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The Villains of Remote Work

Mak Arnautovic's profile picture Mak Arnautovic on

Working remotely is awesome. It's how DNSimple operates. There's no office, there are no working hours, there is nowhere you need to be, there's no commute, and no line for the bathroom. You're free to work when you want, how you want, and from wherever you want.

Working on a small team is awesome. It's how DNSimple operates. There are no deadlines, there are no managers, there is no disconnect between the development and the business, and no HR department. You're free to contribute wherever it's effective, you get to know your coworkers well, you develop your own workflow, and you're held accountable by your commitment to your team and forward progress.

Both core aspects of DNSimple, being a small remote team is a wonderful combination, but it's one that opens itself up to unexpected vulnerabilities. Much like how when a superhero makes their appearance, villains inevitably follow…being part of a small team that works remotely is a superpower that draws in super-villainy.


The Faceless

The Faceless themselves are not evil, but I'm sure you can imagine it's still horrifying to look at something that doesn't have a face. Allow me to explain. On my first day, I was extended a bunch of warm welcomes by the team upon signing in to our Slack channel. I got to say hi to everyone and get a sense of how active the channel is at 10:30AM CST. Once the greetings were out of the way, though, is when I realized had no idea who these people were. Generally speaking, when you're put into a new environment it's fairly easy to tell how you can start making friends. You approach people based on visual queues that let us as humans know "you can say hello and ask me stuff!", or inversely, "if you interrupt my train of thought right now I will cry.". This is a skill that people train every day they talk to someone, it's a huge part of the core makeup of what it means to be an animal with thumbs, and it was in the moments after the last "welcome @arnamak!" that I realized: this skill I've relied on through countless cross-country moves, new schools, and new jobs, was not in my toolbelt.

This posed a problem for me, because I had roughly 30 billion questions to ask. My first question, where do I direct my questions? This @aeden guy appears to have all the answers to everything in the world, but he's the CEO. CEOs are scary and busy all the time. Can I ask him why postgres is being an asshole? What time zone is he in? Is it 2AM for him? Should I direct that question at someone else? Should I make it funny? Should I give background information? Should I just start talking? Should I ask @meeunier? Who is this guy? He keeps posting gifs of Zach Galifianakis.

I won't go too much further. But think back to your first day at a new job in a new environment, I'm sure you know the types of questions that were going through my head. In most situations people will tell you "ask anyone whenever". While that is the correct answer, if you're an 'overthinker', it can be stressful to just start firing away anything you're curious about to people you barely know while they're doing their jobs.

So how do you defeat The Faceless? I was only able to discover one strategy: meet everyone in person. I don't know if it's possible any other way. No matter how hard you and the others around you try, it's really hard to convey emotion through text on a screen. It's even harder to know how everyone's internal monologue is reading what you're writing. Especially when you're part of a relatively diverse group of people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds, complete with language barriers and all. Luckily we weren't too far out from our August 2015 DNSimple meetup, which took place in a small village outside of Avignon, France. While staying under one roof for a full week with our team: The Faceless vanished, and in their place I began to see Aaron, Anthony, Antoine, Jacobo, Javier, Joseph, Sebastian, and Simone. The difference was night and day. I felt like when I wrote in Slack from then on, people would read what I was saying in my voice, knowing how I express myself. It certainly helped me going the other way.

Darth Overwork

Darth Overwork means well deep down. He knows there's work to do, and he uses his once-Jedi powers to trick your brain into forgetting how to measure time and effort so you can do more work faster. Some may consider that a desirable skill. But the reason Darth Overwork is so scary, is because you usually can't see him. You don't know when your brain is being manipulated by him and when it's not. Lovers of a more traditional 9-to-5 workflow may be able to see the Sith scum coming from a mile away. But let me try and explain how he can really throw a wrench into your cogs.

I personally take a lot of long breaks throughout the day. This is where the flexibility of being a small remote team really shines for me. Sometimes I will lose focus on what I am doing, other times I will have to run an errand, maybe I have a headache, or maybe a friend I want to see got the day off and wants to hang out for a bit. But most importantly is combating the loss of focus. Write a word, stop, look at that cup for a second, dread writing the next word, write the next word, look at that dog, stop, repeat. It can be a hellish cycle. I try to avoid this feeling at all costs, and for this reason I try not to focus on how long these breaks are. Sometimes they're 15 minutes and other times they're four hours. The important thing is that when I go back to what I was doing, I'm happy to look at it again rather than dreading the moment I have to start.

When you take this approach to work, it can be incredibly rewarding—think about it—you're always happy to work because you stop whenever it's making you feel bored or agitated. Let's call it the millenial approach, because we all know that millenials have zero patience for doing things that aren't fun and engaging right now (we really are the worst). When you keep irregular hours, and when your life is a bunch of irregular habits (some of you are reading this gagging at the thought of not having a pattern or rhythm, totally understandable—I gag at the thought of having one), it becomes really hard to keep track of how much time, effort, and energy you've actually committed in one day.

If you feel like you're underachieving, you might try to overcompensate. It's a logical approach, but Darth Overwork's jedi mind trick senses your self-doubt. He makes you believe that if you took 3 breaks in one day where you went swimming, then to lunch, and then to a bar you must be underachieving. Regardless of the fact that while you were at that bar you were speaking with your teammates, answering support requests, or thinking about how you're going to solve the problem you left on your laptop. The amount of time you were actually sitting down writing code and shipping stuff, yes maybe it was less than another day. But 'work' can take many forms, and it's important to learn what "counts" towards your daily goal. I'm not suggesting you go all out and start budgeting your time, making note of your bathroom breaks and amount of time spent eating. You don't even necessarily have to be my version of a millenial-style break-taker. You could be spending your day brainstorming, spiking, or reading up on a certain topic. All of these things have value, but you're not actually creating a visible change; you're not merging PRs and cutting down issues. It can make you feel like you're doing nothing, because to everyone else it looks like you're doing nothing. When this happens, I catch myself awake when I should be asleep, taking easy wins off the issue pile so I can feel like I did something that day. There isn't a janitor to turn off the lights and let you know that you're around way too late. It's hard for your teammates to let you know it's maybe time to back off, because everyone carries different hours across different time zones.

The only way to fight working too much in these contexts, is to be conscious of what you do throughout the day, and appropriately assign value to what you've done. If you've been reading all day, maybe people won't see your work. But assuming you've actually learned something, the time you put in will reveal itself eventually. Even if you retain nothing from your spike, or if you wound up deleting it entirely, you've still learned something that can at some point (if not already) add value to your team and the work that you do. My advice for Darth Overwork specifically…learn how to control him, rather than him controlling you. You can sometimes use overworking to your advantage, but it's important that you're the one dictating the terms for when it starts and stops. Considering he's a villain I made up and assigned a bad name to, you can comfortably do this with only a little bit of practice. The challenging part is seeing him for the first time when you don't know he's there.

The Unknown

+15 to crit when paired with The Faceless

The Unknown exists by not existing. I know, it's somewhat of a paradox. After a long day's work, and after your proud ggpush leading to a delicious PR filled with all sorts of goodies—The Unknown strikes. Your PR is the culmination of a week's worth of work: it could be a complete redesign of a critical portion of your app, it could be a proposal for a new tech to introduce into your stack, maybe it's a new policy, or an idea for a new project. The more work, and the more creative you were, the more vulnerable you become to The Unknown.

Any writer, designer, musician, or creative personality will feel a similar way: nothing you do will ever meet your standards. You have no way of knowing when a creative process has ended, when it's at a point that people will enjoy it, or whether it's any good or not to begin with. The moment after publishing something, to the moment where you read someone's feedback, you may as well be a steak in New Delhi, because you're about as useful as one. The only thing on your mind is the creative work that you've just put "out there" (wherever that may be) and how people will respond. The longer you go without a response, the more you begin to question the value of what you've committed.

"How does nobody have anything to say about this?"

"Is each person looking at this and thinking 'I don't want to be the one to tell him that this PR is awful'?"

"I should just delete this entire thing before more people see it and I embarrass myself."

In an office, or on a larger team, you're a little more likely to draw a response; whether it's through facial expressions, the increased odds of getting a response from a larger pool of people, or knowing that your peers haven't had a chance to see it yet, it's a little less difficult to put your mind at ease.

There are a few things I've learned while struggling with this particular villain. One is taking a look in a mirror. I don't comment on every PR, I don't necessarily have an opinion on all contributions made to our application. Some things I look at and simply have nothing to say; not because it's bad, underwhelming, or in any way flawed—but perhaps the submitter simply hit on everything I could consider, and I feel like there's nothing I could add of value outside of a :+1:. Your heart and soul is in your work and what you create, but to anyone else…it's a supporting cast member to their own narrative. I feel like "the world doesn't revolve around you" is something we've all known for a long time, but it's easy to lose sight of that when you're outside of your comfort zone or otherwise vulnerable.

As I've been a member of this (read: a) team for more and more time, something that gets me through a fight with The Unknown is reminding myself that I'm not here by accident. You're where you are for a reason. You were brought on and given responsibilities by people that trust your judgement. You may be corrected, criticized, or steered in a different direction at times. But your co-workers are there to support you, not mercilessly judge your best effort.


I'm scared. I'm scared of writing this. I'm scared to be here. I'm mortified of the possibility of pissing this one off. We have to be quiet, and we have to be careful. Of the two others I've listed, the countless more I don't have time to talk about today, Potato is the meanest, scariest, and most terrible villain of them all.

Earlier I said: "The important thing is that when I go back to what I was doing, I'm happy to look at it again rather than dreading the moment I have to start."

But I neglected to mention what happens when that feeling of happiness doesn't come back. What if after a four hour long break you still dread starting the same way you did before? What if your break has been so amazing that you can't stop? What if your nap didn't help your headache, and what if your motivation has completely dissipated? It's fine, work more tomorrow. But tomorrow the same thing happens. And the next day. And the day after that.

It's totally possible, even writing the words and knowing that it happens to me occasionally makes me feel guilty or like I've let the team down.

I've had days…sometimes a full week, where I can't seem to focus on anything. During these periods I'm often doing things that others may consider a mini-vacation: maybe I'm reading a book, maybe I'm binging a show on Netflix while laying in bed ordering food and not leaving my house. That series of activities is amazing…in a small dose. A very small dose. When you get past the point of actually wanting to partake in something like that, it becomes an absolute nightmare. You start to feel like you're festering. Trapped, anxious, unproductive, bored, and tired. You feel guilt, you want to be able to contribute, but every time you sit down you just stand up again. In these situations it's not just work I can't focus on, but Netflix, books, and video games too. It's an awful feeling. You might have experienced something similar a few times on long breaks from school as a kid, or as a food service worker when you get multiple days off in a row.

I am Potato. You are Potato. Potato is in all of us, dying to see the light of day. If you feel Potato coming…run.

Really though, that's the solution. Maybe not literally "run" (though in the case of a lot of people, literally run). Change your scenery, bang out an easy win, complete tasks that require zero planning or thought, change how you're sitting, exercise for a little bit, put your shoes on, stand while you work. If none of that helps, leave. Go anywhere, it does not matter where. Find a co-working space to go to, find a beach with wifi, find a rooftop pool, or a coffee shop. If you can't find anything interesting, go to a different continent. Do whatever it takes. It does not matter what it is, but you need to fight Potato from the early spud stages, once it becomes full-grown it can be incredibly difficult to escape. The thing is, once you've fully Potato'd, your mind has been corrupted to the point where all you want to be is Potato, even though you hate every waking second of it.

The only way for me to combat this happening is to leave my apartment. Sometimes it's really hard. If it's pouring down rain or -20 degrees outside, it can be really tough to work up the will do to that. Especially if the Potato has already taken over. You start to hear things like "At the co-working space it's just a chair, desk, and laptop. Here you have a chair, desk, laptop, dope monitors, an awesome sound system, and snacks. It is objectively better so you should just stay." I tried everything else when I first experienced being a Potato, but nothing worked quite like relocating. I sometimes have to see other people being productive in order to get back into it myself. Whether that's in the conference area of my building, Dev Bootcamp, a coffee shop, or on a plane, I've come to learn that it is the only way I will get back to being productive.

The Potato is the hands-down biggest downside of working remotely. You might experience a totally different version of Potato, but at the end of the day it comes down to a complete loss of focus, and inability to regain said focus. Some people (like myself) will shut down entirely when that happens, others can reallocate that focus elsewhere. How you deal with it is up to you; but if you're thinking about working remotely, or if you have just started and have experienced something similar I feel obligated to say that it's not just you. It's a thing that happens, it's something you will eventually learn to deal with, cut off, or avoid entirely. You have to put in a lot of effort to get to the point where that's a possibility.

Demoralized yet?

I joined DNSimple a little over a year ago as my first job in technology. Before I started it was sunshine and rainbows, knowing that I'd be working from home and on my own schedule. It didn't take long for me to realize that it was a much more intense transition than I had anticipated. Sunshine and rainbows is definitely a huge part of it, and let me be clear by saying that it would take more than a fair share of dubloons to get me to work in a legit office during normal working hours. Like anything worth doing, being an effective remote employee takes work, time, and oodles of patience. If you asked me to start over from the beginning, and go through all the growing pains and self-discovery while retaining none of the information I've learned over the past year-ish…I'd still probably do it, but I'd hesitate. That's not how life works though. In this reality, I went through those growing pains and that self-discovery. I look back at this past year and know that I would not trade the knowledge I've gained about myself and my profession for a path of lesser resistance.

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Mak Arnautovic

Highly opinionated on trivial matters

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