This One Is About Working Alone

I work remotely but there are a few ways in which I do not work alone. For example, though I’ve never laid eyes on them, I work with a great team of system administrators, developers, and customer support engineers. I write docs for an intelligent and engaged audience of customers that I’ll never see. Though I may be physically separated from my coworkers and audience, my day-to-day work isn’t some kind of art for art’s sake, done in isolation.

In a lot ways that have turned out to be really important, however, I do work alone. Physically, I work by myself. I have a nice home office set up, but I don’t have a guest chair because I don’t need another surface to collect dust. I also work with a team of people that I have never seen and only interact with on IRC, Twitter, and by email. Perhaps just as importantly, I write for an audience I will not meet because, let’s be honest, that would be seriously creepy.

Working alone can be problematic. For starters, it can stunt your social skills; I know the baristas at my neighborhood Starbucks better than most, since many of my social interactions are with them. Working remotely is a recipe for solitude or, given a certain disposition, loneliness. But on the upside, my office is quiet most days. Nobody’s sauntering over to my desk to tell me to go ahead and come in on Saturday.

But the complexities of working remotely aren’t simply limited to the physical characteristics of the workplace. The work itself changes because you lose something you didn’t know existed until you started to work alone. When I wrote for people that I could see, I had modes of feedback that were essentially free: facial expressions, tone of voice, offhand comments. Now, I have to rely entirely on explicit feedback from my coworkers. It’s not inferior to non-mediated interaction, but it requires a different style of communication.

Working remotely also causes you to learn about and work with your colleagues in a different way. It’s a much faster process to understand your coworkers—their style of communication, their sense of humor, and their preferences—when you interact with them in person (particularly those on the periphery of your work). The “getting to know you period” lasts longer when you work remotely.

None of that is to say that working alone is bad. I like it a lot of the time, despite my increasing resentment over these “snow days” my friends keep talking about. But because working from home is so different, some adjustments are called for to make things go smoothly.

To keep my social skills sharp, I sometimes work from Indy Hall, which is the Independents Hall a few blocks from Philly’s famous (phamous?) Independence Hall. Indy Hall is a coworking space where other people who would also be working by themselves work by themselves in the same room. This works better than you might imagine, particularly because it is populated by some nice, interesting people.

Whether working from home or Indy Hall, however, I’ve also adjusted how I work. While working remotely you must learn to be direct. You can’t simply wait for things to happen. You have ask, directly, does this look good? or what can I do better? because inference is hard to get right in a chat room.

But most importantly, I’ve learned to be more aware of the kinds of feedback I do have access to, whether that’s a comment from coworkers, search queries, or Twitter updates. Working by myself doesn’t have to be a problem—it can even be an advantage—but it it does require some special consideration.

3 thoughts on “This One Is About Working Alone

  1. Well written! Although, since I just found out you’re a writer, I guess I should expect that…

    I’m a member at IndyHall and look forward to meeting you the next time you’re in! (P.S., I <3 WebFaction – IndyHall's websites run on it!)

  2. Thanks, Dave. I’m glad you enjoyed today’s post.

    I haven’t been into Indy Hall in a few weeks—I think it’s the combination of winter lethargy and weather—but I’ll be sure to say hi the next time I drop in.

  3. Far from being creepy, I would enjoy unfiltered feedback from end users. I know the samplings would not be random, but they are the readers who count, yet they have no voice in the docs.

    I work alone too, but have a somewhat solitary nature in that I don’t mind. I get so much more done. And when I meet with clients or prospective clients I am genuinely happy to be in a social situation.

    One last thing: Don’t judge the personalities of unknown colleagues by their emails. You mentioned the problems with mediated communication. Well, it goes double with emails. For people who aren’t expert in writing them, they can lead to offhand witticisms being interpreted wrongly and other problems. Always give sloppy writers the benefit of the doubt — they might turn out to be neat people IRL.

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