Tips for First-Time Remote Workers

March 19, 2020

COVID-19 has forced global adoption of work-from-home policies and many are going about setting up a home office environment for the first time. As with any sudden change, there are a lot of questions and moving parts as people learn to embrace working remotely for an indefinite period of time.

From delineating clear boundaries to ensuring you have the right tools to stay on task and remain connected with your team, the transition to becoming a remote worker can take some adjustment.

As a remote-first company, we’ve been at this for quite some time. Recently, many of us have been fielding questions from friends and family who have been thrown into remote work for the first time, so we figured there must be a wider audience out there who may also be feeling a little lost.

Here are some tips for those who are new to remote working. While we understand that all may not be practical or possible for every circumstance, hopefully there are some helpful takeaways for everyone.

Reduce distractions

  • Try to carve out a dedicated space for each person in your home that needs to work. Simply working in the lounge or at the dining room table won’t work for long if you’re not the only person in the house. Having a dedicated workspace helps maintain distinctions between work and non-work time.
  • Set expectations and boundaries among everyone in your space.
  • The above statement goes double for kids. It’s important that your family understand that just because mom or dad are in the next room, it doesn’t mean she or he is available to chat or play all day. (Obviously, this is age-dependent.)

Set a schedule

  • Be clear with family about “work hours” and “non-work hours” and set expectations for both.
  • Have a morning routine. Tempting as it may be to sleep in and just roll out of bed to the desk, you’ll likely be more productive in the long run if you set an alarm, get dressed and ready just like you would if you were going to the office.
  • Look for your own personal transition point that can replace a commute. Perhaps heading to the local park for a walk or even just popping downstairs and back in can help you make the mental shift to start focusing on work.
  • Develop a daily cadence that involves taking regular breaks. Get up and walk around. Schedule coffee, snack and lunch breaks with the family or have a virtual lunch date or happy hour with a friend or co-worker.
  • Make sure you have non-work hours. On that note, don’t use the time you save by not commuting to simply work longer hours. That will burn you out and may cause resentment with your family.

Make sure you have the right tools

Recommendations include, but are not limited to:

  • Computer with required software to fulfill your responsibilities
  • External monitor to boost productivity
  • Stable Internet connection
  • Phone
  • Comfortable chair (unless you prefer a standing desk)
  • Good headphones, preferably of the noise cancelling variety
  • Notebook (physical or digital) to keep track of to-do’s and meeting notes

Stay connected with your team

Perhaps the most difficult part of an abrupt transition to remote work is the feeling that part of your social life has been taken away. We’ve come up with some fun ways that have helped us maintain a strong company culture and connect with each other on a more personal level, including: weekly all-hands meeting via Zoom, Friday (virtual) happy hour, How I Dev, and Shuffl bot in Slack.

In order to facilitate most of this, we rely on lots of tooling to keep communications flowing seamlessly.

Messaging software (Slack, MS Teams, etc.)

  • For those using Slack, realizing the value of channels can be useful. As an example: #section-humans, #stand-up, #prs, #sales-ops, #random. We’ve found that using special interest channels is a helpful way of not cluttering other channels: #golang, #eng-cli-snippets, #hackathon-idea, as examples.
  • Keep related conversations contained in comment threads to prevent clutter.
  • Use reactions more than reply comments – it makes things clearer and more efficient.
  • If you need to archive a channel, it’s easy to do and can be used for projects, incidents, events, etc.
  • If you find that you’re in a back-and-forth chat that’s not resolving quickly, jump into a video call to talk it out. (Pro tip for Slack users: Check out the Slack/Zoom integration.)
  • There are lots of resources dedicated solely to messaging etiquette and efficiency tips, such as this one: Slack Etiquette, Part 1: Organize & Be Mindful

Video conferencing software for virtual meetings (Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.)

  • While video calls are not the same as face-to-face conversations, many of the same communications can be facilitated remotely. Lean into the opportunity to meet virtually and give the same attention as you would in a traditional, in-person meeting… i.e. dismiss the temptation to check Twitter or email at the same time!
  • Create agendas and distribute them ahead of time so attendees come prepared, and always end with a summary of what was accomplished and next steps to focus on. (This goes for all meetings, virtual and in-person.)
  • Having good meeting rituals in place helps build trust and collaboration. Meetings could start with a check in for each team member in which they share how they’re feeling that day, and what else may be going on that might impact productivity or mood.
  • Be sure to turn your video on! This will let you and your fellow attendees pick up on visual communication clues that might otherwise be lost, and give a chance to more directly connect.
  • Make sure you have good headphones.

Project management software (Trello, JIRA, TargetProcess, etc.)

  • Keeping everyone on the same page around assigned responsibilities, progress, and next steps is essential, particularly in remote workplace environments.
  • If you’re part of a software development project, having a tool to specifically keep track of your issues, milestones, and artifacts, can be invaluable.
  • Bonus: Use project boards as supporting visuals in meetings and check-ins to keep tasks on track.

Knowledge management tools (Guru, Confluence, etc.)

  • Internal wikis can help connect teams that work remotely by keeping informational resources up-to-date and ensuring any changes are easily shared.
  • This is a great opportunity to improve documentation and organization of policies, processes, how-to’s, and links to other helpful resources.

Email

  • Don’t forget regular old email, which is often still the primary method for external and longer-form communications.

All this points out how async a lot of remote work can become. Writing is a must-have instead of a nice-to-have. Clear, frequent communication is essential to ensure others around you know about your progress and decisions.

For remote first-timers, this is different - try not to get frustrated. It will take time to get used to the new setup, both for you, those you share your home with, and your co-workers who are likewise getting accustomed to a new normal. Tap into your determination to persevere. Difficult days, especially during the transition period and these uncertain times, are part of the journey.

On a broader note, it will be interesting to see how we progress from here in the future - will this large-scale experiment in working from home lead to more companies adopting more flexible workplace policies? In a recent report on the Digital Workplace, Gartner encouraged I&O leaders seeking out ways to provide a foundation for the digital workplace to “lead through disruption”, pushing on with digital initiatives “to ensure the business is ready for the future.” This type of widespread disruption might indeed do just that.