Radio silence and the remote worker

  Wynn Netherland • 2014-04-04

Years ago, before I began working remotely full time, I would often steal away to a hidden conference room on some sparsely inhabited floor to hide out and work. Getting work done often meant getting away from the office chatter.

The sounds of other people working can be overwhelming. It doesn't take much to overload my senses and shut down my brain.

The nature of remote work changes the nature of communication. Chatter for remote workers comes in a different form. Messages are often asynchronous and non-blocking. The result is longer periods of intense focus and concentration. Productivity ensues.

As much as we still complain about our clogged inboxes, for remote workers, noise is seldom the problem. It's silence.

If a little quiet is good for work, then more quiet should be better, right? For me, a prolonged lull in email, chat room conversations, and @mentions can have its own negative effects.


Even the most independent people need regular human interaction. I normally work at home, where we also homeschool our kids. When not at home, I frequent local coffee shops with friends in the industry. I'm rarely alone.

Yet the co-workers I work with most are in North Carolina and South Dakota, quite the hike from North Texas.

When online communication lapses, it's easy to feel isolated with that kind of distance between team members.

Identity crisis

We all have our areas of expertise within our organizations. We are the keepers of certain domain knowledge. While it can become taxing to constantly field questions, there's a joy in sharing that knowledge with others. For better or worse, we often form our identities on being The API Guy, The JavaScript Gal, The HR Lady, or The Product Person.

When people stop asking you questions it's easy to begin doubting (however misguidedly) the value you bring to the team.

Tips for handling the silence

Chatter is seldom constant. Every din will eventually recede during periods of travel, holidays, and life events. It's the artificial lulls that you have to watch. Here are some things that help me handle that cycle.

  • Never work alone. It sounds obvious, but your chances of getting isolated

decrease considerably when you're actively part of a team. Enlist support for features or initiatives you want to work on, or pitch in on someone else's efforts. We're better together.

  • Look out for each other. On the flip side, don't become so blinded by

your own TODO list that you fail to notice when a co-worker has gone radio silent. An email, IM, or phone call has real power to help someone feel more included. I have no official HR responsibilities, but I try to reach out to new GitHubbers a few weeks after they're hired, just to say "I'm glad you're here, are you getting plugged in?"

  • Embrace the rhythm. Take advantage of those brief periods of peace and

quiet, knowing things will get loud again soon.

Embrace the noise as the soothing sounds of :ship:-ing.

Wynn Netherland
Wynn Netherland

VP of Engineering at Abstract, team builder, DFW GraphQL meetup organizer, platform nerd, author, and Jesus follower.