If you want to be a remote worker, you may need to convince your boss. Daniel Mobbs has the lowdown on the skills required, from effective time management to confident communications
While remote working is increasingly popular, not everyone is a natural-born remote employee. Where some people are primed to excel beyond the four walls of the office HQ, others are more likely to crash and burn without plans and strategies in place for a new way of working. “Candidates must be honest about their own ability to handle the heightened responsibilities and expectations that accompany remote work,” says Anthony Curlo, CEO of IT recruiting and staff augmentation firm DaVinciTek(1).
The good news is that these skills and strategies can be learnt and developed by almost anyone. Look at successful remote workers and you’ll see many of the same traits popping up again and again. So if you’re trying to convince your boss (or even yourself) that remote working is the right thing for you, start by asking yourself honestly how many of the characteristics below you share in common with your free-range colleagues.
1. They’re ruthless time managers
Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean your time’s your own. Bosses want to know that you’re managing that time as effectively as possible. “The goal is to show that you’re just as responsive, productive and efficient as you would be in the main office,” says Emma Sue Prince, author of workplace guide, The Advantage.
She recommends taking time at the start of each week to plan your priorities and estimate how long each task will take you to complete. “Throughout your week, track your progress against these goals so you’re held accountable,” she says. “Even better, extend your weekly planning to daily planning and ‘chunking’ your time to focus on specific tasks.”
Tobias van Schneider, a remote-working freelance designer in New York, recommends(2) using a time-tracking app such as Toggl(3), which not only records your time but also sends you reminders to track your time every few minutes or so, so you stay on top of it. “Whether you’re billing by the hour or not, track your time to make you more aware of how you’re spending your day,” he says.
2. They set clear boundaries between work and leisure
While some studies show(4) that remote staff can easily work up to 75 hours per week (averaging consistently longer days than their co-workers at HQ), working remotely shouldn’t mean working 24/7. Some bosses may see an always-on employee as a positive for the business, but sensible ones will see it for what it is – a recipe for burnout and dissatisfaction.
“It can be easy for remote employees who love what they do to keep working non-stop,” says Chris Dyer, author of The Power of Company Culture. “But you need boundaries to put down the work and disconnect, to avoid burnout and frustration. Knowing when to take breaks keeps remote workers on task and contributing at their highest potential.”
Successful remote workers are clear with their colleagues about their office hours and the best ways to get in contact – whether that’s via Slack, Skype, email or phone. They also convey when they need to be away from their computer during those hours and – most importantly – when they are logging off for the day.
3. They’re conscious communicators
“Communication is key for remote workers, but it doesn’t happen by itself,” says Susana Rowles, commercial director of Target Internet, a business that employs an entirely remote team. “Just because you can’t look someone in the face doesn’t mean you can’t build a rapport. Take time every day to communicate with your colleagues and make it part of your working mentality.”
In a piece for Harvard Business Review(5), Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic warn against conflating brief communications with clear communications. “In our efforts to be efficient, we sometimes use fewer words to communicate,” says Dhawan. “But such brevity can mean that the rest of the team wastes time trying to interpret your messages (and then misinterprets them anyway).”
“Don’t assume that others understand your cues and shorthand,” adds Chamorro-Premuzic. “Take the time to communicate with the intention of being ultra-clear, no matter the medium.”
The pair also recommends introducing communication norms with your team in the office to help establish clarity. They point to companies such as Merck that have created acronyms for their digital communications – such as ‘Four Hour Response (4HR)’ and ‘No Need to Respond (NNTR)’ – which bring predictability and certainty to virtual conversations.
“Norms can also exist on an individual level, such as people’s preferred response time, writing style, and tone,” says Dhawan. “For example, some individuals prefer short and quick messages, while others favour lengthy and detailed responses; people also differ in their preference and tolerance for humour and informality.”
Experts recommend taking the time to communicate with the intention of being ultra-clear, no matter the medium
4. They’re tech-savvy
If you’re already considering remote work, being tech-savvy is something of a given, says Anna Johansson, writing for Entrepreneur(6) : “The last thing you can afford is for your remote employees to constantly be tying up your IT team with simple problems that shouldn’t be an issue.”
But while your boss will probably assume you know how to use the cloud, video conferencing and enterprise messaging services such as Slack – that doesn’t mean you should rest on your laurels. “It’s important to show that you’re willing to learn and adapt – perhaps even more important than demonstrating flawless organisation skills,” says Tom Livingstone, head of marketing at recruitment agency, Talentful.
Make sure you’re up-to-date with the latest remote working technologies – and don’t be afraid to make suggestions to your boss if you can see a way to use technology to better streamline a process. Deepina Kapila, product manager at Visa(7), recommends YouTube Live(8) if you need to record a quick video or host a live broadcast or training session for your team. “It’s Google Hangout’s alternative to scaling a broadcast globally,” she says.
“If you’re managing a remote team and want to get a sense of their happiness levels, try Chimp or Champ(9),” she adds. “This weekly anonymous employee happiness meter is a quick tool designed to do just that, and allows teams to provide feedback as well, much like an old-school suggestion box.”
5. They keep in touch
One of the biggest worries for a new remote worker is that they’ll fall victim to the principle of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. A recent study(10) of 1,100 employees found that remote workers frequently feel shunned and left out. After all, if the boss can’t see you, how can you be offered a promotion or new opportunity?
In contrast, successful remote workers know that they can do something about feeling included and noticed. “Confidence and proactivity are vital,” says Tom Livingstone. “A message here and there, before it’s requested, to keep someone informed of your progress and ideas goes a long way.”
The key is to show initiative and enthusiasm for your role wherever possible. This might include letting your boss know of your eagerness to take leadership roles on projects, a readiness to share new ideas on your next catch-up call or sharing positive feedback from your clients and customers with your boss every now and then.
Find ways to make yourself as ‘present’ as you can be in the eyes of your boss. This might be through using a project management system, such as Basecamp(11), which allows you to more actively discuss ideas and show what you’re working on with your colleagues. Or it might be something more straightforward: Michael Ferguson, CEO of Rainmakers, recommends(12) scheduling video calls rather than relying on email communication. “It enhances collaboration,” he says. When the team can see the remote worker and the remote worker can see the team, “It’s a boon to effective collaboration, which improves productivity, efficiency, and innovation.”
Daniel Mobbs is a UK-based journalist writing about business