6 Months of Working Remotely Taught Me a Thing or Ten
Peter Anglea Aug 28, 2017
Six months ago, I started as a Senior Front-End Developer for Helix Education. Most of what I do now is identical to what I did for my past employer—making websites, writing code, collaborating with writers and designers, and all while navigating the choppy waters of higher education.
The only difference is that now I’m working remotely. In fact, I’m not even in the same time zone as most of my coworkers.
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into my first remote job. I did a lot of research before taking the plunge. Ultimately, though, I wasn’t sure if it would be as glamorous as others made it out to be, or if I would find it counterproductive to working, learning, and performing to the best of my abilities.
As it turns out, it’s a mixed bag. A lot of positives… and some negatives. If you’re a remote employee (or considering a remote job), here are my top ten tips that I’ve gleaned in the last six months.
1. Be as available as possible
This is probably the best piece of advice I received from a friend prior to starting my new job. Things move quickly back at the home office, and since you’re not there, there’s a built-in delay for someone wishing to communicate with you.
If it always takes hours for someone to get your ear for just a minute, you’ll build a reputation as someone who’s “never around”—even if only subconsciously—among your coworkers.
As a remote employee, you have to work harder at being available to avoid the impression that you’re never available.
Strive to build a reputation as someone who is quick to respond. Be eager to hear the latest developments on projects so that you’re never out of sync with everyone else in your office.
Sometimes there are time zones that separate you. I’m two hours ahead of the rest of my team. If it’s not possible to align your working hours with those of your team, make sure there’s a clear expectation for when you will be at your desk, and be there. Use your alone hour(s) to be as productive as you can be so that you can spend time communicating with others later. Speaking of communication…
2. Communicate clearly
You may find a majority of your communication happens over chat, Slack, HipChat, text messages, (GitHub commit messages?) and the like as opposed to face-to-face conversation. With non-verbals and facial expressions removed from the equation, miscommunication is just waiting to happen.
Until your coworkers get a chance to really know you, avoid sarcasm to prevent misunderstandings. Read what you write before you hit “Send” to make sure it can’t be easily misread in a different mood or tone of voice.
When talking via video conference, exercise brevity and conciseness with your words. The occasional “glitch” in the video can cause words to get cut off and can leave people confused or asking for clarification. Also, smile. It improves your face value.
3. Go out of your way to be human
Spend time getting to know your coworkers—especially if you’re coming into a new job with new people you’ve never met before. Don’t make every conversation just about work.
Ask your coworkers how they’re doing, what the weather is like, or what the mood in the office is like lately (without being too nosey). You won’t be around the office to hear the banter and water cooler conversations.
Unless you make a concerted effort to be a part of what’s going on, your coworkers’ birthdays will come and go, people will leave the company, important announcements will be made… and you’ll miss it all.
4. Offer praise and positive sentiments early and often
You will also need to go out of your way to foster a sense of teamwork. You won’t be around to share the little daily “wins” with the rest of the team, but having positive relationships with your coworkers is essential to being able to do your job well.
Some of your coworkers may not communicate with you very often; in those cases make sure what little they do hear from you is positive and optimistic. This all goes back to the fact that you need to work actively to shape others’ impressions of yourself. And no one like a Negative Nellie.
5. Create a comfortable space conducive to productivity
The idea of being able to work from your favorite coffee shop everyday is tempting to wannabe remote employees… but it’s also extremely impractical. I am three times as productive when I’m sitting at my normal desk at home (which incidentally lets me work on three times as many screens—laptop + 2 external). Get out every now and then for a change of scenery if it’s needed, but ultimately you’ll work best if you shun the nomadic life.
Also, don’t work out of your bedroom. You absolutely need to separate your work and personal lives (and taking a nap on your bed is just too tempting). If possible, have a dedicated space in your home where you can be productive, work undisturbed (especially important if you have kids… or an attention-starved kitten like I do), and leave at the end of the work day.
To keep from being too sedentary, I recommend getting an adjustable sitting/standing desk. I’ve also invested in a ball chair which helps me burn more calories, have better posture, and just keeps things more interesting overall.
6. Put your pants on
Another good piece of advice from another friend who has worked remotely for a long time (bonus tip: you can learn a lot by asking people their advice) is to get completely ready in the morning. Make your bed. Fix your hair. Get dressed (completely—yes, that means pants). Just because they might only see your face via video chat doesn’t mean you should get that comfortable.
You might consider holding yourself to the same dress standards as the others in the office — you don’t want to be known as “that guy who works in his pajamas all day.” Putting yourself together at the start of the day will put you in a productive mood and help you fight lazy tendencies from the get-go.
7. Go outside
Even if you enjoy the solitary life (I include myself here), resist the inevitable tendency to become a hermit. I realized there were some days I didn’t even go outside the house—not even once.
Go check your mail (I mean the physical mailbox… outside). Walk around the block on your lunch hour. And on the weekends, try to do something away from home, even if it’s running errands.
A quick, brisk walk and some sunshine will do wonders for your productivity, boost your mental health, and maybe get the creative juices flowing again when you’ve hit a wall.
On a related note, when you’re done working, leave work (and don’t come back if you can help it). It’s harder to “leave work at work” when “work” is just in the other room. But try not to return to your desk. At the end of the day, make a list of things you want to accomplish tomorrow, and then wait until tomorrow to do it. This is another reason why it’s ideal to have a dedicated space in your home just for your “office.”
8. Turn on your camera
You can’t foster the right kinds of relationships if you seclude yourself and only ever talk over the phone. People need to see your face to connect with you. A friend told me once that he can never get one of his remote employees to turn on his webcam for their team meetings. As a result, he has very little insight into this guy’s life.
9. Work on more than one project at a time
You read that right. It might sound counter-intuitive to “burn the candle from both ends,” so to speak, but when you work remotely, you can’t always get someone’s attention right away when you need a roadblock cleared. Always have something else you can work on while you’re waiting for a response from a teammate.
Communication is almost always slower when you’re remote — be forewarned and plan your work accordingly.
10. Take advantage of the perks… and be responsible
I won’t lie—there are a lot of perks to working from home. This isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. You’re saving time and money in ways that your commuting coworkers aren’t. So, don’t flaunt it (no one likes working with that person).
Use your extra time to your benefit and that of your company and coworkers. Since you don’t have to fight traffic for an hour every morning, you could choose to get that extra sleep if you need it—but then show up and work hard when you’re at your desk. You could also choose to use at least part of that time reading, listening to podcasts, or learning a new skill.
Working remotely is a privilege. It isn’t always ideal, but it can be incredibly rewarding. Know the potential pitfalls and make a concerted effort to compensate for them. You will be more productive, have better relationships with your coworkers, and make your employer look great.
Back to work.
And for goodness sakes, put your pants on.
Thanks for reading! What are your best remote working tips? Leave a comment or follow me on Twitter at @peteranglea and start a conversation.