I joined ProductPlan in the summer of 2019, excited to sink my teeth into creating product management content. However, joining the team came with one small twist — Thanksgiving of that year my journey would take me to South East Asia for four months where I would work remotely from the rest of my core team in Santa Barbara, CA.
At first, it was an opportunity that was important for me to experience personally. In the end, it was a great remote learning experience for me professionally. It was the remote boot camp to end all boot camps. I’ve carried many of those learnings into the remote work I still do to this day.
If you’re new to working remotely and are feeling unsure about it, then read on for some of the lessons I learned about achieving remote success.
My 9 Lessons Learned for Remote Success from Across Time Zones
1. Practice remotional intelligence.
First, the most important remote skill or habit I learned to practice is what I am defining as, “remotional intelligence.” To me, remotional intelligence is emotional intelligence (the capacity to be aware of and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships empathetically), particularly when working remotely.
Turn your kindness and understanding knob up about 15% when you’re remote. It might feel odd, but the space for miscommunication and misunderstanding can compound. Usually, there’s not one person to blame.
So, lean in towards friendliness when using your communication tool of choice. And work extra hard to tap into your generous spirit.
Also, apply that remotional intelligence to yourself. Remote work can bubble up unexpected sensitivities. It surprised me when I felt shameful for asking questions in meetings. I felt like it was on me for not knowing the answer. Or it was my fault for not being there when they discussed the answer to the question.
I sometimes felt left out when I would wake up and see that conversations or decisions had moved leaps and bounds. It can be an isolating feeling.
With time and practice, I became better at noticing those feelings creeping up and found ways to engage myself and my energy elsewhere. You will too.
2. Set up guidelines, tech, and communication expectations with your team.
The sooner your team aligns around the guidelines and expectations of your remote work, the better. That means you’ve all agreed on what hours you can expect from one another. For instance, I overlapped in the morning for a few hours every day with my team. It was a 4:30 am (a small sacrifice for a once in a lifetime experience) wake up call. We thought it was important that there were a few hours where the entire team was online or on calls communicating live.
Before I left, as a team, we reviewed the best ways to work together on collaborative projects and Slack communication best practices. For instance, 👀 meant they saw your Slack message and will respond to you in a bit.
With my boss, we added more weekly 1:1s until we felt comfortable with the change before switching back to bi-weekly 1:1s. Something to note is remote 1:1s tend to be longer than any I had while I was an in-office employee. Before leaving, we created a running Google Doc that I would add topics to throughout the weeks to address during our meeting.
Another tool I use is Loom. If a teammate requests feedback from me, I record myself and my screen to save time typing long, convoluted paragraphs. Plus, that enables my team members to see what I’m referring to directly and takes the guesswork out.
On that note, as a warning, guesswork can be a huge time-suck with remote work. Sometimes the messages my team sent on Slack were vague or confusing and I’d find myself approaching it like trying to decipher code. Be upfront with what confused you and state how you interpreted the message in your response back.
3. Prep before meetings.
While remote, you may be noticing meetings have piled onto your calendar. I am a big believer in never going into a meeting cold. Go in with a documented agenda, questions, and especially with an understanding of the purpose and ideal outcome of the meeting.
Time is precious, especially when the lines from work and home are blurred. If the meeting owner doesn’t set the meeting up to be as effective as possible, then maybe the meeting can be better executed over email.
If they have taken the time to prep and explain the purpose, then you better come to the meeting prepared!
While I was abroad, we moved all meetings to overlap with my time difference. That meant meetings were the first thing on my calendar at 5 am and the last thing on my co-workers’ schedules at the end of the day. When I logged on, we were in slightly different headspaces and quickly learned I don’t effectively think on my feet at 5 am.
Since there was no way I was going to get up any earlier than I needed to, I started making a habit of ending my day by looking at my calendar for the next day and prepping for those future meetings. I felt much more equipped and in control.
4. Strategy doesn’t instinctually come with the territory.
During the first couple of months transitioning to remote work, I noticed I worked too much in reactive mode. I was working on releasing our Product Managers in 2020 report, the Anatomy of a Product Launch, our Finding Product Market-Fit book, the Feature-Less Roadmap book, and Mastering a Day in a Product Manager’s Life.
Shameless plug: I’m very proud of all of these books. Read them. They’re a gold mine of learnings!
I prioritized those projects over any strategic research and development. Before leaving for my travels, I outlined a lot of deadlines to keep myself accountable. Therefore, I didn’t want to miss them for anything, driven by the fear that my team might be wondering what I was up to if not delivering on my communicated plans.
Of course, no one in the slightest degree communicated these concerns to me. But I put a lot of pressure on myself to have a tangible output that validated how much I was working. It’s remarkable how much you can trust your inner dialogue over actual proof.
I ended up naturally allotting more of my time than expected to calls, meetings, documentation, reading everything on Slack to keep up with all that I was missing while I was offline.
It took a few months to settle into how I can reprioritize my work so that I am not always playing reactive tennis batting back the different initiatives that land in my court.
If you’re feeling like you’re always reacting, then here’s one change you can make. Add calendar events that block out “me” time on the calendar. Those blocks of time are going to be crucial in helping your work and team in the long-term.
With the time on my calendar, strategy demanded that I don’t ignore and deprioritize it for more “quick-wins.” It validates the legitimacy of doing work that doesn’t always have an output.
5. Check out your workspace over the weekend.
I moved to a different country every month, which meant exposure to a variety of remote work hubs. Before starting at a new spot, I liked to walk there from my apartment and assess the route and lunch options. I was trying to make this my new normal quickly.
When I arrived at the building, I’d walk right past the coffee and Happy Hour beer and check out the outlet situation (before eventually circling back to those tasty beverage perks). It grinds my gears when I’m in the work groove, my battery flashes red at 5%, and I look up and see all the seats near outlets are gone.
Then, I’d sit down and test out their chairs to scope out which ones have the best support.
“Comfort is the journey to enlightenment and outcomes.” – Said me after 2-weeks of sitting on the worst chairs for extended lengths of time.
Even now, as I work remotely from home in Santa Barbara, CA, my seating situation is crucial for how my neck and back feel at the end of the day, and my mental focus.
If you can mimic (or better yet use the desk, monitor, and chair from your office) the in-office set-up, you’ll feel more settled.
6. Invest in quality WiFi.
Then invest in backup WiFi. The times when you’re all together with your team become a lot more sacred when you work remote. Confidence in the connection of your internet will give you confidence in connecting with your colleagues on video chats. Plus, even though we joke about wearing your PJs to meetings, there’s a lot more weight in professionalism in meetings as a remote team member. If you have to be “on” at all, then it should be during those calls with your team. Sometimes at the end of a long day of calls, I feel wiped like I’ve delivered a performance. There’s a lot of gesticular communication on video chats, so the quality must be keeping up.
I was a ball of nerves every time we worked from somewhere where I felt unsure about the WiFi quality for video streaming. This is a good backup WiFi option, and I wish I had it from the start of my remote work journey.
7. Invest in over-the-ear headphones.
Don’t tell my co-workers, but I’m not usually even listening to music when I wear my over-the-ear headphones. It’s more of a subliminal focus mechanism, like putting on armor or gearing up to get my head in the game. They help to dull the noise around me.
Headphones not only block out the noise, but I particularly like to use my headphones as a non-verbal social cue that I don’t want to engage or talk. With regular earbuds from behind, how will people know you’re in the zone? This tip also applies to block out chaotic family members at home or even for those moments on Friday when everyone is feeling chattier at work.
The moment I want to wrap up communication and get back to work, I just slowly start to lift my headphones, smile, nod, and turn my head back to my screen. It’s very useful.
8. Befriend the Pomodoro technique.
I was writing and editing quite a few books during that time, which require real focus and no distractions. The Pomodoro technique became my best friend.
Essentially you’re working solely on one initiative in your queue for twenty minutes straight (no email, no LinkedIn, no Slack especially), and then you give yourself a five-minute break. During those five minutes, I would stretch or get some water before the next 20 minutes set begins.
At the end of the 20-minutes, a buzzer sounds, and you’ll surprise yourself with the amount of work you completed when you stop looking for distractions.
If you just asked yourself, “Maybe this blog is the by-product of the Pomodoro technique?” you’d be right.
Bonus focus tip: Close your tabs. I identify as a “many tabs always open” kind of person. I began to notice it intensified when I transitioned to being remote.
I’m learning that the implication of that many tabs is that the current task at hand isn’t getting my 100%.
Instead, it’s getting my 100% minus every tab or view that’s open and bubbling in the back of my mind.
Close those tabs. You already decided you were going to prioritize the time to work on one particular project. Give it a fair shot.
9. Develop a routine.
Remote work can be funky without the purpose of a routine. For instance, if I didn’t stick to my morning routine of waking up at least 30 mins before doing calls at 5 am, I felt it. My brain was still in dreamland. If I didn’t get up and get tea or coffee around 1:30, I felt it. My legs became very antsy, and I was restless. If I didn’t stick with my afternoon routine of getting up and going for a walk, I felt it. My energy dwindled very quickly by the end of the day.
Routines will keep you sane and are great for your mental health.
I feel confident that as time goes on, remote work will improve as we each individually develop better remote work skills. Some of these tips might sound therapeutic (both mental and retail). However, I have found that this is what works for me.
Let me know if there’s anything big or a small hack that you’re doing to make your remote work and life a little better in the comments below.