How to Work Remotely Without Losing Your Soul
In this second instalment, remote work enthusiast Ana Wang gives her tried-and-tested insight on how to get set up – in terms of both technical and mental preparation – and uncovers some ways to excel in your remote job so that you don't have to sacrifice career growth.
We just covered the landscape of remote work and some common benefits as well as challenges. By now, it's clear that remote work can feel easier and more convenient (and in many ways, it is), but mostly, it order to do it well, and to sustain it without burnout, you kind of need to think through every aspect of the job – your tools, how you communicate, how you manage (or are being managed) – in the same way it helps to figure out what your perfect chair feels like, what music you like to work to, and what your beverage of choice is. (Aeron in my work-from-home dreams, epic sci-fi film soundtracks, and cheap coffee, two sugars please.)
The great thing about remote work is: you get to design so much of the experience. The tough thing about remote work is: you have to design so much of the experience.
And that goes for employees as well as employers.
In this article, we're going to cover how to get set up, both technically as well as how to mentally prepare yourself to sustain a long-term role, or even career, working remotely.
Then, we're going to uncover some ways to excel and stand out on the job so that making the choice to work remotely doesn't mean sacrificing growth in your career.
Getting started: how to get set up for remote work
You may not be able to change the tools your company is using to help everyone stay connected (although, if you're working at a smaller company, you may actually be able to have some input). But you can make choices that help make your own and by extension, your team's experience of remote work a more connected and streamlined one, in ways that can be sustained over time.
Whether you work within a team at a larger company or at a smaller startup or agency, here are some tips:
Create a dedicated workspace
You'll need a dedicated workspace, there's no ifs, ands or buts about that. If you were thrust into the world of remote work by way of a pandemic and had to settle for a spot on your kitchen table, a closet cleared out, or a makeshift desk in your bedroom, that's fine because that's what many had to do. But if you want to build and grow your career in a remote work environment, you need to start getting serious about it. That means treating it like a workspace, and separating it from your life space.
This has long term implications for the kind of housing you live in and the size of the space you need, even the city you live in, if it means you don't have to be in commute-range.
For some home office inspo, check out the Workspaces newsletter. There are tools at every budget and for any preference. And you can always go slow like I did. It took me seven years to catch up. It's your space, make it work for you!
Make your tools feel good to you
It means thinking about the tools you use, and what comfort looks and feels like to you. For me, I spent many years working remotely with the bare basics: whatever the company I was working for provided me at the time. More recently, I upgraded to a mechanical keyboard and noise-cancelling headphones (and finally got a laptop stand after spending months complaining about neck pain) and although I can't say for sure that I'm more productive, I sure feel happier hearing the tap-tap-tap of my keyboard and not having a constant crook in my neck. I also never noticed how distracting white noise is, so sometimes I'll wear my headphones with no music, to get into my deepest flow state for work. (Still no Aeron chair, but a girl can dream.)
Some remote companies offer a budget for home office expenses. Use it if you're lucky enough to have it: remember, they're the ones saving money on office equipment. You may also want to look up options in your region for expensing home office expenses. For example, in Canada, we had a home office tax deduction for 2020.
Set up a VPN
You may also want to think about setting up a VPN (virtual private network) to a) be able to access company documents, data, and files as if you were actually at the office and b) keep information secure, especially if you're working outside your home on public WiFi.
Many companies that require remote work will provide VPNs for their employees to access servers but you can also get one for yourself.
Set a cadence for check-ins
Whether they're formal standups or casual Slack messages, and mix it up between project-specific checkins and people checkins.
If you're a manager, it can be helpful to think of management in those buckets: the work and the person behind the work, so that you're never dropping one.
And if you're not, this could be in the form of projects you own, or even systems you set up for yourself.
Don't keep it all to yourself
Be generous with your praise. Remote work makes it easy to fall into a silo of work and we forget to acknowledge others. I'm not saying to feign praise. But if you think something is well done or you appreciate something, don't keep it to yourself. Little bits of praise like this can make a big difference to your colleagues. You never know who has a bad manager, who's battling imposter syndrome, who feels like shit honestly.
You never know whose day you could make with one quick message.
Also, learn to be frank with your feedback about the remote experience. Companies are still figuring it out, even the ones who blazed the trail, and if something's not working, you're probably not the only one to think so. It's in their best interest to make it work for you, since employee turnover is costly.
Match your tools to your meetings
It's easy for people to fall into routines and defaults when it comes to meetings, and that can lead to meeting fatigue. Does it need to be a meeting, or can it be a memo? There are certain kinds of work that are a natural fit for Zoom meetings, such as brainstorming sessions (bonus if you can bring in a visual tool such as Miro) or team hangouts and meet and greets (where building that trust and connection matters).
Don't forget to make your own rules, too
Your team may come with its own processes, but in the world of remote work, it's also important to figure out for yourself what you need to stay accountable – self-management is key to succeeding as a remote worker. It's important to set your own process, cadence and checkins too, aside from the ones your team and company has in place. Remote work can feel a bit like a free-for-all, and before you know it, you're coming up to deadlines with barely any work done. Then hello, burnout (which, we're getting to next).
I use my Google Calendar not only for scheduling but also as a form of accountability: I add deadlines and deep work blocks with an underlying philosophy of ‘If it's not scheduled, it's not real.’
True or not, it works. And it also has the benefit of helping me track my time so that I can see what my days and weeks actually ended up looking like.
I also like to start my day off by reviewing my list of what I need to get done, and sometimes I'll look ahead and add a couple of ‘nice-to-get-dones’ as well, if I happen to be ahead. I'll quickly scribble this on a notepad next to me and cross things off as I go. Analog, but it's the simplest way I know to make sure I stay focused on my priorities.
Sustaining yourself: how to set boundaries so you don't burn out
Be mindful of timezones
Get to know the timezones of your teammates if it's not already obvious, so that you can be more mindful of their schedules. Are you pinging them about something urgent thinking it's the middle of the day while it's 9pm their time?
Setting boundaries for yourself is also about exhibiting the behavior towards others that you would appreciate yourself.
It's about how the entire team works together and boundary-setting behavior often gets rewarded with boundaries respected.
Make it a habit to add notes when you're going OOO
When you're out of office, add a note to your email autoresponder or Slack status message to briefly share a) that you're out of office b) when you're expected to be back and c) proxies for teammates in case anything urgent comes up. At a physical office, the lack of your presence may be more noticeable but in a remote work environment, especially if you do a lot of cross-functional work on larger teams, people aren't going to remember that you're away, much less when you're coming back. You never know what could come up that's tangentially related to you but not related enough that you didn't think to let them know you'd be away.
Create rituals to ground your day
It might take a while to figure out what works best for you, but again, it's your experience to design, from the ground up. In lieu of a commute, instead of scrolling through social media to decompress from your day, could you gift yourself by ending your day with your favourite podcast? During work, should you build in break time to go for a walk and get some fresh air? (It might get your creative juices flowing too.) How are you going to unwind after work? One-size-doesn't-fit-all should be the subtitle of this article, but here we go again: I'm a late riser and a night owl. I do enjoy waking up early when I can, but I always feel most creative and productive after midnight (this sentence was written at 12:34am).
It worked fine early in my career when I had jobs that started at 10 or 11 (then one job where I started at 4pm). Later on, I had to get adjusted to normal people hours, which means I usually start work at around 9am now. But when I do, I'm groggy. My self-care ritual happens later, usually around mid-afternoon. By that time, I've finished most of my work for the day, or at least tackled one big priority. So I make myself some afternoon tea. I look forward to it most days, and it even helps me stay productive because I'll want to get as much work done as I can before treating myself. The moral of this story: if work is starting to feel like groundhog day, how can you build in your own daily treat? Here are some more ideas:
listening to a favourite podcast that you can only listen to at a certain time of day
going to the coffee shop if you've got a meeting-free block
watching an episode of your favourite TV show during lunch break
playtime or a walk with your pet
reading a few pages from a book
Think about ways to ground your day before, during and after work. For more ideas, read about self care rituals in our series here.
Shut down at the end of your workday
I highly recommend actually shutting down your computer at the end of your workday. If you're a side hustler, a creative who likes to work on projects at night, or a gamer, then at least close all your work applications.
I once read about someone (a lost Twitter thread, perhaps?) who actually literally closed her laptop at 5pm every single day, even if she wasn't done work, even if she was in the middle of something. She would step away with the option to come back to finish the work if she really felt compelled to. What actually happened? She never did open up her laptop after that self-imposed 5pm cutoff. Everything that felt like it couldn't wait could always wait until the next day.
If you know you're the type who finds it hard to stop working, try scheduling something for right after work, like a daily walk, yoga class, an errand, or a call with a friend. You probably won't miss work once you're gone.
Create separation in your digital workspace too
This is a tip especially handy for side hustlers and creatives who use the same computer for work and personal, double especially so if you work on a remote team located all over the world, where there might be people in the middle of their workday while you're trying to enjoy your evening. Have separate browsers or browser profiles (for example, Safari for personal and Chrome for work or multiple Chrome profiles with a different ‘user’ for each) or even desktops with different backgrounds if you're using a Mac to give yourself that sense of visual difference.
Turn off notifications
This may be an unpopular opinion (or maybe more theory than practice), and I know that it's not possible with every job but if you can, turn notifications off for work apps at the end of your day or better yet, not having them installed on your phone at all.
Since when did taking your work with you on a personal device become a part of the terms of your job? Does it actually make you any better at your job, or just more available? I recently read an essay about a writer who resented how her career had now become tied to how public and active on social media she was.
Our inability to disconnect from work feels sometimes like we're trading in not our hours and our skills and experiences for money, but our lives and our availability as entire people.
Reset your expectations
Speaking of which: lastly and probably most importantly, reset your own expectations and beliefs of what work should look like. We're not living to work, we're working to live. Work already takes up so much of our lives and we give so much to our jobs. With most people working barely enough to survive and almost half of all adult Americans having zero dollars saved (zero!), work, the promise of a better future, ended up being just a way to pass the time in a grind disguised as achievement, until death.
I know, I know – things are taking a dark turn, but I really mean it in the gentlest way. What are you really working for? A promotion? To prove yourself? To get that inflation-matching raise? You can ask anyone I've worked for: I've always been a great employee. I gave my jobs my all. I was never perfect but I worked hard and showed up. I draw the line at my job owning me though. My time is mine, remote work included.
Moving forward: how to excel on a remote team
I remember my first remote job ever. The company wasn't all remote, just certain teams. And there was a sentiment that it was harder to get promoted or to feel like you're excelling when you're working remotely, compared to someone who is in the office, day in and day out. With the importance of setting boundaries when it comes to remote work, there's often a concern about: well, will I be left in the dust? Will I be seen as less ‘committed’ than the culturally perpetuated norm?
Is it really harder to get promoted as a remote worker? Alison Green of the wildly popular work advice column, Ask a Manager, has a stance that I agree with: it depends on the company and the person. Here are some ways that remote work can hold people back:
You might not be at the top of people’s minds when they think about who can take on an interesting project. You won’t be in some of the ad hoc conversations that spring up spontaneously and which sometimes can turn into substantive meetings where things get decided. You won’t be able to develop relationships as easily or learn things by overhearing colleagues or mentor and be mentored as naturally. (That’s not to say you can’t do those things at all, just that they won’t happen as organically as they often do in-person.)
Alison goes on to explain that some companies get that and are good at rebutting these challenges. Others? Not so much.
While it's debatable and dependent, one thing is certain: lulls or periods in your career where you are held back (not on purpose because you need a break) can impact your career growth and earning potential exponentially down the line. This matters for everyone, but it matters even more for anyone earlier in their careers, the time when many early career equity and strides are being made.
But there are ways that you can take it into your own hands to excel in the remote office environment, so that you don't get passed over.
Get better at written communication
Remote work favours people who are good written communicators, which is quite a shift from the work world that used to favour people who were great spoken communicators. And the good news is, anyone can learn to write better. We already have a baseline of being able to communicate, sometimes that skill just requires a bit of finessing.
Tone and delivery matter in online communication, and they become so much more of the cues we lean on in remote work when we don't have all the other communication signals to rely on when we can see people face to face.
Being a great communicator can help you get buy-in on projects, communicate feedback that is received better, be a more effective project manager or designer or developer, and also even make the difference between being someone people enjoy working with and someone they don't, simply because they're more effective communicators.
When you can write well, you also become much more efficient in remote work, versus needing to set up meetings to talk through every single little detail.
Be proactive with your manager
While it is a manager's job to help you grow and excel, in a remote work environment there can be fewer chances to connect, especially on fast-growth teams. It doesn't mean they don't care. In fact, being proactive with your manager to let them know that you'd like to take on more work, new challenges, whatever it is, could really help them out a lot.
If they're inexperienced, busy, or subpar at upfront communication (there's a lot of reasons bad management manifests, and it's not because they're bad people necessarily) – they may not be as direct with you as they should.
That all said, a poor manager in a remote work environment is a pretty big obstruction to getting ahead at work because of the lack of mentoring that you can typically pick up just by being in the presence of other people. So if it's not working out, it may not be you and the solution may be to change managers, teams, or companies.
Be hyper organized
Work isn't observed through physical presence in the remote work environment. That stuff is removed from the illusion of work and what takes front and center are metrics and on the actual work that gets done day-to-day, quarter to quarter. The one big skill that sounds boring but really makes an impact? Being organized. Why? You don't have to really get better at anything, but by being more organized, you become more efficient (which tends to make you more productive), and you also start to notice patterns and systems at work.
I like to think of it like this: being organized is kind of like the ultimate life hack, freeing up time, energy, and space to do more.
It's also something that other people tend to notice because it helps them do their jobs better especially on remote teams where process is key and inefficiencies become glaring. And as they say, the path to helping yourself is in helping others.
Do good work, no matter who you're working with and what you're working on
In a remote work environment with a lot of cross-functional communication, you won't always be working with the same people on the same projects. I've come into teams, showed up, did the work, and was surprised to hear that people had heard across the grapevine about me. Giving every project and every person the attention and kindness they deserve helped me build a reputation, sometimes slowly and steadily and sometimes quickly. There are many invisible things happening behind the scenes, so no matter what, give it your A game. A for effort, by the way. Not for over-extending yourself.
Lastly, consider whether or not remote work is right for you
Remote work is amazing. I'm a huge fan, clearly. But it's not the only option and as much as it can be optimized, it's an entirely different experience to work in an office alongside other people. (Pretty sure that's why Mark Zuckerberg wants to create a metaverse for avatars to sit in boardrooms, but maybe he's missing the point.)
Is remote work right for you? You can always try it out and make no commitments, or go back and forth too. But if you thought it'd be a walk in the park, you're probably wrong. It's more like a grind up a hill. But at least that hill can be a comfortable one that you can walk up in loungewear. And when you get up there, it's a pretty nice view.
Ana Wang was previously the Head of Content at SuperHi. She is an ex fashion designer and copywriter who ran a whole bunch of ecommerce stores and brands and then helped other people run ecommerce stores, then helped other people help other people run ecommerce stores. Now, she's a creative generalist who plays with different mediums to tell stories.