Three Important Lessons Learned After a Decade of Remote Work

8 min read

SM
By Roman UrbanovskiHead of Talent and Community

Roman has spent the past 15-years working in the remote industry. During this time, he has donned many hats and played a critical role in leading multiple teams and departments to success. Recently, he facilitated the creation of one of the world's largest tech communities.

The work paradigm is changing from a “present in an office” expectation to a remote work model. In the past decade, this has been slowly happening in tech companies, but recent events have brought this reality to the forefront and many traditional professions that are now faced with the truth that people don’t need to be in a shared office space to be successful.

In fact, companies are quickly realizing that working in a distributed model may help employees be healthier, happier, and more productive. 

This is not news for me, I have worked remotely with teams for the past 10-years. Initially, I worked in a hybrid model -- part-home, part work, with flexibility. But, 10-years ago I made the switch to fully remote and have never looked back. 

There are many learnings that I’ve gained after a decade of remote work, and I’d like to share three learnings from this time. 

1. Rethinking how people solve problems

The dynamic of the office and understanding of how people solve problems is changing. Many think that in a work environment, you need to be at your desk and grinding the wheel all day long -- churning out work. In reality, people are more productive when they are not tied to a desk.

Giving employees the liberty and freedom to structure their day improves thought processing abilities; you can do creative things like cooking and gardening while mulling a problem. The work of Dr. Barbara Oakley, author of several books highlighting STEM education, learning, and online learning, says “Your diffuse mode can... help you connect two or more chunks together in new ways to solve unusual problems.”

When working continuously for too long, your energy is quickly depleted and you are unable to process thoughts effectively. The brain needs to pause and rest at the moment of tiredness before there is a roadblock preventing the next best idea from becoming a reality.

Taking a break allows the brain to wander and move from focused mode to a diffuse mode, This, in turn, allows the brain to connect nodes in a non-linear fashion in the background. These breaks are rewarding and alleviate stress because you can focus creatively without the constraint of working within a system/office environment.

Heaps of creatives get their best ideas when unfocused, working on a hobby, or even sleeping. During these times, it is not uncommon for focussed, precise eureka moments to happen as we jump into productivity mode to produce a lot of outputs within a short period of time. 

From my experience, this rarely happens within an environment where the box-like office limits the gift of creative thought. 

2. Improved communication through openness

I have also learned to embrace the freedom of remote to enhance creativity and focus on improving communication. Despite the commonly held idea that interpersonal communication suffers from remote work, I’ve learned over the years that communication improves when people are remote. 

The overarching lesson is simple - I (and I assume others) want to be in control of how I spend my time. We want to be productive to be able to do a great job and still have time for family, friends, and everything we feel is fun. 

Let’s ground this in an example. Humans are awesome at building great systems from the bottom-up, especially developers who are faced with an inefficient system. Some will take this inefficient system and quickly conceptualize and write a framework to fix it.

Take this one step further, developers need to work with early adopters that can give feedback and ideas. This requires a good network and effective communication over a wide range of time-zones, remote tools that can assist in the work, and an ability to cut across myriads of barriers to execute the work. Despite the perceived odds back in the day, they did it and now it’s the norm. 

Along the way a new culture started to evolve; one where the democratization of opportunities, cross-cultural cooperation, and understanding of dozens of mindsets and work styles thrived. There was an adaptation of online best practices developed and people simply started to evolve and create the kinds of workplaces that they liked.

The vast majority of my colleagues are extremely attentive and aware of the need for quality work at speed and scale. Instead of the usual office, let’s schedule something for next week, the attitude has changed to, let’s get this done here and now. Eventually, I began to feel as though a person who was 10,000 miles away was sitting next to me! 

What is the secret sauce? From my observations, it’s creating a working atmosphere with a high level of openness, a sense of understanding, a sense of humor, and just letting the creative expression flow. 

Most of the time, I do not need to steer a team member to do something. They want to achieve goals and giving them the liberty to find the best way to get there gives them a sense of responsibility and allows them to develop both professionally and personally. 

3. People need a sense of belonging and community

One of the problems with working alone in your space is that there is not enough physical socialization or energy to fuel a social human. For this reason, you need to build a local community around you. 

As soon as I started working remotely, I connected with other remote workers and began to join them on small projects. Eventually, we met spontaneously, without an agenda or a plan, to simply share stories about family, work, technology, thoughts on life, joys, and sorrows. 

These stories slowly evolved into our story as a community. Magically, as the community grew, hundreds of others from around the world joined us and began to replicate the same model in their communities. 

One of the most awesome moments in my life was when I met Anna Chiara Bellini during a remote conference call. Her energy gave me the strength to immediately approach her and invite her to a conference in my town of Zagreb. 

She courageously decided to hop into her car, drive for 5-hours, and spend several days socializing with the Zagreb community. She found Zagreb to be like her hometown, Bologna, full of people who are open, kind, and willing to share their experiences. 

In turn, we were able to share our experiences, food (derived from a mix of Italian and Croatian heritage), and pleasant conversations about our collective culture. Unexpected exchanges felt like magic and I knew I made an amazing friend from a country that I had never visited. 

Eventually, I made my way to Bologna, then we drove to the Croatian coast, then Sarajevo, and at some point Brazil where I had my first face-to-face meeting with my boss of 3-years. With an ever-evolving community of friends that I met through remote work, we were able to both work and travel together often joined by a bunch of other people from the Balkans to the Baltic or anywhere else in the world exploring the sights, sounds, tastes, and how other cultures feel and think. All of this was born from one Zoom call. 

Ultimately, when you have an online meeting, realize it’s a window into another person’s world. They have invited you into their home, and over time create meaningful connections that evolve into mutual understanding, collaboration, and even lasting friendships. I appreciate the opportunity to be connected to other humans in this way.

Would I ever go back to working in an office?

Absolutely not. In an office space, you are fully aware of negativities between people and any exploitative systems that exist. In a remote environment, you can be more attentive to people and shed negativities to focus on the tasks in play. This changes the interpersonal dynamic of the team.

You are enriched in the remote environment because you can focus on people and really learn about these people, rather than focusing on physical things. In addition, when something needs to be done in your personal environment, it gets done and doesn’t occupy valuable mental space. This clears the mind to solve work problems.

Personally, working remotely gives me the opportunity to travel to and live in countries that I otherwise would not have the chance to experience. From this, I am able to use the creative gifts given to me by the people, and I find inspiration from exploring the community. 

Ultimately, I bring these experiences back into my work and the community that I’ve helped build in Zagreb.

SM
By Roman UrbanovskiHead of Talent and Community