Remote Control: Mandy Brown of Vox Product
Introducing a new series on remote work in collaboration with INN
The landscape of media work environments is changing, and many organizations now allow for flexible schedules and locations, with employees spending more time in Slack than conference rooms. Along with increased freedom and flexibility, distributed work comes with its share of challenges. Being remote, even part-time, requires thinking intentionally about how to communicate, structure our days, and set boundaries around work and life.
Today, Source and INN are launching Remote Control, an occasional series of interviews with remote workers that explores how journalists and technologists make remote work work: what their set-ups look like, how they organize their time, and what they do in the face of frustrations. We hope to collect honest portrayals of our modern working life and learn from each other in the process.
Q. Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Mandy Brown and I’m a product manager at Vox Media. I lead a team working on the platform on which The Verge, Vox.com, SB Nation, and other sites are built.
Q. Can you tell me about your history with remote work? Are you full-time remote right now? What about the rest of your team?
I am part-time remote now, working primarily from my apartment in Brooklyn with a team that’s split between New York and DC. Vox Media has an office in Manhattan that I visit on occasion (averaging one day a week spent there now, but last week, for example, I didn’t visit at all). My team consists of several other New Yorkers who also split their time in the office and elsewhere, as well as folks in the DC office, plus a few people scattered around the country, plus a couple people in the UK.
I’ve been remote for the better part of five years now, since moving out of book publishing and into the tech/startup world. It’s hard for me to comment on that transition beyond saying that it just, well, worked. I can’t imagine returning to having a regular commute.
Q. How does your organization support you and other remote employees?
We like to say everyone at Vox Media is remote, because even folks who work every day in one of our offices are remote to folks in the other office. (Plus, even those of us with desks and name plates on our door need to work from home or while traveling with some frequency.) As a rule, we aim to treat remote as the default: privileging communication via Slack, email, or Hangout so that everyone is enfranchised regardless of where they happen to be on a particular day. We’ve made it a priority recently to improve A/V in the offices so that remote folks can participate on equal footing, and we’re generally accommodating of all or partially remote staff. It’s not uncommon even for folks who work regularly in an office to, for example, spend the morning working from home and then commute in around lunch time.
Q. What sorts of policies do you think are essential for making distributed teams work?
I think the biggest policy is to assume a remote stance by default: that is, assume everyone is remote all the time and behave accordingly, accommodating people in offices as need be, rather than the reverse. In practice that primarily means leveraging written communication (whether asynchronous, like email or shared docs, or synchronous, such as chat) over oral, since writing is easier to transmit, archive, and reference later.
Lots of other practices fall out from the remote by default stance—being respectful of people’s time zones, in particular—but rigorous documentation is the most critical habit. (And, personally, I think this is a good habit even for primarily non-remote teams.)
Q. Tell me about your work space (or spaces).
I generally go back and forth between my kitchen table and the sofa in my living room. We have a small desk, but my partner also works from home, and he usually works there. Really all I need is a not terribly uncomfortable chair, some place to put my laptop (often my lap!) and a spot to rest a cup of coffee and I’m good.
Q. What are some of the obstacles you’ve encountered when working remotely? How did you wrestle with them?
I’ve been fortunate to only work on remote teams that did remote well, so my biggest complaint has and continues to be the less-than-science-fiction-level-of-technology that is today’s video conferencing. It’s gotten much much better in the last five years, but it still isn’t up to Star Trek levels, so I continue to complain. Having a couple of different options for video conferencing, and falling back to audio or chat as needed is really the only option available there.
From others, I think the primary complaint about remote is being part of a minority of remote workers in an otherwise IRL organization. Again, the remote by default stance is essential there.
Q. Do your work days have a regular structure? What does a day-in-the-life look like for you? Anything you’re trying to change/adjust?
Yup; I get up early-ish (currently around 6am, with the sun; in the depths of December I’ve been known to sleep later). Usually, I head to the gym first, then shower, cook breakfast (one of the many benefits of working from home is having time to cook), and sit down to catch up and review the day ahead of me. I aim to keep a 10–6 work day, sometimes shifting to 11–7 if I need more time to pull myself together in the morning.
I try really really hard not to look at Slack or email until 10am, but let’s say that’s a habit more honored in the breach. It’s tempting to be available all the time when working from home, especially when so much leisure activity involves the same devices we use to work. I keep my email client and Slack closed outside of that 10–6 window, and religiously use the do not disturb function on my phone.
Q. One thing that surprised me about working remotely is how isolating it can be (even for this stone-cold introvert). Have you encountered any challenges around motivation, isolation, or other mental health pieces? How have you coped?
Honestly, I haven’t had that many challenges, at least none I could attribute solely or even primarily to remote work. Lack of motivation, for me, usually stems from not believing in a project, or from poor relationships with my colleagues; I’ve experienced those things more frequently on IRL teams than remote ones. (It’s possible this stems from the fact that my time on remote teams has coincided with my time as a leader of teams: I have a lot of control over the work and the makeup of my teams now.) My hunch is isolation and other mental health problems may be exacerbated by remote work and its potential communication challenges, but that they are just as common in more traditional offices.
Q. What are some of your favorite tools and techniques for effective remote work? (This could include hardware, software, common sense, best practices, what have you.)
Slack, Hangouts, obviously. Liberal use of do not disturb during off hours. Overcommunicate everything. Plan occasional (once? twice? three times? a year) gatherings in person, somewhere everyone has to travel to, and eat well while you’re there. Eat well, period.
Q. What other project/task-management/shared to-do software does your team use?
Trello, GitHub, and Slack.
Q. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other remote workers or teams?
Remote only works if the entire team is behind it: if half a team functions like they’re IRL and the other half are remote, you’re doomed. So if you’re transitioning a team to remote, or considering joining a remote team, make sure literally everyone is on the same page about it.
Mandy Brown is the Executive Director of Publishing at Vox Media, where she leads a team building Vox Media’s platform, Chorus.
Kaeti Hinck is an editor at The Washington Post, where she leads an award-winning visual journalism team and explores the intersection of technology, design, and narrative. Before joining the Post in 2016, she worked as design director of the Institute of Nonprofit News. At INN, she helped design and build open source products to support independent publishers. For more than a decade she has been exploring the power of visual communication and technology in newsrooms. Outside of work, you’ll likely find her reading under a blanket, searching for the perfect breakfast sandwich, and spending as much time in the woods as possible.