Category Archives: Remote Work

The Time Zone Dance

The Time Zone Dance

“It’s a small world after all,” claims the infectious Disney earworm. That’s true at the Magic Kingdom and the modern workplace. High-speed internet and ever-evolving communication tools mean employers can find talent without geographic boundaries.

Previously I discussed the challenge of increasing productivity across remote teams. Today, I want to look at another aspect of managing remote workers: time zones. When part of your team sleeps as another group eats breakfast, it can be tough to foster effective communication, delegation, and accountability.

In this article, I’ll highlight strategies and tools to help you manage the “Time Zone Dance.”

Actively engage remote coworkers

Imagine this scenario: You’re in a meeting with seven co-workers. Four are in a room at HQ, while three others are on a conference call. The conversation grows, ideas are flying around, trouble spots are being identified and solved. It’s been a good, productive 15 minutes.
Then everyone jumps when a disembodied voice fills the air.

Then everyone jumps when a disembodied voice fills the air.

You overlooked the group on the phone.

It wasn’t malicious or intentional. It’s just so easy to do. A virtual presence doesn’t necessarily have the same weight as someone who’s in the room, making eye contact, using body language, and engaging with peers. With this in mind, be careful not to overlook the teammates you can’t see.

You might even go so far as to designate someone to be the “point person” for the virtual attendees. His or her job is to ensure that the remote participants have a chance to share. Something as simple as “Thoughts on this?” directed at your virtual attendees goes a long way to making them feel a part of the team, and reminds the room that there are other people at the meeting.

Get a status update

Here’s another practice to make a part of every meeting that includes remote workers in various time zones. Before saying goodbye, pose these three questions to the group:

1. What are you working on today?
2. What did you work on yesterday?
3. What roadblocks are currently in your way?

By asking these questions every time, you’ll identify and address trouble spots, but more importantly, you’ll require all employees to show what they’ve accomplished.
Additionally, this practice lets those in the “early” time zone communicate with those in the “late” shift know what’s being handed off, what progress has been made and what can be expected in the morning.

Use a rotating schedule

I spent eight years on a team that had members on three continents. Most of them were on the East Coast of the U.S., and every time I noticed a time zone bias that negatively affected the whole team. Everything started on the East Coast and went from there. It’s possible to benefit from a “home base” like that, but in my experience, it caused trouble.

Scheduling everything around East Coast time placed a recurring burden on those living elsewhere. Some folks had to routinely wake up very early to attend meetings, while others were forced to delay bedtime by a troublesome length of time.

The compromise was a rotating schedule. Over the course of a month, everyone on the team, from New York City to New Zealand, had one morning meeting, one midday meeting and one at night.

Think before you hit submit

My final tip is to be aware of when you hit that submit button. For example, if you’re working on a project and it’s nearly 5:00 PM and you decide to call it a day and resume work in the morning, colleagues in Asia now must wait a whole additional work day to receive that update. In this case, it might be best to work through 5:30 or 6:00 to ensure those remote coworkers have what they need at the start of their day.

With the tips laid out, let’s move on to tools. I’ve spoken about productivity tools before, and now I’ll look at three tools that are perfect for doing the Time Zone Dance, starting with Every Time Zone.

EveryTimeZone.com offers a great-looking presentation of the local time across all time zones. Your local time is displayed by default, but you can click anywhere on a grid to see what time it is anywhere in the world.

You can get a little more specific with World Time Buddy. Enter the names of the cities where your team or collaborators reside, click on a time period and view local time across your custom cities.

If you use Slack, consider Spacetime. It lets you get worker-specific, in that you can type “/time @username” to see that person’s local time. Note that Spacetime is still in beta, but in my testing, it did what I expected.

Remember the golden rule

If you’re a hiring manager, go out and employ the best and the brightest, no matter where they live. If you’re the worker, take that dream gig that’s a thousand miles away. Then employ these tips and tools to help ensure it all goes as planned.

While you’re at it, remember the golden rule of working with remote teams: Respect the Time Zones. You don’t want to blow up someone’s DMs or otherwise send noisy push notifications to someone’s bedside phone in the middle of the night. If inspiration or the solution to a problem strikes, use one of the tools described previously in this article to decide if you should let your teammates know right away, or if it can wait.

Working from home is a dream and a great privilege. With a little planning, it can be a very productive dream, too.

6-ish Things I Learned Transitioning to Remote Work

6-ish Things I Learned Transitioning to Remote Work

In November, I made a significant life change. I left an eight-year career in museums and art history to being working remotely in tech. Like many people, I had dreamed of working from home, envisioning luxurious days of sipping coffee in my pajamas in front of my laptop, looking back on my days of commuting to a brick and mortar office with bemusement.

While the coffee sipping has held true, there are a few things that surprised me when I made the jump to remote working, not the least of which is the fact that few people work in their pajamas.

Here are a few things I’ve learned thus far.

1. It’s hard to explain.

One of the challenges of my 30s is explaining what I do for a living, and how I can do it from home. The option of going to work in your basement, or in a coffee shop, didn’t exist in my parents’ work lives.

My dad has wondered “How do they know if anyone’s working if you don’t punch a clock or go into an office? Won’t people take advantage of it and goof off?” As someone who punched a clock or otherwise had their time tracked for their entire working life, I had no idea how it would work.

What I’ve discovered is that my work product is my time card. It’s less about being physically in a seat and more about producing. If I’m not working, things will break, and people will notice, likely more so than if I was phoning it in by being physically in an office.

2. First days are still awkward.

You’d think that joining a remote team would be straightforward- just open up your laptop and start cranking away. By and large, that’s true, but there’s still that “first day of school” feeling that can be terrifying.

You’re going to be missing a password. You’re going to have to ask a bunch of HR questions. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to have no context for the inside jokes on Slack. Except when you’re remote, there aren’t many chances for casual interaction that might clue you into the joke or help you discover which person has the right login credentials.

You have to initiate those conversations actively, and as a somewhat shy person who is also the new kid on the block, that can be hard.

3. Stress is a thing.

When I started working remotely, I thought my stress levels would magically decline, given my lack of commute and access to all of the comforts of home. Largely, that’s true. Being able to make my coffee, cuddle the dog, go to the gym in the middle of the day, and not have to fight the absurdity of Pittsburgh traffic has done wonders for my mental and physical health.

However, work is work, and stress is still a thing. Working remotely has required developing new strategies for managing stress. At first, I was nervous about completing work and if I was producing enough through the day. I was constantly watching my phone for Slack notifications and responding to every email buzz, no matter what time. I was a stressed out wreck.

I have also set distinct boundaries for work and home. I use my office as an office and do nothing else there. My laptop stays plugged in on my desk and doesn’t creep upstairs unless it is a sunny day and I am working on the porch. I try to log out and stay logged out until the next morning. While I am at work, I limit personal calls or errands to designated breaks and attempt to stay focused on the task at hand.

To help manage the workload, I try to calendar and schedule projects and deadlines, including mundane weekly tasks. I use Slack’s /reminder feature religiously. I also vigorously protect time to walk my dog in the afternoon, forcing myself to get out of my office and to focus on a different task for a half hour.

4.Text is (mentally) expensive.

In my office job, communication tended towards the verbose. Meetings, planning, extensive documentation, and lengthy emails ruled the day.

When I transitioned to working remotely, this was my default setting. Multi-paragraph emails, lengthy Slack messages, etc. Until a fellow remote worker (not a coworker) kindly told me to cut it out.

As a lover of words, I was offended.

Then it dawned on me that my team is bombarded with text all day long. Our default tool is text, and deriving meaning from text takes time and brain power. My Moby Dick emails were slowing them down. I am actively working to reform my text firehose habits to lessen their stress and communicate more clearly.

I am actively working to reform my text firehose habits to communicate more clearly. Recently I’ve started using Grammarly to check for sentence length and overused words, and I’m also trying to cut 25% of the words in a draft. It’s ruthless, but effective!

5. I’ve learned to be more assertive.

In my previous jobs, there were strict hierarchies and rules about meeting and communicating with people higher up in the organization.

When I began working remotely, the physical barriers of executive assistants, office doors, and officemates disappeared. I now have direct access to my CEO, my supervisor, and my coworkers, but the years of working in a traditional office setting plus a healthy dose of shyness mean that I have to hype myself up before barging into their DMs.

I’ve had to learn to be assertive and to ask for things because there isn’t the casual coffee-pot conversations or random hallway chats to surface issues. It’s not easy or comfortable to push past some of my introvert tendencies and start the conversation myself, but it has been necessary to get things done.

6. Know thyself.

In my past jobs, everyone had a set time to punch in and out, with no variation. With a globally distributed company, those rules are a bit amorphous. Like Dave recommended in his post on productivity, we schedule hours to overlap and largely synch on Eastern Standard Time. However, people are highly variable. Some of my colleagues crank out amazing work late at night.

And then there’s me, one of those annoying cheery morning people.

I know myself, and I know that my most productive hours are 6:30 AM and 8:30 AM, and so I work on tasks that take focus then. I might take a longer lunch or go for a late-day workout so that I have overlapping hours with my other teammates during their productive hours, but this strategy has been a way for me to use my strengths and still accommodate the working styles of my team.

6.333. It’s just as awesome as everyone said it would be.

Hey, I said 6ish.

For all of the bumps of starting a new job, in a new industry, and doing a new style of work, I have to say that working remotely has been life changing.

I love the freedom, responsibility, and relaxation that has come from working at home. I’ve rediscovered joy in hobbies that my commuter life had killed. I’m able to be more present before and after work.

If you’re considering making the jump from a traditional office setting, acknowledge that there is an adjustment period, give yourself room to learn, and embrace your newfound freedom.

Trust me. It’s awesome.

Increasing Productivity Across Remote Teams

Increasing Productivity Across Remote Teams

In today’s connected world, your next star employee could be in Los Angeles or London, and hiring managers are taking advantage of the global marketplace. Research by Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) found that, as of January 2016, “…3.7 million employees (2.8% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time,” and “…80% to 90% of the US workforce says they would like to telework at least part time.”

There seem to be financial benefits of engaging a remote team as well GWA notes that, “If those with compatible jobs and a desire to work from home did so just half the time…a typical business would save $11,000 per person per year, and telecommuters would save between $2,000 and $7,000 a year.”

Remote teams foster unique challenges, like maintaining productivity among people you might never meet. When Jane Employee works outside of the building, for example, you can’t visit her desk to check on progress. Likewise, Jane can’t step into your office when she’s stuck or has a question. How can you as a manager maintain peak productivity from remote workers? That’s what I mean to describe in this article.

Having managed a team of eight writers and a stable of freelancers across two continents for more than ten years, I’ve picked up a few tricks and strategies for keeping a remote team productive and focused. Let’s get to it.

Build a team

First and foremost, make your remote workers feel that they’re a part of the team at large. I recommend using real-time chat as the virtual office and making sure that all employees – local and remote – are logged in while on duty. Not only does this foster communication between all workers, it helps those on the “away team” feel a part of the decisions, conversations and overall project goals that happen every day. Feeling like you’re a part of a vibrant, active team keeps motivation and productivity high.

As for the right tools, choose from Slack, HipChat or even good old IRC if you want to go old school. If you want to add project management/task assignments to your collaboration, consider Basecamp or Asana.

Respect Time Zones

Next, and this is a biggie: respect the time zones. You’ll likely have workers whose 9–5 isn’t the same as a site-based employee’s. While this can potentially be troublesome, taking steps to respect the difference will keep everyone on track.

This comes down to trust. If you selected people for your remote team successfully (more on that later in this article), you’ll have a group of motivated workers who thrive in that setting. Give them their assignments, set up methods for regular check-ins and let them get to it.

Also, focus on schedule overlap. There might be two hours, one hour or even thirty minutes when everyone is “on duty” simultaneously. Identify that time period for check-ins, video meetings and critical communications.

Lastly, smart delegation will serve you well here. If the on-site workers are several hours ahead, give the away team assignments that pick up where the local folks leave off. Communication is critical here, which brings me to my (predictable) next point.

Communicate

Communication is critical. Here’s where a solution like Slack, Basecamp or Asana will pay huge dividends. Each can store an entire project history, including communication, assets, meeting notes and more in a single, searchable location. Centralizing communication like this lets workers tag each other, share files, have meaningful discussions in one place. Get disjointed conversations out of email inboxes and reap huge benefits.

Finally, identify a process for addressing any lapses in productivity. The best way to get started is to look for “overlap time.” That is, the block of time during the day or evening that all parties are online and available. Perhaps there’s a two-hour block in the morning or 90 minutes in the afternoon where all team members – remote and local, management and front line – can connect. Schedule a consistent, predictable review for this time period.

Perhaps a quick “stand-up” could happen at the start of each overlap period. A weekly wrap-up via Skype is a good idea, as is a monthly all-hands lets all employees – remote and otherwise – know when their work will be reviewed and expected. Lastly, here’s a great time to talk work performance with anyone who needs a boost.

Managing a remote team can be rewarding and challenging. Take the steps outlined above to keep your workers on task, productive and happy.

Avoiding Remote Office Burnout

Avoiding Remote Office Burnout

For many, working from home is a dream come true, or a goal to strive for. Those of us lucky enough to achieve the dream work from the comfort and convenience of our own homes. While others spend twenty, thirty or even forty minutes commuting, we simply walk from Room A to Room B. We enjoy meals in our own kitchens, sit on our own furniture and take a break to pet the dog whenever the mood strikes. How can one possibly burn out on such an enviable arrangement?

Easily.

Remote office burnout threatens even the happiest of us. Consider the unshaven worker who looks up from his laptop to realize, “I haven’t left this house for two weeks.” Or worse, the temptation to work more hours, since it’s so easy and convenient to do so. A few weeks of 18-hour days will leave even the most dedicated person burned out.

Fortunately, there are many easy, effective things you can do to avoid burnout. Let’s get started with avoiding remote office burnout.

Take frequent breaks

You’re lucky enough to work from home; take advantage of the perks. Prepare a lunch that you really enjoy. Walk the dog. Work from that coffee shop that you love so much. Meet a friend for lunch. I’m not saying you should shirk your duties just because you’re home. But you ought to take advantage of the perks that many cubicle-bound employees dream of.

One thing you should definitely embrace is breaks. Short or long, time spent away from the task at hand gives you time to process what you’re working on and have ideas (think of all the great ideas you’ve had in the shower). There are a few ways to build break times into your work day.

One method is to formalize the process. The famed Pomodoro Technique teaches practitioners to alternate between timed periods of work (usually around 20-25 minutes) and break periods. The first three breaks are five minutes long, followed by a 15-minute rest. After that the process repeats. It’s effective for those who embrace routine as well the more “attention challenged.” For example, when the temptation to browse YouTube hits, you know there’s a break time during which that will be appropriate right around the corner.

Another way to work a break time into your day is to split it into two. For example, spend the morning working from home, and after lunch, transition to a cafe, local library, co-working space or similar location. The drive serves as a great break from the day’s duties.

But don’t take my word for it. A study conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011 demonstrated that “…even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.”

Get some exercise

Research conducted by University of Georgia in 2008 suggests that regular exercise can make you feel more energized within a few weeks, while effects on your mood are immediate. You don’t need a costly gym membership to reap these rewards, either. A simple walk outdoors for 30 minutes a day encompasses many of the burnout-busters I’ll discussed in this article.

First, it’s a break from the grind, which gives you brain time to process input, like that new design you’re working on, that lengthy article or the newest problem that just seems so daunting. The link between physical activity and cognitive health has been demonstrated scientifically.  

A stroll on your own terms is a perk of working from home, and I’ll encourage you not to overlook those. Finally, when part of a daily schedule, including consistent work hours, exercise becomes even more powerful.

Set work hours and follow them religiously

“I’ll just pop over to my desk and check email for a minute.”

“I can work on this tonight after the kids go to bed.”

“I’ll finish this on Saturday.”

Sound familiar? I’ve said all of these things to myself many times. Ultimately, they lead to my being overworked, overtired and stressed out. An office-bound worker has a clear start and stop time to his or her day, and you should, too. While it’s tempting to pull an all-nighter, try to avoid the temptation. Even a “five minute” email check can swell to 20 minutes with ease.

It’s not always easy to be strict with yourself in this manner. For years I’d work while my kids were at school and once they got home, either: 1) work and feel guilty that I wasn’t in “dad mode” or 2) spend time with the kids, resentful that I wasn’t working. Today, I tell myself that the work day ends at 3:00 PM and that’s that. This decision forced me to devise a routine for the hours I have to myself and really enjoy family time.

Sticking to set work hours also fosters good working habits with clients and/or coworkers. The first time you immediately respond to a last-second, after-hours request, you set a precedent that your time is really their time. Yes, emergencies happen and sometimes these extra hours are inevitable. I get that. Just convey to all involved that that’s the exception, not the rule.

Make time for human interaction

Remember the worker I mentioned who was lamenting his home-bound predicament? Don’t let this be you. Many home-workers are introverted on some level. I’ve enjoyed working from home all these years because I actually enjoy the quiet of an empty house. It helps me concentrate, focus and be productive.

But too much of a good thing, isn’t.

A few years ago I began getting together with like-minded home workers once every two weeks. I grew to love the opportunity to talk with compatriots, share stories and strategies for doing what we do. Years later we get together (more regularly) and I find those gatherings just as beneficial as they’ve ever been.

This is especially effective when dealing with burnout. A great way to escape the dreaded state is to get a moral boost from others. A good conversation with someone who has “been there” can go a long way. You can vent, work through problems together or act as a sounding board for ideas.

You’re among the lucky few. You work from home. With a little effort and planning, you’ll continue to do so — happily — for years to come.