Remote Work: The Complete Guide to Distributed Teams


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remote team reunion meetup
Annual FormAssembly Meetup (AKA fun @ Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Indiana)

“Remote work? Aren’t you afraid that one day, you know, you won’t get paid or something?”
This was once someone’s actual response after I told them that I work remotely.
And believe it or not, it’s not an uncommon response. When people think of work-from-home jobs, they often think back to the countless sketchy get-rich-quick (no real effort necessary!) scams out there on the internet.
While there are still plenty of questionable job listings floating around, full-time remote work has become a legitimate, very real option.
With Fortune 500 companies like Dell and IBM offering flexible work options and tech startups like Buffer maintaining a 100% remote workforce, more and more companies are warming up to the idea of hiring remote team members.
And for good reason — companies are able to hire top talent from anywhere in the world.
It’s a pretty awesome perk for teammates, too. Imagine you had the ability to travel anytime, anywhere — and that you could live somewhere you LOVE rather than a place that’s just “meh” out of necessity.
Envision a non-existent commute and a workplace free of distraction.
All of this (and more) is possible with remote work. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s completely perfect or the answer for everyone.
But it’s worth paying attention to when 45% of Americans have flexible work arrangements and are able to work from home.
Here at FormAssembly, our team members are able to work anywhere they wish. We’ve been around since 2006, and have been busy growing as a company and building up a team. Our office is located in Bloomington, Indiana, and we have teammates located all over the world.

Table of Contents/Shortcut

Remote work can be awesome for some people, but lonely for others

Just like any other work arrangement (flexible hours, vacation policies, open offices), remote work isn’t for everyone. It’s not right for certain companies, either (hello, Yahoo) — and that’s OK.
While it’s a dream come true for certain personality types, it can be a struggle for others. If you feel energized when you’re around people as opposed to being alone, and face-to-face contact makes you feel much more connected, you might find that working from home leaves you feeling isolated.
And when you’re working so far away from your supervisor, you’re really in charge of your own destiny.
Nobody is going to be walking by your desk to make sure you’re crunching away at work. That’s your responsibility. You need to be able to motivate yourself and push on without needing constant encouragement.
This quote by Nick Lucs from When I Work sums it up perfectly. Not everyone can focus when they’re on their own:
another cool tweet
So, if you think you’d end up cleaning the house while working from home, it’s probably safe to assume that remote work may not be the best choice for you.

Find out where you work best

The cool thing about not going into an office everyday is that you can choose to work wherever you feel most inspired.
You can setup a workstation in your home or even sign up for a coworking space.
Whatever you choose, make sure your primary work area is a place that motivates you (yes, you can work in your living room 24/7 if you want, but would you really want to?)
Here are some photos of our team’s virtual workplace setups:

remote team workstations

Flex your communication skills

If someone asked if you were a good or a bad communicator, what would you say?
Chances are, you’d say you’re pretty good, right?
But here’s the thing: What “good communication” means to you might mean something COMPLETELY different to another person.
Let’s say you call your mom to catch up once per month. You like to think you keep in touch pretty well. But in a perfect world, your mom would actually prefer to hear from you every week.
You think your communication is good, but she thinks it’s only okay. So you end up compromising a tiny bit by calling her every other week to make her a little happier.
This is just how we as humans are — each of us has a different set of expectations and different definitions of good, bad, and okay communication.
That being said, it’s vital that teams work together to meet each other halfway. This might involve a bit of sacrifice, but trust me: it’s well worth it. Even though many companies with distributed teams use all kinds of remote communication tools, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

remote meeting
Ben, Drew, Terry, Andy and Cedric at the weekly dev meeting

Take Moishe Lettvin’s experiment, for example — he asked remote workers on Twitter to reveal their top challenges when working remote.
Out of a whopping 450 responses, the most popular word used to describe the challenges of working remotely was communication.
Yep, even with the massive collection of remote collaboration tools out there. It just goes to show that it should always be top of mind with remote teams.

Bottom line: Practice makes perfect. So, never stop practicing. The more you work at it, the more awesome you’ll get at communicating from a distance.

Speak with efficiency in mind

I’ve got a quick question for you.
Choose the answer that you most agree with –> You find it easy to listen to someone:

  • A) When they’re straightforward and cut to the chase
  • B) When they elaborate and go into a lot of detail

I don’t know about you, but my answer is definitely “A.” The more someone drags on, the more difficult it is to concentrate.
So why not make it easier for people by getting to the point in both your verbal and written communications?
Think about it. Back in the days of hand-written letters delivered by carriage, long-distance interactions were often long delayed and much anticipated.
People wrote long, detailed messages because they knew there would be a long wait in between messages.
These days when messages are exchanged immediately, there’s no excuse for a long email or message. (Not saying I’m perfect here. I’ve been guilty of this myself.)

Aim to express your thoughts in as few words as possible. And keep practicing. Over time, you’ll get better and better.

Remote work must-haves

Personally, I think a decent headset can do wonders — it’ll help you hear more clearly during conference calls (if you listen to music too loudly like me), and people will be able to hear you without any background noise.
I don’t go anywhere without my headset.
OK, the next one is more important and may go without saying, but– fast internet. It’s not just a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity.
The last thing you want is to run into internet issues at an important time (like right before a meeting). Keep this in mind when you’re traveling or choosing your primary place of work.
I’ll admit it: The internet sucks at my house. It’s really, really bad. I live in rural Alaska and my husband and I recently bought a house that we love. It happens to be a little off the beaten path, too, without many of the conveniences you’d normally expect to find in a city.
At first, I was in denial of the crappy internet and tried to make it work — but I couldn’t deny the fact that it just wouldn’t cut it. Meetings would lag unpredictably. Sometimes audio calls would even cut out (and no, I didn’t even travel back in time — places like this really do still exist).
I knew something had to change, so I rented an office space in town with faster internet and go there almost every day now.

Anyway, the point is: High-speed internet matters when you’re working remote. Do everything you can to make sure what you have is reliable.

Utilize tools that’ll make your life easier

If you’re ever thought to yourself, “I’ve been trying to finish this for X hours. There’s got to be a more efficient way to get this done,” then there’s good news: Someone else has probably thought the same exact thing and opened a business to help streamline the process.
Really. Look around for a more efficient way to solve the problem — you’ll probably find one! For example, we started using Piktochart to create blog post graphics. We used to spend a lot of time creating graphics from scratch, and now we’re able to save time and instead focus more on the content itself.
We also use Basecamp to collaborate and track the status of projects. At any time, we can instantly see what’s happening with a project.
Basecamp projects
Don’t be afraid to seek out new software if it’ll help you get things done (and ultimately save you and your employer’s time).

Embrace productivity by using tools that’ll help you work smarter, not harder. It will save you a ton of time in the long run.

Security precautions

In an office, there are many security measures in place — and there’s a good reason for that.
Which is why a remote workplace should be no exception.
Study up on your company’s security policies (even if you have to do so in multiple sittings, like me), and for the love of all things that ever existed, be sure to use a VPN service if you’re accessing anything work-related.
Yep, that means no connecting to your local cafe’s wi-fi unsecured. Don’t let your coffee craving create a catastrophic security loophole!

“More meetings” isn’t always the answer

You’ll need to learn to communicate extremely well, given that you’re not in the same office as your coworkers.
So, that must mean more meetings, right?
Not necessarily.
Contrary to popular belief, good communication doesn’t mean communicating more — it means communicating more efficiently.
Awesome remoters are able to get their point across in fewer words (both written and verbally).
Meetings that go on and on without creating any real value have serious consequences. $37 billion is wasted every year on meetings that are unproductive. Ouch.
So, if meetings aren’t always the most productive of things (but sometimes make sense), then what’s the magic number?
The truth is that it’s totally situational and depends on a number of factors. Every company is different, so to say that one meeting per week (or five) is the answer would be pretty useless.
Only you and your team know what is right for you. Just remember that the more processes you have in place to prevent inefficient meetings, the better.

You could set a time limit for the meeting, or for each person who will be speaking. You could have a policy that if a meeting is called, there must be a clear action list or takeaway after the meeting. Get creative — the possibilities are endless!

Hire problem-solvers who are insanely driven and resourceful

When hiring remote teammates, look for problem-solvers who are resourceful and determined.
For example, when most developers go to an interview, they’re given coding problems to solve in front of the interviewer. Why? Because the company wants to see how the candidate troubleshoots errors. They’re less interested in the solution, and more interested in the candidate’s actual process.
The same could be applied to any other position in a distributed workforce. Even if you’re not hiring developers, you’ll want to find people who are resourceful and able to solve problems independently.
You won’t be a short walk away to answer questions 24/7, which is why it’s more than ideal to have a team that is eager (and able) to overcome challenges on their own.
It also doesn’t hurt to seek out individuals who have a solid track record of working well on their own. This doesn’t have to be full-time experience, either. For example, Zapier has said that most of their teammates have a background in freelance work.
On top of that, remote workers need to be able to reflect and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

After all, they’re in charge of their own success. Nobody is perfect. If someone can’t review their own actions and behavior, then how do they stand any chance improving?
When remote workers are capable of recognizing what works for them (and what doesn’t), they go far.

Managing remote workers takes dedication

With the rise of remote work, there are countless guides on how to manage remote team members.
But is managing a distributed team really all that different from managing in-office workers?
While there are a few key differences, many of the best practices out there can be applied both in and out of office.
Communication is important in the remote work world, but the truth is that the office is no exception to this rule.
In an office, it can be much easier to walk up to someone and ask a question — whereas online, it takes more of a conscious effort.

The key is to make sure that it’s easy to ping anyone in the office at anytime. At FormAssembly, we have monthly 1:1 meetings and use Flowdock to easily chat with one another and to clear up quick questions. Each department has their own chat room, making it easier to organize discussions.

Maintaining the right balance

I’m sure you’ve heard of people feeling guilty about working from home when others on their team aren’t able to do the same.
Which is why, in order to keep things balanced, we let everybody at FormAssembly work remotely whenever they choose.
remote employee fairness
Here’s how it works: When someone plans on working remote who is normally in the office, they let the team know in the company chat room.
That way, everyone is in the loop and teammates can work where they feel most comfortable.
Increasingly more awesome companies have chosen to run 100% distributed offices to offer a better balance overall. Take Buffer, for example – they recently went 100% remote by closing their office.
They found that having an office was a major expense, and that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to have an office when everyone on the team was expected to embrace remote communication and culture.
At FormAssembly, we also believe in keeping both remote and in-office workers updated. This means that anything business related should be discussed in the virtual office chat, rather than solely in the physical office. This way, remote teammates don’t miss out on important discussions.

Company culture with a distributed team

When I bring up the subject of remote work, the #1 question I’m asked is, “So, you don’t know your co-workers very well? How does that work?”
The truth is that you don’t need to be in the same office to really “know” a person. Sure, you may miss out on some office banter here and there, but if you’re a good communicator, chatting with your co-workers in-person shouldn’t be much different than chatting online.
During our annual team meetups, everyone on the team works in the same space for a few days. Almost always, the frequency of communication is exactly the same in-person as it is online.
In our virtual work chat, we keep the mood casual and often post silly stuff or partake in “virtual water cooler” talk.
remote watercooler talk
In an office, there’s water cool talk — so, at least to us, a virtual office should be no exception.
Many remote companies stay connected in cool, interesting ways. One example that comes to mind is GitLab — they actually hold an
online hangout once a month where their team gets together online, drinks their beverage of choice, and just hangs out — equivalent to an office happy hour.

Results matter in a remote work environment

Another common theory is that remote workers are more likely to get away with being lazy.
Anyone who has ever been a part of a distributed team knows that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Output matters, and if someone on a remote team isn’t producing, it’s going to be really, really obvious. Every remote company I’ve heard of has a way to track project activity. In our case, we use Basecamp to report on the status of projects. Teammates can view these updates and give feedback. It’s all right there.
Since there’s nobody looking over your shoulder when you work at home, it’s more important than ever that you focus on results.
Not only that, but as Jason Fried mentions in the book “Remote: Office Not Required,” when team members work away from the office, you can really see their true work ethic.

As the opportunities to schmooze in the office decrease, the focus on the work itself increases.” –Jason Fried, Basecamp

Remote staff aren’t treated any differently at our company – they’re held to the same standard as those in the office.
Which means that what most people think of when they hear remote work is just about completely inaccurate.

You still have a boss – you just don’t see them every day. You still have responsibilities. You still have co-workers.
And besides, it’s nice ending the day knowing you’ve done your best at work (regardless of your location).

In-person company meetups

Company meetups are a great way to get everyone on a team together in one place.
This is important because when working remotely, it’s often the people who work in your department that you speak to most frequently – which is why it’s good to see everyone in the company in person every once in a while.

It gives you the chance to get to know everyone else!
So, what happens during company meetups, anyway? Well, it varies from company to company. During our company meetups, we all work together in the office and then do something cool after work.
For our last meetup, we all got to go wine tasting at the beautiful Oliver Winery in Bloomington, IN. A pretty awesome way to get to know your coworkers, huh?

The time difference is real

As a remote company, we have teammates located in a handful of different time zones. We do our best to work around each other’s schedules, but we also know that it’s nice to be flexible.
Take Matthew Guay of Zapier, for example, who is accustomed to 10 PM marketing meetings. He explains that sometimes in order to get time with your team, you need to be flexible.
To help manage all the time differences, one tool I personally love is Boomerang which allows you to schedule email messages ahead of time, when it’s more convenient.
While this is an amazing tool in general, it’s especially awesome when you’re on a remote team and don’t want to bother a coworker when it’s late.
If you’re about to send an email to a coworker and realize that it’s 1 AM where they live (or some other crazy time), with Boomerang you can schedule that message to arrive in their inbox later.

Document important processes

If someone has a question, it’s good for them to be able to reference documentation — and it’s much more productive than interrupting a coworker for the answer.
Plus, with documentation, everything is consistent and well organized. New hires will feel at ease, and instead of showing them around the office, you can give them a tour of your virtual office and provide them any documentation they might need.
Think of it as the online equivalent to training materials in a traditional workplace. We use Box to store helpful documentation securely, so that anyone can look over documentation and policies when they have questions. It’s worked out really well for us.

So, have you worked from home before? What did you think?

Do you prefer working at home or the office? In your opinion, what are the pros and cons? We’d love to hear from you, so share your thoughts with us in the comments below! You can also tweet with us @FormAssembly. Looking forward to chatting!

Hannah lives in Alaska and is a Digital Marketing Specialist at FormAssembly. She enjoys hiking mountains with her husband and reading.

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