Putting the emote in remote work

  Wynn Netherland • 2014-01-25

I had the opportunity to chat with an entire gSchool class via Skype a couple of weeks ago and share my thoughts on development and my experience of working at GitHub. One student asked me to share some keys to working remotely since she had heard a large percentage of GitHubbers are outside of San Francisco.

I should develop a more thoughtful response to that question, drawing from experience of working remotely as both an employee and an employer for the last seven years. Since I was put on the spot, however, I shared the first three tips that came to mind:

  • Carve out a workspace at home. Having a spot to retreat from distractions at home is critical to staying productive.
  • Be self-directed. When you're remote, management by wandering around is far more difficult. You have a greater responsibility to ensure your work aligns with your team and company goals.
  • Use emoji. Seriously. That's the third tip. The class had fun with this one, but I honestly wasn't going for a laugh. Since I didn't have time to elaborate, I'll do that now.

The problems with remote communication

Unless everyone is in the same room, synchronous meetings are wrought with laggy connections, half-duplex speakerphone mics, and lonely soliloquies into unknowingly-muted handsets. For effective distributed and remote teams, communication becomes primarily written and async. In such environs, it's often difficult for the reader to have the same context as the writer. The author's tone might be hard to discern. Believe it or not, emoji can help.

Better with emoji

At GitHub, emoji autocomplete is built into almost every tool we use. Whether we're using GitHub to build GitHub or using internal tools like our custom workstreaming, hiring, or help desk apps, our written communication is steeped in emoji. But why?

Emoji express emotion. This may seem obvious, especially if, like me, you once thought the term emoji shared a common etymology with emoticon, those text-based smileys that have adorned email since 1982. Emoji literally means "picture letter", but those pictures can help express emotion.

Saying "good job :zap:" carries more feeling than with words alone. "Removing trailing whitespace" is much more fun with a little :fire:.

Emoji encourage brevity. One of the problems with electronic communication is that we get so much of it. Shakespeare said "Brevity is the soul of Twitter," or (something like that). A :metal:, :+1:, or :shipit: can be just as effective as "awesome", "I'm onboard with that", or "Looks good, ship it."

Emoji reinforce your words. Some emoji serve to back up your message. One of my favorites combos is :microscope::checkered_flag:. Translation: "science wins."

Emoji express what you cannot. I think of the times someone (me included) has posted the need to take some time off to deal with personal tragedy. Often the responses from coworkers are merely a single :heart:.

Emoji tell a story. One of my favorite internal Summit presentations at GitHub is Julia West's emoji talk in which she tells her life story, one emoji at a time.

Consider your emoji usage

Like anything, emoji can be abused. We've all seen the neverending parade of :+1:'s on an open source pull request, as if the 300th comment is going to compel the maintainer to merge it.

Observing frequent emoji use can indicate recurring tones in the way we communicate with people. I'm trying to avoid being overly snarky. I don't want them to think of me when they see :trollface:.

Since pictures can also become just as trite as words, I look for new emoji to express feelings and keep the conversation fresh. Mu-An Chiou created an excellent emoji lookup tool (source is on GitHub) for just that purpose.

Special thanks to @jasonrudolph for some great feedback and edits :pencil:. :zap:

Wynn Netherland
Wynn Netherland

Engineering Director at Adobe Creative Cloud, team builder, DFW GraphQL meetup organizer, platform nerd, author, and Jesus follower.