Every office worker is now an expert on remote working and distributed teams. And as a long time proponent of remote working, I’m thrilled. The expanded media coverage has changed the distributed workforce conversation, for better or worse. More employees than ever before prefer working from home and more employers are open to it.
I’ve attempted to compile some of my own thoughts on the subject after more than a decade of working remotely, successfully, and happily. If you’re looking for a long term perspective that is more than frantic pandemic reaction, here’s mine.
It’s just work
If you can do your office job on a computer, you can do it from home.
Much of the freaking out about how to manage a remote team or how to stay productive as a remote worker is silly. People are people, the work you do is the same wherever you are.
Do you need to use tools like Slack and Zoom? Yeah. And you’re probably already using such tools in the office, unless you’re shouting questions across the open floor plan or using a tin can and string to talk to the Tokyo office.
Managers who don’t know how to manage remote teams are not good managers. Employers and managers opposed to remote working tend to be either clock-watching micromanagers or ego-driven narcissists who get a boost from physically seeing all the people working under them (see Rob McElhenney’s character in Mythic Quest).
Employees opposed to the idea of remote working tend to be extroverts who feed on human interaction, which is valid. If this is you and you have a choice to work in an office or co-working space, do it.
There are considerations around information security and intellectual property protection that companies may want to deal with. Many times a VPN or device management software can help. But again, these are things you’d still need to address in an office.
“But how will we whiteboard a new product flow?” “There’s no substitute for human interaction!” “It just doesn’t feel as dynamic.” These are all large balls of anti-scientific bullshit wrapping small valid but easily addressable concerns. An office environment is a relatively recent construct that has harmed our planet in irreparable ways (read: commute). Humans collaborated just fine before it and will do so just fine after.
You’re the boss
Remote working makes micromanagers sad—and that makes me happy. They can’t see when you enter the office or when you go home. They won’t be in your chair when you get back from lunch.
Within reason, you set your hours. You choose how and when you work.
The dark side is that many new remote workers, especially in hybrid in-person/remote environments, tend to overwork. As the remote employee, you don’t want to appear to be “taking advantage” of working from home. So you work longer hours and don’t take vacation.
As a remote worker, it is important to remember that your office colleagues are spending much of their days playing foosball, shooting Nerf guns, taking actual lunch breaks, and getting their steps in.
You must take regular vacations. You must take frequent breaks. You must take walks. I’ve seen too many remote workers burn out because they haven’t learned to put work in a box and control it rather than letting it consume them and their household. If your company doesn’t support this balance, you’re working for the wrong company and working remotely has nothing to do with that problem.
Get your job done. Complete your projects. Show up to meetings. And sure, respond to that occasional urgent evening email promptly. But most days, when 5 pm hits, close your laptop and walk away.
Communicate, but mostly shut up
Slack is great. It enables asynchronous communication, the greatest productivity boost in modern work life.
When possible, communicate with your coworkers asynchronously. That means, ask your question or make your statement and move on to the next thing. Do not _ever_synchronously block peoples’ time by asking them to hop on a Quick Call.
The Quick Call is the enemy of remote worker productivity. It is the extension of the same egotistical mindset that makes in-office managers assume that your work is not valuable if your ass is not in your seat for the exact hours they define. It says that their thing must be more important than whatever you’re working on at the time.
Kill the Quick Call. Audio and video meetings, done right, require the full attention of the participants. Therefore, they require a time on the calendar and a precise agenda. Do not try to fill the entire scheduled time artificially if you get through the agenda early, give the time back. Do not try to artificially beef up the agenda to justify the meeting.
Scheduled meetings can be valuable for many things. They provide the chance for group collaboration. But remember that not everyone on the call will be capable of voicing their best ideas in that environment. More thoughtful, introverted people may stay muted the entire time, even if they have a great idea and intend to speak up. They don’t want to impose or approach anything that feels like interrupting, so they let the extroverts take the floor.
For this reason, always couple scheduled meetings with a way for everyone to provide written follow up. Sometimes it may make sense to add speaking times for everyone to the agenda before the meeting. But sometimes valuable insight that’s a response to what happened in the meeting will be missed if there’s not also a method of gathering post-meeting feedback.
For most communication, stick to Slack. Let people answer on their own time with their desired level of forethought. Written, asynchronous communication ensures the best ideas will surface.
Your boss is not your dad
The CEO is not your mom. Your coworkers are not your siblings. Work is not your family.
It’s easy to fall into a loyalty trap, especially if you enjoy the day to day remote working environment your company provides. If you were to chase another opportunity, how could you ensure the same ideal set up?
There are small differences between how remote companies operate, but at the end of the day your daily work environment is what you make it. In other words, you’d probably be fine at a different company.
Ask questions in an interview process, especially of the person who would directly manage you, to catch any red flags. And then work how you do best. In most cases, Company A isn’t giving you what you need to enjoy your work any more than Company B would.
Be particularly concerned when your company’s leadership starts calling its workforce a “family.” In all cases, even if the leadership doesn’t consciously realize it, this is designed to exploit the company’s workers. It’s designed to create a false, one-sided sense of loyalty that allows the company to pay you less, offer worse benefits, or keep you happy to stay with the company without the company having to do much to justify it.
An employment relationship is a business deal. You are valuable to the company, you give the company a return on their investment in you. When the company uses emotional terminology that suggests the employment relationship is deeper than what it is, be aware that the company is trying to maximize that return without spending more capital.
Never think of your employer in emotional terms, even when you love everything about your work life. Always remember that the only goal a for-profit company has is to make money. To the company, you’re simply a tool to accomplish that.
You may be thinking, no, my company’s different, they genuinely care about me as a person. Fair enough. And individual people within the company may truly care about your wellbeing. But try missing a few deadlines. Skip a few meetings. Abuse the paid time off policy. You’ll find out quickly how reciprocal the feelings of “family” really are.
You will make friends at work, individuals you may stay in contact with for the rest of your life. But the corporation you work for is not your family.
About your actual family
The pandemic made a lot of people realize that working from home with kids around can be challenging. As part of a family that has both homeschooled and worked remotely for over a decade, I can confirm that’s it’s not just possible, it can be ideal.
Once you’ve committed to making it work, it’s amazing what you can make happen. It’s understandable that the pandemic forced many of us into juggling things we weren’t prepared for. But embrace this time you’ll get with your family and things will work themselves out.
Under normal circumstances, when your kids get home from school, you’ll be there. When they need your advice, you’ll be there. When they want to go get ice cream in the middle of a July Tuesday, you’ll be there. And not “there” like you’re at the other end of a text message, but there there.
Think it over, but don’t overthink it
Set work aside and think about what you really want out of your life, long term and day to day. Is it to be trapped in a cubicle 8+ hours a day—or worse, in an open office plan? Doubtful.
Do you want to set your own daily environment? Do you want the freedom to change that environment on a whim? Do you want to work from a place you’d otherwise only visit on vacation? Do you want to adjust your schedule around your kid’s soccer games without getting the stink eye from your coworkers?
Do you enjoy the feeling of your boss’ breath on your neck? Do like getting “demerits” for being a minute late? Do you like being ogled by Jerry? Do you like staying at the office later than you should so the boss knows you work as hard as Sandra?
List the pros and cons of working in an office and of working from home. You might find options for your life that you never realized were possible.
Illustration by Gwyneth Fitzsimmons.