dive in and actually see how people work together.
After reading a lot, the main thing I did was to listen. And then listen more. Outside of the documentation, you have hidden elements that equally belong to your culture. Inside jokes, memes, the use of certain emojis, being a fan of Star Wars or not, and so much more.
All those things aren’t written down, but they influence the communication and collaborating in teams a lot. They can even define, how well you are going to be accepted as a lead, as a manager, as a human. Not that you have to adhere to it all, but to understand it.
Another element that is not visible is the existence of different country cultures. Working remotely, this is not going to be new to you. It is something we can and should continue to learn more about.
Just reading about how different cultures behave, work or communicate won’t be enough. Company culture is influenced by country cultures. Multiplying into various combinations. Making it a very unique situation, in every team or company. Adapt to that isn’t straightforward. Depending on your role this might be less important. But as a leader or manager, it becomes crucial to understand what dominant cultural elements are defining your day to day.
Edgar Schein calls this: “Cultural Intelligence”. I am a big fan of his book “Organizational Culture & Leadership”, where he talks about exactly that. This concept introduces the proposition that to develop understanding, empathy, and the ability to work with others from other cultures requires four capacities:
As a leader of virtual teams this skill becomes a very important tool. Something you should not ignore. For No. 1 - I highly recommend to use the Hofstede Insights to learn more about the how cultures compare to each other in various categories. For the other points it highly depends on you as an individual. Building on your curiosity and reflections skills to just learn and learn more about the other people and cultures.
This is something I am reading and learning about a lot - at this moment. I am eager to share more of it while I gain more understanding of the topic.
Learning more about the culture is great. Something I am continuing to do. But that is just theory. And if you won’t use that knowledge, it’ll be for nothing.
What should you do with it? Starting to use that knowledge to build relationships, could be one practical use, for example. This is what I am going to focus on for the next few weeks at Remote in my new job. It will somehow define how fun, productive and fulfilling the next few weeks and months will be for me. As a leader I have to work with people, and relationships are the key to doing a good job.
Spending time in coffee chats, joining team building calls, playing games with colleagues or just interacting with them in the social channel. All those activities help. But they won’t be as effective if you are not approaching them in an open and authentic way. That won’t be hard for me. Transparency and Authenticity are my top values. I am noticing that building relationships comes somehow naturally to me through having those values at the forefront of my being.
Let’s see if it all will work out long term.
Have you changed jobs remotely? Did you have a similar or different experience? Feel free to reach out to me - would love to hear your story!