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Remote work tips

13 min read

The remote work survival guide

9 dos and don'ts for anyone joining a remote team

By Jamie Irish · March 18, 2020
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Remote work is full of challenges. Cross-timezone communication, a lack of structure, more distractions, and isolation all threaten to overshadow the benefits of remote work.

This survival guide to remote work will walk you through the major challenges you will face when working remotely—and how to conquer them.

  • How to ask for help

  • How to make friends at work

  • How to balance work and life

  • How to set your own schedule

  • How to dress for your remote job

  • How to stay in shape

  • How to not become a hermit

  • How to avoid distractions

  • How to be your own tech support

How to ask for help

How to ask for help

You sit down at your desk (or in your van) on your first day on the remote job. You're pumped. You're ready for anything. About two hours in, you realize you're drinking from a fire hydrant.

About three hours in, you start feeling very lost as you try to sort through not only the information you need to do your job, but also backlog of Slack chats, and the unspoken norms, expectations, and rules that every company has.

So there you are, with your manager on a five-hour time difference, unaccustomed to your new team, with more questions than you know what to do with. It'll be tempting to push the panic button, but try these tips instead:

Find the internal documentation (and do a lot of reading)

Most remote companies recognize the importance of beefy internal documentation to help their new employees learn the ropes. Check your intranet, internal wiki, or internal support docs, or ask your manager where you can access this documentation. Then get busy reading.

Read beyond the basics (HR policies, for example) and browse for documentation that gives you insight into the company's inner workings—customer research, for example, or the marketing team's goals for the year. Search your team chat app, even, for topics of interest to see how they were handled in the past. If nothing else, this knowledge will help you feel more connected to the company. And if you can't find the answers in your documentation...

Ask your teammates what they wish they would have known

You don't know what you don't know… but your teammates will know what they didn't know back when they were in your shoes. So ask them to reminisce—while you take copious notes.

The best part is, you don't need any specific agenda for this meeting. Just set up a brief call with the people you'll work with (bonus points if their roles are similar to yours) and ask them for the advice they'd give their younger selves. Their stories will give you a lot of great information about the expectations and challenges you'll be facing—as well as solid advice for dealing with these challenges.

Here are some questions you can borrow to get the conversation rolling:

  • What have you learned during your time working here that's helped you do your job better?

  • What do you wish you'd known during your first week?

  • Is there anything you wish you'd done in your first couple of weeks?

How to make friends at work

Making Friends When You Work Remotely

It's hard to make friends. It's harder when they live in your computer. But before you decide to just give up and adopt a bunch of furry coworkers from your local shelter, try these tactics for building relationships with your remote team:

Establish communication expectations with your manager and team

One of the hardest parts of remote work is the disconnect from your manager (or your team, if you are the manager). There are no guarantees that you'll be in the same time zone, or even the same country.

Save yourself a lot of trouble by establishing communication expectations early on. Find out what hours you can expect your manager and teammates to be available. Know what kind of turnaround time to expect, if you regularly need review or approval for your work. Set up regular (weekly or bi-weekly) meetings to touch base.

At these meetings, take a little extra time to catch up with your team, since you may not get to interact with them regularly. Maybe swap stories about your weekends before getting down to business. Adding a personal touch to your meetings will help you form a better connection with your manager and team mates, even over long distances.

Proactively reach out to coworkers

One thing we do at Zapier to keep coworkers in touch and make everyone feel more connected is to run randomly-assigned "pair buddy calls." On these calls, coworkers learn more about each others' jobs, lives, interests, and hobbies. In addition to being a great way to get to know coworkers you otherwise might not interact with, these calls help us to share knowledge and gain awareness across teams.

Being remote, we don't have the luxury of just going to another person's cubicle and having a casual chat. Pair buddies help with this. Having the system allows us to have those casual chats and learn more about our coworkers.

Paolo Papa

Don't worry if your company doesn't have a system like this. Set yourself a reminder to reach out to a new coworker every week. Whether you strike up a chat conversation or set up a meeting, you and your coworker will both appreciate the effort to build a connection.

Get weekly reminders in Slack

Get weekly reminders in Slack
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How to balance work and life

Work/Life Balance for Remote Workers

You're ready for work to finally be about what you do, not how long your butt is at your desk. You're daydreaming about how much faster you'll be able to do your work from the comforts of home.

Then you start to find yourself wondering if the day's work was really enough. You'll wonder if your boss assumes you just watch Netflix all day. You push yourself just a little longer, a little later… just this once…

Next thing you know, you're working all day, stressed to the max, and fantasizing about that idyllic remote life you thought you were getting.

When you're not punching in and out of work, it's easy to feel guilty and end up overworking. In fact, remote workers tend to overwork, not underwork.

To avoid overworking and burning yourself out, adopt the mentality that Popforms founder Kate Stull gained through painful trial and error:

There is always more to do, and when you work remotely, there is no one to tell you to go home or that the office is closing, so it has to be YOU who decides when to stop. You have to decide that the rest of your life is worth making space for, and not let work take over that time.

Define your priorities

On Monday mornings, define the most important priorities for your week. Every morning, define the 1-3 priorities for your day. This way, when the end of your day or week rolls around, you'll be able to end your day with confidence, knowing you did the day's most important work.

Remote work is supposed to be a better way to make a work/life balance for yourself. So set boundaries. It's important to get work done in a timely manner, but that doesn't mean you need to be online or available 24/7. If your team is global, there will be people working all the time. They'll send you messages when you're "out of office" for the night. Resist the temptation to be available to them—set up a Do Not Disturb or nighttime mode on your phone and in apps like Slack.

Learn more tips and tricks on how to avoid burnout in a remote team.

How to set your own schedule

How to set your own schedule

"I love being able to set my own schedule," you'll say as you rise later than your office-working peers and enjoy a relaxed morning.

"I can work the hours that are best for me and my style!" you'll think while binging on the latest Netflix show (just on your lunch break, of course).

"I really do get so much more done this way!" you'll yawn as you enjoy your food coma power nap.

"Oh crap! That's due tomorrow!" you'll shout as you notice the time and begin the mad scramble to finish your project.

If you think I'm joking, just put your bookmark here and come back in a couple weeks when it's happened to you. I can wait.

… Ready? Okay. Now, before you go running back to the comfort of a rigid 9-5, try these tools for creating your own schedule—one that's tailored to you and keeps you on track.

Experiment with your schedule

When are you the most productive? When are you the least productive? You might not know the answers, but you should find out.

While one of the best benefits of working remotely is flexibility, that can turn into too much pliancy over where work ends and life begins.

Janet Choi, Clearbit

Experiment with your days. Test different routines and a few different sets of working hours. Take notes on productivity, efficiency, and happiness so that you can "test" which schedules work best for you.

Maybe you do your best work in the early morning after a brisk exercise regiment. Maybe you're a night owl and do your best if you can sleep in and start work later in the day. Maybe some days you'll have to take a late night or early morning to meet with a teammate across the world. It's okay to set different schedules for different days of the week! You have so much flexibility in this job—use it to find the rhythm that's uniquely best for your work and productivity. (Just make sure to keep your team up to date on your availability.)

To get you started, read up on the experiences of one remote worker and her productivity experiments: Experiments with time: how to take back your day from the grip of procrastination.

Enforce your schedule

But even while you're experimenting, you need to strictly enforce the schedule you set—even if you change it tomorrow. Work the hours you set for yourself, then make a clean break between work and home.

My home is my safe place, and I need to respect and honor it just as I try to do my own sanity by keeping a schedule.

Mercer Smith-Looper, Appcues

Try setting up a consistent appointment at the end of your day—even something as basic as making dinner or going for a run—to help you make a clean break between work life and home life. I confirm from personal experience: this will really help you close out your work day.

And when your day ends, make sure it ends. Sign out of Slack and email. Close down your computer. Let your coworkers know you won't be available until X time tomorrow. Spend the rest of your day refreshing yourself and enjoying your life, so you're ready to hit the ground running again tomorrow.

How to dress for your remote job

Dressing for Your Remote Job

Flexible schedules, ability to work from anywhere in the world, and positive cultures are all great perks of remote work, but let's be honest here. We're really in this for the "pants optional" part of remote work.

I love wearing my PJs as much as the next person (okay, possibly more—PJs are my default state of dress unless I'm working at Starbucks or on a conference call). But there comes a point at which comfy goes too far. You'll know it when you see the horror in the eyes of the UPS guy, trust me.

Taking care of your appearance is a sign of respect to yourself. It will make you feel more respected and more professional.

Shower regularly. Pretend you have somewhere to be, and put in the effort to look good for it—even if that somewhere is only your local coffee shop. Having a grooming routine is also one great way to signal to yourself that you're beginning your workday, and that it's time to be productive. (Plus, who doesn't like the feeling of putting on their PJs at the end of the day? Don't rob yourself of that pleasure by wearing your PJs all day!)

So find clothes that make you comfortable by all means, but also find clothes that signal to you that you're on the job and that you're doing something worth getting dressed for (and not just counting the hours until you're asleep again).

How to stay in shape

how to stay in shape

If you've ever eaten bacon, popcorn, peanut butter, and a bowl of Froot Loops over the course of an hour and called it "lunch," you might be a remote worker. If walking to the mailbox constitutes exercise, you might be a remote worker. If you've ever gone the better part of the week without setting foot outside, you might be a remote worker.

And that's a problem. Because if you're going to fully enjoy everything the remote life has to offer—travel, flexibility, productivity, balance, autonomy—you need to take care of your body.

The good news is that, since you work from home, you have more control over your environment. At an office job, you can't control the available snack options. But you choose what you buy at the grocery store. If you don't have the willpower to resist the Coca-Cola in the fridge, just don't buy any. It's as simple as that.

With exercise as well, you no longer have the excuse of "having no time to exercise before work" and "being too tired when I get home." With the whole house to yourself and a wide selection of great exercise programs available on the Internet, you really don't have an excuse not to get your heart rate up at least 20 minutes a day. Or hey—why not get a gym membership and exercise your social skills while you exercise your muscles?

This isn't just a generic health PSA. A poor diet and a lack of exercise can severely impact your productivity, making you more tired throughout the day, more irritable, and more subject to brain fog and stress. Do yourself and your career a favor: take care of your body.

How to socialize

How to Not Become a Hermit

At first, you'll hardly notice it. You'll be enjoying the lack of office drama and distractions. Then you'll start to feel a bit restless, but you won't know why. Shrugging that off, you'll hold a conversation with yourself to figure out your lunch plans—PB&J or grilled cheese?

A few weeks later when you have to meet with your financial advisor, you'll realize that conversation is hard. You'll Slack-message your coworkers when you get home and emoji-high-five about how much better it is to just text everything. Next thing you know, you're calling 911 just for some human interaction.

Faced with your own impending hermit-hood, you have a choice. Either you order from Amazon Prime every couple days just to chat up your local delivery guy, or you can try this:

Work at your local co-working space or coffee shop

Wait a second, you might be thinking. Isn't the whole point of remote working that I don't have to work in an office?

While that's true, sometimes, shaking up your usual environment is the best thing you can do for productivity. One reason for that is the Hawthorne Effect, which shows that people improve their behavior when they are being observed. This is especially helpful if you're having trouble with procrastination or have hit a mental block on a project.

Check sites like Desks Near Me or CoWorker to find a space close to where you live.

Paying for co-working space not appealing to you? No worries. A few hours a day for a couple days a week at your local coffee shop will also help you feel less isolated.

Check out Workfrom to find the best places to work remotely in your city, then go learn how to work at a coffee shop like a pro. Follow those tips and people won't even know you're new to this whole remote work thing!

Invest in your community

Remote workers enjoy a flexibility that's rare for full-time workers. Exercise that gift every now and again by giving back to your community. Participate in events in your local or religious community. Meet an old college friend for coffee. Have lunch with your spouse, parents, or family one day a week. Find a cause and volunteer time.

Not only will this keep you from talking to your cat, but it's also a great way to give back to your community.

Invest in your professional community by attending networking events. A quick Google search on networking event + your location + your interest or industry should bring up several results. Meetup is another great place to look for networking events. Chances are your local Chamber of Commerce also hosts or recommends networking events.

So look around, try out a couple different events, and—most importantly—get out of the house every once in a while.

How to avoid distractions

Avoid Distractions

Send an SOS to the world, because your SOS—or, Shiny Object Syndrome—is about to get bad. Offices, for all their flaws, at least try to be distraction-lite zones. When you're at home all day, there's no social pressure standing between you and your TV, gaming console, or favorite books.

And don't forget that you'll now be spending your day in a less-than-perfectly tidy house. So no matter how lazy you used to be about the housework, I guarantee it will start calling your name just as soon as an important project comes up.

Learning to manage and avoid these distractions is critical for the remote worker. There are a lot of great apps to help you fight distractions online, apps like RescueTime, Freedom, and FocusBooster.

Unfortunately, these apps can only help so much when distractions also exist in your physical space. The true key to avoiding these distractions is to strengthen your willpower.

Read our best strategies for building up your willpower and avoiding distractions: Strengthen your willpower: how to build perseverance and avoid distractions

Procrastinate productively

Counterintuitive though it may seem, there are times when procrastinating can actually help you to be more productive in the long run. "Procrastinating" techniques like taking a power nap, meditating or doing yoga, or journaling will actually make you more productive.

Practice productive procrastination, and avoid losing yourself in your favorite TV or your looming housework. There will always be housework, and its immediate nature can make it a big procrastination magnet. But you'll thank yourself later if you focus on "procrastinating" in a way that rebuilds you instead of draining you.

Take breaks with purpose

Everyone needs to take breaks—in fact, taking breaks will help your mind reset and refocus, making you more productive in the long run! The trick is to take breaks with purpose.

Schedule regular breaks throughout the day. Don't just break focus from your work whenever you feel like it—schedule your breaks ahead of time.

Then, be fully present when you take a break. Don't let yourself drop into a half-work, half-distracted mode. Your work won't get done well, and you won't feel rested either. When you take a break, even if it's just 5 minutes, be all there. Forget about work and just relax. Then get back to it.

How to be your own tech support

Tech Support

You know all those remarks your grandmother makes about your generation being too reliant on the Internet? Well, nana, we just proved you right. Working remotely puts you completely at the mercy of the Internet—or, more accurately, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and power company.

Your remote job also sets you up as the one-man office management team. This means you are the tech support. So it's time to come up with a good contingency plan if you can't get online or experience hardware or software problems.

First, when you start your remote job, make it a priority to know who you should talk to if you need help setting up your virtual private network (VPN) access or if you need to troubleshoot something. Even if the role is informal, there will be someone in your organization with the tech know-how to help you (or at least point you in the right direction).

But sometimes the problem isn't anything you can fix—a power outage, or trouble with your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be the fault. These things happen—but they don't have to ruin your work day.

Have a backup plan. We recommend getting a mobile hotspot that you can use when your Internet becomes unreliable, or use your phone's personal hotspot to get online when your home internet's down.

At Zapier, every team member has a Verizon Jetpack Mifi to use in case of Internet emergencies (from power outages to delayed flights at the airport). This way, our team can stay connected and productive no matter where they are. If your company doesn't automatically send new employees a hotspot device, see if it's something you can expense.

Hopefully this advice helps you as you navigate the world of remote work. But here's the ultimate advice for your remote job: you have the flexibility, the control, and the smarts to tailor every solution to every problem you'll face while working remotely.

So don't be afraid of trial and error. Don't be afraid to think outside the box and find the rhythm that works best for you. Everyone who works remotely is still learning and evolving in their remote work style. So come and join us in the journey.

Want more guidance on your remote work journey? Check out our guide to remote work.

Illustrations by Loraine Yow.

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