I have been working remotely for years. In fact, I’ve only ever really had a handful of jobs in my life (when I was significantly younger) where I have not worked remotely at least a portion of the time. I didn’t really plan it that way, it has just kind of happened. I certainly do not take it for granted, never have, and never will. The ability to avoid annoying commutes and having flexibility in my schedule are conveniences I cherish on a daily basis. My personal and professional lives are completely intertwined, and I am just fine with that. However, I understand this is not the case for most. In fact, I always find it humorous how dumbfounded many people are when I tell them I work from home full time — especially given the fact that I have small children. The most common response I get is “I could never do that.”
It seems that what is commonplace for me is absurd for many. Working remotely day in and day out is certainly not for everyone. I’ve learned it takes a certain type of person, with a unique set of skills, and a creative mindset to thrive and avoid being stranded on the island.
This “how to” is based on my own takeaways, the things I can pinpoint that have allowed me to personally succeed without physically rubbing shoulders with my co-workers every day.
Always Be On
The number one thing you want to avoid when working remotely is ever having a co-worker say to themselves, “where is so-and-so, I can never get ahold of them!” Always being “on” is likely the one thing that scares most people about a remote lifestyle. If you are the type that wants and needs to “leave work at the office” then you have no place trying to work remotely. Of course you can find a balance, but I’ve found that one of the reasons I’ve succeeded is because I go far out of my way to always be available. This counter balances the fact that I’m not there in person as frequently as many others. Nobody can walk over to my desk to ask me a quick question, it is just not possible, so you have to make up for that in every way possible. Being a 100% remote employee has forced me into a mindset of ensuring that I am the most accessible, easy to get ahold of, person in the entire company. I’m not certain that is always the case, but it is something I strive for. I live by Skype, always try to answer the phone, and am a quick draw to respond to emails, from desktop and mobile, virtually day and night, 7 days a week. You’d be amazed how much of an impression those small things can make on others.
Like I mentioned up front, there is very little line drawn between my personal and professional lives. If I’m going to be “always on” then there cannot be a wall dividing the two. Many would see that as a big sacrifice and negative aspect of the situation, I see it as a necessity in order to sustain the remote lifestyle I’ve created. If you want the freedoms and flexibility of not being held up in an office everyday you have to make a concerted effort to be available at all times. I still strongly support the concept and benefits of a positive work-life balance but if you want to succeed remotely you have to throw out a lot of the standard approaches and reinvent one for your particular environment.
Take Collaboration Seriously
It is very easy, too easy in fact, when you work remotely to bury your head and work in a silo. It can be dangerous, and turn into a detrimental way of work life. Instead of being forced to collaborate with your peers you’re empowered to work alone, problem solve by yourself, and take projects from start to finish without even a single other set of eyes on them. Don’t let it happen.
Just as important as communication, collaboration will force you to be present and have a voice while not being there in person. Constantly pursue feedback and commentary on your own projects, and be the most pro-active user of your intranet to ensure others know your opinions on topics large and small. This becomes increasingly important across teams within your company. It’s one thing to work within your group but don’t stop there. Make sure you’re vocal across departments, even if it just means you let them know you exist. The more visible you are the better off you’ll be in the long run, and the more likely your co-workers are to come to you for help, a second opinion, or feedback.
Be Loud, Very Loud
This applies to both of the points above, as your volume as a remote employee is undoubtedly muted by default since you cannot be seen. You must be extremely pro-active with your communication/collaboration efforts and be overtly vocal across all fronts. The last thing you want to be is forgotten, when it comes to big decisions or even day-to-day conversations. Luckily, today’s tech gives you every opportunity to accomplish this even from thousands of miles away. You’ve got email, IM, intranet, Twitter, oh…and the phone works too. There is no excuse for being unheard. This seems like a simple talking point but in reality it may be the most important of the bunch, because as with most everything else when you’re remote, you have to be excessive with it in order to combat your lack of physical presence in the office. Regardless of how good your communication and collaboration skills/efforts are, if they aren’t loud enough to be heard they will go unnoticed.
Relationships Are Key
A no brainer, and one you’d think would go without saying. But it’s critical, especially for the long term. Regardless if your role is a free lancer, contractor, part, or full time, you must make an ongoing effort to actually connect with those you work with. Doing so will pay dividends in regards to their level of trust with you when you’re back at the home office. Most importantly I’d say to focus not only on the at work relationships but on the personal ones. Make a big effort to connect with people socially, find out what you have in common outside of work, where your actual lives may cross, where your interests and hobbies align, etc.
Once again, this immediately re-surfaces the work life balance, as a lot of people purposely separate their work relationships with personal ones. I’m not saying you have to be best friends with everyone you work with, but spending some amount of time with them outside the office, in situations where you can have a non work related conversation can be highly beneficial. For one, you might actually find out you like the people you work with, and/or learn things about them (and vice versa) that make you like them more, as people and co-workers. All of which, pretty much leads me to my final point.
Love What You Do
Maybe somebody out there can work remotely and hate their job, but I certainly can’t. I imagine it’s one thing to work someplace you despise, clock in and clock out, and then get on with your life each night. For me, as I’ve said above, there is no real ability to clock out if you’re going to do it right so you better absolutely enjoy what you do. This means your role, the company as a whole, and especially those you work with. You need to love all those things, across the board.
For me, the level of focus, commitment and engagement needed to thrive in a remote environment are extremely high. Therefore, I find it a stretch to try and maintain all of those if you don’t have an equal level of love for what you do. The two of them go hand in hand in my mind.
My experience as a remote employee stretches across a number of different scenarios over the years. I’ve been a one man company, free lancing as a designer and consultant. I’ve worked on a startup with some of my best friends. And now I’m working as a part of a slightly larger team to build a new marketing technology category. I imagine working remotely for significantly larger, established companies would present some additional challenges as more politics and guidelines could enter. But, my gut feeling is regardless of the company size, whether you’re working with a team of 5 or 500, that these parameters could still apply as critical “must do’s.”