Tips from a Veteran of Working Remotely

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Before I go into this post, I just want to acknowledge that I realize there are many people out there who do not have the option of working remotely. For an overwhelming number of people, their incomes and livelihoods are dependent on being able to go into their workplace. We all need to be supporting our communities and those who are unable to work right now. This is very much on the top of my mind amidst everything we are all juggling.

With that being said, many people I know are fortunate enough to be able to work remotely, but not very many of them have had much practice with it before now. After encouragement from one of my clients yesterday, I thought I would share a few thoughts on what has worked for me personally and what has worked for our company as a whole. I’ve seen quite a few posts about this topic in the last several days, but most of them seem to contain your standard recommendations – get dressed, keep a schedule, find a specific space to work, etc. Personally, those haven’t been my secrets to success, so perhaps I can infuse a few new ideas that may help you too.

For context, I have not gone to an office regularly since 2002, although I have had short stints where I have gone to a client site semi-regularly. I have also worked with kids (and a husband) in the house since about 2011, so I am very familiar with the ins and outs of working from home.

I Creatively Construct a Schedule That Works with My Energy

I don’t believe in “getting dressed” (i.e. changing out of PJs or yoga clothes) before I start working. I don’t believe in keeping regular work hours. If those habits help you, then do them. For me, if I have my way with my schedule, I start working in the wee hours of the morning when my brain is at its most optimal and the kids are still asleep. When my kids do wake up, around breakfast time, I take a break so we can eat together and hang out. Then I go back to work. Around mid-morning, after I’ve already worked about 4-6 hours for the day, is when I like to take another break to exercise and then “get dressed.” That’s what works for me.

As for how I get my work done in the chunks of time when I’m working, I’m a productivity junkie, and I’ve tried all kinds of methods to optimize my time. I’ve used long, prioritized to-do lists, I’ve worked in “pomodoros,” I’ve followed Ivy Lee’s six most important things-to-do list method, I’ve even outlined everything I need to do into 15-minute chunks on my calendar. Through all of this, I’ve realized two things: first, it is imperative I chunk things down to what I know I can tackle in 30-60 minutes; second, I need to put the hardest things I have to do earlier in my day (noting that the hardest things are not always the things that take the most brainpower or the most time, they are often the things that take the most emotional energy).

Of course, some days I look at my calendar and realize I have 9-10 hours of meetings. I’ll talk more about how I make the most out of meetings in a bit, but if I have some control over my meetings, I think about when I work best with other people and do what I can to schedule meetings during those windows. For me, it is the afternoon. I’m super task-oriented in the morning and my brain is just more in a “connecting and collaborating with other people” mode in the afternoon.

The other thing I love to do when I work from home is to periodically keep my energy going by doing productive, non-work-related things that give both my mind and body a break. I find household chores – changing the laundry, reorganizing a junk drawer, unloading the dishwasher – are a great way to take a break. So is exercising. Or, I suppose, working with my kids on their math packets (which I’ll be doing more of now that the schools are closed). I intentionally plan my day to have these little 5 to 30-minute breaks interspersed amidst my work because it is amazingly effective at helping me come back to the next task more focused and ready to go. And, knowing that I did more than just work the whole time has the added benefit of leaving me feeling even happier with my day by the time I go to bed!

I Intentionally Connect with People in a Variety of Ways

I’m an introvert, but I like people a lot. If I could have my way, I’d probably spend half my time with other people and half working alone. The realities of my job though are that I usually spend the majority of my time with people, which is great, but it sometimes means that I might be all out of words by the time I get to the dinner table. So, while I may be more comfortable with a reduced amount of connectivity during times of remote work, many of my colleagues and clients may not be. For that reason, I try to think about what each of the people I work with might need from me in order to feel connected, and then I try to engage with them in the way that best suits their needs.

At Thought Ensemble, we have a variety of regularly scheduled internal meetings that help us stay connected. On a weekly basis, we have an all-company standup, a couple of leadership team meetings, and various individual project team meetings. We also have quarterly “Thought meetings” and company update meetings. Since we aren’t all collocated, we try to do as many of these meetings as we can via video conference – seeing people’s faces and having regular meetings is incredibly important for us and provides us a great starting structure for connecting.

In internal meetings, our cultural norm is to chat about what’s going on with everyone for the first 3-5 minutes before we get down to business, and in our leadership team meetings, we start by sharing our personal best and professional best from the last week. It takes about 5 minutes and helps us all really get tuned in with each other before moving on to other topics.

Whenever I’ve worked with distributed project teams, I’ve gotten on a regular – ideally daily – schedule of holding working sessions. I’ve found that having a specific topic to work on together for 60-90 minutes works best. People can come together to brainstorm and then go off again to work separately. That’s what we are doing with my project team now. We were meeting up a bit more spontaneously when we were all together at the client site, but now that we are remote, we are proactively scheduling these working sessions. I have found these sessions to be critical for keeping my teammates connected, as otherwise, they may not have another good opportunity to bring up issues or discuss where they might be stuck.

We also connect through virtual communities. We use Slack to connect in all kinds of different ways – and some of them aren’t even work-related; we have a #JOTD channel where we share “Jokes of The Day,” a #random channel where we share fun or interesting stories or memes, a #thoughts channel where we share interesting articles and ideas, and a #general channel where we wish people happy birthday and have other general conversations. We ping each other 1:1, and in groups, and have various other threads going for conversation. Many of our clients also have Slack, so we use it to interact with some of them too. It is a powerful way to keep connected with clients and co-workers.

As for connecting 1:1, I tend to do that through more scheduled meetings because my calendar just gets too packed if I don’t block time for it, and I know the random check-in calls always mean a ton to me so I’m trying to do more of that myself. One of my partners was just calling around to all of us yesterday to check-in. It was awesome, and we all loved it.

We Do Our Best to Make Our Meetings Great

We’ve all been in terrible remote meetings where one person is droning on and everyone else is clearly tuned out. Or worse yet, where there is prolonged and uncomfortable silence after a question is asked that has everyone thinking, “Bueller? Bueller?” We want our meetings to be informative, but we also want people to look forward to them, so we are always trying to strike a balance between having fun and being productive.

We’ve run a lot of remote meetings in our time at TE, and while I don’t know if I have anything totally new to add to the topic, here are some of the basics we try to employ:

1.    This may seem obvious, but I find it often forgotten: we always know who is running the meeting. This person takes ownership of planning, facilitating, and performing follow-ups – however formal or informal that may be.

2.    We get clear on outcomes, ideally before the meeting, but if not, right at the beginning of the meeting.

3.    When possible, we try to have something to look at together. It really helps us stay engaged when we are following along on-screen, whether we are just presenting information or updating it.

4.    Video makes a huge difference! We encourage our team to be on video as much as possible because it improves our communication and morale. Just yesterday I picked up on some concerns in a meeting I would not have caught if I hadn’t been able to see people’s facial expressions via video.

5.    We follow-up with next steps and action items to ensure our meetings have valuable outcomes.

This is a great opportunity to work on your virtual meeting capabilities, and, even when you’re back in the office, most of the tips I mentioned above also translate to working together in-person.

If you have more to add I’m always looking for ways to improve my remote working skills, so feel free to share below.

I know we are all navigating a lot right now, so stay safe, stay healthy, and let’s all think about how we can help others.

PS, thank you to my kids for the action shot today in our PJs. As those of you who are on video conferences with me know, they will sometimes suddenly appear on camera when they need approval for more iPad time. We are trying to limit it these days, but hey, we are all juggling priorities and I need to be able to chat with my colleagues too!