How to excel as a remote employee
As outlined in Why I only work remotely, working from home/remote work is a great way to combat distractions and improve productivity. I rely on remote work to succeed in the face of challenges like Open Office Plans, distraction overload, and mismatched hours. Thus, I respectfully refuse to work at companies that expect to see my face in their chair every day only for the sake of it. That being said, this is a huge privilege and I take great personal responsibility and pride in being more productive while at home.
Lack of Self Discipline
As a remote worker, you need to adopt a “manager of one” ethos. Can you handle the personal responsibility of freedom and autonomy? If we remove your training wheels, will you fail?
White collar work is becoming a bigger part of our labor force. Most white collar work lends itself to a “hands off” management style. These organizations function best by giving their workers freedom and autonomy, and allowing employees to choose how best to do their work. These privileges come with a contract. You have been entrusted and empowered — how will you respond in this situation? Will you abuse the trust of your employer when they’ve given you an amazing opportunity?
It’s vital that you to take on the role of being your own manager. In healthy organizations, if you are not performing at a high level, it will become apparent very quickly, especially in places that entrust their team members with freedom and autonomy.
Improving Self Discipline
If you have the privilege of working from home, and you want to keep this privilege, you should actively work on your self discipline. No one said that it was easy to work from home, or that it is without its challenges. It’s also not for everyone, and if you have tried everything and can’t be productive, there is no shame in accepting that. If going into an office everyday is the way you are most productive, then you should probably do that.
Self discipline is the most valuable skill you can develop, in fact, it correlates broadly with success more than any other character trait (even intelligence!). I recommend reading No Excuses by Brian Tracy or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey for inspiration. They cover strategies, theories, and techniques to improve self discipline. You would be hard pressed to find a better way to spend your time than reading these books and dedicated yourself to implementing their wisdom.
Flow is the magic mental state where we can concentrate deeply on a task. Being able to reliably tap into Flow gives a knowledge worker nearly superhuman powers in their cognitive ability (especially compared with the poor office worker who is regularly bombarded by distractions, notifications, and noise). One of my daily goals is to be in a Flow state as much as possible, as this is the period when I am hyper focused and extremely productive. Flow feels good, and the results do not lie. Flow can be very elusive, but it is extremely worthy of pursuit.
Experiment to reliably find Flow
Everyone is different and thus it is beyond the scope of this post to figure out what will help you find Flow. I can share some tips and tricks of things that work for me, but you’ll have to figure out on your own what works for you. Having the mindset of an experimenter and tinkerer is a great one to have if you are doing remote work. It’s the perfect opportunity to try out new ways of working, or getting into a rhythm for work.
Some tricks that might help you find Flow
- Going to the gym or taking a walk around the block before you start work allows you to create a distinctly separate experience between home life and work life
- Having a dedicated work space of some sort, ideally with a door if you have a spouse/kids/roommates
- Renting a coworking space or private office if there are simply too many distractions at home
- Using the Pomodoro technique or other time management strategies
- Regular exercise/Gym breaks
- Sleep hacking/Polyphasic Sleep/naps: a cup of coffee followed by 20 min nap at 2pm is my ultimate daily reup!
- Going out for lunch or coffee breaks up the monotony of being at home for hours on end
- Eating healthy meals: my favorite perk of working from home — cooking healthy meals with fresh ingredients
- Hours discipline: Aim to work less hours but be more productive. Do not feel guilty if you only work 6 hours. It’s better to make 6 hours count than to work 12 throwaway hours
Be honest with yourself, and when you find things that work, turn them into habits that stick.
Lack of Motivation
As a manager of one, we have to identify and combat the things that drain our motivation to excel as employees.
Losing the Signal
Without being in an office everyday, we can become disconnected from the mission and purpose of the company. When we don’t hang around coworkers all day, it’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of our work. This is tied very closely to the issue of communication (covered below); but we must remind of ourselves regularly of the purpose of our work and focus on staying engaged and on track with the mission of the organization. Hopefully your company is doing some kind of all hands meeting regularly, which is either recorded or live streamed. Never miss these meetings — they are extra important to maintain context when you are remote.
Competition on a global scale
It’s important to remember that as a remote worker, you are now competing on a global scale instead of a local one. Instead of having to be one of the best people at your job within a 50 mile radius of your company’s office, you are now competing with everyone in the entire world who has your skill set. This should set a fire under you a bit — think about the hungry, smart, and talented people in eastern Europe who would LOVE your cushy job. You need to step up your game because your company has now opened up the competition for your job by about 100x.
When you aren’t in the office, it’s easy to fall out of the loop. You have to work much harder at communicating than you would otherwise. A lot of people cite communication difficulties as being the reason remote work isn’t successful in their company. While this is a valid concern, it just means that you have the added responsibility of over communicating when you are out of the office. The successful remote employees I’ve seen in the past are almost annoying in how much they communicate with their teams. They are constantly updating everyone in chat on what they are working on, and use the project management software more than anyone else. They give the best standup updates and often times will add the most input into group discussions. It’s important to accept this added responsibility as a tradeoff for all of the wonderful freedoms of distributed work, and do your part to ensure you are a productive part of the team. Use the tools I suggest below (a good webcam, headset with mic, solid internet connection) to ensure the communication links with others are solid and that your voice can be clearly heard! Invest some of the ~$1,200/year you save by not commuting on your equipment.
Remote first vs Reluctantly remote
There are many companies that might allow remote work or working from home, but they see it through a very cynical lens, as opposed to those who make it a keystone of the organization. If you work for the latter, you are a lucky individual and you should cherish your opportunity! If you work for the former, you’ll have plenty of people expecting you to fail, so you’ve got to watch your step and be extra careful. Success as a remote employee has numerous challenges and pitfalls and you have to (in certain ways) work much harder than you would if you just showed up to an office and sat your ass in a chair.
One of the big challenges in a place that is reluctantly remote (and even some places that are remote first) is when remote employees become second class citizens. This is extremely dangerous and a great example of setting up remote workers to fail. Symptoms of treating remote employees as second class citizens:
- Paying lower salaries to remote employees than local employees: This is understandable if someone is in a different country with a dramatically different cost of living, but unacceptable when we are comparing two employees in the same country/area
- Spending more on perks for local employees than remote employees: things like buying meals, equipment, etc for in person employees, but not having a budget for (or even thinking about) remote employees
- Not investing in any kind of video conferencing equipment (microphones, webcams, etc-see below for the remote Employee/Employer survival kits)
- Not live streaming all hands or similar group meetings
- Running meetings and not setting up video conferencing, or starting the meeting without having all remote employees in the “room”
A killer workspace
It’s absolutely vital to have a great workspace if you are working remotely. You will not be effective if you are posted up at the kitchen table with 3 kids screaming in the background. If you are going to make this work, you need to have some type of dedicated, quiet space where you will be free from the possible distractions at home. Spouses and children often think that because you are at home, you are fair game to interrupt and ask to help out around the house. You’ve got to speak with your family (or roommates) and make it clear that if the door to your office is closed, it’s work time and you need to be left uninterrupted. You’ve worked so hard to break away from the distractions at an office, it’s all moot if you are just as distracted at home! If you live alone, this won’t be as much of a challenge, but it’s still a really big help to have a dedicated space where you can get in the zone. Another key part of your killer workspace is having a great internet connection, webcam, and headset (with mic!). If you are in a meeting with people who are in an office and they are struggling to hear you, the support for you working from home will go south very quickly.
Another challenge distributed workforces face is timezone issues. My view is that remote employees should aim for having at least 4 hours of overlap with their team every day. This is a good amount of time to make it easy to schedule meetings and stay ‘in sync’.
That being said, there are some great examples of companies who have actually used minimal time overlap to their advantage. One example of this is Bannerman, an awesome startup run by Jonathan Chin & Antoine De Chevigne (both fantastic founders + friends). Jonathan is the CEO and runs product, marketing, and sales out of San Francisco, while CTO Antoine runs the engineering team out of Paris. They have 1 hour of overlap during the end of the day for Paris/beginning of the day for SF. They have a meeting at this time where they do any updates necessary, and get all of their communication done in one batch. The engineering team is left uninterrupted for their entire day, and can get into a deep, productive, and uninterrupted flow state for the rest of the day. The product team can’t just send a slack message with the expectation of getting an immediate response, they have to group together all the communication they’ll need to do for the day. This forces them to think hard about what they are asking, and make sure they think things through properly before sending a knee jerk message and interrupting the engineering team. This might seem like a bad thing, but they have turned a weakness into a strength as it has forced them into having disciplined habits around their communication and all parties are very happy with this arrangement.
Showing up to say hello
While being remote is ideal for doing actual work, a lot of companies and startups believe that friendships and personal connection are a vital part of their culture. I don’t disagree with this, and it can be harder to make these kind of connections remotely. That does not mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to remote work. My goal as a remote worker is to either be in the office once a week or so (if geographically possible) or fly in and spend 1–2 weeks in the office every quarter. I’ve found that this is the perfect arrangement because everyone gets to know me quite well, and we can find plenty of time for things that are better in person (design meetings, planning, celebrations, etc), but it doesn’t get in the way of reaching peak productivity because we batch them together. For companies that don’t want to fly me out regularly due to cost, I’m happy to pick up the cost personally because I see it being so valuable.
The foundation of success with remote work: Trust
In my eyes, the employer/employee relationship is built on trust. When wearing my founder/employer/manager hat, I trust you to put forth your best effort at your job, and perform at a high level. I will do everything I can to help you succeed. It is my job to help you succeed. However, if you breach my trust, that is something that I cannot forgive and it is grounds for immediate termination. This goes for working from home — as a manager, I believe in giving individuals freedom and autonomy to do work as best they see fit, including working from home. I don’t want to babysit you just like you do not want to be babysat. However, if you tell me are working from home, but are really just using it as an excuse to play golf all day, that is a breach of our trust and our relationship is over. I will not tear up the freedoms that other employees deserve just because we employ someone who cannot handle their own personal responsibility. It’s one thing if you struggle with motivation of even self discipline, but if you are willfully abusing a work from home policy, you’ve committed a sin that cannot be forgiven. This is a key part of my philosophy around removing the training wheels and letting bad actors fail. You shouldn’t build an organization around babysitting low performers, instead you should build an organization that allows high performers to flourish.
I will not tear up the freedoms that other employees deserve just because we employ someone who cannot handle their own personal responsibility.
The Remote Employee’s Survival Kit
Wireless Headset with Mic
Seriously this is the most important thing you can get. You need a headset with a proper mic so that people can hear you loud and clear when you are video conferences.
Honorable mention if you already have a pair of headphones you really like is the Modmic ($55) — It’s an amazing little mic you can attach to headphones and sounds fantastic.
I use the Logitech C920, $63, as it is very high quality but not too expensive. I use the built in Macbook pro webcam sometimes, but usually I’m using my main 34" monitor and the camera angle is weird when my laptop is off to the side. My facial expressions are much more clear and intuitive when the camera angle is straight on. This might seem trivial, but these little details really matter when you are remote. This is the replacement you have to being face to face, and you can’t skimp here.
Look I know it’s hard to find good internet in many places, but this is just a deal breaker. If you cannot do video conferencing reliably on your internet connection, you cannot work remotely, period. If this means you have to move, so be it. We’re talking about your livelihood here, and if you are getting the wonderful privileges of remote work, this is the most important piece.
The Remote Employer’s Must Haves
Conference room mic
When a meeting is being held in a conference room, it’s important that the remote employees be able to hear everyone in the room. This is impossible without a quality, purpose built conference mic. I recommend the MXL AC404 ($75). It differs from a regular mic in that it’s designed to pickup sound/voices from every directional (omnidirectional pattern) as opposed to a microphone which is designed to isolate noise from one source (cardioid pattern). Most microphones you’ll find are cardioid pattern because this is the most common use for a mic: most of the time you are using a microphone to pick up sound from a single source and everything else is background noise (bad).
2 Large TVs in every conference room
You probably already have Large TVs in your conference rooms for people to plug into, but it’s worth doubling up if you have remote employees. One screen for the presentation, and one screen for the remote employees faces/webcam feeds. 60"+ TVs are so cheap nowadays that it shouldn’t be a huge stretch for the business.
Webcam with wide angle lens (to see everyone)
Your remote employees want to see what’s going on! Make sure every conference room has a high quality webcam with a wide angle lens (so everyone can fit into the picture), such as the Logitech C920, $63.
Headsets with dedicated microphones for all employees
The Logitech G930, $62 is a great choice, but make sure everyone in the office has a dedicated mic. The built in microphones are most laptops (including all of Apple’s Macbook lines) are atrocious. These mics pick up more background noise than voice, and make me want to poke my eyeballs out. Seriously, invest in some headsets, or if you are really cheap, many earbuds for phones have built in mics which are already miles better than built in computer microphones.
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