How We Make Remote Work Work

Akane Yamada

The INN nerds are a distributed team, which means we work in different locations and time zones and sometimes in our pajamas. Working from home full time also means we have to think intentionally about communication, structuring our days and setting boundaries around our work.

Here are a few of the tips and resources we've found helpful as we learn how to work effectively as a remote team.

Use Your Words

Remote work requires varsity-level communication. Not only do you need to keep your colleagues informed about what you're working on, but you also need to speak up about challenges and frustrations. Lacking the ambient awareness of a shared physical space, your coworkers can't see if you're struggling or confused, or if you have bruised feelings because of a miscommunication. It's on you to proactively reach out and address things sooner rather than later.

To help facilitate this sort of openness, we start every day with a short standup meeting using Google Hangouts. This allows us to review what we're working on, set priorities and address obstacles. Our weekly team meeting gives us space to discuss the bigger picture stuff, review current projects and set priorities for the following week.

We use HipChat, Google Hangouts and other tools to stay in touch throughout the day. (See the full list of our favorite tools below.)

Boundaries

Remote work offers the flexibility of setting your own schedule, but it also means you can feel like you're working 24/7. We think it's important to set boundaries around our work each day. Work reasonable hours. Don't send or expect responses to non-emergency email after hours. When working in different time zones, don't feel bad about reminding a team member that a late afternoon meeting in their time zone might be well into the evening for you. Taking time to not work makes our working time more productive.

During the day, it's all too easy to get sucked into our screens and not blink for hours on end. To counteract this sort of faux-productivity, we take a lot of walks and other short breaks away from our screens. Snacks and coffee are important, too.

Motivation

Building habits and routines can help prevent feelings of disconnect or isolation — and feelings of wanting to stay in bed and catch up on The Vampire Diaries. The advice is almost rote at this point, but for good reason: Have a dedicated space in your home where you "go to work." Take a shower. Put on pants.

Sometimes a change of scenery can help reset your focus. Take advantage of coworking spaces in your town or the tried-and-true coffee shop work session.

And most importantly: If something isn't working, or you start to struggle with lack of direction or motivation, speak up. You may work by yourself but you're not alone.

Face Time

While we're primarily remote workers, we like to see each other's faces in person a few times a year. There are some things that are just easier to do when we're all in the same room. These IRL meetups are essential for keeping us connected us a team. We tackle long-term planning and major projects, and build camaraderie over good meals and music and conversation.

Resources and Tools

  • There are great remote work tips in this Source article by Christopher Groskopf
  • Helpful tips on remote productivity
  • The books on remote work
  • HipChat: We use this as our group chat tool and always-on back channel
  • GitHub: For versioning and hosting our open source projects
  • Bitbucket: Versioning and hosting for Largo child themes for all the member sites we host. This allows us to add devs at member organizations to a repo just for their child theme so they can commit changes to a theme for us to review and push to production.
  • JIRA: For project management, planning sprints and iteration cycles, time tracking, and service desk features
  • Bee: Combines issues and tickets from JIRA, GitHub and others into a streamlined interface. Also offers time tracking and task prioritization.
  • Screenhero: Remote pair programming software
  • Google Hangouts: For meetings and daily scrum
  • Dropbox: For file sharing
  • 1password: For password management (synced to everyone's computers/devices using Dropbox)

Also, make sure to check out our growing list of tools and services (including many of the above) that offer discounts to nonprofits.

Real Life

We can spout best practices and advice all day, but the real life application can vary drastically depending on barometric pressure, how early you woke up to a crying baby (or puking cat), and countless other variables. One of the joys of remote work is that it makes room for the realities of life. As a team, we're choosing to trust each other and extend enough flexibility that a work day doesn't have to be an immutable cage.

[Full disclosure, I wrote this post in pajamas, curled up on my couch under a blanket.]

To illuminate more of the real-life applications of remote work advice, we'll soon be launching an occasional series of interviews with remote workers — starting with our own team — that will explore how different people make remote work work: what their set-up looks like, how they structure their days, and what they do in the face of frustrations or flagging motivation. We hope to collect honest portrayals of our modern working life and learn from each other in the process. Watch for more in this space soon.

Want to share your remote work experiences? Get in touch at nerds@inn.org.

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