When the opportunity to work remotely presents itself, most people’s eyes light up — and unsurprisingly so. Who doesn’t want to work in their pajamas, from their couch, forgoing a commute and blasting their favorite music through speakers, not headphones? Remote work may sound like a dream but as with any style of working, it comes with trade-offs, both for the remote worker and their team back at home base.
There are challenges specific to individuals, roles, and projects, but with the right attitude and few adjustments, you can effectively work with a team from anywhere in the world.
There are challenges specific to individuals, roles, and projects, but with the right attitude and few adjustments, you can effectively work with a team from anywhere in the world. I’ve been doing it for years, with a major time difference to boot (I’m in Berlin while my team is in San Francisco). Here’s what I’ve learned.
Routine is your friend
If you’re working remotely, it’s hard to establish a routine because you’re missing a key trigger: the act of actually going into an office. It’ll take some time, but eventually, you can find your groove by trying different routines out for size. Here’s what I’ve found has worked for me:
- Get dressed. No, really. Take a shower, pick out a work uniform that will help you get into a ‘working’ mindframe. Maybe it’s a sweatshirt or a button down (for me, it was a suit and tie, until I decided I could take it down a few notches and still feel ‘in uniform.’) Either way, think about how the clothes you wear could be positively or negatively affecting your focus.
- Get moving. Starting your day doing something active has been scientifically proven to help with productivity and focus. Squeezing in exercise when you’re working from home can be tough, so schedule it into your day.
- Adopt someone else’s routine. Have a roommate or partner who does go into an office? Make it a daily ritual to walk them to work (if that’s possible) or create a morning ritual together (like making coffee or tea before they have to jet). My wife works in an office, but I’ve jumped onto some elements of her routine, and we’ve found it’s been positive for both of us.
- Take breaks when needed. Research has shown that taking breaks is vital to productivity. When I’m in need of a break, I grab my accordion and practice for a few minutes. It gets me moving and it’s something I find goes over less well in a crowded office.
Create a mindfully-designed focus zone
A lot of research has been done around optimal environments for productivity and focus. The results are mixed: some people love open office spaces, others despise them. Some prefer the energy of a co-working space while others would much rather work from their couch. When you’re working remotely, you have the luxury of creating a custom work environment, just for you. When you’re setting up a remote working environment, consider what’s important to you:
- Do you need a lot of screen real estate? If it’s important for you to see a lot of different programs and apps at the same time, you may want to invest in several monitors and a desk so you can keep up with the context-switching and real-time communication. For me, this sort of space has been key to being able to get more done.
- Do you get energized by having other people around? If you’re the sort that enjoys the buzz of conversation and physical presence of others, consider checking out local co-working spaces and coffee shops where you’ll likely find yourself surrounded by like-minded individuals.
- Do you prefer to just work from your couch, but get easily distracted? Check out some focus apps that help block time-suck type websites when your self-control tends to wane.
Invest in the right tools
Remote work undoubtedly demands access to tools that ease the pains of communication, collaboration, and general remote-ness. These tools are some of the first you should set up.
Work tracking and project management
Especially if you’re working in a different timezone from your teammates, a good work tracking and project management tool is key. My tool of choice is Asana, but I also benefit greatly from using Slack for quick pings and chats with teammates on the other side of the world, and Github.
For meetings (big and small) as well as 1-1 conversations, it helps to have a real human connection. The proliferation of video tools allows me to maintain face time, even if I’m across the world from my teammates. You can try out a variety of services including Skype, Google Hangouts (my preference for 1-1 chats), and HighFive (for bigger meetings) to figure out which ones work best for you and your teammates.
Without the daily demands of commuting to/from work and walking around the office, you may find yourself sedentary more often than not. When I first started working from home, I noticed that I hardly ever moved. A fitness tracker can help you stay on track with daily movement goals and remind you to take breaks when needed to maximize your productivity. Try the Apple Watch (my recent go-to) or Fitbit. You’ll quickly notice how sedentary your life is and feel motivated to take breaks to move — even if it’s just walking around the block.
Ok, this one isn’t mandatory but one thing I really missed about working in an office is having a morning and afternoon coffee ritual. I don’t have access to my company’s coffee bar, so I set up a mini version of my own, at home. Every morning, I start my day with the perfect cup of coffee — my way: (inverted AeroPress, 18g medium fine grind, full chamber with 80 degree Celsius water, 10 second stir, 20 second steep, 30 second press — no I’m not picky, why do you ask?). It’s one of my favorite things about working from home.
Set and manage expectations with teammates
When it comes to work, clocking in and out may have been the norm years ago. But nowadays, progressive companies and leaders recognize that it all comes down to value creation vs. time spent in a seat at the office. It’s unsurprisingly a little easier to maintain a flexible schedule when your teammates generally see your face around the office. Given that there’s plenty of work that doesn’t look like work — mulling over things, organizing your thoughts — it’s harder to demonstrate presence when your face is more often seen as an icon on a screen.
If you’re going to work remotely, it’s super important to establish expectations with teammates early on. Plan out your work and create accountability using whatever process makes most sense for you and your team (for me, it’s a scrum-like process and a daily check in task). Be very clear around what you’re committing to deliver in a given timeframe, and follow through. If you get stuck, and don’t have a teammate to riff with, be humble and try going through this question list:
- What did I do?
- What am I planning to do?
- What’s blocking me? (be honest with yourself)
Then go back and tackle the work, or take a break.
The last — crucial — element of a successful remote work setup involves your own dedication to making an extra effort to connect with teammates on a very regular basis. There are a few reasons for this: remote work requires trust, it can be difficult on an individual who is inherently social, and it’s challenging for teammates who work well when they have opportunities to brainstorm ideas. When you’re first setting up a remote environment, be sure to do these three things:
- Schedule regular 1-1s with people who can support you. Whether they’re members of your team, or just folks you have an affinity for, maintaining a regular line into the office is going to help you stay sane, connected, and productive. Even a 5 minute video chat can help unblock you, motivate you, and energize you.
- Make time to socialize. We’re lucky to live in a world with few communication barriers. Make time to socialize with your coworkers, even if you’re not talking about work, and encourage teammates to visit you wherever you live. When you make trips back to HQ, participate and really invest in social activities.
- Be flexible. Some companies are remote from the ground up, while others are just experimenting with remote workers. Be kind to yourself and your teammates as you work through the kinks. You may find that you need to adjust how you work and communicate but rest assured, you’ll all learn and ultimately become better teammates.
Remote work is certainly not the right choice for every team and every individual. There can be adjustment pains and with some roles, it just might not be a fit. But with the right setup, expectations, and positive (read: proactive, flexible, go-getter) approach, remote workers can be equally as valuable to team productivity and culture as their in-office counterparts.
I’d love to hear about your experience either working remotely or collaborating with a teammate who is remote. What’s going well and what isn’t?