[Originally published to Wordpress at kixpanganiban.com on February 18, 2020]
The opportunity to work remotely saves a lot of time, hassle, and unnecessary expense, especially in the Philippines, where traffic is a nightmare and a lot of people spend half of their workday just getting to and from work. A remote job, on most cases, gives you the absolute freedom of working from wherever you want — which means you can start working whenever you want without needing to be cautious of travel time.
But it’s not always easy: there are pitfalls to avoid if you want to keep yourself productive, and most of them are not immediately obvious.
I landed my first remote job in 2014. Since then, I’ve learned a lot of stuff and can comfortably work from anywhere with little to no loss in productivity, compared to if I were to work from an office environment. Here are 3 things you need to know for your first remote job — which could also be helpful if you’ve already been working remotely for a while:
1. Know your timezones
Often, working remotely means working with people from all over the globe in different timezones. It could be as simple as a two-hour difference if you’re working with people from Australia, or as a bad as a 16-hour difference when working with someone on Pacfic Time.
Because your afternoon — which you think might be a good time for you to get on a call — is somebody else’s midnight, it’s extremely important that you’re aware of everybody’s time of day, when your overlap times are, and when you can schedule a call without pissing somebody off.
For Mac users, a great free tool to track timezones is Clocker. This app lets you set and see current times for any number of timezones. What makes Clocker stand out is its feature which allows you to “look ahead” and see what time it is for another timezone in X minutes or hours. For example, you might want to know if 5PM Manila is a good time to meet for someone in Boston, simply drag the bottom slider until you hit 5PM and you should see that it’s 4AM Eastern. Probably not a good time!
(For non-Mac users, a great cross-platform alternative is World Time Buddy)
2. Map your day in blocks of time
Let’s talk about the first and arguably most important pitfall. The freedom of being on your own time working remotely comes with the great responsibility to manage that time effectively. You could be thinking “Hey, since I’m at home, I could just go online and start working as soon as I have my first coffee, and then wrap up just before I go to bed.” The thought seems great and innocent at first, until you start getting irritated that people are scheduling to get on a call with you before you’ve had your first cup of coffee, or that people are sending you urgent emails right as you’re getting ready for bed.
The solution is simple, and is something that I wish I’d learned at the beginning of my remote career:
- Step one: Group the types of work you do throughout the day. Generally, it falls under three main categories: async communication (emails, chat), sync communication (calls, meetings), and hard skills (coding, working on your art, writing your piece).
- Step two: Separate your day into measureable blocks. Let’s say you have a 9-hour workday: you might want to set a 3-hour block before lunch, another 3-hour block after lunch, and finally, a 3-hour block before you call it a day.
- Step three: Dedicate each time block for a type of work, and stick to doing only that. For example, I like to start my day checking my emails responding to messages teammates have left on Slack while I was off for the night, so I use my early morning block for that purpose. After lunch, I feel like I have enough momentum to manage the sprint, write product specs, and work on some code. Finally, after a short break I can wrap those up and be free to take calls and attend meetings.
Remember, the key is to assign your blocks and sticking to them. It’s also important that you let your teammates know what your blocks look like, so that they’d know not to expect you to take calls early your morning.
Mapping out your day like this and sticking to your time blocks creates a day-to-day routine that make your work days predictable and clear. Of course, there will always be ad-hoc stuff (like crunches, client calls, presentations, or town halls) that might sneak into your blocks every now and then, but it helps to have your time planned out and let yourself hunker down doing things when you want to.
3. Know your tools
One of the areas where people new to working remotely struggle with is navigating the virtual space that their team occupies. It could be tricky when there’s nobody physically present nearby that you can give a quick tap on the shoulder when there’s something you need. Familiarizing yourself with your team’s tools, having tools of your own, and knowing how to use them effectively, are key steps to ensuring you don’t get lost in the haze.
- Communication tools. All remote teams have three important communication tools in their arsenal: asynchronous (Slack, Hipchat, Telegram, email), synchronous (Zoom, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, Skype), and visual (Trello, Miro, Asana, Jira). A great first step is to understand the hierarchy of these tools: which do you use first when you need something? When do you use them? And how do you use them effectively?
Think of your async tool, for example Slack, as your virtual office. There are public rooms where you go to discuss very specific topics, and there are private rooms where you can “pull someone aside” and discuss things in private. Since Slack is your office, understand that every discussion that takes place is ephemeral: that is, they will eventually get lost and you need to note down the important things somewhere.
Since chat is asynchronous and can be sent at any time, it’s important that the messages you send are clear and concise. If you have to get on a call to clarify what you mean with your message, then your message is not effective.
If you are sending something important and would like to leave a “paper trail”, then consider sending an email instead. A good hierarchy to remember that a lot of people prefer is: chat first, email second, call last. Remember the bit about time blocks? It’s important to understand when the best time is to send someone a message and when to call.
- Knowledge base and documentation tools. Although not limited to remote teams, it’s also important to understand where all your documents are stored. Where do you find guides for doing specific things? Where are decisions and specifications stored? Where do I find the written plan or summary for a project?
Most communication tools are ephemeral, so discussions and decisions made are meant to be kept somewhere accessible and indexed. For a lot of companies, this means Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, or maybe a knowledge base like Confluence, or Notion.
- Finally, your accessories and personal tools. It’s great to manage your personal todo-list and knowledge base to keep things that are only relevant to you, but essential to keeping your work streamlined and your day organized.
A great personal todo-list that I’ve been using for some time is Thingsfor Mac and iOS. At $49.99 for Mac and a separate iPhone and iPad apps for $9.99 and $19.99 respectively, it’s pretty pricey, but I’ve found the investment to be worthwhile and essential for organizing my daily deliverables, errands, and thoughts. Anything that needs to be quickly listed down somewhere can be put on Things, and you can go back later at any time to set a deadline and organize into projects. A great alternative which I’ve used in the past is TickTick, which starts for free and is cross-platform.
To keep my notes and maintain my own personable knowledge base, my tool of choice is Notion. It calls itself the missing half of Slack, and rightly so: Notion allows you to make databases of anything, using rich documents and linkable entries. You can use it for something as simple as quick notes, and for something far more complex like a full-blown personal sprint management. Notion is free with limitations on how many files you can upload, but if you have a .edu email address then you can upgrade to the unlimited personal plan at no cost.
Note that I am not sponsored by any of the products I mentioned above. Though I wish I was.
And that wraps up the 3 key things you need to know for your first remote job. Consciously thinking about everything in this as I do my work everyday helps me keep everything in check, and make sure I don’t feel lost without having a teammate physically nearby. Did I miss anything or is there a specific topic you’d like me to cover next time? Go ahead and drop a comment below.
Cover photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash