Working remotely, or telecommuting, is becoming much more common as high-speed internet is widely available and also as employers (or clients) start to realize that the talent they so desperately need may not be located within commuting distance to their office.
In short, here is my list of characteristics required for successful remote work:
One of the issues that has kept remote work from becoming even more widely accepted is the stigma that working from home is synonymous with sitting on the couch in pajamas with streaming video playing on the TV in the background. While I’m sure some people in some job roles could be successful with this approach, the vast majority of us would be unable to concentrate and would fail miserably if we tried to “work” this way.
Just a bit of background to qualify my experience. I’ve worked out of my home for a total of 2 years and I’ve been part of a distributed team (while working in a different office) for about 18 months. This is quite short compared to others with many more years of remote work experience. But I think it’s long enough for me to have established a successful track record and gained a thorough understanding of the issues.
I should also point out that some of these terms and tips will be specific to software developers because that’s the world I know best. But there is plenty here for all types of knowledge workers.
Before getting to the tips, I wanted to clarify some of the different arrangements that commonly involve remote work, each with its own considerations. Here are a few that I’ll address:
Employee with Part-time or Occasional Remote Work
This is probably the most common arrangement. A traditional on-site employment position offers the option of working remotely for a certain percentage of the time (i.e. one day a week), or as an occasional perk. This is one situation where the tips listed below are of least concern. The need to be highly disciplined and extra-communicative is far lower in this situation since the worker already spends a significant amount of time in the office. In many cases, working remotely gives some added peace and quiet that may be otherwise difficult to achieve while on-site, due to walk-up interruptions and meetings.
Consultant serving Clients Remotely
The term ‘Consultant’ may require some clarification. According to Erik Dietrich’s Taxonomy of Software Consultants, this is someone who is generally paid for their opinions, not for their labor. This is not to be confused with a Software Pro or Contractor serving in a staff augmentation (“staff-aug”) role. True Conaultants have the most flexible of all remote arrangements because their value is generally determined by measures other than billable hours. So if they want to spend half a day running errands, meeting with other clients, or doing anything else they want then it’s their choice. The expectation for their availability in front of their computer is very different than that of an employee.
This is exactly what it sounds like – an employee who works remote nearly all of the time. Naturally, there will be the need for some occasional in-person interaction (which is true for any remote arrangement). But this person’s primary office is somewhere besides their employer’s facility (usually in their home).
Employee working in a Distributed Team
This applies to employees who commute to an office every day, but the bulk of their work is done as a member of a distributed team. There will be far fewer remote-specific challenges faced by these folks than those who work primarily from their home. However, the concerns around etiquette and communication are still present.
Contractor or Freelancer
This category includes contractors, freelancers or other professionals who work for a client, generally billing by the hour. There may be occasional travel for some face-time, but the day-to-day work is done from their home office (or sometimes while on-the-go, or in a coffee shop, etc.). This arrangement requires the most effort to be successful because of its highly-independent and often unsupervised nature. This is my current situation.
Without further ado, here are my tips that will help deliver successful remote work results.
I think this one goes without saying for most types of knowledge work, but working out of your home, where most people spend a good deal of leisure time requires an extraordinary amount of discipline to stay focused on work.
I’ve always approached this by having a separate area of the house that I’ve designated as The Office. This could be a separate room (i.e. a spare bedroom) or a clearly-defined section of a larger space. But it’s The Office. I don’t go there to play, watch TV, or rest; when I’m there, I’m at work. Period.
This has a number of benefits, one of which is work-life balance. If I’m not in front of my work computer then I’m not as likely to respond to emails or chat message that come after-hours. Granted, I have access to these on my phone and tablet and I occasionally communicate after hours. A quick email response is one thing while logging into VPN and cranking up Visual Studio to make a code change is a far bigger deal. I’m much less likely to do the later since it involves “going to work” as it were.
Then there’s the discipline involved in avoiding the temptation to do non-work tasks during business hours (i.e. laundry, shopping, household projects). I try to be VERY respectful of time while I’m “on the clock” – I take the same short breaks that I would take if I worked in an office. But as a rule, I treat working at home just as if I was in an office.
Equipment includes an efficient work area, computer setup (multiple monitors, good keyboard/mouse, headset with microphone, webcam, etc.), comfortable desk and office chair.
Those who use their home office as their primary work location have probably already dealt with this. But those who work remotely only occasionally may not have realized the productivity improvement that comes with having the right equipment.
It’s hard to quantify the exact return on investment for each of the items I mentioned above. But the productivity benefit is substantial, especially compared to a makeshift work area (i.e. using a laptop at the kitchen table while sitting in an uncomfortable dining chair).
I wanted to make a special mention of a good headset with microphone. Working remotely will generally involve a lot of voice calls. In most cases, using your computer as a speakerphone is NOT a good experience – it often introduces background noise and feedback, which makes it hard for anyone to speak without hearing their voice coming back at them through the speaker. Even headsets that are relatively inexpensive and from a lesser-known brand will sound FAR better than using your laptop’s built-in mic.
The point of this category is having the right tools in hand to make the remote arrangement as seamless as possible and becoming proficient in their usage.
Just think of how easy it is to walk up to someone in the office with a question and then have the person respond with both a verbal answer and also by showing you a live demonstration of the solution on their screen. Having the right software should make this situation just as easy when both parties are located across the globe.
A couple of quick disclaimers:
- Software and services are constantly changing, so it is difficult to make specific recommendations that will stand the test of time. I’ll mention the specific tools that I’m currently using as of this writing (May 2019).
- The lines between these categories are blurring rapidly. With the advent of tools like Microsoft Teams, one tool can suddenly fill the roles of both Instant Message and Meeting. I expect this to become even more pronounced in the coming years.
Instant Message or Chat is a critical part of remote communication. Being able to quickly reach a team member with a question (as well as being available to answer questions for others) is critical. I’ve used a variety of tools over the years – Skype, Jabber, Slack, Microsoft Teams. Any sort of instant message or chat tool is fine as long as it works consistently and with little friction. Bonus points if it includes emoji, voice, video, file sharing, and screen sharing. (I’m currently using Microsoft Teams and it works very well.)
Meeting software and services are just as important as Instant Messaging. This allows two or more people to communicate with voice and often screen sharing. Often, the meeting service provides a phone bridge so people who are on the go can dial in with their phones, while people at their computers can connect to audio with their headsets through the software. Examples of this include WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Teams. And a final point – become familiar with how to use the tool effectively – such as muting/unmuting, screen sharing, and any other feature that adds value.
Note Taking is sometimes overlooked because it may not be as big of a need for some types of work as others. However, it can add tremendous value to most types of knowledge work when used consistently over time. Tools like OneNote (my personal favorite) or Evernote make it quick and painless to capture text, screenshots, or files and then make that information quickly available through rich searching. As a bonus, these tools generally include cloud syncing and cross-platform compatibility so that you can access your notes from any device. Granted, this category is a bit more subjective, but staying organized is extremely important when working remotely.
There are plenty of other categories that come into play for various types of work (i.e. Azure DevOps for software development teams). But the point for any of these tools is to make the remote experience just as efficient as working on-site. If you notice friction around any particular type of interaction then look for a process, tool or service to reduce that friction. And be sure to take the time to learn how to use it effectively.
It should go without saying that etiquette is extremely important in any world involving interaction with others. But working remotely takes away many of the visual queues and signals that are present during in-person interactions, making this even more important.
Some examples of good etiquette for remote workers are:
- Assume that others have the best of intentions, even when it sounds at first like they do not; stay positive and ask clarifying questions to overcome any misunderstandings
- Pay close attention to the cadence of speaking during calls/meetings; try to avoid interrupting or speaking over others while still finding the right time to speak when you have something to say
- Be readily available during work hours and communicate clearly when you are not
As mentioned above, working remotely removes a number of communication points that are inherently available when interacting in-person. Remote workers have to go above and beyond to compensate for these (during business hours).
Some examples of good communication practices are:
- Join calls/meetings a few minutes early to give yourself an opportunity to troubleshoot any technical challenges that may arise
- Respond quickly to chat messages and reasonably quickly to email
- Talk frequently and directly with your supervisor, manager, or stakeholders to insure that you are meeting their expectations
- Make your accomplishments visible – either directly through emails or indirectly through work tracking (like Azure Boards)
Working remotely is a growing trend with few signs of slowing down. Being successful takes some deliberate effort and a shift in thinking from the traditional on-site arrangement. These tips have served me well and I hope they will help you become a remote-working rock star!