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Using the "Work API" and other necessary strategies for working successfully as a remote software engineer

Tobias Merkle

Working remote is huge now, and not only because technology has made trivial communications more immediate and obtrusive. Culturally, too, remote working is the Newest Biggest Thing that both startups and enterprise companies have started to implement as official capital-P Policies. But why is "working remote" suddenly everywhere?

Real-time communication is exponentially easier today than it was even five years ago. We're always chatting in one window or another, and our phones are bloated and slow with dozens of redundant messaging apps. Huge video/audio group calls have also become far less painful to conduct. As a result, companies, especially newer ones, are becoming more confident that they can manage their employees remotely and electronically rather than on-site and in-person.

However, take a few notes from me: the shiny new thing isn't all gold on the inside, and just because a particular food looks good and tastes good doesn't mean it's entirely good for you. In this article, we'll cover off on some strategies to successfully navigate this new way of working, and talk a little about the hidden personal and social externalities of working remotely.

1. Understand what legibility means to your company.

Remotely, you and your manager are both accountable for completing dramatically more tasks "by hand" than you would be onsite: scheduling meetings, getting to know people, and asking for help, etc. These activities are naturally much less structured and explicit in person. (This is a pro for some people, and a con for others.) To ensure remote employees still do this (and other) stuff, your workplace will probably implement some kind of legibility process to make sure they can monitor each of their busy bees wherever they are across the globe. "Hey, champ, what's goin' on? Ya workin' hard? Can I quantify all of the work you're doin' there sport? Is it legible?"

In practice, this means complicated kanban stacks and frequent meetings and tight feedback cycles and many, many, many mobile phone notifications. I grew very weary of this after a short time. But the entire process, with rare exception, is absolutely necessary for a corporation to track the work of its remote employees. These practices generate metrics of productivity that management can report to the executives. I call this the “Work API” because remote-friendly teams need to make frequent calls to this interface to obtain the information that co-located teams usually enjoy by virtue of passive observation.

The Work API in action:

request: "Hey, it's your boss. Are you doing work?"
response: "Yes, I'm working. Look at all of these works I have."
request: "Good... how about now?"
response: "Yes, some of my works are now new works, and others have moved.”

Among other reasons, this is why Clubhouse, and apps like it, are so prevalent - they're an all-encompassing solution to the problem of trying to build your own Work API.

Similarly, the social interactions you have with people as a remote worker will also be highly idiosyncratic. I'm a pretty sociable guy; I operate well in the real world. But I had to learn how to be professionally sociable, and legibly professional, all over again when I started working as a remote employee. Which brings me to my next point:

2. Be legible.

Ensure that your online presence unambiguously communicates the work you are currently doing, the work you plan to do, and the work you have recently completed. The correct people will notice this and mentally categorize you as a hard worker.

Canny programmers can learn the intricacies of the Work API and, with practice, present their best possible self to management at the end of every sprint. Your boss: "His work numbers! They're off the charts! Amazing! I didn't even know we had this much work to do..." You: [grinning conspiratorially at the camera]

Obviously, don't lie about your work, don't steal things that aren't yours, and don't conceal the truth. That's not what I mean here. What I mean is that you don't have to fight the Work API system - as a remote worker, it is your livelihood; it’s the reason you can work remotely in the first place. And once you learn to harness its powers to quantify your value, you will reap many rewards.

3. Don’t become a remote engineer too early in your career.

I know: you want to start working remotely now. "I can take one of those cliche photos with my laptop on the windy dunes!" (Incidentally, things not to mix: computers and sand.) I know you're thinking this because I was like you, once. And then I tried working remotely after a career consisting solely of contractor gigs.

Remote work sounds incredibly tempting to new devs. Besides the fact that a little more job experience will improve your resume, the unfortunately vital knowledge that you'll earn moving and interacting in a physical, professional, all-encompassing, inescapable environment will dramatically improve your ability to interact with the Work API from home, cafe, nightclub, wherever. You will know how much work "feels" correct to do, without doing too little (or too much 😉). It will also, crucially, train your expectations for what behavior is and is not permissible from your employer - and if you start to smell something fishy, you will take action more quickly to prevent it.

4. Remember to visit the outside world!

Remote work is dangerous - dangerously comfy, that is. Even I, a sociable guy, cooped myself up at home at all hours of the day because of the constant threat of an urgent notification. The home environment was simply less annoying than any noisy and hard-chaired cafe within 10 miles, plus, I had to change out of pajamas to get there... why bother? This mindset ended up doing weird things to me, and it’s having strange effects on other people as well: Amir Salihefendic, CEO of all-remote company Doist, mentioned in a recent article that "isolation, anxiety, and depression are significant problems when working remotely, and we must figure out ways and systems to resolve these complex issues."

Is remote work precipitating these mental health challenges, or are the anxious and isolated more likely to seek out remote work? Further research may provide more insight into this thorny territory, but for now, we can only guess, and give warning.

Get plenty of sunlight! Bask in fields on lunch break. Exercise often, preferably at midday, when it breaks up the sedentary lifestyle of morning and afternoon work. And while you’re out, both during and after work, find ways to center yourself on your community - my final piece of advice:

5. Maintain work-life balance by generating "play energy".

“Balance” is a misleading word. The middle path between overworking yourself and over-indulging your free time is not a neutral equilibrium - you need to push back against work energy with an equally strong amount of play energy to keep the balance right! It’s not so much a balance as it is a cycle, each one vying to take more of your time than the other - but neither one must win for too long!. “Work hard, play hard” - it’s a bit of a meme, but it’s also a bit of the truth.

Work energy has its own insidious way of creeping in... Urgent Slack messages at 2AM. Phone calls at 6:30. A vague but threatening email. The possibilities for disruption are endless, especially if your company and you do not share a time zone. Tying into my first point, as a remote worker you’ve got to establish your time boundaries and stick to them explicitly - that means leaving those messages unread until it’s clock-in time (unless you’re expected to work emergencies, of course). That’s step one: establishing the border of Work Land.

Step two is running out into a meadow and letting a thousand Play Lands bloom. You have hobbies, interests, friends; or you can develop them if you try! A robust social group of nearby friends will definitely help you escape the eternal screen and bedroom, and fill your heart with joy to carry you through those early mornings.

I am a massive advocate of hanging out at hackerspaces after office hours when amateur makers of all ages are likely to be relaxing and building their favorite projects in cool, high-tech environments. Find one near you here, or ask around! I have never regretted stepping into one and looking around, making friends. It nourishes the soul.

You’ll need every ounce of that play energy to counter the forces of Work: Buffer's study of remote workers informs us that over 20% or remote workers struggle with “unplugging” after hours, and another ~20% grapple with loneliness on a regular basis. Finding friends in play spaces solves both of these problems. The gym, the park, the meetup - these locations are all waiting for you. In my time working remote, I failed to do this, and as a result, I made fewer friends in that time than ever before in my life. And that's including coworkers! (Don’t worry, I got better.)

Working in non-home spaces like cafes or libraries may also alleviate this common issue, though it’s hard to beat that 0-second commute you get while working from home. But heed my warning: do not sit idle in bed too long! Please get out and go exercise and sustain your friendships. This is extremely important.

In sum: Developments in annoying-messaging-app technology have provided alternatives to many of the communications channels that companies consider essential to employee function. Small texts and large video chats have replaced lengthy email threads and meetings, and they stitch together time zones and national jurisdictions. Because companies cannot easily monitor scattered employees, they have adopted technologies like Clubhouse, Slack, Hangouts, etc. and development methodologies like Agile to legibly coordinate large numbers of workers with metrics that management can access and interpret.

In turn, the isolation and atomization of employee relationships - moving from face-to-face to anonymous electronic coworkers - have imparted unknown psychological effects on the developers who, it is shown, prefer to stay at home all day, perhaps to their detriment. It is unclear whether the peace of mind and autonomy of living and working in your own space ameliorate these potential downsides, or if introverts are simply more likely to seek remote work.

And regardless of who you are, you ought to be improving your mind and body with essential Play Energy. Being out in places with people or exploring inner worlds with books, games, hobbies, cooking, whatever your star is, find it and follow it! This more than anything else will strengthen you.

Do you work remotely? Do you know someone who does? Do you manage remote employees? What is it like, and what are the challenges? We crave more first-hand data to form a more holistic opinion on this matter. Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below!