Ragan.com by remote: Our week of telecommuting included a blizzard, naturally

A five-day experiment sent the entire Editorial staff home but kept the motor running; here’s what went down (besides 20 inches of snow).

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Last week, the northern end of the Ragan office was remarkably quiet. Absent were the usual snark and sneezing to break the silence. Our guess—our hope—was that our readers wouldn’t notice our absence.

The Editorial Department was working from home.

We couldn’t foresee, when we arbitrarily chose Jan. 31–Feb. 4 as our week of self-imposed exile, that smack dab in the middle of it Chicago would be hit by a blizzard and “thundersnow.” We’d be dealing with nearly two feet of serendipity by noon Wednesday.

This is the first in a series of articles about Ragan.com’s weeklong experiment of working virtually.

We had anticipated household interruptions, a sense of isolation, even cabin fever. We had not expected torturous ergonomics, a tendency toward slovenliness, and OSHA-violating felines. (More on those factors later.)

The purpose of the experimental week was twofold:

1. Ragan Communications is looking to decrease its workplace footprint; that means more and more of us will telecommute in the future.
2. We were looking to write about our experiences; hence, this series of articles.

Each of us had had experience working from home sporadically, individually; all the various back-end software and platforms were available online. There would be a few hitches, maybe, with our print newsletters, but the nuts and bolts of getting stuff done electronically was in place and familiar.

A major concern, though, would be the lack of interaction among our gregarious colleagues. Banter keeps the day moving along, and it sometimes inspires ideas for articles. The ability to speak face to face always helps in story development and in explaining edits.

We’d talked, leading up to the experimental week, about setting up an internal forum to approximate the collegial cacophony. We left Friday still relying on e-mail. On Monday morning, we got Yammered.

Kids in a candy store

Yammer, in case you don’t know, is sort of Facebook Lite for internal audiences—a way for colleagues to converse, post information and visuals, even conduct polls—behind a firewall. It was tossed out to us social media piranhas with neither fanfare nor guidelines, and the feeding frenzy began almost immediately. Our CEO, Mark Ragan, would write about this Tuesday. After his light-hearted admonition, we put Yammer to better use without ditching the familial exchanges altogether—our idiosyncratic work/life balance.

Upper management did rely on companywide e-mail (available remotely) to let the staff know that the office would close early on Tuesday and stay shuttered Wednesday because of the impending snowstorm. Anyone who could work remotely was asked to do so; our departmental experiment had transcended the organization.

No snow day for us

The executive editor (and author of this article), whose home is in the Northwest Suburbs—on a corner lot, no less—went out to battle the snowdrifts midday and did not return for three hours. Meanwhile, Online Editor Apryl King tried her hand at cat-hurdling—quite unsuccessfully; cats move, you see—and she injured her back. She’s still sore, as of this writing, but back at work. A trouper.

Meanwhile, PR Daily went out (both the U.S. and European editions), as did our management, HR, and health-care communications e-newsletters. Oh, and five new stories were posted to Ragan.com.

On the coping front, PR Daily Editor Michael Sebastian offered that he’d come to empathize with Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining.” Managing Editor Roula Amire fought off her cabin fever by doing some work from an upscale coffee emporium. Writer Russell Working had had to split time between work and keeping his 7-year-old entertained during the height of the storm. Fellow scribe Matt Wilson was dealing with recidivist technical demons. Jessica Levco battled inclinations toward inertia by baking cookies and interacting with staff at the local supermarket. Editorial Assistant Alan Pearcy developed a new appreciation for flannel and cinnamon-scented candles.

Thursday, a test case

With all the successes of our online efforts, there remained the proofing and sending to press of our print publications, a suite of newsletters offering advice to managers. Editor John Cowan, a veteran telecommuter, had two due out last week. The process involves either typing corrections into an e-mail for our design partner in Minnesota, Erin Merz Stahl, or doing a hard-copy markup and e-mailing her a PDF.

Using Acrobat markup software on my wife’s Mac, I was able to do PDF markups electronically, an effective solution. The backyard wildlife that proves such a distraction—well, that’s another matter altogether.

There were other issues.

Some said their home offices were not up to snuff, ergonomically. An old wooden chair, it seems, has less-than-ideal lumbar support—it’s essential to maintain your back health, ill-placed kitties or no. And not being able to convene for story conferences was a manageable problem, but one to deal with nonetheless.

Friday came and went with the usual end-of-week scrambling, but we had hit our stride, workwise.

One factor in the experiment loomed above all else: We really missed one another. Even curmudgeon-in-residence Bill Sweetland, an editorial stalwart who spent his week in the office because of his ongoing contributions to our conference division, offered this:

“If the truth be told, I missed enormously the background of constant commentary on everything, breaking stupidities, political and corporate, stories of snafus from our reporting staff, observations and improvisations from the daily newspaper, raucous, irreverent laughter about the doings of politicians and celebrities, puns, witticisms…”

Well, you get the point.

Camaraderie runs high here; it practically gallops. When we signed off at the end of the week, most thoughts centered on our looking forward to Monday.

That’s right. We were happy to be back at work Monday morning. But the commute sucked.


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