I’ve worked remotely on global teams for most of my career. At first this was working at a consulting firm working as a researcher with many teams across time zones and more recently as a freelancer living abroad and working remotely the last three years.
I’ve also been writing about the potential of remote work to enable people to design their lives in ways that help them raise families, improve their mental health and live in places with reasonable rent and cost of living. I’ve recently helped Holloway write a primer for understanding culture within the context of remote work that should be a good in-depth guide for companies exploring remote work once its released and also have interviewed multiple people leading remote companies on my podcast.
While I assumed that the embrace of remote work would be slow, it appears that the sudden emergence of Covid-19 and its impact on travel and work has thrown companies into reactive mode, embracing remote work right now without any preparation.
What follows are some of the best tips and resources I’ve found to help your company think about getting the most out of your remote work experience even if it is only necessary in the short-term while also helping you prepare for the inevitable shift towards a remote-first working world over the next decade.
Most companies are not prepared for remote work. Here are five tips for getting started
If the outbreak of Covid-19 has forced your company to quickly embrace remote work for an indefinite time, your company will likely suffer a short-term productivity drop. Despite the fact that many companies use e-mail, messaging, and work across global offices, most still default to the norms of in-person offices.
In-person norms mean that most problems are withheld until they can be addressed in person. This means walking over to someone’s desk or convening a quick meeting in a conference room. Even for teams that are distributed, many know that decisions rarely get made on big initiatives or projects until the team convenes in person.
Despite these hurdles. There are many lessons companies can quickly learn from other companies that have been paving the path ahead of them.
Tip #1: Default to Video (Ideally Zoom!)
While uncomfortable for many at first, many find that defaulting to video for all meetings can be a powerful way to connect with others. Instead of browsing the web while on a conference call, the in-person interaction can help people work more efficiently while getting some of the benefits of working together in-person.
Your company likely has embraced a tool such as Skype or even another clunky enterprise solution. It’s probably not all that great and most people opt not to use it. If possible, signup for a free Zoom account and just use that (if it works with your company system). It’s just the best tool out there and the one trusted by remote workers across the globe.
Use video to try and work in different ways. Experiment with co-working on shared documents, screen sharing and other ways to use the technology. For example, Zapier does digital dance parties to inject some energy into people working remotely across the globe.
Tip #2 Commit to at least a “two-week experiment” and have people document their experiences as they go
I talked with Wade Foster, who’s company Zapier has been remote-first since inception. He’s had many other founders and companies reach out to him for tips on how to shift to working remotely. The advice he always gives people is to pick a team and 100% commit to working remotely across the entire team (no exceptions):
Pick a team, one that is well suited to remote and have everyone work from home for one week or two weeks. It has to be long enough that you can build habits, structure and processes around a new way of working
Reimagine Work Podcast Episode: Wade Foster On Running A Remote Company and Digital Dance Parties
Since you may not have had any choice in choosing to work remotely, the important part of the two week experiment is noticing some of the challenges and roadblocks that people face to getting work done. Have every member of your team keep a remote journal and jot down instances where they hit a roadblock or needed guidance on what to do. Your team can use this to develop a more robust handbook and solutions to improve how you work remotely and in-person in the future.
Tip #3: Consider blocking out time for “deep work” or consider experimenting with “asynch” chat tools
One of the dangers of working remotely has to do with the technologies that many companies adopt. Companies have rapidly embraced tools like Slack or Teams and have defaulted to responding whenever they get a message. This can be a disaster when going fully-remote as any semblance of work quickly gets overcome but non-stop chatting and messaging.
I interviewed Amir Salihefendić, who’s company Doist shifted to asynchronous communication after people struggled with overwhelm from non-stop Slack messages.
“We were using slack at the beginning, but we could see huge amounts of issues…that didn’t resemble how we wanted to work.”
Reimagine Work Podcast Episode: Amir Salihefendić (CEO, Doist) on building a great remote team
Running a software firm, they decided to build their own technology to help the firm orient around communicating in a more thoughtful manner.
“you can design software to promote different interactions. the chat apps are designed for these quick one-liners. We designed Twist to promote more thoughtful interactions”
By defaulting to asynchronous communication and setting up norms like only expecting a response within four hours or even a day, remote work can be a powerful way for many employees to re-claim the deeper work and more thoughtful interactions that may have been lost in the open-office non-stop distraction offices you may be leaving behind.
One way employees can approach this is to proactively block out their own schedules and communicate to their team that they’d like to work on certain things at certain times.
Shifting to remote as a default can help employees reclaim their time and dictate what they want to work on and when.
Tip #4: Give more freedom and trust to your people than you’re comfortable with
If you are the kind of manager that likes to micromanage every detail of your employee’s work or likes to know where people are at all times, remote work is going to be a struggle. One option is to force all employees to constantly check-in or share constant updates. It might make you sleep better at night, but it might also land you in the news like Away did a couple months ago.
Shifting from in-person work to remote-first can feel awkward at first and leads many to be more suspicious of others. This can kick-off a vicious cycle.
Many companies adopt meta-norms of defaulting to trust and using your best judgement in alignment with company values. To many managers that are used to micromanaging every detail of their employee’s work, this can be challenging to adopt. Yet many quickly find that without giving up some freedom and control to others, remote work becomes an endless stream of distracting digital communication without getting any actual work done.
As Wade Zapier said about his mindset with his employees in our podcast conversation:
“We trust you. We think you’re smart, we think you’re talented, we want you to come work here. We’re going to treat you like an adult. Just come do good work, thats all we ask.”
Tip #5: Start writing down the unwritten rules & processes to help you gain a deeper understanding of how your company works
If you ask people at a large company to explain how their company works, many struggle to explain the process.
It just works.
When companies first experiment with remote work, they find that employees sit around waiting for responses from e-mails or chats to figure out what to do. Instead of self-directed work, people are more confused than before.
Work can grind to a standstill.
Most remote companies who have committed to a fully-remote culture have found that they need to be very explicit about not only their policies and procedures but their norms. They also realize that good writing can go a long way in helping people understand how the company operates and often spend hours fine-tuning the communication of company values and norms.
Many in-person companies pass this type of knowledge on in tribal knowledge or through long-tenured elders that can share stories about how one should behave within the company. In a remote company, you can have informal calls with people throughout the company, but most employees are going to want more direction.
One of the best things you can do during a short-term remote work experiment is to have senior leaders or other influential people within the company synthesizing some of the norms and values that are not as clear as people thought before the experiment. They can create documents and solicit feedback from people throughout the company. This can also double as an exercises in gaining a better understanding of the current culture and identifying areas that need more clarification or leadership to take the team or company in a new direction.
Additional Resources From Leading Remote Companies & Practicioners
Many companies have been experimenting with best practices of remote work for several years. Many also share their learnings publicly. You can save a lot of time by learning from their mistakes. Here are some guides I recommend:
- Gitlab’s Guide to Remote Work: “GitLab is the world’s largest all-remote company with team members located in more than 65 countries around the world.”
- Twist Remote Work Guides: Twist is an asynchronous chat tool for remote teams by Doist and has written a number of guides on working remotely
- Zapier’s Ultimate Guide To Remote Work: Available online or even in Kindle form for offline reading
- Basecamp has published a lot of writing about remote work including the book Remote:Office Not Required by its founders and its company handbook, which they share publicly.
Research & Other Resources
- Buffer publishes an annual survey The State of Remote Work that always has interesting findings on the evolving state of the new work arrangement
- Focusmate – find a virtual coworking partner to keep accountable
- Zoom – My favorite video conferencing too (my referral link if you’d like)
- Toggl Time Tracking – big fan of this tool for easy time tracking
- Yonder is a blog and podcast by Jeff Robbins and Mindi Rosser
- The Honest Guide To Remote Work by Steph Smith
- Laurel Farrer runs a remote work consultancy called Distribute Consulting, and has been helping many companies “go remote” for several years now.
Have additional resources or suggestions? E-mail me and I’ll add it.
Just published! The Pathless Path is Paul's book about walking away from a "perfect" job with a promising future and starting over again. Through painstaking experiments, living in different countries, and a deep dive into the history of our work beliefs, Paul pieces together a set of ideas and principles that guide him from unfulfilled and burned out to what he calls "the pathless path" - a new story for thinking about work in our lives. Learn More & Buy The Book Here