I’ve been working remotely for 3+ years. Here’s what I’ve learned.
The above image is a rarity. I meet my team face-to-face maybe four times a year, tops. For the past few years during my time at Black Shell Media, we’ve worked only as a remote team. No physical offices, no shared working spaces, nothing. Just good old Skype and Google Apps. I often get asked about how we manage to maintain efficient workflows and get stuff done if we’re all a remote team. Since a lot of indie developers work remotely I thought I’d share a few thoughts on how to make “distributed offices” (the glorified term for doing-work-in-your-pajamas-because-you-work-from-home) functional and efficient.
Have a schedule. Because home offices are often associated with being able to get up and work whenever you feel like it, it’s not uncommon to see people falling off the wagon and getting complacent or lazy. At Black Shell Media we don’t set strict “clock-in” and “clock-out” hours, but we do have some sense of regularity with our workflow.
We usually say that between 10AM and 6PM PST are our “accountable hours” — where anyone on the team or any client/partner should be able to get a hold of you within 30 minutes or instantly via chat or call. We answer the business phone during these hours and usually keep each other updated via text chat about how our day is going. We also set aside an hour and a half every week to have weekly meetings at the same time, though we are flexible on the timing if there is more or less to talk about that particular week. Having these regular meetings help keep the team in sync, and they serve as weekly “check-in” opportunities for everyone to go in-depth about their projects.
Having a schedule is important not only for the team as a whole, but also for each individual member of the team. Most days I make sure to set alarms to wake up in the morning in time to get breakfast, get ready and get to work at a fairly regular time. This definitely helps me stay in a good rhythm and ensure I’m not slacking off too much. Of course, this works because I’m very self-motivated to do my job (I founded the company, you’d sure hope I care about it!)
If you have a hard time sticking to a regular schedule, try keeping a log of what time every day you “clock in” and “clock out”. Make this on a Google Doc so your team can see it too. This holds you accountable to the team and to yourself — you’re much more likely to stick to a schedule if you know that people will be calling you out on it.
Hold everyone accountable. You have no idea how many projects we’ve had to abandon because people gave up or went MIA. With remote teams, especially in a startup environment where everyone isn’t exactly making big bucks, it’s super easy to fall off the wagon. Having systems in place to hold yourself and your team accountable is very helpful.
My team uses Trello almost religiously. It’s a fantastic system that allows each team member to have their own to-do list, as well as shared to-do lists, which are all viewable by everyone else on the board. This allows us to comment on each other’s work, share ideas, give feedback and share resources very efficiently. Find a similar project management system with high transparency, and make sure you know what everyone else on your team is up to. This is especially important as a manager or director, but even for regular team-mates — make sure you feel the synergy and know what everyone else is doing. Seeing other people check items off their to-do list and give feedback on other people’s work is hugely motivating, and encourages everyone on the team to keep up.
The weekly meetings I mentioned earlier are also a great way to make sure people are being held accountable. The last thing you want is people just disappearing without notice. If you foster an environment and mindset of accountability, transparency and honesty, you will see the tangible positive results. When I started working with Daniel I made sure he knew about my workflow and my schedule. If I had some personal projects or issues to take care of, I put that on our Trello so he knew I was going to be a little hard to get a hold of. If I was heads down on a project I made sure to highlight that in the weekly meeting so he could help pick up the slack elsewhere.
These accountability systems go beyond just policing everyone’s workflow and making sure nobody is crapping out on you — it’s about building trust and a dynamic work environment where people feel like their concerns and needs are heard.
And finally, find your work-life balance. Daniel and I love working from home because we are both super passionate about what we do and want to be able to get some work done wherever and whenever inspiration strikes. It’s not uncommon for me to start my Saturdays and Sundays catching up to emails or drafting next week’s content. I’m a bit of a workaholic.
The thing is — being able to work remotely and set my own hours, even if they’re beyond the hours of a “regular” job, is something that works for me. By no means do I want everyone to be thinking about work 24/7/365 just because they work from home and could theoretically work whenever. You have to find your own balance and schedule, and figure out what works for you.
If you’re the kind of person who, like Daniel and me, wants to just pick up and go whenever, then great! So so! If you want more “traditional” hours of work and then more intense “down time” off of work, do that! Working remotely is about finding a rhythm where you can be the most efficient. While I do love working on weekends and at night sometimes, I also need to chill out, hard. If I’m working, I’m working. If I’m hanging out, I’m hanging out. I make sure to do my best to separate work time from play time, even if I have a lot of work time and not as much play time sometimes. (That’s a lot of the word “time” . . . )
Don’t feel obligated to reply to emails within five minutes in the evenings. Don’t feel like you should be putting in extra hours on weekends. Do whatever feels right to you. Working remotely you have the flexibility of being able to add extra hours whenever you want. But just because you are able to do so does not mean you should. You don’t want to get burned out. This happened to me a few months back.
I’d been working on a lot of business and personal projects and trying to travel to see my family at the same time. I showed up at my parents’ house and just collapsed, realizing that I was overworking myself. I called Daniel, told him I would be cutting back hours temporarily because I needed a few days to reset myself, and then just relaxed and ignored my emails and work for a little while. Anything important I of course either delegated or finished up.
While taking that time to do a hard reset definitely helped me out, I wish I had never gotten to that breaking point in the first place. I resolved to make sure I wasn’t pushing myself too far, and made sure to take plenty of breaks and relax more often than I had been. I feel better than ever!
So there you have it! Three of the main lessons I learned while working remotely. Please email me some feedback and tell me about your experiences. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me — do you work remotely? Do you see the same issues I saw? What works best for you?
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