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The Remote Worker's Survival Guide

James Jelinek 5 October, 2017 (6 min read)

The workplace has changed a lot in the last 5-10 years. As more and more startups emerge we are starting to see positions open up that are remote or "distributed". This method of working within an organization can be highly efficient and cost-effective when employed properly.

Today we're going to touch on some tips and tricks on how to survive as a remote worker. As some background, I've been remote for the last 6 years and absolutely love it. While I really enjoy seeing my team in person, remote life is pretty amazing.

Let's jump right in and talk about the different aspects of remote work.

Trust

This is probably the most important topic to cover. Trust is something that should inherently exist within an organization, however trust must be established, maintained, and refreshed on a frequent basis in a distribute or remote team.

How do we accomplish this?

Here are a few items which help to keep the trust alive:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Delivering on time or ahead of schedule
  • Scheduling in person meetups with your team
  • Getting to know your team on a professional and personal level
  • Demonstrating efficiency and productivity in your work

You have to remember, your company is trusting you to be a productive worker and to be responsible with your time, company resources, and be accountable to your team and management. Your company is taking a big risk on allowing you to be remote, so it's up to you as the remote employee to build, maintain, and refresh this trust.

Building trust is pretty straight forward. By default trust is implied, but it's important to maintain this. Maintaining it is easy by following the above bulletpoints. A good example of maintaining trust is effectively communicating your project status with your team and/or management. You can do this through a variety of tools which we will cover later. Another example of maintaining trust is frequent checkins (you'll have to figure out the frequency on your own) with your team to see what they are working on and where you can be of assistance.

Refreshing trust is also pretty simple in theory but can be tough when you are remote. So how do we refresh the trust? A few ideas would be:

  • Daily standup meetings
  • Weekly retro/all hands meetings
  • In person team meetups
  • Team building exercises whether in person or remote

It's important to build, maintain, and refresh trust to be successful at remote work.

Communication

I don't feel like I should have to mention this, but it's a very important topic. Remember as a remote employee you are detached from an office and could be working anywhere in the world at any time. So communication is key to keeping the synergy within your team. Everyone has a different preferred communication style and frequency, so you'll have to figure this part out on your own, but we'll touch on some great tools that help keep you in communication.

  • Email (yes, people still use email)
  • Chat (Slack, Hipchat, Gitter, etc)
  • Video (Skype, Hangouts, Slack Video, Appear.in, Webex)
  • Voice (Skype, Hangouts, Slack Calls, Appear.in, Webex, phone)
  • Project management tools (Basecamp, Jira, Trello, Clubhouse, etc)
  • Screensharing (Screenhero, Skype, Hangouts)

Finding the right combination of these tools is critical to maintaining solid communication with your team. Gone are the days of walking to your co-worker's desk and asking her how the weather is. You have ample tools in which to communicate with so it's important to pick a tool set and get everyone onboard.

It takes a while to establish proper communication with your team so it's vital that you try to do this early on in your engagement as without communication the remote/distributed model falls apart quickly and starts affecting trust, which is what we want to avoid.

Discipline

Besides trust and communication discipline is really high up there when you're wanting to survive as a remote worker. Remember, your company is paying you good money (hopefully) to get work done. They are not paying you to play on Facebook, Twitter, or watching Rick Rolls on YouTube.

You are entitled to breaks and lunches where you can work on personal items, run errands, or goof off but when it's work time, it's all business and should be taken seriously.

Discipline can be learned, but ultimately you either have it or you don't. You won't know until you are actually put into a remote situation, but if you are a responsible adult discipline should be a de facto character trait.

Maturity

This ties in with discipline. In a previous company I worked with a couple of college grads. We were a 100% distributed team and this was their first job out of college. They had never worked in an office much less worked remote so this was a challenge for them.

It takes a certain level of maturity to be a responsible remote worker. Maturity is generally agnostic of age as I've seen several irresponsible 50 year olds in my time, but in general being mature enough to say, "I'm at work, here is my mission, let's get stuff done" is most important.

If you can't take your work seriously, be mature, and responsible for your duties then you will not go very far as a remote worker.

Workspace

You're going to be working 6-10 hours/day so it's important to be comfortable and have your workspace situated for maximum productivity and efficiency. My workspace is a simple glass desk, a 12 hour rated office chair, a small couch, a bookshelf, and a cubby for different office supplies. All of this sits inside of a spare bedroom which I converted into an office.

Your workspace should inspire and motivate you. It should also be a place of peace and calm. In my home office I have several tech posters on the walls, I painted the room a dark charcoal blue to keep light from reflecting, and hung curtains to blackout the room as I find the light to be a distraction.

My other workspace is the living room where I will sit with my laptop and my 2 cats to get work done, but it's really important to try to keep your workspace separated from the rest of your home whenever possible. This gives you a line of division between "work" and "home" life.

Your workspace should reflect your style, ensure comfort, and provide the opportunity to be highly productive while maintaining low stress levels.

Equipment

Depending on your job, your equipment list may vary. But if you are in tech as I am at the very least you'll need a computer with a fast Internet connection. Here is my equipment list:

  • Macbook Air
  • Laptop elevator stand (Rain Design mStand)
  • 27" External monitor (Acer)
  • Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse
  • Logitech speakers
  • Mouse pad
  • Drink coaster
  • Mini fridge filled with my favorite drinks and snacks
  • Small trash bin
  • Desktop organizer
  • Assorted notepads and pens
  • Whiteboard

Having all of this keeps me productive and happy. Your company and/or position may have different pre-requisites but you'll want to make sure that you have the best setup to be productive in your remote adventures.

Separation of work/home

This is a tricky one. You eat, live, and sleep at home. Now you are working from home. So it's easy for the line to become fuzzy between work time and home time. Here are a few tips on keeping the two separated and turning off/on work/home mode.

  • When you get up in the morning, change into a different set of clothes. Don't walk to your office in your pajamas. Put on a different set of clothes and assume those are your work clothes. Even if it's just a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. At the end of your day, change into something else. This tricks the mind into thinking you've "left the office" for the day.
  • When at all possible try to keep your work isolated to your home office or workspace. If you end up starting to work outside on the patio or at your local Starbucks, the line becomes fuzzy and it's hard to separate work from home.
  • When you're done for the day, don't be tempted to check your phone, computer, chat, etc for work related items. You've put in a good day's work, so now is your time to relax. Checking your work email while you're trying to wind down for the evening puts you back into work mode and with that there can be no separation.

Isolation

This is something that many of us deal with and can be tough. You're sitting in your home office and your team is thousands of miles away. You're feeling isolated and alone. Myself, I prefer this, but others cannot seem to handle the isolation so here are a few things you can do to avoid that feeling:

  • Communicate frequently with your team (especially video calls which gives an "in-person" feel)
  • If you have pets, invite them into your space. I have two cats which sit on a dedicated perch in my office to keep me company. When I'm feeling a bit isolated or alone I pick them up and play with them for a few minutes
  • If you have some downtime or are on lunch or a break. Reach out to a friend to chat. Or better yet, get yourself out of the house and go do something, even if it's just picking up a coffee or a burger.

Summary

If you've made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back. You now have all of the basic tools at your disposal to survive being a remote worker. Remote work is not for everyone and you will find out very quickly (or your employer may notify you) whether or not you're cut out for this sort of thing. But if you are cut out for it, it's probably one of the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have. Short of winning the lotto!

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Originally published on jelinek.io