3 Tips for Productive Remote Work

Offices are the reflexive norm because it can be hard to feel like a "real" company, or like you have a "real" job, if you don't gather in the same place each day. But the decision to have an office can often reflect a lack of imagination and a regression to the mean more than anything else
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Remote is the wave of the present. We are all doing it. Heck, I'm doing it right now.
I love remote work because it allows me to create a customized environment that keeps me focused and requires no commute.

Remote working also helps my company with hiring. The highly skilled people we want on our teams are scattered around the world and enabling remote work means we lower a significant barrier to having them join us.

There are clear benefits of face-to-face work of course but I've found that those benefits can all be had without asking everyone to be at the office all the time.

I know I'm not alone in the observation that remote work is inevitable and desirable -- the great folks at Basecamp (nee 37Signals), have literally written the book on remote working and there's been plenty of public debate about it. Yahoo! even created a ton of controversy a couple years ago by doing away with remote working.

Still I find that remote work is usually done poorly or not at all.

Offices are the reflexive norm because it can be hard to feel like a "real" company, or like you have a "real" job, if you don't gather in the same place each day. But the decision to have an office can often reflect a lack of imagination and a regression to the mean more than anything else.

Remote work doesn't need to be complicated, and it can pair easily with office work.

The software development company I work for has an office but we allow people to work wherever they prefer, as they deem necessary. We view office is a tool we offer to employees, but we care only about the results we produce for our clients, not where they were produced.

This work style helps us maintain a customer and value focus. It also allows for more individual autonomy. Autonomy is one of the most motivational qualities a workplace can offer, and flexibility around work location is one of the easiest ways to add it.

Here are 3 things ways you can get the most out of remote work:

1. Don't Chat, Iterate
When we meet face-to-face we've got paper, a whiteboard, or a napkin to sketch out what we're working on. We all look at the same thing and sketch and talk until we all agree -- hopefully. Getting aligned after all is the main reason to meet.

When meeting remotely we don't have the luxury of being able to just grab a pen, and white-boarding apps tend to add complexity rather than remove it.

Working on a shared document in Github for code, InvisionApp for design, or Google docs for documents and presentations is one of the most effective forms of collaboration.

Working together on a document can is a great way to achieve focus and avoid distractions when meeting remotely. It can be more effective than a whiteboard because it requires more structured thinking; a document will surface assumptions, disagreements, and fuzzy thinking so they can be discussed and clarified.

Pro Tip: Pairing -- Open a shared cloud-based document, put on headphones for a voice channel (phone or Skype) with your partner, and edit the document together for an hour or two. It will feel awkward at first, but will also create some of the best focus and productivity you have ever experienced.

2. Be Visible
Rich communication is the main benefit of face-to-face work; you have serendipitous conversations, hear nuance in the way something is said, and overhear other conversations you might have otherwise missed.

But this rich environment can also generate distractions and expensive interruptions.

Making your work and your conversations visible can help create a more rich remote environment and a more open culture.

The trick is to make it easy for others to see what you're doing, but not overwhelm or interrupt them. Two tools I find essential are an open and visible calendaring system, and a threaded conversation platform. Like everyone else these days we use Google and Slack.

Pro Tip: Transparency -- Try eliminating internal emails and move to Slack for conversations within your organization. I also keep my to do list in Trello and keep it open to the entire company. No one taps me on the shoulder to ask what I'm doing, they can just find out themselves. This kind of transparency forces accountability and builds community.

3. Get Face-to-Face
I know I'm cheating with this one, but the truth is that people need to have a physical experience of each other in order to create strong connections. Even a small amount of face-to-face time can make remote communication much more valuable.

The most productive organizations I've ever worked with have a balance of in-person, remote, synchronous and asynchronous work styles. It is not all or nothing.

Pro Tip: Periodic Face-to-Face -- Bring people together on a regular cadence to share workspace, planning sessions, and meals. One week, a few times a year, is enough to dramatically improve communication in a distributed team. You'll get a lot of work done and your team will bond. An email from someone you've had a meal with is easier to interpret and less likely to create upset.

Pro Tip: Temporary Face-to-Face -- For smaller projects, consider bringing everyone together for the whole project duration. I find one week full-time face-to-face to be far more productive than a month remote at 50% allocation. So rather than team members 20 hours a week for a month, consider allocating them 40 hours for one week and bring them together.

Pro Tip: A/V Face-to-Face -- When you've got two persistent teams in different locations, and similar time zones, consider putting each in their own team room and connecting the rooms with webcams, wall-mounted televisions, and an always-on conference line. This works surprisingly well and can almost create a single-room feel.

Your Takeaway
Remote working can be incredibly productive for you and your team. It can also greatly ease your hiring. But for it to work well you need to think clearly and create good habits.

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