Remote together: Leff makes distance work

Today, the Leff Chicago locals are in the office at least once a week, putting a record on the turntable, enjoying lunch together, and grabbing coffee with a colleague. But for those of us who live outside of Chicago, seeing coworkers in person might be a twice-a-year event. With our team distributed coast to coast, we’ve learned to build community and innovate across time zones and state lines.

For many, there are both high points and hiccups in remote work. Curious to know how my fully remote colleagues handle both of those, I got them together (virtually!) to discuss their experience.

David Peak, a senior editor in Baltimore; Juan Sosa, a web developer in Denver; Laura Brown, a designer in Austin; and Carly Westenbroek, a project manager in Grand Rapids shared their thoughts in a lively roundtable discussion that explored the ways employees can collaborate, communicate, and create structure when working remotely.

Finding space between work and home

Ross Middleton: David, you were living in Chicago when you started working at Leff and then moved to another city. How has relocating changed your experience of working remotely?

David Peak: In Chicago, I could walk to and from work while listening to music. It gave me a meditative space in between my work and personal life. I don’t have the commute time to decompress anymore. It’s important to find what works for you in terms of separating work from the rest of your life.

Ross Middleton: How have the rest of you found ways to move between work and the other parts of your life?

Laura Brown: I have a little office, so I have that barrier. It was more difficult when my desk was in my living room in my old apartment because I felt like it was haunting me all the time.

Carly Westenbroek: I have always been remote. I’m about a three-hour drive away, so I’m trying to go into the office every other month because I think face-to-face interactions are important in building a foundation for relationships. But it has been an adjustment, especially onboarding remotely. We use our cameras on video calls, which I know other companies don’t always do.

Creating a virtual community

Ross Middleton: What tricks have all of you discovered to bring a virtual community together when you’re working so far away from the office?

Juan Sosa: Since I moved to Denver, I’ve already been part of two different departments at Leff. Both times, I’ve had to be active in making connections even though I’m pretty introverted. Everyone here is really welcoming, which makes it a lot easier. Group chats or managers conducting online meetings just to talk or destress also help a lot.

Laura Brown: I’ve never been buddy-buddy with coworkers, even when I was in an office years ago. Now, because we have meetings and chats all day, I talk to my coworkers more than I talk to my friends. I think that the type of people that we’ve gathered at this company is good at being understanding and relatable. Creating a virtual community is all about the people who you source.

Ross Middleton: Do you feel like you miss out on anything by working so far from the office? Or do you miss anything about the in-person experience?

David Peak: I miss picking up on random things that people say and riffing off people. I don’t get to do that at all anymore. I have all these funny things that I want to say during the day and no one to share them with. I miss the idea of those shared experiences building over time, creating this sort of secret language with people.

Navigating remote communication

Ross Middleton: Now that I’m working full-time remotely, a lot of things have surprised me. Sometimes, it’s the things you miss by not having face-to-face conversations. What have been some of the communication challenges you’ve encountered while working remotely?

Laura Brown: Tone is only a problem for me until I talk to someone on video. It’s obviously not the same as meeting them in person, but it’s easier for me to determine that they’re just a one-word answer person and they’re not mad at me.

David Peak: When I went back to the office in December, I realized I had to change my communication style. I’ve purposely tried to soften my tone by thanking people when they’ve done nice things for me and explaining how they’ve made my life better and easier.

Advice for a new full-time remote worker

Ross Middleton: If you were speaking to someone who was about to start working remotely full-time, what advice would you give them? What do you wish you had known?

Laura Brown: In an office, I would naturally get interruptions, like chatting with someone at my desk or getting coffee with a coworker. I’m so much more productive at home, but I also need that time to actually stand up. I downloaded a timer for my computer that reminds me to get up the last 10 minutes of every hour. Getting into a good routine and building in break times for yourself like you would have in an office is really important.

Juan Sosa: Set limits for yourself, and allow yourself to have time that’s for you.

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