Remote work — love it or hate it, it’s part of our lives now. So, it’s essential for management and employees to understand and make the most of it.
What’s a remote work policy? A remote work policy is an agreement between an organization’s management — normally HR — and its employees. It outlines the do’s and don’ts of working remotely, reasons for the guidelines, and any necessary resources.
What should a remote work policy include? A thorough remote work policy should cover…
- Why you need a remote work policy
- The purpose of the remote work policy
- The most important word in remote workplaces
- Time management for remote workers
- Prioritization tips for remote workers
- Communication tips for remote workers
- Mental health in remote workplaces
- Friendships in remote workplaces
- Remote workplace practicalities
- Policies around time zones & travel
- Remote work hacks
- Remote work extras
- Remote work resources
Let’s get into the specifics.
Why Have a Remote Work Policy?
Remote work is the ocean: vast, open, and impossible to navigate without skill.
To map a course, you need to break down endless possibilities into small units. The most important of these units is time, and you’ll read a lot about that below, but there are others: tasks, physical spaces, devices, even people.
In an office, you are at work when you are at work. Boundaries are clear. The person who can answer your pressing question is a few paces away. Chance encounters with your favorite coworkers happen easily and often.
Not so with remote work.
When you use the same device in the same room for work and play…
…When you have to schedule a meeting or wait for a response to your Slack message to get a brief question answered…
…When friendships at work don’t happen unless you make them happen…
…You start to realize this kind of “work” is not like any other you’ve experienced. This kind of work requires the use of different professional muscles, some of which have atrophied over time. The challenges you face in your work are different.
And yet, it’s kind of amazing too.
You wear what you want to wear. You work at your own pace. You can meet a friend for coffee midweek, visit the chiropractor, take your niece to school. You don’t sacrifice hours a week in drivetime. You can live almost anywhere.
It’s a different kind of work. That is the obstacle.
It’s a different kind of work. That is the beauty.
The Purpose of This Guide
This guide was written for the Sweet Fish Media team, as a help, first and foremost, for our new people who have never worked remotely. The goal is to shorten the learning curve and to divide the ocean of remote work into coordinates for you to follow.
But this guide is also for those of you who have worked in remote environments for a while. The advice and perspectives listed here represent a number of people, mostly from our own team, who have shared their work-from-home insights. Since the perspectives are diverse, so are the applications.
In other words, there’s something for everyone in here.
The major themes you’ll see in the rest of this guide are
- Rituals – If you’re struggling to make remote life work for you, the best place to start is to ritualize your days as much as possible.
- Units of time – As you prioritize your work tasks, intuition is not enough. You have to find a way to section off your wide open days.
Your best tool for doing this is time: break your days and weeks into units.
- Intentionality – To get the results you want working remotely you have to be twice as intentional. If you want to get to know someone, you have to make it happen. If you want innovation, you have to make the space for it.
- Overcommunication – If you think you’ve made yourself clear enough, you probably need to say it twice more.
The Most Important Word in Remote Workplaces
Anytime I talk about remote work, the very first component I talk about is trust. If companies and employees don’t have it, they will fail to do remote well.
When bosses aren’t in the same space as their direct reports, there are only two choices:
There are tools out there to capture random screenshots of employees to make sure they aren’t on Instagram during the workday. There are also tools that measure the amount of keystrokes at any given time, and if the employee rests for too long, a message goes out to their boss.
You’re probably reading this saying, “Sign me up!” but me, I’m odd. I personally would prefer not to be treated like a toddler.
So then, that leaves trust. The best remote companies hire people they trust and fire them when they prove themselves untrustworthy. It’s not as hard as you think. When important work doesn’t get done, customers and teammates complain, balls get dropped, and the same names tend to surface. Where there’s enough smoke, there’s fire. You can feel the heat just as well as a private investigator.
To our team: we trust you. We trust that you want to do great work. We all do. We trust that if you have issues, you’ll tell us. If we have issues with the work you do, we’ll tell you. This is an essential pact between us that helps to bridge the gap between cities, states, and even continents.
When there’s trust between team members and leadership, you can fold your laundry without worrying about getting fired. You can step outside and walk around the house to get away from your screen for a bit.
You can let your work speak for itself.
1. Time Management
Your number one task as a remote worker is to find a way to make a large thing smaller.
Time will smother you if you let it. Either you master your time, or it will master you.
So have a plan.
Break down your months, weeks, and especially days into units. Plan what you’d like to accomplish each day in increments of hours, half-days, thirds-of-days, etc. Establish time blocks that work for you and plan to fill those blocks with your most important work.
Urgent tasks will come up and upend the plan frequently, but you can always return to the course after you address emergencies. And by the way, “emergency” is an extremely subjective term: so talk to your teammates and manager, grill them, to find out what it really means in the context of your role.
Once you know, you can ignore non-emergencies unless you choose to let them into your time block.
Let’s get detailed, shall we?
On any given work day, it helps to have 3-5 consistent tabs up on your computer. These are your core platforms. They are the websites or tools you will use most consistently at work. You will revisit them so often that it’ll become annoying to search for them each time, which is why you should keep them up.
You’ll probably open dozens of other tabs throughout the day, but if they’re not one of your core platforms, and you don’t plan to revisit them in the next hour, you can delete them when you’re done. It helps to ritualize the same tabs during the work day as much as possible.
- At Sweet Fish, most people can get by having only the following 4 tabs up as core platforms:
- Asana – For work tasks
- Gmail – For external communication
- Slack – For internal communication
- Harvest – For time tracking
Depending on your role, you might need to add another, but those four are consistently important for everyone on our team.
The core platform setup has worked best for me, but it’s not the only one remote workers use:
If you use the core platform strategy, you’ll face constant danger: distraction.
It is efficient to move from core platform to core platform easily throughout the day, as needed.
It is inefficient to move between them too much.
Answering an email, then responding to a Slack message, then working on a task in Asana, then repeating the cycle is an awful way to work. Trust me. It will stress you the hell out and you’ll get very little done.
Instead, decide what platform(s) you want to work on during the next unit of time, and don’t deviate from the plan unless you have to. Turn off push notifications from Asana or Slack temporarily if you don’t plan to work in those spaces during a time block. Ask your manager if you’re not sure how to pause notifications.
That’s enough of the details for now.
If you start to feel stressed over long periods of time at work, and you don’t know why, a common culprit is not having enough meeting-free capacity to finish everything you want to. Here are some time-management tips you can try:
Minimize or eliminate inefficient tasks/meetings
Is there a task or meeting you think is really, really dumb or a major drain on your energy? Get rid of it!
Don’t assume you have to work around all meetings sent your way. If left unchecked, meetings can bury you. If the importance of a particular meeting is unclear, check with the organizer to find out if it’s really necessary or if you can help them solve an issue outside of a meeting.
Note: If you’re a billable team member (i.e., in a role that does direct customer work, such as a producer, designer, or writer), and you’re consistently clocking less than 50% billable hours, you are definitely in too many meetings. Ask someone in People Ops if you’re not sure how to check your billable hours in Harvest.
I know, I know: it’s harder than it sounds.
But when employees feel they don’t have the option to say no to a request from someone else on the team, especially a supervisor, they’re almost certain to burn out.
That’s a surefire way to inspire you in a career of writing Sweet Fish hate mail.
“Saying ‘yes’ to a request requires being able to say ‘no,’” said David Butlein in a Forbes article. “It’s impossible to do everything. Fearing repercussion for saying ‘no’ leads to long to-do lists with a lot less getting done. The freedom to say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when appropriate leads to greater autonomy and trust.”
So say no sometimes when you’re already at capacity.
Or say yes, but suggest a less stressful timeline.
Note: Don’t leave something as a yes if it becomes a no. Make it clear that it has become a no or a “yes, but later.”
How to keep each other accountable
(This section borrows heavily from Fred Kofman’s LinkedIn Learning course on accountability.)
If you’re the one asking someone else to complete a task for you, make sure to do a few things:
- Ask them twice to confirm that they are willing to complete the task by the due date you both have agreed on.
- Ask them to let you know if they will not complete the task by the due date beforehand.
- If they still miss the due date, call back to your initial conversation and ask whether you misunderstood their commitment or they simply did not complete the task.
- Ask them for an updated due date that they are willing to commit to OR loop in another team member if a third person’s perspective is holding them back from fulfilling their commitment.
Other ideas (from your teammates)
How to Fill Downtime
It may not happen a lot, but every now and then you’ll have a lull in your workload. This is especially true during your first month at Sweet Fish.
What should you do with free time?
Don’t waste it. There is so much you can do during downtime to invest in yourself and Sweet Fish. And if you handle the slow days right, the fast days get easier (and more fun!).
Here are some ideas for how to spend your downtime:
- Play around with your core platforms, like Asana and Slack. See if there are shortcuts you can use that will save you time when your head is down later.
- Learn. After your first 90 days, you’ll join our Sweet Fish Academy program. Downtime is fantastic for doing your SFA learning.
- Even if you’re done with your SFA learning for the current half-year, or even if you’re in your first 90 days, you can still practice learning. Pick up a business/professional development book, download some podcasts relevant to your role, or search for articles that address some specific topics that have been frustrating you in your job.
- Post content on LinkedIn and/or engage with teammates, prospects, and customers there.
We LOVE LinkedIn. It’s a major marketing tool for us. Plus, there’s a ton of great content there, so if you’re bored and feel the itch for social media, LinkedIn is a great way to scratch that itch and help Sweet Fish in the process.
When you first start remote work, every task you could work on might feel as important as the next.
Part of remote work mastery is learning when to ignore tasks on your plate and when to shine a spotlight on others. This is a skill learned naturally over time, but there are a few tools you can use to learn faster.
This chart comes from Stephen Covey’s famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
Without a plan, the average person spends most of their time in Quadrant 3: Urgent but not Important. Think of those customers or teammates who constantly send you requests that sound like the world will end if not completed in the next 10 minutes. Occasionally, there are real emergencies that require your immediate attention (Quadrant 1), but usually, these types of requests sound more important than they actually are.
A successful work day is one in which you define your Quadrant 2 activities ahead of time, stay hyper-focused, and spend a good chunk of your time on them. Since they are not typically urgent, they can easily get lost in the shuffle of more immediate tasks, but that’s where the masters earn their remote black belts: they decide what’s most important for them to work on that day. They don’t let outside forces decide for them.
Finally, you should try to find a way to get rid of anything in Quadrant 4. If it’s not urgent and not important, then it may be a necessary evil to help someone else out, but more likely, it’s something you can delegate to someone else or eliminate altogether. Talk to your manager to understand whether you really need to do it.
Don’t be a ghost
Again, ritualize to help yourself prioritize.
Don’t be a ghost who floats in between computer tabs and doesn’t know where they should call home. Have a plan, and make it consistent. Follow the same basic workflow every day.
(This doesn’t have to dampen innovation; a ritual can simply be making regular space for innovative thinking without distractions.)
Here’s an example of how you might structure the ritual of your workday.
8 – 11 a.m. – Work on the most important tasks of the day (Quadrant 1 & 2 tasks). Ignore everything else.
11 – 11:30 a.m. – Answer emails
11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. – Answer the Question of the Day and engage with teammates on Slack
12 – 1 p.m. – Lunch
1 – 1:30 p.m. – Go for a run, stretch, or lift weights. Listen to a work-related podcast or audiobook while you do.
[1:30] – 4:15 p.m. – Respond to urgent requests that have come up throughout the day (and finish any tasks that have been on the backburner).
[4:15] – 4:30 p.m. – Engage on Slack.
[4:30] – 5 p.m. – Track your time for the day in Harvest. If you have Asana tasks due today that you will not complete, inform the person who assigned them to you. Then look ahead and make a plan for tomorrow.
5 – 5:05 p.m. – Do your end-of-day ritual (more on this later in the guide).
Note: Obviously, this schedule doesn’t account for meetings. You’ll need to adjust this according to your meeting schedule for the day, but even still, you can have a basic plan for how you’d like to spend each day. Keep in mind that this structure is for an ideal day. Most days won’t be ideal days, and that’s OK. These time slots are guideposts for you, and you should try to find your way back to them as much as you can, even when things come up throughout the day. You have to fight to protect your time, or it will fight you back.
If you don’t want to prescribe your day down to the hour, try other ways of organizing your time.
For example, structure your days in terms of tasks.
- Finish an important task (and do nothing else).
- Then take 15 minutes for “unorganized working,” which might mean checking emails, getting on Slack, clearing Asana notifications, etc.
- Then finish another important task.
- Then take another 15 minutes.
- And so on.
Think of others
Be mindful of the deadlines you give to others, as well as the time of day you assign those deadlines. For example, assigning something to an audio engineer with a due date of tomorrow is a lot different at 7 a.m. today versus 3:30 p.m. today.
Also, take a look at the other person’s task list on Asana to see what they’ve got going on. Try not to overload them on a day with lots of tasks due if you can help it.
Plan out your weeks in advance
I know it may feel like taking 15 minutes out of your day to plan for future days is a waste of your time, but trust me—it’s not.
If you can put together a plan for upcoming days and weeks ahead of time, you can start your workday by immediately hitting the ground running. And you can be confident that what you’re working on is what you should be working on.
Friday afternoons are great for planning out your next week. Monday mornings or Sunday nights work too. Take a look at the Asana tasks you have due next week and rearrange them to make sure you’re not too overloaded on one particular day. Asana has a great “Calendar” feature for doing this in the “My Tasks” section.
I use Asana as a personal task management tool. So I don’t just get tasks from other people on Asana: I assign tasks to myself to stay organized.
I like to make sure I have no more than 6 key tasks in Asana on any given day. I define non-key tasks as anything that takes less than 5 minutes to complete. Your number might be more or less than 6. Try this out for a while and see what works for you.
What if I’m still struggling to prioritize?
Sometimes, even if you make a plan and try to follow it, you’ll still feel confused and anxious about how to spend your time. Your ideal week will break down consistently, and things are not going according to plan. What should you do then?
Ask for help.
It takes vulnerability to say, “I’m confused about how to spend my time. Please help me.” If you can push through and do it anyway, I think you should.
But maybe you can’t right now, and that’s OK too. In that case, here’s something you can try:
- Write out a list of your tasks for the upcoming week. Rank them the best you can, according to how you think they should be prioritized.
- Share your list with your manager and ask, “Is there anything here that you would prioritize differently?”
- Adjust your rankings according to their feedback.
This will help you to emerge with a clear idea of what you need to work on in the next week, without forcing you to explicitly say you’re confused and anxious about how to spend your time. Eventually, if you can build up enough trust with your manager, you can have those more difficult conversations, but try this technique as you work toward that level of trust.
Get out ahead when you can
For many roles at Sweet Fish, working ahead can save you a lot of stress down the line.
For example, if you’re a producer, building a 4+ week queue for each of your shows will give you a much greater margin for error compared to a show whose production process is down-to-the-wire every week.
Figure out how to get ahead in your own role, and set goals to do it in your weekly plans. Plan now: relax later.
The most common (wrong) assumption remote workers make is that they have communicated enough with their teammates.
Almost always, when you think you’re communicating, you’re under-communicating, and when you think you’re overcommunicating, you’re communicating just enough.
I cannot stress this point enough.
Here’s a good practice to follow:
Anytime you think, “Jane Redmayne probably knows her boss is moving to another department next week already,” or “Maybe I should shoot Jane a quick update message to keep her in the loop about the contractor she asked me to hire,” you should reach out to Jane.
You need to communicate little things, too. Basic contextual information is the easiest to forget to pass along. So when you’re on an internal meeting trying to figure out a solution for an unhappy customer, don’t assume everyone on the call is up to speed on the situation. Take two minutes to share the backstory of the customer, what has happened, why they are unhappy, and what is left to decide.
Or if you made a slight change to a shared document, tell the people who also use it. It might not seem important, but then again, you might lack a view of the whole picture. Better to cover all your bases.
Say it once. Then say it again. (Then again.)
You’re bound to forget whom you’ve told what. There’s only one way to make up for this: tell lots of people what you have to say . . . a lot.
I mean, just annoy them with updates. It’s much better to tell someone the same important information three times than zero times.
If you’re sharing an update with your whole team (or the entire company), one time is not enough. So, sharing a video update on Slack about a new process change is great, but don’t expect everyone to follow the new changes from that one update alone.
Share the video.
Then remind the team of the update in your next All Hands.
Then post about it on Slack again the next week (and ask for questions if people have them).
Then ask the author of that week’s ICYMI to share the update on the document.
Then follow up with anyone throughout the next few weeks who seems to not quite grasp the update.
Then you’ve probably communicated enough.
Another good practice
If you’re waiting on someone for something, give yourself the freedom to pester (OK, fine, remind) them 25% more than you think you need to. That will probably level out to just about the right amount of communication.
Overcommunicate, but don’t over-document
Overcommunicating means not assuming someone understands everything they need to. Go the extra mile to make it simple for someone else to do a brilliant job, especially if they have to work on a project or task after you. Leave notes, add comments in Google Docs, that sort of thing.
It’s better to have extra context than to not have it at all—especially since many of us work in different time zones.
However, don’t over-document. Updating a process is great, but only if it has a positive, meaningful outcome for most of the team or if it will allow a future person doing your same job to pick up the document and do the work easily. If you are documenting something for your own sake, or for a process that will live in obscurity in some dark corner of Google Drive for the rest of its sad life, it’s not worth the effort.
(Thanks to Sweet Fish writer Prenessa Nalliah for the advice in this section.)
Communicate with yourself
Remember to overcommunicate with yourself, too. If there’s a project you’re working on, assign the next task for it to yourself in Asana. There’s nothing worse than a project slipping through the cracks and becoming stalled because you forgot to remind yourself to do the next step.
Leave notes for yourself in Asana task descriptions, notebooks, or your personal Slack channel too. You know yourself best, so leave notes where you know you’ll see them. If you’re working on a lot of things at once, you may forget critical information needed to complete a task, so these little self-notes can make a big difference.
4. Mental Health
When so many companies were forced to shift from in-person to remote workforces in 2020, many of them thought they struck gold at first.
Productivity numbers, amazingly, went up. It turned out that one of their greatest fears—that they couldn’t monitor the time and effort their people put into their work—could be set aside. People were getting more work done from home: not less.
But that was only half the story.
While productivity numbers went up, overall mental health statistics were trending negatively. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent isolation of previously connected people, was a main culprit. But remote work itself was to blame, too.
Work & life
A big part of lower mental health numbers for remote workers is the blurred line between work and everything else. If my “office” is the same place I eat, play, and rest in, it’s not always easy to determine which of the four I should be doing at any given time.
“Work/life balance” and “work/life integration” have been buzzwords for years now. (Somewhat against the tide, I prefer the former, but I’ll save that discussion for another day.)
Whatever term you use, every person has to find a way to put work off when they want to not be working, and to get work done despite a host of obstacles in their outside life.
Let’s talk about some tricks you can try to get around the danger of work/life conflation.
Honor your work hours
Consider work hours sacred.
At Sweet Fish, we expect you to be available to work between 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. in your local time zone. This doesn’t mean you can’t do things throughout the day, it just means you should essentially be on call during those hours.
Avoid the pitfalls of “flexibility.” In other words, take advantage of flexibility for the big things (family events, vacations, mental health, meeting friends, medical appointments), but discipline yourself to avoid other blurred lines during certain hours, like watching movies, binging TV shows, or scrolling social media endlessly.
If you do take some time out from work during the day, and you need to make up for lost time, try to tack it onto existing work hours instead of stopping and picking work back up later. So, if you’ve got work to do past 5 p.m., try to work until 6 instead of stopping, going to the gym, eating dinner, then answering emails from 9-10. Or, if you’re a morning person, wake up an hour earlier and work from 7-5 the next day.
The more you can clump your work time into the same continuous time block, the easier it will be to convince your brain later that work is over and it’s time to rest and recharge.
A late night or a few hours on a weekend occasionally might save you stress in the long run, and we’re fortunate enough to have the ability to work those hours if we need to. But this should be very occasional (I’m talking no more than once a month). Any more frequently and you should try to diagnose why you feel unable to get on top of your work.
Use end-of-day rituals to transition out of “work mode”
Maybe you can relate.
You clear that last notification on your laptop, then step outside your office and immediately meet your kids/partner/roommate. They start recapping the frustrations of their day, and you’re trying to be there, you really are, but you’re just not.
You’ve still got “work residue” on your brain.
Yes, you get to bypass a commute from the office to home when you work remotely, but that also means you get no time to decompress. Don’t underestimate how important this is: “work mode” can’t be turned off on a switchboard. It’s more like a tide that slowly ebbs away. But you can help accelerate the ebbing.
Have routine triggers that signal your day is done. Close out your tabs; shut your laptop. If you’re a nerd, you can even say the same phrase every day when you do it, something like, “System shutdown complete.”
I recommend going a step further. Put in some headphones and listen to a full song. Music is a fantastic way to help your mind transition from one area of focus to another. Or spend a few minutes thinking about the thing you’re most excited for that evening. If you’re hardcore, write it down.
All it takes is five minutes to help yourself out in a big way. This is a small sacrifice, but way less of a time commitment than a commute. If you communicate to your loved ones to expect you at [5:05] instead of 5 every day, they’ll understand.
You may still have a little work residue after your ritual, but it shouldn’t be nearly as much. And if work keeps threatening to take hold, remind yourself that you’re actually doing what’s best for your company (and the issues you’re trying to solve at work) by disconnecting.
Use different devices for work and non-work
This one isn’t always feasible, but if you can do it, it’s awesome.
Try to use only one device for work tasks and platforms. So, for example, you could use your laptop for work emails, Asana, Slack, and Harvest. But you could not download those apps on your phone, saving it instead for the things you want to do outside of work.
A less hardcore version of this is to have work apps on your phone, but to disable notifications. It’s those pesky notifications that really get you. There’s nothing to rope you back into the stress of work like accidentally seeing an email from an unhappy customer or a frustrated message from a coworker on Slack on your phone as you’re trying to watch Netflix.
Seriously, turn off phone notifications from work apps. Your brain chemistry will thank you.
Pro tip: I also don’t respond to work texts if they come to me after hours (with a few rare exceptions). Instead, I leave them unread, and respond in the first minute or two once I start my work day the next day.
More advice from our team
On that note ☝, it’s OK to have a hard day. It’s OK to check out. Sometimes, you need to shut the computer and talk to somebody, go for a walk, or just sit somewhere alone.
Only, try not to disappear without letting anyone know. Set an auto-responder on your inbox for customers to call you if it’s urgent, update your Slack status, or drop your manager a quick note to say you’re having a tough day. That way, you won’t trip anyone else up while you’re away.
Research suggests that friendship in the workplace is a major factor in your experience with a particular company (especially if you’re a millennial), and employees are up to ten times more likely to stay in a job for friendship than for money.
So while it’s easy to push relationships down the priority list as you get acclimated to your new work environment, don’t push them too far down or you may not have enough time to pull them back up.
You can’t really force friendship. We all know this. But what you can do is intentionally start conversations and put yourself in positions to allow friendships to develop naturally with the right people.
We tend to bond most with people when we have shared, unique, challenging experiences with them. So, solving a tough work problem together with one other person actually gives you a better chance of growing a relationship than being on a virtual happy hour does.
Still, you want to understand your close circle of friends on a personal level, not just do work stuff with them.
So here are some ideas for fostering meaningful relationships with your teammates.
Mix your personal life into calls
Do this whenever you can. A little vulnerability goes a long way in establishing a bond with other people. You don’t have to get into the fact that you’re on anxiety medication with every person you talk to (although it’s great to if you think the other person can handle it), but even spending 30 seconds at the beginning of a call to share that you’re disappointed with how an event you helped put together over the weekend went down can do a lot.
Engage on Slack
Answer the Question of the Day on Slack frequently, and read others’ answers. Over time, you’ll start to see whose responses catch your eye most, who gains your respect, and who seems like-minded. Then, you’ll learn who to reach out to to get to know more.
Remember to engage yourself as well, and to be as transparent as you can. Your teammates are reading your answers, and if you can show them the real you, potential friends will get the signal and want to know you better.
When you notice a point of commonality with someone, shoot them a Slack message and point it out. Even better, give them a call during the day just to share your observation. You don’t have to spend more than 3 minutes on this, but you’ll communicate that you’re genuinely interested in that person. Who calls someone else about an interest they share if they don’t like that person?
At Sweet Fish, we use a Slack-integrated tool called Donut. It automatically pairs teammates every two weeks and prompts them to get a 30-minute virtual coffee/hangout call on the calendar. Once the two weeks are up, you’ll be paired with someone new.
To sign up, search for the “virtual-coffee” channel on Slack, then join it. That’s it!
It’s OK not to be everyone’s friend
Having at least one friend at work can transform your experience at that company, but not everyone you work with needs to be a friend.
If you can make one great friend, then respect, care for, and (yes) love everyone else, you’re in a great environment.
6. Practical Stuff
All that business about remote work being the Gulf of Mexico is great and everything, but what should I be doing while I poop during the work day?
I am so glad you asked.
Time to get practical…
You can truly do remote work from anywhere. On our team alone, we’ve had people work from desks, kitchen tables, beds, porches, closets, coffee shops, hotels, and even on ironing boards.
Some people benefit psychologically from working in the same space every day, while others get energized by moving around. (More on moving around in a minute.) But wherever you work from, here are a few basic considerations to keep in mind:
- Good lighting is always preferable. A dark cave of an office can be transformed by light alone. You’ll get the best, most natural light by putting your desk in front of a window, but you can also purchase ring lights, square lights, or just high-wattage light bulbs to (literally) present yourself in the best light. One easy thing to avoid is putting your back to windows, since the backlight will almost certainly cast a shadow over you.
- You don’t need a microphone to do video calls with teammates or customers (unless you host podcasts), but audio is still worth a brief consideration. Your computer mic should be plenty good enough to do calls with, but test out your audio with a friend or teammate before getting into the swing of work to make sure you don’t sound underwater or tinny. If you do, try plugging in headphones or connecting Airpods to your device.
- Noise-cancelling headphones or listening to ambient music are helpful tools for concentrating in a noisy environment, such as working near kiddos or with roommates who also work from home. (Or barking dogs next door, as I’m currently listening to as I write.)
- It is critical that you have reliable WiFi. TRUST ME, I KNOW. Around the Sweet Fish team, I have the reputation of having the worst WiFi, and it sucks. There’s nothing more frustrating than preparing an exciting team update, leading a virtual trivia event, or trying to weigh in on an important topic and watching confused faces fail to understand you because your connection can’t support the call. I know not everyone can swing it, but consider paying for one of the higher-tier options from your Internet provider to give yourself peace of mind down the line. If you can’t, it’s worth digging into your options or asking for advice from your teammates as early as possible.
If you have a consistent workspace, surround it with things you love. People have filled out their cubicles with family photos for decades, but you now have the opportunity to make your workspace as personalized as you want. Put some thought into what you want to show up in the background of your video calls (including something that will start conversations is a good practice), but outside of the frame, you can do even more. Add plants, artwork, instruments, books, memorabilia . . . whatever will help you look around, feel good, and gear up to do your best work.
Video conferencing best practices
There are lots of guides out there with tips on how to handle video conferences (i.e., the most common way you’ll do meetings for a remote job), but here’s a quick overview:
- Don’t worry so much about your dogs, kids, etc. when you have calls with other people for work. Sure, it’s important not to let your environment become a consistent distraction for others on your calls, but we’re all humans, and most people understand to expect those kinds of distractions in calls throughout their workday. You don’t have to apologize for them unless they derail the call or distract others for more than a minute or two.
- If you are in a noisy environment, mute yourself when you’re not speaking. This helps the other person(s) on the call stay focused when it’s their turn to speak. Remember to unmute yourself when you speak next, though!
- Make use of the chat function in Zoom, Google Meet, or whatever video platform is hosting the call, especially in meetings with lots of people in them. The chat is complementary to the verbal conversation going on. To avoid interrupting the person speaking out loud, you can affirm, add to, or question their point by dropping a comment in the chat. You don’t even have to get off mute to do this. Often, the funniest parts of a group call are in the chat, so pay attention. Just be careful not to veer too far from the verbal conversation, as this is considered disrespectful of the person speaking.
- Note: In Zoom, you can also message other attendees individually and privately, so use that function if you need to clarify or prepare for something with only one person on the call.
Body language is just as important on video calls as in person. Making eye contact as best you can, nodding your head, making hand gestures, raising a hand or finger to speak . . . all of these are important to consider, even though less of your body is visible than in an office setting.
Camera On or Off?
I recognize this is not easy to do, but try to keep your camera on as much as you can on calls.
Video calls are your best opportunities to replicate in-person connection with teammates and customers, so it makes a big difference whether you can be seen by others and vice versa.
At the moment, Sweet Fish doesn’t have a blueprint on this, so if you want to turn your camera off during a call, you can. There are also plenty of very legitimate reasons for turning your camera off, like eating, nursing babies, picking your nose, and so on.
Gendered, societally based pressure to look a certain way is also real. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t forced the issue up until now.
But push yourself to turn that camera on, even if you don’t plan to speak during the whole meeting. Your non-verbal reactions to what others say are valuable and a gift to the rest of the group.
This is related to the camera on/off discussion.
One major reason people leave their cameras off is because they don’t feel they look “presentable.”
There’s no one way to handle that feeling:
- Some people enjoy getting ready in the morning as if they were going into an office (again, rituals).
- Others come as they are.
- Others do the bare minimum to feel comfortable turning the camera on.
- Others simply turn their cameras off.
No one’s going to force you to show up visually, but for all the reasons we went through above, it’s worth your while (and everyone else’s) to find what works for you so that you feel confident enough to turn your camera on.
We have no dress code at Sweet Fish. We trust our people to dress and look the way they want to, which includes the impression they want to have on others as well as the level of comfort they want to have.
In general, we’re a very casual company. Comfortable dress is one of the perks of working from home.
Wear what you want to wear: what you say and who you are matters far more than how you look.
If you feel good about yourself and you feel ready to kick ass at work, you’re probably dressed exactly how you need to be.
Working in different locations
Some people absolutely love moving around their home to mix things up and stay energized.
You could work one day in your office, one on the porch, one in the haunted basement, etc. OR you could work in different rooms before and after lunch. OR you could work from home one day, at a restaurant the next, at a coworking space the next, etc.
Others (myself included) like a hybrid approach. I mostly work in my office (my brain helps me associate it with work), but about once a week I’ll drive out to a coffee shop for a morning or afternoon.
You may also want to find other people who work from home and work together in person once in a while, if you’re the “social type” and all that.
Pro tip: Schedule, schedule, schedule these things (especially working outside the house or with others). Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. You might look up two months later and realize your car battery won’t start.
But moving around doesn’t work for everyone
Water: Drink lots of it.
You’re staring at a screen all day. Don’t neglect this simple step.
A big container is a good idea, so you don’t have to get up throughout the day. You’re also more likely to drink water when it’s visually right in front of you and available.
You can also build certain drinks into the ritual of your day. For example, coffee in the morning, water when you’re out of coffee, sparkling water/juice/tea in the afternoon, more water the rest of the day, moonshine at night to forget the stress of the day (I’M KIDDING ABOUT THAT LAST ONE.)
Remember that intentionality we talked about? It applies big time here.
If you don’t make time for breaks and exercise in your day, trust me: you won’t do it. You’ll never feel like you can set work aside. There will always be something “better” to do.
But breaks are vital. Take a few minutes away from your screen, let your ideas simmer, then come back 20-30 minutes later after exercise, pacing, stretching, etc.
But what about that poop intro?
I thought you’d never ask…
If you’re committed to staying in work mode throughout the day, there should be no wasted space.
Potty time is great for mentally resetting outside the grind of the day. Grab a book, download some podcasts, or answer the Question of the Day on Slack while you do your business. Showers can be productive and relaxing too. If you’ve got a work knot you’re trying to untie, getting away from your computer and just thinking for a while is often the best thing you can do, and luckily your brain travels with you wherever you go: even when you take care of basic hygienic needs.
7. Time Zones & Travel
Working across time zones is one of the trickier parts of remote work. When you’re all in the same space, this isn’t an issue, but on a remote team, you’ll likely have teammates in time zones at least two or three hours ahead or behind your own. There’s also a good chance you’ll work with customers or teammates across the world.
As long as you have several shared hours a day with your teammates, you can make different time zones work.
At Sweet Fish, we have clear expectations for working hours in our “How We Work” blueprint. We expect full-time people to be available from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. their local time. If everyone works between their own 8-5 hours, then that means even for West and East Coasters in the U.S., there are at least 6 hours of overlap, which is generally plenty for setting up meetings, putting out fires, etc.
(Working from Hawaii or Alaska is a bit more challenging, and will require some creativity/great communication between you and your teammates. The same goes for international team members.)
No one should be punished for working in a less common time zone. For example, if most of your team is on the East Coast, I don’t like the idea of expecting West Coast people to get up earlier in their time zone than the rest of the team, just to have more overlap hours. There are some special cases, such as when Leadership across time zones has to stretch to make meetings work, or if someone has customers in Singapore, Australia, etc., but these should be clearly communicated exceptions, not the rule.
Working non-traditional hours
Honestly, the bigger issue than time zones that we’ve run into is when people work late or odd hours. We’ve had team members in the past who sleep a lot during the day, pick up their work at 10 or so at night, then work in the middle of the night. Theoretically, remote work can accommodate this, but in practice it tends to create big issues getting them on the same page with managers and customers.
This goes back to the mental health section, but try to keep regular, more traditional business hours if you can. It’s better for everyone.
Working while traveling
We love encouraging our team to travel. Why not? You can work from anywhere!
You can always take certain days off during your travel, but if you’re working, here are some tips:
- Plan ahead: If you’re on the road, are you available or unavailable for calls? Can you access work platforms when you stop? Do you have some professional development audiobooks/podcasts loaded up for the drive?
- Make sure your destination has good WiFi.
- Tell your manager and teammates where you’ll be and when.
- Rearrange any recurring calls if you’re in a new time zone and the existing time doesn’t work for you during your trip.
What if you want to take a trip for several weeks, or even months, far from home? What if you want to travel across Europe for three months while working?
Depending on your organization, you can probably make trips like this work, but they require a lot of communication on the front-end and during the trip.
Come up with a plan that’s acceptable to your manager and team beforehand.
Make sure you’re building in enough work time in your travels, unless you’re taking days off.
And again, no matter what time zone you’re in, you will likely have to make room for some overlapping times with the majority of your team.
8. Remote Work Hacks
Below, you’ll find a list of remote work hacks. These are optional ideas, and they don’t work for everyone. If one or more resonate with you, try them out.
Add common links to the bookmarks bar on your laptop
Put labels on certain emails
Get in the right headspace in the mornings
Try the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is a productivity hack that directs you to work for twenty-five minutes, take a five-minute break, then work for twenty-five more. The cycle repeats until the fourth break, which becomes fifteen instead of five minutes.
This is especially useful for highly creative roles, since you don’t feel locked into hours of work and the timer often helps spur focus when you feel distracted.
You can try it for yourself here.
Use tools to limit your phone notifications throughout the day, especially from social media and other apps you enjoy outside of work. Here’s a list of apps to help with this.
Use mindless time mindfully
While we’re on the topic, be extremely intentional about when you take a break to do mindless things like social media. If you catch yourself drifting into those things without realizing it, it’s usually a warning sign that you’re either bored, disengaged, or avoiding something. There are healthier ways to take care of all three.
Schedule breaks, and allow yourself time to do enjoyable or entertaining activities occasionally. You can incorporate the Pomodoro technique here and do something you like during your breaks.
Just remember: moving around, reading books, or having a quick conversation is usually a more effective break than diving into something on a device. If you can, limit your scrolling to lunch, after work, etc. This can even be part of your ritual to separate work from non-work.
9. Extra Nuggets
There are still a few loose ends about remote work I haven’t covered so far:
- Remote work is not a protection against harassment or a license to say or do anything. While not being in the same room with other people limits some types of workplace harassment, words and images can be just as damaging remotely as in an office.
- Also, boundaries can get blurred when you’re in person with people you work with remotely. Have fun, enjoy the special in-person time (it really is amazing when it happens), but always be respectful of the other person’s space and wishes when it comes to things like hugging, drinking, and conversation topics.
- Attend culture events! OK, I’m (more than) a little biased here, but if your company is doing remote well, they should be putting on fun events outside the day-to-day to help the team bond. Find out if your company has them, and if they do, make time for them!
- Be yourself. Be weird. (Everyone’s a little bit weird.) Who you are is a gift to your team, and they won’t get that gift unless you give it.
Note: If you’re a Jerk Turkey, maybe don’t be yourself so much.
Here are a few potentially unfamiliar terms you might hear in remote spaces:
Distributed – Another word for “remote.” Some people prefer “distributed” because “remote” has a lonely and “less-than” connotation, especially when most of a team works in person together, except for a few work-from-home people. At Sweet Fish, we’ve always been remote, so the term doesn’t bother me in our context. Plus, remote islands and TV remotes are pretty cool, so I don’t mind the namesake.
Co-Located – Another word for work that happens in the same physical space as your teammates.
Digital Nomad – Someone who works digitally, but moves around a lot physically.
Location Independent – Another way of saying you work remotely.
Work-From-Home – Another way of saying you work remotely. So many options!
10. Recommended Resources
Here’s a list of helpful books, podcasts, and more for remote workers. I’ll add to it over time:
Atomic Habits by James Clear
The Art of Working Remotely by Scott Dawson
Work Together Anywhere: A Handbook on Working Remotely—Successfully—for Individuals, Teams, and Managers by Kirsten Janene-Nelson and Lisette Sutherland
Remote Work Policies: They Don’t Have to Suck
Policies of any kind can be fun and interactive. The biggest thing is collaboration between management and employees — that’s how you get a successful remote work policy!
For more on remote work insights, don’t hesitate to reach out.