Remote working has become so familiar that even more traditional and conservative entities like banking and government agencies are starting to pay attention. But despite all the talk about how to run a successful remote team, there's a lack of focus on what it takes to be a good remote employee.
What does it take to be a good remote worker? Like most things, the answers are varied and flavoured with a healthy dose of 'it depends'. But my experience as a business owner with a small remote team and as a remote employee have led me to a few conclusions.
This is a no brainer, for sure. And every article on remote working will mention this idea. That said, it does bear repeating.
When it comes to digital communication, every point, idea, or decision needs to be repeated.
The statement deserves its own paragraph. The reasoning for this repetition is twofold; visibility and spirit. The former is critical for there is no communication when one party has not received, seen, or heard the message. The second is only slightly less vital to a successful exchange; it's what ensures that the receiving party correctly interprets the intention of the message as well as the message itself. And because remote working out of necessity uses digital communication as the default, the spirit of the message is that much more important. The likelihood of miscommunication is that much greater when 95% of the cues in communication are not present.
And so I'll say it again. Communicating is the hinge pin of a remote team. If you're a remote employee, both your employer(s) and your teammates will need to communicate with you. Whether it's water cooler talk and animated GIFs in the chat room, design comps to your creative director, or weekly summaries to the CEO, you're better off sending each message more than once.
Overreaction is a Killer
Due to the possibility of communication going pear shaped, overreaction is one of the primary hazards of a remote team. All it takes is to read one email or one sentence in the chat room in the wrong tone and your entire day is shot.
In these circumstances, assume the best. If you're not sure of what a person's saying, ask. Reacting negatively (with anger, or hurt) when you've misunderstood is a waste of energy. Be sure that what you think you heard is indeed what they said.
And if in fact what they have to say is hurtful or makes you angry, you're still better off underreacting and overcommunicating. Talk it through.
Another issue with remote teams is the ease with which a team member can slip away. Not in the "gone-to-the-bathroom" sense during the day, but a slow removal and of themselves from the team over weeks, a gradual switch from engaged and participatory to silent and isolated.
It's not a secret or surprise that mental health issues are a concern in the design and development industry (and every other industry). But with the increase in online connections, it's easier now for humans to slowly detach from face to face relationships. We know this is unhealthy and damaging — human touch and looking others in the eye are essential to a happy life. But the transition can be slow and largely unnoticeable from up close.
In remote teams, we need to watch for signs that this is happening. In the busyness of the day with emails, support tickets, tweets, and IM, this can be hard to do. If you work on a remote team, you can help by making sure you participate in the team's activities.
You don't have to join in every session of GIF bombing or each linkfest, but be sure to chime in at least a couple of times through the day. Take time from the queue to comment on the latest feedback request on the company intranet. Or just share one improvement you were happy to see with one or more of the team members who were responsible.
And going beyond your own participation, watch for teammates who've gone silent. Give them a private message, ask them about their lives, or just say hi. Because we're separated by space and time, we often have little insight into what's going on in the lives of our teammates. One word of encouragement can be just what the doctor ordered to brighten up that person's day and stop the downward spiral.
Iterate on Your Environment
Another danger with remote teams can be what you do with your time. Because your team and your supervisors are not in the same space, it's easy to get away with blowing away the time. It doesn't even have to be watching the last episode of Game of Thrones or trolling Reddit … working on your own side projects can be a temptation when you're on the company dime.
One way to battle that temptation is to be constantly looking for side projects that can improve your team’s ability to create a better experience for your customer. And the options are so various that you can find a piece of work that suits your interests. On our support team at Campaign Monitor, we have this opportunity and the activities can range from writing a post for the company blog, mocking up an improvement to the application, improving your internal documentation, or taking a course on using APIs. The opportunities are there — a good remote employee is looking for them.
You can most likely do an adequate job all while keeping one eye on Buzzfeed all day. But to excel as a remote employee, find something that enables your teammates to do their own jobs better.
Again, there are probably a multitude of other ways to be a great remote teammate and employee. These are the ones I've observed in running a completely remote company as well as working as a part of a larger, hybrid team. The benefits of this type of job situation are so very amazing that I personally have a desire to make it as good as possible.
For me, that starts by recognizing what I can do as an employee and keeping those points in mind throughout my week.&