Going Global: 5 Tips to Make Remote Work
For the past 6 years I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours working remotely from the Netherlands on high-volume open-source software (and the project management thereof) and, most recently, at Artsy on our iOS team. Working remotely allows me to structure my time to optimize for efficiency and engagement in both my personal life and professional capacity.
In my opinion, working remotely is the most rewarding practice in modern organizations. For those of you who already work remotely, read on for advice about developing “best practices” and mastering the art of remote work. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of “remote” (or, perhaps, would argue for the irreplaceability of face-to-face office dynamics), read on to learn about why it’s important and how it can be beneficial for everybody to practice “working as a remoter.”
Don’t get me wrong, as with work at the office (hereafter referred to as “HQ”), there can be as many downsides as there are upsides. Most of those downsides, however, can be mitigated by establishing a reliable structure for yourself.
Some classic examples of tough spots are:
- setting boundaries around your working day
- project management communication
- bouncing ideas off of coworkers
- getting inspired by your colleagues from casual “water-cooler chatter”
- bonding with your colleagues beyond just work
- staying apprised of the company’s high-level progress
- possibly having to deal with time zone differences
To overcome these downsides, I’ve come up with a series of guidelines over the years, which can apply as much to working from HQ as they do to working remotely.
To address the problem of not getting out and setting boundaries around my working day, I go out for a walk with my dog in the morning and do some light grocery shopping. Halfway through the day I’ll do another walk and maybe run some errands. Finally at the end of the day I do another walk and possibly some more grocery shopping for dinner.
The nice thing about a dog, for me working from home, is that they have to go out, you can’t cheat (this doesn’t count!). But if, for instance, you’re in a remote office, leave the office at times that your social environment dictates, not HQ; try to be at home when your family has dinner, join your friends for a Friday happy hour.
When it comes to planning meetings (especially when you’re in a different time zone), don’t just hope the other attendees will keep your schedule in mind. Instead, take a look at their calendars and make a suggestion that works for everyone.
It will be harder for your colleagues to implicitly gauge your current workload. Be explicit, realistic, and truthful about existing bandwidth and set expectations accordingly. Keep in mind that it’s in everybody’s interest to achieve goals (with deadlines) in a sustainable manner.
“Work when it works for you” is great, but that shouldn’t mean “work all the time.” For instance, try not reading your email until you arrive at the office.
Leverage restraints into a routine
Since I’m in a different timezone than Artsy HQ, I’ve got the whole morning to myself while my stateside colleagues are still sleeping. I fill this time with work that can be done without help or any immediate interaction with my colleagues. This might sound like a downside, but to me it really helps to enforce my routine.
Typically my day will start with going through new emails/chat/GitHub, specifically ones that provide feedback that I asked for the day before. Then I’ll try to put in a few hours of solid development work, as there will be no interruptions from colleagues.
In the afternoon I’ll still do more development work, but will now also partake in team standups, meetings, and S’up meetings (which are a great way to keep up with that cross-team ‘water cooler’ chatter and I highly encourage any larger company to use). All of which I try to plan in HQ’s morning so that it does not get too late for me.
Before the end of the day I make sure to post all the questions I need answered for work to get done the following day.
And then the cycle repeats.
Just because you work at your company’s central office, doesn’t mean it’s always the most productive place for you to be—the chaos and social buzz of HQ can become a restraint in its own ways. If your company has a flexible policy, set aside time every month to escape the noise and work from home.
Take advantage of asynchronous communication
A key aspect to (remote) working is communication. Efficient communication is hard, but asynchronous communication–that is, not in real-time, but e.g. via email–can make it easier. Whenever you find yourself needing to interrupt somebody for an immediate answer, alarm bells should start to ring.
A whole lot has been written about the negative impact of interruptions, but yet it’s amazingly hard to not commit this act of cognitive killing when sitting next to the person that might have the answer for you.
Instead of expecting an answer immediately, plan your work so that you can send off a question via your company’s asynchronous communication highway of choice—Slack in Artsy’s case—without forcing your work to come to a grinding halt.
Minimize interruptions so that you and others can get more cognitive tasks done. You might want to institute a rule such as “headphones on in the office means NO interruptions.”
Don't be afraid to save time
Asynchronous communication means that you get to put time into framing a question the best way possible for a swift result, but better yet, the person answering your question gets the same benefit. This can be a huge efficiency boost, but doing it right can take some practice.
Efficient communication is straight to the point and concise, yet all-encompassing. It’s about wasting as little time as possible for everyone by optimizing messaging for immediate and aligned action. This all might seem like a lot of work and indeed writing a shorter text can be harder. It takes some effort to get good at, but the payoff can be tremendous and you will get better at it over time.
ASSUMPTIONS ARE THE BFFS OF WASTING TIME
Too often, we assume we understand what someone is asking for or fear our pursuit of clarity may make us look stupid. As a result, we expel too much energy on the wrong thing and ultimately have to ask those clarifying questions anyway, if not start over all together. Which is why, even when I think I do understand something, I might still play the “naïve child” card and simply keep asking “why?” until I’m assured I fully understand the issue. For this reason I’m a huge fan of user stories, as it’s a tool that makes it easier to not forget to include vital information.
But not all communication is expressible as a user story. For general discussions I will typically write out my thoughts first and then spend a few minutes rewriting it to remove all the unnecessary noise.
- Whenever references are made to something that has been written up elsewhere, I’ll include a link to that so that if the reference is unknown to the reader they will be able to read up on it without having to add noise to my message. Using an open medium, like a (Slack) chat channel is great for this.
- Where explaining something in a user interface would take a lot of text, I will include screenshots or screen videos.
- If a message contains several key facts I want the reader to know, or questions that I want to have answered, I will format that as a bullet list. Yes, like this very one you’re reading.
Communicate with everyone in mind
Frame your question without assumptions about who knows what. Better yet, if you use an open communication medium like Slack, you should assume that people who aren’t engaged in the current discussion will at some point need to read it. This is particularly important for communications from HQ team members, who might normally keep information siloed (“let’s discuss it on the couch”), whereas sharing it in an open online place (not a “direct message”) means everyone, including remote team members, gets to tap into that knowledge.
Doing it right the first time around means that you don’t need to repeat yourself (you can just link to it thereafter!) and that casual readers will be able to keep up-to-date with information they might not have realized yet will be useful to them.
Concise communication is more efficient. Readers will not accidentally skip over the points you wanted to focus on, nor will they spend time answering or working on something that they (wrongly) assumed you meant.
However you prefer to spend your time, we all have those moments where time seems to pass by too quickly and we end up feeling like we did everything but the things we really wanted to do–which includes getting work done.
Working remote, or as a remoter, may lead you to being more efficient and productive with your time. Give it an honest try, and don’t let your assumptions of what others might think a work-day should look like stifle you—be creative.