With more and more people working remotely at least some of the time, more employees are experiencing that things change when there’s no office. Dynamics, habits, and workflows change in a remote organization. Some changes are obvious, but others are subtle.
As an employee in a fully remote company for the last few years, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me make the most of remote work. Here are some of my biggest lessons.
Overcommunicate by default
How do you know if your teammate is blocked? How does the team leader know the current status of a project?
These important questions are often answered over coffee or by walking to someone’s desk if you work in an office. When you work remotely, some of this communication can get lost unless you actively work to change that.
At Buffer, we focus on overcommunicating by default all that we do and how we are feeling with our current workload/team/schedule. Yes, this has an impact on our time, but it’s too important to the health of the organization to shortchange.
How to do this? Any format is good as long as it is easy to use and open to your team. Some teams do a daily asynchronous stand-up, while others talk and keep track of everything in tools such as Jira or Trello.
We’ve found that having a few key spots to focus on helps keep communication flowing while not overloading the team. Some tips:
- Have you made progress in a task? Leave an update in the card.
- Are you blocked or feeling that your current task is too hard/taking too long? Reach out as soon as possible and ask for help.
- Have you found something unexpected that might delay the project? Prepare a quick document with the context and share it with the team.
- Have you had an idea on how to improve something? You know the drill.
The alternative to this “overcommunication” is an isolated team and confused team members and stakeholders, not knowing where things are and an overall feeling that the team is not driving toward a goal but just doing their own thing.
Try to think who might be interested in knowing something, how much they know, and how to share information as clearly as possible. Sometimes you might need to communicate the same thing more than once. For example, if I’ve just completed a task I might share:
- The full context of the technical details with my teammates if it’s interesting, because maybe I refactored something.
- The current status with the product manager and the designer.
- The change that this will bring and potential issues customers might find with the customer support team.
In each case, the context I’ll provide and the information will be focused on what those people know already. The refactoring part probably doesn’t matter to the customer support team, for example.
Use your flexible schedule wisely
At Buffer, we don’t ask people to work any specific schedule or hours. Your time is truly your own, and I try to use it to my advantage.
On occasion, I’ve started working at 4:30 a.m. because I was feeling great, and then finished early. I was more productive and had more quiet time before the rest of my team woke up.
On days when I know I have a couple of calls in the evening I will sometimes spend the first few hours of the day working out or doing something else.
The key is finding that balance because for the most part, you won’t have anyone telling you you need to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In a remote company, your output is way more important than the hours you put in.
This experimentation also applies to where you work. Feel free to try different things and see what works better for you. It might be a coworking space, working from home, or an occasional walk to your favorite coffee shop. It’s up to you to try different things and see how it feels.
You’re not alone
In my experience, it’s much easier to isolate yourself working on your own, or not collaborate with others if it’s not strictly required.
But loneliness is one of the biggest challenges that remote workers face, and it’s important to acknowledge that isolation can affect our work and health.
When you’re mainly focused on output, it’s easy to forget that you have the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with your teammates. Some actions could be:
- Send a message in your team channel or email group if you need help or to brainstorm something new.
- Reach out to one of your teammates at your level of experience to chat about vision, strategies to improve, or something you’ve read that’s influencing the way you work.
At Buffer, we have a number of “virtual watercooler” activities teammates can participate in to help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. The main thing to remember is that you’re not alone—you can always reach out.
If something feels off, say so
Feedback is equally important in an office or a remote environment, but in a remote organization, it can feel slightly harder to actively reach out to someone to share it because it doesn’t happen as casually over coffee.
Depending on the kind of company in which you’re working, you might need to adjust to be more or less direct. Some companies have a culture of feedback at every level and others don’t, but I find that sharing feedback early and often is a great exercise to improve as a professional. Plus, you’re opening the door to receive some feedback for you, which is even better.
It might feel odd at first. It can be hard to give and even harder to receive feedback, but there’s no other way to improve, both personally and as a team.
Some tools that help us at Buffer are:
- An anonymous feedback survey link that we all have access to anytime
- Q&A with our founder/CEO and leaders every month, where you can submit questions anonymously (or signed)
- Anonymous engagement survey every quarter
- Retro sessions where we can share how we feel and what we could improve
- A general culture of welcoming feedback
- The key realization about feedback for me was that it’s not about you as a person, your ego, your work culture, or anything like that—it’s about a specific action or situation that can be improved next time. It’s only that; don’t make it bigger.
Deliberately make time for brainstorming and creativity
When you’re in an office, ideas flow all the time. People talk about ways to improve things, something they’ve read about another company that would be useful to try, etc. It all happens organically as people mix and talk.
When you’re working remotely, there’s less opportunity to mix and chat. You tend to focus much more on the task at hand. So it’s important to take a step back from time to time and brainstorm ways to improve things.
When was the last time you took a couple of hours to think and plan? Make it a habit. Every X days, book some time off and do it. Paper, drawings, a whiteboard, or even a walk in the nearest park with a notebook can help.
Share ideas early and often. It’s a great way to invite others to work on new things that will improve the company. Be specific with the kind of feedback you want to receive: Are you asking for approval, offering feedback, or sharing an FYI? This might change depending on the people with whom you share it. For example, for other teammates in another team, something might be FYI, but with my CTO I want their feedback on an idea.
Innovation comes from different places. Expose yourself to new ideas. Books, conferences, chats with other people in the industry, tweets, podcasts, videos . . . the list is big, and you don’t know where the next good idea might come from. Make sure you expose your mind to different people and companies to get new ideas that you can try.
Find a mentor
In a colocated office, it may be easier to strike up relationships and reach out to others for help.
On a remote team, you might have to take more initiative. If you find someone you admire or someone you feel you can learn a lot from, talk to that person often and ask them specific questions.
A mentor-mentee relationship doesn’t have to be formal or official to be useful, and you can have multiple people you respect (inside or outside your company) on your list that you can learn from.
Use these mentors to learn, improve, ask questions, connect to the sources they learn from, and you’ll see a lot of improvement soon. When you’re ready, pass it on and be someone else’s mentor.
Align with the team or company’s goals
Company goals are usually shared with the full team, and they’re a very good indicator of what’s most important at any point for your company.
They might focus on growth, quality, scaling the team by hiring, pivoting to another product or industry, etc. I’ve discovered that almost all software companies share the same problems, they only vary in degree.
Make those goals your goals as well and try to come up with ways you can contribute. For example:
- Is the company hiring a lot? Volunteer to help onboard those new teammates or even interviewing new candidates.
- Is the focus on growth? Try to come up with some ideas to improve your and your team’s effectiveness when working. It could be automated tests, a CI system with a quick deploy process, or better flows to communicate changes.
- Is the company pivoting to another product/industry? Go ahead and discover people in your position working in those products. What do they know? How do they work? What are their main challenges? Anticipate those questions in your company and bring solutions.
Focus on one thing at a time and one thing only
No matter where or how you work, your attention is constantly threatened. I’ve learned to ask myself: “What’s the most important and impactful thing I could be doing?” And then only focus on that until I finish it.
I’ve worked to make this reflection a habit—a daily, weekly, and quarterly one.
At any moment, the most important thing could be a big thing or a small thing. Mentoring other people is a big thing. Solving a problem that’s affecting and delaying other engineers is a small one, but either could be the most important depending on the situation.
Focus on the things that don’t change
Jeff Bezos famously shared that Amazon actively focuses on the things that don’t change. You won’t want to wait longer in the future for a package or have fewer products to choose from on Amazon or use a slower website to buy products. If you focus on improving the things that will never change, customers will appreciate it and buy more from you.
There’s a great exercise you can perform with that idea: Think about the aspects of your product or workflow that won’t change in the future, and whose constant improvement will always bring benefits to the team.
You don’t need to be in a high-level position for doing this—even a junior software engineer or manager can contribute with this approach.
Here are some challenging questions that have helped me with this thought process in my role as an engineer:
- How long does it take to load your main product’s site?
- How do you know if something fails in your product?
- How long does it take from idea to execution in your team if the idea is great?
- Is there a way to automatize that little thing you need to do almost daily? What would be the impact in a week if you and each of your teammates could save 5 minutes on a daily basis? And in a month? What about in a year?
- From the X hours you work every day, would there be a way to come up with a schedule that makes you more efficient?
Do you need to explain that little thing that’s particular to the project every time or could you just create a written resource so others can access it next time?
- If you started again in the company tomorrow, what are the things you’d like to have in order to be more productive from day one? Could you help to create those resources for new people?
- What annoying things fail from time to time in your processes but haven’t been fixed yet? How much is that delaying you and your teammates? How is that affecting your motivation?