How to Work Remotely and Remain Connected

Work is what I do, not where I go.

This is part one of a two-part series on how to work remotely. Part one focuses on staying connected and being an effective team member. Part two is about how to manage a team with remote workers.

Two and a half years ago I began my journey of working remotely. It was a surprisingly easy transition for me given that I had just moved back to California from Spain and was coming from a very traditional office culture in Barcelona. I was nervous about how well I’d adapt to working from a home office. I did my research and found tons of suggestions about the dos and don’ts of working from home. While some of the ideas were great, many suggestions were not very helpful in making me more productive or effective as a remote worker.

Fast forward to today. I gradually found success working from home at my last company and even gained the support of those who were skeptical that anyone could be effective despite living hours away from headquarters. I recently joined Highfive and almost instantly I’ve become a well-integrated member of the team despite being the first remote worker. Highfive is very different from my previous company (40 employees vs. 920 employees, startup vs. publicly traded, one office vs. multiple locations), but in each case I’ve found a way to make it work. So I’d like to share some of my insights on how to be a successful remote worker.

How to work remotely? 5 recommendations for how to stay connected

1) Communicate face-to-face early and often

A picture is worth a thousand words. It may seem odd to recommend meeting face-to-face since I’m an advocate for not always being in the same place physically. However, for decades psychological research has shown that a large portion of communication is nonverbal and body language is incredibly important to understanding people. Video goes a long, long way to give you that in-person experience.

At my last company, I found that I built relationships most quickly with the people who I spoke with regularly, especially when we used video for our conversations. When you see someone, you’re able to build a level of rapport that is very hard to replicate over the phone (we won’t even talk about email). Combined with screen sharing, these video calls made it feel like we were huddled together in a small conference room.

A weekly team standup, one-on-one’s and impromptu huddles enabled us to coordinate our work. More importantly though, seeing each other helped us build the bonds that made everything else we did so much more effective (and fun). At Highfive, all of our meetings use video conferencing.

2) Engage in a reasonable amount of chit chat

We are all social and emotional creatures. While it’s incredibly important to focus on results and getting our work done, the success of most businesses today relies on the ability of teams to collaborate, share ideas, and trust one another. The best way to build trust is to get to know your co-workers and develop an emotional connection. We’re not robots; we’re human.

Just because you’re remote, there’s nothing stopping you from chatting socially with other people at your company. Besides spending some time in our normal Highfive video conversations to catch up with each other, frequent, quick chats over Slack can be incredibly effective for getting know personalities, clarifying questions, and strengthening important relationships. There’s a reason that Slack and Hipchat are exploding in usage. They’re filling a gap that email never could. Besides being great ways to ask quick questions or make small announcements, they do a very good job of replacing some conversations that used to happen “around the water cooler” or during a smoking break.

3) Define common metrics for success

Confusion leads to misalignment, and that can destroy productivity and a sense of connectedness. To fight confusion, every organization, team, and individual should have SMART goals. These give us targets that we can aim for and help us better organize and prioritize our work individually and collectively. Well-defined metrics also enable us to measure our progress toward meeting our goals, and give us a common way to communicate how we are doing to others.

Too often though, metrics are overly-focused on activities rather than outcomes. In other cases, there’s no common definition of how success is defined or measured. It’s worth the time and effort up front to make sure that you and your team’s goals and metrics are clearly defined and understood by everyone and that there is a clear way for you to be able to produce the metrics necessary to check your performance and progress.

4) Visit the office at least a few times per year

There is no perfect substitute for the connection that you can build in person. Online meetings, chat, and common goals are great, but the most effective organizations and people still spend some amount of time (even if small) in person in a common space. That doesn’t mean that you always need to be sitting next to your co-workers. It shouldn’t be one extreme or the other. Companies that choose to have their employees only work from the office make many compromises (limited talent pool, constant interruptions, time wasted commuting instead of working or doing something else more fulfilling, etc…).

At Highfive, I try to make it back to the office about every six weeks. Given where I live and that I have young kids, that’s a cadence that feels right for me. It depends on each person’s particular circumstances. In some companies it’s common to see quarterly business reviews or sales meetings that bring everyone together. The important thing is that at least some time is spent in person with others and that remote workers make it back at least a few times per year.

5) Be available and respond quickly

Out of sight, out of mind. As a natural by-product of working in an office together, people usually feel like they have the option of asking a question or favor from a fellow co-worker. By merely being in the office, co-workers perceive each other as being “available” and somewhat responsive.

As a remote worker, you have no such luxury. It is dependent upon you to make an extra effort to let others know, through your actions, that they can count on you. That requires you to make sure that you are available as often as possible for impromptu meetings, chats or even re-prioritizing tasks to help others. You may have to sacrifice a little bit more than office workers to be always available, but it is well worth it in the end. You should respond quickly to questions and don’t ever let anyone feel like you’re less responsive because you are not across the table or down the hallway. Being responsive and available builds trust with others and gives you credibility.

Now, more than ever, it’s easy to stay connected while working remotely. In the comments below, please share what helps you stay connected with your co-workers.

Bonus tip: Work for a company that embraces remote work

While it’s possible to succeed in a company that doesn’t formally support remote workers, your best bet is to work for an organization that fully supports working from anywhere. This is one of the reasons I chose to join Highfive. Everything from the values, to the blog content, to the promotions they ran, told me that this is a company where I would be welcome and could thrive. Oh, and by the way, Highfive’s business is built around cloud-based video conferencing, which helps.

I did my research and so should you. Find the company that will let you thrive.

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By Michael Freeman