(This article was originally published in WeWork’s Creator magazine.)
I recently moved to Portland from Philadelphia, our home base, and happily, Bresslergroup was open to keeping me on. There was precedent – we have remote employees in Montana and Italy, and those arrangements work well. It was more new for me than it was for the company.
Before the move, my experience telecommuting was sparse – a day or two working from home here or there. I was a little worried about losing touch with the company community and culture. But in the past couple of months I’ve learned a lot about how to stay engaged and inspired as a full-time remote worker.
I know there are a lot of others in my position. According to the American Community Survey, telecommuting in the U.S. has grown by 103% since 2005 and 6.5% in 2014 among the non-self-employed. For those who are new to or about to make the shift, here are some tips I’ve picked up so far:
1. Find an office away from home (and avoid the coffee shop).
While a coffee shop with free WiFi may provide a “desk,” networking opportunities, a space away from home, and lots of coffee, it has its limitations. The clientele may not be the types of colleagues who will help you thrive. Plus, bringing in your extra monitor is bad etiquette.
So I became a member of WeWork, a likeminded co-working space, partly so I had a reason to shower and get dressed every morning in something nicer than a t-shirt and shorts. A co-working space is also good for people like me who have adorable distractions at home (see above) and work better in a buzzy atmosphere. A more unexpected benefit has been the small interactions that make me feel like I’m part of a community and give me the drive to continue to put in 100% even when I’m thousands of miles away from my team.
It’s not hard to see why researchers at the University of Michigan have found that people who belong to co-working spaces report high levels of thriving. When I chat with colleagues at WeWork I’m driven by their ingenuity, their passion, and their creativity. I was recently talking with a co-WeWorker here at the Customs House and we started to brainstorm ideas for his products. Likely some of my input will make it into the final version. Every day I see new contacts being made, new skills learned, and information changing hands all around me. This is definitely an environment in which people rise to their best.
2. Set up regular meetings with leadership.
It goes without saying that regular meetings with my project team are a requirement, but when I moved out to Portland, I also scheduled weekly meetings with the movers and shakers at the company. These help me keep on top of the current thinking about our expansion and business development strategy. Of course it also helps keep me at the top of their minds.
3. Turn on your Web cam.
I never video-chatted while I was at Bresslergroup HQ, but having my Web cam trained on my desk on the opposite coast keeps me honest. I’m also less likely to show up to work un-showered and wearing a t-shirt and shorts. (See tip #1.)
And though I’m missing out on water-cooler – or, to be more accurate – shuffleboard chats in Philadelphia, communicating face to face via video is a way to connect more deeply with my colleagues. Plus, I can swing my computer around to show off my desk at WeWork and the interior of the old bank vault where I go to make private calls.
I’ve also found video to be useful during meetings. Videoconferencing makes me feel much more a part of the action. A lot of information and nuances are missed when you can’t see body language and facial expressions. And it’s impossible to read tone and inflection over audio.
More practically for someone in product development, I need to be able to see the prototypes and parts on the table as well as the sketches and ideas going up on the white board during brainstorming sessions.
4. Match the message with the mode of communication.
Match the message with the medium. There is a time and place for video-chatting and video-conferencing just as there is much to be said for email, instant messaging, and internal social networks like Yammer and Slack.
Email is useful for communicating with clients, sucking your day away, and generally not being productive. Slack and its ilk are of course excellent for impromptu banter but also for sending virtual postcards that help me stay connected with my co-workers. I’ve been taking photos (see above) of my new surroundings – the view during my early morning commute, the bike parking lot at WeWork, a recent snowfall – and posting them to Yammer. All of this makes me feel more like I’m part of the community.
Basically, approach your work relationships as you’d approach a long-distance romantic relationship – know that sharing day-to-day details builds intimacy, in this case professional intimacy!
5. Respond quickly.
I’m a quick responder in general but since going remote I’ve become even more responsive. Part of the work of a remote worker is making sure you don’t feel remote to your colleagues. Immediately replying to emails and instant messages lets them know I’m always here even if I’m not physically there. It builds trust.
Of course it’s also critical to be mindful of not derailing your day with responses to emails and IMs. Time management is your friend.
6. Make the most of the time difference.
Enjoy the three hours of silence in the morning if you’re on the West Cost and HQ is on the East Coast. Or, in the case of my colleague, Tony, who works remotely from Italy, he gets to enjoy the 7 hours before his day starts. Getting off early and playing with my daughter is an amazing reward for waking up at 4 am to do the commute in the morning darkness.
7. Start new rituals.
Github has a neat tradition where employees write about major accomplishments on a #toasts forum on the company’s internal network, and co-workers post selfies toasting these successes. (Hear about it in this talk, at about 15:45, by a Github designer on how Github’s culture embraces remote staffers.) With only a few remote workers at my company, we don’t have anything as established as this, although the home office did set up a live feed of our 1st Annual Shuffleboard Championship so remote workers could cheer on colleagues — but I’m thinking about what I can implement.