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How to work remotely and do it better

how-to-survive-in-the-remote work-world

Working remotely has become mainstream and is here to stay, and companies (also you people) need to come to terms with that. People around the world have been working remotely at least in some capacity for a long time: journalists, artists by trade, photographers, and many others were able to make a living working for multiple bosses while traveling or from home, but nowadays technology is leveraging teams to do it as their default setting and for many more than before. Now we can find cases where entire teams migrated to this model –they still need a place because companies require a legal address, but that’s a different thing. Team members are experiencing the change, and they like it; I know I like it and people around me like it too.

At SWAPPS I have seen how going from a crowded workspace and embracing a remote working model impacts an organization. Dynamics changed, people transformed their habits and the team’s workflows changed; we also found new ways to relate between ourselves. In some cases these changes were obvious, but in others, we had to watch closely because they are really subtle.

I have been doing remote work since 2001, on some occasions with nothing more than a single radio as my only means of communication, and more recently with a double screen setup, high-speed internet, and my laptop. I have done it as a consultant, as an employee, and as a team leader, and I like to think that I have learned a couple of things I can share with others.

No, remote work doesn’t look like this.

Don’t worry about the things you don’t control.

With remote working as a possibility, flexibility in the workplace is becoming the norm, and the classic question from the old days of management will always arise “How do you know if anyone is really working?” well, the answer is actually an easy one: you don’t. We have to be honest with ourselves, no one knows if people are really working at the office at any given time; in the office you can see people at their desk, even staying late, and that doesn’t mean they are working at all.

Remote working has become a challenge for management, after all, it is hard to manage a team when you don’t see where they are, and it gets even further complicated when you take into consideration that currently the labor market has five -very different- generations working together, side-by-side; with all of them requiring some kind of special arrangement, and for different reasons.

My personal take on this is to trust your team and help them to stay honest in their work. Let’s be honest, if leaders don’t trust their teams, both parties are in the wrong place.

Communication is a must, and I suggest going with overcommunication.

With technology, you can do a lot of things, but at the same time technology is dumb by default; technology is as good as their users, and because of that, there is no way you can know for certain that a teammate is blocked, nor what is the status of a project, just by mere inaction. For this to work, you need to talk to people, usually by walking to someone’s desk. Nasty surprise for the newcomers: under this paradigm, there is no desktop to go. The only thing left to you is overcommunicating, knowing it will take a toll on your time and someone else’s time, but in doing so you avoid the alternative, an organization in bad shape.  

But, how to do the aforementioned? It varies but, as long as the communication process is easy to use, you’ll be good to go. My personal recommendation is always to go for the closest thing you can get on personal communication and a healthy mixture of tools to communicate with all the stakeholders, keep track of milestones, tasks’ status, and the most recent developments on projects.

Here at SWAPPS, we do something of the following: we use ClickUp to cover our project management needs and on the communications side we went with Slack to solve asynchronous messaging and ZOOM for video conferencing. Obviously, we have a lot more tools, but these ones are the ones that worked for us to solve our needs for internal communication.

Be flexible with your schedule.

Companies have customers, a lot of them, and with very complex needs to attend; companies are also becoming more conscious that if their team is not at its best, then they will not be able to deliver. Understanding that every team member has different personal needs is vital, and with a remote team, a team leader needs to understand that all of them will settle into their own workflows where they can collaborate while taking care of themselves and their families.

On this, my recommendation always will be to balance, as an individual take the time you need, and as a team leader allow -and motivate- your team to do it, just remember to be responsible with your working relationships.

Always remember you are not alone, nor by yourself.

For remote workers being lonely is a possibility, I have seen people isolating themselves while working on their own, not collaborating with others unless it is strictly required. It is too easy to fall into this behavior, and for people in tech who tend to be shy, it is too much of a temptation. The impact isolation has on people is wide and deep, and has been thoroughly documented, so I don’t think I need to insist on how bad it is to have an isolated teammate. The bottom line here? Don’t do it, and don’t let it happen to anybody in your team.

As an individual, you can cultivate your personal circles and have people to interact with; family or friends are the best choices. Also, you can change from time to time your working environment, perhaps working outside, at a coffee shop or a coworking space. I have a friend who goes to a fast food store, it is not healthy, but it helps him to put his mind at ease. So, please go with whatever works for you, helps you to be productive and makes you happy [a piece of advice? Being healthy makes you happier]. And keep in mind, your coworkers are always as far as your keyboard is.

Feedback is vital, don’t be shy, share it and be open to receive it.

Feedback is important, but it can feel slightly harder to do in a remote organization because people prefer to do it in more casual circumstances; for some people, it is harder to reach out to someone to share their thoughts on the work of others and even harder to ask for an honest opinion about their own work. Sometimes people prefer it to happen casually over coffee.

A healthy culture of giving and receiving feedback is good, perhaps you might need to adjust it to be more or less direct, while also providing the right space for everyone to do it in their own terms. Yes, it will be odd and uncomfortable at first because feedback is hard to give (and even harder to receive), that has to be expected. But don’t forget, there’s no other way if you wish to improve, both personally and as a team, so it will be a good idea to test some choices for everyone. Keep in mind, if it looks too nice and comfortable for everybody, something is being done the wrong way.

Take time to think, to be creative.

When working remotely a team will have fewer opportunities to mix and chat organically, that’s because a remote worker tends to focus much more on the task at hand, and there is no one to talk about ways to improve something, someone to share an article they might have read, etc. Yes, an office can be chaotic, and those interruptions can have a deep impact in your bottom line, but those scenarios are a cesspool of opportunities for creativity to arise if managed correctly. So it’s important to take some time away from daily tasks and device ways to improve things.

Leaders need to be aware of the last time they took a couple of hours to think. Personally, I made it a habit a long time ago. I like the whiteboard and talking to someone while walking as my main means of creativity, but whatever scratches your itches; just keep it legal, please.

Don’t let your remote working location distract you.

Don’t forget to enjoy it, but seriously, don’t let it distract you.

Yes, you’ll always find distractions in office environments, everybody knows that a chatty coworker is a walking hazard for your productivity. But working remotely comes with its own host of productivity killers. If you decide to set up shop at your local [insert the coffeehouse brand of your preference here], you can easily get derailed by the constant flow of people coming in and out.

Working from home is even scarier, your family will not respect what you do for a living, “hey, you are at home so you are available to pick up the kids at school, you can do the laundry, wash the dirty breakfast dishes, or take the dog out to the park”. I’ve been there and I feel your pain. To be honest, I haven’t found a one-hit solution. I keep changing my strategies so people don’t ask me to go to the convenience store while in the middle of a videoconference with a client. But on this I have something to say, I’m always more productive at home, always.

Please, have a really nice spot to work.

Tempting, right? It looks nice, but this is a bad idea.

The corner of your kitchen or in a nook of your bedroom are not good ideas, just drop it and move on. Yes, they can look fine at the beginning, but quickly you’ll find that you’re missing key tools, that you are lacking room to spread out, or that you’re a victim of your family moving around the house. Sooner than later you’ll start hating your remote arrangement.

Definitely not like this.

What I did was to spend a little bit of money and some spare time customizing a working space for me, a nice desk, some ergonomy for my chair, and a nice and sunny corner. I’m still hoping for a view of the sea (currently unavailable), but I think you get the idea, if you don’t have a good place to work, you’ll miss the good things remote working can offer.

Obviously, all of these are my, and only mine, takeaways from my experience working remotely, what I have done to make it work for me and the teams I have worked with, and what I learned from it. Perhaps your experience will differ a little bit because your needs and your role are different from mine, but I’m confident that at least some of these considerations will help you out to install and take the most from this new situation. The only thing left to say is, enjoy it! As much as you can.