Get our latest stories
delivered right to your inbox every week

How to Make Remote Work Awesome

Everything you need to know to make remote work awesome for yourself and your team

remote work at the pool

By John Starmer

Jul 12, 2022

Overview

This remote work guide reviews the processes necessary for making remote work awesome for individuals and teams:

  • Mitigate remote work drawbacks
  • Manage meetings with remote workers
  • Manage remote team communications
  • Ensure accountability
  • Manage remote employees

The benefits and drawbacks of remote work

Pros

  • Reduce or eliminate your commute.
  • Work on your own schedule.
  • Fewer distractions from coworkers.
  • Fewer expenditures (e.g., travel, eating out, etc.)
  • You don’t have a direct supervisor.

Cons

  • May be out of sync with coworkers due to time zone differences.
  • May need to adjust your schedule to accommodate different time zones.
  • More distractions from family, the guy at the table next to you, social media, etc.
  • Fewer opportunities for interactions with coworkers.
  • You don’t have a direct supervisor.

How to mitigate the drawbacks of remote work

How to manage time zone differences

The key to managing time zone differences in remote work is being efficient in asynchronous communications.

Be specific and provide sufficient details about questions and problems you need assistance with to ensure the response meets your needs and does not require scheduling a 4AM call to clarify things.

How to manage distractions in remote work

Sources of distraction are myriad and you are responsible for managing them as a remote worker.

You’ll need to be your own supervisor and stay on track when it matters. To do this well, set boundaries so that while you are maximizing time with family, they are aware of times when you need to focus on work.

  • If you have a home office with a door, simply closing the door could signal “Do Not Disturb.”
  • If you work in a shared space, putting on headphones could be your “Do Not Disturb” sign.
  • If working from home proves to be nonfunctional, working from a coffee shop, library, or other public space with wifi is a common tactic for both remote workers and on-site workers that need to escape the distractions of the office.
  • If you’d prefer a more professional alternative, coworking spaces offer an office setting (WeWork, etc.), but at a cost.

How to stay on track with fewer interactions with coworkers while working remotely

If you are used to the social interactions with human beings and you suddenly find yourself working at home, alone, the transition can be difficult.

Setting up times to video chat with coworkers is one way to keep a connection going and have relevant work-related conversations. Your company should also provide meetup opportunities (see the section on Meetups, below).

Coffee shops and coworking spaces also provide opportunities to interact with people or at least be in a space with more than your thoughts and the cat. If you are really looking to connect with people in your field of work, social media from Facebook to Meetup provide opportunities to connect with people that share your interests.

How to stay productive without a supervisor in remote work

Not having a supervisor requires you to put on your own supervisor’s hat.

If your team does scrum-style development, you may already have an accountability model worked in. If you find that your productivity is slipping, setting up accountability sessions with a coworker or remote supervisor might be worth exploring.

Provide a daily update of tasks completed and tasks to be started the following day posted to a Slack or Teams chat with your supervisor. Follow this up with a weekly review.

How to work efficiently without going into the office

Home office. Create an office space and set it up for comfort and efficiency. Get a good desk and chair, an internet connection, lighting, any equipment you might need for video conferencing, etc. Some progressive companies will even purchase home office equipment for their remote workers. Use meetup opportunities to get human interaction.

The coffee shop. This works for some as an ideal workplace and is too distracting for some. You’ll have access to (generally free) WiF iand opportunity for human interaction. There is an expectation that you will pay “rent” by purchasing coffee and food.

Coworking spaces. These can provide temporary or dedicated desk space along with office support services such as mail service, photocopying, and provide an opportunity to socialize with people. These spaces do, however cost for the services provided.

The best way to have meetings when you work remotely

Managing Meeting Structure

Effective meetings should: 

  1. Respect the allotted time.
  2. Have an agenda.
  3. Have a coordinator.

When recurring meetings lack agenda topics: Cancel them.

In cases where an agenda is defined: The designated meeting coordinator helps keep the discussion on topic, limits rambling commentary, and makes sure the meeting time limit is respected.

Topics not addressed can be slated for a subsequent meeting, or interested participants could extend the meeting at their discretion with other participants dropping off.

If the team engages in daily updates: Use the scrum or daily standup model to stay efficient and keep on track. The point is to keep these team meetings short, with 15 minutes being a long standup meeting. The basic template standup is as follows:

  • A meeting coordinator (scrum master) is responsible for keeping members on track and on time. It is their job to ruthlessly make sure no one goes over their allotted time.
  • All team members provide a one or two minute (maximum) update on tasks completed yesterday, tasks being worked on today, and any challenges or blockers.
  • After the update, actions to help team members overcome blockers can be defined.
  • At this point the stand up meeting is done. Further discussions can happen after the update and may lead to team members interested in the topic remaining on the call/in the meeting while others may then drop off.

Use this format of “Done, Doing, Blocked” in a virtual format where team members can post their daily standup report in a dedicated team chat channel. If using this virtual format is helpful to still define a time for the update to be posted, say between 9-9:15 AM. This allows everyone to get the standup information promptly and also take action on helping to resolve blockers.

Managing time zones for remote work meetings

When meeting across time zones, it is always good to be clear about which time zone a meeting date/time is being set for – PST, EST, etc. Any modern calendaring application (Google Cal, Microsoft Outlook, iCal, etc.) allow users to set meeting in their local time zone and allow participants to see the time in their local time, just make sure that your settings are correctly enabled.

Time zones can be especially challenging to remote workers if the most other co-workers are many time zones removed. Generally, teams will try to accommodate peripheral time zones, but there are times when the odd man out will need to get up early or stay up late to meet with the majority. In these cases, carefully consider when the remote worker’s attendance in these meetings is actually required and making use of asynchronous communications as a standard communication alternative.

How teams communicate in remote work

Tools for remote work communication

All of the tools below can be used on a one-to-one or group communication mode. The tools below are listed in order of least urgency to most — that is, how quickly do you expect a response from one of the methods below.

Note: Some tools that allow adding members to ongoing conversations. In certain situations, this may reveal sensitive information that was not intended for the new additions. As always, know how your tool works and share with care.

Email

  • When to use: To provide a traceable record of communications.
  • Benefits: Great for longer form communications that exceed the expectations or limits of texts or direct messages.
  • Drawbacks: Can be time consuming to craft when dealing with complicated topics. Not always considered time sensitive. Urgent communications can get overlooked in the inbox.
  • Best Practices: As a remote worker or remote worker manager, set clear expectations. For example, work related emails should be checked twice a day or responded to within 24 hours.

Group Chat

  • When to use: To provide a traceable record of communications.
  • Benefits: Direct messaging capabilities, audio and video calls. Channels where people can communicate on specific topics. Customizable in limitless ways. For example they can be:
    • Project-based (XYZ Application Development Project)
    • Topical (Website Production Team)
    • Non-work related (Remote Worker Socials)
  • New additions to these channels can review past communications and get a sense of what is going on.
  • Drawbacks: Busy channels can become a source of distraction. Multiple channels can be distracting.
  • Best Practices: Consider what you post, as many of these tools preserve the history of all the communication of these channels, even after members have left. Many chat apps have a way to message all members. Use this sparingly.

Direct message

  • When to use: When you want to communicate privately with an individual or small group (much like a group text).
  • Benefits: Direct messages are generally treated as important/urgent by recipients. Can provide a conversational back and forth that bridges between the typical timing found with email and a live conversation.
  • Drawbacks: Notifications can be disruptive if working across timezones.
  • Platforms: Most modern business communications platforms provide direct messaging features. Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Google Hangout Conversations.
  • Best Practices: Depending on how your team manages brief communications, something that is Twitter length or that you could envision texting is appropriate for a direct message.
    • Note: Some tools allow members to add new members: unless these new additions are somehow blocked from seeing prior communications, they may be able to review the discussion prior to their addition.
    • Be clear about response time expectations and boundaries. Some tools allow settings to snooze notifications outside of your local working hours to help maintain work/life boundaries.

Text message

  • When to use: When you want to receive a reply fast. When the recipient may not be immediately available for a phone/video call and the message is important to deliver.
  • Benefits: A reply can be expected in a short timeframe, which is a good way to get a response for an urgent matter. Asynchronous – even if the recipient is not available when the message is sent, the message should get a response when read.
  • Drawbacks: Can be challenging to use across time zones, especially if you are not sure of the recipient’s current time zone (i.e. Is the recipient travelling or at the workplace?)
  • Best Practices: Usually a form of escalation after trying one of the other options above (especially if you are texting someone’s personal number).

Phone Calls

  • When to use: Replacement for in person meetings for remote workers. Can be expected to be a regular part of a remote worker’s day.
  • Benefits: Immediate response as long as the recipient is available. Highly effective as long as care is taken that participants are in locations with good reception (if on a mobile device) and minimal background noise.
  • Drawbacks: Can be challenging to use across time zones, especially if you are not sure of the recipient’s current time zone (i.e. Is the recipient traveling or at the workplace?)
  • Best Practices: Unplanned calls are another form of escalation if other contact methods have failed, or the matter is urgent. Scheduled calls on your calendar and add a notification just prior to the call. Take the time prior to the call to assure you are in an area with minimal noise and good connectivity.

Video Calls

  • When to use: Scheduled video calls can replace meetups.
  • Benefits: Adds visual cues to the communication process, which is a great way to increase communication clarity between team members.
  • Drawbacks: Video and audio settings need to be setup correctly. Video can take up a lot of bandwidth and a suboptimal connection can cause a choppy video and audio stream that is difficult to understand. Care must be taken to assure that no sensitive (business or personal) items or information are visible in the video view.
  • Platforms: Set up a person to person video chat with your phone’s native video service (e.g. iPhone’s Facetime). Tools that support video communications: Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Go to Meeting, and Zoom. Many support basic functionality for free, with paid versions adding features like multiple participants and session recording.
  • Best Practices: Unplanned video calls are generally to be discouraged, unless team members have set expectations that these sorts of calls are expected. Even if they are, team members should always have the option of joining even video conferences in audio only mode at their discretion.
  • Users should take time to set up and validate their video setup:
    • Make sure audio and video work.
    • Verify that you have enough lighting.
    • Make sure anything in the video view area is ok for any participants to see.

Meetups

  • When to use:
    • Social team-building events that focus on building bonds between on site and remote team members.
    • Work-focused events with social aspects being secondary.
    • For strategic planning.
    • For “hackathons” like intensive problem solving or development event.
  • Benefits: Typically improves the connection between team members for the better.
  • Drawbacks: There is some cost in travel time and transportation, and additional costs can be incurred for larger events. Poor planning (meetups with no clear understanding of costs and benefits) can easily result in net negative outcomes for the business.
  • Best Practices: Depending how distributed your remote team is, differing cadences of in person meetups can be implemented:
    • Weekly. Some remote workers find frequent time away from their real (remote) office disruptive. In other cases, weekly face-to-face time can be a huge benefit for collaborative work. Determine whether weekly meetups are a plus or minus for the productivity of your remote employees.
    • Monthly. Depending on project requirements, teams may meet up on a monthly basis, sometimes flying remote workers in from remote locations. The benefit of this meeting will need to outweigh not just the money spent on travel, but also the cost in time (productivity) spent travelling. Have a clear goal (outcome) for these meetup sessions. Monthly meetups are an opportunity to build team spirit among remote and on-site employees through social interactions and events.
    • Annually. Be clear on why you are putting the effort into bringing the team together in order to determine how effective the outcome of this special event will be.
  • Note: Regardless of how often your remote team is on site or a fully distributed team comes together for a meetup, it is important to be clear about meetup objectives. Social events have a purpose, but having a remote employee show up in the office just “to see their face” is a poor objective.

How teams ensure accountability in remote work

The biggest shift in dealing with remote workers is how to manage accountability. As your employee is no longer in sight, it is more difficult, though not impossible, to know if they are on task or not. Having an explicit project management process (see the next section) can help keeping track of task progress of the entire team. Regular meetings or virtual updates can provide both a means to keep team connected and provide accountability for continued progress.

Self-accountability in remote work

Keeping yourself accountable is a challenge many remote workers don’t count on. Setting your own schedule can make it tempting to take off more time than you should, or procrastinate on moving forward on assigned tasks.

Scheduling your day when working remotely

Scheduling working hours for yourself is a way to define your working life from your personal life.

Although flexibility of time is a big benefit of many remote work positions, it is a good idea to set yourself regular working hours. They don’t map the standard 9 AM – 5 PM model, still, defining working hours will help you know when to start and when to finish! Although most people use some form of digital calendar/planner, there are some that still use a physical planner.

Find what works best for you.

Task Management for remote work

Keeping track of your job tasks helps with planning and reporting and also simplifies answering the ‘What’s next?’ question.

In a simple, analog form, using notecards or PostIts can be a way to set up a To Do, Doing, and Done categories. Tools like Trello and Wunderlist make it easy to set up or update tasks, set due dates and reminders, and aggregate tasks into categories. 

Limit your daily task load. 

When considering your well organized list of “To Do’s” it is tempting to pile many things into your “Doing” list. You will be more efficient if you rather limit yourself to three or even better a primary and a couple of backups. This will ensure you focus rather than jumping across a larger number of tasks. Decide on your primary task for the day and try your best to get it done. The other two tasks for the day can be addressed after you complete your primary, or in the case that you get blocked.

Hourly Employees

It is not unusual to have employees that will have a certain number of hours of work assigned and require some form of reporting on time-based effort. To track this, ask employees to provide a written report of hours and activities, possibly in spreadsheet form. There are also time tracking applications (e.g. Toggl) to simplify this process. 

Note: Assure that remote workers are applying themselves to work related tasks after clocking in. Be clear about defining specific objectives to be met on a weekly or even daily basis to ensure touch points that validate progress and provide notice of productivity slumps.

Salaried Employees

For salaried employees, hours are not a critical metric for accountability: it becomes important to be clear about expectations for goals and timelines. Be clear about specific tasks that a remote worker needs to accomplish and the expected timelines to keep accountability expectations clear. Have good communication practices in place so that if the situation warrants, timelines can be adjusted.

The best way to manage employees in remote work

When managing remote employees, one of the biggest tasks is to have clear accountability measures in place. Make sure that employees understand expectations and have a clear means of reporting progress and setbacks.

Project Management Methodologies

There are a wide range of project management methodologies in use today, many of which are variations on a theme. These methods for both remote and onsite workers provide 

  1. A clearly defined framework for defining expectations of progress.
  2. A means to communicate progress and issues that need resolution.
  3. Frequent (and expected) opportunities to ask for help.

The two of the most common project management methodologies are waterfall and agile.

Waterfall

  • When to use: For projects that have a set of discrete, ordered steps that need to be followed.
  • Process Overview: Typically these projects are clearly defined before the tasks begin and all team members are all moving to complete one of the stages synchronously.
  • Benefits: Provides clear guidance to the team about project status: what is completed, what is the current task, and what comes next.
  • Drawbacks: Assumes the project works best in a linear, step-by-step progression, so going back to a previous step or working on multiple steps in parallel is not supported.
  • Best Practices: Everyone works on part of a single stage together, so communication about progress and blockers is required to keep the entire team moving forward.

Agile (includes Scrum and Kanban)

  • When to use: Projects in which parts can be reworked and dependencies between parts are loose enough that they can be worked on in parallel. Good for projects where iterative improvements to different parts is possible or desirable.
  • Process Overview: Team members might be working on different stages of a project, so each member generally accepts one or a few specific tasks to work on. Periodic meetings are set to keep track of progress and identify bottlenecks as a form of team accountability.
  • Benefits: Allows rapid delivery of functionality with subsequent improvement or upgrade of project parts. Can support parallel development of project parts to accelerate delivery. Planning requirements are less stringent than in a waterfall model. More flexibility in what tasks are worked on and previously completed tasks can be brought back for improvement.
  • Drawbacks: The lower level of project planning needed for Agile makes it difficult to assess the actual time and effort required to complete the task. The ability to redefine and rework previous tasks can repeatedly shift delivery dates.
  • Best Practices: Scrum is specific in its communication methods: daily ~15 minute meetings are used to keep the team in sync and assure that team members remain accountable and engaged.

Templates to Help You Get Started with Remote Work

More stories on: