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Helping People Work Efficiently While Remote

·1321 words

Remote work is something that is near and dear to me, because, well - I am myself a remote worker.

My core team is located near Seattle, I am myself located in British Columbia, Canada. While it’s not that big of a distance (only 2.5 hours of a drive, depending on border wait times), working remotely poses an interesting set of challenges and makes you re-assess your perspectives on collaboration.

I should start off by saying that this post is inspired by my own experiences - a lot of them are very specific to me and how I organize my workflow, so in case something doesn’t quite work for you, it’s OK. As the old adage says, your mileage may vary.

Computer and notebook on a coffee table, with cup of coffee nearby

The more I work remotely, the more I realize how important it is to get your entire team on the same page about certain approaches - I am fortunate that my employer, Microsoft, sees remote work as a key part of its culture, so a lot of people already keep these things in mind. However, this often becomes a bit more complicated when most of your team is on-site, and only few people are remote. The post below describes what works really well to make remote work as inclusive and efficient as possible.

Turn On Your Webcam #

No, really, don’t be shy about turning on your webcam during conference calls. This ensures that people on the other end of the line see that there is a person behind the name, something that is really easy to do when you are in the office, but is difficult when you are a hundred (or even thousands) of miles away. Whether you are calling from the office, a cafe or a bus - just flip that switch to “Show Video” and make the meeting more personal with this one easy trick.

Write Things Down #

This is something that even teams that are not remote struggle with - purely putting things on paper (electronic paper, that is - this is 2018, we’re not barbarians). Remote workers are not part of hallway conversations. Often, they can’t just stop by someone’s office, ask a questions, and be on their way with the answer in hand. Instead, it’s a flurry of emails, IM messages - things get lost and going back to the person and say “Hey, I don’t recall what you mentioned in the IM before, can you…” is not always something that people can do without sounding like they weren’t paying attention to the conversation before.

It’s a good practice to have a team notebook (OneNote makes it really easy) and just use it as an aggregation of everything that is happening on the team - meetings, hallways conversations, news, happenings and plans (and whatever else might be there), so that you have a written record of things that might be interesting for other team members.

And just to be clear - putting things in email is not writing things down. It’s putting things in a silo. Write things down in the open.

Keep The Non-Work Conversation Flowing #

Not all conversation is always work-related - you’ve likely heard about watercooler talk. And let’s be real - when we talk to our coworkers, we also share things about recent happenings outside work, discuss technology advancements and exchange jokes. Remote workers don’t really have the possibility to be a part of that conversation. As a team, it’s a good idea to facilitate this conversation online as well - having a “General” or “Random” team channel where colleagues can exchange silly memes, bring up and discuss articles or announcement is a tremendous tool to connect people that work in different locations.

In one of the recent conversations with Craig Dunn, lead for the team managing the Xamarin Documentation, he emphasized just how important this is for the team morale to keep free-form conversation happening - his team is entirely remote, and they are some of the most tight-knit group of people I know.

Provide Feedback and Be Open To Feedback #

When the team is geo-distributed, it’s easy for miscommunication to happen. Your email doesn’t carry your tone, and that smiley face might seem condescending to someone. If something bothers you, always tell the person about it. It could be that they are in the same position as you and just didn’t full understand what you meant. Ask them what you can do to make their life easier - this goes both ways as well. As feedback starts being delivered, it will help your team avoid pitfalls where a person is not in the know about how others feel about their work style or approaches.

Use Collaborative Tools #

In 2018, that’s less of a problem given that many tools are built with collaboration in mind. Whether you use Google Docs, Word, Trello or GitHub, make sure that whatever you use enables core scenarios around:

  • Tracking Changes - know who added what.
  • Tracking Feedback - allow others to leave comments and ask questions.
  • Ease of Access - it doesn’t require someone to be wired in to the corporate network to access something (VPN works well, in those cases).

And like I mentioned, I would recommend avoiding email as a collaboration tool - to me, it’s mostly an informational channel, without much historical perspective and context.

Treat Remote Workers as On-Site Employees #

There was a number of times that I got an email with “I see you are based in {city X}. Is there someone in the {headquarters city} that I can talk to about your project in person?”. Don’t do that. This states to the other person that you are not willing to do a bit of extra work to meet online. In 2018 it’s not that hard - turn the camera on, and set up a working session meeting. Boom, problem solved, and you got the person working on the project helping you.

Make an Effort to Meet Face-to-Face #

With all the effort you put into remote work, it’s always worth meeting with the team face-to-face every once in a while. Whether it’s monthly, quarterly or yearly - do book some time to spend building a relationship with your peers on-site. In 99% of the cases, that can be easily arranged with the help of a car or a travel site.

Communicate Your Status #

If you are remote, it’s hard for your on-site (or distributed) teams to know what you are working on. Always put together a status email for your manager (or even better, in the team’s Slack or Teams channel) about the 3 Ps - Progress, Problem, Plans. That way, you’re not just “That remote guy/girl.” This is, obviosly, somewhat easier for those that write a lot of code because your commit history speaks for itself, but it’s a bit harder for those in managerial positions.

Build Time Zone Awareness #

That 3PM meeting you scheduled? Nobody from your team in Japan can attend it because it’s 3AM there. Make sure you build that awareness (Outlook supports multiple time zone calendars) and if it’s absolutely unavoidable to have the meeting at alternative times, record it - again, modern tools already allow that, and you can share it later with those who did not get a chance to attend the gathering.

Conclusion #

Both working remotely and working with remote workers is a learnable skill. It will take time and effort to find your rhythm - both in terms of communication and getting things done. When you hear “This person is remote”, this is not what they do:

A GIF of a person surfing with their laptop

This is more likely what they do, often at odd hours:

A GIF of a person typing on laptop and drinking coffee

For a lot of the things I mentioned above, I didn’t really understand their importance until I became a remote worker. I hope that you can avoid those pitfalls, and have a more productive relationship with your remote and on-site teams.