You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Remote Work, a book by Katie Wilde, Juan Pablo Buriticá, and over 50 other contributors. It is the most comprehensive resource on building, managing, and adapting to working with distributed teams. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, 800 links and references, a library of tools for remote-friendly work, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
As remote workers we have to completely self-organize and make sure we motivate ourselves to keep going. Getting a salary alone is not enough of a motivator to do so, especially if your team does not value and work on interpersonal connection. You need to understand how stress affects you, how to deal with loneliness, how to keep yourself motivated, without the helpful structure and external accountability of going to an office.Stephan Dohrn, remote working expert and coach*
Every remote-work role has unique, job-specific requirements and skill sets, but there are more general skills that are helpful in any remote employment role.
Communication for Remote Workers
A lack of communication and daily, in-person interactions can create strong feelings of isolation, and poor communication can also lead to confusion and frustration around who is doing what within your team. Communication also can be a serious nuisance: constant interruptions from Slack or email threads that go nowhere but won’t die can make it hard to get and stay focused. We cover this topic in detail for teams in Working Together When Apart, so here we focus largely on the individual perspective of remote employees and how they can be proactive, effective communicators.
Communicating Intentionally and Appropriately
I find that the single most important element of successful remote work has nothing to do with how you are organized, how competent you are, or how much you work, but how good you are in building and maintaining relationships and consequently building trust with the people you work with.Stephan Dohrn, remote working expert and coach*
Remote workers (and their in-office colleagues, if applicable) are responsible for filling in potential communication gaps that asynchronous, written conversation can leave. This can apply to both practical information (how urgent something is) and more subtle, emotional tone and content. The key is to be clear and intentional when communicating with anyone remotely. A few tactics for this include:
Understanding individual preferences. How do your fellow team members like to communicate? Do they prefer writing, or would they rather find a way to chat over video or the phone? Are they structured people who appreciate a table with all the important information, or do they thrive in a chat application without any structure? You can’t be a great team member unless you know how everybody prefers to connect and find common ground.
It’s critical to make sure your team knows the answers to these questions about you, as well. This includes figuring out what the best communication style is for you.
Using explicit communication. Share and document your thinking, clearly and early in the process. It’s easy to want to “tap someone on the shoulder” in Slack, but if you’re not explicit about what you’re writing about, and how important it is, the other person is left wondering or uncertain, and may fill in the gaps in ways that lead to misunderstanding or confusion. Explicit communication is the difference between a message that says, “Do you have a minute?” and “[Non-urgent] Hey! Would love your feedback on my client proposal. Can you take 5 min before Tuesday evening if possible and review it? Thanks!”*
Making Time for Chit Chat
One of the most effective tools in combating isolation,* that also can help your productivity* is to build non-work related communication into your workday and take time for chatting and sharing with colleagues. Remote employees don’t tend to get noticed until they reach out, so you’ll likely need to take the initiative and make these connections.
Many companies have casual chat channels in Slack or similar tools. It’s also important to allocate some time in any meetings you have for personal, fun banter and not just get down to the agenda immediately. These are the kinds of moments that happen naturally in an office setting; remote employees usually need to factor these in consciously to make sure they happen. This is doubly important to understand if you’re managing remote people.
story “At Holloway, we have an #office channel where everyone says hello in the morning and gives people a sense of what their day looks like. It might just be emoji about the weather, or a detail about some non-work related thing they’re also doing that day. We also have a #random channel where posting pretty much anything is fair game (within reason, of course), and that is usually an excellent distraction when you need a break from deep work.” —Courtney Nash, Director of Editorial, Holloway
Outside of work, you can use offline resources, like finding local Meetup groups, taking classes, and keeping an eye out for events in your city. The time you save by not commuting could give you a little extra space for that important social interaction.
Further Reading on Communication for Remote Workers
Maintaining a strong sense of focus is central to deep, knowledge-based tasks. Working from home can invite many distractions, especially if you don’t have clear delineation around your workspace, routine, and when you’re available to friends, roommates, or family.
Fadeke Adegbuyi of Doist created a fantastic summary of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which we can’t recommend more enthusiastically for remote workers. If there’s one takeaway from her guide to deep work, it would be to schedule your day methodically. Without the structure of an office, your own schedule (which should be reflected in your calendar!) is what makes or breaks your ability to get deep, focused work done.
Other key aspects for deep work are maintaining self-discipline and having strong boundaries. As a remote worker you will be more successful at supporting deep focus if you:
Set definite expectations with both yourself and your friends and family. For some people, being around family and being able to interact at various times of the day is a big part of why they work remotely. For other people, this may be too disruptive, or it may vary over time. As long as everyone has the same expectations, you’ll avoid more frustration and unwelcome distractions.
Create self-enforced stopping points. Ideally, stopping around the same time each day helps you to avoid your work life bleeding over into your home time.
Set boundaries around your working life. Ensure everyone knows when they can and can’t interact with you.
Limit distractions. When doing deep, focused work, turn off notifications and anything else that might pull you out of your work or tempt you to check social media or the like. (In Deep Work, Newport goes so far as to encourage you to avoid social media entirely outside work as well, but this may not be possible or reasonable for everyone.)
The individuals who worked at home successfully were found to be highly self-motivated and self-disciplined and to have skills which provided them with bargaining power. Employees demonstrated self-discipline by tending to work in a very strict routine; they worked in the same place every day and tended to have relatively structured hours.Margrethe H. Olson, researcher, “Remote Office Work: Changing Work Patterns in Space and Time”*
A good routine is an important habit to develop as a remote worker. The benefits of managing your time properly include:
Your employer and peers understand when you will be available.
Being available at the same time as coworkers, if that is part of your team agreement.
If you want to get the most out of your working hours, we recommend:
Having a consistent morning (or getting started) routine. While it doesn’t work for everyone (and may not apply to many digital nomads), many remote workers feel more prepared and ready for a work day by waking up at the same time each day, having a morning routine of some sort (getting the family out the door, a quick walk with the dog, grabbing a coffee) and being at their desk at a fairly predictable time for them.
Sharing your availability with your team. This is especially critical if you don’t have as consistent a schedule, or have non-work things that will take up your time during the day. Many teams use Slack or other chat channels for this. (See more in Availability Protocols.)
Planning your day. We recommend looking at your schedule at the end of each day (or first thing when you get started) and blocking time for important tasks during the day.
Building some flexibility into your schedule. If you’ve scheduled everything down to 15-minute increments, you won’t have time for anything unexpected that might come up.
Taking regular breaks. You can build these into your calendar as well, or use a technique like Pomodoro to make sure you step away from the computer.
Planning when to stop working. Disconnecting at the end of the day is a big challenge for people working outside an office. Along with having a set time when you’ll stop working, it’s best to turn off notifications for tasks, messages, emails, and similar when you finish work for the day.
story “Giving my day a conscious structure for when I work and when I don’t, has been vital. For the first year after my daughter was born, I did not get anything done. Then, my wife and I decided to split the days: Monday and Thursday are my work days, Tuesday and Friday are hers. Wednesday we alternate. The non-work days are the one we are responsible for the kids. I still work then, but I know that I have to pick them up from school, make lunch, and be there if they need me in the afternoon.” —Stephan Dohrn, remote working expert and coach*
Knowing when to stop means having the self-discipline to keep more regular work hours, being sure you’re on track with your team’s goals, and that you’re delivering on what you’re responsible for. As Rodolphe Dutel of Remotive puts it, “‘Am I doing enough?’ is one of the questions that keeps remote workers up at night. The key to getting on top of this concern is asking your supervisors for feedback and keeping them informed of what you’re doing.”*
Working Across Time Zones
If you’re working as a truly distributed team, either across a large country or globally, you’re going to hit issues with time zones and team-member availability. This can create delays with responses and getting work done. Ideally your team has an established set of protocols for dealing with time zone differences, but if not, here are a few things you can do individually:
Talking to colleagues in other time zones about their turnaround times and how they want you to communicate with them.
Display your availability in your email signature, Slack status, and other channels or tools.
Making sure you’re not working unusually long hours due to meeting commitments set by people in other time zones.
Using asynchronous communications tools, so people don’t have to be online outside their local working hours.
Ensuring you’re on track with your work towards the team’s goals, and letting the team and your manager know if anything is starting to stray off track.
Another area you may need to consider is national holidays in other countries. Other people may not be available on days that you don’t have off, and being required to work when everyone else is away can impact collaboration and amplify feelings of loneliness. You’ll also likely want to be sure your company recognizes the specific holidays and breaks of the country you live in.
Let me be clear that autonomy does not mean doing less; it means the freedom of doing things in a better, more optimized way.Steph Smith, Integral Labs*
Like so many other aspects of remote work, you will find yourself needing to manage almost every aspect of your productivity yourself. That’s not a bad thing per se—a small set of studies have shown that remote workers actually contribute between 1.5 and 4 days a month in extra individual productivity, compared to traditional office workers.* Given that remote work is increasingly measured via outcomes instead of time working, productivity is make-or-break for a remote worker.
Here are some suggestions for maximizing your productivity when you work from home:
Establish a schedule that works for you. We’ve covered this in detail elsewhere, but it’s important to have a schedule that supports your work and communication with your team. This will help you get into the right mindset and habit to work. If you plan to take short breaks regularly throughout your day, just five or ten minutes an hour away from the screen can help you come back feeling refreshed. It’s wise to make sure that you also build in a good amount of time to take a lunch break and get out of the house.
Clarify your responsibilities and priorities. You might already have a clear set of goals that you are working towards more autonomously, or you might be in a more task-based role where you have work assigned to you. Regardless of the nature of your daily work, it’s critical to make sure you understand exactly what’s required of you and to ask questions if you need to clarify anything. If you’re not sure of what’s most important, that’s a sign that your team’s goals aren’t aligned, and you will want to speak up and let your manager know so you (and anyone else who might be uncertain) can get aligned.
Understand when you’re most productive. Although remote workers tend to work longer hours than traditional employees,* it’s also important to understand how you’re spending your time, and when you’re most alert and energized. This goes beyond just whether you’re a morning person or not. People’s energy and motivation varies throughout the day. A good path is to take stock of how you prefer to work and schedule the right types of work during the day for your energy level. This is especially important if you’re not in the same space all the time or are traveling, and need to make the most of the times when you’re most effective.
Schedule time for distraction-free work. Sometimes you really need to get your head down and concentrate. The best approach is to block off time in your calendar for these activities, turn off notifications, and eliminate other distractions so you can give the task your undivided attention. You and your team might even want to schedule particular activities for specific days—for example, Monday could be your meetings day, Friday could be your catch-up and small tasks day, and Tuesday through Thursday could be your project days. Tools like RescueTime can automatically work out where your attention is when you’re using your computer, so you can make adjustments.
Use a to-do list. This may seem like obvious advice, but it’s often not heeded. One major boost to productivity is tracking all of your tasks in one place—that way you can manage your project activities, team member requests, miscellaneous actions, and other activities from a central location. Even if your company has a good communication architecture in place, you may still have information and requests coming in via email, Slack, a project management tool, over the phone, or through other systems. There are plenty of great to-do list managers, so it helps to try them out and see what works for you. Examples include productivity practices like “Getting Things Done” or approaches like checking off tasks at times that reflect your differing energy levels.
Hold yourself accountable. Good self-management comes from being responsible and accountable for your work. This includes making sure you’re reporting on what you’re doing to your team and manager, and being sure that nothing falls through the cracks. It can also be helpful to get a work accountability partner who can provide extra incentives. If you start to feel overloaded or you need more time, it is important to talk to your manager about sharing work or using techniques to get you back on track.
I have a firm belief in the impact of our workplace on our behavior. Large companies invest millions of dollars into strategically designing offices that will fuel productivity and innovation, yet we’re plopping ourselves on a couch and expecting the same results.Laurel Farrer, CEO, Distribute Consulting*
80% of remote workers complete their work from home.* Designing the perfect remote work office is a challenge, however. Spending some time correctly setting up your office will create the right environment for you to be as effective and efficient as possible. This includes:
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