We’ve often discussed how remote culture is not only beneficial but also an essential part of our company, and how we believe remote work is the future. But we readily admit that remote work doesn’t come without its challenges. As a team, we’ve faced a number of issues that are part and parcel of working remotely.

The FormAssembly team started out with just a handful of people in the same office headquartered in the beautiful city of Bloomington, Indiana. Now, most of the 29 (and counting!) people on our team work remotely from all across the globe — including Australia, Canada, Germany, and Peru.

Though we’ve developed effective systems and workflows, we’ve also run into problems you’ll experience in any remote office. It can be a startling change from a desk job in a brick-and-mortar building. If you’re just transitioning into, or thinking about joining a remote workplace, here’s our breakdown and takeaways for the top five challenges we’ve faced (and still face today!):

1. Miscommunication

It just happens. Whether it’s an inapt turn of phrase or a misplaced emoticon, sometimes things go awry. Unfortunately, it’s easy to misinterpret someone’s tone of voice or for someone else to misinterpret what you say (especially when you’re typing in a chat environment!). Feelings get hurt and heated. Disagreements over projects can quickly escalate into personal conflict.

Our team’s camaraderie is strong, and we share a spirit of collaboration. But we’re not immune to misunderstandings. We have gotten frustrated with each other, or confused, or upset. These moments of miscommunication can (and will) happen.

That feeling when you’re overcome with rage

Before things devolve into a Game of Thrones arc complete with wildfire and grisly faceoffs, it’s important to take account of your mindset and remember the big picture. When you’re part of a team, 100% agreement isn’t always going to happen — nor should it! Occasionally, you’ll clash with other people, no matter what department you’re in. But you always need to consider how to move forward.

Let it go, and concentrate on resolving the issue at hand.

Let It Go, Let It Go

A musical interlude may help

Examine your next steps. What’s helpful for the project? For your entire team? What’s the ultimate goal?

Tips:

  • Take a deep breath, step back, and think before you respond. Identify what you’re feeling, and why. It’s important to confront your feelings and acknowledge that things aren’t going well. It’s also important to be aware that you might be stuck in a moment of miscommunication.
  • If you can’t reach a solution or figure things out through chat, request a 1-on-1 video call. Often, an “in-person” conversation will do wonders to clear the air and clarify misunderstandings. When we talk on our internal network, sometimes the missing audio or visual cues can really make a difference.
  • That said, sometimes conflicts aren’t just a result of miscommunication. If the issue is something more serious, such as discrimination or harassment, discuss it with your supervisor.

 

2. Time Management

Here are two common scenarios:

  1. You’re in a time crunch and you’re panicking.
  2. You have too much time, and several projects are on hold. You’re not sure what to do next.
Spongebob trying to blow out a huge fire

Everything is fine

The first situation involves triage: you need to pinpoint the most important thing that needs to get done, when it’s due, and when you can actually finish it. If you’re waiting on feedback in order to move forward, that might be a perfect time to revisit older projects or pull out some to-dos that are waiting on the backburner.

It depends on how you work best, but juggling time and prioritizing tasks is a constant challenge, especially when you’re on your own. Some people like splitting their day into concrete blocks devoted to different projects. Others tackle checklists without a glance at the clock.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, especially since a project may take an unexpected detour or a deadline may change. Sometimes you may need to spend the entire day on one thing, or you might have the option to switch between tasks.

Tips:

  • Use a calendar, like Google Calendar, and allocate time slots to specific projects. It doesn’t have to be visible to your team, but it can be useful to set milestones throughout the day.
  • Create a to-do list and split larger tasks into subtasks (or sub-subtasks, if necessary). This can be separate from, or part of your team’s project management tool.
  • Use a Pomodoro timer or app like TomatoTimer for sprints where you switch off between being ultra-focused and taking a quick break to refresh. A countdown can be a surprisingly effective productivity tool.
  • Write things down. Sometimes it’s easier for me to forget a checklist tucked away in my virtual notes than a bright post-it stuck on my desk. Sometimes I use pen and paper instead of a stylus and tablet.
  • Switch up where you work. On a daily basis, I go between my desk to the floor to the living room couch. On particularly nice days (if it’s not too cold or mosquito-y), I can work outside on my front porch. The environment and position change helps me shift gears and refocus.
  • Ask for help when you need it! Everyone at FormAssembly is pretty autonomous and self-sufficient, but we also rely on each other. If you’re struggling with something alone, odds are that someone could lend a hand or their expertise. Don’t be afraid to reach out. And that goes vice versa — be an open and generous resource for your teammates.

 

3. Desert Island Syndrome

Milhouse playing frisbee by himself

Does this look familiar?

Unless you socialize daily in a coworking space, you might end up feeling out of touch or isolated from your coworkers. (This is especially true if you’re the odd one out and everyone else isn’t remote.) Maybe you wonder if you’re being left out of conversations, and you’re a little lost. Maybe you feel stranded on a desert island.

If you find yourself missing the office, it’s also possible that remote work just isn’t for you. You might be happier in a face-to-face social environment where you can always talk to your teammates across the room.

At FormAssembly, we have an all-team chatroom on our internal network where we check in and say good night. Not every day is full of friendly chatter — sometimes you won’t see more than a long series of “good mornings” followed by a string of “heading out” messages.

A remote workplace that's just business

If that was all we said to each other, and we just stuck to business all of the time, “remote work” might feel more like “cold and distant work.”

But we don’t leave it at that.

A friendly remote workplace!

We break the solemn pace of the work day with emoji, gifs, and small talk; we share news and commiserate about the weather together (or brag, if we happen to be in a particularly amazing locale). Although these bonding moments may seem insignificant, they’re a huge boost to team solidarity and help us get to know each other better, even if we’re hundreds (or thousands) of miles apart.

A quick check-in or question like “How was your weekend?” is a great way to close the gap and shake off that desert island mentality.

Tips:

  • Make it a habit to reach out every once in awhile! Making a regular effort to connect outside of the typical work-related stuff goes a long way towards building community.
  • If you don’t already have a regular spot at a local café, try something new and take your work to a different place. A fresh change of atmosphere could be just what you need.
  • Arrange team reunions and retreats so that everyone can hang out together. The FormAssembly team meets once a year to catch up and get some quality time. It’s a fantastic opportunity for us to see each other in person, especially if our paths don’t cross online often. Last year, we visited a local Bloomington winery, ate our weight in great food and drinks, and (of course!) collaborated face-to-face.

 

4. Getting Into and Out of Work

It’s tricky finding that work-life balance when you can work anywhere with a secure WiFi connection. When your office can be any part of your home (or car, or café, or airport…), where do you draw the line between work and leisure?

For our team, it depends on your role. If you’re on the front lines of Support or on call as a Systems engineer, things are more defined: you may need to take certain shifts or be available at specific hours. If you’re not, there’s more flexibility.

There are definite pros and cons to a remote workplace. On the one hand, it’s greener and you save a ton of time and money by cutting the daily commute. You’re not locked into living in a particular city or country. You can dive into work wearing comfy sweats on your couch, and lunch doesn’t have to be a soggy sandwich or pricey takeout. Plus, if you have kids and/or pets, you’ll have more time to spend with them.

On the other hand, you’ll have to divide your attention and navigate distractions left and right. You could find it hard to separate work from your personal life and end up answering emails late into the night.

Cat typing furiously on laptop

I AM VERY BUSY

So how do you keep your work at work, yet enjoy the full benefits of staying home?

Tips:

  • Set your range of hours. Whether it’s 9 to 5 or 7 to 3, find your ideal range. At FormAssembly, there’s a lot of variability throughout our team, especially since we occasionally have doctor’s appointments and errands to run. But a range of hours is helpful for determining whether you’re on or off work, and consistency helps us stay aware of who’s available at a certain time of day. That said, some days will be different, so it’s always good to keep everyone updated on when you step away from the computer.
  • If you don’t already have a dedicated office room, define different areas of your home as your “workspace.” The mental mapping can help you establish boundaries between your work zone and your work-free areas, even if you change them later.
  • Create your own “daily commute” routine. Even if you don’t need to leave the house, set up a daily regimen to kickstart your day. Brew a cup of coffee or take a quick jog.
  • Taking breaks is vital to your health! Breaks help you recharge and ward off burnout. If you tend to take lunch at your desk and work nonstop, schedule some break time. Stretch your legs and take a stroll around the neighborhood. Get outside and do some gardening. Whatever you do, step away from the laptop (or even just your work-related windows and tabs) to clear your head and relax.
  • When you’re off work, stay off work! (Exceptions, of course, when you’re on call or emergency alert, or expecting an important email.) Don’t check your email or pings during off-hours. One of our project management apps, Basecamp, actually has a built-in Work Can Wait feature to help people postpone work messages. Setting boundaries will help you be more present and productive when you’re at work, and enjoy your free time better when you’re not.

 

5. Getting Used to a Different Toolkit

When I joined the FormAssembly team, my first day at the office was a little… weird. I actually started in the physical office, back when the team was tiny and most people didn’t work remotely.

It was just so dead silent. So unlike other places I’d worked where there was constant chatter and sound. I could hear the hum of the air conditioning and keys clacking, but nothing else. I was surrounded by people at their desks, but they were completely quiet.

Then I realized everyone was talking — but it was all online. Each conversation took place across people’s keyboards and screens, so that everyone was in the loop, even if they were out of sight and far away at the other end of the office, or outside the building entirely.

If you’re used to the busy commotion of a non-remote workplace, it might take some time to adjust to the different tools you’ll use. You’re probably used to email, but not to holding every meeting in Google Hangouts. You’ve used chat programs before with family and friends, but not to consult your team about a major project point. You’ve shared calendars in the past, but maybe not an entire project management system. Though it may be difficult or strange at first, you’ll uncover multiple benefits to the remote way of doing business.

I have no idea what I'm doing

It’s okay if you feel like this

Tips:

  • Familiarize yourself with the apps and tools of your team — and ask for other people’s tips! It may be overwhelming at first, especially if your team is well-established with a number of services, but take it one step at a time and it’ll soon become second nature.
  • Stay open-minded! Sometimes it’s easy to feel dedicated to one app or another based on past usage, functionality, etc. But, what we’ve found as a team is that just as quickly as our product changes, so do other apps! It’s important to remain open-minded when a teammates recommends a new tool.
  • Don’t overdo it. It might seem counterintuitive, but too many productivity tools can actually make it harder to get work done. Be sure to find what works for you and your team, and know when to say “No thanks!”

 

It’s a Process

Whether you’ve just been introduced to a remote workplace or you’re a seasoned digital nomad, there are always new things to learn. Even though the FormAssembly team has been remote for a few years now, we’re always refining our internal processes and trying to find better ways to collaborate. (Interested in joining us? Check out our current openings!)

Have any remote tips to share? We’d love to hear about your challenges and experiences switching to remote work! Tweet @FormAssembly, or leave us a comment below!

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