on being a remote employee

Published on May 9, 2020

While we are largely being forced to work from home right now, I am adamant in my belief that there will be more people working from home after this crisis than there were before.

Over the last few weeks and months, the benefits of remote work have become clear: remote work can boost organizational resiliency, it can give workers more flexibility, it can allow a business to access stronger talent pools, while paying lower expenses for offices.

But while there are many guides out there on how to be an effective remote manager -- or remote employer -- there is less content out there to assist the remote workers who are having to do their work from home.

I have been working from home for almost a year, and during that time I have acquired a few best practices that you can use to become a more effective remote employee.

Communicate as often as possible

Communicating on a remote team is incredibly easy from a technological perspective. Tools like Zoom, Slack, and Google Hangouts allow you to seamlessly share information with other members of your team.

However, these tools are only useful if you use them to their fullest extent; otherwise, they are just pieces of technology.

When you are working remotely, it is helpful to communicate as often as you possibly can. Stay up-to-date in Slack, respond to messages on tools like Jira and Trello that you may use for project management, and schedule calls when you think they are necessary.

As a remote employee, it can be easy to develop “hermit habits,” where you work in isolation, without regard for the fact that you are working on a team. It’s important that you are proactive in reaching out to others, and when you think someone can help you, you should feel free to ask for their assistance.

Hosting daily stand-ups

When I first started my job, I did not have daily stand-ups. Instead, I had frequent meetings with my boss, during which time I would share the progress I have made, and the progress I was hoping to make. While these meetings were effective, the cadence was not prudent.

Having a daily stand-up is a good way to share your progress with your team, and ensure everyone is in sync on priorities for the upcoming days.

During my stand-ups, I answer three questions:

  • What were my accomplishments yesterday?
  • What do I want to accomplish today?
  • What blockers am I facing?

Often, I struggle to estimate how much work I am going to do each day (sometimes I do more than expected, sometimes less). However, because I mention my accomplishments from the previous day, my team can always read tomorrow’s stand-up to get a better sense of what I was able to accomplish.

Hosting a daily stand-up has encouraged me to be more accountable. It also helps me stay in the loop with regard to what other employees are working on, even if I am not working with them directly on a given day.

Getting involved with company policy development

This sounds like a boring tip for how to be a more effective remote worker. Who wants to get involved with developing company policies?

In my job, our company has evolved a lot. We have always been a fully-distributed team, but toward the start of my work we did not use technologies like Slack to the extent that we could, and we were still finding our groove. Now, though, things are a lot different.

Every day, everyone abides by clear policies on stand-ups, communication, availability, among other factors. These policies have developed over time, thanks to the contributions of all our team members, as well as the leadership of the executive team.

If your company doesn’t do standups, ask your boss if you can give them a shot; if you want to try using Zoom instead of Hangouts, ask if you can make the switch; if you see an opportunity to improve how time is tracked in your business, make a suggestion to your line manager.

It is tempting to just let your boss implement remote working policies over time, and to take a relatively passive approach to remote working. After all, one of the main benefits of remote working is freedom. However, if you have an idea on how your remote work experience could be improved, you should mention it to your boss.

Stay as organized as you can

Remote work is only part of my online life. I also have obligations to friends (and family members who I cannot presently see in person, for that matter).

There is a lot for me to manage between these obligations, and it is easy for things to slip through the cracks. That’s why I have made it a point to try to stay as organized as I can.

I do not use any elaborate productivity systems (I find many of them to be over-the-top and to require too much maintenance time). I do, however, actively take notes throughout my work day. During calls, I take notes; when I have an idea, I take a note.

These tools help me keep track of all the thoughts going through my head throughout the day -- whether they are work or personal -- so that I am less likely to forget about something.

Being organized goes a long way on a remote team. For instance, I always make sure to take extra notes during my calls, because I know that if I don’t take the notes, there is a chance that nobody else will either, thereby leaving me in a precarious position.

Seek feedback

In a traditional office environment, there are many opportunities to get feedback on your work. When an assignment is done, you can hand it to your boss directly, and they can keep you in the room while they review your work.

As a remote employee, the feedback loops within your team will be different. It is difficult to seek feedback because, for instance, if your work is in a Google Doc, it is easy for a team member to bookmark it for later, then review it, and not add any actionable comments onto your work.

You should spend time considering how you want to receive feedback, and be deliberate about seeking that feedback from your team. For instance, if you like to delve deep into your work and how you can improve, you could request a weekly sync to go over a few of your key assignments with your boss. Or you could ask your teammates to be extra thorough when reviewing your work. Do what works for you.

These are only a few of my learnings from my time as a remote worker, and I’m sure that I will come across many more. Indeed, as with any working arrangement, there’s a lot to learn, and working practices evolve over time. I expect the way I work a year from now will be different to how I work today.

The overarching point to take away from this article is that being a remote employee is about more than sitting back, doing your work, and getting paid for being at home. If you really want to thrive, then taking some ownership over your working practices is a good idea. Just as you know you shouldn’t work in your pajamas, so too should you not rely on other people to tell you how you should be working from home.

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