WordPress developer, consultant, nerd

The Virtual Coworking Experiment

It's been a good 10+ years since I left my last official 'in-house' place of employment. You know, the type where you rock up at a certain time, carry out a prescribed set of tasks, and wait for the painfully slow day to end so you can blow that popsicle stand and enjoy whatever is left of your day. Since leaving, I've worked mostly as a freelancer in a remote capacity and up until 6 months ago, when I took on a full time role, I had no boss.

Now, even though I'm employed full time, I still work in a mostly remote capacity; that is, I work almost entirely from home but take up a ~1.5 hour commute once or twice a month to have some very useful face-to-face interaction and, if nothing else, to prove I'm still alive down here in G-town.

That means I've spent the last ten years of my working life in isolation… like a mad scientist, deep underground, staring at magical rocks. Bizarre.

I remember a few occasions where my then client – now employer – had mentioned the possibility of coming aboard full time (I was a freelance contractor at the time.) Part of the benefit/appeal had been the value he saw in the water cooler talk that most people experience daily and, being the introvert I am, the idea elicited mixed feelings in me. Things have been great at work, however. The team are a cool bunch of people – friendly, super focused, and very dedicated to making a great publication for their audience.

It's only recently that I've come to realise that the biggest thing I've missed in all my years of working in isolation is that very same water cooler talk. I don't attribute this realisation to my visits to the workplace but, instead, put it down to this whole new state of remote working where I, essentially, spend all day working alongside other tech peeps…

…in a virtual capacity.

Dafuq?

I know right? Sounds weird… and that is the exact same feeling I had when my good friend, Ben Pearson, asked me casually;

"…do you mind if I watch you work?"

He then went on to make very good sense of that little conversational twist by explaining his idea of co-working from our respective remote work locations via video chat. I gave it a minute and decided to roll with it. I figured, if it ended up being too much of a distraction, I'd give up on it.

So we did it. We sat there on our computers working on our own things with Skype running all day. It was like being in a workplace with a colleague who you could see, chat to, and bounce ideas off, but was hundreds of kilometres away in a completely different physical space.

And that distraction that I thought was going to be a problem? It turns out, human contact has this paradoxical effect of positively affecting both productivity and morale. Who knew?

It wasn't long after that we were joined by Joel Eade and our virtual crew was formed. I think it was Joel who found appear.in, which we now use daily to discuss tech issues, offer each other advice, and occasionally even dance.

Dancing? Yes, dancing. And technically, it's called Jazz Hands.

I know – bizarre. It was another one of Ben's strange ideas delivered in almost as weird a fashion and, at the time, I had to take a good solid minute to consider it. It was really only a minute or so before I was like 'fuck it, I'm in'. And so, we danced.

We didn't record that first dancing session – that one is between us. We did, however, start recording a whole series of them. More accurately, Joel started recording them and secretly putting them on YouTube. I'd say this one would have to be my favourite;

Now, I know what you're thinking – "What the actual fuck did I just watch?" – and I completely understand. But Jazz Hands has become a great little 5 minute thing we do now and then to get us moving and to help us snap out of that 3 o'clock-itis like rut that coding can put you in. It's definitely weird, but it's definitely fun.

The latest addition

We've recently been joined by David McDonald – no relation to Ronald, but still a great guy. Dave even jumped into his first Jazz Hands without hesitation and danced like he'd been with us for weeks. The funniest part of that one was his wife pulling a double-take as she walked past the room. Gold.

How do I feel about virtual co-working?

Honestly, I think my day would be strange without it. We've all had days where we've not been connected and we've all reported feeling like something is amiss. It seems to benefit us both professionally and personally, as we get the human element and can also pool our knowledge and experience to provide insight and strategies for the various technical hurdles we come up against.

Virtual co-working is just normal for me now and, after months of spending all day with these people, I consider them good friends. I would even go as far as to say that I've found my people – a group of dorky dads who all happen to work remotely in the tech industry.

I plan to write more about this experiment of ours, as I feel it's worth documenting and I'm sure there are people out there who would be curious to learn more about this type of work arrangement.

I think Ben put it best when he said;

"The day has a lot more laughs in it now."

Something I never knew I missed.

  • http://21switchbacks.com/ Taylor Jacobson

    Hey Phil – congrats on the success of your “experiment”! If you gentlemen find yourself maxing out your ability to coordinate times, you might want to check out Focusmate. We’re a free tool/community that provides you with a live, peer accountability partner any time, for a 50-minute working session over video. Kind of like a study hall for adults. No chit chat, not collaborative, just book a time, show up, share your first task and get to work.

    Many of our users work from home or independently, e.g. freelancers, writers/creatives, solo/entrepreneurs, grad students/admission prep; many have ADHD; many are trying to get stuff done after a long day. Having that person expecting and counting on you makes it easier to show up and get to work, and then maintain momentum.

    I wanted to extend an invite to join us. Fair warning, it’s very new/rudimentary, so patience and feedback are appreciated.

    Best,
    Taylor