12 Lessons We Learned About Remote Work

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost been a year since the world has gone into lockdown. That’s a long time.

In that year, we’ve been forced to adapt to new circumstances and ways of working. I’d love to say it was all sunshine and roses, but it wasn’t. It was a continuous trial and error process — figuring out what worked for us and what didn’t. The irony of a digital studio undergoing its own “digital transformation” wasn’t lost on us.

But much like we tell our partners, the path to success is iterative — put something out there, learn from it, grow. And after almost a year of working completely remote, we’ve certainly learned our lessons. And no, we’re not going to talk about the best platforms to use. Everyone has figured that out. We’re talking about lessons that go beyond typical business operations and toward collaborative greatness. As we barrel forward into this new year, here are 12 lessons we learned from working remote that can help us all be more prepared for the future.

Lessons in wellness

Employee wellness resurfaced as a "new" challenge when companies started working remotely. The impact social isolation could have on people was a new aspect of health that needed to be considered. We prioritized wellness for our employees early (we talk more about that here). Here are the lessons we're taking with us into the new year.

Work-Life Balance Takes Work

The appeal of working from home comes with the misleading assumption that WFH provides a better work-life balance by providing a deeper level of autonomy to employees. Yes, there is truth to that. But for many who were thrust into working remotely full time (for the first time), WFH created a work-life balance degradation.

Love them or hate them, traditional offices provide not only a physical but mental space for employees to get their work done. They separated our private lives from our work lives, which allowed us to better manage the two halves. But when your home becomes your office, the lines blur. Work responsibilities began to blend into our personal ones. The amount of time we spent "at work" became harder to discern. The start of the day and the end of the day became much more fluid and it was easy to find ourselves working well into the evening.

All this to say, work-life balance takes work. It requires businesses to set reasonable expectations and working hours for their employees. And it requires individuals to set their own boundaries and separate themselves mentally (and physically) from their workdays. 

Zoom Fatigue is Real

In the early months of lockdown, there was a novelty to video calls. It was a lifeline for us as we were unable to see colleagues, friends and family. And there was something fun about organizing happy hours, game nights and video calls. Just as quickly as it swept in, it also became quickly apparent that it was exhausting. Zoom fatigue is real.

"Zoom fatigue" describes the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual communication platforms. While video technology was helpful and necessary, it introduced new stress into our lives that we weren't accustomed to.

There are many articles out there that provide tips on how to reduce zoom fatigue. I'm not going to get into that here. But what's worth noting is that it's essential to be mindful of overusing technology (ironic coming from a tech company). Zoom fatigue taught us that while we may be in the comfort of our homes, it's still possible to get burnt out. And while we want to stay connected, it's easy to overdo it.

TL;DR It's not necessary to schedule calls for everything. If it could have been an email before the pandemic, it can stay an email now. And for the times video calls are needed, have a plan and a purpose to keep everyone focused and efficient.

Trust. Trust. Trust.

Of all the initiatives we've implemented since going remote, the key factor we've discovered in creating a healthy work environment is trust. Sounds like something we should all already know. But as we've experienced, the desire to stay connected can often lead to overcompensation.

Trust is more important now than ever. 

That takes work and fostering the right type of work culture. But developing trust between employees and managers has exponential benefits in creating a healthy and prosperous work environment. Managers need to trust in their staff to get the work done sight unseen. Employees need trust in their leadership and their ability to set the team up for success. We've shifted from an open work environment to one where everyone has to make decisions behind closed doors. All of this requires a deep level of trust between everyone in an organization.

Lessons in culture

Preserve Your Work Culture

We invested a lot of time in developing our company culture, particularly within our office space. But what does a digital company culture look like?  Truthfully, we're still figuring that out. But the need for it even in a digital space is there.

You may not see your team every day or be able to engage in banter in the lunchroom. Hell, you may even be happy that you no longer have to engage in small talk. But there's no denying the human need to feel connected, especially now when we have no option but to be apart. 

What worked for us was creating the space and the opportunities for these interactions to happen. We made more slack channels for casual interactions. We used social media as another medium to get employees excited and engaged. We employed (and still do) the now infamous Zoom Happy Hours but with our own twist on them to keep spirits running high. 

It's easy to adapt the mantra of out of sight out of mind. But finding ways to bring your team together is crucial to success. 

Build Community Through Communication

You've heard it before and I'm going to repeat it – communication is key. This one is pretty obvious, and I'm not going to tell you all things you already know about why communication is essential. I will say that when it comes to fostering strong company culture, it's not just about communication but discussion.

The manager in me likes having things figured out before they get shared with the team. I want to know that I've thought everything through before I make anyone on the team engage in something. But similar to product design, that means I'm making a lot of assumptions about what's important to people. 

Great company culture is more impactful when it's discussed. It builds a stronger sense of trust (Hey, we just talked about that!) and community when everyone gets to contribute and have a say.

Embrace The Change

Building a sense of culture may have been more comfortable in an office setting. Still, the shared social isolation we are all experiencing has opened people to connect in different and more genuine ways. We're literally bringing each other into our own homes every time we have a video call. We get glimpses of peoples' personal lives that we otherwise might not have seen before. 

This unique opportunity opens up the doors for more authentic dialogue. 

This is a great time to have and foster open conversations with one another. Take the time to get to know each other and learn more about each other's personal experiences. This continued dialogue will help unify your team and create stronger connections. 

Lessons in productivity

Remote work is more productive

As someone accustomed to being in an office, whenever I heard someone was taking a WFH day, a part of me always thought they were playing hooky. Maybe that's because that's how I used my WFH days (if anyone from HR is reading this, I'm just kidding). But in truth, my experience with work from home has always been one of being less productive. I never had the right setup or space for it. I was constantly distracted by the things in my home. My ability to focus would be far and few between. 

We've come to find that remote work can actually be just as productive, if not more. The myth that it's unproductive or impossible for a company to transition to remote work has been disproved by the pandemic. Research indicates that a substantial 81% of employees now believe they can effectively perform their jobs from home!

What does that mean for the future? Who's to say. Companies like Twitter embraced this early and have allowed employees to work remotely indefinitely. No matter where you stand, it's clear that our old ways of working are not the only ways of working. Remote work may actually be more efficient than your traditional office, and we'll likely see this reflected in years to come.

Set boundaries (but be flexible) 😅

Sounds like two contradicting ideas but hear me out. Just as with everything creating a great work environment is all about balance. The working model of a 9 to 5 was on its way out well before the pandemic hit. PGi's Digital Communications Early Adopter Study, released before the pandemic, found people already wanted the freedom to work remotely.

The idea that everyone operates their best between the same set hours is an outdated mental model. Some people get their best work done first thing in the morning, while others may need a few cups of coffee first (🙋‍♂️🙋‍♂️🙋‍♂️). Perhaps it's time to rethink schedules. 

I'm not suggesting a free-for-all. Some boundaries need to be set. Establish core working hours where team members can answer questions, join meetings, collaborate and work together. Be clear about deliverables and deadlines while also being flexible with the individual processes to get there. Does it truly matter if someone is completing their work in the morning or late at night? As long as the work is getting done well and on time is what should matter.

Say No to Notifications

We rely on technology to keep us connected with our world. That means more apps and platforms and products to check. Unfortunately, a by-product of that is the constant distraction of notifications. All of those little "dings" are time wasters, crippling productivity. Kelly Stocker, a productivity coach, says those quick glances to check the dings actually devour hours. Take time to turn off notifications for things that aren't 100% necessary in your workday. Your work process and ability to focus will improve significantly. 

The Demise of the “Office”

It's clear, for better or worse, that remote work is here to stay. Various studies reveal that between 15-28% of workers say they will work from home in some capacity after the pandemic. 

Business attitudes toward remote work have changed now that we see it's possible to operate in this type of work environment. And that positive attitude will only increase as we continue to work remotely and gain more experience and confidence in its effectiveness. 

Traditional office spaces won't go away. But I believe we'll see them get smaller as businesses embrace remote work and shift their operations to accommodate fewer in-office employees. Office space will be used more for team meetings and collaboration instead of being the primary place where work gets done.

Video etiquette

With the widespread use of video conferencing to connect, video etiquette is something that we'll see come up more often. 

What are the best practices for meeting with your boss or taking an interview? Is the dog barking in the background cute or distracting? Is it okay to use the bathroom while I'm on a call? (The answer is no)

At the start of the pandemic, everyone was much more lenient toward video calls. We were experiencing this shared crisis, and bad lighting or a messy background was forgivable. But as we transition toward long-term remote work, it will be interesting to see what gets set as the standard etiquette for video conferencing.

Work Isn’t What We Think It Is

An interesting thing that being remote has revealed is that "work" isn't what we think it is. Going to work involves a level of showmanship that we're acutely aware of. What do I wear for the day? Does my hair look okay? Will people see what time I walk in or what time I leave? Do I really have to ask Chad about his weekend?

We subconsciously keep in mind many other factors that are part of this preconceived notion of what "work" means. And while I miss the human interaction of being with a team, it's clear that traditional office spaces had the potential to add more unnecessary stress on an individual. As much as anyone may try, there will always be office politics in the office.

Being remote has diminished this notion of office politics from the workday. A paradigm shift has occurred. What being remote has shown is that what's truly important at the end of the day is the work and that a lot of the other fluff was just that – fluff.

The pandemic has completely changed the landscape of business. And while we're longing for the day we can get the team back together, remote work will remain in our future. As we move forward into 2021, we do so with more insight and much more prepared. And we only hope our lessons can become yours too.

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