We're all remote workers - but are we effective?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 4, 2015
Telecommuting didn't work out the way some pundits predicted. But now we're all remote mobile workers - in a sense. That doesn't mean we're effective. Jon rounds up some tips to aid our remote productivity.


Back in the '90s I thought I knew more about everything than I actually did. I convinced myself that technology-enabled telecommuting would become the dominant means of working.

Yeah, I was wrong. A quick Internet search surfaces articles asking Why Isn’t Remote Work More Popular? As it turns out, telecommuting is not the flexible work ideal I once envisioned. "Virtual" work brings plenty of emotional and career obstacles - enough to make us miss bumper-to-bumper commutes. As one Redditor recently commented:

I've been doing remote work for about two years now. The biggest issue I find is the isolation. Initially, I thought it wouldn't be a big deal. But after while it even started bothering me that the only interaction I had with my co-workers was via IM, email or phone. Lot of times I always wind up missing the little inside jokes and references people in the office make on group conference calls, or in our internal company chat rooms. Also sucks to miss out on holiday parties, department events, etc. So if one is a social person and likes face to face interaction, they would definitely hate it after a while.

As this commenter on scottberkun.com noted, team chemistry can suffer:

Since my coworkers and I solve business problems together, we work iteratively and need to be able to collaborate freely throughout the day. This is greatly compromised when a teammate is absent from the workplace.

Over time, this team disconnect poses employment risk for the telecommuting team member. Wait - wasn't telepresence tech supposed to solve these problems? Well, as the prior commenter noted, it didn't work out that way:

There’s a popular belief that less than 10% of communication is verbal (the other 90% being subtle tone or body language). So unless telepresence technology is vastly improved, the majority of us struggle to communicate effectively over the phone or online through meeting spaces and screen sharing.

Though telecommuting has increased over the years, it isn't the workplace revolution I predicted. Something else has happened: we've all become remote workers, to a degree. For some of us, it's a vigorous travel schedule. For others, it's our need to nail deadlines while catching our kids' baseball games. Sometimes it's just a work-from-home Friday.

The Atlantic noted that 34 million people work remotely some of the time. Mashable cited a study by collaboration software maker Wrike which found 83 percent of people work remotely part of the time. If you count those who handle some tasks on their phones while commuting, that number could be higher.

Remote work - advice and tools

Remote work is becoming something of an art form. Some of us are just better at it than others. So how do you become a remote high achiever?

There's a motherload of advice for remote workers online. 7 habits of exceptionally successful remote employees is a recent example. The problem? Most of the advice is for the full-time telecommuters, as in:

Know Your Goals, Own Your Schedule, Engage Your Colleagues, Plan Your Communication, Organize Your Workplace, Limit Your Distractions, Resolve Your Conflicts.

Time Magazine made similar recommendations in The Rise of the Remote Worker, or How to Work from Home Without Getting Fired. Pieces like 5 tips for more productive remote work take another angle, with specific tools recommendations:

  • Reduce the noise with AdBlock
  • Save instead of click with Pocket
  • Organize information with Feedly and Buffer
  • Keep on learning with video and audio tricks
  • Improve concentration with time boxing

Time boxing is an approach where you allocate a fixed time for each daily activity - tools like Moostri support this approach.

Jon's tips for the semi-remote, always-on enterprise pro

I've been a fully remote consultant since I launched my business in the year 2000. Here's the tips I think will be most useful to those of you who are in the "semi-remote" realm:

Decide on all the devices you are going to use for remote work, validating those devices with your IT department as needed. Different work sessions happen on different machines, better to get approvals from IT on every device you might want. Or: figure out workarounds like text-based document swapping from non-approved devices.

Figure out which type of remote work is best for each device - Though there are happy exceptions like Vijay Vijayasankar, who writes his blogs on his iPhone, most of us would find blogging on an iPhone a prison sentence. I know better than to mess with our Wordpress back end on my phone, but I can sort my newsreader content very effectively on my Android. Knowing what works on what device saves you a lot of square peg/round hole work hell.

Seek out tools and apps that work across devices - You may have work-sanctioned collaboration and document-management tools do the heavy lifting. If not, you've got plenty of options to try. I sync my editorial and research across devices with Dropbox, Evernote and Google Bookmarks. Newsblur is my choice for content consumption, Hootsuite for social network monitoring.

Consider investing in task-specific devices - I have a couple of cheap Chromebooks that are ideal for short writing sessions on the go. The battery life is plentiful, and it's an easy to grab and go. Given how cheap these things are, having an extra tablet or Chromebook that is already configured for a specific task can keep you productive, even when your main devices have glitches.

Know which types of communications are better for email, social, text, collaboration tools, and VoIP - It takes effort to figure out how your team members prefer to be contacted. Some might blow off your collaboration tool but get back to you immediately on text. Email still has its place, but it can be a very "cold" medium (and not so confidential either). Conflicts and sensitive topics may be better handled via online meeting.

Frequently test your communications apps - If you use a conferencing service like GoToMeeting, you may find yourself late for a call if you assume your device will connect you in. Downloading and updating your meeting/communications apps ahead of time is way better than waiting for a software update while the rest of your team is meeting without you.

Summarize phone calls with action items and next steps - A phone call can still be a productive way of addressing ten topics in one session. But the action items from that call frequently get lost. A habit of quickly documenting and summarizing action items post-call pays off. It's amazing the clarity people get once you assign them a task in writing. Sometimes that leads to a change in tasks or even pushback, or who is accountable for what. That's a necessary conversation to have.

Test your offline capabilities - Internet access is not always a given. Or, in the case of crummy airplane wi-fi like Southwest, it's more hassle than it's worth. Being able to progress with tasks offline can save your bacon from time to time. I've had some success with Google Docs offline, but not without some testing and practice.

Don't skimp on nutrition and fitness - It takes planning to make sure your health doesn't go into the crapper when you're running around eating junk food and working on the fly. With time and planning, you can improve your chances. Figuring out how to eat well while working on location takes determination. It's worth the effort.

Remote work productivity isn't worth pissing off your family - enough said.

Final thoughts

We may never see the fully remote workforce. The power of water cooler culture and cubicle accountability remains strong. Managing remote employees is another matter entirely. The second half of this remote work article has some good tips for managers.

I've seen a lot of articles warning about remote worker distractions, and how to overcome them. The truth is that distractions can derail us anywhere. A better approach is to work hard on filtering and prioritizing the notifications/networks we let into our lives.

Remote work can get lonely, particularly in a quiet home office. I find that productivity often comes down to morale. Morale is ultimately a you problem. Remote work can't necessarily fix it. The willingness to reach out - and knowing who to reach out to - is an underestimated remote skill. Wherever you are this weekend, happy working.

End note: this podcast is part of my semi-regular future of enterprise work series.

Image credit: Relaxed teleworking © esolla - Fotolia.com


A grey colored placeholder image