I am working remotely today. In fact, I work remotely every day and have been doing so for the past 20 years. The technologies that enable anyone to work 7/24/365 from anywhere in the world are so commonplace, there’s almost no need to list them (although I will reference a few specific tools I’m fond of in this article). What you need to know is that the sociology of productive remote working is much more difficult to master than the technology. Said differently, learning to work by yourself is harder than you think it is. Here are a few tips and techniques that will unlock your inner badass remote worker skills.
Create a Workspace. This may sound obvious, but a defined workspace is critical to remote work. It can be a desk, a shelf, a counter, a chair, a corner on the floor near a power outlet, or the cupboard under the stairs, but you must set up a defined workspace. In it you will have power, light, your computer (or smartphone or tablet), a seat, some kind of desk space, and Internet access (if required – and it is not always required). Importantly, it must be yours, and if it can’t be physically separated from the rest of your environment, it must be psychologically separated from it.
Maintain Normal (Regular) Business Hours. If you are supposed to work from 9 to 5, then work from 9 to 5. Don’t start before 9 am, and don’t stop before 5 pm. Take the same breaks you’d take if you were in the office, including – and this is important – lunch! Regular hours increase productivity. I promise.
Set Rules for Humans You Don’t Work with During Business Hours. I cannot tell you how easy it is for your significant other to enter your workspace to just say “Hi.” This is the biggest productivity killer imaginable. Don’t let it happen. You will have scheduled breaks. That’s the perfect time to chat. Otherwise – just say no!
Morning Routines Are Sacred. I have a morning ritual. I perform it ritualistically. I do it every day. It is a dynamic, evolving ritual that has adapted to my age and stage over the years. You need your own. Create one.
Manage Your Time. Do not let yourself be interrupted by your phone (that’s what voicemail is for), your messaging apps (unless it’s your boss or a work emergency), poorly scheduled meetings (we’ll go over that in a minute), the urge to walk into the kitchen, or the desire to organize your sock drawer in the middle of the day.
Quit When It’s Quitting Time. If your workday ends at 5 pm, shut off your devices and walk away from your workspace. Otherwise, you are very likely to sit there forever. When you work remotely, you’re never late for work, but you can never leave the office, either. Force yourself to stop working. When your scheduled work day ends, it’s time to switch gears!
A Business Phone with a Separate Phone Number. In a perfect world, you will have a separate business phone with its own phone number. Voice is an app; calls are super inexpensive. A separate phone number is critical if you are going to turn it off at quitting time. Again, that’s what voicemail is for. For modern answering services that can combine forwarded landline calls and cell phone calls, I’m a fan of talkroute.com. It’s relatively inexpensive, and it gives you all kinds of flexibility routing voice calls.
Conference Calls. If you work for a company, there’s a very good chance you already have your own conference line(s). I have several. They are rotated sequentially in case any given call goes long. We record every call (I have an admin, who also works remotely BTW, on every call to take notes). After-action reports (and thank you notes) are generated and sent. It’s just like working at work, except everything is super tightly scheduled. If you don’t have an admin, calendly.com is a very good scheduling tool. If you don’t have your own conference calling service, I’m a fan of freeconferencecalling.com but almost every messaging app (FB, Slack, Bluejeans, Join.me, etc.) has voice calling capability.
A VPN for Security. You need your broadband connection to be secure. If your company does not use a VPN, that’s their problem. You need to use one. I’m a fan of encrypt.me, but there are dozens of others such as NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and CyberGhost. Ask your CTO or the IT peeps at your company first. If they don’t have a favorite solution, find one you like. A VPN is absolutely necessary (no matter where you are working from).
A Solid Broadband Connection. This goes without saying. Get your company to pay for it (if you can). The bigger the pipe, the easier and faster you can get stuff done. All the major carriers are offering 1 Gbps connectivity. You probably don’t need that much bandwidth. 300 Mbps will do nicely in most cases. Check your upstream capacity. Many services are asymmetrical. If you have a lot of files to upload every day, you’re going to want the fastest upload times you can afford. I have 1Gbps symmetrical in NYC. But up here in VT, I have 300 Mbps down and 100 Mbps up. It’s fine for almost everything I need to do up here.
Collaborative Tools. I don’t mean to pick on Microsoft, but Office is not a collaborative toolset. Neither is Office365 (although Microsoft claims it is). Google offers an industrial version of its G-Suite. That’s our go-to suite of apps. We routinely have three or four people working on a single document, slide deck, or spreadsheet. It is this collaborative online environment that enables us to be as productive as we are. While a toolset like this is critical for remote work, I would argue that a truly collaborative online workspace would increase the productivity of any team.
Messaging Tools. There are so many messaging tools, I don’t think I can list them all. Slack, Google Hangouts, Teams, FB Messenger, Whatsapp, WeChat, Viber, Skype, Discord. Most of them have some combination of voice, text, and screen sharing. How many times has someone Facetimed me while shooting their computer screen? Too many times to mention.
The danger with messaging apps is that they can be extremely interruptive when you are working remotely. We use very specific protocols for messaging in our organization. There are specific channels for specific things and a set of rules for each. Messaging is an artform and, depending on the culture of your organization, it can be either an enabling technology or the destroyer of worlds. And yes, sadly, email is still the killer app. Don’t get me started.
Project Management and Workflow Tools. Is your company still doing waterfall project management, or is it doing agile project management, or something in the middle? Yep, there’s an app for that. Clubhouse, Trello, Zoho, Basecamp – the list is practically endless. Then there are CRM and pipeline tools, Salesforce, Hubspot, Microsoft Dynamics, Monday, etc. This list is endless, too. Whatever you use, you need to dig in deeper when you work remotely. Here’s what I mean…
Act Like You Are in the Office. You’re not in the office, but you can act like you are. Figure out how you and your direct reports will communicate. Are you going to use email (heaven forbid) or a messenger app? Will you screenshare a few times a day? Our teams often open a video chat in Slack or Google Hangouts and leave it open while they are problem solving. Once you learn to do this, it is significantly more productive than in-office meetings and work sessions because everyone is in their personal workspace and has 100 percent of their productivity tools at their disposal for the entire meeting. You just need to wrap your head around the idea that you are in two places at once.
Schedule Phone Calls as if They Were Meetings. You may already do this, but if you don’t, you should. When you work remotely, everything gets scheduled as if it were a meeting: phone calls, screen shares, live chats – everything. You already know how to use a calendar invite. Working remotely changes nothing with regard to calendar management.
Schedule Check-ins over Voice or Messaging Apps. People who are new to remote working often forget to network with their colleagues. Most of the communications tools that are commonly used are one-sided, meaning that they are optimized to connect to a specific thing and stay connected to it. It’s great that you interface with your team all day long. You need to “walk down the hall” and bump into someone you don’t work with on a day-to-day basis. Remote workers accomplish this by building tickler files to remind them to reach out to coworkers regularly. Seasoned pros automate this, you can too.
Create Reports All Day Long. Your boss wants to know what you’re doing all day long. Awesome. Keep a log of what you are working on. Build a short report during the day that can be sent in the evening. You may already have tools that automatically generate these management reports, but if you don’t, then get in the habit of demonstrating your productivity. This has two benefits. One, your boss will love you. Two, you will be much more productive because you have a clear understanding of your own workflow and your output.
Hold All-Hands and Staff Meetings via Video Chat and Screenshare Tools. We hold all-hands and staff meetings using Google Hangouts or Zoom or Bluejeans. Smaller video meetings are held on Slack. Personally, I like Facebook’s Messenger for quick video chats. There are about a zillion ways to do this. Pick some tools and schedule and hold meetings as if you were working in the same office building.
You May Never Go Back
The outbreak of COVID-19 has everyone scrambling to figure out how to work from home. Some companies are instituting A-Team/B-Team protocols where roughly half the work force stays home one day and comes to work the next. This allows people to work farther apart from each other in the office. Others are simply asking workers not to come in. Regardless of the policies, we are all about to learn something new about what it means to have a significant number of remote white-collar workers.
More than three-quarters of our staff has been working remotely for the past 20 years. We have developed tools and techniques that make our organization significantly more powerful than other companies our size. Productivity has always been the number one driver of the economy. I can assure you that with practice, your remote teams will be as productive as (or more productive than) your onsite teams.
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Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.