I’ve worked remotely in one form or another as a designer for ten years.
In my last office job, my hiring manager was in the NYC office, while I was based as a designer in our parent company in the UK. As our team restructured over time, his 2-hour commute gave way to working earlier at home to have more overlapping time with us. Today, I’m a remote worker to an office in Spain.
To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, I’ve worked remotely from both sides now. As the one in the office waiting for the remote guy to get back to us, and as the remote worker wondering what’s being discussed in the office while knuckling down to move things forward.
Here’s what I’ve learned about creating a healthy remote-working culture:
1. When one person is remote, everyone is remote
The following principles apply to every member of the team, not just the remote ones.
Yes, this will take a bit more work upfront, but the result is a higher functioning, happier, more creative and productive team that retains talent better. Isn’t that worth a little shift in thinking? These principles build upon each other, like lego bricks.
Traditional offices unconsciously enforce a culture of distraction: stopping by someone’s desk to see how something is coming along or phoning instead of emailing a question. This forces people to respond to the squeakiest wheel, rather than according to priorities. By getting results this way, everyone else is trained to make every small request a “noisy one” to get ahead in the queue.
This is a toxic habit that needs to be broken.
Unscheduled status update requests create pressure on the creative, and can feel like their quality of work is in question, or worse: that they’re being treated as a human plugin to execute someone else’s design. Unless you are brand new to the industry, these are soul-crushing. The quality of work suffers, and the creative will want to move on to greener pastures.
Additionally, remote workers may work longer than they ought to that day to “catch up”, making them a little closer to burn out, less productive and snappier the next day. Because you can’t see them, the scenario risks repeating itself until burnout or conflict occurs. One ex-remote worker I know woke up one morning and blasted months of pent-up resentments at every client he had, then fired them all.
For remote workers paid per hour, these kinds of distractions can dramatically add to your bill, since it takes 20 minutes to get back to pre-interruption productivity.
The cost of distractions can be roughly calculated as:
(each distraction x 20 minutes x their rate) + (the non-distraction hours x hourly rate)
You’re probably imagining that the distractions are on the worker’s side and it’s their job to focus, but we’ll see that this isn’t the case in the next point.
1. Agree on feedback points and times with every coworker, and stick to them. These points may be different for juniors than to seniors, but it will allow them to problem-solve with calm and creativity.
2. Have a single source of truth for documenting procedures, workflows, how-tos, and on-boarding. Use a group password manager to manage logins. Set up a slack bot for repeatable questions (status reports, who’s up for pizza on Friday) or turning conversations into shared knowledge easily. This saves a lot of repeated questions and interruptions later on.
I loved Slack at first, but even with my setting changed to only alert me to direct messages and mentions, there’s still this social norm to start all slack conversations with at least three messages before getting to brass tax, e.g.
“are you there?”
“Hope you had a good weekend!”
“So I was thinking about the design review comments…”
“I sent my reply via email”
“Anyway, no pressure..reply when you can”
That’s six alerts to tell me I’ve got mail, which I’ve already been notified about. Multiply by every person you interact within a project, and that’s a lot of notifications in a day.
What I’ve noticed about how I work, and what I’ve heard from a few others is that even when I only check Slack messages at intervals (say, to work in pomodoros), the very presence of that red circle with 17 alerts is still distracting.
In the background of my mind, I’m imagining what they could be about instead of directing all my attention at solving the problem at hand and moving on to the next step.
I can block distractions from my computer and mobile and manage my time, but this communication style puts me in a tough spot: do I “act aloof” by not replying but deliver fast and cost-consciously, or do I respond in a similar manner and keep the clock running and risk leaving the card in the “doing” column at the end of the day?
Solution: Choose email for non-urgent questions and feedback that require thoughtful answers. Use task assignment tools for things that only require action to complete and use the comments thread to explain further.
Creating a bias towards asynchronous communication is also key to building flexibility in working hours for office staff, which helps retain talent as they seek to gain better work/life balance in the long term.
4. Effectiveness, not busyness
Busyness is bustle.
It’s long hours. It’s moving from one task or place to the next and eating at your desk while on the phone. In short, busyness is a look. And for some reason, we treat it like it’s a status symbol.
Image source: www.ban.do
Busyness is a sign of something being wrong. Perhaps of not being able to decide which project is most valuable to pursue, not being able to plan realistically for the time you have or not being able to share your workload or willing to hire extra help.
Productivity is about getting better results for less time. It can be tracked and improved through logged hours, design uploads or git commits or through various marketing dashboards.
Effectiveness, on the other hand, means first understanding what is and isn’t worth doing right now. Then tackling those tasks with efficiency.
This is why I don’t buy into these “morning routine” posts that promise “increased productivity”. Not everything needs to be done every day to be effective, and some things actually suffer when done every day. You need recovery days between run days, for example. Is a day between standups really enough time to report meaningful progress?
For myself, the most important thing I can do for my creativity and productivity during the week is take Friday mornings off.
Having to sit at a desk until quitting time tends to encourage “busywork”, doing things that take up time, but might not be the best uses of it.
I’ve seen everything from obsessing over an email signup page match a PSD file to the pixel, to endless redesigns of logos in the weeks before a launch.
In small product teams with a big backlog, this is busywork, not effectiveness.
Keep team goals and task impact firmly in view, by adding fields to project manager for “effort” and “Impact”. Both should have two options: “low” and “high”.
Image from asana blog
Now you can bring visibility to projects that return the highest impact for the low effort, and filter out the low impact, high effort ones.
Add another dropdown for “goals”. This should list your current big picture (not project-specific) goals for the company. Every task or project should be building towards a goal.
5. Communicating and embodying company culture
The previous point means there needs to be a clear understanding of company goals, weaknesses, and values.
I’m not talking about that inspirational poster of values that hangs on the wall.
Company culture is like the 12 steps of AA: it’s something to be discussed and explored and put into practice in different ways regularly. So if you say you’re all about “openness”, actually hold a seminar and talk about what that means and how it’s applied, when it isn’t, and regularly ask for feedback and ideas. To make sure your remote workers can participate, make it available on a platform like Workplace by Facebook so they can comment live, or on a webinar platform with live comment and replay options.