Most people can succeed while working remotely
There are many professions that can't be accomplished remotely. I wouldn't trust a neurosurgeon performing a procedure over Google Hangouts, a land surveyor conducting their work over Skype, or even a magician doing their tricks (illusions) over a Slack call for example. I actually don't trust magicians at all, but I digress. However, there are tons of industries where remote workers can perform equally, if not better, than their employee counterpart sitting at an office.
I got my first chance at working remotely back in 2010. Armed with Skype on a first-generation iPad, I ventured to ask my boss if I could be allowed to work remotely. I was moving out of town and wanted to keep my job. It made sense. Most of my file transfers were done over FTP and my client approvals were done via email, so there were virtually no impediments for me to do the switch — it would be seamless.
After my move, I also learned that my uncle, who had a senior accounting job at a multi-national conglomerate, was put on a work-from-home program where the company would even pay for part of the utilities. His company found that by having employees come in only twice a week, and alternating days by department, they could increase productivity with less space. So they effectively turned their office into a co-working environment. Sweet!
So even back then, I was convinced that working remotely wasn't limited to long-bearded designers and rom-com movies about a freelance music blogger. This was a reality, and one where a boutique advertising agency and a giant multi-national corporation could converge.
There is still a stereotype for who gets to work remotely. Fortunately enough, the UX industry ticks all the boxes. So while going through my social media feed this week, I was taken aback by a tweet from a renowned leader in the field, a titan of industry!
Now, to be fair, my first impression was "WHAT? He doesn't think people can work remotely?" So I wrote a reply, and he quickly clarified his point, one that I may have missed:
Also, I hate myself for replying with an eloquent answer about leadership while producing a nasty typo in the process. Good one there, Alberto. But that's besides the point. What I wanted to express is that fortunately I've had really good experiences working remotely — both as a designer and as a manager. I want to share what might be obvious to some, but an enigma to others, about succeeding while working or employing remotely:
1. Set the right goals
A ship can't sail effectively if the proper destination is not, at the very least, clear to the Captain. This is true for the workforce in general. In an office environment people might look busier, even if not working towards a goal, just because they're being [visually] judged to a certain extent. While working remotely, the same employees might opt to spend their time on something else if the goals are not in place. If goals are set, the measuring stick manifests itself.
2. Understand your objectives
I recently ran into an extremely insightful video about the value we apply to design, and why freelance designers shouldn't charge per hour. The same can be said about objectives. As a company, manager, boss, executive, etc. it should matter more that the objectives are being met. One might say "These are the deliverables, can we commit to those?" If those are met, then the return on that investment has paid off. So as an employer, one has to put into perspective if the importance is about a person working non-stop from 9–5 at a visible range, or that company objectives are met as planned.
3. Establish communication standards
As someone that is as big a fan of remote work as I am, proper communication is paramount to me. But not everyone communicates in the same way I do, so we have to establish what we expect from each other when we engage. As I mentioned on a recent episode of the UI Breakfast podcast, your team is also your product. We spend a lot of time thinking about how our design will communicate with the user, and the interaction said user will have with our product. These touch points are standards we put in place by which we judge the effectiveness of the product itself. We should treat teams the same way. Thinking about communication points, milestones and what we consider effective. There are a plethora of products available today that allow you to plan and communicate directly over that plan.
4. Provide feedback
Communication goes both ways. If there is friction, or something is not meeting your expectations, be open about it. If you sit on either side, as an employer or an employee, there are ways to share what is not working.
5. Leave your anxiousness at the door
The reality is that we're so accustomed to office work, that we often expect the worst. We set ourselves up for failure right from the start. Days start feeling more and more like when the person you're expecting is not answering their phone. You start imagining that they got lost, wonder if they might have bailed on you, and turn on the news to see if they've died on a fiery car crash on the interstate. Once they arrive, they inform you that they just ran out of battery and had to stop for gas. We get obsessed over knowing what a remote working colleague is doing right this moment. There are better ways to measure success than micro-managing each second.
I have years of remote experience both as a designer and a manager. Now as a startup founder, most of our team sits in different places. We've all survived and doing quite well by setting and managing our expectations. I also consult with clients and help them with team strategies by understanding pain points, objectives, breaking those into goals and establishing workflows aimed at the success of all parties involved. The truth is, that after 7 years, I haven't found a good excuse to believe that remote work can't happen — or that it is less effective than sitting in a confined space for that matter.
I am a designer, an entrepreneur and a partner at Takt Digital where I consult with clients of all sizes on design, product and team strategy.
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