10 Tips for Success as a Remote Employee
by Jeffrey McGuire
There are passionate advocates for working remotely who will tell you about the many benefits of having been or being remote employees: less time and energy wasted commuting, more productivity, better breakfasts, better work/life balance, and so on. There are jobs and companies that are incompatible with working remotely, too. Many kinds of business need people in the same space together on a daily basis. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer famously banned working from home in 2013 as part of her effort to reboot that company and its culture. Let's take those discussions as read and respected.
Here, I want to draw on my experience, successes, and failures to give you a few tips and tricks on surviving (and being effective!) as a remote and making yourself a valuable resource to your organization. A ten point list can't hope to be comprehensive; I'd love to see your tips, trick, and hear about your experiences in the comments here!
How to succeed as (or with) remote employees
I have been a remote employee at Acquia since 2008. More than 5 years into this, I can say being a remote employee is something of an art. Here are a few lessons I have learned. (There are more.) Obviously, your mileage may vary; every situation is different. Let me know what has worked or failed for you in the comments!
- You need a team and manager willing to work with you remotely. This may sound banal, but if anyone on either end of this situation feels forced into it, things will be tough for you.
- Be willing to learn new stuff. We still have plenty of colleagues who got started before all-pervasive communication, shared documents and files, VOIP/video chat/IM, and so on. If someone won't change and adapt to working with you remotely, ("I've always done this with an Excel spreadsheet"), you are going to have trouble succeeding. If you can win that person over by teaching them new skills and technologies, not only can you succeed at your job, you will probably win a strong ally at HQ, too!
Define success based on specific goals. Your manager must be willing to define your success by achievement of agreed goals. This is crucial, probably the single most important point here. Your success at your job cannot be defined by old measures like "eight hours on seat, typing".
- Define clear, measurable, (reasonable) goals for your job as part of your planning process with your manager. These could be quarterly KPIs on deliverables, number of tickets handled, calls made, and so on. It really depends on your job.
- Deliver on those goals and make sure that is recognized and acknowledged. Tip: Send an email summing up your completed deliverables for the week to your manager. A quick "Yes, thanks, got it all." from your manager on record obviates later discussion.
If you can't see me online, it doesn't mean I'm not working. Help your team and manager understand that your hours and theirs may not match up. Especially if you are in differing time zones (I have spent the majority of my time at Acquia six hours ahead of Boston HQ), your team won't see you online all the time (even during your working-hour-overlap). It doesn't mean you aren't working. Delivering on your agreed goals is the best way to build up this trust.
- Insist on your working hours. Gently train your manager and team that you don't do meetings after a certain time, or whatever it is you need to maintain a sane personal life while succeeding at your job. In my case, meetings or calls after 12 midday in Boston (18:00/6 p.m. where I live in Germany) cuts into my time at home with my family.
- Be flexible and make compromises on your working hours when it is important.
- Your manager doesn't necessarily need to know where you are getting your work done as long as you're getting it done, especially if you are working based on a definition of success like the ones described above.
Get to HQ regularly. There is still nothing that beats getting to know someone in person. Working with your colleagues, meeting them face-to-face regularly (annually, quarterly, whatever works) is what makes you a team. One of the reasons that the massive-scale remote collaboration in the Drupal project works so well is because lots of it is truly, personally tightly knit community. We meet in-person regularly at user groups, Drupal Camps and Cons as often as we can. This fosters trust and good interpersonal relationships; these in turn, foster good remote cooperation. The same goes for you and your boss and your team.
- Make regular visits with your team part of your annual or quarterly planning with your manager.
Your manager and your team must communicate your value and be your champions in your absence. You and all of your team are a community, a family. You have to be there for each other and stand up for each other when it counts.
- Whoever is around when there are problems needs to step in to fix them, no matter where they came from. Something is going to hit the fan when you cannot be reached, or maybe when you are awake, but the rest of the team is still asleep. At Acquia, we say "Jump in and own it."
- Include all team members in praise and success. Conversely, someone is going to come to your team thrilled about something that went right. The team should explicitly give credit where credit is due and include the remote while accepting thanks or praise for the team.
- Your manager must be your advocate and broadcast your success to the rest of the team and company management, too. Without this advocacy, you efforts can easily go unnoticed.
- Be willing to compromise, go the extra distance, and try again. Not everything that you and your team try will work the first time. Everyone involved should be forgiving, flexible, and willing to try new things until you find the combination that lets the whole team cooperate, communicate, and succeed.
- Make clear agreements with your manager and team members ... and keep them! Keep your end of those agreements, remind others (respectfully) if they are not sticking to them. Work out new agreements if the ones you make consistently fail.
Communicate A LOT, clearly, repeatedly, usefully. You are not across the hall. You don't see your team at the coffee machine or go out with them for lunch. Make sure you are present virtually.
- Insist (nicely!) on the better communication from your team if you feel left out.
- Write concise, effective emails with useful subject lines. Make every email subject line clear in topic, action needed, etc. Do not reuse email threads to start new topics. CC as few people as possible on your messages, but enough to be sure to cover all your bases.
- Get on the phone (the actual telephone, VOIP, video call) if things feel like they are getting off track; 5 minutes of talking can clarify more than 2 days of frantic, frustrated emails or IM's. Tip: The phones on our desks ring so rarely these days, but we're all conditioned to answer them. It's harder to ignore the ringing phone than it is to shut down email, IM, or even your whole laptop!
As a remote, you will miss out on ...
- "the water cooler"
- some recognition
- happy hour
- being interrupted every 2 minutes :-)