Adapting to Working from Home: A Conversation with Gene Gotimer

[interview]
Summary:

Gene Gotimer, principal consultant at Coveros, chats with TechWell community manager Owen Gotimer about the challenges individuals and organizations face while we work from home during this global pandemic and how getting thrown into remote work could shape our future.

Owen Gotimer

We both have a good amount of experience from working from home at times part time, at times full time. Right now everyone's working from home full time. So what has the experience been like, over the last few weeks for you, someone who's used to work from home, working from home now while everyone is in the same boat?

Gene Gotimer

Even if it doesn't keep going on like this, working from home, being remote is going to be a reality for a lot of companies forever now. The companies that resisted saying, "hey, I want you always in the office" that ship has sailed. They're, at the very least, gonna have to back off of 100% in the office if people were successful in working from home during quarantine and all that. But the biggest thing is, test it out. Start doing it. You're forced into a pilot program now but do some of that.

Make sure you have VPNs. Part of every installation on our laptops that our IT department does, obviously is make sure a VPN is setup. Test it. Make sure you've used it before. The last time you want to be trying to set up the VPN for the first time is when you happen to be someplace where you think you need a VPN—public internet, Starbucks, Wegmans, airport, whatever—and you realize, "hey, I really want to make sure this is on VPN," and you're two minutes from meeting time and you're trying to figure it out. So get the VPN setup. And for companies get a VPN solution. They're easy to set up. You can set up your own on Amazon or Azure or Google and set it up. There's some costs involved with just the compute time but Open VPN is an open source solution that works for everyone. Or just buy it. Some internet providers give it to you, just set it up. So that's the big one.

The other thing is headsets for everyone. Everyone needs to have access to a headset. It doesn't matter if you're not always going to use a headset. If your mic on your laptop works fine most of the time, that time when you're at Starbucks or at the airport or in the public place and you just can't hear everyone. Everyone needs headsets and practice doing meetings on it. Get the headset set up, make sure it works, make sure you try it, do meetings, even if people are local or nearby everyone. Get everyone on and try everybody's speaking on a headset.

And try the idea—we used to do this a lot, and I don't think I really appreciated how important it was until the last couple years—if somebody is remote, everyone's remote. It doesn't matter if nine of you are in the same room and that tenth person is the only person remote. Don't put a speakerphone on. Get everybody to get headsets on and practice because it teaches you when you can talk over people, when you can interrupt people, how you can get people's attention. You actually learn a lot better manners about not talking over people, because it's easy to do when nine of you are on speakerphone, but that tenth person just can't get a word in edgewise. So, being remote actually behaves very differently. One of our keynote speakers, Andrea Goulet, was saying that she and her husband work together. They work in separate offices on the opposite side of a wall. But the rest of their company is virtual, so they always talk about, they are on headsets, and they try to minimize the yelling across the doorway to each other because the other employees, the other people in the meeting, they can't partake in that. So in order to keep the company running, and understand it's a remote interaction, they have to get on headsets and talk to each other from, ten feet away, through whatever meeting program they have, because that's what everyone else does it.

Owen Gotimer

It's great that people have access to these virtual technologies that we didn't have 10, 15, 20 years ago, but one thing that I think is going to be crucially missed with work from home is that social interaction. I have roommates. My family lives right down the street from me. I can come over and see you and the rest of my family, but not everyone's in a position where that makes sense, while they're working from home, especially during this quarantine period where we can't even go out after work to see people. That's something I used to be really good about: I'd work from 8am to 4pm, and then I'd be out of the house at four o'clock doing something just so I can have that social interaction. What are some ways that people can continue to get that social interaction outside of regular working hours?

Gene Gotimer

So part of it is, like you said, Zoom and Google Hangout and Google Meet or all those, and even like Slack and Twitter can be really great work tools. But if you try to restrict it to just work, the social just isn't there. I mean, you interact differently socially with somebody than you do professionally. And even if they're professional colleagues, you don't joke around with them in a meeting and stuff. So make sure you have something. We have #just_for_fun in the in the TechWell Hub. Hop on #just_for_fun every now and then and "hey, you know, I saw this funny meme," "I saw a great video, "What are people doing?," "How are people dealing with this?" It's not forced, but explicitly go out and try socially interacting with people even if you're doing it over chat.

I love having the video on because the social interaction you get is very, very different when you see somebody's reactions versus when you're just hearing them on the end of a phone line, essentially.

The other thing I actually like—I've never tried it, although it kind of happens organically a lot—Jurgen Appelo does a lot of stuff on agile. He's written a bunch of books, and he does a lot of remote teams. One of the things he suggested at a conference I was at was he actually blocks off the first five minutes of every stand up, not the five minutes before the stand up, but the first five minutes of every stand up is set to be completely social. You're not allowed to talk about work. So how are you kids doing as a family? What have you been doing in your spare time? How's your hobby going? Whatever. It's just forced social interaction, and it helps him in his view, and I would tend to agree that it helps you get to know the people you're dealing with socially now, even if you're in an organization where you do know the people socially, you're friends with people, but now, you're in a situation like now where you're always remote from them. Take some time and say, "Hey, hop on now, the stand up starts in five minutes. Let's just talk. Let's just shoot the breeze and talk to each other and figure out what's going on, how people are dealing with whatever they're going through at the time."

Owen Gotimer

It happens organically a lot, at least with the teams I'm working with, where people just have those conversations, asking people how the family is, how their hobbies are going. I think what's cool is that first time that it started happening with my teams, I was learning things about these people, the hobbies about these people, that I had no idea about to begin with. I couldn't ask them about their hobbies, because I didn't know but spend those first 5, 10, 15 minutes on the call and you really get to know these people. So I think from a social perspective that is super, super important. Obviously, after we move out of this quarantine period, and we're able to go out and socially engage with people if you are work from home, it is crucial to get out of your house. You do not want to be stuck in your house all day, every day: work, eat, sleep, recreation, leisure. You want to make sure you're getting out of your house to do something.

Gene Gotimer

It's funny because I I have been a commuter for a long time. My commute's long. It takes up a huge chunk of my day, and I've been dying for an opportunity to do full-time remote. For not the greatest of reasons, but now we're in a situation where I am working remote all the time. I know how to do it. I've been practicing at it, like you said, our company does this, but the client hadn't. But now what I find out is even though I got a lot of time back, because I'm not commuting, and I have a lot more free time, I'm not really working a ton more hours, because I find that I can focus for my eight hours, nine hours, whatever I'm working that day, but after it I need to escape. I cannot just sit there and work and so a lot of people talk about when you're getting used to remote work or work from home set clear boundaries on your day, like you said, you're 8am to 4pm and then you force yourself out. For me, it's just happened like I'm just burned. I've worked my day. Even though I have the time during the day and even if the rest of the family's not home around or they're doing other things, it's still really nice sometimes to just say okay, I gotta unplug for a while. The nice thing about work from home is you can do that during the day some, too. You can take a little bit of an extended lunch and get back and know that you're not missing the bus or fighting to get to the bus at the end of the day. But I can just say, "Hey, I'll spend an extra 15, 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour even later on. Right now, I'm just going to unplug for a while." And it actually really helps you recharge. You feel a lot better. You're a lot more productive when you get back, because you're in the right state of mind.

Owen Gotimer

There are some techniques that people use, and I've used for a long time like Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes on five minutes off, 25 minutes on five minutes off, until the fourth 25 minutes and then it's an extended 15 minute break during those days. One of the things I like to do during that extended break, every two-ish hours is to get outside on a walk. I can still, especially now, I can still socially distance myself, but I'm able to get outside, enjoy the fresh air. Where we are here in the Washington, D.C. area, the sun finally came out yesterday, and we've had a couple of days of sunshine, so it's been really nice to get outside and walk. I think that's super important, too, the fresh air really wakes you up and reenergizes you and gets you ready to continue your work day. Rather than sit in your home office, every day.

Gene Gotimer

Instead going out for a jog in the mornings, because is still been cold in the mornings, I've pushed it off until after lunch, and that's a great time, because then I come back and I'm not like, "Okay, I'm back awake." Yeah, it's a long lunch to do it, but I can get started earlier because I'm not working out in the morning. I can go run, go up and shower, come back, and I definitely feel refreshed with that, so it's definitely a good one.

Owen Gotimer

So a lot of companies have been forced into this work from home. We mentioned at the top that we've been working remotely for a long time, our company's always been virtual first. What are some of the major benefits of actively choosing to be a virtual first company?

Gene Gotimer

Well, the big one obviously is not having to pay a lease, rent, or whatever it is. You're avoiding that huge cost, and for a consulting company, where a lot of us are always at a client site, it just didn't make sense to have an office. So that's the biggest or the the most obvious, let's say. But the other thing is that you're drawing now from a pool of employees from anywhere. And I think we're going to see this after the quarantine period ends. It's no longer going to be forced to say, "Hey, we're going to grab people from the Washington, D.C. area, because that's where our clients are, and some of them are going to want their people present." I think people are going to adjust and organizations are going to adjust, they're going to start realizing, "hey, a lot of times you're just not going to ever have these people in the office." You're going to have to get used to the fact that some of them live outside your metropolitan area or wherever you are. And that has huge benefits for hiring. There's a bigger pool, people can get jobs that live in a lower cost of living area and still get a job working in a high cost of living area, like D.C. or the West Coast, the East Coast, that there's a whole lot of America in between that a lot of times gets ignored for say big tech jobs, because they're not in New York, D.C., Silicon Valley. So, all of a sudden, now you have a lot more people to choose from and a lot more people to work with. And that makes it really good, especially in the consulting world, where people might be nervous about not living in an area that has tons of jobs always coming up. Now, they can be remote and say, "Hey, well, there's nothing in this area. I'll just try to find a job in another area. It's no longer tied to where I am geographically."

Owen Gotimer

I think another really great thing about work from home, and you've mentioned this a little bit, is the saved commute time. Obviously right now, we can't get out after the work to go and do things, but I think that saved commute time is huge, because someone like you who's commuting two to three hours a day, now you get two to three hours back that you can use to do whatever you want. And that can improve your happiness, your quality of lif, and all these different things that I think we take for granted. I think a lot of people actually enjoy commutes. I don't think anyone enjoys an hour commute, an hour and a half commute, but I've met some people that are like "yeah, we like the 20 minute commute, because it allows me to kind of shut off work and turn music on my radio or whatever." But an hour and a half is a lot. My brother just got a new job, and he is going to save like three hours a week or three hours a day commuting and we did the math, and it's like an extra three weeks of his life every year he gets back which is to think about that much time is so crucial to your happiness and your way of life.

Gene Gotimer

I think a lot of people—enjoy a commute might be too strong—a lot of people have figured out good ways to deal with the commute. For me, I was leaving early, and I would sleep on the way in, and I take a nap on the way out. So it wasn't like wasted time, because I wasn't sleeping as much at night, so this made up for it. So that actually worked out for me, but it's a whole lot different not having to deal with that. So that's a big thing. I have a lot more flexibility. I have a lot more free time. And I just really think that people having to having to set aside that block of time. I guess that's it. It wasn't so much that it was wasted because like I said rather than sleeping seven, eight hours at night, I was sleeping, five hours at night, then sleeping an hour in, sleeping an hour out. So I was getting my seven hours just in breaks, and it actually worked out. I'm completely able to nap immediately. But not having to say, "I have to be in bed by this time because I have to get up in time to get ready and catch a bus at this time," and "I'm only going to be able to work this long, and if something comes up towards the end of the day, I have to make a choice, I'm either going to go figure out a different way home, or I'm going to leave in the middle of it, because this is when my bus leaves, I have to go catch it." And then knowing that my wife, my family, they couldn't plan anything before 5:30pm. I used to have on my calendar, literally, people would try to set something up for late in the afternoon. We need to have a quick meeting, but we need to wait until we're off all off our client engagement, so it needed to be later in the day. I'd just have to say, "hey, it has to be before 4pm or after 5:30pm because the rest of that time I'm on a bus. That level of inflexibility was not fun. That's definitely something I'm really appreciating now.

Owen Gotimer

I think that more people will start to see that play a role in the way that they go about working, and I think that's another reason why companies are going to start to, again, move into the direction of work from home now that they were forced into this situation now, but now that they know it's possible.

Gene Gotimer

Well, and the flip side I think works, too. I work too much. But I'm a definite proponent that you need something to distract you. You can't always be focused on work. Even if it's something programming or something. For me, that might be a hobby. I have to separate that from the development I do for work. But I know many, many, many, many years ago, I worked for a company called CyberCash, and one of the things they did—which I thought was great at the time—people were dealing with modems at the time, that was your dial up. A lot of people still used AOL. It was definitely the ancient days. But you had to use like, you know, 14.4 modems, 28.8 modems. Those were the speeds where we were at, and one of the things they did for every employee that came in was they got us an ISDN line that they paid for.

The ISDN line was faster, it was twice as fast as most internet people could get at the time. But the bigger news was that as soon as you tried to connect out over the modem, it would automatically connect. It didn't tie up a phone line, you didn't have to wait for it to dial in. I mean, it actually did on the back end, but it wasn't like it took like 15, 20 seconds to connect. And they encouraged everyone to use it, and that was one of the bigger things. They were paying by the minute for this, but they weren't telling you "Hey, only use this for work." So literally, we'd get home and have dinner and stuff with their families, and then later in the evening, a lot of us would get online and play some online games together. We'd play cooperative games against each other with each other and all this and sometimes we would go late into the night. And we were chewing up at the company's dime. Me, the head of development, the head of operations, the second in charge of operations, the head of marketing, all would be on playing video games together. And the weirdest thing would happen because one thing every time we finish up, you know, let's say it's 11 or 12 o'clock at night, we'd log off and the first thing we do is, "well, I'm gonna check my email." Why not? Because it's right there. And all of a sudden emails that needed a quick question, we were dealing with. We had a West Coast office, we had some international partners, all of a sudden, we could resolve problems right then because we'd just bother checking in, because I didn't have to go through the trouble of dialing. So I was encouraged to kind of be online all the time, which obviously that's not a problem anymore. Everyone is.

The other thing we found was that sometimes a couple times I remember we were playing a game and a problem would come up. And all of a sudden, it was literally, the head of ops would say "we have a server down. Anybody know what's going on?" And this is in the in-game chat. I think the game we were playing at the time was like Red Alert, or Command and Conquer, or maybe it was Carmageddon, but it doesn't matter—all of a sudden, the in-game chat, "hey, server just went down. Anybody know about this?" and we'd bail out of the game and you had a team of people already there working on it. The kind of low inertia to get back to work and to be socially involved with all the other people that you worked with, I think made a big difference in us being able to say, "hey, we'll hop on and work." Why not? Yeah, I know I'm giving extra hours after my time. But if we fix this now, it doesn't stay around til tomorrow morning. And they're paying for the internet, and they have it set up for us. So it's really easy. They've made it easy for us. All of that, I think really adds up.

I think nowadays, again, everyone's always connected and all that but the idea is that you can make it easy for people to interact. If you have a Zoom account, have a Zoom happy hour. Get everyone together, get everyone talking, maybe play some game nights remotely, especially now when you can't see people. Try to set it up and use it socially, because what you'll find is, yeah, there are some costs and there's some effort and maybe you don't always want to hang out with the people from work, maybe you want to hang with other friends too, but getting to know the people socially and hanging out with them socially and being involved with them after hours, you get to know them better, you interact better, and when things come up, all of a sudden, it's not like I'm dropping out of what I was doing with these people to do something for work. Sometimes five minutes tonight saves us hours of cleanup tomorrow. And just because we were doing a virtual happy hour we happen to be on when all that came down, and I think that's like I said back then it was a really big deal. Now, I think it's still important to learn some of those lessons.

Owen Gotimer

And much like in sports, getting to know your team really helps improve the way you work together. When I grew up playing sports, I was always hanging out with my teammates outside of the actual practices and games, and then we get into games, and we're able to communicate much more efficiently and effectively. And it's very similar here. In the corporate world, if you can, say things or address things in a certain certain way, then it really helps bring things together. It also helps you with your body language and the way you're saying things. I've had some of my teammates call me after being like, "Hey, is everything going?" I was like, I didn't think I was acting weird. They're like you did this or that, and that's unlike you, so it seems like something was up. They wouldn't have known that unless we had been able to interact outside of work and they didn't feel comfortable coming to me in that situation. They had to trust that I'd be receptive to that, and that's part of the building those social relationships.

Gene Gotimer

I think there's a lot of cues, some of them are even more obvious than trying to watch for the facial tics or how they're moving their hands or anything like that. Rich Mills, our coworker, was just saying the other day that a lot of times he'll hop on the video chat immediately, then stay on video chat all day. He likes having the camera on even though not everyone does, because sometimes he has to get up and use the restroom, go get a drink, go grab something to eat, deal with something that you know one of his kids is dealing with, because they're home to right now. And just the fact that you see the video of the empty chair sitting there, all of a sudden lets people know, Rich isn't here, I'll catch him when he gets back. He was there. I noticed him in the corner of the screen five minutes ago, he'll be right back. And sure enough, he comes back now you can ask him once he gets his headphones on. There's a lot of cues involved in that and that is something getting used to setting yourself up to give those cues, having the cameras on, making sure people know when you're on, when you're off work, and when it's okay to contact you, when it's not. All of those are things that there's no good answer for because it's different for everyone. It's different for every team. It's different for every organization, every situation. But those types of things, I think we'll see people getting a lot better at setting themselves up to be successful as they get used to working from home now.

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