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A Quick BNR Guide to Remote Working

Some tips, tricks, and best practices from the Nerds

Working remotely is woven into the fabric of our daily lives at Big Nerd Ranch. With over half of our staff being outside of the Atlanta area, and with our Atlanta staff not always in the office, successful remote work is something we do. If you find yourself suddenly having to work remote, we know it can bring challenges and adjustments. Here’s a list of tips, tricks, and best practices that we’ve found to help us be successful in remote work.

Be adaptable! 

Issues pop up from time to time, or things just don’t work the way we want them to. 

Software and Technology to support remote work

  • Slack is excellent
    • Provides text chat
    • But there’s also voice and video calls, which are useful for quick calls without as much overhead as other call/video solutions (since you’re probably in Slack anyways).
    • There is screensharing. You can draw on each other’s screens, but Slack no longer supports shared control. So this can be useful for a quick share, but for more involved sessions you may need a different tool with better support for collaboration, such as Zoom.
  • Video Conferencing solution, like Zoom
    • A primary way of doing video calls
    • You can put the whole room on the meeting.

Key Considerations

  • Each medium (Slack, video, email, phone, etc.) has strengths and weaknesses.
    • Some are more ephemeral, some more long-lasting.
    • Sometimes you need to talk, sometimes you need to document.
    • Some are richer (seeing facial expressions, vocal inflection, and speed of discussion). 
    • Some are more convenient.
  • Work to pick the best medium for the need, and don’t be afraid to change mediums if needed (e.g. move from a Slack chat to a voice call). Strive to maximize communication effectiveness.

Etiquette and Helpful Hints

  • Go out of your way to be social.
    • Working remote lacks the in-person interactions of an office (e.g. bumping into people and chatting at the watercooler).
      • You have to – and should – make explicit efforts to interact with your co-workers, even in a fun and purely social way.
    • Just turning on your camera during meetings (especially larger group meetings) can help.
      • Allows others to see YOU.
  • Be mindful of work blurring into personal life.
    • Working at home can blur the lines between when work and personal life start and end.
      • It’s important to have distinction between the two; how much is a personal decision.
    • If possible, have physical differences between workspace and personal space, such as a dedicated room, other than the bedroom (bedrooms are very personal).
    • It is proper to have an explicit start and end of your day, even if it’s not separated by a distinct event such as commuting.
    • It’s OK to not be “in work mode” all the time, especially when it’s so easy to open the laptop and start working. Build discipline to stay “signed out” of work; to give proper attention to personal life (family, friends, etc.).
  • Have a good workspace and habits.
    • Be comfortable: good chair, good desk, good lighting, warm/cool.
    • Be well-groomed. We might joke about “pants optional”, but getting up every day and following routine to get ready for the day (e.g. hygiene, skin care, clothing) is a hallmark of successful remote work.
    • When you eat, it’s OK to eat elsewhere from the laptop.
    • Take breaks, enjoy the comforts of home, but don’t get too comfortable – the workday still needs to be productive.
  • Strive for the richest medium, that is appropriate.
    • Video is great, since we can see faces, hear voices. It helps to improve communication and understanding. 
    • Plus, it’s personal and human.
      • Being able to SEE and HEAR people is warming. It helps you get to know people better.
      • Encourage others on the meeting to turn on their cameras.
    • “Appropriate”. Maybe it’s a group meeting?
      • Slack video might be fine for a standup or a quick call.
      • A more formal video solution, especially one with better support for multiple people and collaboration tools, might be more appropriate for longer, more collaborative meetings
  • Be aware of the camera
    • We can see your eyes. This means we can see when you’re not paying attention to us (or paying attention to something else).
    • We see what’s behind you. Be aware of what’s on camera.
    • Be mindful of camera angles.
      • What is shown, or not shown.
      • Is there sun? Glare? Are you back-lit? Make sure others can see you well.
      • Do your best to “talk to the camera” when talking.
        • People like to be looked in the eye, so talk into the camera
    • If you are using your laptop camera, keep your laptop on a stable surface (desk/table). If the laptop is in your lap or on your legs, as you move around the camera is going to move and be rather disorienting and “sea-sickness” for folks.
  • Use the camera!
    • If the speaker asks a yes-no style question, instead of struggling to unmute, speak, and be heard/counted, just give a thumbs up or down.
      • This also means you should position your meeting’s screen somewhere you can actively see people’s faces during the meeting. Don’t obscure the meeting window.
    • Nod your head, laugh, clap, smile, frown, other sorts of gestures can help convey yourself (without needing to unmute).
  • Be aware of the microphone
    • Typing on keyboards (especially noisy ones)
    • Tapping on the desk/table with your fingers or cups
    • Rustling of papers/wrappers
    • Coughing, sneezing, eating/chewing
      • It may be worthwhile to default to “microphone muted,” enabling your microphone as needed.
  • Be mindful of background distractions
    • Kids
    • Dogs/pets
    • Other noise and things. 
    • Be focused and “in the meeting”.
  • Be aware of your screen
    • Screensharing often happens.
    • Be aware of what’s on your screen and how your software supports screensharing
      • Most solutions can share the whole screen or just a window (more privacy)
      • Slack screen sharing shares the whole screen (less privacy)
    • Privacy matters
      • Personal
      • Seeing things that shouldn’t be seen 
    • Consider turning off or muting “Notifications” during a screenshare, so sudden and distracting messages do not appear.
  • Echo
    • This can happen  – headphones and microphones can help.
    • Sometimes your video/audio software can get out of sync, and may only be solved by a disconnect and reconnect.

Overcommunication is important

  • Because of the work flexibility, a fair amount of communication is asynchronous – it won’t be a directly interactive conversation.
    • You need someone now, and they aren’t around.
      • They may be in another meeting, or just away from their desk. You don’t know, and you don’t have a way to go look for them.
      • It’s possible they could be away for an extended period.
    • It’s the nature of things. Totally normal.
    • Strive to communicate status/availability through Slack’s “status” feature.
  • One thing we’ve found that helps.
    • If you ping the person and after your threshold of waiting they haven’t responded (for an interactive conversation), go ahead and leave them a “small essay” dumping all the information they need to be able to field your request. That way when they actually do respond they’ll have all the information and can do their best to robustly respond to you. 
      • Because, it may well be that when they respond, YOU might be the one that’s away. 
      • This is why it’s good to be as overcommunicative and robust as possible — it helps shorten the feedback loop.

Boundaries

Just because you’re home doesn’t necessarily mean you’re available. That must be understood, respected, and enforced by everyone. This applies to family, friends, neighbors, anyone living in the household, and yourself.

If you can use (physical) boundaries or ways to signal to others you’re unavailable, do so. For example, a separate room with a closable door; an availability signal light; a sign; whatever works in your context and within your means. Helping others know you’re in a “do not disturb” state helps minimize interruptions and disturbances. But again, it must be understood, respected, and enforced by all – it’s the only way to make it successful and maintain your sanity.

For me, I’m fortunate to have a separate room for an office, with a door. When I’m working and cannot be disturbed, my door is closed. If my door is closed and a family member needs me, they knock and wait for an answer. I may not answer – don’t take it personally; I might be in a meeting or I might be deeply focused on a problem. If I cannot answer, I will come and find you when I can. Rules such as these were established early on in my career of working from home, and they were instrumental in keeping some order and sanity in the household. You will evolve your own.

That said, do NOT overlook the blessings this opportunity provides. One big reason I wanted to work from home was to be with my kids as they grew up. Most of their interruptions were simply to show me the cool thing they did – it required all of 15 seconds and an “I love you, too” to satisfy them and gain hours of uninterrupted work. Besides, I can’t see my kids grow up if I don’t take the time to see them.

There will be challenges to overcome; boundaries help overcome some challenges. Remember to respect and enforce them.

Be Patient

  • Successfully working remote is a skill that requires time to develop.
    • There will be rough spots and opportunities for reflection and improvement.
  • Be patient with yourself and your co-workers as everyone adapts and establishes new habits.
    • A little grace goes a long way.
  • Consider creating a Slack channel to specifically discuss the topic of remote work.
    • It provides a place to bond, ask questions, and share solutions (as well as struggles) on successful remote work.
  • Realize that your company will evolve its own solutions to solve your specific needs. Furthermore, your company will evolve its culture in light of remote work.
    • Stay aware of these evolutions, but allow them to occur. Especially important in the early stages, as things are being figured out.

Adjusting to remote work takes time. It’s an adjustment for the company, for your co-workers, and for you. There will be struggles, but there will also be discoveries of new and exciting ways to work. Have patience, give grace, and we’ll all get through this together.

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