The Remote Worker’s Survival Guide
In this report, you’ll learn to address two main challenges: How to organize your own life as a telecommuter, and how to work as part of a larger team.
Embracing Remote Working: Get Beyond the Challenges to Reap Benefits
Telecommuting sounds so blissful. You can work from the comfort of your own home, with a cat purring on your lap, while you blast your favorite music at top volume. You don’t need to waste any time on a highway during rush hour traffic. And, with no interruptions, you can be productive. Why wouldn’t anyone want to work remotely?
That description of remote work is true, every bit of it. You get independence, flexibility, and more control over your work environment. But it has its challenges and tradeoffs, and woe betide the remote worker who tries the lifestyle without acknowledging and responding to those issues. Herein, you find out how to make a success of telecommuting, whether you are an individual telecommuter, a team member, or a manager.
A Laptop Computer and Pink Bunny Slippers
If you’re drawn to work outside a traditional office, you aren’t alone. In recent years, employers have become more sensitive to work/life balance and the benefits that attract top-quality candidates. As a result, it has become more common for businesses to permit, and even encourage, remote work, at least on an occasional basis.
It’s easy to understand why so many people want to escape their standard office jobs, the ones with florescent lights, a pitiful excuse for coffee, and a despicable open floor plan. According to the online employment site FlexJobs, telecommuting has grown 103 percent since 2005, with 3 percent of the workforce in the United States working at home at least part time. The practice grew 7 percent in 2014 alone. It’s also something workers desperately want; Global Workplace Analytics cites a poll of 1,500 technology professionals that revealed 37 percent of employees would take a 10 percent pay cut if they could work from home.
If you’re self-employed, you’re even more likely to run your business from a home office. About 22 percent of consultants and other business owners work from home.
The remote work benefits are considerable for individuals and employers, and for many people they far outweigh the disadvantages.
Among the advantages are the following:
- Undisturbed productivity
- People often are more productive when they have fewer distractions and are empowered to make their own decisions. For example, American Express remote workers produced 43 percent more than their office-based counterparts, reported Global Workplace Analytics.
- Collaboration and creativity
- Belying the myths about remote workers missing out on water cooler brainstorms, the lack of interruptions and efficient, asynchronous conversations often leads to innovative thought.
- Better job candidates from a wider talent pool
- A company can afford a more senior candidate who lives outside an expensive high-tech city, or attract an expert to its small town without considerations about relocation.
- A balance of personality types
- Telecommuting works brilliantly for introverts. With instant messaging and other online communication media, even the quietest person can be heard.
- Fewer “personal days”
- Schedule flexibility lets telecommuters continue to work while they wait for the air conditioning repairman, keep an eye on a sick schoolchild, or get over a flu bug that would be dumb to bring into the office.
- Cost savings for day-to-day office expenses
- As just one example, companies permitting telecommuting save on logistics, and benefit from employees’ reductions in travel time and energy use.
- It’s more environmentally friendly
- Going green reduces the demand on road construction, highway maintenance, and public transportation—not to mention avoiding the rush hour road rage.
The result? Better work/life balance and more employee loyalty, which reduces staff attrition.
The trust and freedom that come with remote work is a significant advantage to your company, says David Haney, engineering manager at Stack Overflow, an all-remote-employee company. “It allows you to source the global pool of talent rather than just those near your office. This in turn can increase diversity, which leads to better products and happier people.”
But the process doesn’t always come easily. Successful telecommuting requires good communication skills, trust among colleagues, and shared dedication to accomplishing the team’s goals. In this report, we’re transparent about the challenges, and we show you how to address each of them.
There’s two main areas on which you need to focus: how you organize your own life as a telecommuter, and how to work as part of a larger team. If you can’t resolve the former, the latter won’t matter. Because if you don’t do your work, you won’t be telecommuting for long—at least not at that company.
“If you work from home, you need to be more responsible for your output,” wrote David Gewitz in his book, How to Save Jobs (ZATZ Publishing, 2010)). “If you’re an employee, you have to establish trust with your managers. You have to set boundaries with your family and you have to develop the discipline to stay away from the TV—and the fridge.”
We use the terms “working from home,” “telecommuting,” and “remote work” interchangeably, but a few distinctions are worth noting at the outset. Most of our advice is for people working in a solitary manner (though not necessarily alone), most likely in a home environment, though the suggestions often are applicable to people in shared workspaces, digital nomads, road warriors, and coffee shops.
You’re a remote worker, too, if your office is a “commuter desk” in a company-owned facility (e.g., an internal consultant) or if you work at a company facility distant from your colleagues (such as a team dispersed between Austin, India, and the United Kingdom). Some challenges are lessened (such as fewer technical problems with network access), but larger issues remain: isolation, team bonding, and workflow adjustments.
The suggestions here apply primarily to employees who work in their own home, using their own or company equipment to connect back to “the office.” You participate in teleconference calls, likely have a secure connection to the company network, and are expected to deliver work “just like anybody else.” Most of the advice applies equally to consultants and contractors who serve clients in a similar manner.
Managing Your Own (Telecommuting) Life
You’re all alone in your house. It’s quiet. Nobody is looking over your shoulder. It’s just you, a computer screen, and the cats.
Somehow, the work needs to get done, and it’s up to you to accomplish everything on your To Do list, despite isolation, interruptions by family members who have “just one favor to ask,” or distractions from all the oh-so-interesting things you could be doing instead (cat videos!).
In traditional office life, you know when it’s time to begin work and when it’s quitting time. You get to the office, grab a cup of coffee, and sit down at your desk. You’re surrounded by the hum of other people with their heads down at their own desks, so you know it’s time to hunker down, too. When you leave for the day, you (mostly) stop thinking about the company until tomorrow. Even if you hate that life, it’s familiar and predictable.
But remote workers don’t have a predictable daily rhythm. It’s common—and reasonable—for new telecommuters to worry whether they can motivate themselves without an outside social structure.
It’s up to you to establish a daily tempo, to set work priorities, and to know when it’s time to walk away. Or at least to take a shower.
Give Your Day Structure
Just because you don’t follow a standard work ritual doesn’t mean you don’t need one. You might no longer set the alarm clock for 6:05 am, rush for the 7:40 train, and stop at a coffee shop for your daily latte and chocolate donut, but it’s a good idea to give yourself signals that turn work-time on and off.
“It’s easy to lose your regime and work ethic when there’s no clear boundary separating the office and home,” says Stack Overflow’s Haney. “There was a period where I struggled to set a routine and would end up working in my pajamas until 3:00 or 4:00 pm, when I finally found time to take a shower. This is not good for the psyche. Set a schedule and stick with it.”
Many people create a daily schedule that looks much like their colleagues’. Matthew, who works with IT departments on business alignment, made a point of being showered, shaved, worked-out, and ready for the day before the children woke up at 7:00 am. “That way, if (when) an emergency arose, it did not push back my preparation,” he says.
The main reason to create a routine is to help yourself switch contexts and nudge yourself into Work Mode. Robin, a journalist, always gets dressed to go to work, even if it’s just shorts and a t-shirt. Some new freelancers go all-out, putting on the same suit they’d wear if they were driving into the office. They don’t feel like they’re “at work” unless they’re wearing shoes.
Most remote workers develop their own morning rituals over time: Do work email first, spend a half an hour on Facebook and social media, and then have breakfast and get dressed. Let the schedule reflect the times when you are most productive, and when to address the small things that require less attention. You learn it as you go.
“For the first few months, it took some discipline,” says Aaron Sturm, who worked remotely for more than 10 years and now helps early stage technology startups, “But over time, routine sets in, and you just get stuff done.”
One way to give yourself structure and motivation is to use time management techniques. Plan your day. When you know what you need to accomplish, it’s a lot harder to ignore it. And when you’ve crossed off the last item on today’s To Do list, you can “go home”—which might mean turning on the TV.
For example, Matthew builds his schedule at the beginning of every week. “My calendar is my benevolent dictator,” he says. “It knows what is best for me. If it is on the schedule, it takes something special to move it.”
Other people plan one day at a time. “I plan my day either the night before, or the morning of, noting which tasks must be done,” say IT manager Mark. “I block time on the calendar to focus on specific things, such as building an estimate or updating a presentation. And I have scheduled meetings with clients and colleagues.”
The Myth of the Lazy Telecommuter
It’s ironic: companies that prohibit employees from working remotely often do so because they don’t trust people to be self-motivated. But, most successful telecommuters insist: the larger problem is becoming a workaholic.
Mind you, you do need to be a self-starter. “It’s important to be very self-motivated. There’s nobody standing over your shoulder watching you work,” says Stack Overflow’s Haney. “Your home is full of entertainment and distractions, and you could easily find yourself watching eight hours of Netflix each day instead of doing your job.”
However, if you have a hard time focusing on work in a home office, you get over it quickly. You know when you aren’t getting anything done, whether the distraction is a baby crying, the laundry needs washing, or you’re drawn to binge watch the latest season of Orange Is the New Black. In any case, your work suffers and you find yourself back in the office…if you’re lucky.
Far more common for remote workers is a tendency to never “leave work.” Because the best thing about working at home is that you can get up at 4:00 am and go to work; and the worst thing about working at home is that you can get up at 4:00 am and go to work.
“Separating home and work life is difficult when they’re in the same place,” says Dan, a research analyst. “It is very easy to have something pop into your head while you’re sleeping, then get up and work the rest of the night implementing whatever it is that came through.”
“My biggest issue with working remote is ‘going home from work,’ or, stated differently, ‘leaving work at the office,’” adds Brad, an experienced programmer. “It is easy for quitting time to happen, then a few hours later, I’m back working because it is there.”
In one sense, this is a delight—particularly when you love your profession. Yes, you might be super-productive. But if your answer to “Get a life!” is “From where am I supposed to download one?” you can burn out. Your work quality will go downhill and, once more, you’ll be heading back to the office.
You need to find a balance, and to learn when—and how—to walk away from work.
There are outside pressures to be “always-on,” particularly if you feel you have something to prove. System administrator Stevie says, “I wish I had been told, ‘It’s okay to stop at quitting time.’ Since working from home was a privilege, I was more productive so as not to give them any excuse for them to discontinue the practice.”
“Benchmark your quantity of work against a regular-work-hours norm,” suggests Peter, the VP of marketing at a high-tech firm. “It’s easy to think you need to produce insane quantities of work to prove you’re ‘really working.’ Don’t expect anyone, ever, to tell you that you could be doing less. The path of least resistance runs downhill toward saying too much ‘yes’ and ‘no problem’ and ‘Sure, I can make that change [after the kids are in bed?] by morning.’”
That’s another reason to adopt some kind of schedule with the aid of time management tools. The priority-setting helps you manage your own time, not just the company’s. Are you actually working a normal shift, or are you binge working followed by extended slacking? When you work 30 seconds away from your bedroom it is easy to let your schedule go wild. You might still be putting in your 40 hours, but on a schedule that isn’t really healthy or good for the company.
There’s another plus-and-minus: when you work at home, you are far less likely to take a day off when you don’t feel well. You might be too sick to drive into the office, but that doesn’t mean you are too sick to walk across the hall. On the positive side, it means you don’t bring your germs into the office and spread influenza among your coworkers. But that, “I guess I could work…” guilt can encourage you to work when you really should stay in bed. (Not to mention you’ll spend two weeks debugging the code you wrote when you should have called in sick. Fevers of 102 are not conducive to excellent software design.)
Make Your Own Office Space
Telecommuting is a lot easier when you have your own “office space,” a place where work gets done that is set apart from your “living space.” Ideally, it’s a room of one’s own, such as a spare bedroom with a door that closes. But it might be a corner of the family room, or a coffee shop where you’re a regular.
The point is to have a space that is “for work”; a place that you and the people around you know is for that purpose. When you leave that space, you are off the clock, work is done, and it’s personal time.
“Creating a dedicated office space in your home is a great way to stay focused,” says Stack Overflow’s Haney. “It also creates a mental office-home boundary which assists in keeping your regime in check.”
“I don’t do social media in my office; it is where I earn a living. Computer stuff for business and entertainment are kept separately,” says Andrew, an IT administrator. “My wife knows that when I am in my office, I am off limits for jar-opening, cat videos, and the like.”
Feather your nest
One advantage of working from home is that the office can be just the way you like it: quiet or blaring rock-and roll; a picture window or a darkened space without visual distractions; a pristine desk surface or piles of paper that always threaten to fall over (and sometimes do); surrounded by books or sparely decorated. It’s yours. And you don’t need to share it with anyone!
The physical elements of your office usually are fairly simple: a desk, a comfortable chair, high-speed Internet access, and a working computer with good security—just as you’d have in the office.
Don’t forget a printer; you probably won’t need it often, but you no longer have the option of saying, “I’ll print my airline check-in documents when I get to the office.”
If your budget permits, you can invest in the ergonomic equipment you’ve been lusting after, such as a treadmill desk. Try to keep yourself in check at the outset. You probably don’t need as much “stuff” as you think.
However, do spend the money on a comfortable chair and good lighting. Plenty of telecommuters start out with a table on sale at IKEA and a desk lamp from Goodwill. You’re bound to regret it.
After you arrange your desk the way you like it: Turn around and look at the background. You’re very likely to be on camera in videoconferences. What will your colleagues and clients see in the space behind you? A framed photo on the wall? Bookshelves? A handmade quilt? Or the laundry basket in the corner of your bedroom? You might decide to move things around to create the most professional space possible. (It’s another reason for good lighting. Your home office is darker than you realize.)
There are a few other money-related issues to consider beyond the cost of equipment. If you’re a full-time employee, you and your manager need to identify what expenses (if any) the company will pick up. Don’t expect much; most companies assume you’d be paying for Internet access anyway, so they see no reason to underwrite it, but it’s a negotiating point. So is the cost of that desk and ergonomic chair. You usually can get permission to put consumables (such as printer ink) on an expense report. But other expenses are harder to track, such as for the electric bill and heating. Because you’ll be at home all day, those costs go up.
Give some thought to tax deductions, as well. A home office often means you get a tax break, particularly if you’re a freelancer. Consult an accountant; you might be pleasantly surprised with the financial benefits.
Remote working without work-from-home
Sometimes, an actual office isn’t practical. Perhaps your job requires frequent travel. Or there’s no feasible way to cram a desk into your studio apartment. Maybe your living arrangements prohibit a useful private space (because babies cry, or quality Internet access hasn’t made it to your rural area). Or, you know that you go stir crazy when you are cooped up in a single room all day.
If that’s the case, consider finding or creating a workspace outside your home. There’s an entire community of people who work in coffee shops, some of whom are energized by the background noise of people-doing-stuff. The downside is that the etiquette requires you to spend a bit of money on coffee, which also might be more caffeine than you need. And there’s no privacy, which makes business calls and videoconferencing problematical.
Many cities have shared office spaces you can rent. These “coworking” options provide the “everyone is working” environment that you might be missing from a traditional office. These facilities often include a kitchen, conference rooms, private phone booths for videoconferencing, and commercial-quality WiFi. Because members usually are telecommuters and early-stage startups, coworking spaces might include opportunities to network, share resources, and collaborate. Some host weekly events, such as workshops, guest speakers, and happy hours.
But you probably can’t wear your pajamas.
Coping with Isolation
You’re working alone, or at least in a solitary environment. That has its tradeoffs.
On one hand, most remote workers appreciate the opportunity to work without distraction. That’s especially true of introverts, who prefer to limit “chit-chat” and who are worn down emotionally by constant social pressure.
“The water cooler chat magic is overrated and a waste of time,” contends a programmer who telecommutes most of the time. He accomplishes far less on the days he works in the company’s open office. “People are constantly interrupted (both by off-topic conversations as well as by work-related things) and need to stay late (past 40 hours) to finish their tasks,” he says. Plus, because so many things are discussed verbally and in passing, documentation suffers. “If the entire team was remote and utilized more written communications, we’d spend less time rehashing old topics and more time delivering value,” he adds. “As to the spontaneity and ideation of face-to-face, I’ve observed this happening over video chat and Slack just as often as in the office. If people are excited about their work, they talk about it, in person or not.”
“The distractions on-site were unbearable,” adds another software developer. She wearied of the people who felt it was okay to interrupt her (usually when she was in a warm creative haze), and to call her on the phone about unrelated projects (which required context switching). “Working remotely is more efficient because you avoid the random chit-chat,” she says. “Plus, unrelated calls transform themselves into emails which I can open and respond to at a more convenient time.”
Nonetheless, plenty of remote workers suffer from the lack of interaction. The line between “on my own” and “I feel alone” is a fuzzy one. At times, working on your own can make anyone feel lonely, especially if you are an outgoing, gregarious individual.
At some point, you realize that you have no reason to put on makeup, jewelry, or clothes that need to be dry cleaned. Because who’s going to see you? The cats don’t care what you’re wearing.
Phil telecommuted for five years. But, he says socializing regularly was more important than he’d imagined initially. “I was not always properly dressed, and my hygiene routine was not always consistent,” he admits.
Don’t be that person. There are several ways to counter the sense of isolation. We cover some of these topics in more detail later, but the following sections offer a short list of remedies.
Use instant messaging (IM) and videoconferencing to connect with coworkers
These tools exist to make it easier for you to chat with people, whether about work topics or just as folks. You can be as “connected” as you want to be.
Spend time in the office every so often
For some remote workers, that means one day each week. For people on the other side of the country, it might be ten days once a quarter. During the “office time” you can do the in-person team bonding that telecommuting critics decree is so valuable. After you create an in-person relationship, it’s easier to bring it back home. Afterward, if you truly care about your teammates (and surely you do), in the next videoconference you’ll be more willing to show the team your adorable new puppy.
Get up and walk away from the computer
As you create your daily rituals, include a mid-day “up and around.” Walk the dog, drive to child care to pick up the kids, schedule 20 minutes of swim-time as part of your lunch break. (Also, take a lunch break.) “There is no way to sustain five, six, or seven hours of focused time,” says Matthew. “But you can trick your mind into being highly focused for short bursts, particularly later in the day.”
Get out of the house
Find local activities that you enjoy, during which you can interact with other people, such as a regular basketball game, attending a programmer’s meet-up, or organizing a monthly local-writer’s lunch. (That gives you an excuse to wear dry-clean-only clothing, too.)
Don’t let yourself get boring
Happy workaholics can think about work all the time…and nothing else. It’s a good idea to develop a hobby or other activity that helps you to recharge your creative batteries, especially if it lets you connect with other people socially. Sign up for a quilting class. Buy baseball season tickets. Join a fitness club—and be sure that you sign up for a personal trainer.
Do your best to choose activities with a fixed time and place, for which you pay in advance. Because, if you fight workaholic tendencies, you are certain to find yourself saying, “Oh, I must finish this work before the deadline!” and you won’t actually go to the ballpark, fitness club, or quilt shop.
The result of these techniques? You get all the company you want, and little of it if you don’t.
As one startup founder comments, “Between conference calls, Slack, sync, socialCast, flying to the office every four to six weeks, lunch with local customers and field teams, and old friends…I feel more connected than ever.”
Family Not “Getting” That You’re Working
Another real problem—for a subset of telecommuters, anyhow—is that family and friends don’t understand that the key word in “working at home” is working. Because you’re in the house, the housemates believe that surely you are available to do errands and it’s okay to interrupt you for any random conversation.
“The hardest part is family and friends,” says Joe, a VP of corporate communications. “‘Oh, you work from home!’ means you can take the dog to the vet, or you can wait for a delivery, or you can run to the dry cleaners.”
“Family do not comprehend that I’m working. I’m not there to cook, clean, or be your waiter,” complains Jerry, an IT administrator. “Just last week, I said, ‘I have some work to do for a few hours, don’t interrupt me.’ Naturally, I was interrupted every five minutes, even after repeatedly asking to be left alone. And when I was done I had to sleep on the couch because, ‘You ignored me all night.’”
It isn’t just spouses and children who can have the idea that “I see you” means “You’re available, pay attention to meeeeeeee.” Extended family, particularly older relatives, sometimes believe that if you’re at home, you’re unemployed. “My mother would keep telling me about jobs,” says Celeste. “Even though she saw my work.”
Your family might not intend to interrupt you. But children do leave their backpacks at school, dogs bark, teenagers have schoolmates visit (and play dreadful, loud music). It’s no less distracting even if they didn’t mean to bother you. If you need peace and quiet, you need some way to create a safe zone in which to work.
So what do you do? If you’re lucky, you explain the situation, gracefully decline the invitation to be their dogsbody, and they apologize profusely.
“Family not ‘getting’ that you’re working?” says IT manager Mark. “I point out the paycheck.”
If you’re not so lucky, here are a few suggestions.
Work when they aren’t there
Take the kids to school and then focus during the few hours of uninterrupted work time before the children come home. Schedule administrative and other noncreative tasks for the afternoon, while the kids are playing.
That isn’t effective for everyone, but it’s a common way to balance child care and productivity.
Create a signal to let people know “I’m working” and “It’s safe to talk to me again”
When Theresa’s children were young, they were taught to respect the closed door of her office. If Mommy was in the room with the door closed, they learned that they should act as though she weren’t home. If it was open, they could knock.
Not everyone has an actual door, though. It’s up to you to find signals that the people in your household can recognize. Maybe you wear headphones when you’re working. Perhaps you can point out to your spouse that it’s a wise idea to tiptoe when a programming editor is open on your desktop. Turn on a lava lamp when you “go to work” and turn it off when you’re done.
From the telecommuter’s point of view, interruptions are unwelcome—except when they are. It’d be fine for your spouse to ask you a question when you’re on a break, checking out cat videos on Facebook. Deliberately and explicitly discuss how and when it’s okay to ask for your attention.
That doesn’t need to be a physical interruption. Instant messaging works well for this purpose, too. Never mind that you’re sending messages from one room in the house to another. Plenty of spousal messages can be dealt with when you emerge from your creative flow (such as “I made the eye doctor appointment for Saturday”). Unless the need is immediate (“Dinner is burning”) and it should be okay to “bother you.”
Make the family part of your daily routine
Blake’s father has been a full time telecommuter for years. Blake understands when Dad is working, but the problem is that Dad’s always working. “I just wish he would close the laptop, sometimes, and pay attention to me,” said Blake. “He needs to remember to create family time, too.”
Remember the advice to schedule your day? Family time is part of that schedule. Create reasonable expectations, and live up to them. For instance, if you have lunch with the kids at noon every day, they know it’s “their time” and are more likely to respect yours.
“My wife had a challenging time letting me be at work when I was at home,” says network administrator James. “I don’t work well with frequent interruptions, no matter how brief, so it was an issue. I maintained a separate space with a door that I could close. I did not show my face outside that door unless I was on a break.” But, James learned, he could go downstairs for a coffee break. “That would give us 15 minutes or so to chat and to deal with any issues she wanted. We worked out a pretty good routine,” he says.
Wrestling with Childcare and Domestic Chores
One of the true joys of working from home is the ability to do things that otherwise are time-consuming tasks, and they add no negative impact on your day. You can change the laundry loads while you wait for a long file to download. You can put a roast in the oven during a short afternoon break (you needed to get up from your desk anyway), so Tuesday-night dinner doesn’t have to be prepared in 30 minutes after an exhausted day at the office. You can take out the trash while you’re in a “wander around and design” mode. Because you make your own hours, you can go out for a long lunch, and stop at the battery store and the office supply store on the way home. This is the flexibility that makes it all worthwhile!
The domestic chores can be a danger for some people, though. Because you’re home, you see what a mess things are, and that tempts you to shampoo the carpet instead of working on the overdue project. If you’re blocked on a project, it might be tempting to make lunch rather than to struggle with an assignment. And rather than a sandwich for lunch, how about making a lasagna? Starting with made-from-scratch lasagna noodles?
Or, you can go the other way. Because after spending all day in the house, you can go stir-crazy: let me out of here! The last thing you want to do is mop the floor. And with so many project deadlines, housework never seems to creep to the top of the priority list.
“Chores are being neglected,” admits Judith, a faculty research liaison. “The money I earn is so significant that I’ve been known to put off essential household chores (vacuuming, cleaning out litter boxes, grocery shopping), because if I knock off for an hour, that’s one less hour of earning.”
If that’s the case, there’s a simple solution: Hire a house cleaning service. Let someone else pick up after you. You almost certainly earn more per hour than you’d pay the house cleaners. Or, if it works better for you, put house cleaning into your schedule, along with work-related tasks.
Child care is another blessing-and-danger of remote working. On the plus side, you’re closer to your children, in every way. “Having been home for the first seven years of our child’s life is priceless,” says Sturm.
But you cannot prioritize family. If Sally forgot her gym bag, it could take you two hours to get back to work. And how can you possibly not pay attention to your beloved kids? They are a built-in distraction, and impossible to ignore. Especially because they are so amazingly cute!
So, don’t let yourself say, “I’m going to work from home, so I don’t have to hire daycare.” If you want to focus, you need some just-you time.
Working with Other People from Afar
As a telecommuter, you might create your work alone. But in nearly every situation, you’re creating it for someone (such as a client), or with someone (such as a team). You serve more than yourself. So you need to be productive—in the judgment of those who pay you—and you need to make other people happy with your output.
You might like to work remotely because “nobody bothers you.” And largely that’s true. The problem is that you’re still working in some kind of ecosystem with other people: colleagues, bosses, the people who report to you, users. When you’re in the office, they might see how busy you are and how much you accomplish, but when you are outside the office you are invisible.
So even if it is against your solitary nature, you need to make an effort to communicate with and to other people. It’s very much like what you do in an office—only more so.
Staying in Sync with Your Colleagues
Many people—especially task-oriented techies—like to imagine that if they get their work done on time and without fuss, they’ll be appreciated. Sometimes that is true. But when you are on your own, quietly doing your job, it’s far too easy for people to never notice you. That might sound like a good thing (“Hurrah, I can get my work done without them bothering me!”), but it also means that nobody will think to tell you what’s going on.
So when in doubt, communicate. Make a concerted effort to communicate regularly with teammates, management, and other departments. Otherwise, you become isolated and less able to contribute.
Here’s the bottom line: if you’re bad at communicating, remote work will not succeed.
You need to speak up, even if you’re naturally reticent. If you don’t communicate in a remote environment, you don’t exist. It’s incredibly important to let others know what you’re doing and to find out what they are doing. Don’t wait for other people to reach out to you.
A common complaint from remote workers is lack of visibility. Look at it the other way: it is up to you to stay on their radar screens.
Make communication deliberate
It isn’t merely a willingness to communicate. If you can’t express yourself clearly, you’ll always be a day behind. Or, worse: you’ll spend a day working on a task that is no longer relevant.
Communication should be regular, ongoing, explicit, and in depth. That’s why nearly every remote team establishes a way to communicate asynchronously—something beyond email—with regular check-ins. It might be a shared online chat room, instant messaging, or phone calls, but the key element is making it easy to ask the team, “Hey, does anybody happen to know if…?”
“As someone who has worked remotely for five years, I can say that a big reason that it works for us is the willingness of everyone to make time for collaboration,” says an IT analyst named Tony. “For our team (mostly writers, consultants, analysts), this means picking up the phone and having conversations with one another constantly.”
For most creative people, the best options are immediate but not too immediate. You can finish writing a block of code before you respond to your teammate’s question. And yet you’re right there for when someone truly needs you now.
“I find remote collaboration with shared screens and headsets much more productive than sitting next to each other,” says one developer. “You can quickly jump back and forth between the shared screen and other activities while collaborating. We also do this even when being in the same room, just because the screen sharing is so powerful compared to physically sharing a display and a keyboard. Also, you can quickly and effortlessly call in any number of people and everyone can easily read everything on the screen. I find this perfect for mentoring, pair programming, demonstrations, meetings, and so on. You don’t need to go fetch your coworkers and drag them to your desk to show them something.”
Every stock photo that illustrates “collaboration” shows a room full of shiny, happy people clustered around a whiteboard, as if teams spend all their time together. In truth, the way we work together balances ongoing communication and autonomy. Working remotely makes that eminently clear.
It’s critical for remote workers to be autonomous. You need to know what the project goals are, your part in bringing them to fruition, and each step in making that happen.
In particular, you need the freedom to make decisions. Otherwise, you are bound to find yourself in a perpetual decision lag while you wait for a manager to sign off or a colleague to send you files. You need enough direction that you can work asynchronously, especially if you work in a different time zone than the rest of your team.
But it’s rare for anyone to go into a cave to work on a project and emerge 30 days later with a stupendous product. Teams work together, and the best results come from true collaboration: brainstorming, correcting, asking for clarification, divvying up tasks, celebrating victories.
Share more information than you think you need to; err on the side of Too Much Information, at least to begin with. Be very clear about your work schedule, including the times you aren’t available. Report on your progress regularly. Tell your correspondents when you need to hear back from them, and offer them the same courtesy.
“My direct supervisor in San Francisco is so overworked,” says Judith, a faculty research liaison who telecommutes on weekends from the east coast. “She often doesn’t get around to answering the email questions I send on the weekend until much later in the week.” That can be a frustrating blockage to getting the work done.
Emphasize clarity in your communication
One way to cope with communication time lags is to improve your own writing. Be precise, especially about the problem to be addressed, the information needed, and deadlines. Outline the problem and empower the reader to provide a tangible solution. Try to anticipate the next step and what actions would be taken based on the answers you expect to receive.
To best use flexible work hours, be precise with people about deadlines. If your teammate wants something on Friday, it might mean “when I get to work on Friday, in my time zone” or “as long as it’s on my desk Monday morning, we’re good.” When making or extracting promises, therefore, use unambiguous language to avoid unpleasant differences of opinion and much pouting.
As a simple example, don’t ask, “Can we meet on Tuesday?” Instead, say, “Can we meet on Tuesday? I have an opening at 10:00 am PT and another at 1:00 pm PT.”
In the effort to provide a lot of information, you might write long e-mail messages—and plenty of people are scared off by a wall of text. If that’s the case, begin the message with a summary, with the detail to follow. (“The bottom line: I think we should attend the conference in Helsinki, because it presents unique marketing opportunities. The rest of this message explains why, and lays out the costs. We do need to move fast on this, so I hope you can give me a decision by the time we talk in our one-on-one on Wednesday.”)
Improve your meeting management skills
Although email and chat applications can accomplish a great deal, they don’t always serve the need. Expect many phone and conference calls, likely more than in the office. They become your lifeline socially as well as for project management, so it behooves you as well as your colleagues to do a better job with them.
The most difficult situation is when you’re the only remote worker, and your teammates are gathered around a single conference room table—with you on a crappy speakerphone. “It’s sometimes hard to be heard,” says Melanie, an editor. “If someone interrupts, that’s it, you’re through. At one particularly boisterous weekly meeting, I brought a bell to ring into the phone so they’d make space for me to speak.”
It’s a lot easier to hold a meeting on the phone or in a shared videoconference when everyone is remote, or at least when there are two or three people dialing in. In those situations, all the meeting participants are aware of the need to virtually look around the table.
To some degree, you can address the “Hey what about me!” issues by creating a deliberate workflow. If it’s a morning status meeting, make it a practice to “go around the table” and let each individual talk. On a phone call, ask people to announce who they are when they begin speaking (“This is Julie. I had an idea about the new design spec…”) so that the listeners don’t spend time wondering, “Who is it who just trashed my suggestion?”
But good luck making that stick. Phone etiquette weaknesses are among the reasons that videoconferences usually are better options despite the often-annoying technical foibles.
You can’t always get people to listen to you, but you can and should do a few things to help them to hear you.
Get a good quality headset and speaker
If people struggle to discern what you’re saying, you’re already at a disadvantage. You might not realize that it sounds like you’re talking in a bucket, but if that’s the case, it diminishes your authority. Good active noise-cancelling headsets aren’t that expensive, and they improve your professional presentation.
Manage the background noise
You can’t soundproof your home office, but do your best to have a quiet background. Close the door on barking dogs and the children watching cartoons on TV.
Your Career Path: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Some people resist working outside the office because they see telecommuting as a limit on upward mobility. And that’s a real concern. “Most of my promotions and moves were because I would walk back from a meeting with an executive and talk about what was discussed and express interest in taking ownership. These walk-and-talks are the only availability in an exec’s schedule,” says Harvey, a software developer. “I tried to get time with an exec remotely and it was a full two months before I could get any time; and since it was scheduled, it wasn’t ad hoc and was overly formal (‘What would you like to discuss?’).” Harvey concluded that remote workers are fine for defined single tasks. “But for dynamic workers that move about the company and immerse themselves in lots of projects and want upward mobility, I can’t recommend it,” he says.
That’s not only a matter of getting promotions. You don’t get regular feedback and you can miss out on important conversations. “I feel like I have less clout in the office,” says another developer. “When it comes to product design and company policy decisions, I am often left sitting on my hands while everyone else chats about it in the office.”
Or, as the cynical Charles puts it, “You have to be physically present in an office because it’s a display of fealty. You roll over and expose your belly to the bosses every time you smile, nod, and laugh at their completely pointless vocal interruptions that could have been handled asynchronously over chat or email. That fealty is what gets you promoted, and it’s way harder to signal fealty when you work remotely. Taking selfies of you laying on your back on the floor at home with your belly exposed is probably not a good substitute.”
So, what to do? Once again: communicate.
You might not care about being upwardly mobile. If you’re a software architect and you’re happy to continue in that role for another 10 years, you probably are glad to avoid much of the office politics. (Just let me work, okay?)
Yet, even though you might be astonishingly productive working from home, people in the office might not realize it. You’re the wheel that doesn’t squeak and thus never is oiled.
“It becomes too easy to work independently to the point where management loses touch with your activities, progress, and contributions,” says one project manager. That’s one reason he recommends scheduling regular “cadence calls” with managers and teams.
For telecommuters, team status meetings and management one-on-ones are vital. “I sync up with the bosses every few weeks,” says IT manager Mark. “And we have functional staff meetings weekly or biweekly.”
Maybe your manager adores you. Your teammates look up to you. But if other people in the company are unaware of your achievements, they won’t think of you when it comes time to hand out bonuses, raises, or promotions. Or worse. Because not everyone is convinced that it was a wise idea to let you work outside the office.
“The biggest issue is a perception by others—particularly management—that you do less when they can’t see you,” sighs one remote worker. “Old-school companies are still run by the old factory-setting mentality of, ‘I need to see how busy you are to know you’re working.’ They are not used to a metric system based entirely on the results you produce, not how busy you appear.”
“My boss unfortunately has to defend me working at home to the other VPs in the company,” says Josh, a system administrator. “Their perception is that when I am at home, I must not be working. I have never done anything to give them this impression.”
Yet again, it’s a reason to over-communicate, with more detail than you think is necessary. Show accomplishments. List the items you worked on. Highlight measurable results. And, if that doesn’t seem to work, talk about it directly.
“Often, problems are based on a manager’s ‘gut feeling’ and not hard evidence,” says Bryce, an IT professional. “Asking pointed questions about the manager’s concerns and insisting on clearly defined objective ways to measure performance are the best way to help build trust,” he says. Once those are in place, you can review them with the manager: “I’ve met—and in some areas exceeded—your expectations. Help me understand why you’re still uncomfortable with me working remotely.”
Time Zone Issues
If you work with people in other geographic locations, your ability to create a workable daily rhythm can be affected by your colleagues’ time zones. When you work with colleagues and clients in China, India, Europe, and the US, it’s a struggle to find a convenient time to collaborate and to be productive. Meetings and design discussions are difficult on those schedules, especially when you need to make a decision about smaller issues, the kind for which a quick back-and-forth would settle the matter in 30 minutes if everyone were in the same room.
Even if you work in a traditional office, that’s an issue. West-coast workers need input from east-coast clients, for example, and sometimes that information need is realized after hours. If the relationship is ongoing, the external staff often shift their schedules to adjust to the primary team’s time zone. If one team member is in India and another is in San Francisco, there’s never going to be a convenient time; the only way to be fair is to bop back and forth so that everyone has the opportunity to be (equally) inconvenienced. If the teams are 12 hours apart (which is the case for a team split between India and San Francisco), some meetings should be at 7:00 am and others should be at 7:00 pm.
“We have employees located all over the world, from Japan to Europe and the Philippines,” says Stack Overflow’s Haney. “Time zones are challenging but can be overcome by embracing asynchronous communication (via chat apps, e-mail, and so on—methods that don’t require a real-time, immediate reply).”
Time zones can work to your advantage, too. Some people are naturally more productive early in the morning. Others are night owls. As long as everyone understands exactly when you all need to be “together” in the virtual office, such as a weekly team status meeting, you don’t have to care.
The flip side of this is that people think that because you’re obviously “always there” you are always at work, contributing to the workaholism mentioned earlier. Everyone expects you to be available whenever they need you. If a boss is in an east-coast office at 10:00 am, she might decide to call the west-coast contributor anyway; the old-style thinking says, “I’ll just get his voice mail.” Except if the boss calls at 7:00 am, you’re motivated to answer. Who dares to not answer a call from the boss?
Everyone needs to set expectations about when it’s time to knock off for the day and just how early someone can reasonably set a meeting. Set boundaries with yourself. Establish expectations with your boss or clients about when you will and won’t be online. Be kind to one another. It’s okay for a Midwest company to schedule a meeting at 9:00 am, which means 7:00 am for the employee on the West Coast, but only if there really isn’t a better time.
A more frustrating challenge is for consultants and freelancers. If you have clients in multiple time zones, you likely will work longer hours. East-coast consultants get up early for the offshore folks and work late for their clients on the West Coast.
This, too, can become part of a sane daily rhythm. PR professional Brenda lives on the U.S. East Coast. “My east-coast clients get attention in the morning and west-coast in the afternoon,” she says.
Using Technology Wisely
Technology makes it possible—or at least easier—to work remotely. In the 1980s, I knew someone who lived on a remote island and made a good living by writing regular 40-page financial analyses for clients around the world. The reports were generated with a desktop publisher and then faxed—one at a time—to a subscriber list. They took most of a day to distribute, but it worked. Nowadays, she could send a PDF to a private email distribution list in about 10 minutes.
Fortunately, technology has become faster, more reliable, and more powerful. Which is great…right until it isn’t.
Technology Is Your Friend—Usually
Every so often, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to appreciate how much power we have at our fingertips. We can work from a coffee shop in Thailand, use a search engine from an airplane in the middle of the ocean, and collaborate with brilliant people who are on the other side of the world from us. Isn’t that cool?
Yet, we also must make sure that technology does not get in the way. That still happens far too often—and if you’re stuck in a home office without a “support dude,” it becomes harder to fix the problem.
The first issue is determining who owns what. “You need to hash out in the beginning what is company owned, what is yours, and how to determine future needs and items,” says Tyler, an IT support specialist. This might be obvious if you’re an employee, but less so if you’re a contractor. And incredibly important if the business is security conscious about personal and business files residing on the same hardware, to the point at which a client might provide its own laptop for work done on its behalf.
Whether you’re a geek yourself or a mere mortal, you almost certainly need to depend on someone to fix tech problems. Or, more likely, you have to become your own tech support. Are you up for that?
It helps a lot when you have an IT department that is ready and able to support you. But even when they’re enthusiastic and experienced, troubleshooting is difficult, because the support staff can’t see what’s (not) happening on your screen.
That’s particularly difficult with hardware issues. All too often the only solution is to ship the laptop back to headquarters, which means you’re without a computer for several days. That’s far from ideal.
Plus, working with your employer’s tech support is just like working with other teams: communicating problems isn’t always easy, especially for nontechies who are sure, “It must be my fault.” Explains one tech support specialist, users are polarized about reaching out for help. “Some users who elected to work at home would hesitate to send tickets for any reason, either because they thought they were ‘being too needy’ or that ‘emails wouldn’t get answered because it’s Friday and everyone is working at home,’” he says. At the other extreme are those who panic easily. “We would get tickets about the most trivial things, but with the added qualifier, ‘I wasn’t sure what to do because I’m not in the office.’ This was usually frustrating for different reasons, since these fixes were usually run-of-the-mill things that our staff was trained to deal with.”
Here are some of the most common problems you’re apt to encounter:
- Flaky Internet access
- Consumer-grade Internet drops occasionally without warning or a whimper. If you can justify the cost of business-quality Internet (which promises faster support from the provider), install it.
- Printing remotely
- It’s easier to get an inexpensive printer for a home office. Either that, or you’ll end up emailing a coworker to ask him to print the document locally.
- Network connectivity
- Setting up virtual private networks (VPNs) can be especially problematical, and generally you need a tech support person’s help. “I finally gave up on screenshots and videos,” said one support technician. “I just remote into the user’s computer, set up the client, and then have the user connect repeatedly until I think he understands what he is doing.”
- Software that works fine in the office, but not over the VPN
- This occurs sometimes with commercial applications, but appears to be more troublesome with less-wonderfully-designed in-house corporate software. Often, there’s no reasonable fix, except to use another application. Good luck getting Corporate to make an exception just for you.
- Application training
- Someone announces that the company has adopted a spiffy new online application to solve a business problem (conducting online surveys, virtual meetings, expense tracking) but nobody bothers to teach anyone how to use it—in the office or otherwise. In-office, people teach each other the features as they go (“I figured out how to change the graphs”), but that information may not be disseminated. One solution is to assign someone on each team to learn the ins-and-outs and give a five-minute “least you need to know” demo in a weekly meeting.
Ultimately, most remote workers become their own tech support. That covers everything from changing printer cartridges to figuring out how to get the company’s custom time-tracking application’s reporting system to generate the right data.
Technology to Help You Work
Happily, managing technology woes has become much easier with the advent of cloud computing. With Software as a Service (SaaS), mobile applications, and other Internet-based tools, team members can access the company’s software from anywhere, whether it’s customer relationship management (CRM), word processing, file repositories, content management systems, or expense reporting.
Naturally, each profession has its own unique needs, such as software developers’ bug tracking software or marketers’ social-media management tools. However, there are categories of applications that are especially valuable for mobile, distributed teams.
“Talk constantly” tools
Email is wonderful, but it’s not an immediate way to reach someone. A message can languish in an inbox all day while the message-writer anxiously gnaws on her nails waiting for a response. Plus, email is inherently a conversation between two people; adding more recipients only makes a decision-making process more complex.
For remote working, some form of semi-instant, lightweight communication is a must. It could be instant messaging, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Slack, WhatsApp, Microsoft Lync, Basecamp—you have dozens of choices. What they have in common is that they each provide a private, secure space online where people working together can organize and discuss everything they need to get a project done.
One reason these tools are so beloved is that they minimize interruption. At one extreme is email; you can ignore your email all day, and senders don’t even know if you ever received their messages. At the other extreme, a phone call must be answered right now—even if you’re halfway through writing a sentence. Chat tools hit the Goldilocks “just right” spot. You can note that someone asked a question and then finish writing the paragraph before you respond.
With collaboration tools, you can quickly see if a coworker is busy in another session, or set your own status to “busy” if you need to work uninterrupted for a while. This is impossible when you work in the same physical location, because people pop in and interrupt you with a “quick” question, derailing your thoughts.
Chat tools have their own protocols, though. “The hardest part about managing a remote workforce is the propensity for terse communication,” says Dylan Schiemann, CEO of all-remote software development shop Sitepen. “Often times, people are chatting, trying to quickly accomplish something or just giving quick answers, through nonverbal communication channels; these can come off harshly or seem to lack empathy. It’s important to remember the person sitting at the other end of the interweb is not a bot and to recognize how they may be perceiving certain things.”
If the software lets you maintain multiple discussion channels, use them. Workwise, that means you can organize channels by project, which lets someone who was away catch up by scrolling through recent conversations. But a “water cooler” channel, where people are encouraged to share their personal experiences, is even more valuable. Conversations that begin with “What did you think of the latest Star Wars movie?” and “Oh you won’t believe what my puppy just did!” build camaraderie and human connections. And, because team members can pop in on their own schedules, the banter is never a distraction from getting real work done.
The always-on chat needs to have team conventions. For example, each team member, whether in the office or remote, needs to let other people know, “I’ve gone to lunch.” Otherwise people will wonder why you didn’t answer a question (which can feed those assumptions of you goofing off). Most teams create abbreviations (e.g., “otl” for out to lunch) so that it’s never really a hardship; it’s actually more useful than wandering over to someone’s office cubicle only to discover that he isn’t at his desk.
Although you can have plenty of meetings by telephone, videoconferencing improves the telecommuting experience significantly. Use them for one-on-one meetings, daily standup meetings, and other times when “Let’s just talk this through” is the most expedient way to resolve an issue. Again, there are plenty of tool choices, with Skype and Google Hangouts being the most popular.
Most obviously: It’s easier to develop a relationship with someone you see face-to-face, with all the non-verbal cues we expect.
“Isolation is mitigated by things like our Weekly Beverage Bash during which both remote and on-site employees get together to talk and have a beverage of their choice,” says Stack Overflow’s Haney. “We also mitigate this by using Google Hangouts so that you can see the people you’re talking with rather than just hearing them on conference calls.”
Less obviously: Videoconferencing avoids many of the problems with speakerphone-based calls, such as people in the office not realizing you’re waving your hand and trying to get their attention. Most video tools let you share a screen, too, so that you’re all looking at the same material.
Distributed file sharing
Cloud tools make file sharing and storage a lot easier. Yet again you have plenty of products to consider, such as DropBox, Microsoft OneDrive, Druva inSync, and Box.
Whereas you might not need collaborative document-sharing tools (such as Google Apps’ ability to let multiple people type on the same file concurrently), everyone needs to know where to look for files. A single place to store files means team members aren’t searching around to find the most recent version.
As a related note: Make sure that every team member’s computer is equipped with backup software, and that it works. Otherwise the company’s data is at risk.
Project management and other tracking applications
Collocated teams use tools to track project progress, too. But they’re even more important when people work remotely, for several reasons.
To begin with, remote workers are more autonomous. If they know what they’re doing, a manager can leave them alone to do it. However, the manager still needs to know what has been accomplished, and team members need to be aware of a task’s status.
Tools to record and track project status provide another benefit: they document issues, decisions, and conversations. That’s not a cover-your-butt feature (though it can be, if things go sour). Rather, it’s an advantage over teams that depend on hallway conversations to come up with innovative ideas, because telecommuters have a history of what was said, promised, and planned. That matters, as well, when it comes to exiting employees leaving behind an expertise knowledgebase.
Yet another advantage: tracking tools encourage you to over-document accomplishments, which is another way to communicate to management that you’re not lolling in your living room watching soap operas.
Ideally, your project tool has some kind of reporting or dashboard that lets everyone—manager and team members—glance at it to see where things stand. In software development terms, this might be a Kanban board; or it might be an editorial calendar or a shared Google Docs spreadsheet.
The idea is to use the software to provide status-related answers, instead of needing to start another conversation. Questions like, “Hey where do we stand on that bug fix?” or “When is my expense check scheduled to be paid?” ought to be answered by the questioner looking up the answer in the shared application. That’s far better than asking people to write a weekly status email, which nobody reads anyway.
Besides, someone tapping your elbow constantly to ask for status updates can feel—on the receiving end—as micromanagement and distrust. You need to let people work without distractions (in the office or otherwise). And these kinds of tracking tools make it a little easier to do so.
The Manager’s View
Whether you’re a new team lead or an experienced CEO, you need to inspire the people who report to you.
Remote working doesn’t create new issues, but it exposes existing ones. Telecommuting managers need to plan everything, track everything relevant, and control the conditions for career and team progression. “Remote working accelerates the consequences of managerial weaknesses,” one IT manager says. “What would have tanked a company in five years can tank it in five weeks. But the positive is that as soon as a remote setup has been successfully established, there is an organization insanely streamlined, efficient, and competitive.”
Remote work largely is incompatible with micromanaging. If you don’t trust the ability of your remote staff to make their own decisions, the team is likely to underperform and fall apart. In fact, the team’s success is strongly influenced by your own confidence.
Among the skills needed for managing a remote team is a results-driven mentality. If, in your heart, you want to see people being “busy,” you depend on “hallway design meetings” to result in useful brainstorms, and you need visual feedback that employees are working, you are bound to have a difficult time.
So, as a manager, consider how you measure progress, and the metrics you (and the employee) believe works as a yardstick.
Meetings Matter, More Than Ever
Team meetings and one-on-ones are part of a manager’s job, no matter where you work. But they are especially important for remote workers, because they are the individual’s primary connection to the company.
Hold regular status meetings
It’s important for team members to regularly sync up, share status reports, give guidance, and cheer successes. For telecommuters in particular, when everyone is working on his own schedule, you need to recalibrate the priorities every so often.
The manager needs to share business and project status downstream, and make sure that everybody has accurate data to work with, particularly when remote workers don’t get the office scuttlebutt (“You might have heard that David is leaving. Let me tell you what’s going on, because I don’t want any of you to worry.”).
SitePen has a Monday morning, all-hands, Web conference. “We cover company news and highlights, our priorities, and goals for the upcoming week,” says Schiemann. Everyone participates. “We go around the virtual circle and each team member (engineers, c-levels, sales, project managers, designers, etc.) answers the question of the week, tells everyone about their weekend and anything else they’d like to share. ‘The question of the week are questions like, “If you are what you eat, what food would you be?’ or ‘What was the most life-altering decision you’ve ever made?’ or ‘Tell us about the best meal you’ve ever had.’”
Most small teams have a quick daily check-in as well, to talk about immediate tasks. Videoconferencing works well for this. Here’s one helpful technique: get a video camera to point at the in-office team, so the remote workers can see who’s talking.
Similarly, regular one-on-one meetings between manager and employee matter for personal productivity and human reasons, just as they do in the office. Only more so, for remote workers, for all the reasons of isolation discussed earlier. Coaching needs to be more deliberate, because you can’t look over the worker’s shoulder and offer suggestions.
“Feedback is important to me, but nearly nonexistent,” confesses Emily. “I’m not sure whether I’m doing well or terribly, so I try to assume the best.”
Hold regular in-person meetings
If you want a healthy team culture, the best way to go about it is to put people in the same room. For many companies that means time set aside for office visits. Bring everyone in for a week, once a quarter. Ask the PR person to spend three days in the office every eight weeks.
“On one telecommuting job, I agreed to spend one week in the office every two months,” says Sara, a content writer. “I showed up one Monday morning, and the web designer greeted me with an enthusiastic hug. ‘We don’t hug everybody every Monday!’ Yelena said. ‘But I’m glad to see you.’ I realized then that the schedule was perfect: Yelena knew me well enough to care that I was there, but it was still special for me to be in the office.”
You can work out the best cadence for your team, but never make it less often than quarterly. And never cancel these visits, no matter how tight money gets. That’s a clear message to the telecommuter that being fired will be the next cost-cutting measure.
Some of the value is cultural. But for creative knowledge workers who want to concentrate on their tasks, in-person gatherings also are a good way to hold mind-meld meetings, whiteboard brainstorming, training sessions, and other activities that benefit from personal interaction. Then, the telecommuter can go back home to implement all the ideas discussed, without fear of being interrupted.
“I usually shoot for about 10 percent of my time being spent on-site in 1 to 2 week chunks,” says Nathan, a lead programmer, “perhaps a little more right after joining a new team.” Each visit usually includes a team dinner and drinks, to create personal connections for those virtual “water cooler chats” later on. “Every three months,” adds Nathan, “We retreat to remind staff of our mission and make sure staff is getting the fulfillment they want.”
The team gatherings don’t have to be at the office. For example, social-media tools company Buffer has multiple retreats per year, where it gathers the whole team in a single location.
Build a Management Culture That Supports Remote Work
In some organizations, the business process already is aligned with the philosophies behind remote work: trust experts to know their jobs, empower them to make decisions, establish good lines of communication, and then get out of the way. But that isn’t the case for every company.
“Our culture and processes within the company are not very well equipped to accommodate remote workers,” says a software architect whose company prohibits telecommuting. “We’re spread across two sites (one of which is a factory), and communication is difficult enough as it is.”
“A company must embrace remote work from the top down in order for it to be successful,” says Stack Overflow’s Haney. “Some companies carry a stigma around working from home, in which it is perceived as slacking or negative when one of your coworkers takes advantage.”
Whether you have a single remote worker or the entire team is distributed, set up the company to make remote workers equal citizens: Remote First. For example, employees who sit right next to one another should chat in the Slack channel, not face-to-face.
“I have a rule that my team must telecommute,” says a manager named Kevin. “Everyone on the team (with few exceptions) must telecommute at least one day a week. I don’t want to lose people or lose out on ones that would be great, because we don’t know how to handle remote employees. I have remote workers now that are vital to the team, and we all need to know the pain points they suffer, so we can fix it.”
Learn to mentor remotely
Some companies are loathe to support telecommuting because they feel it’s more difficult to manage junior staff members. Their conclusion is that requiring everyone to work in the office makes it easier for experienced workers to pass along their expertise.
Admittedly, in person you can observe when a newbie is struggling, often before the employee realizes it herself. But that doesn’t mean you can’t mentor juniors remotely.
For instance, Eddie’s team has three senior developers, two intermediate-level developers, and three junior members. “Even before we hired the juniors we always had GoToMeeting up all day. We conversed throughout the day and worked together on projects. It’s more imperative to help the junior guys, so we usually pair someone up one-to-one with them on a separate call to mentor them on a project.” Eddie hasn’t felt the need for a physical office except as an occasional meeting space.
Mentoring isn’t just between the manager and employee. Arrange for data dumps, “lunch and learn” sessions, and other opportunities for team members to share information with one another. Buffer has a weekly “mastermind” meeting where two employees have in depth introspective discussions on their long term goals. The aim is to create a situation for employees to get the support needed to promote personal development.
Hiring tips for remote teams
Finding someone who is technically qualified for the job, a good team fit, and suitable to work remotely adds another level of complexity to the hiring process.
Certainly, you won’t lack for applicants. Advertising a job for which someone can work remotely makes you more appealing to a wider range of talent. According to research from staffing firm Robert Half, “Companies that offer perks to help with work-life balance, such as generous vacation policies or the ability to telecommute, have a recruiting edge.”
Groovy. But how do you know whether a particular candidate is a self-starter, can cope with the challenges of working alone, and has the communication skills required to make telecommuting a success?
Rickie, who’s worked on a 100 percent remote team for four years, says to look for people who are highly efficient, organized, responsible, disciplined, and able to stay on task with limited oversight. “They should be self-starters with numerous projects they can point to that they delivered on their own,” adds Rickie.
Hire people who are able to communicate effectively in writing. Relying on email and Slack means that you need people who can communicate quickly and succinctly, and yet still remain humble over those media.
Start by asking these seven questions:
Have you ever telecommuted before?
Tell me about your (home) work environment.
How comfortable are you with troubleshooting connectivity?
How do you structure your day?
How do you prefer to communicate with colleagues?
Tell me about your remote project-tracking experience.
What are your concerns about working for this team as a telecommuter?
…Or, really, by turning each section in this document into a question about their experience with each telecommuting challenge.
One cultural note: it’s okay to pay attention to the job candidate’s accent. If it’s difficult to understand a nonnative speaker on the phone, it might be even worse during regular conference calls. That isn’t to say you should turn down a marvelous candidate because you can’t figure out what she’s saying, but…you can’t figure out what she’s saying.
Beyond the Remotest Chance for Success
Telecommuting is an incredible way to work. It empowers individuals, encourages team diversity, and minimizes distraction. And, ultimately, it can make people more productive. According to a 2013 Cisco-sponsored study by the University of Melbourne and the NZ Work Research Institute, employees who work at home one to three days per week are more productive than those who don’t telework at all. “Our study confirms that flexible work is a way for managers to invest in the wellbeing of their workers, increasing productivity, job satisfaction, and retaining talented workers,” notes Rachelle Bosua of the University of Melbourne.
Sturm was asked, “What do you wish someone had told you about telecommuting before you tried it?” He didn’t hesitate. “To do it sooner. I wasted 15 years of my life under florescent lights that I can’t get back.”