During my 10 or so years of working as a contractor/freelancer, I think I basically got used to not having much in the way of performance feedback. For me, knowing that I’d performed at least well enough to secure my next gig, was indication enough that I was heading in the right direction.
Not everyone has the benefit of having had that experience though. So, I think I can add some value by sharing what I’ve learned over the last 4-5 years of working 100% remotely.
Please find my largely unfiltered advice for successful remote working, below.
Invest in reliable hardware
First up, you should be aware that if you’re working remotely, for the vast majority of the time you will be your own IT Support person. If you’re having issues with your technology or workspace, it’s going to be down to you to figure those things out.
My suggestion = invest in good quality equipment and learn to look after and use it to its maximum potential.
Have a backup plan
An issue that will almost inevitably come up is internet connectivity. Whether wired or wireless, if your internet provider (IP) is having issues, you will suffer. And when you’re relying on that connectivity to get your work done, you will suffer even more.
My suggestion = get a mobile phone plan with unlimited data and tethering. That way, if your internet connection ever does go down (and it will!), you have a backup plan. You can just work off your mobile data, which is sufficiently fast these days to be almost indistinguishable from your internet connection for working on Slack, shared Google docs etc.
For bonus points, consider extending this line of thinking to having a backup plan for other areas of your work too. What happens if your PC stops working, or your workspace is unavailable for some reason?
Enjoy your freedom
Having confidence that you can use your mobile data for work also means you can work from wherever you are. Something I take advantage of quite a lot. As a homeschooling parent, my services are often required to take the kids various places during the daytime. So long as I have my laptop and my phone, I can take them where they need to be, then sit and carry on working.
My suggestion = take advantage of your remoteness and get comfortable with working from wherever you are.
Create a dedicated workspace
Of course, it helps if you do have a dedicated workspace. I love my home office! It’s where I spend the vast majority of my time. Even when I’m not working-working, I’m often working in my space, e.g. on this blogpost, or on a side-gig/hustle, or trying out some new video games, watching a film, reading etc. It’s my Bat-Cave, and I’m very comfortable in it.
My suggestion = if you’re working 100% remote, try to carve out a dedicated workspace. It’s good to be comfortable.
Be the host
Meetings can be problematic as a remote worker. I’ve been quite fortunate over the past few years, that most of the folk I have worked with have also been remote.
My entire team works remotely at present, over many different timezones. I find that I tend to face more challenges when working with teams who are only partly remote. Since when they’re working together in an office, they forget or are less considerate about the people who are not in the office with them. I suspect this is where some of Lisa’s remote working issues stem from.
My suggestion = host all your meetings, to the extent possible. I find that if I’m the one hosting the meetings (i.e. calling the shots), it’s a lot easier to make sure people are paying attention to me, if I need them to.
Use the best software tools for the job
On that note, you should make sure you have a strong conferencing package for your calls and meetings. Zoom is very good. But there are plenty of other options and many of them are also likely good. Don’t stick with something subpar just because a bean counter somewhere thinks it’s the right choice though. You and your team are the ones who have to use it daily, and dealing with laggy calls and dropped connections is no fun.
My suggestion = Experiment to find the right choice. Then dig your heels in if necessary.
Share your work
A key remote working issue that I see often is not knowing what another person or people are working on. You don’t want to have to ask about this all the time. If I need to know what e.g. my junior product manager has been doing for the last few days, I should be able to see progress without having to go and specifically ask for it.
Having to ask what’s being worked on right now and how much progress has been made (or not made!) is painful for everyone. It’s much better to just share your work as you’re doing it, so everyone (that wants to) can go look and take whatever actions they need to based on what they see (or not see).
My suggestion = use Confluence. Use Google Docs. Use Slack with plugins. Use Git and check-in regularly. Use whatever tools you need to. But SHARE. YOUR. WORK. Somewhere everyone can see it. Regularly.
Share more than just your work
You can even take it one step further than that. Again, particularly as a remote worker, it can be important to give the rest of the team insights into your personal or family life. I like to do this by sharing occasional pictures of my family and talking about stuff done over the weekend etc. We have a #Random channel also for books/tv/films/video game discussions. Whether everyone or just you is remote, it’s good to contribute to a culture of getting to know each other outside of work.
My suggestion = share too much information!
Make like a spider
Everyone needs feedback, but I’ve found particularly in my more product oriented role, that it’s been helpful to identify a number of different sources of feedback for how we’re doing as an organisation, as a team, and at a product level. I look for feedback on those things in our forums and in our social feeds. I also look for them in our support ticket queues and customer service/success emails. I look at industry news, newsletters and blogs as well. Basically, I’ve always got my eyes open for new and useful sources of information that can provide me with actionable insights as to how we’re doing, at a product kind of level.
My suggestion = create a web of information sources and monitor them for interesting vibrations.
Treat everything as feedback
You can do the same thing internally of course. And I do! I monitor our IM channels for interesting & useful snippets of information. As well as emails and meeting notes or confluence updates. As the facilitator of many meetings, I use them as an opportunity to monitor the pulse of the team also. And let’s not forget one-to-ones and water cooler style conversations also.
My suggestion = treat everything as a potential source of feedback. Get creative!
Use systems to support your goals
Something else that may be worth considering is how you can create your own feedback loops. What systems can you put in place that provide you with the desired feedback? For example, if I want to improve my overall health, I can identify a useful metric(s) - e.g. frequency/distance/speed of runs or cycle rides - and have an expectation that those metrics are going to trend in the desired direction over the course of time. With regards to how I’m doing in a new role, I’d apply the same thinking. What’s a useful KPI? What system is or can I put in place to support it? Is the KPI trending in the right direction? If not, what do I need to tweak?
My suggestion = use systems to support your feedback goals.
Remote isn’t for everyone
I think one of the toughest things about working in a nebulous role like software testing or product management is the sense of imposter syndrome you can have, even after many years of experience, basically because the role is somewhat different and needs to be tweaked for each organisation and team you work with. That sense of being lost or adrift, without a good sense of whether you’re basically heading in the right direction based on useful feedback, can be quite overpowering.
If you’re working completely remote from your team, it would be very easy for those feelings to become exaggerated. If you let them. And maybe, if you find that happening, remote working isn’t the right thing for you.
But, I think if you put some of the ideas above in place, working remotely can be a lot easier than it otherwise might be. And if it still isn’t working out, perhaps it’s time to head back to the office!