Although remote work is still not the norm for most working people, it isn’t all that unfamiliar, especially given the common experience caused by COVID-19.
Many people face different events or circumstances in their lives that make some form of remote work inevitable, even if only temporarily.
A little bit of an unusual fact about Grow Ensemble CEO, Cory Ames: Cory has never worked in an office. And Cory operates Grow Ensemble the way he is most familiar—completely remotely.
Usually, working remotely includes settling in at a coffee shop or, for some, a co-working space. But, like everyone, the coronavirus outbreak requires that we remain within the walls of our home offices.
While there are definitely perks to doing work at home, this is not to say that remote work is free from discomforts and difficulties generally, and especially given the additional challenges that come along with a global pandemic that requires the whole family to remain at home as well.
What we have found, however, is that while remote workers will likely face the unavoidable challenges that come with the territory, there are tricks of the trade that make sure you are well situated when those roadblocks do arise.
We wanted to share our tips for working remotely that we think set our remote team up for success in terms of sustainability, productivity, and personal health. Hopefully sharing the Grow Ensemble remote-work playbook, along with some of the tools we use, will make the transition smoother for anyone working from home.
Tips for Setup
Before you sit down to work, be intentional about where you’re going to sit and when you’ll be sitting there. Here are a couple of things to think about, prepare, and commit to before you dive into work.
Designate a Workspace
- Pick a spot: If you have a home office space or a space that can be converted into a workspace, you’ve probably already chosen where the work will be happening. If you don’t have that space available, here are some things to consider as you create a work nook!
- Natural light is ideal because it’ll keep you in touch with the outside world and your body privy to the time of day. If you find a well-lit spot, make sure to orient your seating in a way that your computer screen won’t be overtaken by sunlight.
- Look for a spot that has a solid or cleanly designed backdrop. You may have video calls with a coworker or a client, and you don’t want your background to be too distracting or cluttered. Also, plants are nice.
- Enhance your workspace: Make your space as comfortable as possible— comfortable for work, not comfortable for life (the couch and bed can be deadly for productive workdays).
“Ergonomic” is a cool word you can start using now. All it means is a workspace set up for efficiency and comfort. For instance, Cory invested in a Fully Standing Desk Converter that allows him to rotate between standing and sitting throughout the day.
- Organize your workspace: Part of having efficiency in your workspace is limiting the number of times you have to get up to grab something you need while trying to complete a task. So, have everything you need within reach so that the only time you have to get up is when you’re ready for a break.
Prep Your Technology
- A second monitor is a gamechanger: If you can get your paws on a second monitor, that is extremely helpful because it will allow you to have multiple windows up, full-sized at one time—that will give your eyeballs a break and cut down on time lost moving between screens and projects. You can invest in one yourself, or perhaps ask if your employer may be willing to support that purchase.
- Set up your webcam for video calls: If working from home is a short-term move, your laptop camera will likely work fine for video calls. One suggestion if you’re using a built-in camera is to prop your computer up so it’s around eye level (that will prevent the classic bad-angle webcam shot).
If remote work is looking like a more permanent shift, it’s worth it to invest in a good external webcam. We use a Logitech C930e webcam because we frequently create videos as part of our work, and the quality is much better than a laptop camera.
- Check your wi-fi speeds: Make sure you are in a place with strong wifi when needed (like when you’re having a meeting or presentation via video conference call). Generally, over 50 megabytes will be sufficient for a video call. We use speedtest.net to check our wifi speed at home or when we are working on the road.
You may notice that wifi strength varies throughout your house, so if you can’t build your workspace where wifi is sufficiently strong, or if taking video calls in those strong-wifi spots isn’t possible, you can talk to your Internet provider about getting an extender or increasing your bandwidth.
You can also look for alternatives like Google Fiber if that’s available in your city.
- Download apps you’re going to need: Figure out what your team is using to communicate and keep it consistent to avoid confusion. Typically teams will have an app they use for video conferencing and another for quick-hit communications.
Create a work schedule you can stick to
- Start with the already-scheduled times: If you are required to chime in for a morning meeting, send an end-of-the-day review, or reach out to clients before lunch, block off time in your calendar for those must-do agenda items.
- Clock in and out: It’s all about moderation. It can feel overwhelming when you sleep in and aren’t getting into your to-do list until the PM. At the same time, you can also burn yourself out by going and going and going from 8:00-8:00 every day. A common issue with working from home, is that separation from work and normal life isn’t as clear. Being intentional with what hours are work hours, and what hours you are “off-the-clock” is more important than ever so that you don’t let one take over the other.
- Schedule around your productivity: First, consider what time you have available in your workday. Are you working full-time or part-time?
Then, honestly reflect on what times of day you are most productive. If you do your best-focused work in the morning, block that off as focused work time. Accordingly, only schedule calls and meetings for the afternoons. If post-lunch is when you find yourself plowing through your day’s tasks, only schedule before-lunch meetings.
Once you have your personal schedule blocked out for required meetings and focused work time periods, you can have people schedule calls with you during designated call times. We use Calendly to schedule meetings.
Tips for Individual Productivity
- Set expectations for housemates the best you can: Kids can be reckless housemates especially when restricted to the home. But let’s be honest, adults can be equally distracting. An important first step is vocalizing where your workspace is going to be and the times you are going to need to be left alone there.
- Reduce distractions: To get the most of the time you have, you’ll have to be extra diligent to remove non-human/animal distractions during your designated work time.
Some quick, common distraction reduction tips:
- No social media: Remove social media from your Toolbar and consider Chrome extensions like Stay Focusd to prevent you from visiting them during your work times.
- Stick to your schedule: Especially do your best to keep calls only within your designated call time (either morning or afternoon).
- Don’t live in your email: We are all familiar with the notorious email loop—receive an email, respond, start a task, receive a response to your email, do a little research on the subject of the email, respond, get back to the task, notice it’s lunch, get back, have emails, respond….
Install emailmeter for Gmail to run reports on what times of day you receive the most emails. After you get that analysis, install Boomerang for Gmail. This allows you to pause your inbox, so you’ll only get emails at your peak communication times. This means you can still be timely in responses, but your email won’t leach into other parts of your workday.
- Reduce distracting noise: If you are someone who can listen to music while you work, put on some headphones and drown out the ruckus. If you are someone who ends up just singing along, and then looking up how to play that song on the guitar, but then realize that’s way out of your league, but now that I think about it, I can play this other song, and practice does make perfect…maybe some white noise is better for you.
Another alternative for the sing-a-long types is to play music in a different language. But set this playlist up in non-work time hours!
- Create a morning routine: Usually, for me, the commute to work gives me time to transition, think about my day, and reorient my thinking. With remote working, you have to create that refocus period through morning routines in your own home. When you sit down in your work area, you want to be in full work mode.
For some this may be a pre-work cup of coffee and the news, walking the dog, journaling, or brief meditation…maybe it’s all of the above! Whatever you decide, keep the mornings as consistent as possible to condition your brain that once the routine is done, it’s time for work mode.
- Work in sprints – When you are in an office, you are often bombarded with interruptions. And while that can be annoying, it also presents the reality that very, very few people sit for 8 hours straight and do productive work. In fact, very few people are productive for one hour straight. If you have a lot going on at your house, this is particularly true.
That’s why we recommend working in focused sprints. Doing 20-40 minutes straight of focused work on a single task is more realistic for most people. And, if at the end of that brief time you’re on a roll, keep moving along!
There are a few tools that make this focused work more approachable. Pomodoro Tracker is one app we have used to break up our work. You can also use Forest—an app that lets you grow a virtual forest when you successfully complete a stint of focused work time. You can also plant forests with your friends who have the app, which creates some often-needed accountability!
- Schedule breaks: Make sure to schedule breaks. You are not a machine, and the goal of healthy work practices is sustainable habits! A break can mean going for a 20-minute walk or run, doing 10 minutes of stretching, and it also happens to be a good time to do dishes.
We would recommend using this time to do something intentional and fairly active. For most people, unfortunately, taking a 10-minute Netflix break is not even close to a feasible reality. Know that, accept that, and plan your breaks with that in mind.
- Track your time: Do you ever get to the end of the day and realize you worked all day but got nothing done? Well, that can happen for several reasons: getting stuck in the email loop, too many breaks, not enough breaks, unscheduled calls, miss-set priorities, productive procrastination…
It’s difficult to realize it’s even happening, let alone hold yourself accountable. We really like Timular for that exact reason.
When you get a cube, you label each side with your various tasks, and it tracks how much time you spent on each task. The patterns it shows you through your dashboard will provide a ton of insight into how you can increase efficiency.
Tips for Team Collaboration
- Set scheduling expectations: Working remotely eliminates the opportunity to make a spontaneous appearance at a coworker’s desk or have a convenient run-in in the hallway.
Communicate your hours to other team members, and be aware of their hours of availability as well. Scheduling looks different for remote employees working in different capacities: full-time, part-time, and even freelancers, and you want to be privy to everyone’s availability who you’ll be collaborating with.
Write it down somewhere and when you are planning each day, you’ll know when you need to reach out to team members to get a timely response.
- Be obsessively clear with project objectives: When you’re working on a distributed team, you have to be more cognizant to describe what success looks like for any given project because the communication isn’t as rapid as it is in an office.
With a slower feedback loop for remote work, it’s important to make sure the team’s very clear on the goal and process right off the bat to avoid headache later. If everyone knows the destination, they are more likely to be able to make decisions on the smaller details along the way.
Successful project management is clear project management.
- Use time zones: Make sure that each scheduled meeting has a time zone attached to it so nobody is an hour early or 2 hours late to a meeting.
- Create checklists and standard operating procedures: We are all familiar with the last minute, “Hey, will you show me how to login to that system they introduced the other day?” Again, when you’re remote, this isn’t always possible, and it is almost never convenient/a good use of time.
Remove uncertainties by creating detailed checklists of how each task should be repeated. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to give a new employee a checklist for any given task, and they should be able to complete it without much (if any) additional instruction.
Another benefit of a standard operating procedure is that all team members can pick up a task no matter where it is in the process and know exactly what’s been done and what is left to do. They know where to find all of the tools they need and where to put their work for other people to access it.
This reduces micromanaging, repetitive work, and project delays!
- Be in collective agreement on communications: One team practice that we think is extremely helpful is coordinating rapid response hours. For example, from 1:00-4:00, everyone should be available on a platform like Slack, and it’s expected a quick phone call may happen during this time.
This eliminates sending emails and anxiously waiting for responses so you can continue with work, or disrupting another person’s focused work to get that immediate response.
- Be responsive: This doesn’t always mean responding within the second, but be timely when you do receive communications especially during agreed-upon communication periods.
- Be efficient with explanations: When it isn’t urgent to get an assignment completed, you can record a brief video explaining what you need and how you need it.
Anyone who has communicated with Cory knows that this is one of his go-to’s. We use Loom for screen share/video instructions and feedback.
Another good option, and another staple in Grow Ensemble communications, is to include screenshots in your emails so your request/communication is clear to the person receiving it.
These techniques prevent countless clarification emails back and forth for a single assignment or, maybe worse, an hour of stressing about how you are expected to complete an assignment.
- Operate out of a common system: To track the progress of projects we use Asana. Asana lets the whole team see their project progresses through each step of their process.
When we are working on a common document, we use Google Docs. **Make sure you are working in the designated shared folder, and that sharing is ON if a document is supposed to be accessed or viewed by multiple members of a team.**
- Ask for feedback: More than ever, when you are working remotely, it’s important to have good communication skills with your team. Check-in regularly on what’s working, what could be improved, and what adjustments could be made.
Tips for Mental Health
- Prepare for feelings of isolation: Expect the mental and emotional challenges that isolation causes. We are social people. It can be lonely when you find yourself talking to your dog more often than another person.
Video calls for assignments as opposed to emails are one way to combat this feeling. Make sure there is some sort of agenda to these meetings to make sure you’re not using those meetings to get all of your social interaction at once.
Another helpful practice is morning meetings. This can be done either with everyone or in smaller groups, depending on how big your team is. Let everyone briefly go through what they’re working on that day and take the opportunity to get clear on any new goals, adjustments, or directives that everyone needs to be aware of.
Be wary of the isolation-unproductivity loop: you feel frustrated because you are socially isolated, so you hop on a few calls here, a few chats there, scroll a little bit, then end the day and feel like you got nothing done, which is also frustrating. It’s all a balance, but if you’re set up according to the already-mentioned tips, it’s manageable!
- Try to keep your workspace clean and organized: You want to feel clear-headed and focused when you sit down each day. A cluttered space will only add to any feelings of being overwhelmed or cagey.
Keeping your workspace clean and organized helps make it a calming place to be.
- Break up your day with activity: Getting your heart beating and stretching your legs can do wonders: take a small walk, get a household chore done (not the time for a full home makeover), do a little bit of yard work (I like to trim bamboo around our back porch), do a short work out, dance to a song or two.
- Look good, feel good, do good: If you’re feeling off your game, sometimes you just need to fake it ‘till you make it.
Getting out of the clothes you slept in and even just into your casual Friday-wear can make a huge difference in your mental space. It also keeps alive some of the associations you have for the weekday-weekend divide, which can be extremely important.
- Maintain work-life balance: When office and home are the same, that may feel like work-life balance is equally inseparable. But, there are habits you can get into that might help you create that much-needed divide.
- Stay true to the work schedule you created: Working at home shouldn’t mean you’re completing 8 hours of work. Even in an office, you don’t get 8 hours of work done.
- Create a 5-minute end-of-day checklist: Just like morning routines can be crucial in getting your day started, end-of-the-day routines are crucial to getting your mind out of work mode.
- For example, maybe you finish up your last task at 5:00pm and take your dog on a walk; or at 5:00pm, you shut your computer down (as in fully shut down); or at 6:00pm you cook your dinner; or you schedule all of your virtual social hours for 6:00pm. The important thing is that each day, you have a cutoff time when work is done and it’s time for fun.
Cory’s end-of-day checklist (he’s rather checklist obsessed):
- Process emails and (attempt) to get inbox to zero
- Review today’s finished and unfinished tasks
- Review tomorrow’s calendar
- Based on review, set 2-3 top priority tasks to accomplish tomorrow
- Connect with coworkers and friends: It may surprise people that after a day of working at home, you are completely exhausted. Take care of yourself and get the rest you need to keep your routines sustainable.
At the same time, be aware when the end of the workday is leading straight into food and bed. You’ll be grateful for the times you muster up energy to connect with your coworkers, family, and friends off the clock.
Tips for Working at Home with Your Partner
No matter how much you love your partner, working together in the same space can be difficult. Working with anyone in close quarters can be difficult! Here are a few recommendations for how to maintain boundaries, respect, and occasional professional distance if you’re working at home with your partner.
- Have separate workspaces: Once you’ve established a workspace, it can feel extremely important to maintain control over that space. And that makes sense. You don’t want to spend time searching for things you need and constantly rearranging.
If you have enough room at home to create two separate workspaces, that is probably preferred to accommodate for different organizational styles. If one person has a spot for everything and the other is more of a book-stacker, each needs room to develop their workflow.
If possible, have a door or wall between you two as well to keep either from blurting out momentary reactions or fleeting thoughts that might disrupt the other’s focus.
- Agree on do not disturb times: Do your best to be respectful of your partner’s workflow. If you have children, maybe there are times of the day when one can spend time with the kids while the other gets focused work hours (or at least hour) in, and then you can switch.
Like calls, there is a time for collaboration and chatter, but there also needs to be time for individual work to make sure everyone is progressing on their daily tasks as efficiently as possible.
- Be courteous: Use classic coworker courtesy. Wear headphones to take calls or listen to music, try to keep quiet if your partner is taking conference calls or recording a video, and be respectful of their space and how they want it arranged.
- Best pro-tip available:
A lot of success with working remotely stems from proper setup and diligence in maintaining routines. Like everything, it takes practice and patience, but this comprehensive list should get you on the right path!
Having any issues we didn’t address or have any tips for working remotely that you’d like to share? Let us know. Our team will be grateful!
Co-Founder & Managing Editor, Grow Ensemble
She earned her J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, TX and is now pursuing a Masters in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tuft’s University.
Annie researches, writes, and edits works on sustainability, social impact, human rights, and much more.
She loves chatting, making new friends, and getting outside with her partner in any way possible.