Remote Work – A Guide For Beginners


With the onset of COVID 19, remote work is seeing its biggest moment. True, that there’s this feeling of déjà vu, and it feels like we’ve been down this is-remote-work-the-new-normal road before. We have – in 2009, after the Great Recession. But that, in retrospect, seems like a soft launch. What we’re seeing today is an acceleration into the future of work and learning.

The truth, as it stands now, is this.

We’ve reached that moment in history where a defining event causes seismic shifts in the way we live. COVID has been that event, so even after the flattening of the curve occurs, the world is unlikely to say, “ah well, glad it’s passed, now let’s get back to the way things were”. That’s not going to happen. Remote work is here to stay.

The question, then, to ask is this – how prepared are organizations for this radical shift? Not very. Many are finding the change hard. And while solutions are being sought to make remote-work technologically possible, there’s also an equal need to focus on the human side. It’s easier to get people to download Zoom than to understand the intricacies of their lives and solve those. But it’ll have to be done.

No cakewalk

Working from home sounds more romantic than it really is. Most people live in small homes where they share their intimate spaces with families; some have unstable internet connections (if at all) which now have to be shared with children (who are attending online school) and probably a spouse, who too is scrambling for the bandwidth to get work done. And this is the good scenario – where everyone is able to find a corner (room, if they are lucky) to themselves from where they can stare into their device screens. Some may not have any access at all – or have to share one device with multiple people, in which case, what happens to productivity?

Where’s the magic wand?

There isn’t one. Getting remote work to be effective is going to be an evolutionary process – in which companies will have to work with team members together. And people will have to be patient. What it will lead to is a paradigm shift in the perception of what construes a workday. Organizations will have to focus more on output, rather than micromanaging people and keeping obsessive tabs on their daily routines. Also, measuring productivity will have to be redefined. For instance, if someone delivers on work, will it matter if he or she is sitting up at night, after the house is quiet, and finishing up that presentation (and hence not up to take a morning team call at 9?). It shouldn’t.

Easier said though.

In an ideal world, no it shouldn’t matter. But it’s not an ideal world and tracking productivity, even at the best of times, is not easy. Remote work makes it that much more difficult. How do you tell if someone was up doing work and is thus groggy-eyed for the daily? Companies will have to develop new metrics to understand who is performing and who is not. Also, they will have to be far more trusting, and that’s not going to be easy.

Given the new challenges, let’s look at how both organizations as well as people working form them can establish best practices to make remote work, work. As Tsedal Neeley, a professor at The Harvard Business School, points out – “remote work is an actual learned skill. People don’t just do it well organically. So it’s important to help people, to coach people, to provide resources on how to do it well.”

Here’s a guide of some best practices..

First, what companies can do:

Communicate, communicate, communicate

This cannot be said enough. Communication is key to keeping any relationship healthy. In the remote-working scenario, it comes even more critical – because there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding.

So, here are some rules you could follow to communicate effectively with your team:

  • Use the right tools – be it Slack, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams or Zoom
  • Remember – communication skills are way more important than tools.
  • Tone of your communication
    • Proactive
    • Warm and approachable
    • Clear and concise, not verbose (getting to the point quickly)
    • Two-sided (open to feedback)
    • Inspiring confidence and motivating

Reach out – show your human side

Because you and your team are not in the same physical space, you’ll need to work hard on keeping the interaction human. People are spending all day looking into their laptops, and that can be an exercise in loneliness.

So reach out and understand people’s communication preferences – time and mode, so they feel you care. It’s a good idea to ask this because

  • Some may prefer (or be compelled to) work at different hours
  • Not everyone can do a video call at a given time – in this case, email might be the best way

Set expectations, goals and best practices

One of the biggest challenges of remote work is making people understand what they are supposed to do and how. This is why, very early on it’s a good idea to:

  • Set the rules of engagement, guidelines and what’s expected of them
    • Making a rulebook of best practices really helps
  • Provide clarity on each team member’s deliverables
  • Articulate what’s the best time or way to reach you
  • Communicate that flexibility on time does not extent to flexibility on deadlines – unless there’s a good reason

Making meetings work well

The thing about remote meetings is that they can get off track from their agendas very easily. So, it’s important to follow a broad script. Also, as a rule there should be daily or weekly team calls (whatever suits you and the team best)

In these meetings you should:

  • Provide clear instructions on when these will happen
  • Always start by asking how everyone in the team is feeling
  • Set clear goals for the week/ project
  • Make everyone feel included – give people turns to lead (where possible)
  • Keep people engaged by asking questions/feedback
  • Have an online whiteboard (if possible)
    • It breaks up the monologue
    • People tend to respond better to visuals
    • Use GIFs once in a while – keeps it light

Also, equally (if not more) important are one-on-one meetings with individual team members, because:

  • It’s important to connect with people separately – you may not have heard them during a team meeting
  • It gives people a chance to speak to you privately about any issue they are facing
  • You get a better sense of how they are placed in the remote environment

Last, but not the least, here are some hygiene points to keep in mind while planning and attending meetings:

  • Have clear protocols on when to have video/audio on or mute
  • If possible use noise cancellation tools like Krisp
  • Start and end on time
  • Record the meetings
  • Have a conclusion line ready
  • Leave time for Q&A

Track performance

This can be tricky to do, but it’s not as hard as some managers imagine. In any case, performances today are increasingly being measured by output, and not face-time. So, it’s best to develop the metrics specific to your organization to measure people’s productivity in terms of their outputs. It’s important to communicate this to them too.

That said, how do people stay motivated and productive when working-from-home?

First, the ergonomics of it..

The very first thing to do is to get your workspace sorted out.
If remote work becomes the norm then, you’ll have to have a sustainable workspace solution and have the right working posture. It’s extremely important to set this up right, because the wrong way will lead to physical inabilities and pains.
Here are some basics to keep in mind:

  • Work at a desk (not on the couch) and a get a comfortable chair
  • Keep your screen at eye level
  • If the desk is low, get a stand
  • Rest your eyes and hands periodically – put your hands down and look away

from the screen every 15 minutes.

Treat it as a normal workday and follow a routine

The first rule of working from home is being disciplined. What works well is to do what you would do on any other workday – which is to be up at a particular time, get ready and wear your work clothes (resist the urge to work in your pajamas). While it may be tempting to fall out of bed and start pounding on your keyboard – it’s not the best practice to follow. Being in work clothes puts you in work mode. Besides, you’ll need to take video calls, so being well dressed matters.

Communicate your needs, preferences and limitations

If you are working within some limitations, or have a certain preference in the mode or time of communication, you should let your team members know. Being upfront about this is the best way to go. If, say for instance, your daughter has an online piano lesson at a particular time, it may not be the best tome for a Zoom call – so it’s important you communicate that. People will understand, as long as it’s a reasonable ask, and you are available at other times.

Get the basic tools you need to attend meetings

Here are just a few things that’ll make your work easier:

  • Headphones
  • Noise cancelling apps like Krisp
  • If possible, a second monitor, or a TV

Prepare for your meetings

When you’re in a physical workspace, you tend to take many things for granted – simple things like notepads and pens that work are always at your disposal. When you’re at home, you may overlook little details while preparing for a meeting.
Here are some suggestions to get you meeting-ready:

  • Be ready ten minutes before a meeting starts
  • Have a notepad and a pen ready.
  • Make a list of questions you would need to ask in the meeting.
    If this is your window to meet your team members and you forget your questions, you may not be able to deliver on what is expected of you.
  • Keep your workspace neat and clutter-free.

Some video-call ground rules to be mindful of

Zoom calls are going to be the norm rather than the exception going forward. This is why it’s a great idea to allocate a space that lends itself best to a video call.

Here are some things to know when you are on a video call

  • Try to find a quiet, well-lit corner
    It’s best not to have your face against the light. For instance, if you are sitting
    with a window behind your back, you’ll not be as clear as you would be if the light
    was falling on your face
  • Using headphones makes it easier for you to focus
  • Eating while on the call is not a great idea!
  • Be aware of your background
    • A plain wall is ideal – less distraction the better
    • If possible, try to not have a bed in the background
    • Zoom (also Skype) allows you to put different backgrounds or even blur them

Deadlines mean more in remote first environment

When you’re working from home, deadlines assume more importance before. They are one way of proving that you’re taking your work seriously and are being productive. And this is probably one of the challenges of remote work. If you are in a physical workspace and you miss a deadline (due to other work priorities), you may not feel as responsible as you will if you miss it when working from home. This is why it’s a good idea to convey your inability and reason to your team members as soon as possible.

Connecting with your internal communities

Just like you would get up from your desk and talk to a friend at work, make that call instead of sending a hangout message sometimes. It’s nice to hear someone’s voice and engage in innocuous banter every once in a while – it keeps you from feeling isolated and lonely. It’s human to want to connect and no one expects you to be working all of the eight hours in a day without breaks. Better still, make a video call.

Additional ground rules of working from home

While it is alright to relax and talk to colleagues on breaks, it’s not the best idea to watch TV or take naps during office hours. Following a time schedule – like eating, sleeping and waking up on time – lends itself better to working efficiently. It gives a structure to your day and makes you more productive.

It’s here to stay

Remote work is already the new reality. Organizations will need to find long-term solutions and understand that this is the way the new, post-COVID world will live. It’s not that physical workspaces will cease to exist, but remote-work will no longer be about that one company that set the benchmark, or that odd employee who works from home because of special circumstances. It’s the new normal and the sooner organizations accept that, the better they will be at creating long-term, sustainable systems that work.

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