Remote As a Lifestyle, Not a Buzzword

28 July 2019

As I recently found myself on the lookout for a part-time, fully remote position I was reminded yet again of the extreme degree to which remote work is misunderstood.

Within the past few weeks I have been told privately by a hiring manager, that publicly supports remote work, that teams must meet in-person weekly to be successful. I have seen positions on remote job boards that require being at a physical office several times a month. Several remote companies have shared that they receive thousands of applications for each remote job posting. I have spoken with people looking to start their career share that they only want to work from home even though they have never experienced it, holding a very romanticized view of what it’s like.

Over the past seven years it has been a whirlwind of frustration, strange realizations, and general intrigue. While as a field we seem to have successfully gotten people excited about remote work and make it highly desirable, there remains an enormous gap between expectations and reality. It feels that more and more employers recognize this is an engagement-inducing buzzword, but since the advocacy is not genuine it seems that many companies are failing these newly hired remote employees.

How can we work towards resolving this disconnect between what is being practiced versus what is being preached in regards to remote work from tech hiring managers? How can job seekers looking for their first remote role better prepare for the reality of it and be as successful as possible?

Notes for Employers

A few ways in which employers can show that remote work is respected and taken seriously:

Be Honest

If you are open to the idea of an employee occasionally working from home but ultimately frequently being at a physical office in a specific city is preferred, then a remote job board is not the right place for this role. While occasional opportunities to work from home should be mentioned in the position description, it can be misleading to those seeking a truly remote position―there are loads of job boards out there, let’s reserve the remote ones for just that.

Be Transparent

Flexibility is the greatest appeal of remote work. If the position requires extensive travel or involves regular team gatherings be sure to include this in the position description. The inability to travel or be away from home regularly could be the very reason someone is viewing remote roles to begin with. This also applies to an expected daily schedule if there is one. Being upfront about these basics will help ensure fewer, better suited applicants for the role.

Be Understanding

There are countless reasons why someone may be seeking the flexibility usually afforded by fully remote work, such as: disabilities, chronic illness, they enjoy traveling, they are caretakers. While the specific reasons are irrelevant, strive to be understanding in regards to flexibility requests. Perhaps someone needs to step away each day at 3PM to pick up their kids from school. Maybe someone expresses the need to start their day at 9:30AM to best accommodate regular doctor’s appointments.

Dismissing qualified candidates over these needs is shortsighted. This is not the mark of someone that will be less dedicated or available, but rather that of someone that understands their limits and has figured out the best, harmonious way to make their personal and professional lives work together.

Proactive Support

Partially remote companies in particular, with a large percentage of employees in an office and a smaller percentage that work from home, can greatly struggle with fostering a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive culture for those that are remote-based. Be proactive in making sure these employees do not feel “othered” through a clear process for communication and documentation regarding expectations. Bring the “water cooler talk” experience virtually, committing to regular coffee chats and providing opportunities for everyone to connect on both personal and professional levels.

Logistically, avoid a single remote employee dialing into a conference room where several employees are there in person, for example. This instantly puts this remote individual at a disadvantage and fosters an “outsider” mentality. Having a few other employees also take the call from different rooms in the office is an easy, considerate, and respectful way to conduct these meetings.

One on ones become especially important in regards to spotting any potential morale issues and ensuring employees feel valued, heard, and appreciated, since social cues and small chat that can communicate this are largely absent. Have a plan for thorough onboarding and make sure any new remote employee knows how to “show up” for work on the first day. Initiate an opportunity for introductions.

Not a Cost Saving Strategy

Viewing remote employment as a way to save money, say paying someone in Kentucky less strictly because they don’t live in San Francisco, can suggest that your company is less likely to take remote seriously as a lifestyle. You are also positioning your company to not be able to compete for top talent against others that do not tie location into their salary offers.

For many, tying pay to location restricts an employee’s capacity for exploration, well being, or their ability to support an ill loved one in a time of need. Furthermore, having multiple employees with the same role being paid drastically different salaries because of where they choose or have to live will inevitably lead to friction, comparisons, and resentment.

An additional consideration is that if they begin employment in the midwest and then move to NYC, for instance, will their salary then increase and to what degree? In basing pay on location you commit to these reverse scenarios as well.

Notes for Job Seekers

A few ways in which job seekers and employees can potentially best prepare for the transition into remote work:

Know the Downsides

While I technically work fewer hours now remotely, the time I am working is more intense and productive and there is no clear time of day that hits where I am suddenly not working. The lines between life and work become more gray and it can feel like you are always “on”.

From personal experience and working with other remote-based individuals I’ve observed the main challenges to be:

  • Competing with thousands from around the world for a single position
  • Loneliness, isolation
  • It can be more intense work with no clear break times
  • Can be difficult for some to concentrate and thrive in this setting
  • Coworking spaces can fail to be the lively community they promise
  • Can result in a dramatic decrease in physical activity level
  • Can be demotivating without team engagement
  • Communication has to be much clearer and thoughtful
  • More difficult to achieve a sense of belonging within a team
  • More challenging to get your personality across

If you are an extrovert that thrives being amongst people and are committed to working remotely, perhaps having an active coworking space that you’ve toured during business hours or joining relevant online communities can help combat the inevitable loneliness from working solo. Having access to a gym or just finding time for purposeful physical activity becomes more important without the travel demands of heading to an office regularly. I know for me personally this was a huge emotional hit in the beginning and I find I have to go to the gym each day to avoid slipping into a very sad state.

Working remotely is not for everyone, and that’s OK. Some people trying it for the first time pick it up quickly and come to swear by it while others find that it doesn’t live up to the high, potentially unrealistic, expectations they had going into it. Having a sense of some of the common downsides can help make the ultimate decision or aid in proactively addressing things that you suspect will be an issue.

Master Autonomy

The ability to self manage in a way that balances your naturally preferred schedule, personal obligations, and work responsibilities/timelines is critical in ensuring working remotely is successful and enjoyable. It’s a bit like getting thrown into the deep end at first, requiring project management skills and a level of self-discipline that are not necessarily needed to such a high degree in a more in-person, traditional office environment.

It’s likely that family will not understand that working from home does not mean you are available at all times to respond to casual texts and calls. Sometimes leaving your desk to sort your sock drawer can help you think through a problem while other times it’s just avoidance and distraction. Learning how you uniquely work remotely and what that looks like for you in regards to optimizing hours each day takes time. There’s really no course you can take on this stuff and there can be a lot of trial and error in the beginning.

Freelancers have to balance communication, project management, sales, marketing, and accounting on top of the actual job they were hired to do, be it design, development, writing, etc. This is all incredibly difficult and requires a high degree of autonomy to pull off delivering projects on time and in budget, making it a less than ideal (but not impossible!) scenario for those getting started with the remote lifestyle. In these instances, access to a mentor or community of other remote freelancers for guidance can be invaluable.

Account for Technical Difficulties

Your team needs to be able to reach you and conduct meetings reliably without too many technical disruptions. Stick with highly recommended video conferencing software, such as BlueJeans. I live in an old neighborhood that experiences fairly frequent internet and power outages. A couple ways I’ve addressed this is a UPS system that provides an uninterrupted power supply when the electric goes out and an internet hotspot, which can be done through some cell phone plans or a Verizon Jetpack.

Getting the internet details and testing it before committing to a coworking space will usually prove helpful as well. Many companies now provide budgets for equipment and work spaces—don’t shy away from asking for what you need.

Create a Quiet, Professional Space

While some coworkers and clients are more understanding of an imperfect work-from-home setup, aiming for a peaceful surrounding during working hours can help foster a work environment with fewer distractions and one which is respectful of your team when collaborating.

Your surroundings will impact the experience of anyone on a call or video call. Regular calls from a busy coffee shop or ones where the computer is being carried throughout the house are going to become problematic. The main appeal of remote work is the flexibility, and sometimes this means taking calls from weird places and that’s OK as long as everyone is mindful of how their surroundings could be impacting others and ultimately their own ability to focus. People on the other end can see and hear everything around you, so dirty clothes and odd activity in the background could not be an ideal reflection of your professional self.

I personally have created a home office space that is quiet, visually interesting, and clutter free. This helps me think clearly and, hopefully, reflects what it is like working with me. If I take a call from the living room I make sure my too-quick-to-bark-at-anything-and-everything dog is elsewhere and confirm that anyone else in the house will only interrupt with emergencies and, in the case of communicating with a seven year old, define what is and is not an emergency 😜

If I’m working in a public space I’ll try to do so only if I don’t have calls scheduled during that time period, or at least warn the other person of the noise level if a call becomes unavoidable and mute my end as much as possible. In this case quality, over-ear headphones become especially important as well.

Be Kind

Remote work is better for everyone when we all remember we are working with human beings. It can be easy to be short-tempered or say something potentially hostile when we feel it’s just words being typed onto a screen at a motionless, tiny avatar. But there are people receiving and processing each of these words. People that may not yet know you well enough to understand just how to interpret them and defaulting to the worst scenario.

Being extra patient, empathetic, and understanding of the context of virtual relationships is perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind in regards to a long-lasting, fulfilling remote working situation.

Wrap Up

This was a tricky post for me to form the right words around in ensuring the tone was more “There is hope! Let’s do better together!” than simply venting on a personal level. Working remotely is a necessary lifestyle for so many. Many that would otherwise not be able to work at all. Experiencing a great number of instances where it is clearly being used and sought after based on misunderstood assumptions or as an empty buzzword is very disheartening and frustrating. I think that with more deliberate consideration and planning from both employers and job seekers alike this is a space that can become much clearer, positive, and sincere for everyone.

If you have additional tips on how to make improvements to the larger remote work culture I’d love to hear about them on Twitter and appreciate you reading, friend.