With over 275 employees spread across offices in five countries, not to mention coffee shops and home offices around the world, book publisher and conference producer O'Reilly has a truly distributed workforce. But while a large portion of their employees work remotely, many work out of one of the company's multiple offices.
We sat down with O'Reilly editor Jon Bruner to discuss what it's like to work remote for a company that has a mix of in-office and distributed employees, and how he handled the transition from a traditional office job.
This is part of a special two-part O'Reilly interview series. Be sure to also check out our interview with Jon's colleague, Simon St.Laurent.
What does O'Reilly do and what do you do there?
O'Reilly is a publisher, and I run our IoT [Internet of Things] and hardware vertical. That includes our Solid conference as well as our books and videos on things like electrical and mechanical engineering, manufacturing, and connected devices.
Prior to O'Reilly, you worked for Forbes. Has the change from office life been difficult? Was the opportunity to work remotely part of what drew you to O'Reilly?
Working remotely was one of many positive things that made O'Reilly appealing. I approached it with some trepidation, though, since I'd heard from friends that you can end up adrift when you work from home.
In the end, the transition went fairly smoothly. I experimented with lots of different ways to work—in coffee shops, in friends' offices, in coworking spaces—and enjoyed all of them, but mostly through inertia ended up working from my study at home almost all of the time.
I've since moved from New York to San Francisco, and I now work from our office downtown one or two days per week, and from our office in Sebastopol once or twice a month.
How does O'Reilly keep you feeling connected to the rest of the team?
We recently switched to a Gmail-based email system, so we all spend lots of time on Google Hangouts; they're very nicely integrated with Google's business apps. We also use Vidyo for connecting conference rooms. It helps to have the video component when you don't see your colleagues every day.
What are the biggest challenges you face working from home and how do you overcome them?
When you're not in the same office as your colleagues, you have to overcome a little bit of a barrier to ask a question or give feedback, whether that's writing an e-mail message or picking up the phone. I've become better at calling people for even small questions, since it's often easier to work through solutions on the phone than it is by e-mail.
Do you think anything is lost by working remotely? Is there anything you miss by not being in an office every day?
I sometimes miss the energy of working in an office, which is why I enjoy going to ours from time to time. The tradeoff is distraction; it's easier to put several unbroken hours into writing when I'm at home.
It helps to have the video component when you don't see your colleagues every day.
What do you think is the most important thing a company with remote employees can do to ensure successful collaboration?
It's essential to set up a culture of informal communication. I try to do this with lots of phone calls and by working from plenty of open Google Docs.
What sort of company culture does O'Reilly have? How do remote workers factor into that?
O'Reilly has an informal, innovative culture, and the flexibility of remote work is consistent with that culture. Having lots of remote workers makes it easy for us to stay in touch with our community; I spend a few days each month just bouncing from meeting to meeting somewhere in the Bay Area, visiting companies I'm interested in. When you're not expected to be in an office, it gets easier to spend time in the field.
I've often heard people say that teams should be fully remote or fully in an office, but that mixing the two doesn't work. O'Reilly, however, has thrived with some employees in the office and some working from home. What do you think O'Reilly has done to make that dynamic work?
I've heard something like that too, but the blend works very well at O'Reilly. I've never felt like there's an insider/outsider dynamic. I put lots of effort into staying in touch with the teams that work with my team, and that helps.
Describe your personal work environment.
I have a separate study at home. It's got an electric sitting/standing desk, a MacBook Pro, and an external monitor. Since I moved to San Francisco, I've had a wide-open view from the window next to my desk; it's a great improvement from my situation in New York, where I looked onto an air shaft!
When you're not expected to be in an office, it gets easier to spend time in the field.
How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?
My wife is a resident at UCSF, so she has very well-defined working hours and little free time. That's probably the biggest factor that helps me put defined edges on my workday. I try to start working before 8:30 so that I can wrap up by 7, and I schedule things in the evening so that I'll have to leave my desk.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
I actually need more distractions. I sometimes have a hard time fitting breaks in, so I'll look up at 4pm and realize I haven't moved all day and am starving.
What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?
Google Docs for collaborating and tracking projects, and a really good phone. I dislike talking on cell phones, so I use an old-style desk phone connected to an ObiHai router and a Google Voice number.
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
It can work well with the right culture!