Compiled by Samuel Welsch Sveen of The Mill, with contributions from Kimber Dowsett, Elyse Goonan, and Mike Trotzke.
The Remote Model
More and more, it’s less of an option and more of a requirement to be able to work remotely—from anywhere BUT the office. Many companies are “100% distributed,” which means everyone works remotely. If you’re 3,000 miles from the office, you may travel there once a month, or less. Coworkers communicate over a variety of online platforms and can collaborate across the entire world.
Mill member Kimber Dowsett works for Truss, an example of a 100% distributed company based out of San Francisco. They offer a $1,000 home office budget and a $300/month allowance for coworking space rent. They also offer a $150/month budget in case folks prefer to work at coffee/tea shops or retail spaces where a food or drink purchase would be expected.
Remote working is part of their business model, so they have prioritized a budget for it—and made this helpful playbook. Other smaller companies and startups may not provide equipment, but still expect you to have a laptop or other basic equipment.
You may likely have a centralized asset management system with its own security and privacy settings, and be advised to secure home networks with strong passwords, firewalls, and require encryption for data/file sharing.
One approach is to have no local servers and keep everything in the cloud, from tools to transactions (this is coming from Cheddar, a Mill-based credit card transaction startup). This means that being at home, out of town, or in the office is exactly the same. The only network maintained is the production network, which is accessible by only two members of the company via Virtual Private Network (which creates a private, secure network within a public network).
The Home Office
Wherever YOU can get work done. It might be your couch, your kitchen table, a desk in the basement, the library or a coffee shop (well, not currently). It might be a basic table and your laptop, maybe a printer/scanner nearby. It might be two large monitors, nice speakers, and no windows.
A lot of people do not have dedicated rooms for work, and improvised offices can work just fine. If you have kids or pets, distractions can be difficult to work through, and you’ll have to find boundaries that work for your particular situation. (More on kids to come.) But try to spend at least a little time to get the best setup you can—chair, table, lighting, few distractions, etc.
Virtual Meetings, Part 1: The Hardware
Virtual meetings are becoming the norm, and there are different hardware and software products to choose from, and basic environmental considerations, too. Here’s a quick list of helpful softwares, just search each one to find out more: Slack, Zoom, G-Suite, Pivotal, Miro, GitHub, AirTable, Retrium. Zoom seems to be a popular meeting software, as does Google Meet, Apple FaceTime, or the classic Skype; these all require a phone or laptop with built-in video & audio capabilities. The Owl is a camera and microphone/speaker system that works particularly well for teams where many people are in the same office and only a few are remote… not great for Covid times but useful otherwise. Also, The Owl requires a computer and any one of the above meeting software options to work.
Virtual Meetings, Part 2: Environmental Considerations
Aside from the computer stuff, your environment makes a big difference in how you look to your coworkers. Good natural LIGHTING will take your image from dark and blurry to bright and crisp. If you can be near a window, that is ideal, and even more ideal, face the window directly so that all of your face is lit up, not just half.
Think about your background, too. If you’re doing a lot of important video meetings, take the time to organize your background or just hang a sheet or a blanket to smooth everything over (lighter, neutral colors will help with lighting).
Lastly, think about avoiding extra noise: from the street through an open window, an echoey empty room, a fuzzy HVAC system, kids and pets.
Virtual Meetings, Part 3: Some Etiquette
Perhaps the most annoying thing about virtual meetings, in my experience, is when people accidentally talk over each other and then there’s a game of You Go, No You Go, Sorry, No You Go. Discuss with your team some rules to avoid this, like the old-fashioned raise-your-hand technique, or use the simultaneous chat feature that most platforms offer to get in line to speak.
Also discuss a microphone muting policy. It can be good to have everyone’s mic turned on all the time to stay engaged, but it also means that everyone hears everything, from keyboard typing to chairs creaking.
There are a few more good tips about virtual meetings here, too: https://www.forbes.com/sites/josephliu/2020/03/17/virtual-meeting-tips/#999e19872089
The Work-Life Balance
Some people (and their companies) draw strict boundaries against working during weekends and time off (and may even disable communication accounts), while other entrepreneurs blend the work-life game seamlessly, integrating family into work, work into family. Remote working offers an amount of flexibility and resiliency, yet it’s a constant balancing act for most people, and there are many factors that will just take time and understanding from all involved (family, bosses, coworkers, pets, you) to get things running smoothly. Kids and pets make it a little tougher—or easier—to draw boundaries: like they might be shouting to play all morning, but it’s impossible to email while on a walk. Kids and pets will likely be a normal part of many virtual meetings—annoying or entertaining as they may be; life happens.
All that said, COVID times are unusual and may require extra emergency attention from all of us, so the balance may be even trickier . . .
Dress for Success
To pajama or not to pajama, is a question for many. If you feel great in PJs and there’s no need to change, then go for it. If you don’t feel great, put on some jeans or something more worky. There doesn’t seem to be a hardline on this, so you do you. The mullet-outfit—work up top, PJs below is definitely a thing!
I can’t speak much to the more involved processes of hair and makeup, but again, seems like a ‘you do you’ situation.
Flexibility and adaptability may be more important to an organization than predictability, and everyone being forced into the same routine is likely inefficient. That being said, a personal routine can be good. Shower, breakfast, coffee, work, etc. etc. You’ll just have to find what works for you and your situation.
Try to schedule breaks for physical movement: get outside and reach for the sky, go for a walk, sit on the ground and do a few yoga stretches. At the very least, stretch in your chair, relax your shoulders, make circles with your head and your feet, simple movements like that. There are a ton of free yoga videos on youtube of all different lengths and styles… which can be overwhelming. “Yoga With Adrienne” is a popular one, for starters (it’s the one we usually do at home). And you really don’t need any special equipment or clothing, other than a bit of open floor space.
Sometimes it’s hard not to graze when you have access to your own kitchen all day, so try your best to limit snacks. Of course there are healthier snacks, too, like nuts and raisins, or carrots and hummus. Go ham on the water, maybe have a funky glass or water bottle. There’s even a fun app to track your water consumption: Plant Nanny.
Brush your teeth after lunch or as often as you need—that fresh flavor in your mouth will hopefully help you avoid another glass of OJ or a sweet soda, etc.
It’s totally normal to think of lots of non-work things you need to do or look up, so instead of navigating away or putting a load of laundry in, just keep a Post-It list of all the distractions you want to address when you’re off the clock again and knock them out while you eat your lunch or immediately after work.
My partner and I are fortunate to both be able to work from home and have been experimenting with our parenting schedule: sometimes alternating whole mornings and afternoons, or sometimes hour-long chunks, working around each other’s meetings. Halfway through Week 2, we settled into each getting a Power Hour to start the day—she gets 8-9am, I get 9-10am. We can answer emails, attend to anything urgent, and just get the ball rolling and ‘show up’ with our coworkers. After that, we’re again at the whim of meetings, but generally try to keep larger chunks of time for better focus. It takes active trial & error and a lot of communication about what feels good and fair, and what flows best with our work schedules and personal styles. That 8am shift of toddler-duty is actually pretty sweet—I get to enjoy a cup of coffee with my kiddo and play legos, make art, or explore the backyard 🙂
Now, we have one 2-year-old toddler, which is a lot different than two or three or more kiddos. We’ve heard from other parents that engaging their kids with E-learning isn’t easy, from having the right piece of technology and navigating across the different learning platforms to competing with sunshine and friends and TV. So, I don’t have any advice there :/
Getting Stuff Done
Metrics—goals, milestones, priorities—are perhaps the best way to measure progress and get stuff done. As a leader or an employee, as long as the projects are being completed, the question of when and where it’s done can take a back seat.
It’s important to have a place for ‘water cooler’ chit chat. Slack channels dedicated to pets or hobbies, the beginning of a weekly Zoom meeting. Kimber’s company, Truss, even has a special time set aside just to socialize with coworkers called “Being Human.” The SlackBot randomly pairs two remote employees to hang out for a half hour and talk about anything but work.
Social media, for work or play, might connect you with others too, and feel a little less forced. Also, IRL (in real life) does still exist—you might attend the occasional conference or festival and meet your coworkers in person.
This gets tricky when you have a lot of real-time meetings. If your team is all in the US, you’ll at least have a few hours of normal workday overlap time, when you can try to schedule most meetings. Of course exceptions can always be made—especially for clients—but if you need a full 8 hours of overlap in your day to accommodate meetings, you might be having too many meetings.
“Tickets, messaging, and other forms of ‘asymmetrical communication’ help immensely with time zone shifts, too. The fact is remote work culture is what solves time zone issues not what creates them”—a fact, according to Mike.
Mike Trotzke’s Short Essay on How He Discovered the Value and Culture of Remote Working
For remote work to work, it takes buy-in. I was opposed to it for years— mostly because I like people and face-to-face communication.
It took me really committing to trying remote to realize what I was doing. I was putting my preferences above the best interests of my company.
It was easy to think I could tell an employee something faster than I could type. My time was scarce. I was valuing my time over theirs for sure, but even worse I was forgetting how spoken words aren’t searchable or shareable. I wasn’t saving time. My behavior turned out to be more or less a form of procrastination. The truth is, I was just constantly repeating myself— wasting my time and everyone else’s. It took me forcing myself to slack or post a ticket to realize that.
Remote doesn’t work well if the whole organization isn’t participating. If everyone, even the ones in the office, don’t act like remote workers, it can break down. It has to be a cultural shift both for those working remote and for everyone else. Otherwise some people (the remote ones) get left out of the water cooler conversations, and they start to struggle. Managers too often think it’s the remote worker who isn’t working out. In reality, it’s the folks in the office who are the source of the problem.
Today you can find me on a Zoom call with someone on our team realizing we’re back to back in different call rooms at the Mill. Technology-enabled meeting is the default. We often record, so we can review. And we always try to document the results of conversations in tools like GitHub.
Now don’t get me wrong, we have parties and stand-ups and laugh a lot, but when we are getting work done, you’ll find a dead silent room with teammates Slacking each other while sitting two feet from one another.
The biggest thing about remote work to me is how it empowers companies to operate in places like Bloomington. Having trouble finding that key hire here in a smaller town? Not a problem at all. You’re ready. Remote work culture is about building both a more productive company and a more resilient one.
“Makers Schedule Vs. Manager Schedule,” by Paul Graham, is a great short essay that was an excellent precursor for understanding remote work culture for me.
There are as many ways to work remotely as there are hairs on a dog, as the saying goes 😉 But surely there are some best practices that we can learn from others, and it’ll just take time to figure out what works for you and your particular situation.
If you made it to the end of this article, great, and thanks for reading! There are a million more dog hairs of ‘how-to work remotely’ all over the Internet, and for example, here is another article that is a collection of 12 articles on different topics related to remote working: via Trello.
Good luck out there and stay safe and healthy!