Getting in the Zone: Working remote

by Jenna Bantjes

Here at FTS, we’ve been talking a lot internally about health, wellness, efficiency, and balance. We’ve been making strides to recognize and celebrate each other’s personal and professional accomplishments. More of us are working remotely, adjusting to life changes, and exploring our work and lifestyles. At the end of the day, we recognize that it’s not the quantity of work that matters, it’s the quality.

TimW-BlogInterviewThumbnail

Today, we sit down with our Development Director, Tim Wright, to hear about his workflow and how he balances work and life. Tim is a particularly interesting case because this year he moved down to South Carolina, and he now works completely remote.

Hi Tim! So what has it been like to transfer to working remotely?

It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Over the years, I have trained myself to get in and out of my zone pretty quickly. Working remotely is just extended zones and polyfilling the interoffice conversations with a lot of video calls. I do probably three video calls a day.

Nice. Do you think that helps you stay connected to people?

Before I came remote, I read a bunch of articles on how to work remotely, and specifically working in a mixed workplace with some people who are remote and some people who aren’t. One of the key points most emphasized was the need to make the people in the office not forget I was there. I experienced that, forgetting when we had two people go remote before I did. You forget because they’re just not sitting there next to you. The reality is, you just need to put yourself in front of people with scheduled meetings and chats.

Do you think this planning forces meetings to be more constructive?

Yes, when you’re in an office setting, people will drive-by with all kinds of random thoughts and feedback you aren’t ready for. Working remotely and scheduling these conversations is proactive instead of reactive, so I’m not walking past somebody or getting a coffee and then somebody says something unexpected. I’m sitting down for a planned check-in to say, “How are things going?”

Right, so it’s more of a conversation.

Yeah, you don’t feel hijacked like, “Oh, crap. Now I have to deal with this.” It’s, “Okay, I’m planning a time to do Director things. This is when that time is. Now let’s have a conversation about what’s going well, what’s not going well.” It is very structured, and it’s less disruptive to the day, which is nice.

Do you feel like you have more time now?

I definitely have more time because I don’t have to commute. My commute wasn’t anything before, it was only 20 minutes, but now I get that 20 minutes to just relax and get in the zone instead of getting in a car and driving which is nice.

I’m really curious about ‘getting in the zone’. It’s a topic I’ve seen discussed more online now, and one I’ve been exploring myself, so I’m interested in what it takes other people to find focus.

It used to take me a lot to get into the zone. I used to have very specific circumstances. I’d have to shut off all my messaging, close my email, get my headphones on, and play a certain kind of music. If I got interrupted, then it would break the zone and I would have to do it all over again. Now, instead of a zone that lasts eight hours, it’s more like a zone that lasts 45 minutes and then it gets interrupted, and then it immediately goes back on. I’ve kind of trained myself to be interrupted.

Interesting.

The interruptions are mostly people saying, “Hey, do you have a second?” I’ll stop for five minutes and pick right back up. My environment is almost irrelevant now. I actually find that I focus best when I’m playing the same song on loop the whole day.

Oh really?

Yeah, because it fades into the background and I just ignore it. I caught myself listening to The Voice rendition of Tiny Dancer all day once.

Because you can handle interruptions so well, do you find it easier to answer people’s questions now?

I answer questions much differently. It mostly has to do with experience. For instance, when Kevin (our intern) came on board, he wanted to learn JavaScript frameworks. I sat down with him and I was like, “Well, yeah I’ll teach you JavaScript frameworks but before that we’re going to meet for eight weeks twice a week for 30 minutes, and we’re going to talk about everything you need to know before you get into a JavaScript framework.”

There is a key difference between feeling too busy with work and pushing somebody off with a really quick easy answer and taking time with somebody because you don’t want them to learn it the wrong way. I learned a lot of stuff the wrong way early in my career. I don’t want somebody else to go through the same sort of growing pains but at the same time they need to go through similar growing pains. They need to go through a certain path to get to their “A-ha” moment. You can help somebody get there without actually saying, “Oh, yeah. You can just use a preprocessor for that and it will fix all your problems.” You can show them the frustrations of managing CSS with no variables in a 7,000-line file. They then can appreciate the value of a tool and not misuse it.

You’ve clearly developed some strong leading and mentoring skills. Do you have a process for incorporating leadership into your workflow? How have you been able to balance the workload and then incorporate time for other people?

I think it just come out of necessity. As you move on in your career, you inevitably take steps up. You go from junior to mid-level to senior to lead to director and then basically you die, so I’m getting close. Inevitably, there’s going to be that kind of narrowing scope and you’re going to have people looking to you for mentorship or advice and more questions come at you because you’re just at a higher level.

Adjusting to interruptions has been a huge help. Not everybody has that style, but I always try to put myself in the other person’s shoes or remember when I was in their shoes. Consider this scenario: If a kid asks his dad to play catch and the dad is like, “Yeah, I don’t feel like playing catch now” or “we’ll do it later.” That’s the trap that I never wanted to fall into as a Director. I always wanted to be like, “Oh, you need help with something? I’m going to stop what I’m doing and help you.”

Part of being a leader is building and maintaining a balanced team. That sometimes means taking on projects that nobody wants because it doesn’t advance the team’s skills. So, if we have a project that doesn’t advance anyone skills, I’ll take it on so somebody else can develop professionally on a more challenging project. There’s actually a lot of that. If an application build comes in, I know who on the team wants to work on applications and who doesn’t, so we’ll hand the project to them. The makeup of the team is split so there are two developers who are more programming oriented, and there are two members on the team who are more design focused- they’ll be working on more responsive design or websites or design systems, that sort of stuff. We intentionally built the team to be balanced in that way.

Nice! Well we’re nearing the end here, but I’d like to end by asking if there’s anyone you would like to see interviewed in this framework of process or workflow?

Chris Coyier would be a good person to talk to. He has been working from home as long as I’ve known him. That’s probably nearing eight years or so. I’d be interested in hearing from him. Carl Smith is a good guy to talk to. He runs nGen Works and his whole company is remote.

Stay tuned to the blog, as we’ll be interviewing other FTS members to showcase the work styles, habits and tips/tricks help them do their best work.

About Jenna Bantjes

A graduate of the Art Institute of Boston (and the winner of its annual Graphic Design Exhibition), Jenna joined us through our apprentice program. Before...