Working Remotely: What I’ve Learned and How to Build a Strong Remote Team

It’s a changing working environment. More and more companies are permitting and encouraging employees to work remotely. A Forbes article quoted a study that found that telecommuting is up 115% since 2015. Not surprisingly, the article argued that for remote-working millennials, technology can hinder their work-life balance. It is easy to get distracted by incessant notifications and with a growing global landscape. The expectation to respond to work-related notifications at all hours is on the rise.

It begs to question though what jobs are best suited to a remote working environment. And what types of people thrive in this kind of environment. Bottom line is that it really is not for everyone.

Where it all Began for Me

I began working remotely in 2011. Previously, I had attempted to hand in my notice after deciding to move from Victoria to Vancouver. Then my boss instead handed me a new laptop and phone and begged me to carry on in my role working remotely. I had a unique set of skills required for the job and had been successful in it for over two years. It would take the company a while to find a replacement for me so we decided to test out this new working arrangement until they found my replacement. Nine months later, I was back in Victoria training my new replacement, who lasted less than 4 months.

What I Learned During my First Stint Working Remotely

Without structure, you will fail.

You need a set routine. You don’t need to be glued to your desk for eight consecutive hours. But you need a set schedule for when you will begin, pause and end your workday.

Set boundaries based on your set schedule.

It’s very easy to become that person who picks up their phone at all hours — but doesn’t. Make sure you have a clear division between your workday and your personal life, otherwise the former will take over the latter. Buzzkill.

Leave your workspace.

If you are a social person like me, get out of the house at least once a day. I used to go to a yoga class daily and regular lunch or coffee dates with friends. This broke up the day and as well gave me little deadlines to cross things off my list to ensure I wasn’t slowing the pace.

Live and die by your To-Do list.

Implement the Brian Tracy’s ABCDE method of prioritizing tasks so that you finish the most important ones first. It’s easy to get caught up in jumping from one task to another without actually completing anything. This requires foresight to ensure that you’ve got everything you need in place when you go to sit down to tackle that task with the intent to complete it in one fell swoop. This also cuts down on your willingness to give in to distractions (yes, you have a choice), because you’ve given yourself a game plan for the day.

Take control of your notifications.

Turn off your distracting notifications on your phone. Stay logged out of Facebook and the like on your computer until your break time. Then log out again. You’ve got very important things to do in your life and checking out the latest cute cat videos is not one of them.

Find your flock.

If you are struggling with this new way of working, find other people more experienced with working remotely and plan working sessions with them — not to socialise but to sit in the same space and work. Learn their techniques to stay focused. Co-share work spaces are also good for this too.

Accept that it’s a transition in and out.

It’s definitely a transition switching to a remote working environment. But it’s equally challenging leaving it. When my nine-month stint was up and I was back in an office environment again, I really struggled. I found that it took me much longer to complete projects and tasks. That the environment was so distracting that I could not focus as well. That I would get pulled into irrelevant, time-wasting discussions and mini-projects. And that I did not value my time as well. I ended up working late most of the time because everyone else did and it looked bad if I was the first to leave. My efficiency would drop by the 6th hour. Especially as I had lost the privilege of working the best hours in the day for my work style (and my yoga break).

Be honest with yourself.

I am much more efficient at working from home. When switching to working remotely, I was able to get my work done at least 20% faster than I could in the distracting office. There was certainly some trial and error to get there . For instance I had to work out what hours of the day were best suited for efficient and focused work. I had to determine where I worked best (in the kitchen, my office, a coffee shop, the library, etc. and no surprise, I got way more accomplished at home than out). Next, I had to schedule my meetings strategically to ensure it didn’t upset my flow. And of course, I had to determine what playlists got me going. I’ve hired a few employees lately though who really did not cope well with this working environment, and that is OK. Just be honest with yourself if it doesn’t suit you. Give it a solid try and if it doesn’t work, get your smart casuals ironed once more and march back into the office environment.

How I’m implementing this in my business with a remote team

So that’s what I learned on how to work well independently. Now my focus is on how to build a kick ass team of people who work solidly independently and also as a team. What I’ve learned so far in this adventure is:

The team has got to get together regularly.

To build a strong culture and to increase idea sharing and innovation, they need to know and like each other. It’s easy to get caught into silos of information when collaboration is not explicitly pushed. If they can’t physically get together regularly, at least aim for quarterly. I’d still insist on a weekly teleconference session. We have an office in a co-share space so that the team has the option to work from there if they so choose. We insist that everyone comes into the office once a week for our team meetings and working sessions. This is where we invest into our very important Planning Quadrant.

Tools for communication are key.

Email sucks — it’s impersonal and no one is excited to get them. Asana and slack have helped us to organise our work and ideas so that we are on the same page. They’ve created a space for the team to communicate more casually with each other to help build a solid culture.

Weekly 1:1s are necessary.

A 30-minute check in meeting with each employee is a must as a means to move work along in the right direction — without them in place, we’ve wasted time with misunderstandings on projects. It also allows the team a casual space to check in with me about how things are going in general, or to bounce ideas off of me that might be harder to explain over email. Additionally, these have cut down a heap of spur of the moment, distracting phone calls on both sides that upset our workflow.

A daily scrum is the most valuable 10 minutes of each day.

We log in to a google hangout at 9am each day for 10 minutes. We share our game plan for the next 24 hours and celebrate our wins. It ensures that each person has a plan for the day that I can validate that each person has a daily forum to ask questions and reach out for help if need be, and ensure that we get a bit of face time in daily to remind us that we are part of a bigger vision.

Without Vision and Defined Processes, you will fail.

Uber defined processes and a clear vision are key so that everyone is on the same page about what we are ultimately doing in the world and why we are doing what we are doing. Collaborate when defining processes — you’re stronger here in numbers — and ensure that they are formally documented to ensure compliance, consistency and clarity. Your vision should be reviewed regularly to ensure that your activities fall in line with your vision. Be honest when they are not and adjust.

Give feedback regularly and honestly.

Be upfront at the interview stage about the perks and the challenges that the team has experienced with the working environment. Check in with your employees to see how they are coping. Set expectations and give feedback right away if you see any issues. Ultimately, as above, if it’s not working, it’s time to move on.

Working remotely definitely has its perks. One of them being the fact that I am writing this post from a beautiful beach in Thailand. And all the while I am able to manage our business and team back in Vancouver. On the other hand, it takes the right type of person and an astronomical amount of planning and upkeep to have a team who successfully works remotely.

If you have any questions about other tools we use to rock working remotely, send us an email or give us a call. We are always willing to chat.

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