Working from home: 3 lessons I learned from 5 years of working remotely.

April 4, 2020

There’s no doubt about it, the way we’re working and doing business has changed because rapidly evolving developments of the coronavirus pandemic. Although a lot of companies remote work processes in place, there are still many other companies and employees still navigating the turmoils of working from home.

I’m not a productivity expert, but I can provide a little guidance and share my experience with those who are new to this way of working. I’ve been working remotely with my team at Sunu (and other clients) for the last five and a half years. While I’m based in Boston, my entire team is based in Guadalajara, Mexico. I’ve lead my team through two product launches, building our partner network in over 32 countries and help take our revenue from 0 to $1M over the last year. I’ve put together a few of my learnings and resources from experts to help you stay productive, connected and healthy.

Let’s get to the basics

As I’m sure you’re reading a lot around this topic, let’s understand some key concepts here. There is a big difference between a company work culture and environment that’s been tailored to remote work versus working from home. Remote first is a way of working that’s already engrained into the company’s leadership, communication and cultural infrastructure. There are clearly defined processes, tools, methods, etc that function as part of the company’s identity.

Some companies are optimized for remote work while others are primarily optimized for co-location. Working from home is having the ability to do your job (or some part of it) outside of the office.

It’s important to be aware of some of the tradeoffs between co-location and remote work. Working remotely may allow for more concentration and less distractions than working at the office, where there may be more interruptions. It also take more effort to build and strengthen relationships with teammate when working remotely as these tend to naturally happen at the office. So, it’s important to be aware of these tradeoffs.

Finally, if you’re new to working from home because of COVID-19, expect it to be sub-optimal. This should be understood at all levels within the company, especially if the company is not been instrumented for remote first. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there to enable you and your team to work from home in a way that maintains people engaged, productive and continues to strengthen the culture within your organization. Now here what I learned over the years:

1. Setting yourself for Success

The way you set up your home work environment will allow you to cope with the new situation. We all have different living arrangements, whether we live in a house with a home office or we share an apartment with roommates or now have to attend to kids off from school. The more you can simulate your work experience at home, the better for preserving a routine and potentially meeting expectations.

So to ensure you set yourself up for success, I recommend:

  • Have a clearly defined work area: This could be as simple as having a desk in the corner of your living room or bedroom, to making sure your home office has everything you need for the workday.
  • Communicate with everyone in your home: Where its your roommate, partner, spouse or your family, you should discuss with everyone the workspace arrangements. Make sure you are all aware of regular or important meetings, client call, etc. You should discuss and understand everyones’ requirements. You may agree to have reduced noise or quite hours (if possible). I recommend getting a good pair of noise canceling headphones and a good headset for virtual meetings. Remember that it’s not just about canceling the noise around you, it’s also about adding less background noise to a meeting.
  • Use signage or signals: You may us an “at work”, “In Meeting” or “DND (do not disturb)” sign. If you are using a home office, you can hand the sign on a door or place it near you to make your status clear. I found this site from Mary Robinette Kowal with a downloadable PDF sign you can print out and attach to a laptop with a clothespin. The sign can be rotated to read “Writing,” “Other Work,” and “Goofing Off.” It’s an easy, low-tech solution to indicate your work status.
  • Avoid working in your PJs:  I found that I work best when I get dressed as if I’m going into the office. Getting dressed can help set your mind into work mode and help reduce any temptations of home life distractions. Yes, your home can be as equally as distracting as your office. It also helps you get out of work mode when you change out of your business dress to then engage in other activities. I find this helps preserve a sense of normalcy in your new work routine.

2. Prepare for remote collaboration

You’ll mostly likely be using a variety of tools to work with your team remotely. Take the time to learn how to use them, explore the features and try experimenting with the tools. Remember that at first, things will be sub-optimal, so any feature that improves work is always a gain for everyone. I learned that when working remotely it’s important to:

  • Keep your team connected: When teams work and interact together it fosters interdependency which promotes trust. I find having lightly structured virtual activities help create interactions, share information and build trust.
  • Make use of video for sharing information or updates: A lot of context is lost over email, and audio or video keeps team members engaged. I also use Zoom for video conferencing, client call and webinars.
  • Keep a healthy culture and monitor for burnout: Working from home and collaborating asynchronously can make you susceptible to burnout. Watch out for developing imposter syndrome. By not feeling that you are contributing enough, you may find it difficult to unplug and disconnect. If you’re a manage, be sure to ‘disconnect’ during off hours and watch out for these symptoms in your team.

3. Staying engaged with people

Building relationships and getting to know people on a deeper, more personal level happens naturally in an office. This will certainly be different when everyone is working remotely. You really have to work at it. This means setting aside dedicated time to get to know your teammates and build relationships.

I recommend using video whenever possible as it helps people ‘see’ each other and maintain a sense of community. Video platforms are useful for regular meetings like stand ups or you can use them asynchronously to provide updates. You can use video for team building activities as well as for fun activities which can engage the team directly (live) or asynchronously. One of our sales leads would record short video update about her trip using Whats App. This especially was helpful in boosting moral and keeping the team engaged during her business trips.

These are some recommendation for making use of video:

  • Get out of the routine: Have fun with video, you can record a short video to share some fun facts about yourself, or share what’s happening around your house or neighborhood. You can host virtual coffee hour, where people can join in with their tea or coffee for a non structured conversation.
  • Video Update: Keep the team informed about new feature releases, birthdays and other company-wide news. The good thing is that video updates can be asynchronous, so people in other cities or countries don’t have to worry about missing them.
  • Virtual Team Building: Gets everyone together to work through a structured exercise or topic discussion. We use this approach in combination with an online collaborative tool like Miro Board – a virtual post-it note board to share ideas, brainstorm or carry out a variety of collaborative exercises.

There are a lot of resources out there to help you adjust to the new normal. Just remember that these are only suggestions and it’s really up to you to try, experiment and optimize things to your benefit. If you found this post helpful, please share it with your network.