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How To Solve Remote Work Challenges: Five Tips From ETR’s Fully Distributed Team

Joe Rosenthal,

Head of Midwest Business Development

As the coronavirus spreads, so does the new normal. For those who were around in the days immediately following 9/11, it’s strangely reminiscent. A new terminology took root (“If you see something, say something”), the news cycle became perpetual, and we adopted new practices, like actually being screened at airports – not just sprinting through metal detectors with change jangling. Now it’s “wash your hands,” more news on even more channels, and practicing safe social distancing. 

When it comes to the professional world, the new normal is a shift to remote working. The big tech companies jumped on it quickly, and now it’s been adopted by all manner of workers – from professors to lawyers to accountants. The shift is fast and likely to last for a while. We made the change to a fully remote workplace about two years ago (read more about how we transitioned to a fully distributed team here). We've learned a lot since then about how to work best with each other and with our clients.

Last night we polled our team – who spread from coast to coast, North, South, East, West and all the way to Alaska – so that we could gather these learnings for your benefit (especially if you have only recently been thrust into remote work). After all, one of our core design principles is empathy.

Five Common Remote Work Obstacles & Pro Tips to Overcome Them

As great as the flexibility and lack of a commute are, there are obstacles. Right off the bat, it’s good to know they are there and to prepare for how to react. Cutting to the chase here’s some of what you might encounter and some tips for success:

Challenge 1: Communication Breakdown

There are two sides to this coin: the human and the technical. On the tech side, whether it’s other team members or clients, you’re going to run into poor internet connections. Expect important calls to break apart and conversations to drop at critical moments. On the human side, well, basic human communication is different without the benefits of true group interaction, physical location, 3 dimensions, and 5 senses.

Solution: Mind Your Environment & Use Good Tools

Have the right set up from the get-go. If your home internet connection is weak, upgrade it and/or get signal boosters. Test it frequently, especially in your first week. Consider hard-wiring your machine rather than using wi-fi. Be mindful of bandwidth hogs like kids' gaming. If you’re on a video call and your signal gets choppy, turn off video to conserve bandwidth. Also, be sure the screen view you are sharing is as large as possible since the person on the other side could be on a mobile device or small laptop display. On the non-technical side, be ready to gracefully re-emerge into a call – apologize and ask for a recap when the time is right. You want to be sure you didn’t miss anything important. Always err on the side of over-communication. Don’t be afraid to explain and confirm. Be respectful in remote interactions. Tone is hard to decipher online. Assume statements are made in good faith and clarify whenever possible.

Tools can also help facilitate communication, here's what we’ve adopted and why:

  • Slack: Everyday communication and file sharing happen here. Slack’s super intuitive, fast, and has great search functionality for past and current threads. In fact, much of this article came to life inside Slack. Slack is also a big part of our culture as you can have channels for anything. We have them for Board Games, Secret Santa, and a Star Wars channel.
  • Asana: Project management happens here. Start to finish. Asana has awesome timelines, calendars, and resourcing features. It’s a killer application for breaking everything down into tasks and commenting on any aspect of a project. (For us: estimates, wireframes, page designs, etc.)
  • Zoom: We live on Zoom. It’s so simple to use and it WORKS! Video conferencing has made giant strides in the last couple years and in our opinion, it’s the linchpin in making remote work a success. Our experience after testing several options is that Zoom is superior to the other obvious targets of Google Hangouts, WebEx, Skype, and GoToMeeting. Check out the Breakout Rooms feature, which allows you to start with a large group meeting and then break into video rooms of smaller groups on the fly. We use this feature often. Also, note that you can record meetings on Zoom. This is super handy and we often record meetings so we can share it with folks who couldn’t attend it realtime and also to reference in the future. And the integration with Google Calendar is super slick.
  • Miro Board (formerly Real Time Board) is a digital whiteboard that you can share and contribute to across virtual teams. Multiple people can be working on the same document at the same time, adding sticky notes, text comments, images, or links. If you're used to mapping out ideas or flows on a giant wall using sticky notes, Miro Board is the perfect solution if you suddenly find yourself working remote.
  • Google / Google Drive: If Asana, Slack, and Zoom are the arms and legs of our daily communications, Google is the trunk and brain. It’s our mail platform, how we store and send presentations and large files, and our calendar program (which is integrated with Zoom as noted above).
  • Croissant: Croissant fascinates people. With the click of a button, you can locate a nearby coworking location and book space using our subscription service. Sometimes having an outside location (for that big presentation, when traveling, or just a change of scenery) is key. Croissant definitely comes through in the clutch.
  • Mobile Hotspot: If everything you do requires a connection, you’re gonna need one of these.
  • Good Mic and Noise-Canceling Headphones: You’re a narrowcaster now. You want to sound great and hear well, so get the goods when it comes to mics and headphones.
  • Wanna Level Up With More Pro Tips? Check our YouTube video on video conferencing tips, hidden Zoom features, mic and lighting tips, best practices and more!

Challenge 2: Inspiration Can Be Harder to Find

When you’re not seeing as many new things in your physical environment (for example, not traveling to the “big city” every day), it can be more difficult to find a creative spark. And sharing of ideas can be harder when there are geographic barriers between teammates.

Solution: Get Creative

One of the things we do at ETR is reserve some Slack Channels just for fun – places to blow off steam, share memes, jokes, and cool work. We also host social get-togethers on Zoom. Colleagues give tours of their hometown or a meaningful place using Google Maps or Google Earth. We share playlists, play games, and create supercuts of our favorite music videos and then watch them at the same time while we have lunch. Impromptu video calls (if the schedule coast is clear) can be effective for brainstorming.

Challenge 3: Keeping Culture Alive

Company culture can be harder to create and maintain in a remote environment. Without the water cooler, coffee bar, and neighborhood haunts around, it can be challenging to foster culture.

Solution: Same Culture, Different Channel

First, see “Get Creative” above. The same techniques work wonders. It also makes sense to be sure your company culture is documented and shared. For example, oft-accessed content like our design toolkit and seminars can be routinely accessed by any member of our team. We also wrote up these principles and distributed them and we refer to them often.

“Be respectful in remote and in-person interactions alike. Our team is remote most of the time. While many of us live in or around New York City and can meet up in person easily, other equally important team members live far away. Adopt habits that are inclusive and productive for team members wherever they are: make liberal use of video conferences, document meetings, and decisions thoroughly, record meetings when appropriate, be responsive, articulate, and concise in all communications and project management tools (i.e., email, Slack, Asana). Be mindful of time zones when scheduling events. Understand meetings are expensive and time-consuming. Set meeting expectations clearly by writing up a thoughtful agenda, assigning topic leads and a timekeeper at the time of scheduling. During meetings, be mindful of and balance the length of the meeting against the material to be covered and getting everyone’s input. Only invite people that truly need to be in the meeting. Don’t become an organization who calls meetings to set up meetings about meetings that need to be scheduled.”

It’s good to know what you stand for and then ensure those same ideals are present in the remote world, just like they are between four walls.

Challenge 4: Isolation Can Have an Impact

Face it, there’s less face time. You’re not going to meet at the aforementioned coffee bar, hallway, or mid-day workout spot. When you’re not on an actual project with someone, it can be easy to fall out of touch entirely.

Solution: Frequent Check-Ins and More Family/Friend Time

Check-in with your co-workers, not just when you’re on a scheduled call or project. Invite them to video calls just to catch-up. You can also use your former commute time for newfound family time and activities with your friends. And speaking of family time, we are in an unprecedented moment where many people are finding themselves not just working from home, but working from home with spouses/significant others and kids schooling at home. Setting up concrete schedules (and sharing them) and separate work areas clearly help. Ask everyone to assume you are on an important call at all times. You can also hang a sign on your door to indicate when working. Consider alternating child care in increments during the day. To help with the kids, stock up on educational apps and set up art stations and safe play areas around the home.

Challenge 5: Lack of Movement

If you work at an office, you’re going to move. You have a commute. You shuttle between conference rooms all day, you run down long hallways, collect friends and grab lunches. That’s not the case in a remote world.

Solution: Make Yourself Move

Go for a walk. (I read an article years ago about a remote worker who got up, got dressed, walked around the block, and then sat down at his desk in his house. Commuter routines die hard; leverage them!) We recently hosted an online workout session that was awesome and reset everyone for a more productive and less stressful afternoon.

Bonus Tip: Don’t Be Too Serious

Last but not least, you have to know the unexpected is going to happen. It’s important to laugh along. Here are some of our most laugh-worthy remote work moments from the last couple of years:

“I had an important meeting and the twins started to cry like crazy.”

“Someone at another company once joined a Zoom meeting without a shirt on and had no idea we could see him.”

“I had a video call with people in New York and Singapore, and I was in Bonaire. No one new where the other was, nor cared.”

Talking Into the Air
"I continued to give a presentation to no one after getting disconnected.”

Digital Fashion
“Using Snapchat filters instead of makeup.”

Stolen Gear
“I stepped away from my desk and my son commandeered my laptop. My daughter liked my business cards so much she took them and they never reappeared.”

To sum it up, if you’re new to remote working it’s going to be an adjustment. But despite initial drawbacks, once you get into the swing of it, we’ve found that remote working can have tremendous benefits in terms of increased productivity, better work-life balance, and it can be a lot of fun and even inspiring.

In the case of the coronavirus, working from home could also have profoundly positive implications for public health.

So, if you’re new to remote working, welcome to the club. If you want to hear more about our remote work experience and insights, feel free to reach out.

Most of all, stay safe.

ExpandTheRoom is a full-service design and development agency formerly based in New York City. We went remote in March 2018 and haven’t looked back since.

Joe Rosenthal

Head of Midwest Business Development