Coworking at Workantile

One of the challenges of distributed work is isolation. Our third places are already disappearing, losing the office as a second place can be tough. So, about once a week, I drive over half an hour to Workantile, a coworking space in Ann Arbor.

It started with the Ann Arbor Software Co-Workers. I attended a few of those meetups at a coffee shop and was reminded that there is something energizing about being around people. At the same time, I wanted somewhere that I could hop on a video call. I wanted somewhere I didn’t have to make sure that someone watched my bag when I went to the bathroom. Somewhere I didn’t have to OD on caffeine to make sure I’m paying my rent. So I wound up at Workantile.

[As an aside, my employer has a coworking stipend that covers traditional coworking spaces as well as coffee rent at coffee shops. Companies that want to support distributed workers, take note.]

Workantile is part of a vanishing breed. There are plenty of coworking spaces that are “you pay money, get desk, end of story.” There are also plenty of incubators that want to host your startup. What Workantile focuses on are the independent contractors and the remote workers that want a second place. Here’s how they put it:

At Workantile our goal is to support the work and social needs of independent workers typically already established in their job or business, whether they’re self-employed or remote employees. Workantile creates a diverse workplace environment without the office politics. Our social network isn’t for smarmy business-oriented “networking,” but for real social interaction and camaraderie.

Quartz has a great write-up on how coworking has moved from the Workantile model to the other models. Companies like WeWork have been focused on flexible office space, ignoring any sort of community aspect. That probably makes financial sense, but I’m not really interested in “Office Hotelling.” It’s kind of disheartening that as more workers are becoming remote and distributed, social coworking is on its way out.

There’s a new coworking space “Pastel” opening much closer to me – a 5 minute commute instead of a 35 minute commute. Their vision is “a place for independent business women to find support, balance and connection.” That’s not quite me, but I’m glad to see other coworking spaces opening to focus on something other than real estate. I will be keeping an eye on them but for now it sounds like Workantile is a better fit.

Don’t get me wrong: I still loathe commutes but once a week is the right balance for me right now.

[Photo credit Chris Salzman]

The Speak Test for Remote Working

This is a pretty good test for how well a company supports remote workers:

  1. Does your team have a shared, public method for asynchronous communication?
  2. Does your team have easy access to high-quality video and audio conferencing tools?
  3. Does everyone on your team have access to all the tools they need to do their job?
  4. Do you have time set aside at regular intervals purely for communication?
  5. Does your team have 4 or more hours of work day overlap?
  6. Are priorities clearly defined and communicated in advance?
  7. Can your team make most decisions on their own without waiting on others?
  8. Is every task in the organization tracked in a shared project management tool?
  9. Does your team meet up in person at least a couple of times a year?
  10. In case of emergency, is there a way for team members to call for help immediately?
  11. Do team members use cloud based collaborative tools wherever possible?
  12. Is your team made up of self-motivated, self-managing individuals?

It’s not perfect – some of these have a lot more wiggle room than the questions from The Joel Test – but if you’re looking to work at a company as a remote worker these are good topics to discuss.

How I Work From Home

My current job is a remote job. Which is to say I’m living in the future. Which is to say I’m living in my basement.

I’ve done it before, and have been doing it at my current job for about a year and a half. I thought maybe some people would be interested in how I do it. In theory it’s amazing, in practice it’s 80% awesome. (I’m not sure how that stacks up against everything being 91% crud but I imagine someone will do the math, maybe 72.8% crudawesome?) I figured I’d start with the tools I like for working remotely.

Google Hangouts

I spend a good portion of my day on Hangouts, which in turn keeps me sane. We do our standups on Hangouts and use it for any meetings we are in. Why Hangouts over Skype? We are a Google shop and it’s nice to know I can reach pretty much anyone via Hangout.

Seeing people and being seen is a huge part of being off-site. You need to make yourself present even if you’re 2 timezones away. By making your face visible and seeing other people you are doing that. It’s also important when having any conversation where tone is important. Text loses so much delivery information that it’s difficult to have any conversation requiring empathy over email/chat. (spoiler alert: tone matters).

Knowing when to start up a Hangout is a huge career skill for a remote worker to have. It’s second only to knowing the keyboard shortcut to mute/unmute Hangouts (⌘-D/Ctrl-D, but Hangouts has to have focus or you’ll just wind up bookmarking the current page).

Headsets (for everyone!)

I have gone through a few headsets before landing on my current one, a Razer Kraken. I can’t advocate for them beyond they’ve worked well for me and are comfortable to wear all day, which you will do some days when you work remote. I know that a lot of streamers go for separate microphones but I’m not convinced that enough audio fidelity would make it through the internet to make it worth the cost.

Also important is making sure your coworkers have good microphones. Built-in microphones can’t compete with the ambient noise of an office. Folks on-site all have headsets for our one-on-one meetings or pairing sessions. Which brings me to the next tool:

ScreenHero

I haven’t found a better way to pair program with people remotely. ScreenHero has better resolution than Google Hangouts as well as letting both users click/type. With Hangouts I always have to increase the font size of my editor to make it readable, but that isn’t necessary with ScreenHero.

Slack bought ScreenHero recently, which is good and bad. Good in that right now it’s free (it can be tough to justify the cost when 75% of devs are on-site). Bad in that it’s now impossible to sign up for an account. You need to be invited by an existing user (such as myself). I’m hoping to see some cool things come out of the acquisition. Speaking of Slack…

Slack

We started off with semi-permanent, named Google Hangout chats (which is different from a Hangout video call, and different from the chat inside a Hangout video call). The notifications in Hangouts are awful, the native clients are awful, Hangouts is awful for persistent chat. There’s no way to discover rooms, they don’t scale, and it’s hard to tell where the video calls begin and end.

We tried HipChat but it just didn’t gain traction. There’s a ton of little things that Slack nails, like having Slackbot pop in and randomly announce “That’s what she said.” Or the /giphy command (and limiting it by rating for Serious Business). Or email notifications of things you missed. Or allowing us to move from text to video with a simple /hangout command.

I ❤️ Slack. The more you can get on-site folks to use it, the more ambient information you’re exposed to. Overhearing a conversation in you project channel is a great way to learn, something that you miss out on as a remote. However the best use I’ve got so far is creating a #gameofthrones channel. It creates a social space that can be missing when you are remote.

A Door That Closes

This is a high-tech tool that is hugely important if, like me, you have your family at home. My wife has been great about respecting when I’m at work and treating it as if I was actually away at an office. My 20-month-old daughter, she doesn’t get the concept. She sees daddy and doesn’t understand that he’s hard at work on some code (or in #gameofthrones, but that’s networking and totally legitimate work right?). So an office of some sort is hugely important. It creates a sense of “going to work” and “coming home from work”. Even if I head back to the “office” at night to play video games.

Pants

This is similar to the door, in that I wear pants. The old joke about remote work is that you can do it in your pajamas, but I’ve resisted so far. Pants are symbolic that I have a morning routine that gets me to work on time, and then I leave on time. But when I’m at work, I’m at work. No TV, no video games, nothing I wouldn’t be doing in an office. I still do small errands like getting a package from the front door or making phone calls, but those are part of office-life too.

My worry about losing the discipline is that work life starts bleeding into real life. I start waiting to get dressed, and then get started later, and then suddenly I’m working until 8:00pm on a regular basis. That’s not the life I want to live, I would rather be present at work and then leave it behind at the end of the day. Putting on pants is the first step to getting into my work mindset.

There are probably other things that I’m not thinking about, and definitely others I haven’t learned of. I’ll be posting more about my experiences working remotely but also want to hear from other remotes and people who work with remotes.