Have you just started working from home?
Does it feel like nothing is getting done, and yet you’re working longer hours?
So what gives…
Working remotely is supposed to be the end goal right? Like some Apple advert, you have this vision in your head of looking smart, firing off some emails, and then taking the dog for a walk.
But the reality?
It’s pyjamas from the waist down, takeaways and working from 8am to 8pm (or worse.)
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be like this. Like anything in life, there are systems and processes that we can put in place to make it run a little smoother.
By looking at companies who’ve been working remote for years, who are successful at it, and then copying what they do.
And so that’s what we have for you today.
We’re going to look at Automattic, Zapier, Buffer and Basecamp. These are remote first companies running teams across different countries and time zones.
Not only do they have this ‘remote work’ thing figured out, but some of them are making tens of millions per month.
None of these methods are overly complex!
In fact, these tips will work even if you’re brand new to working from home, have been doing it for a while, or want to learn how to help your own employees succeed.
Keep reading to learn how…
So why is it so hard to work from home?
Problem #1: Back in December 2019, only 5.1% of the UK worked remotely.
But in the last 6 months that number has swollen to a whopping 46.6%. This is a global transition like nothing we’ve seen before with the world converting into a gig economy.
We’ve gone from structured office environments to desks in spare rooms, and distractions available at the click of a button.
The last time most of us sat at a home desk, we were cramming for finals, and let’s be honest, not doing a great job of it.
This means that all we have is either low experience, or bad habits we picked up as teens.
Not only that?
Problem #2: Most companies have wanted to go remote, but had misconceptions of what was possible. They always assumed it would never work for them, and so they never really looked into it until they had no choice.
Because of this, they have little experience of running people remotely either, and so they struggle to help or provide support.
According to Jason Fried of Basecamp
“The main issue (with new remote companies) is that they try to replicate the office environment but online, and that’s the wrong way to do it. Instead, you need to play into the strengths of remote work, and allow your employees to perform deep focus tasks”
People are running spyware, having ‘always on’ video cameras so the whole team sees each other, and just endless meetings while they figure everything out, and it’s exhausting.
Problem #3: 2020 has been… *tough*
We’re not just trying to learn a new thing and work in a new way, but everything has changed around us.
Kids are with parents 24/7, we can’t always go outside, families are losing their jobs and worse.
Some days it’s hard to get dressed, let alone perform complex tasks from a new environment.
Brain load right now is making everything more difficult and it’s why systems are even more vital.
According to a neuroscientist for Bloomberg
“We have limited brain capacity, and focusing on one thing requires filtering out other stuff.
If our short-term memories—or our visual perceptions—are overloaded with more info than we can handle, we struggle to distinguish what matters, we become forgetful, and we’re easily distracted.
If your life was complicated before Covid-19, consider how much more you’re keeping track of now.”
So to put it simply?
Don’t be so hard on yourself or others.
We’re trying to learn new things, in a difficult environment. And like learning any new thing, it sucks at first while we learn what works and what doesn’t.
But the key takeaway is that working remote is here to stay.
Not only has the last 6 months shown that most companies CAN work remote, but in a recent survey of remote workers, 92% were able to do their job fully remote, and 83% of them would rather continue to work from home.
This isn’t a bad thing for the future.
This can not only give us better results and a wider skillset, but it means that companies can hire based on skill and not just location.
Likewise, the opposite is true.
Employees can now work for companies in different cities or countries, without being limited by their location.
This opens up new opportunities to everyone.
(Not to mention the cut down in commuting and effect on the environment!)
Pretty good right?
Well it gets better…
Smaller onsite teams means less need for large office spaces. Companies can reduce costs by having core teams onsite, and then bringing in new members for onboarding before working fully remote-massively reducing costs.
The future is bright, we just need to learn how to work from home without being in our pj’s all day, or at our desk all night.
And so that’s why we’re going to focus on 3 key areas:
- Your Health + Wellbeing. By taking care of ‘the machine’, we can improve its output. Not only that but we can achieve that Apple advert version of ourselves.
- Our Work Habits + Systems. We need to learn how to work from home effectively. It’s not about staying at our desk for more hours, because we can, or because we feel guilty that we were not as productive as we would have liked. Instead it’s about learning how to prioritize what’s important and learning how to get deep work done. This way we can be more effective during those hours and focus on the most important tasks.
- Improve Communication. Finally we need to learn how to communicate effectively, and how to make sure it’s not ALL that we do…
So let’s get into it…
Step #1: Improving Your Health + Wellbeing
Stick to a daily schedule!
Humans crave routine. It gives us structure and a feeling of control.
Without it we can feel lost or spiralling. But with it, we feel security and learn new tasks easier.
This is why it’s incredibly important when working from home to create a HEALTHY daily structure. Don’t check emails at 5am in bed, and don’t sit down at your desk before you take time for more important tasks.
Exercise FIRST before anything else.
Do you remember Desmond from Lost?
Trapped in a bunker with no outside light and zero communication with anyone else, on a desert island.
And yet what did he do every day? He got up and exercised before anything else.
(Well before defusing a bomb.) We might feel like our emails are as important as that, but they are not, and they can wait.
When we prioritize our health, we burn cortisol and lower stress.
This makes it easier to cope with problems, and even makes our days more efficient.
So what’s an easy exercise we can do?
It’s low impact, can burn 3x more calories than running and all we need is a 2m space and a rope.
(During lockdown, we just pushed our sofa to the wall and skipped in the front room)
What rope should you get?
I recommend the weighted ropes from the guys over at crossropes.
By adding weight to the rope and not the handle, it requires more effort to use and so you burn even more cortisol, making you start the day feeling awesome.
(Just don’t go too heavy. I have their 2lb rope and when it’s swinging, it feels like it could cut the table in half)
These guys have a free app and social community where you can post and get some human interaction.
With the exercise out of the way, it’s time for the next important task…
Eat, shower and dress smart! (So you can leave the house)
Just because you’re at home and sat down, it doesn’t mean you should eat less often.
Because otherwise we get stuck in a vicious cycle.
We’re sat down so we eat less, which causes less energy, which causes us not to exercise and then we crash and eat our bodyweight in pizza at 9pm.
Eating a good breakfast will give you the fuel for the day.
Likewise, take a shower IMMEDIATELY after and then get dressed like you’re going to kick today’s ass.
It’s all about that structure again. By taking control of small things, it can help us feel more confident for the larger things.
These 3 habits are the most important part of your day.
Because they are a ‘PRIMING’ moment. They help us to differentiate between being at home, and mentally preparing for work.
Top athletes do this to train for difficult performances. They practise under a routine until eventually, all they need is a small thing to get them ready.
A song or a word that gets them ready to perform.
Back when we were in the office, the commute would do this for us. It would help us to leave the home life behind, and then turn on our brains for work.
But because work is now at home, we need to be able to seperate them.
Having a priming moment at the start of the day helps us do that.
Take Your Lunch Break!
Just because it’s easy to sit at our desk and eat, doesn’t mean that we should…
We need downtime from the screen, and we NEED actual rest periods.
That’s the entire reason that lunch breaks even exist.
If we don’t take a break, then our performance drops- and so the afternoons become less effective.
Get away from your screen.
If you can take a walk then do it now, and take the FULL lunch break also!
You might get the urge to come back, but stepping away from that ‘urgent’ project will mean that you can actually get it done today.
‘Bookend’ Your Day
Just like you need a priming moment to signal the start of the work day, it’s incredibly important to have a signal that the day is over.
Back in the office this would mean everyone leaving and the lights shut off.
But at home we don’t have this done for us, and so 6 oclock rolls around and we’re still sat there.
So what can you do?
You can bookend the day by planning a small celebration or treat away from work.
In Germany they have a ‘Feierabend’.
Loosely translated as ‘Party-night’, it’s a daily ritual of shutting down for work and having fun. Maybe seeing a friend, grabbing a beer etc.
You don’t need to drink- you just need an event that signals that work is over.
You can plan your own ‘Feierabend’ at home. Maybe calling a friend, watching a film with family. Anything that gets your away from the desk and helps you to signal that the day is done.
Not only will this help you achieve that work life balance, but it also puts time constraints on your work to be done before clocking off. This stops the task expanding to fit the time that you give it, and will help you stop working!
But most important?…
Don’t Just Passively Rest!
I know 5pm is Netflix and wine time, so make sure to do something active before then.
By getting out and doing any physical activity it can help to relieve stress and apathy (and get you away from any blinking cursors).
Again, even if it’s just a light walk, it can work wonders for your mental health.
So now that we have the physical and mental health aspects in place, let’s walk through how to be more productive with your work…
Step #2: Improve Your Work Habits, Systems + Environment.
Have a separate work location, to where you relax.
It’s hard to get work done, or even get away from work if you’re in the same area that you relax.
Ideally you need to set up a desk in a spare room or corner.
Paint the walls a nice bright white if you can, or get a powerful lightbulb for a desk lamp. (This can help you go from a dimly lit ‘sleepy’ area, to a bright and alert work zone.
And I know not everyone can fit a desk right now.
So if you have to work from the front room at the moment, then make sure that you can’t see your laptop when work ends. Go and put it somewhere else so you’re not tempted to check in, or even be reminded about work.
Get rid of your phone, turn it off and put it in another room.
The apps and software on there are literally designed to make you keep checking them for endorphine hits.
It gets worse though, because the more you check, the more you need to check to get the same ‘hit’.
And so giving in once causes to give in more often, and for longer periods, until your willpower is sapped away.
It’s incredibly hard to focus when we’re exhausted so don’t burn yourself out on social media.
Turn that phone off and put it somewhere else. It’s the only way to not check it all the time.
(You’ll be amazed how much easier your day gets.)
But let’s be honest- your phone isn’t the only distraction.
If your family is at home then be sure to set boundaries during the day. An A4 piece of paper on your door to let them know that you’re are on calls will help them be quieter.
No chatbots on your phone.
I get a lot of push back on this, but its always from newly remote companies.
All work communication should go through your computer during work hours, and not your phone.
We already know that having our phones near us can cause us to start browsing other things, so simply don’t use work chats on there.
You’re at your computer, and all communication can happen there instead.
This is even more important for outside of work hours.
Well we all like to scroll Instragam in the evening, but down time needs to be down time.
All it takes is a Slack notification to go off and suddenly there’s no disconnect. (It doesn’t matter if the message is for someone else because you still see the notification)
So get rid of them.
Work will be there when you get back in the morning, or they can call if it’s important.
It seems obvious when you hear it but being ‘always on’ means that you’re ‘never off’.
Keep Your Focus
Have nothing else on desk other than what you’re working on right now.
Not the whole project either, but the One Next Task that you need to get done.
I know we don’t want ‘cubicles’, but there is a reason they work. The more distractions you have, no matter how small, will start to sap your willpower and focus. This means you get tired much faster and find easy tasks more difficult.
Less screens, less photos, less Funko pops.
Anything that can split your focus, will make it harder to get stuff done.
Likewise cut down on the number of open tabs, as it does the same thing.
Singular focus achieves results, so have what you’re working on now, and nothing else.
Need tabs saved for research?
Simply save your ‘home page’ so that all the tabs will load when you open up your web browser.
Click on Options > Home > ‘Use Current Pages’
That way you can save all those open tabs that you need at some point.
Then you can just close all of them that you are not immediately working on, and load them back up when you click your home page button.
Block Social Media.
So the phone is off and away, but let’s be honest. During the day you’ll still be tempted to open it up on your laptop.
The best thing to do is simply block the feed.
You can grab Twitter and Facebook News Feed blockers on either Chrome of Firefox app stores for free. Check out newsfeed eradicator that replaces your newsfeed with quotes!
Or you can use a tool like FocusMe to block certain sites until a set time of day and more.
Just have them set to be permanently blocked on your work device.
Because if you can check Facebook at 5pm when you clock out, you end up staying at your desk, and as we know- that can cause unhealthy work habits.
Get used to logging in on social on your phone only and after work.
Know when you work best, and play to your strengths.
This is one of the BIGGEST benefits to being remote, and it’s where most businesses stumble.
Mornings are usually the best for creative or ‘deep work’, while afternoons are perfect for ticking off tasks when you’re worn out.
The issue of course is that we usually do the opposite. We tick off as many non important tasks as soon we can for the endorphin high, and then leave the most important task to be faced with low energy and focus.
Email replies, meetings, slack conversations etc.
Know when you get your best work done and then use it to your advantage, so that you work on the most important thing, when you are best prepared to handle it.
As a content writer I always write first thing, and never take calls before 2pm- otherwise I’m wasting my most productive time windows.
Turn off notifications during ‘deep work’ time.
No messages, no emails, no meetings and book it out permanently on your calendar.
Trust me on this, once your employer realises that you can actually do better work when left to get it done, it’s game changing for them.
(And one of the biggest shifts when it comes to managing remote people)
The biggest thing for managers to understand about remote staff, is that they need autonomy and trust to do the work.
It’s not about checking in on them or pulling them away from the work. It’s like being a coach instead.
You want to try and build the environment where they do their best work.
Batch Your Tasks
Want to save even more energy and focus?
Then batch your tasks!
This is not only quicker and more efficient, but it helps with staying focused for longer.
Task switching tires you out quicker.
We’re already under a lot of mental load right now, so it’s magnified when you’re bouncing between tasks.
So just batch them together.
If you need to check and answer emails, then do it once (or twice) per day.
- Check at 2pm and reply
- Check again at 430 if you really have to.
Just don’t check them to start your day, or you’ll be sent off on some new thing, and not be moving forward on what really matters.
Try to get out of the habit of bouncing back and forth in your inbox.
You need to get into the habit of communicating less, but in more depth, especially if you want to start working flexible hours (more on this in a second)
Step away + skip vs scrolling.
If you have a complex idea that you’re trying to solve, go and skip for 2 minutes instead of going on your phone or browsing the web.
Studies have shown that performing basic repetitive tasks can help with lateral thinking.
With 2 minutes of skipping the solution will often come to you.
But by browsing the internet for entertainment, we weaken our willpower and end up down a rabbit hole.
Trust me on this and try it out- you’ll be amazed.
Know What Matters And Then Plan, Track + Reflect
Have ONE Next Task that you need to get done, as the major goal for the day.
This is the most important task that hits your main KPI, and just focus on that.
So you know where to spend your time to be the most effective.
(It’s very easy to see the day as a success if this thing is done.)
Get the main thing done and anything else is an added bonus.
This will help you focus that ‘deep work’ window on the right things. Do this for enough days and you’ll be blown away with just how much you move forward.
The trick of course is to track that effort…
One of the biggest things that has helped me work remote, is to keep a ‘day journal’.
It’s a way to plan my day without any digital distractions or notifications.
- I have my large goal broken down into the One Next Task for the day, and I make a note of anything else that I need reminding of.
- I write down today’s task as the first thing, and then get that done. Nothing is more important than that task.
- Then at the end of the day I fill out tomorrow’s task to be completed, along with what went well today.
Not only does this help me to bookend the day, but it also helps me to let go of anything and not hold it in my mind.
Tomorrow I can simply look at the journal and then get to work.
But as we all know, it takes more than just one person to build a business.
So let’s walk through how to keep in touch with your teammates (Without it stopping you from doing your work)
Improve Your Communication
Upgrade your internet.
If you’re working online, then you need a good internet connection.
Upgrade to Fibre and be sure to grab an Ethernet cable also.
This will allow you to set up a direct connection with your modem for faster speeds when sending files or on calls, and unlike wifi, it won’t be affected by being on a different floor.
(You can grab them at 30 or 50metre lengths from most hardware stores)
When it comes to your internet service provider, shop around for the one with the best fibre optic connection.
(Most companies will be falling over themselves for new customer upgrades right now, so shop around.)
Ideally you want a connection that doesn’t have a cap on download or uploads.
Video communication and audio.
There’s a whole heap of different video platforms out there for you to use, from Zoom to Skype, Microsoft teams and more.
To create a branded video meeting room that’s personalised to you or your company (feel free to get creative), then sign up for a free trial of Simplyvideo here.
Pro tip: Our CVI connection allows you to invite people who use Zoom, Skype, MSTeams or all 3 into your room at the same time.
It’s like having one call to rule them all, and it’s all hosted in your browser with no downloads:
Once you have it, be sure to set it up correctly with good lighting.
You can grab a ring light for cheap off Amazon (Around £15) to stop you getting those dark shadows on your face.
So that’s the visual sorted, but how about the audio?
Well if you have other people at home, or are working from a loud area, then I HIGHLY recommend grabbing some noise cancelling headphones.
PC Gamers love quality and immersion. This means that a pair of gaming headphones are usually cheaper and better than other brands.
You can grab a USB gaming headset that cuts down most noise for around $40-60
Speaking of background noise, be aware of background visuals also!
Most platforms allow for ‘virtual’ backgrounds, but they can sometimes seem like early 90’s CGI.
You don’t have to use them, but if you don’t, then make sure to tidy up around you before any calls!
You don’t want your co-workers or employers seeing your dirty laundry hanging around.
(Pets though are MORE than welcome)
Finally, upgrade your desk and chair.
Remote is here to stay so you might as well be comfortable.
Just because your laptop fits on your lap, doesn’t mean you’ll get as much work done from the sofa.
Get a good desk and chair, save your back and make yourself a dedicated work area.
Video isn’t the only tool that you’ll need.
Chances are you’re using these already, but if you’ve just started working remote with a team, then I recommend basecamp.
It’s $99 a month (£75ish) regardless of the size of your team, which can be HUGE savings, and the platform is fantastic.
These guys literally wrote the book on remote work and that’s why they built the platform years ago, so it has every feature that you need, and none that you don’t.
This is more for managers, but if you have employees working from home on work projects, then I would recommend getting 2-factor security such as one password for your team’s devices.
Well home networks rarely have the same security features that an office does.
This will help protect your assets from any malicious threats.
So now you know the tools for communicating, let’s discuss the elephant in the room…
We need to cut down on non-essential meetings.
Here’s a huge thing that most companies struggle with when going remote.
In a recent survey by Twingate of remote workers, they found that 45% of them had seen a dramatic increase in meetings since working from home, while 40% of them are exhausted from all of them.
Everyone is talking about work, but no one has the time to do any!
I can understand why you might want to keep checking in. Your company hasn’t done this before and you’re worried that your staff won’t work if you don’t interact constantly, but just don’t do this.
We already know that the benefit of remote work is allowing employees time to get stuff done.
To focus on the important tasks and be actually more productive.
Because here’s the kicker:
In a study by Gallup, they found that your employees are more likely to overwork and burn themselves out, from not feeling trusted, than they are to skip work.
People are working more evenings and weekends, out of fear that they are not trusted.
In another survey, 86% of remote workers felt that they needed to prove to their bosses that are working hard and deserve their job- meaning that they are clocking up an extra 28 hours of work PER MONTH!
What would be the cost for your company if it had to rehire and retrain for a role right now?
The manager needs to support and nurture during this time- not be on top of them all day.
So cut down on the constant calls. Make them more concise, and use them to bookend the day- not take over it.
Or Alternatively, You Can Automate Some Of Your Meetings
Here’s a great example by a remote first company.
Because Zapier runs a HUGE team in different time zones, they needed to run stand up calls, but couldn’t get everyone on the call at once.
So instead they did away with them and now have them all automated.
The bot messages the team member with the usual standup questions, they answer, and the manager can check all the replies later and get more info if needed.
This allows people to focus on what they are doing, but still catch up once a week for a group call if needed.
Chat In Tribes
Most remote workers just need space to work on their projects, but that’s not the case for everyone.
If you’re a collaborative team, then you can up the communication as and when needed- just don’t keep all employees to the same volume.
Have a seperate channel and calls just for these people.
This way the collabs teams can up the ‘bandwidth’ and chat more often for their work, but without interfering with other workers.
Best practice for communication on calls.
So let’s talk about how to actually behave during calls.
The key to group chat is all about politeness and empathy to other people’s needs.
Most calls usually have a host and then other guests.
If you’re not the host, have your audio set up to be automatically muted.
Then you can send a message to the host and ‘raise your hand’ in chat when you want to talk.
This helps people not talk over each other, and it also helps people to…
Try to stay focused on the person talking. Don’t be doing other activities while they are talking. Be present.
Be clear and concise.
The more someone understands what you’re talking about, the easier it is to get an answer.
Give context and think through fully what you’re trying to say in advance.
But don’t waffle on!
Be sure to let others talk, and stop talking once you’ve said your part. People have places to be and work to do!
Communication via text.
When it comes to chat, give as much info as possible to prevent back and forth.
Also give other people some leeway. Tone of voice doesn’t always come through in text.
Just like with video, the key to effective text communication is to ask better questions.
You need to ask with enough depth for them to give the best answer for you. Give context and make sure there’s no ambiguity or unclearness.
This is especially true if working in different time zones where you are waiting to hear back.
So there you have it. Our definitive guide to working from home.
If you can follow these steps then you’ll not only be able to communicate with your team, but you’ll feel far less stressed and do some of your best work.