Thoughts on working fully distributed for the first time

When I first tell people that I’ve joined a fully distributed company and now work from home I get one of two reactions: curiosity and delight or the more common look of horror and confusion. For anyone who isn’t familiar with fully distributed organizations, the distinguishing factor from other companies that have remote employees or satellite offices is that there are no offices anywhere. Every employee works from home, a co-working space, or pretty much anywhere so long as there’s wifi.

I’m usually hit with a lot of the same questions or concerns which I totally understand, as I had a lot of the same preconceived ideas as to what it means to work for a fully distributed team before I actually did it. I’d love to share with you some of my personal experiences that might make you feel a little less unnerved by the idea. And who knows, maybe by the end you might even like to give it a try.

The first question almost everyone asks is, “Don’t you get lonely?” In my experience, I’ve actually found that from a social perspective, working remotely is not very different than working in an office. Think about a typical day in the office. You walk in, maybe you say hi to your team members or maybe you just sit down and start working. You put on your headphones and maybe you check Slack or email and respond to messages. Then you get started with whatever you’re working on for the day. Occasionally you’ll grab lunch with your co-workers, which is nice, but a lot of times maybe you work through lunch, or have a meeting scheduled when people are leaving for lunch. Then you work some more, go to few meetings and end your day. If you think about it, the majority of your interactions were digital, most frequently through Slack. Almost all of these daily routines can be directly transposed to a remote environment, and the few things that can only be done in real life, like eating lunch together, in the grand scheme of my work day, I haven’t found the lack thereof has impacted me much.

Similar to the previous question but slightly different is, “Don’t you feel cooped up at home all day?” In my specific circumstance I have an advantage living in a big city where I am in close proximity to lots of friends. With that in mind, I have found that I spend almost the exact same amount of time grabbing coffees or lunches with people as I would have in an office environment. The difference is that it’s usually my friends, both inside of outside of the design world, instead of direct team members. While I do have to make more of a conscience effort to plan these in real life social interactions, I have not felt cooped up.

Another question I get is, “How do you collaborate? Isn’t working alone hard?” I have found that a lot of people believe that working remotely means you don’t collaborate with people. I can assure you this is not true. Collaboration and communication are something I deeply believe in and is a vital part of making a fully distributed organization work. At Automattic, I collaborate with other team members frequently throughout the day. Some remote collaboration is exactly the same as ways I collaborated with teammates when I worked in an office. For instance, chatting in Slack or hopping on a Zoom call for face to face conversations. Other remote collaboration is much better than in office collaboration. A few of my favorites include working in Mural boards for quick ideation and sketching user flows, or through Automattic’s internal blogging system called P2 for when you are further along in a project and want feedback from a much broader group of people. Because these forms of collaboration are documented in one place, it makes it way easier for people across teams to give feedback or catch up with what other people across the organization are working on. As someone new to a project, it’s much easier than in a traditional office workflow to get caught up on the previous work and follow the decision chain because it’s all documented and easy to access.

The last common question I get is, “How do you focus working at home?” or “Don’t you get distracted and want to watch TV all day?” I do know that some remote workers struggle with focus, and developing a routine is super important to help counteract distractions. For me, the office environment is actually way more distracting than working from home could ever be. In an office environment people can physically tap you on the shoulder when they want to chat, even if you are in the zone with your own work. You can sometimes get into long unwanted water cooler conversations with co-workers or get distracted by loud talking or music. This can be especially bad in open floor plan offices, which much of the tech space has moved to. For me, my quiet and cozy office at home, with the desk and chair that work best for me, surrounded by the things that bring me mental clarity and peace, makes for a much more comfortable and productive work environment than I ever had in a traditional office.

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There are other upsides to remote working that people usually don’t think to ask me about. For example, remote teams can be more diverse because we don’t all have to live within a certain distance of one another. We get to travel around the world to meet up for bigger team planning and bonding. So far I’ve gotten to travel to Whistler, Canada and will soon be traveling to Tulum, Mexico and Vienna, Austria. Finally, there is immense freedom and flexibility working in a fully distributed organization. As someone who wants upward mobility in my career while also having a family that I get to spend lots of time with, the work life balance of working fully distributed makes this goal a lot more attainable than the standard office model.

Hiking in Whistler, Canada at the 2017 Grand Meetup

I say all of this knowing that working remotely isn’t for everyone, and that my specific life circumstances make it easier for me than others to work from home. I also don’t want you to think that working fully distributed is perfect, it certainly isn’t and as an organization we’re always striving to improve our process. My hope is that after reading this you have a fresh perspective on what it means to work for a fully distributed company. Have I mentioned that we’re hiring?


By Courtney Burton Doker

Design systems practitioner, design director, product designer, collage artist, and amateur zine publisher. Inspired by the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.