Knowledge Sharing: Remote Work

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At Sketchfab, some of us are or have been remote for a significant amount of time—some have liked it while others have not. It can be equal parts fulfilling and challenging. We wanted to discover what works and what doesn’t, what people like and dislike about it, what being remote unlocks for them, and what challenges it creates, both professionally and personally.

The initial intention behind this document was to put down on paper what it is like to work remotely at Sketchfab.

The people whose feedback we used here work 100% remotely. They represent our 3D technical team and our Community team, so both developers and business people. Almost all of them have 10+ years of experience in their respective fields.

In the first part, our remote colleagues share ideas on how to make this remote working experience successful. Then, they share more context on why they decided to work from home full-time and identify the benefits and challenges of remote work.

We hope this document may be a reference for both our teammates and those who unexpectedly find themselves working remotely over the next weeks and months.

Feedback gathered in May 2019. Reviewed in Mar 2020.

Sections:

  1. What do you need to make remote work successful and meaningful?
  2. For how long have you been working remotely? In which context?
  3. Why did you choose to go fully remote?
  4. What are the benefits of remote work for you?
  5. What are the challenges of remote work for you?

1. What do you need to make remote work successful and meaningful?

1.1. Have a dedicated space

Our remote teammates recommend having a dedicated space separated from the rest of your living areas. Otherwise, you risk working too much and having a hard time disconnecting. Clearly split your working and living areas.

They try to leave their gear in their home office and have everything done by the end of the day. For parents, finish before the kids are back, and once they are back, be a mother/father.

One teammate recommends looping in your family so that they understand the boundaries of the personal and professional parts of your day.

1.2. Set yourself a clear schedule for yourself

If you begin working remotely, one of our remote teammates advises that you start with a clear and definite schedule. Only then, after a few months of experience, can you gently update this schedule based on what you have learned personally.

Another also recommends having a to-do list: both a daily list with the things you have to do and a master list of all the things you could do. Getting it out of your head helps. Keeping a master list is also important because you may feel ineffective if and when you run out of things to do.

Another teammate usually works on his own in the morning, and reserves meetings and other communications for the afternoon.

One advises staying away from home-related things during the day. They always take longer than you think.

Finally, one remarks that being remote is all about working smarter, not harder.

1.3. Over-communicate

One teammate makes a conscious effort to over-communicate. He wants to make sure that people see he is busy, and that people have a sense of what he is focusing on.

Another teammate recommends that you be very clear on your output, and be available to people who challenge what it means. This approach creates transparency, which prevents team leaders from stressing out too much about whether the remote members of their teams are actually working or not. Don’t be afraid to have discussions on trust and vulnerability.

1.4. Take breaks

One of our remote teammates starts early and finishes late, but takes a lot of breaks. He works for periods of 1.5 to 2 hours and then takes a break. It helps him to step back and to switch from one topic to another. He takes 2 hours for lunch, takes a nap and meditates, exercises, walks the dogs….

Doing sport has also been very important for another teammate. When you work from an office, you prepare yourself for the day, go outside, and walk to the office. When you work from home, you don’t do any of this. He does a lot of biking, goes to the gym, and exercises every day. The more he does sports, the more he can focus.

Another teammate tries to make himself coffee downstairs twice a day, walk around the neighborhood, pick up lunch, and get out of the house.

He warns about the real danger of burnout when it’s easy to open a laptop and work. Be very mindful of that. Protect yourself.

1.5. Socialize & be nice

Our remote teammates note that being by yourself for a long period of time may be depressing. It’s important to jump into any social opportunity you encounter, but also to provoke them if you feel like it. They recommend reaching out to one another, suggesting video chats, playing games remotely during lunch break, etc.

Another teammate underlines that a common trap is to limit our communication to fast-typed instant messages, written without much care and understanding of all the things that are missing in an instant message. You miss the emotional context: the away-from-keyboard tone, the body language—all those things that make 90% of the message and convey the exact feeling and information you want to share. So be extra careful. Be extra kind and patient. Take time to add emojis, videos, and reformulate your first draft. If you are senior in the team and spot an indelicate message written too fast, you may want to jump in and play dumb, asking for explanation, to push the sender to reformulate and smooth their message.

1.6. With experience, find your own balance

Finding a balance comes with time and experience. One remote team member advises that you listen to yourself: when you are exhausted, stop, take a break, and come back later. When he feels off, he goes for a run, and it often helps him find focus again. Everyone has her/his own answer to this.

One of our teammates starts around 7–7:30 am, ends around 6–7 pm, but takes many breaks to exercise, have lunch at home or with friends, etc. Sometimes he works late, sometimes he checks in during the weekend. He is always here when there are meetings, but other than that, he now works when he wants, which is often.

He admits that his “work when I want” strategy works in the 3D team because they are all geeks, all experienced, and they all love what they do. If they had to do boring things, they would sometimes need to force themselves to work. This team member’s schedule is also possible because the team leader trusts the team a lot, and doesn’t require certain working hours.

Another teammate admits that it took him about 2 years to find a balance that really suited him. He now knows when to put forth more effort and when to be more relaxed. He knows when and how to find focus.

It also took some time for another one to be able to find moments to relax, and fight exhaustion. He stopped waiting for his children to come back to stop working in order to have some time for himself and adjust to what was coming next.

1.7. Try it before committing to it fully

One of our remote teammates would not recommend a full-time remote lifestyle for everybody. If you are super social, it could be hard. To him, it also depends on your role. If you have clear goals or specific tasks (software development for instance) it may be quite easy. But it is a bit different if your contribution is simply to do “what is best for the team”.

Before committing to working full-time remotely, some team members advise that you try it for one day a week, build it up a bit, and ramp it up gently as you begin to really understand what it means.

One teammate suggests that if everyone had to work remotely for a week or so, it would help them to build empathy for people who do it full-time. He notes that working remotely one day a week is different from doing it a week or two in a row.

Another teammate recommends spending a year with the team in an office before going fully remote. It has been invaluable for him to be in the New York office for a while.

2. For how long have you been working remotely? In which context?

One teammate has been working remotely for 16 years. He started as a freelancer. To him, there are many different approaches to working remotely. Most companies and people have different points of view and strategies about it.

Two teammates started to work remotely full-time when they joined Sketchfab.

Another one was remote for 6 years prior to joining Sketchfab; in that role, he visited clients in-person a couple of days a week. Then, he freelanced for another 3D company before signing a full-time contract with them, and worked a few days remotely and a few days in an office. To date, he has been working remotely for 12 years.

One teammate worked remotely at his own gaming company for 4 years before joining Sketchfab, and another was remote for a little more than a year prior to joining the team.

Finally, one worked remotely as a freelancer before joining us in New York, moved back to his home country in 2019, and is now working remotely from there.

3. Why did you choose to go fully remote?

3.1. To not live in a big city, and have less commute

For some, the biggest plus is to not be obliged to live in a big city to work on a project they like. To them, cities are stressful and polluted. Living away from big cities is also comfortable and allows them to have more living space.

One teammate started working remotely when the company he worked for moved their offices another 30 minutes away from where he lived. Working in an office 10 minutes away from home would work, but he does not want to lose more time in commuting.

Another one wanted to find work outside Paris in the 3D ecosystem. He started a long period of freelance, working mostly for non-French companies. At that time, Skype was just coming out and remote workers only had access to very basic collaboration tools.

3.2. To be away from office distractions

When working in a big corporation, one teammate reports feeling that there were too many distractions at the office. There were a lot of interruptions, chitchat, and useless meetings involving more than two people. He started to work from home one day a week and quickly saw that he was a lot more productive during that day.

3.3. To join Sketchfab

Some wanted to join Sketchfab but stay in their home country. They would prefer to work close to other colleagues but were not able to relocate to France with their family. So Sketchfab offered to let them work remotely from home.

4. What are the benefits of remote work for you?

4.1. Spending more time with family

As most of our remote team members are parents, spending more time with their families has been a major benefit. They feel super lucky to get to see their children often and be able to significantly contribute to housekeeping and education. Having lunch with his wife every day makes one of them feel good.

4.2. Having more freedom in how we organize our work

One teammate appreciates having a less rigid structure in his day. He can take care of more housekeeping, spend time with his dogs, exercise more. He feels freer to sometimes skip half a weekday of work and compensate for it during a weekend.

One teammate also appreciated having the feeling that someone trusts him to let him do his own thing. He liked having his professional time more integrated into the rest of his life. He could do dishes for 5 minutes to help transition between professional tasks, which he found refreshing.

Another teammate appreciates being able to personalize his workplace and make it exactly what he wants it to be.

Some suggest that being remote may even be preferable when you are a developer. It keeps you away from excessive interruptions and gives you more space and freedom in how you organize your time, which is important when you are creating something. They all appreciate having no distractions and feel more productive.

4.3. Liberating energies

Remote work keeps one teammate very motivated. He feels that it liberates his energies and makes being involved in his work easier.

Another also found working remotely to be a good way to escape a guilt complex around working from an office, where expectations often seem to lock you in for 8 hours of work. In reality, we all need a mix of day-dreaming, focus work, and breaks. When working from home, you don’t feel so much like you are being watched.

All of our remote teammates think that people who work remotely and do not work seriously are rare, especially in our context where everyone seems proud of contributing to Sketchfab’s initiatives. If remote workers are slacking off, they are likely a very small minority and not representative of remote workers more generally. Sketchfab encourages remote work by, for instance, having almost the entire 3D and Community teams 100% remote—changing the company’s remote work policies based on edge cases would be unfortunate.

5. What are the challenges of remote work for you?

5.1. Setting clear boundaries

One of our remote teammates underlines that as there is no transition between being at work and not being at work, there is also no limit between thinking about work and not doing so. When you go to an office, this transition is real, the switch is easier.

For two others as well, boundaries between their personal and professional lives are less clear than when they were working in an office. Nothing prevents you from working extra hours. And if no one disturbs you, you may also forget to take breaks.

One teammate feels that remote workers tend to work more. He tends to log in often during weekends to write down an idea, but then will frequently start testing it and coding it, too.

Sketchfab’s remote teammates feel that there is always something interesting to do, sometimes making it a challenge to stop working.

Another teammate noted that it can be difficult to establish boundaries, especially when you have a family. Being home makes others think you are always available. At first, it may be difficult for your family to understand that you need to close the door to your home office.

When boundaries are blurry, he said, you may not have the same feeling of accomplishment at the end of your day as you would if boundaries were clearer. Doing the same amount of work in an office feels like a bigger accomplishment than at home, even though you may actually be doing more remotely than you do at the office.

For another teammate, working from home was not rewarding. Now when he chooses to work from home every now and then, it is a choice; his work is useful, rewarding, and efficient because he knows what is on his to-do list for the day. He wanted to work mostly from an office again, to see a team, and get out of the house.

5.2. Contributing to the culture and feeling connected

None of the remote teammates feel that they contribute less to the group culture than their colleagues working in the office do. That being said, one of them feels that culture is probably made in the office, and as a remote colleague, you can attach to it. He feels it’s harder to create a culture if you are part of the remote team, which is just a small fraction of the whole team.

The remote team members underline the importance of the onboarding process and of understanding who does what. The internal glossary of Sketchfab-culture terms is very helpful to pick up the culture from afar. One insists that we are lucky to all somehow share the same kind of humor.

One teammate underlines that being remote, you miss non-work-related interactions. Dedicated instant messaging rooms for certain topics (“random”, “rage” or “music”) help here. They provide a space for coffee machine/water cooler sorts of discussions.

For another teammate, the strong chat culture of Sketchfab is really helpful. Everyone uses instant message, so remote colleagues are never out of the loop. Another one thinks it works pretty well with the technical team and all the remote colleagues, particularly because they use instant messages a lot. The business team, which tends to use instant messages a bit less, is somewhat less integrated into the chat culture.

Remote team members appreciate jumping on a quick video chat with others to discuss a topic. It often starts or ends with 5 minutes of personal chit-chat, which helps to create a feeling of connection to others.

One of our remote teammates connects to the Paris Google Hangout every day from 10 am to 10:30 am, to attend both the WEB team and 3D team morning standups. It helps him see others and engage in casual conversations.

Another teammate really appreciates the little gestures from Sketchfab, like the postcards for birthdays or mini champagne bottles for milestones. It’s nice and keeps you in the loop of celebrations.

One teammate has always been eager to socialize with others and socializing in the workplace is very important to him. So he is grateful to be in a team with other remote workers who communicate a lot all day, and to come to the offices every 6 weeks to chat, play, and share with others.

When in the Paris or New York offices, remote teammates admit that it is more difficult for them to really work and do things. So they leverage their presence in the office to talk with others about professional topics and beyond. For two of them, traveling to the Paris office and seeing the team face-to-face has helped a lot. It is essential to see each other a few times a year at least.

The Friday team meeting is also super important. It’s an opportunity for everyone to see each other. We talk about the company and how we are doing regarding our goals.

For one teammate, weekly Sketchats—randomly drawn pairs invited to have a 30-minute casual chat with one another—also help them to understand what everyone is doing.

One teammate mentions that the fact that everyone’s job is somehow similar, or at least not very different, helps a lot in understanding each other and making the group work as a single unit.

For all, the yearly offsite gathering is also key. This face-to-face interaction helps a lot to build and transmit Sketchfab’s culture, in the context of working at two different offices remotely on several continents. It helps them feel safe to then talk to everyone during normal day-to-day work without feeling like strangers.

One teammate notes that to be understood as a person, you need to show your personality, which is that little extra that can come through in-jokes and stories. People working remotely realize it’s needed.

If they were able to, some of our remote teammates would like to split between working from home and working from an office. One loves working face-to-face and finds it more pleasant than relying solely on virtual professional interactions. Others also miss face-to-face interactions.

5.3. Collaborating

Before moving back to his home country after a year in New York, one teammate was a bit worried about not feeling like he was truly part of the heart of the work.

Another pushed a lot early on so that all of us would use Jira, Confluence, and Google Docs, instant messages, and video chats.

The remote teammates agree that instant messages are key—without them, daily work would not work at all. Slack needs to be the company communication tool, not a tool only used by remote colleagues. Everyone needs to play the game and jump in. The fact that Sketchfab was very early on split between Paris and New York helped the team to adopt remote-friendly communication tools.

To another one of our remote teammates, instant messages are sometimes a place for more fun than actual work, but it’s quite nice. It makes you feel like a part of the group.

One recalls that instant messages are a great tool, but also a double-edged sword. Sketchfab never sleeps, so it’s helpful to turn off phone notifications to protect your private space and let go. Another one also wonders if he should simply remove the messaging app from his phone, as he keeps looking at it.

They mention that a working microphone is an essential part of their work. Issues when several people in the offices are talking at the same time are common. If your microphone doesn’t work, you feel you are not part of the team. A delay in connection creates the same problem.

One teammate is grateful to not have to fight for great gear. Sketchfab is always very supportive in equipping them with good computers, screens, VR headsets, etc.

That same teammate feels that morning standups are helpful in order to all meet and plan sub-meetings and video chats for later in the day.

One teammate feels that meetings are a bit more structured now than they were a few years ago, helping you to know when it’s your time to speak. Another underlines that during meetings it is more difficult to catch someone’s eye and receive room to talk if you are not in the room. That’s why doing more calls with everyone behind their own screen helps—everyone, even people working in the office.

Also, one of our remote teammates underlines that when you are remote, you often lose these 5-minute discussions at the end of meetings, where often a lot happens quickly.

For one of them, when it is just you in a room, no one is around to bounce ideas off. You need to be well onboarded and feel safe to know who you need to talk to for this or that.

One teammate notes that just because you wrote something in an instant message does not mean that someone saw it, understood it, and took care of it. You have to be extremely clear about what you are saying. As virtual communication is harder than face-to-face because you can’t talk too much to coordinate efforts, everyone’s contribution has to be clear.

Another teammate working from Europe admits that he prefers to start his days early, which can make it challenging to sync with the Paris team, who tends to start around 9:30 am. He also now feels comfortable telling others he will be less responsive for a day or two in order to focus on something.

Video chat is important. Remote team members often organize online coworking sessions on more mindless tasks to make it more fun or discuss ideas of things they want to do. This little Google Hangout window at the bottom of the screen helps.

One teammate remarks that, when remote, it may be challenging to share your work and accomplishments with the team. He invites his colleagues working primarily from an office to celebrate remote teammates’ successes.

5.4. Building and maintaining trust

To our remote team members, it is all about trust, and it goes both ways. Everyone needs to trust each other to do our best work. At the same time, we should not abuse this trust: when you are remote, you should work. We all have to be trustworthy. Don’t ask to be remote if you are sick and unable to work. It would undermine the foundations of trust, and thus be harmful to your professional relationships. To one teammate, there is no miracle recipe to work remotely, but there is a miracle ingredient: trust.

One underlines that when it comes to coaching, things are different at Sketchfab than at his previous jobs. At Sketchfab, it is very human. We are given trust and freedom, sometimes we take it in a different direction than others had in mind, but it’s ok. Another also feels the vibe is about being trusted to get on with things, but also do whatever you want and feel is important.

One teammate recognizes that coworking with his also-remote “manager” has never been about getting him to do something, but more about finding the most convenient way to do it. It says a lot about his “manager” and Sketchfab, and that remote people are trustworthy. You are trusted, you are valued even though you’re not in the room with people. Your opinion is taken into account.

The fact that all of the remote 3D team members are senior reduces the need to monitor their work. They simply do. Working remotely requires autonomy, and this again comes easily with experience. Even if work is not broken down into small digestible chunks by the team leader, you figure it out with experience.

To a 3D team member, being remote works really well in the 3D team because of a combination of 3 factors: they are all fully committed to their work, the team leader trusts them to do their best work, and they don’t play with this trust. Everything feels like it fits perfectly together. One teammate adds that most of the time, they get to choose what they need to work on. Everyone seems to work on what they feel they have to do, within the quarterly direction that the team leader communicates. Everyone knows more or less what they have to do. Some underline that this structure works given the current size of the team, about 30 people total.

To one remote team member, maintaining a clear and documented task manager like Jira really helps both the team and the team leader. It allows the focus to be on the output more than the input. To another teammate, we may have not yet found the perfect task manager that would help bring more transparency to everyone’s work.

At the beginning, some felt that they needed to over-report to the team leader about their work, being unsure about his trust. This impulse faded with time, as it became implicitly understood that his trust is real.

Don’t be afraid that people working remotely won’t work. Relax. Don’t start micromanaging. It doesn’t work with people in an office, and won’t work any better with people working remotely.

Thank you very much to all our remote teammates for your insights and drive.

 

About the author

Louis Bidou

Operations Sketchfab. I try to grow meaning.



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