JournalOct 2013

Mythbusting: an inside look at remote working

This article is now a little old, but we have great tips and advice for remote workers in our Playbook!

Working remotely tends to divide opinions. Some see it as an excellent way to increase productivity and demonstrate trust to team members, others see it as an impersonal and isolated way of working, where the magic of in-house collaboration is somewhat lacking.

We’re unashamedly proud of being remote and fall firmly into the first camp—our trip to Valencia served as a myth-buster for the latter opinion. We got first hand experience of other people working remotely, who were anything but isolated within their teams and found ways to cultivate a strong company culture, even from hundreds of miles away. Conversations we had over tostadas and café con leche taught us a lot about the remote lifestyle and reinforced our opinion that this is a great way for Hanno to operate.

We met Marcel in sunny Spain: he is a remote technical lead for JUNGMUT, a digital company in Germany. Along the way he not only became a great friend, but was also great source of inspiration when it came to finding better ways of working remotely.

It seems very fitting that Marcel was able to spare us some time to tell us a little bit more about the challenges of being a remote project manager.

Why do you work remotely?

I got into this position coincidentally and without any intention. The fact that I never wanted to leave Valencia and the somehow lucky opportunity to join forces with my friends company from Cologne led to this particular situation, which I am very happy with.

What are the biggest misconceptions of remote working?

The biggest one is probably that people think they may lose control over their projects when working with team members remotely. The success of online freelancing platforms and distributed open source teams however, have shown that our technological advancements make it possible to develop even the most complex projects, over a distance.

Another misconception, especially from employers, may be that their employees take advantage of their new flexibility. This is certainly the case in some sectors where your job is more of an obligation, but not in the digital business where people feel driven by their responsibilities and relate to their company’s values.

What are the real challenges you face as a remote technical lead?

The biggest challenges in my opinion – especially from a distance – are to meet your deadlines because you have to trust people a lot and you have to build that trust first. I don’t want to micromanage people and prefer trusting them but they also have to prove to me that I can trust them.

The most important component in this entire domain of project management would be trust and the most important challenge is to build that trust.

How do you overcome these challenges?

Relying on people‘s assumptions is not always easy, so when it comes to estimating your project and a subcontractor‘s deliverables, it is always wise to add a certain buffer for yourself, so that you can meet your own commitments on time.Of course in reality this is a lot more difficult than it sounds because you usually don’t have a lot of room for changes.

From my experience the challenge is to keep the right balance between taking the pressure off of your team members, so that they can be at their maximum productivity, and at the same time get them to commit to tight deadlines so that the project moves forward at a constant pace.

What are the personal advantages of working remotely?

It gives you a lot of flexibility and allows you to adapt your working hours to external factors and unexpected events, or just the mood you‘re in.

Whether I decide to work at home, in the office or at a café completely depends on where I feel most inspired and most productive.

Now before you think that I‘m a digital nomad that is constantly hopping from bar to bar and from city to city, I have to say that I‘m a fan of establishing daily and weekly routines and try to be at the office as much as possible because this is where my mind goes into productivity mode.

Knowing to have the flexibility and from time to time taking advantage of it however is a good thing.

How can remote working increase productivity?

Right now I‘m writing this while on a train in Barcelona, watching out of the window and looking at the sea.

This whole digital nomadism allows you to work at different hours in different environments and can help you to change your perspective on things just by getting out of your habitual environment.

I think that apart from it being inspiring not to be constantly surrounded by the same objects and people our brains need to be supplied with new and fresh impressions from time to time.

How do you overcome isolation from your colleagues?

Since I‘m having Skype calls everyday I hardly feel like this. The distance can be easily bridged with today’s technologies and for important events such as excursions or important client meetings I can still fly over to Germany within 2-3 hours.

How do you cultivate a strong team culture and build a team remotely?

Most of the time I’m working with people from my team who are project managers, designers, or the person who is in charge of writing the content. Luckily there’s already a certain amount of trust within the team.

The culture we try to maintain in our team is to rather over communicate than trying to avoid a problem. Many times, especially when you’re working remotely, you think or you expect a problem to not be very critical, but in the end it turns out to be a major bottleneck.

What I try to do with every little task that is assigned to me I track the progress and communicate any problems that arise along the way.

How do you identify and resolve these problems when they arise from a remote standpoint?

The most common issue regarding remote working in my opinion is when somebody doesn‘t communicate regularly or often enough.

It happens rarely but when it happens it is mostly because there is a serious problem or we are behind schedule. It may sound a bit of a paradox, but hiding a problem is actually harder when you work remotely because you’re measured by outcome and not by hours.

Another problem is when there are misconceptions between what a certain requirement means, how it was communicated and how it was perceived.

Luckily the design part of our projects is handled in Cologne, so most of the things that I am in charge of are technical, and can be expressed in written language and clearly defined in online documents or via Skype.

What are the benefits of co-working?

These would definitely include some of the points I mentioned above: Being driven by responsibilities rather than hours at the office and living a flexible working culture.

Another benefit is that through the people at your shared space you learn a lot about other fields of business and can incorporate these ideas into your own workflow.

Do you share what you learn from your fellow co-workers, with your team?

Yes, when it is something that I am very excited about and I think it might serve others. Within the company we have a private group on Facebook where we post links and share ideas. It is very inspiring and serves as a great, magazine-like platform for exchanging knowledge.

How does being remote inspire you to be even better at what you do?

What inspires me as a remote worker is being able to live and work where I feel most comfortable. At the moment, this is the city of Valencia, which with its great climate, idyllic old city and Spanish lifestyle, has a lot to offer.

Whether I‘m on my way to work, listening to the latest technology podcasts while passing by the ancient district of El Carmen, having a coffee at one of the numerous sunny terraces of the city, or doing an evening run through the green lung of the city (El Turia), looking back on the troubles, lessons, and achievements of the day while smelling the subtle taste of pine trees Is something I wouldn’t want to pass up.

Posted by
Matt Lenzi

With the team until 2020, Matt led strategy and ideation for new brands and marketing products at iconic startups as well as hosting Hanno’s podcast.