In this article, we have examples of remote workers of many different personality types and skillsets. We have asked them about some of the challenges they face, how they overcome them, and how they stay happy, motivated, and productive.
The challenges of remote work
Remote work calls for more of an entrepreneurial skill set, in that you need to manage yourself and be able to handle uncertainty. Every job has a unique set of challenges. Many people find equally unique solutions to them.
Monika Zameta – “Isolate from distractions, not your team”
Since I cannot meet with my colleagues in the flesh that often, we sometimes turn our laptop camera’s on and just pretend we sit next to each other working. It’s fun!
My boyfriend works remotely from home as well, and we had a tendency to interrupt each other pretty often with things totally unrelated to work (groceries, plans for the weekend, etc.).
This is a no-no for remote workers. It’s a no-brainer, but we had to learn it the hard way. In order to maintain a healthy balance between work and private life we never work from the living-room (shared spaces) and always keep the doors to our offices closed, if you don’t wish to be interrupted.
Vincent Nguyen – “Interact with the people who feed your creativity”
For my first four months of working with Empire Flippers, I actually lived with Justin. This gave us the chance to learn a lot about each other’s strengths and weaknesses plus it gave us a lot of time to bounce creative ideas off each other.
Once I moved out to my own place and saw the team less, I felt less motivated to produce creative content. A big part of the writing and marketing process is brainstorming with others and receiving valuable feedback, so if you’re not consistently communicating with the team then you find yourself feeling unmotivated.
I often found myself hesitating to reach out to someone for feedback because I was worried I’d be distracting them from whatever they’re doing. If I saw someone online, I’d question whether or not they had their hands were full and often talked myself out of sending a message that may have helped me with what I was working on at the time.
The solution is relatively simple once you realize what you have to do: make it a priority to interact with the people who feed your creativity.
If this means scheduling a weekly meetup at the coffee shop, then that’s what you do. If you live in a different city or country, schedule a weekly strategy call. No one is too busy to talk to a team member for an hour of the week.
If one hour on the phone per week gives you ideas for a month’s worth of creative output, the value is obvious.
Training and onboarding for remote workers
The first few months of joining a team are critical for success. Cultural fit is important with remote teams. It can be challenging to sync up with the culture when a team is spread across the world.
Taylor Pearson – “Starting in a high context environment is critical”
Onboarding for us was 30-90 days in the same location. This is critical. Start with daily meetings the first month, then you can bump down to bi-weekly after that.
Especially for people that haven’t worked remotely in the past, starting in a high context environment is critical. Organizations have rhythms and the faster you can get someone into the rhythm, the better. The Rockefeller Habits is a great book to read on the details of this.
We were also always very upfront about asking people about emotional and psychological stuff. A lot of people skip this because it’s “unprofessional” but it’s super important to understand the broader context of people’s lives not only for just being a good person but for making them an effective member of the team. If they’re having a lot of stress in their relationships or worrying about paying rent, they won’t have a lot of creative energy to devote to their work.
Justin Cooke – “Prove your value”
Justin Cooke and his partner Joe Magnotti got their start remote working as mid-level managers. After making a case for going remote and building an overflow team for their company in the Philippines, they were faced with the challenge of proving that they were adding value by going remote, here’s how they accomplished that.
The first couple of months were difficult. We were obsessively occupied with making the company successful and put in crazy long hours doing everything we could to make that happen. The office had been completed by the time Joe had arrived, but we were also in the process of transitioning the Philippines company from a sole-proprietorship to a corporation. Lots of documents to sign, the bureaucracy involved, etc. Joe was busy dealing with some of the realities of doing business in the Philippines and having to balance that with the needs of our biggest (and only) customer.
We’d made some claims in our presentation in terms of what the team would be able to accomplish and in order to “prove” their value, we put KPI’s in place to back them up.
The strategy of preemptively tackling questions about your value with your client was a good one. By consistently supplying reports showing that you’re at or above expected levels and the value you’re providing, you’re able to avoid some of those nagging doubts that can come when companies work with contractors. Ultimately, it’s your job to prove your value to your clients, so why not get ahead of that?
Communication with your team
Communicating efficiently is the one of the most critical skills of the remote worker. It’s too easy these days to send an email or message without much thought which can create confusion or needless interruption. This can add up over time and slow you and your whole team down.
An important element to this is clarity in your writing. Before you send a message, try and anticipate questions that would naturally follow or where you may be misinterpreted. Identify them and build the solutions into your message. This can reduce the number of messages you send back and forth and sets clear expectations. Here are some examples:
A deadline or a task
Unclear: “The landing page will be up on Tuesday”
Clear: “The landing page will be up, live, and collecting leads for our autoresponder by 4:00 pm on Tuesday”
The unclear statement creates more questions than it answers and leaves a lot open for interpretation. While the second concretely defines what “will be up” means and what that will look like.
Unclear: “I am afraid I will get into an accident driving home tonight”
Clear: “I am concerned I will get into an accident driving home tonight because the tires on my car are bald”
Again, the unclear statement does not actually outline a problem or empower the listener to provide a tangible solution, it just creates more questions. Where the clear statement identifies the real problem and has a straightforward solution.
Nico Appel – “The bar is raised when your team is working remotely”
Clear communication is a start; effective communication is the next step. What I mean by “effective”, is baked into the principles of Tight Operations:
- Always have the recipient(s) in mind. What’s the best way for them to “get this”? Word, format, and structure your communication for maximum understanding.
- Ask yourself “What do I expect/wish to happen next?”. This will help you move things forward instead of just keeping conversations alive.
- Be a closer. We all can only handle so many threats at once. Close up when possible.
- Choose the appropriate channel. Don’t email or instant message tasks to others; add them to the task manager directly and spare them doing it. You’re on a team.
- Keep it short(er). Edit and condense your messages down to their essence.
- Context. With asynchronous communication, it’s very helpful to provide context. Be aware that others might not be into a given topic as much as you are. When I read your email two weeks from now, will it be easy to understand not only the information but also the context? (How is this relevant? What does this relate to?)
- Over-communicate. Let your team know what you‘re working on. Don’t go AWOL. Update task statuses. Be responsive at the times you are supposed to.
- And finally, invest some time to familiarize yourself with the tools your team is using. It’s astounding how often I have people on Skype asking me how to share their screen.
Brian Cooksey – “Default to transparency”
There are a few things that contribute to my success as a remote worker. The most important is that remote employees are first-class citizens at Zapier. With the whole team being distributed, no one gets left out of the loop or misses out on activities at the “main office.” Instead, communication happens asynchronously and we default to transparency.
For example, we use Slack for real-time chat. There are channels for different departments, and also for the major projects we are working on. We favor asking questions, even individual questions, in a public channel with a mention rather than direct messages. That way the info is available for others.
Another tool we have is an internal blog that pretty much replaces email for us. Weekly updates, company announcements, etc. all happen on the blog so there is a nice searchable archive.
Sebastian Vasta – “Set expectations and boundaries”
Remote Work is in theory about swinging work/life balance in our favor. But because there’s no default boundary between office and downtime, it’s easy for work to encroach on the rest of your life. The effect of this is inefficiency, and, at worst, apathy.
The solution? Set boundaries with yourself and expectations with your boss or clients about when you will and won’t be online. Force yourself to not be checking email constantly – if you’re not paid to think about work 24/7, reclaim your headspace! You’ll enjoy your time off more, but you’ll also work more efficiently when you’re on the clock.
Prioritize your task list, and if you’re only paid a certain amount of hours, split it into what you can complete this week and what you won’t have time for. Most importantly, share that with your boss!
Managing time and productivity for maximum output
Understanding yourself is an important element to maximizing your output as a remote worker. Everyone has different motivations, and knowing what yours are will empower you to take advantage of them and create an environment that works for you.
One of the biggest advantages to remote work is it allows you greater freedom to manage your time and environment with flexibility. You can experiment with different settings and times to get the most out of your day.
Hiten Shah – “Love what you do”
Make sure you are doing the type of work you love to do and are in a company environment that’s right for you where you feel like you can do your best work. The actual work you do in a distributed company is very important in helping you stay motivated and creative.
From my perspective, I’m always concerned about and making sure everyone on the team is growing and feels like they are able to hit their personal and professional goals by being part of the company. Life is too short to work for a company you can’t get excited about!
Taylor Pearson – “Without solitude, no great work is possible”
I find working remotely lets me harness my most inspiring creative energy a lot more effectively. If I’m just not feeling it at 2pm on a Tuesday, I’ll leave and go to the gym. If I’m super feeling it at 9pm on Friday, I’ll sit down to do some work.
I think a lot of companies underestimate how emotional and psychological states contribute to worker productivity. Giving people back their autonomy to work when they want and where they want not only makes happier teams but more productive ones as well.
A big part of it for me is that it better facilitates a Maker’s Schedule. I would agree with Picasso “without solitude, no great work is possible.” The output from four hours of uninterrupted work on a big problem is exponentially (not linearly) greater than four, one-hour chunks.
Working remotely lets you do this. Someone can always “pop in” at the office but if you use tools like Freedom and turn off your cell phone then at home you can create more solitude.
That being said, I like offices too. There’s a lot of high context information that gets passed between people in an office environment that you don’t get in a virtual one. I moved to San Diego to work out of the office at one point and that gave me a ton of leverage.
I’m extremely ritualistic. I wrote a post about my daily ritual at one point with the details. I believe in decision fatigue so the more I can automate trivial details of my life to focus on the BIG picture things in my work, the better.
The most important things for me are:
- A morning ritual – having the first 45-60 minutes of my day pre-scripted and 100% consistent give me momentum moving forward and getting started with the day. I like to read, do yoga, meditate and plan my day before I ever start “working”
- Regular exercise – I always try to take at least 30 minutes out of the day to exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the park
The other major component for me is making sure the work I’m doing is aligned with a higher purpose for me. Every morning I have a document where I review and think about my broader purpose with work and life and get my work for the day in alignment with it. There’s a lot of scientific research backing this – Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” is a good place to start.
Alison Groves – “Everyone is productive in their own way”
I feel like I was never meant for a fixed office gig, because life doesn’t really operate on a fixed schedule. Some of us are early birds (I start my days at 6am), some of us are night owls, everyone is productive in their own different and special ways.
If I was chained to a desk every day from 9 to 5, I’d miss the more productive part of my day which is early in the morning, and would be pigeonholed into some mass schedule that didn’t fit what was right for me. Having a whole team that works when it’s best for them leads to a far more productive and successful product and company.
Sebastian Vasta – “Focus on one thing only”
In the age of information overload we’re using so many different tools and platforms, both professionally and personally. These constant distractions can destroy your workday.
The best way to get through your task list is to do one thing – and one thing only – before moving onto the next thing. That means no refreshing of your Facebook feed! If you have trouble doing this, there are some simple techniques to improve your efficiency, such as splitting up tasks with batch processing, or splitting up time with the Pomodoro technique.
Creating a workspace that works for you
I like to work at home or in a library most of the time. If possible spend a bit of the early morning or late afternoon working outside. The sunlight and fresh air help to boost my creativity.
Spending so much time writing on a laptop was beginning to lead to some minor injuries like neck pain and wrist pain.
To prevent further problems, I started using the Pomodoro method. This consists of 25 minutes of focused work on one task and a 5-minute break. I have written up a few small exercise sequences to do during the break.
Working at a standing desk is helpful for lower back health, but it usually causes my neck to strain when looking down at my laptop at an increased angle. There are a lot of interesting solutions out there like the StandStand, but I currently can’t imagine setting that up in a coffee shop, or carrying it on a plane.
The best solution I have found is the Aviiq portable laptop stand. It props up my computer giving me a much more comfortable angle to rest my hands on, this has dramatically reduced the strain on my wrists and elbows. Another benefit is it elevates my screen a few inches, though this difference seems minor, it makes a noticeable difference in reducing the strain on my neck. It is helpful whether standing or sitting. Best of all, it is an incredibly low profile. It weighs almost nothing and can fold up to almost the size of a bookmark.
For many people, a home office is an opportunity to engineer an environment by surrounding yourself with things that inspire you or help you work. This can be anything from decorations, to ergonomic equipment that suits you. Justin McGill has spent a lot of time creating a home office optimal for his creative process. He has extra desks and computers ready just in case someone on his team wants to come over and work with him.
Justin McGill – “The benefits of a home office”
I prefer working at home, because I am able to focus. I prefer working in the dark and working in silence, so an office setting makes it difficult to work in those conditions.
I’ll add that I think having an office is a good thing to build culture and camaraderie. Working remote is great if you’re productive and aren’t getting distracted. I think it’s important to set up an area in your home that is designated strictly for the office. This way you’re brain is wired to know that when you are in that area. You are there to work. Put the TV in another room.
Vincent Nguyen – “Mix up with your workspaces”
Being location-independent, the biggest perk is that I can work in my most optimum environments at will. I’ll often find myself typing away in a coffee shop. In fact, I’m writing this from a Coffee Bean at the moment.
Some of my friends can’t focus in a noisy coffee shop because they find the conversations and noises distracting, but the sounds kickstart my productivity. The conversations are often scattered enough to the point where you can’t hear the exact conversation people are having and if it gets too loud, you could pop on a pair of earphones and listen to some music.
But it’s not always the same. Some days, I do my best work from my house or from a library. I mix it up.
And that’s the most important part, the freedom and flexibility to be able to decide where I want to work. I don’t have to clock in at 9am to an office and stay there until 5pm. I can work from home at from 7am, head to a coffee shop at 12pm, go back home at 4pm and finish everything there.
So if you don’t operate at your best in a coffee shop then you can experiment and find places that do work for you.
To put it all in one sentence: my workspace is always changing and it all depends on what works best for me that specific day.
Taylor Pearson – “High ceilings and low clutter for creativity”
One thing I’ve noticed is that I feel a lot more creative with big, open work spaces. High ceilings and a big desk free of clutter both make a big difference. Being able to look out of a window is also really nice.
I’m experimenting with working on an exercise ball right now and just ordered an Ikea side table for $10 to put on top of my desk so I can rotate between the sitting on the exercise ball and standing.
I also regularly use the Pomodoro technique to work in 25 minute or 50 minute chunks with 5 to 10 minute breaks respectively. I like to do some light bodyweight exercises (pushups, pullups, squats) and stretches in between.
Perhaps the danger is overblown, but I definitely have some concerns about sitting down hunched over a computer for ten hours.
Maintaining relationships and connections with your team
A big trend I saw when collecting responses for this article was the importance and emphasis on relationships for remote teams. Taking the time to keep the sense of a team strong is important for optimal motivation and creativity while working on a remote team.
Alison Groves – “Create an inclusive culture”
To me, community isn’t just an external thing, but it covers our internal team as well. I’m a pretty gregarious, chatty person, and have a lot of different hobbies and passions. I work really hard to build relationships with all of my teammates and make sure even though we’re distributed, everyone feels connected.
I do my best to ensure that all of my teammates are supported, and that they don’t feel isolated. I take the inclusivity of our team and culture very seriously, and know that the rest of my teammates do too. One of my favorite little things about Zapier culture is every week when we’re recapping for our teammates what we did that week on our internal blog, we also include what we’re doing over the weekend. This helps us all feel connected a bit outside of work, and learn more about each other personally. Two or three sentences that really make a huge difference.
Mike San Román – “Use tools for personal improvement”
We have lots of amazing workflows and tools that help us be in touch as a whole team and keep track of what we’ve been working on, or which are our weekly personal improvements!
Personal weekly improvements – In line with our value of being focused on self-improvements, we share our weekly personal improvements in a Hackpad and encourage each other to give feedback.
Daily pair calls – Each week, each member of Buffer is paired with a different teammate, and then each pair decides which is a good time to chat daily during that week. The chats are usually video chats via Sqwiggle (no longer available so as an alternative try Zoom), and we talk about what we’re working on, as well as how are our weekly improvements going.
Transparent email and documents – At Buffer, everyone receives every email, and all documents (created using Hackpad) are accessible to everyone, so all in the team are kept in the loop, and are able to give advice, ideas, and insights on everything.
iDoneThis – We use iDoneThis as a way to be transparent within the team and share with everyone what we’ve been working on during the day.
HipChat – We always have HipChat (no longer available, as an alternative try Slack) open while we are around, there we are in sync with everyone in the team, sharing photos or notes, getting/giving advice, and a good bunch of notifications that our own BufferBot provides, such as notifications from HelpScout, git commits/deployment status, new posts on personal/Buffer blogs, new Kindles being gifted to somebody in the team, and much more!
Retreats – Every four or five months, we go on a full-company retreat somewhere in the world (just finished our last one in Sydney!). Buffer covers all the expenses, like flights, accommodation, meals, and activities. Although is amazing to be in a distributed team, we’d never have the chance to be all together if it wasn’t for the retreats, in which we can spend 10 days the whole team together and share experiences and get to know each other better.
Though there are many challenges to remote work, these cases prove that there are creative solutions to overcome them. The benefits outweigh the drawbacks for many. Hopefully these tips will help get you at the top of your remote working game.
Monika Zameta – Was the customer support manager at Cleeng.