It’s been about a year and a half since I joined Automattic as a remote data scientist. This is the longest I’ve been in one position since finishing my PhD in 2012. This is also the first time I’ve worked full-time with a fully-distributed team. In this post, I briefly discuss some of the top pluses and minuses of remote work, based on my experience so far.
+ Flexible hours
– Potentially boundless work
By far, one of the top perks of remote work with a distributed team is truly flexible hours. I only have one or two synchronous meetings a week, and in the rest of my time I'm free to work the hours I prefer. No one expects me to be online at specific times, as long as the work gets done and I respond to pings within a reasonable time. As I'm a morning person, this means that I typically work a few hours in the early morning, take a long break (e.g., to surf or run some errands), and then work a few more hours in the afternoon or early evening.
The potential downside of such flexibility is not being able to stop working, especially as most of my colleagues are in Europe and North America. I deal with this by avoiding all work communications during my designated non-work hours. For example, I don't have any work-related apps on my phone, I keep all my work tabs in a separate tab group, and I turn Slack off when I'm not working. I found that this approach sets enough of a boundary between my work and personal life, though I do end up thinking about work problems outside work hours occasionally.
+ More time for non-work activities
– There’s never enough time!
Not commuting freed up the equivalent of a workday in my schedule. In addition, having flexible hours means that I can make time in the middle of the day for leisure activities like surfing and diving. However, it's still a full-time job, so I'm not completely free to pursue non-work activities. It often feels like there isn't enough time in the day, as I can always think of more stuff I'd like to do. But my current situation is much better than having to commute on a daily basis. Even though it's been a relatively short time, I find the idea of going back to full-time office work hard to imagine.
+ No need to attend an office
– Possible isolation from colleagues (and the real world)
Offices – especially open-plan offices – are not great places to get work done. This is definitely the case with work that requires a high level of concentration over uninterrupted blocks of time, like coding and data analysis. Working from home is great for avoiding distractions – there's no need for silly horse blinders here (though I do enjoy looking at the bird and lizard action outside my window).
One good thing about offices is the physical availability of colleagues. It's easy to ask others for feedback, socialise over drinks or shared meals, and keep up to date with company politics. Automattic works around the lack of daily physical interaction by running a few meetups a year. The number of people attending a meetup can vary from a handful for team meetups, to hundreds for the annual Grand Meetup. In all cases, the idea is to bring employees together for up to a week at a time to work and socialise. In my experience, the everyday distance creates a craving to attend meetups. I've never worked in a place where co-workers were so enthusiastic about spending so much time together – with non-distributed companies, team building is often seen as a chore. I suppose that the physical distance makes us appreciate the opportunity to be together and make the most of this precious time – it's a bit like being in a long-distance relationship.
That said, in the majority of the time, isolation can be a problem. As I'm based in Australia, I probably feel it more than others – most of my teammates are offline during my work hours, which means that there's no one to chat with on Slack. This isn't a huge issue, but I do need to ensure I get enough social interaction through other avenues. As the jobs page of Bandcamp (another distributed company) used to say: "If you do not have a strong social structure outside of work then employment at Bandcamp will likely lead to heart disease and an early death. We’re hiring!"
+ Most communication is written
– Information overload
As Automattic is a fully-distributed company, most of the communication is done in writing. The main tools are Slack and internal forums called P2s (emails are rarely used). This makes catching up on the latest company news easy in comparison to places that rely more heavily on synchronous meetings. The downside of so much written communication is potential information overload. It is impossible to follow all the P2 posts, and even keeping up with stuff I should know can sometimes be overwhelming. I especially feel it in the mornings, as most of my colleagues work while I'm sleeping. Therefore, catching up on everything that happened overnight and responding to pings often takes over an hour – things are rarely as I left them when I last logged off. I experience this same feeling of being overwhelmed when coming back from vacation. Depending on the length of time away, it can take days to catch up. On the plus side, this process doesn't rely on someone filling me in – it's all there for me to read.
+ Free trips around the world
– Jet lag and flying
As noted above, Automatticians meet in person a few times a year. Since joining, I attended meetups in Montreal, Whistler, Playa del Carmen, Bali, and Orlando. In some cases, I used the opportunity for personal trips near the meetup locations. Such trips can be a lot of fun. However, the obvious downside when travelling from Australia is that getting to meetups usually involves days of jetlag and long flights (e.g., the 17-hour Dallas to Sydney trip). Nonetheless, I still enjoy the travel opportunities. For example, I doubt I would have ever visited Florida and snorkelled with manatees if it wasn't for Automattic.
+ Exposure to diverse opinions and people
– Cultural differences can pose challenges
Australia's population is made up of many migrants, especially in the tech industry. However, all such migrants have some familiarity with Australian culture and values. The composition of Automattic's workforce is even more diverse, and it lacks the unifying factor of everyone choosing to live in the same place. This is mostly positive, as I find the exposure to a diverse set of people interesting, and everyone tends to be friendly, welcoming, and focused on the work rather than on cultural differences. However, it's important to be aware of differences in communication styles. There's also a wider range of cultural sensitivities than when working with a more homogeneous group. Still, I haven't found it to be much of an issue, possibly because I'm already used to being a migrant. For example, moving to Australia from Israel required some adjustment of my communication style to be less direct.
Overall, I like working with Automattic. For me, the positives outweigh the negatives, as evidenced by the fact that it’s the longest I’ve been in one position since 2012. Doing remote data science work doesn’t seem particularly different to doing any other sort of non-physical work remotely. I hope that more companies will join Automattic and the growing list of remote companies, and offer their employees the option to work from wherever they’re most productive.
Update (March 2019): I also covered similar topics in a Data Science Sydney talk about a day in the life of a remote data scientist.