Giant Swarm is “Remote First” and I put it to the test

Aug 23, 2016

When Giant Swarm hired me about a year ago I was totally overjoyed at the opportunity to work remotely. It presented me with a world of opportunity that until now I haven’t really taken full advantage of.

At first I dipped my toe into the pool by working from random coffee places, and having an irregular working pattern. I’d split my day up into 3 bouts of work, instead of the regular 9-5. I even worked from Singapore for two weeks, but that was coupled with a vacation and so wasn’t purely a work related travel experience.

Off to Seoul

A week ago I took the plunge and traveled to a time zone that is 7 hours ahead of my home in the Netherlands and from my colleagues in Cologne to find myself in a city and culture I’ve never been to before.

I’ve been working from Seoul, South Korea for about a week now, and I’m absolutely loving it. The climate and timezone agree with me much more and I feel I am much more productive than I have been before traveling.

Traveling wakes you up

There is something special that happens to me when I am in a new environment. It forces me to think a bit harder and pay more attention. Everything is new, so it wakes me up in a way that lets me be sharper. Figuring out how to get from A to B, adjusting to the new signage, and being a little lost are all things that seem to have long lasting positive effects on my mood and concentration.

In my normal day to day in the Netherlands, traveling those same familiar routes to those same favorite work spots, I can quickly get into an autopilot mode where my brain decides it isn’t important to be paying attention to what is going on around me.

Being in a new environment forces me to scan every sign and search for every clue that will help me understand how to get from where I am to where I want to be. It makes me conscious of cultural differences, and just by virtue of things being slightly different presents me with a much needed contrast to my day to day life.

Staying in the same place for a long time is like looking at a painting of a white box in a white room; without contrast I can’t appreciate the things I have, and I don’t realize what I might be missing out on.

Not much of a tourist

Some people think it’s a bit odd that I take so much effort to go to a different country, just to open my laptop and work as if I were at home. My travel mindset isn’t to get a selfie at as many landmarks as possible though. I’m not much of a tourist. I just like to eat the local food and experience living in a new environment for a while. Just seeing all the different things they have in the grocery stores and finding out what a nice snack or drink is by sampling a different one each day gives me more joy than finding some crowded tourist hotspot.

7 time zones away from my colleagues

When my colleagues in Cologne wake up, I’ve already had some serious undisturbed productive time. What remains to be seen is if my colleagues miss my presence during the bulk of their work day. Around 15.00 in Cologne I am getting ready for bed, so I am not really as involved anymore in the more social parts of our remote gatherings, like the weekly Friday lunch, and impromptu afternoon hangouts.

Seoul however, is on the extreme end of the possible time zone differences between Cologne. There are tons of other interesting places I could see myself going to where the impact of my traveling will be so low that it will barely be noticed.

One thing I will probably avoid doing is trying to work remote in a timezone where I don’t have some reasonable overlap with the normal stand up time at 10:00am. Traveling ‘forward’ to a time zone that is ahead is more manageable than traveling ‘backwards’. Traveling to North America for example very quickly puts me in places where the daily standup would happen well before 9:00am, and I am not much of a morning person.

With great power comes great responsibility

This amazing opportunity to make use of my time with so much freedom comes with great responsibility. I’m definitely conscious that not many places afford this kind of freedom to their employees, so I try to be very available and communicative to my colleagues. It has forced me to be more structured in my time, and get better at communicating.

One topic I need to continue to get better at is expectation management. I have a tendency to misjudge when I think I’ll be done with a certain feature or work task. That means I can become a blocker for colleagues, especially when in a far away time zone. While there is usually more than enough tasks to do that I don’t become a blocker, it is something that I try to be extra conscious of.

Do I recommend it?

So do I recommend the remote lifestyle? Definitely! As long as you don’t have responsibilities or life goals that keep you tied geographically to where you are. Giant Swarm is special though, because it is built from the ground up to support remote work. One of Giant Swarm’s founding decisions was to allow us to “Work, when and wherever you want.” that means that the communication structure that allows us all to work effectively together is already in place. I imagine this might not be very successful at a company where a lot of communication still happens in the office and isn’t captured in some tool like Slack where others can catch up on what has happened and what has been decided.

What’s next?

So what’s next for me? I’m still in Seoul at the moment and processing this experience. When I get back to the Netherlands I’ll start thinking about where I might go to next! Though I might already have an opportunity to work with a friend of mine in Skopje, Macedonia. Whatever it is, I try my best to determine before hand if connectivity is good, and if there are not too many risks in heading over there so that I can continue being productive and stay involved in the daily work loop.

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