By Jake Meador | 7 May 2020
Thanks to the coronavirus, most Americans are currently working remotely. While it is possible that some will soon be returning to their offices as restrictions are lifted, it’s likely that most of us will continue to be remote for the foreseeable future. Additionally, due to the uncertainty about the long-term status of the virus, it’s possible that we will be forced to return to tighter mobility restrictions in the fall or winter months.
Given all of that, now is a good time to consider how to be the best remote workers and remote companies we can be. Toward that end, we want to suggest seven rules for excelling as a remote worker. As a company that has always been fully remote, Mobile Text Alerts has plenty of experience with remote work. We hope the lessons we’ve learned from that experience can be helpful to you as well.
There are two aspects to organizing your work well as a remote worker.
First, you want to create structures that make it easier to work effectively.
Second, you need to find the personalized methods of working that are best for you and your situation.
Let’s talk about structures first: How will you communicate with your coworkers? How often will you give project updates? How will decisions be made? These are the kind of problems that you can solve with good organization but, if left unsolved, will cause major headaches for you and your coworkers.
A huge part of successful remote work is about creating systems that can fix many of the difficulties that arise from not being in an office. So have routines for keeping everyone within the company up to date on key information. Also have clear guidelines in place for decision-making. If you are able to do these things well, then much of the friction that might arise as a result of remote work will simply never be an issue for your team.
When your team is based in an office, an enormous amount of communication happens organically throughout the day. You hear about a trip a salesperson is on because you notice their desk is empty. You overhear a couple coworkers talking about a product in development. You tap a colleague on the shoulder and ask them a simple question that came up in your own work.
All of that communication does not happen when you are a remote-based company.
This is why it is best, especially when you are first starting out with remote work, to err on the side of communicating too much with your team rather than too little. When you’re communicating something with your team, think ahead about all of the details that your teammates may need to know. One of the biggest dangers to a remote-first company is that a lack of incidental, organic communication leads to bad assumptions within the team.
Bad assumptions can create problems in a couple ways. They can create frustration if one person assumes that a coworker is doing something that the coworker didn’t realize they need to do or did not know about. They can also create bad expectations, which can in turn lead to anger when a person’s expectations are not met. By communicating clearly about deadlines, the status of a project, delays, and so on you can help people actually know what is going on and not just make assumptions about what you are doing.
Tobias Van Schneider explains the principle well:
Over-communicate everything: What you are working on, when you think it will be done, if you’re running behind and how much you’re running behind. Even if people don’t respond to your updates, you need to be consistent about it. Just because someone didn’t acknowledge your update doesn’t mean it’s worthless — quite the opposite. It means they feel informed and satisfied about your current status.
This is a software and hardware issue. As part of creating good structures for work and having good communication practices you will need to identify the software your team uses to talk with each other. We like Slack at Mobile Text Alerts. Many other companies do as well. But if you have another method that works for you, that’s fine. The key is that technology shouldn’t get in the way of clear communication. You’ll also need other software to do your job. As a copywriter, I spend most of my time in Bear (my note-taking app), Google Docs (where we do collaborative writing projects), and Feedly (where I read blogs and keep up to date on marketing tech). If you want help identifying the best software to use for your situation, read our blog post about software for remote workers.
You’ll also need the right hardware. Most of us at Mobile Text Alerts are partial to Macs. I actually use an old-school Macbook Air: As a copywriter, I don’t need a powerful desktop machine because I’m not running intensive design software. I also love the flexibility of being able to move around during the day between my home office, a coffeeshop (once the virus clears anyway), or other places in my home or in the backyard. With a lightweight laptop, moving around like that is very easy.
Just as you need the right tools for work, you also need the right space in which to work. Some of this will be a question of personal taste—do you need absolute quiet? A low buzz of people talking? Some soft background music? Other factors will have to do with your particular role. If you are in sales, you’ll likely need a quieter area for making calls. If you are in design, you’ll likely need a space that can accommodate a powerful desktop computer.
Once you have defined the general parameters of what you need, you can start thinking through the specific things you would like to include in your space. I had a coworker at a past job who had several plants he kept on his desk at the office because it was a simple way he could add a splash of green to our otherwise monochromatic offices. A good rule: When putting anything in your home office, ask two questions: First, is it beautiful? Second, is it useful? If the answer to both is “no,” then it shouldn’t be in your office.
In other cases, of course, you may be a remote worker who primarily works from places outside your house. Perhaps you have a favored local coffee shop or rent space in a local coworking office. Whatever the case, be attentive to the ways in which places direct your attention and shape the way you work. There are few things you will spend more time doing than your job. So make sure you are able to do that job in a space that is pleasing to you.
Though the stereotype about remote workers is that they loaf and don’t work as hard as office-bound colleagues, the truth is probably the opposite: Most remote workers actually work more than their office-based coworkers. This shouldn’t be surprising though.
In the first place, if a worker leaves their home at 8:15 for their commute and gets home at 5:30 and they have a 30 minute commute one way, then they are adding a full hour to their work day simply by commuting. Cutting out the commute creates additional time. And many folks will use that time to do more work. So even by this simple analysis, you can see how remote workers would be more productive.
But this can also create a challenge. When there is a clear boundary between work and home, it can be easier to keep a clear boundary between time for work and time for other things. When you work at home, it can be harder to preserve those boundaries.
For that reason, it’s good to figure out some personal practices and habits that can help you preserve space for rest so that you avoid burnout and can continue to do good work and be personally content with your daily routine.
Some remote workers describe how they keep one specific part of their home for work and think about the walk to that space as their ‘commute.’ It’s a mental trick, but sometimes that is all we need. In other cases, you might block out time on your calendar for personal time, arrange for hang-out time with friends during a certain part of the day, or start a habit of going for a walk or bike ride every day at a certain time.
As we have mentioned before, structures are important for remote workers. Creating routines that allow you to preserve the distance between your job and the rest of your life is vital.
In the book The Four Disciplines of Execution, authors Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling liken the routines of our daily work to ‘the whirlwind.’ You’ve spent your day entirely in the whirlwind when you look at the clock, are shocked to see it’s almost 4pm, and feel as if you haven’t done much of anything that day. Many of us live much of our professional lives in the whirlwind, managing email, answering Slack messages, knocking off small tasks, and sitting through meetings. This level of distraction leaves very little time for making progress on key tasks that move your company or career forward in more obvious ways.
In contrast to living in the whirlwind, Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport encourages his readers to embrace practices of what he calls ‘deep work.’ Deep work is the kind of work that requires sustained times of silence, reflection, and focused attention in order to be done well. A majority, perhaps even a vast majority, of our most important professional projects require deep work and yet much of our professional lives are structured in ways that inhibit our ability to do deep work.
So one of the best things you can do as a remote worker—or an in-office worker, frankly—is cultivate habits that allow you to have more regular periods of deep work. Newport advises adopting these particular routines as an aid toward improved deep work:
Block out time. This means scheduling time on a calendar—long blocks of time, to be clear. And stick to the schedule. Don’t shave time off at the beginning or end. Don’t move the time around regularly. Have a set block of time that you protect for sustained thought and attention to your project.
Embrace boredom. If you’re feeling bored, don’t take out your phone and start playing a game. Sit in silence and let your mind wander.
Meditate. What Newport means by that term is giving yourself time to dedicate thought to a single problem or question. Newport particularly finds that going on walks can be a helpful aid as you try to focus your mind around whatever problem or question you are concerned with at the moment.
Have zero tolerance for distractions. If you need to, use tools like Freedom or RescueTime to help you eliminate distractions. Even a simple glance at your email or an alert on your phone can break your focus. So be ruthless about the things that distract you during deep work sessions.
Prepare for deep work. Define a routine that initiates your time of deep work. It could be very simple: You go out for a quick walk around the block and when you get home you go straight down to your desk, sit down, and begin work. The key is you need to have practices that ‘trick’ your body into being prepared for a sustained time of focused work.
Know your outcome. When you sit down for a deep work session, you should know what your goal is. “At the end of this session I will have read x pages in my book,” or “I will have written y words on this training document.” Giving yourself a specific goal helps you know what constitutes ‘success’ for that period of time.
Give yourself 20% less time than you think you need. This rule helps with procrastination. If you have three months until a project is due, it is easy to slack off until the final weeks—and then find yourself scrambling to make the deadline. So give yourself an artificially early deadline and work toward that. That way, if you do have days where you procrastinate or get distracted, it shouldn’t sink the whole project.
You can read more about these rules in this post over at Entrepreneur.
Related to the practices of deep work, it’s good to have a good plan for your week or day more generally. This allows you to block off time for managing the whirlwind while also keeping time for sustained deep work.
The other essential thing, besides simply making a schedule, is tracking how you are performing relative to the schedule. This isn’t something that needs to be public, necessarily. It may just be a private form of accountability. RescueTime can generate a report for you on how you use your time on your computer. That could be a scorecard.
Another method is to just use your note taking app—I like Bear—and maintain a list of your day’s work. This allows you to look back over days, weeks, and even months to see what you got done and when. The key thing is you want to have a measure that is objective and exists outside your own head to tell you how you’re doing.
Working remotely can be a challenge if you’re new to it. Even if you’re a seasoned remote worker, there are probably ways you can improve your routines. If you’re wanting to think more about remote work, this post from Help Scout is a great resource.