May 2, 2020

A Beginner’s Guide to Remote Working

The conversation around remote working has been growing steadily for some time.

Now, as countries rapidly implement lifestyle changes to tackle COVID-19, people are suddenly finding themselves unexpectedly having to work from home for an indefinite amount of time.

While it’s common practice in start-ups and tech companies, many traditional office workers have little experience of working remotely for extended periods and are underprepared for the scenario. That’s why I wrote this remote working guide.

Remote working requires a different set of tools to working in the office and being part of a remote team has a different dynamic compared to being in a shared workplace with your colleagues. Managers, especially, need to adopt new practices when working with remote teams. It doesn’t require any major adjustments, but certain things, such as meetings, need an alternative approach when everybody is in different locations.

This remote working guide aims to help employees who usually work in an office quickly get to grips with remote working from home. It covers the basic tools you need as well as recommendations for best practice and changes in workflow that will help you work effectively. Let’s start with a look at the basic requirements for remote working.


Remote Working Guide part 1: Tools

To work remotely effectively, you need ways to:

  • Store, share and collaboratively work on files.
  • Quickly communicate.
  • Visually provide real-time, updatable statuses of projects and tasks
  • Assign actions to teams and individual staff members
  • Hold group conversations and meetings
  • Make and take phone calls
  • Record presentations that include screen capture and audio commentary
  • Log people’s daily contributions
  • Log live issues.
  • Prevent people from feeling isolated

These can all be achieved through a combination of software apps, dedicated workflows and shared best practices. Let’s start with software.


The Microsoft stack

The most common business software is Microsoft Office Suite, aka Office 365. Now that MS Office is cloud-based, it gives businesses some decent, integrated options right out of the box:

Sharepoint lets you store files so they are accessible anywhere through a web browser and can be worked on collaboratively. Keeping single versions of files in one place that everyone can access makes it easy to maintain version control of regularly updated files, as people don’t need to download local copies. Sharepoint’s capabilities go beyond basic file storage; you can lock files down to specific users via tiered permission sets, and create a landing page that can include things like a calendar or news feed. I want to keep this guide simple, so for now, think of Sharepoint as a place to store files that can be shared with multiple people.

Teams is a powerful communication tool. It’s like a fancy instant messaging client with extra bells and whistles. You can set up individual Teams for different projects or departments, and dedicated channels within each Team to handle specific aspects of each project, e.g. design, event planning, marketing, etc. to keep the conversation organised. It’s a great go-to for regular daily communication, both real-time and asynchronous.

When you create a Team, a Sharepoint site is automatically created and integrated with it. So, if you create a Team for a project, you have a single place to store files and communicate with people on the project, which keeps things tidy. Think of Teams as the communications front-end for a Sharepoint site. You can also use Teams to host meetings, including video conference calls, chat 1–2–1, or have group conversations.

Skype integrates with MS Office. It can be tied to your user account and connect to your office direct dial number, making it easy to make and take calls while out of the office.

Planner is Microsoft’s simple project planning tool that gives people a real-time, at-a-glance overview of how a project is progressing. You can break complex projects down into their component parts, then assign actions and deadlines around these and add notifications for uncompleted tasks that are approaching their deadline. Its drag and drop interface makes it simple to use.

Outlook; for sending email, duh. But you already knew that. And it’s 2020; who sends emails?

If your company already uses Office 365, you should have everything you need to facilitate remote working for most office-tasks without needing any financial outlay for equipment of software subscriptions. Though equipping staff with USB headsets for phone calls and videoconferencing is recommended.


The freemium alternatives

If your company doesn’t use Office 365, there are direct alternatives for all the above apps, namely:

Google Docs for storing and sharing documents.

Slack, for team communication. Initially a project-based instant messaging tool, you can also make voice calls and conference calls with it. Slack was the, ahem, inspiration, for MS Teams.

Trello; a drag-and-drop project management tool with task-assignment, deadlines, notifications and chat features. Brilliantly flexible and easy to use, you can set it up in lots of different ways to suit your type of work and workflow.

An email client. The best one for your needs will depend on how you already use email in the workplace. Gmail is great, and you can connect company email domains to it, but if this doesn’t suit your needs, Mozilla’s Thunderbird is the best free option I have used.

All the above apps are freemium products, so check their pricing plans and pick the best one for your needs. If you need a platform for video conferencing and recording screencasts that can do more heavy lifting than MS Teams or Slack, Zoom — also a freemium product — is the best in my experience.

Whatever software platforms you use, your employer should able to offer guidance on how to securely integrate them with their current systems so you can safely access files from a remote work setting. This will usually be via a virtual private network (VPN).


Phone on the go

For phone calls, you can connect your smartphone to all the apps listed above. This means that you can make and take calls, receive message notifications and access documents through your phone. If you opt to use your smartphone for remote working, I recommend getting a Bluetooth earpiece, as it makes using your laptop while taking a call less awkward.

Alternatively, you can get a headset with a mic that plugs into your laptop via USB and should automatically be picked up by your apps. This is my preferred option, as it makes videoconferencing and recording screencasts easy. Also, if you like to listen to music while you work and you use a headset, the music automatically pauses when a call comes in and starts playing again when the call ends.


Remote Working Guide part 2: Best practice

As well as having the right tools for working from home, things will go more smoothly if you adapt some of your everyday office processes. The decentralization that comes with remote working means that some office workflows can’t easily be replicated. The isolation factor causes issues for some people, and managers especially must adjust their approach to accommodate the lack of visibility of their staff. Here’s a set of guidelines that I have found to be effective:

Over-communicate

This is the first rule of remote working and it goes a long way to overcoming the lack of staff members’ visibility. Without being able to pop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question, or have random conversations by the watercooler, you need to communicate actively and clearly when working remotely. That means providing commentary around the work you have delivered and asking lots of questions to get clarity from others. As people tend to work more asynchronously in remote environments, the best way to do this is in writing.

Meet less, write more

These are often the biggest thing people struggle to get their head around with remote working, but they are readily solved. Because meetings are easy to organise when everybody works in the same office, many businesses are over-reliant on them. One of the biggest realisations for companies who switch to remote working is that most meetings are unnecessary.

Instead of having meetings to update people, updates can be written up and shared in an online workspace for all to see. This improves efficiency, as people don’t have to interrupt their workflow to attend a scheduled meeting just to get an update. They can read and write updates at a time that suits them. This asynchronous written style of communication is a key adaptation for effective remote working.

Quick Q&As or feedback on specific items can be given in the relevant channel in Teams/Slack, or via a short video call.

Presentations that don’t require participation from others can be recorded as screencasts in Skype or Zoom and uploaded to a shared online workspace for people to access when it suits them. Presentations that require participation from others can be held as video conference calls that use the presenter’s screen-sharing function in Skype or Zoom. People can contribute via audio headsets or in a chat window. You can record presentations and video calls and save them to an online workspace for reference and access by people who weren’t able to attend in real-time.

Daily recaps

At the end of each day, write a short precis of what you have worked on that day, the status of key tasks, and what live issues exist. Keep it brief. Send it to your line manager and teammates. It makes your contribution each day visible and gives your manager a clear picture of how things are progressing, which helps them be proactive in solving live issues.

If you are a manager, set up a centralised system for your direct reports to submit their daily updates to, so your team has sight of what each other is working on. There are dedicated apps for this task, but the simplest way is usually a shared document or workbook in a collaborative online workspace with the day’s date as a heading under which people post their updates. It helps people feel a part of a team and combats the sense of isolation that can come with working from home. Better still, have a centralised place where all staff across the organisation posts their daily recaps so everyone can see them. This creates transparency and clarity across the business.

These recaps make it easy to monitor people’s contributions and keep everyone up-to-date. This technique is used with a high degree of success by lots of successful companies with decentralised structures, such as Basecamp.

Be Clear, Concise, And Visible

Successful remote working requires more written, asynchronous communication than being in a shared workplace. To prevent this from becoming cumbersome, write clearly and concisely. Use a tool like Grammarly or Hemingwayapp to keep your writing tight. Don’t get into the weeds when writing updates; just stick to the main points to avoid overwhelming colleagues with information. People can always ask for more detail on specific items where they need it.

For video calls, don’t sit with a light source, such as a window, behind you. The camera will adjust to the brightness of the background, and your unlit face will appear silhouetted to other people on the call. Make sure you are facing a light source and avoid having a distracting background.


Remote Working Guide part 3: Your environment

When it comes to home workspaces, everybody is different. Some people like a dedicated home office, others can work fine in their regular living space. I used to work at my dining table, but I found my laptop screen was too low, and I ended up hunched over. I have had a paperless workflow for years, so don’t need a desk-style set-up. Being on the sofa with my feet up and my laptop on a tray on my lap is now my preferred option.

If you need to work at a desk but are using an awkwardly sized kitchen table because you don’t have a home office, ask your employer to invest in a laptop stand for you. In a pinch, you can prop your laptop on a pile of books to raise it to a suitable height. Sitting on the floor and working at a low coffee table can also work for some people.

Avoid distractions

It’s easy to distract yourself when surrounded by your personal belongings. That’s not good for productivity. The best way to avoid getting sucked into things that take you away from your work is to remove them from eyesight. Unplug your TV, hide your TV remote and the magazines on the coffee table, or whatever your distraction of choice is. Put your phone on silent out of arm’s reach if you don’t need it for work. If you can’t see something or reach for it, you’re less likely to get tempted by it.


Remote Working guide part 4: Things to consider

Remote working doesn’t suit everybody’s personality. Introverts tend to be comfortable in solitary environments and adapt well to working from home. They are often more productive working remotely than they are in a typical open-plan office.

Extroverts often struggle with working from home for extended periods of time. They miss the personal interaction found in the workplace and can quickly feel isolated.

If you are a manager or team leader, have short daily check-ins with your team via video conference calls. Encourage them to use video chat for personal interactions. Set up a dedicated communication channel in Teams or Slack for non-project related conversation, so there is a place for watercooler-style interaction and banter without it clogging up task-focused communications. This can work wonders for staff wellbeing and keeping people engaged.


Wrapping up

The tips in this remote working guide should help people new to the practice overcome the initial hurdles and get started without too much difficulty. You don’t need any expensive equipment or large financial outlay to get a remote office up and running. The main things to consider are setting up a comfortable, distraction-free environment, having good practices in place, over-communicating, using written communication, keeping things simple and staying in frequent contact with your colleagues.

If you are considering remote working but are apprehensive about its impact on your business, you needn’t be. There are many long-term benefits to be had; not least the considerable cost-savings that can come with requiring less office space.

Companies that successfully adapt to a remote working culture are often rewarded with improved staff wellbeing and productivity. The lack of interruptions that come with remote working afford people improved focus so they can make better use of their time. It also encourages the tightening up of workflows, systems, and processes, which can lead to better internal communication and improved efficiency, ultimately creating a healthier, more profitable business.


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