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Remote Worker Series: Beau Lebens

Every week in June we profile a different remote worker from around the globe.

Beau Lebens, Automattic (@beaulebens)

1. What are you working on?

I work for Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, Jetpack, Akismet, Gravatar and a raft of other web-scale products. We’re a completely distributed company spread all over the world, and have been from employee number one (I’m number 35, and have been with the company for just over 5 years now). We have 250 distributed employees. I personally mostly work on WordPress.com, and right now I’m working on a collection of collaboration tools for helping people use the WordPress platform to work together as distributed teams.

2. What’s the biggest challenge of working remotely right now?

Timezones. Perhaps that’s simplifying things a bit, but they are the one thing that you just can’t get around with a fully distributed team. If you hire the right people, agree upon and leverage some basic tools, and keep communication lines open, timezones quickly become the most annoying thing to overcome. Everything else is just business, but distributed.

3. Describe your workspace/ How do you choose a spot to work from?

I have a standing desk at home, which is actually built into an IKEA closet (seriously, insert jokes about the size of New York apartments here). My next desk will probably be a sit/stand combo with a bit more space. I also move around a bit, and go back and forth to my kitchen table, the couch, cafés, and periodically rent a desk space at a friend’s office. I can get work done most places, as long as they have solid wifi. Having an outlet and a comfortable seat helps, and if I’m at a café or something like that, then good food and coffee will help me justify staying there all day.

4. What’s in your toolbox (digital or otherwise)?

Until recently, most of my real-time communication was via IRC. Lately we’ve been trying out Slack and it’s going pretty well. We also keep most of our more important/archivable conversations on o2, which is a collaboration tool we’re developing in-house, on top of WordPress. It enables us to have real-time, threaded conversations, which are always archived and available to search, using the WordPress infrastructure we already have. On top of that, I use Google Apps a lot, am trying out Github’s Atom editor (previously a Sublime Text user), spend a lot of time in Terminal, use a mix of Subversion and Git (via Github) and bounce between Chrome, Firefox and Safari constantly. Oh, and I always have Spotify playing in the background. I keep a Moleskine near me most of the time for random notes/scrawlings/sketches, and a Timbuk2 messenger is currently my bag of choice, although I’m thinking of switching back to a backpack. I also have a Roost, Logitech K810 Bluetooth keyboard and Apple Magic Mouse which allow me to replicate most of my home environment (minus the Thunderbolt display) pretty much anywhere.

5. What’s the biggest misconception about remote work?

I think people still assume I’m sitting around all day in my underwear watching TV (perhaps not helped by the title of the otherwise great book that was written about Automattic: The Year Without Pants). There’s this expectation that as soon as someone isn’t looking over your shoulder, everyone just slacks off. Quite the opposite is the reality, as long as you’re hiring the right people and engaging them appropriately with their work. We find it’s harder to get people to stop working and take some time off most of the time.

Standing desk for Beau Lebens

6. Top tips for working remotely?

If you need it, then set some structure and routine. If you don’t, don’t. Make the most of your flexibility. Know your tools (and constantly seek out new/better ones, although they won’t save you). Communicate, more than anything else. Communicate until people start complaining that you communicate too much, then reel it back ever so slightly. It’s very difficult to over-communicate in a distributed environment. Give people the benefit of the doubt with text communications. If something comes across as a bit “short” or “abrupt”, assume it wasn’t meant that way and follow up and get some clarification. Always ask for clarification on anything you don’t understand fully.

7. Do you think remote employees are more productive?

I think they definitely can be. There are some people (and industries) for whom distributed positions are just not going to work. For most of us working with computers/the internet though, being distributed gives you freedom, flexibility, and control over your work environment like never before. If you’re disciplined, and can keep yourself honest, you can be incredibly productive and happy as a distributed employee.

Follow Beau on Twitter @beaulebens


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