Top 10 Tips for Working Remote
Being in Lima, Peru: 3,870 miles, one timezones and a hemisphere away from my team at Portland Webworks in Portland, Maine takes the definition of remote work to a new level for me. I've had opportunity to work remotely for an extended period on two other occasions in my career and had great results, but I've also seen people struggle when the distance became a liability. Over the years I've identified some tips that have helped me.
The debate over remote workers is hotly debate these days. Pros and cons on productivity, teamwork and accountability are touted on both sides. Large companies like Yahoo and IBM make the news by oscillating between policies promoting remote workers then reversing position, but companies of all sizes grapple with finding the best balance. Overall I've found my times working remote to be both my most productive periods, as well as my most isolating. I've found that reduced distractions allow me to focus and better structure my time, resulting in better productivity. I've also seen that not being in close proximity of my team makes collaboration less effective, especially when only part of the team is not co-located. Ultimately I don't think there is a single best answer, at least with today's environments and technology but instead a set of trade-offs that should be considered.
One thing I've come to believe is that the ability to effectively work remotely is a skill and one that can be both learned and practiced toward improvement. From my anecdotal experience I've come a top ten list of ways I've found to best work remotely and avoid some of the common pitfalls.
#1 - Have the Right Tools
As is usually the case, having the right tools won't automatically make you successful, but not having the right tools can often make success impossible.
- Internet - Movistar 30 Mbs plan - reliable, fairly high speed internet access is the lifeblood of my work. I rely on access to research, deliver, and communicate about my work. Without good access my other equipment isn't much use.
- Computer - Apple MacBook Pro laptop. I went with a MacBook, the first Apple product I've ever purchased, for a couple reasons. First was reliability. Without a handy IT department at my disposal, downtime comes out of my bottom line. Second was ability to develop iOS applications without jumping through a bunch of extra hoops.
- Monitor - Dell Ultra HD 4k Monitor P2715Q 27-Inch. Having a good quality, large format display is necessary for accurate visual design work that I do. Having a large format display is a huge efficiency boost- time spent scrolling, switching windows and searching for windows all detract from my efficiency. This was a big enough priority that I packed it in my luggage to make sure I could get it to Peru.
- Webcam - Logitech C930e 1080P HD Video Webcam. Every laptop today comes with its own camera, sufficient for doing web conferences but there are two reasons you'd want to have an external one, and they both come down to quality. Positioning your webcam above your primary monitor provides a more desirable viewpoint and sight line for chatting. Also, the Logitech unit provides sharper, better image quality than what you get with the laptop. This is important when your web conference image is how people know you.
- Headphones - Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9. Having good quality headphones are important for being able to hear in conference calls, especially if you are going to be on multi-hour calls. I find the noise cancelling versions are best for reducing background noise we get in Lima and supposedly helps with the effects of jet lag from long flights.
- 6. Microphone - Blue Microphones Yeti. Similar to having a high quality webcam, a solid microphone will only help your communication and will help reenforce your perceived quality.
- Keyboard/mouse/desk/chair - setting up a comfortable place to work (remotely) is really important. You can't do your best work if you're fighting the dog for space on the couch and struggling to hear above the kids cartoons on the next room.
#2 - Back Up "EVERYTHING"
First, back up your data like it was your job. Losing data is a fact of life but not being prepared with a backup is poor planning. When you're remote the responsibility will fall more to you. For my workflow I use Time Machine daily to an external drive. I would also like to add an off-site cloud component to my back-ups to reduce my risk for a local catastrophe.
But don't stop with your data. Identify all the potential points of failure for everything you do and have a plan for failure. For me that means for internet I have a cellular data plan that I could scale up as needed if my normal WiFi falls and I've identified a few local co-working spaces for longer term needs. I primarily communicate with my team and clients via Slack but we could fall back to texts and email if that failed for any reason. It's OK to hope that nothing unforeseen happens, but best to have a plan in case it does.
Your reputation will depend on how well you are able to complete your commitments so don't shortchange yourself with lack of contingency planning.
#3 - Plan Your Time
My trick for getting things done? Plan my time. I don't plan out every minute, or even every hour of my days but I have an idea of what I want to complete in a given day. Rather than jump right into working first thing, take a few minutes at the start of the day (and the start of the week) to plan the day's priorities, review interdependencies and identify touchpoints (meetings, etc.).
I suggest doing this exercise quickly (things change, don't invest more than you are willing to lose should things change) first thing, and before you start getting pulled in other directions by teammates and clients. For me that means I go into my daily standup meeting with my team with a plan for the day, but am always willing to adjust it as needed.
The risk of not having a plan, is you may get pulled into other tasks that come up. Having a plan in place lets you evaluate incoming requests against the plan and make a more conscious decision based on priorities rather than reacting to the fire drill of the moment. Which is a good segue into #4.
#4 - Protect Your Time
One of the biggest stumbling points I've seen for people working remotely, both new and experienced is time deterioration. Here's the scenario, you start working on something and get stuck on a specific point so you flip over to the online documentation. The documentation isn't clear so you head over to StackOverflow (a technical question/answer community) to review some related questions. You start seeing what you need but one particular answer makes you rethink your entire design so you start reading about <new technology XYZ>. At which point your coworker chats about a question he has with something unrelated he is working on. You have to put that on hold because the doorbell rings and the gas company wants to verify they are turning on the meter for the right account. Soon the kids are home and it's dark out and what were you planning to get done today anyway?
That's time deterioration, you start with good intentions but get sucked into a time warp. What can you do? You need to protect your time. It starts with having a plan (see #3 above) but it also means determinedly protecting your time.
Run into a technical problem? If something is taking longer than you expected or is going on a different direction, start breaking things down. Is it necessary to do this now? Sometimes you do a quick version with a team to revisit later. This is a safety measure that will keep you from getting too far in the weeds and end up with nothing complete at the end of the day.
Interruptions? Don't let interruptions automatically take top priority. This is where having a plan comes in handy again. If something comes up, my first reaction is to defer it until after my current task is complete. Sometimes that means telling my coworker I'm right in the middle of something and can take a look in 1 hour (another reason having at least a temporary working version in place quickly helps, even if priorities change I have something).
Ultimately, if you have a plan, and protect your time, and even then don't complete what you meant to by the end of the day, you can be confident what you did complete was higher value, by design.
#5 - Craft Your Reputation
Nothing is easier to lose, and harder to recover than your reputation. Some people call it your personal brand. Your reputation is how people think of you, your work and in effect your company. Although your reputation is important for anyone, when working remote it is especially important to be aware of your reputation.
Start with the small things. The quality of your communications- email, chat messages, video and audio will be the first things that your remote colleagues and clients will use to form the opinions about you. This is why I recommend investing in quality gear for video conferencing. Also, don't skimp on email and chat. The quality of your communication may be the only thing some people have to form the opinions of you. Be aware of the impression you are putting out, considering everything from your email sign off to your chat system avatar.
Next, be reliable. If you say you will respond in an hour, do so. If you mentioned taking notes from a meeting, format them and post them or send them out to the participants. Don't be late to meetings, in fact build a reputation of being early. These are, again, small things but they will build your reputation.
Obviously reliability of one of the traits I prefer to be known for. As someone working remote that is one of the traits I consider most important. I consider trustworthiness, commitment and competence to be among the others that are both in my nature but also serving the reputation I wish to be known for. I think it can help any business and personal career to identify the traits you think are important and make sure you are conveying them with your habits and behaviors, never more so than when you are remote and interactions tend to be more limited.
#6 - Wear a Shirt (and pants!)
One of the perceived perks of working remotely is the idea that you can roll out of bed whenever you feel like it and work on your own schedule. While you might have the benefit of more independence, this also comes with the weight of being responsible for managing your own time... and appearance. For me, I have seen benefits from building a reliable routine. I have a while I generally keep and I stick to it.
I am also a firm believer in ritual. I'm not talking religious rituals or anything like that, what I mean is a set of steps I perform to get my mind in the right place for me next activity. Before a road race or triathlon, I like to visualize what I think the race is going to look like, how I want my breathing to work and what my pace is going to feel like. I bounce from one leg to the other to get a feel for what that pace is going to feel like. I splash some water on my face and visualize how I'm going to feel in the water. I probably look silly bouncing around and visualizing things to myself but it works for me. And I do it the same way every time. I find that washing up and getting dressed in the morning have a similar effect. I get myself mentally prepared for what I'll be taking on for the day. If I'm meeting with a client I'll wear a button-down shirt. It's as much for me as it is for the client. It's a signal I use for myself that I'm getting into a certain mode.
So you might find a different ritual works better for you, but for me the few minutes I take to get "ready for work" are cost effective.
#7 - Have a Good Place to Work
The lynch pin I've found that ties together points I've made above (and some to follow): tools, protecting your time and creating a professional reputation is having a good place to work. Part off my ritual from #6 is sitting down at my desk. When I'm there, it is work time. When I'm working on a particular project I run a timer on Harvest, a time taking and invoicing tool I really like. Whenever I'm working I run a timer, and if I stop or pause for any reason I pop it off. This is a signal to myself but also to anyone I may be talking to that I'm taking a break. I try to make it clear that when I'm "at work" that's what I need to focus on, until I complete it for the day.
It's not always easy and it involves coordinating with people around me so they understand too. But it's worth it in the long run if you want to be reliably productive.
#8 - Get Away
One of the big risks I've found with working remote, and from home in particular, is the accessibility of work. It's easy to get an early start, things get busy so I work through lunch and the early evening is my most productive time so it's hard to finally put it down. Suddenly I'm working 12 hour days and due to Flow I may not even really realize it. (Also a reason I think it can often be difficult or impossible for developers to estimate work ourselves without better tools... when you've been in a state of flow for a couple hours and it feels like minutes are you really the best person to ask how long it will take for something similar?)
I like working hard and doing hard problems. It's why I do what I do. I like feeling engaged and finally uncovering the solution I knew would be in there if I dug hard enough. But I also don't want to be a slave to work. One of the things I really miss about the office is leaving. When I left the office I could leave the work laptop closed, safe in my work bag, waiting until I picked it up again in the morning. When there is no "leaving work" ritual I find it easy to just keep going. Just one more feature... could always use another unit test, right?... I meant to add some documentation, just let me jot a few things down. But you can't, you can't work all the time.
I do best when I create a "leaving work" ritual for myself. My favorite is an after-work run. It gets the blood flowing, creates a good, natural break and plays into my habitual nature. In Lima I have a favorite route along the Malecon. When I spent summers in Maine working from a camper next to a lake I'd run the dusty dirt road a couple times and finish off with a swim. But it could be anything; reading a chapter from your current book, happy hour drinks with friends, an episode of your favorite show, whatever it takes for you to switch off work mode for the night. Don't worry, it'll still be there in the morning and you'll be fresh to take it on again.
#9 - Communicate
When you're remote you need to communicate more. Seems obvious? Well, you need even more than you think.
It'll happen, you'll miss something that was mentioned in a meeting before they got the call started. Or everyone will be too nice to tell you they didn't understand what you said because the connection broke up while you were talking. Or they just didn't think to mention an idea that was discussed in passing on the break room. Or on the flip side, nobody knew you've been struggling with a technical problem for a couple hours.
Try to remember, you probably don't know what you don't know. So ask more questions than you're used to. Confirm that people understand what you communicate. Overshare your progress. Ask others about what they are up to. It may seem funny, and unproductive at first but you need to work a little harder to support your (virtual) presence. Just like a persistent http connection, you need to keep communicating to keep the channel open, even if just to ask if everyone can still hear you.
#10 - Don't Give Up
Working remote had its own set of challenges. Ultimately it may not be for everyone but I am certain that with practice and a sound game plan everyone could be better at it. Some days it will be frustrating. Some days it will be lonely. You'll make mistakes but don't give up. The skills you build are not isolated just to working remotely either, should you find yourself back in an office you'll find ways to be more productive there to.
If you have any tips I missed or questions about those I've listed here, drop me a line in the comments!