Worked 10 Months 10 Hours Ahead of My Team — and Survived to Tell the Story

About a year ago I got an opportunity I pursued for a long time — to join Microsoft Teams and relocate with my family from Israel to the Silicon Valley.

Then came COVID..

Instead of relocating to California, we relocated back to our house in Tel Aviv. The US government declared a ban on work visas and we found ourselves in a state of major uncertainty.

Those days MS Teams usage sky rocketed when the world moved to remote work. This was (and still is) MS Teams momentum and the opportunities for impact were endless. I decided to start work remotely, while being 10 hours ahead of my team.

I didn’t imagine it would last 10 months.

I started working for Teams, in Teams.

My new routine

In Israel we work Sun-Thu (Friday and Saturday are our weekend) so I kept this schedule to stay aligned with my family’s.

During Mon-Thu —

Adapting with my family

The direct impact on my family was clear to me. It meant going away every day at 6pm and miss our evening routine.

My husband was onboard and backed me up, and we got gramma’s help at least once a week. I made sure to come say goodnight to my son and maybe read him a book.

It wasn’t easy for my family. Add to this 3 lockdowns with schools closed, and no idea when we will be able to move on with our life.

Joining a new team remotely

I work with multiple teams that are all based in the west coast. All of them shifted their schedules to AM PST to align to my time zone.

My manager supported me a lot and made sure to meet often to help. This was new to us all and we learned on the go.

Everyone I worked with was sensitive to my time difference, and usually confirmed if it was ok to set evening meetings for me before scheduling them. It made me feel welcomed and included.

Building meaningful remote relationships

This was my biggest challenge. As a Product Manager, I work closely with engineers, designers, customers, peers, and lots of partners. None of them report to me and I needed to gain their trust to follow my lead.

How do I — being remote — bridge the gap when other team members had already met in person in the past and work closely together?

How to bridge the fact that they were already familiar with each other’s reactions, while all I could see were their faces or avatars?

Yes, sometimes I felt like a bot (a smart bot though).

It’s harder to develop network and drive a sense of community. So I decided to expend my project’s domain to create new touchpoints with other teams I didn’t engage daily with. I pitched an idea that resulted in a new concept, but moreover, new connections on the team.

Off balance: time management is key and I failed it

I usually didn’t take enough breaks. At the office, you get to walk to a meeting, see other people, or walk by the kitchen to grab a bite.

In our new remote life, I found myself attending back2back virtual meetings, sitting in my chair all evening long.

Don’t get me wrong, I have full control over my schedule.

But when I only have half the day overlapped with the rest of the team, I felt I had to maximize every minute of it and prioritize my time.

This model is not ideal but it was overall a positive experience.

I had time earlier in the day to digest yesterday’s work, read everything that happened over night and focus without distractions.

But the burnout rate is much higher. I felt that while I’m working harder, the value I bring is not high as I’d expect it to be.

Some thoughts on making better products to support remote work

Our new main office is a virtual space, whenever we’re using Teams, Zoom, Slack or something else.

It’s great to see how all productivity tools are adapting to make a supportive environment and bridge new gaps, but this is only the beginning.

1. Convey the unspoken

When seeing one another in person, nonverbal communication allows us to analyze each other’s reactions.

Working remotely, we only see one’s avatar in chats and sometimes face in meetings, but less body language and personality beyond work.

What will be the next gen of emoji’s to bridge that gap?

2. Single-tasking and deep work

It’s very easy to be distracted during online meetings when no one’s around. Especially when camera is off.

Research shows multi-tasking has some negative impact on productivity and mindfulness.

Moreover, it can be disrespectful — people tend to use the meeting chat to chat about other things while people are presenting. I don’t see people sending notes to each other during offline meetings.

3. Use the physical space around us during meetings

In real life, I like to move while talking, use the whiteboard and the space around me.

I now find myself sitting on a chair for very long hours —

My camera can only capture my face, and my virtual background is limited to only a static position.

Products should start being more immersive in space.

4. Help to keep balanced work boundaries

In this new normal where our office is also our home, boundaries get blurred. It can be stressful waking up to tons of unread chats and emails, or getting notified outside of work hours.

Turning off notifications is an easy step forward.

Productivity tools are bound to keep those boundaries and make them predictable to our colleagues.

I personally added a status message stating my work hours and felt free to decline and suggest a new time when meetings were too late for me.

Preparing for hybrid office/remote work culture

Microsoft, along with other leading companies, already announced moving to a hybrid model post COVID, in which employees can choose to live in a different time zone and work remotely.

This model opens up opportunities to hire talent from everywhere.

1. Re-think how to evaluate performance of remote employees

Existing performance evaluation is based on old times, when the vast majority of employees was physically at the office.

Not adjusting the way remote employees are being evaluated and measured, will eventually get those employees off the path to success.

There is an obvious friction which should get acknowledged and normalized as remote work requires a different work setup and resources.

It doesn’t mean they’ll impact less or more necessarily.

It’s just not apples to apples —

For example, onsite employees have unlimited access and visibility to people around the office, while in remote every water-cooler chat becomes a meeting on the calendar.

2. Ensuring sustainable and inclusive work environment

When more people are remote, what’s actually the time zone we should all align to?

Should we challenge the common assumption that schedules align to either HQ or where ever the main team is based?

Working off hours often is not sustainable.

How to make sure hybrid meetings are also inclusive, when some people are remote and others are sitting in the conference room together?

Adapting a culture of asynchronous communication (yes, also meetings) between teams will empower employees to maximize the benefits of being remote.

3. Where will we physically work from?

Having flexibility to work from home, and having home be anywhere, is amazing.

I personally don’t want to continue working from a desk in my bedroom, and I also miss face to face interaction like real human beings.

How will we ensure keeping the benefits of office presence with remote work?

Online meetings will still require us to find empty and quiet rooms to not disturb those around us. So those of us who don’t have a suitable office space at home will have to find creative solutions.

— — — — —

There are lot’s of unanswered questions.

But that means lot’s of opportunities and room for innovation.

My experience as remote employee helped me to better understand our users and the impact we can drive at Microsoft Teams.

And who knows, maybe I’ll get to meet my team in person one day.

How do you think our new work culture will look like?