How to be an effective, collaborative remote worker

By Don Jones

The first time I started working from home was an eye-opener. I felt kind of isolated and adrift. A lot of my direction at work came from the “drive-by” meetings that happen in corridors and the break room, and without that, I didn’t always know what I should be doing or thinking. I also sometimes had difficulty getting motivated — I mean, there’s a TV and an Xbox right there!

Now, with almost 20 years of remote work under my belt, I feel like I’ve gotten better about dealing with the isolation (and avoiding temptation) so I can work effectively. Here are some principles that have helped me survive and thrive as a remote worker.

1. Set boundaries

Working from home may sound great to some people, like a 24/7 semi-vacation with a refrigerator always within arm’s reach. In practice? Not so much — at least not if you want to get any work done at all. When you work from home, you are literally sleeping at the office, so it’s important from the onset to set some boundaries.

This starts with having a dedicated working space. In that space, you’re at work; outside it, you’re at home. This creates structure in your mind, but also sets expectations so your partner, kids and even the dog understand when you’re “at work,” too.

Don’t have a dedicated space? Get creative! I have a friend who needed to spend a month working from home but didn’t have an extra room for a home office, so she took a corner of their dining table and used blue painter’s tape to outline a bit of the table and the surrounding floor. Her rule for her kids was, “When mom is in the box, she’s at work.” 

2. Over-communicate, then communicate some more

I’m fortunate to work for a company that’s spread across the globe, so we tend to be Slack-first in communicating with each other already. It doesn’t function quite the same as those drive-by break room “meetings,” but it’s close. People talk a lot about apps like Slack as a distraction or time-waster, but when you have a large portion of your workforce working remotely, getting in the habit of using Slack for casual communication is a pro, not a con. We use it in lieu of email for most internal conversations, because it “feels” more like regular office chatter, and less formal. 

While we do schedule plenty of video meetings that include remote people, we’re also just as likely to ping someone in Slack and say, “Hey, got a sec to talk?” and then use Zoom or Slack’s built-in video chat to hash something out. It’s akin to walking up to someone’s desk in an office and saying, “Hey, can we grab a room and chat for a minute?” 

You should also over-communicate if you’re going to be in a long planning meeting for most of the day, taking a lunch break at an irregular time, or are going to be starting work later than normal on a certain day. People can’t physically see you working, so don’t assume they know if you’re going to be offline or heads down for a bit — just tell them. 

And Slack doesn’t have to be all work talk! Think about all of the side conversations you have at the office with coworkers throughout the day about food, new favorite shows, sports and true crime podcasts. They may seem trivial, but they can improve morale and build common ground with coworkers. If you’re working from home and just let those side conversations die, remote work can feel even more isolating than it already is.

3. Focus and learn

One of the biggest advantages working from home gives you that you can’t get from the office is peace and quiet. If we’re being honest, a lot of time (and focus) in the office is burned on distracting snack breaks, loud desk neighbors and all the this-could-have-been-an-email meetings that pop up throughout the day. But at home, you can reclaim some of that time and devote it to learning. 

For example, when I take a break, I like to schedule an hour a day to watch conference session recordings or skill up on a training platform, which helps me keep up with what’s happening in my field. Or I’ll sit down and write an article (like this one) to share my experience and expertise with others, knowing I’m less likely to be pulled out of a “writing groove” than I would at the office. 

When you find yourself getting drawn into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or whatever your “poison” is, stop yourself and remind yourself that you own your time as a remote worker. Make a list of productive learning you could spend time on instead, and if you’re not plugging away on a project, start working through that list.

4. Stay engaged

As an always-remote employee, I sometimes feel like I don’t know much about what else is going on in the company. For example, I’m a big DevOps guy, but I realized that I don’t even know what toolchains my company’s own DevOps team uses. So I made the effort to pose the question to other employees and got responses back that helped me gain institutional knowledge. (I found Pluralsight Q&A to be a great tool for facilitating this, but you can even do it in Slack and then pin the thread so others can use the info later.)

Like using Slack to collaborate, engaging with your coworkers and the business as a whole by asking questions is something you may have to force yourself to do at first — but once it becomes a habit, you can evangelize it across the company. If everyone is on the same page, the “community” of your company won’t really suffer regardless how many people are working remote.

Developing your remote "muscle"

These days, I truly enjoy being a remote worker, and I think most companies should make an effort to let as many people as possible work remotely, at least on occasion. 

Just like a strong disaster recovery plan, a good remote-working plan coupled with a remote-accessible culture can be a critical competitive advantage for a business. Unexpectedly lose power at the office? Go remote. Snowed in? Go remote. There are a lot of common, innocuous situations where remote-working capabilities can save the day, or at least significantly reduce negative impact.

And even if you never end up working remote, having the “muscle” to be able to do it effectively in a pickle is never a bad thing.

About the author

Don Jones' broad IT experience comes from 20 years in the business, with a strong focus on Microsoft server technologies. He's the author of more than 45 technology books, including titles on administration and software development, and writes monthly columns for the industry's leading periodicals. He's an in-demand speaker at technical conferences and symposia worldwide, and is widely recognized as one of the top trainers in the Microsoft sector.