What makes an effective remote worker?

Picture a giant open plan office in which everyone is welcome; people stop by your desk, say hi, show you funny pictures of their kids or last night’s dinner, videos of their cats, say really annoying shit so you get into an argument with them, talk loudly and for a long time about Game of Thrones. Not only are people always around, but your open plan office happens to be in the biggest library in the world — there is always something for you to read, whatever your whim. The world’s information is at your fingertips. This is the office of a remote worker.

When people talk about the benefits of working from home they often talk about less distractions and greater productivity; but when you work on the internet you have infinite distractions. It is very easy to do no work while feeling like you are busy; it’s hard to avoid distractions when you work from a rabbit hole.

This is a big change in environment from a co-located office, where everything is built around and focused upon work. When you work remotely, no one else creates your physical work environment— the responsibility for creating a space where you can effectively work is passed on to you. There is less immediate direction and support from the company that you work for. When you work online you need to develop an additional set of skills: you aren’t just responsible for the work that you do but how you do it.

First of all, it’s important to be able to create boundaries between your work and the rest of your life. When you work remotely you no longer have an office that clearly delineates between work and the rest of your life. This makes it easy for work to take over and you may find yourself working all of the time. Creating boundaries helps you keep work at bay, but it also makes it easier for you to switch gears between work and everything else that you do. You need to be able to segment your time to avoid habits like checking your emails at all times of the day and night, constantly switched on and rarely giving your mind a break from work. When you first start working online this immersion can be exhilarating but for an extended period of time it can lead to burnout.

You need to learn techniques that enable you to focus and get your work done. As a remote worker, you battle against the dual distractions of home and the internet. It’s very easy to spend a few hours floating about on social media, chatting on Slack, IRC, or HipChat, or down a Wikipedia rabbithole. Learning to focus will help you to get your work done and allow you to properly switch off and create boundaries. I use plenty of different tricks to help myself focus: turning off Slack and email helps to keep out inbound communication; if you find social media to be a distraction that you can’t keep away from you could try an app like Freedom; for work that requires extensive periods of focus I’ve found the Pomodoro Technique to be particularly helpful.

Remote workers often have much more autonomy than co-located workers. This means that you have to get really good at prioritising. Work builds up and your to-do list keeps growing. It’s important to regularly review your to-do list to determine what your priorities are, both for yourself and your employer. Some tasks just don’t have as much importance as others and it’s down to you to figure out which ones take precedence. A helpful technique is to write out everything that you have to do and see how it contributes to your company or team’s goals; those that help achieve those goals are top priority and everything else decreases in importance from there.

You need to be self-motivated in order to get your work done. Find a job that you actually want to get out of bed to do. If you are uninspired by your work, your company, or just doing your work for a paycheque, you can reach the point at which you just can’t be bothered anymore. With no one looking over your shoulder motivation can tank, you stop getting your work done and spend your day watching daytime television instead of working at your computer. This isn’t good for your employer or for your own state of mind.

Communication is one of a remote worker’s most important skills. Every remote worker spends a huge amount of time communicating with their peers. You need to be able to communicate effectively, usually through the medium of text. This doesn’t just mean being able to write clearly in whichever language your company communicates in; you need to be able to communicate effectively often across different cultures, and be sensitive to the different nuances of those cultures. Beyond that you need to be able to read other people’s communications in a sympathetic manner, giving others the benefit of the doubt so as to diffuse any potentially difficult situations. Just because someone comes across as curt and abrasive doesn’t mean that they are — their cultural or personal communication style may just be different to your own.

You also need to be responsive to other people. Remote companies don’t work if employees don’t respond to one another in a timely and effective way. It’s important to not leave others waiting for your responses for unreasonable periods of time as it may leave them blocked on their own work. If you are going to be away and unable to answer incoming messages you need to communicate this to the rest of your team.

And this final point doesn’t really seem to be related to work at all, but you need to have and to cultivate a social life. One of the biggest challenges of remote work is isolation: a poll run by Ipsos Mori found that 62% of people find telecommuting isolating. There’s no question that when you work remotely you see a lot less of people, which can be socially isolating. If this is getting you down it can affect your work and prevent you from actually working happily and productively. You need to seek out other ways to get the types of in-person connection that we all need.

Interested in learning more about remote work? Join us for Out of Office on 30th May 2017, a free online conference where we’ll talk remote work with experts from Baremetrics, Yonder, Human Made, Forbes, Github, Hanno, and Zapier.