Tips to make working remotely easier on yourself and your team
Ironically, I'm writing this post as I sit in a Laundromat down the street from my apartment in Boulder, CO.
Oh, you didn't realize Integrity had a Boulder office? Well, they don't. Let's backtrack.
In mid 2014 two coworkers and I broke the news to our bosses that we were looking to move out of state. Somehow the unprecedented discussion of having us work remotely started and I, for one, was intrigued by the idea. So, without much planning aside from "Hey, let us know when you get there!," I set off. Neither I nor Integrity knew how long it was going to last or what it might turn into, but nine months later I'm here to tell the tale of both Integrity's and my first time working remotely.
In researching how exactly to write about being a remote worker, I came across this blogger, who tells about his ideal day as a remote programmer. While he mentions that it is only ideal and that he has yet to achieve all of the habits he mentions, if I'm being honest, I might be about one half as productive and routined as he.
My ideal schedule, like many of ours, would be somewhat similar to his: wake up, work out, get caught up on what you missed since signing off the day before, plan your day, reply to any important emails and then get to work. But wait, where's "run to the grocery store for lunch and get distracted planning out this week's dinners" and "dash out of your apartment to find a coffee shop that is somehow quieter than whatever jackhammer-induced hell is being evoked on your back patio?"
In my experience, life regularly gets in the way when you work remotely. For a lot of remote workers, life's interruptions are exactly why they've chosen to work from home. For me, they've been something I'm learning to cope with along the way. Mostly because I'm eager to share my thoughts with someone, albeit still not an actual human in the office next door, I'm going to share what I've learned over the past nine months of working remotely.
My typical day
The number one question that I get is how do I get anything done when I work at home. Well, somedays I just don't. But, I've found a few pieces of routine that help me keep a loose schedule and keep me on track. Oddly, they're similar to the habits I already formed while working on location at Integrity.
I should point out that everyone I work with shares a home office in a zone only one hour ahead of mine, which makes it infinitely easier to work during their hours. On a typical day, I try to start working around the same time everyone in St. Louis does. I'm usually signed in to HipChat, organizing my calendar and checking emails by 8 a.m. I still take a break sometime between 11 and 1 to eat lunch and I still sign off by 5 or so each night. Just like I would if I were in the home office, sometimes I do work later into the night if I didn't get something done during the regular work hours that day. Just like I would in St. Louis, when I step away from my keyboard, I update my status on HipChat and when I'm unavailable you'll see it in my calendar.
And to be honest, I still do have to work into the night from time to time because 15 minute breaks can quickly turn into 2 hour gym or Netflix pauses when you aren't surrounded by 40 coworkers. There's something to be said for a healthy dose of workplace guilt.
The blogger I mention above also likes to do most of his work in various locations throughout the day. More specifically, pubs, as only a true Brit would. He finds the change in scenery and time spent walking between pubs increases his productivity.
I, however, found that hopping around from Starbucks to Boulder's quirky, independent coffee shops through the day quickly lost its charm for me. Between spotty wifi, the lack of the Thunderbolt Display I've come to love, uncomfortable seating, the pressure to purchase a coffee – which I don't even like – and the struggle to find anything healthy and also affordable for lunch at most coffee shops; I find sticking to my home office much more productive.
I also get asked quite frequently if I ever even change out of my pajamas. No comment.
Where I struggle
Obviously, there are some challenges you must face when over 800 miles separate you from your coworkers. Surprisingly, most of them are psychological.
On these hardships, I couldn't agree more with this guy on several points than if I had written them myself.
What I struggle with most is being out of sight and therefore out of mind. It can be hard working remotely for a highly collaborative company that is just making its first foray into this whole remote working thing.
Yes, I keep my calendar up to date. Yes, I attend our weekly team meeting via Google Hangouts. Yes, I update our whole email list on what I'm working on every week. Yes, I reach out to individuals who I think might have some tasks for someone with my skill set. But, when your coworkers think it'd just be easier to hand tasks to the person at the desk next to them rather than try to explain it to me via phone call or video chat, it can get disheartening to keep asking.
Another situation I would never have foreseen before working remotely is how hard it is to interact in meetings.
When you aren't physically present in a meeting, you miss out on the body language that is taking place in the room. It's hard to read how people are reacting to what's being said and, even worse, you hesitate to chime in because you can't read when someone else is getting ready to speak.
And of course, there are the times you might hesitate to chime in because no matter how many times you tell them, some coworkers won't set up the call equipment so that you don't echo all around the room every time you talk. I also can't even attend meetings where whiteboarding comes into play anymore as I generally can't see what's being written or hear people as they move around the room.
Oh, and VPN. Just no.
Tips to help you work remotely
1. Do try to keep some kind of routine that makes you feel like a normal person. If you are working remotely, not freelancing, you should try to be as available as possible to the team you are working with. It might not be completely fair that that means you have to be online at 7 a.m. while everyone else signs on at 9 a.m. but hey, you're doing it in your bathrobe with a homemade plate of scrambled eggs. Life isn't fair.
2. I'm a major proponent of over communication; even more so when you can't physically interact with those you need to communicate with. Keep your team abreast of what you're working on and your bandwidth. I know that I said earlier that it can get disheartening when your team isn't as communicative as you are trying to be, but that doesn't mean you should stop trying or that they aren't going to get better at it as time goes on.
3. Both of the above points warrant this one - be available everywhere. Don't become associated with failed communication attempts and therefore written off as a last resort to contact when opportunities arise. If your project manager likes to use Skype for all of her video communication, sign up. If your HipChat is being buggy and you're missing messages, update immediately. If your HR person doesn't have time to figure out Google Hangouts, give them a call. It might cost you a little more effort but if you can step outside for a 15 minute break and see the mountains like I can you'll get over it.
4. Visit once in a while to show the team you are a real live human who didn't just invent a program to respond to emails in your voice while you're off snowboarding.
5. Gather feedback from the people who empowered you to work remotely in the first place. Are they happy? Are you happy? Are things going as expected? Better? Worse? What can you both do to improve?
Tips to help you interact with a remote worker
1. Don't let the perceived difficulty of communication technology stop you. I had never used Google Hangouts before moving to Boulder and now I'm using it at least once a week as well as several other communication tools. You can literally speak to me via video, text chat, email or good old fashioned phone at most hours of the day or night. That was the case in St. Louis and it's still the case now.
2. In meetings, please specifically ask me for feedback. It's impossible for me to read pauses in conversation, so I'm not as likely to share my thoughts unless I'm given the floor to speak.
3. In general, it's important to be precise in documentation following meetings. it's even more important if a remote worker is on your team. If you aren't saving decisions in Basecamp, Google Docs or somewhere, expect to reiterate every conversation you've had offline as a team each time we meet.
Working remotely might not be a good practice for every company or every person. At Integrity, we've always been interested in exploring boundaries, including those in work/life balance, productivity and location. Because we hire based on personality and work ethic as opposed to titles and degrees, we knew we were bound to construct a team of autonomous people who do what they say they're going to do - even if it's from 800 miles away with no pants on.
Are you currently working remotely or do you have remote members on your team? We want to know if you love it, hate it or just have more tips to add! Contact us on Twitter or Facebook. Or contact the author on her personal Twitter - no pants required!
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