When everyone is keen on their job, they don’t need to share an office
Martin has been working at bevuta since April 2021. And he was completely home office based from the start. I talked with Martin about self-motivation, location-independent working, the importance of gestures and facial expressions in communication, and the saving grace of Sanity Talks.
Were you in the office for a few days to start with?
No, I was in my home office from day one. And having Gelsenkirchen, where I live, as my work place was part of my employment agreement.
Do you mean that this was a condition for you to even take this job?
Yes, absolutely. My hobby is beekeeping, I’m a member of a beekeepers’ association, and therefore am tied to my location. It would be a huge downside for me if I had to live elsewhere. Commuting from Gelsenkirchen to Cologne takes one hour and twenty minutes, so that doesn’t make sense to me either. But the people on my team aren’t all in Germany anyway, some are in Belgium, the Netherlands or in Finland, so I see no reason why I should have to sit in the Cologne office.
What marks out your job at bevuta?
I am currently responsible for release management. Meaning, I stand at the end of the development chain, receive completed features from the developers and, together with quality assurance, check whether the development complies with the definition. And if the outcome of the tests is positive and the product is suitable for a productive operation, I arrange the product launch. My work is largely organizational. I ensure that certain things are happening, that certain people are being informed, that certain kinds of information are collated and made available to others. And ﬁnally, that other things take place, namely, that our users receive regular updates with useful features.
That sounds as though your job is predominantly about communicating with various other people.
That’s certainly a big part of it. Communication frequently needs a facilitator and that’s the role I most often occupy here.
You’d think that would be the kind of job that requires you to be in attendance somewhere, seeing as you constantly communicate with others.
But the team isn’t “in attendance somewhere” either. And you can communicate very well by chat and video calls.
Do you feel that the fact that everything is happening remote somehow has a negative impact on your job?
No, I don’t feel that my job is negatively impacted. In certain situations it’s helpful to be present in person. But those tend to be workshops and the like. It might for example be helpful to sit down for a day with 5 or 6 others when you want to work out some new topic. But that’s not my main daily business.
My daily business is beautifully suited to remote working. First and foremost, it works so well because everyone else has the same mindset. In the past, I’ve sometimes worked with people whose idea of home office was to spend the entire day in bed. Sounds absurd, but there are people like that. And of course, it’s entirely possible to do wonderfully productive work while based in your bed – but there certainly are people who don’t.
They tend to be the people you have to constantly push even when they are sat in the office. I ﬁnd it rather difficult to have to move people along. I absolutely don’t see myself in jobs where I have to run about cracking the whip, that’s not my thing.
I’m at my best working with people with a high degree of self-motivation, who are curious and just love to become involved.
And because that’s exactly the kind of people we have here, who love to do what they are good at, I don’t have to share an office with them. They don’t need the boss breathing down their neck, checking up on them.
How important is your place of work for you?
When I started my working life, I had a job that was appliance based – I repaired computers. Which meant I was constantly on the road, with my computer and a couple of folders with documentation in my rucksack. That was my office. So, mobile working has always been normal for me.
I ﬁnd it very easy to sit down anywhere, largely block out my surroundings and focus on doing whatever I need to deal with at the time. Therefore, the actual place I happen to be in when I work is not that important for me. I don’t have a cabinet full of ﬁles that I need to work with every day. It always felt to me as though things that weren’t on my computer were missing anyway. I can close the computer and stick it in my bag. But when the information sat in some ﬁle cabinet somewhere and I was out at a client’s place, that was of no help to me at all.
Nowadays, what I need is not on the actual device anymore but is largely stored on one of our own collaboration platforms or with Google or Figma. The crucial factor is that I never have to carry paperwork around with me. Everything I need for my work is within this little device that I can carry under my arm. And then the place I work in is no longer that important.
And what is of real importance?
To be able to quickly exchange ideas with your colleagues. It’s important that you don’t just sit there in your own little (virtual) room; you need to briefly reflect on things with someone else, get a different perspective on the subject matter from someone on the outside. Not many people are used to this “Let’s just have a quick video call.” One of my former employers, for example, had a particular dislike of video calls and always said: “You can call me or just pop into my office.”
Thanks to Jitsi, at bevuta we have this extremely easy-access option: I don’t need to set up a “room” but instead just type in a URL, share this URL with a colleague and there’s my video call. Many of our colleagues use this often; it enables us to achieve a fast, direct and personal exchange of ideas.
If we didn’t have that, it would certainly be easier to just pop into someone’s office and say: “Hey, I have this issue, can we just quickly discuss it?”
In my previous job, going to the office was seen as an advantage that enabled you to be close to your most inspiring colleagues and embark on an immediate exchange of ideas. Here, I have equally inspiring colleagues that I can call on, but I don’t have to spend an hour commuting to the company, just so that I can walk into someone else’s office. Instead, all I need to do is copy a URL into our chat system and the colleague appears right in front of me.
Was becoming part of the team in the remote situation different from your previous on-site jobs?
No. It’s as easy to meet others by video call as it is by walking into the next-door office.
But of course there’s something to be said for physical presence. There is a massive difference between a communication that’s purely audio based and one where you can see the other person. Being able to see the other person is important so that you can observe at least some of the gestures and facial expressions: Are they actually listening to me? Or are they miles away? That is an important component. But in my opinion this also works astonishingly well in a video call.
I’d guess what you’d most miss out on would be chance meetings.
True. Although it’s possible to institutionalize this. For example, our daily 11-o’clock meeting creates the potential for such a “chance” encounter. It may not be used so much for that purpose, but the potential is there.
In addition, every so often I do this thing that has been given the name “Sanity Talk.” This was established in my previous job – talking with someone because otherwise you might go crazy. Which is why it’s called Sanity Talk.
I tend to approach a specific person or sometimes I might ask the entire team: “Hey, I need a Sanity Talk. I have to tell someone about this crazy thing, and I need your feedback.” That would be one way of purposely instigating such a water-cooler chat.
Because there just isn’t a shared water-cooler…
Exactly, which is why these water-cooler chats may happen less often. But then it’s important that we take the liberty of having them anyway and remove that barrier.
At bevuta, I’ve always felt that this barrier was very low because social interaction is permitted and encouraged here. So far, none of the managers have ever grumbled: Hey, you’ve been gabbling about God knows what for half an hour, how about doing some work for a change? Instead, they join in and even contribute a third or forth aspect to the conversation. They are a living example that it’s OK to nurture social interaction.
So, building up social connections is part of working life. That aside, can you make a clear delineation between working and not working?
Here’s the crucial point for me: I have a dedicated room that’s my home office. And when I’m in this home office, I’m on bevuta time.
Do you have set working hours?
Yes, at least I try to. Doesn’t always work. Because of the strong organizational component in my job I have to make sure I’m at work when those I have to communicate with are available.
For example: A colleague from the backend-team starts work at 7 am and stops at 4 pm. After that, he’s no longer available, which is perfectly OK. As a developer, he has very clearly defined work packages. Sometimes he has to align with others, but he can also conduct very strong asynchronous communication. Therefore, that’s not a problem for him and his team.
I have a much greater need at times to communicate live with particular colleagues. Sometimes feeling the atmosphere is important in order to come to a decision – I’m just more dependent on nuances to get a realistic picture.
Do you see a need for improvement anywhere within our collaboration as a remote team?
In my opinion, our remote collaboration works very well.
To my mind, you can define what’s required for collaboration in use cases: You devise a set of use cases in order to realize specific things, on site or remote.
Say you need a means of keeping in touch. You could use a chat system or the telephone – or you call people into the office, in which case you’ll have the water-cooler chat system.
You’ll need something to enable joint communication. You could use a videoconferencing system, or you might have a conference room, where people can come together in person.
You’ll need a calendar because there are certain things that need to be done by a certain date or have to happen at a certain point in time.
Mattermost as a chat system and Jitsi, those are two very strong core features we have which enable remote working at a very high level.
One big factor is that they both just work extremely well. There are of course various other solutions, such as Microsoft Teams. Basically, it does the same thing and also features a chat system, meaning, you can have personal chats, group chats or video calls. I haven’t used Teams in 9 months now, but I remember it well – it just has certain obstacles within its everyday usage. You start a call and somehow it doesn’t work. You start it again and it still doesn’t work. And even if it worked twenty times – but it doesn’t on one occasion, possibly that one call that’s really important or time-sensitive, that is enough to ruin your entire day.
And that doesn’t happen with Jitsi. I couldn’t tell you the last time Jitsi got on my nerves.
Do you have a favorite tool at bevuta, something you really couldn’t do without?
No, there isn’t one favorite tool. It tends to be a set of tools that work together and function well. Something that companies like Microsoft (with Teams) have certainly recognized.
It would be easier to name the ones that aren’t so wonderful. (laughs)
You don’t really notice the tools that work well. As soon as a tool disappears from your conscious perception, you know it’s a good tool. It functions well, does what it’s supposed to do, and that’s it.
Take, for example, the coffee maker. When it works well, you’d never think of saying, oh look, I have a really good coffee maker. But the minute it doesn’t work you are majorly disappointed with this stupid coffee maker. How dare it not work today? That’s why I’m having trouble to tell you which tool is best.
Is there a software that you totally dislike?
I can understand why it exists, but, well… OnlyOffice is a software for collaborative document creation and editing. You have to be extremely careful how you use it, to ensure that it works correctly.
But maybe it’s especially annoying because Google Docs shows how much better it can be. For example, I’ve never lost half an hour’s work on Google Docs because I didn’t click “Save.” On OnlyOffice I worked for half an hour and for some reason that document wasn’t set to real-time co-editing, and I should have clicked on “Save.” I didn’t even know that this option existed, and the software didn’t alert me that my changes were not being saved.
Of course, Google Docs has its weaknesses, too, but in comparison, OnlyOffice is only moderately acceptable in terms of usability. Luckily, we don’t use OnlyOffice all that much.
Do you have any tips for teams or companies that want to switch to online collaboration?
Many large companies are looking for a magic-bullet type solution like, “We just need to do this and that and all our problems will be over.” To my mind, that kind of thing doesn’t exist. People are individually different, and there are those who just don’t like remote working and probably never will. I can totally understand that there are people who like going to the office, maybe also because they need the distance from their home.
Lots of activities in our world are done on site, with all the travel costs that this entails, when they could easily be done remote. On the other hand, there are things being done remote for some reason, that might be better done on site. Such is life – there just isn’t that one perfect solution that works for everything.
Many thanks for the interesting conversation – maybe we’ll meet up sometime soon for a Sanity Talk at the virtual water-cooler!
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