I am an extrovert. I gain energy from being around others and thrive on communication. So when I first considered joining a fully remote team, I was hesitant. Working from home was a new frontier for me – one that I was unsure I would like.
When I accepted my role at Aha! I found out I was not alone. Remote work was a new experience for others on the team, too. Many of my colleagues had also come from today’s traditional workspace — a physical location filled with cubicles and cafeterias surrounded by thousands of employees.
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I did not expect what happened next. I instantly loved the autonomy that remote work brought to my life. The ability to work when I am most productive – and anywhere in the US with Internet – has worked wonders for my health and happiness. My colleagues would gladly say the same.
Remote work for us used to (maybe) mean one Friday per month. Now, it is our way of life — and we are far from alone.
The opportunity to work remotely has grown nearly 80 percent over the past decade – even as the total workforce has declined in recent years. Increasingly, companies like Github, Zapier, Treehouse, and Buffer are using distributed teams to build their growing businesses.
Rodolphe Dutel joined the remote working world in 2012. He left an enterprise sales career at Google’s Dublin office to join Buffer as the team’s first product specialist. Today, he still works on Buffer’s remote team of 40 employees. His colleagues are spread across the globe – and Dutel would not want it any other way.
“To me, the main benefit of remote working would be to regain control of the single commodity we cannot get more of – that is time,” Dutel says.
“Remote working gives you the flexibility to organize yourself in terms of location and working hours, and it translates into many benefits.”
Chris Jankulovski is correct when he writes, “Remote workers are a new breed in the global labor force.” But working from home brings its own unique challenges. Remote teams live a very different dynamic than those that congregate in person.
There are endless articles about the ins and outs of office etiquette. I’m sure most of us have a general idea of which dress code is proper at the office or how to politely excuse oneself from a meeting. What happens, though, when there is no office?
I have thought about this more now that I am part of a remote team. Etiquette for remote teams is still a work in progress — and many remote employees do things that can hinder productivity.
The secret to success involves fostering certain habits and attitudes. Here are seven tips to help you thrive as a remote employee:
Know Your Goals
Remote work brings freedom, which the best employees need. But freedom itself is not enough – you also need structure to stay aligned with your team and company. It can be easy for remote employees to get off track and fall down rabbit holes. You can quickly build yourself to nowhere by working on the wrong projects. This takes you off course from the rest of your team — and hurts your company.
That is why a goal-first approach to work is essential for remote employees. This approach keeps everyone aligned and focused on building what matters. It also gives you clarity to start each day with purpose. The secret to a productive team is its shared sense of mission amongst all colleagues. This is doubly true for remote teams.
“To me, the best tip is to try and organize yourself every day before you jump online,” Dutel advises. “Using a notebook and a pen, I review what I have done on the previous days and list the three things I want to get done today. This has been immensely helpful for me to manage my time and energy.”
Own Your Schedule
One of the great things about remote work is the freedom to design your own schedule. Are you a night owl who gets more done after sunset? Does a lunchtime workout help you focus each afternoon? Remote work is more self-directed — which means you have the autonomy to make your own workday.
High performance teams do not work from 9-5. But the onus is still on you to stay in touch with your team. They need to trust that you are working on the right projects and not getting distracted throughout the day.
Before you take off for that 12:30 spin class, have an honest conversation with your boss. Put your key goals for achievement on the table. Then, design a schedule that allows you to contribute in a way that suits when you work best and keeps you on track towards achieving these to-dos. This gives you a sense of ownership and keeps your colleagues informed.
Organize Your Workspace
Many employees at Aha! came from global corporations. Some worked as part of open floor plans; others had corner offices. Either way, our workspaces changed drastically when we joined a remote team. We used to have clear boundaries between work and home. Suddenly, there was freedom to work from our beds or couches in pajamas.
This sounds like a luxury. But it really is a slippery slope. A cluttered workspace and appearance sends strong signals to those whom you communicate with. Colleagues notice piles of laundry and un-brushed hair on video calls. These can distract from tasks at hand by shifting your colleagues’ focus. And they can raise questions about how organized or committed you are.
Veteran remote worker Adam Warner suggests having a designated workspace in your home (your bed does not count). Whether this is a desk next to your kitchen or a whole home office does not matter so much. It is more important to have a specific space where you work and hold meetings. This helps you associate work with a unique spot. It also keeps the rest of your home free to live in — and becomes a signal of reliability for your team to count on.
Engage Your Colleagues
Screens can create disconnect. It is easier to tell your colleague to wait for you over a chat app than it is to walk out on them in person. But your colleagues’ time is no less valuable because they work at home. And you send a clear message when other things are always more urgent than your time with them.
The most productive remote employees avoid distractions. Set aside strategic times each day for email, meetings, projects, etc. This keeps your focus on the task at hand rather than constantly veering off course. Keep your calendar up to date and available to your colleagues. This lets them know what is on your plate and plan their asks of you accordingly. It also allows you to hold yourself accountable.
Outsite founder Emmanuel Guisset has been working remotely for six years. He got his start in business development for a European software company in the San Francisco Bay area. Today, his team at Outsite is fully remote. He has found that real-time work sessions – combined with regular in-person retreats – keep his team engaged long term. It also cuts down on miscommunication.
“All my team [members are] remote now, and some haven’t met each other yet,” Guisset says.
“That sometimes leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication. I have learned that it is key to have work sessions together in real time. Slack and Skype are great, but people need to meet their colleague every now and then. Team retreats are ideal for that.”
Plan Your Communication
Remote teams do not have the benefits of break rooms or happy hours. You need other ways to bond with your colleagues. Group chat that happens in real time is a great way to stay in touch with your team throughout the day. But it can also be hard to navigate — especially if you crave feedback and consistent interaction.
It is tough to balance productivity with team banter. Working from home limits distractions and makes employees more productive. But working in isolation can make it hard to feel like a unit or ask for guidance. Guisset agrees — “The main problem with working remotely is that you don’t have real contacts with your colleagues and so you can feel lonely or isolated,” he explains.
It helps to use tools that organize your team communications. The Aha! team uses our own roadmapping tool to set company strategy, track team goals, and manage our to-do lists. Since everyone is working in the same software at once, we are able to collaborate in real time rather than waiting for email responses all day.
Dutel and his team at Buffer use diverse tools including HipChat, Zapier, and Sqwiggle to connect each day. And Guisset leads his remote team with video calls over Skype rather than using the phone. He also encourages them to expand their networks beyond the Outsite team. He believes that networking on a local level balances out time spent working from home.
“The main problem with working remotely is that you don’t have [direct contact] with your colleagues and so you can feel lonely or isolated,” Guisset explains. “If you work from home, I think it’s important to go to meetups and events so you can meet people.”
Limit Your Distractions
Working from home can bring a unique set of distractions. Dogs start barking when the mailman visits. Kids start screaming when it is naptime. The lack of separation between work and home makes it hard to control certain circumstances. Still, you should be mindful of your own concentration and those of your colleagues when you are in a meeting.
My manager and I speak daily via GoToMeeting. These meetings help us update each other on specific projects, review work in real time, and discuss new opportunities. We spend much of our days doing independent work — so these daily meetings are crucial for collaboration, and any distractions will hinder productivity.
Try to work in a specific space with a door that limits loud noises. If there is noise beyond your control, take initiative to mute yourself if you are on a conference call. And keep pets, partners, children, etc. out of your workspace. Your dog is most likely adorable; his barks during a demo are not.
Resolve Your Conflicts
Remote work does not remove the need for hard conversations. The opposite is often true — not everyone is built to work remotely, and some learn this the hard way on the job. Tough conversations will undoubtedly occur. So finding the right medium for them is a must.
There is no substitute for face-to-face video meetings. Anything less disrespects your work, your colleagues, and the issue at hand. Always take the high road — choose the most practical and personal form of communication. Review employees’ calendars to see when they are free. Then, ask them via email or chat if they have time to jump on a video call at a specific time.
Prepare for this meeting as you would for an in-person discussion. Deliver difficult messages as quickly as possible and have next steps clearly outlined. Offer opportunities for your colleagues to speak and share their perspectives. If they have additional questions, let them know that you are happy to schedule a separate meeting at a time that works best for everyone.
Remote work offers many benefits. A distributed team does not have to commute, can be more productive, and gets distracted less often. It is a privilege that should not be abused — but do not despair if it is a work in progress.
Many of us learn how to be our best while working remotely — there is no substitute for learning by doing. The most crucial step you can take is to commit to a place of mindfulness. Respect your company, colleagues, and assignments equally. Doing so will help all of you succeed.
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