3 Tips for Better Remote Work in 2021

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for 3 Tips for Better Remote Work in 2021

‘Tis the season for 2021 predictions and we’re here to bring a little twist to the party. Instead of reading the tea leaves to predict a bunch of trends for the new year, we compiled a short list of practical tips to help you navigate a big trend that won’t be going away any time soon - remote work.

Over the last nine months we've seen a knee-jerk movement to remote work. Companies and teams who staunchly resisted it for years suddenly had no choice in the face of a global pandemic. Many have been in survival mode ever since. Now that we’ve all become comfortable with our business-on-the-top/lounging-on-the-bottom video conferencing attire, and carved out workspaces in our kitchens, bedrooms and attics, it’s time to find our equilibrium and take remote work to the next level.

Our Drawbackwards team has been working remotely for almost a decade. In that time, we've learned that the best way to do remote work is to adjust our approach to match the environment. The more remote you are, the more effort you need to put into organizing how you work and communicate. It's just like setting off on an ocean voyage. You're better off learning how to navigate the remote work waters than pretending you're still on dry land.

Here are three things your team can do in 2021 to help make “going remote” feel less like jumping into a lifeboat and more like cruising the open seas in a custom-built yacht.

1. Choose the Tools, Don’t Just Let the Tools Choose You

If your team isn't remote-native, you’ve likely found yourself juggling a lot of new remote work tools. It can feel like trying to use a table saw while balancing on a ladder and hammering all at the same time. You've likely also shoehorned your existing processes into these new tools. The result is you end up feeling like you're doing everything wrong.

This is a natural response to a crisis situation. But, in many ways, a meeting with 15 people can feel more crowded on Zoom than in a physical conference room. The new year presents a new opportunity to take a step back and choose the processes and tools that work for you.

To do this, consider the costs embedded in how you work. For example, meetings always cost time and money. When everybody is in the same space, that cost is not easy to see or track. But the cost of meetings in a remote work environment can be more obvious (and expensive). There's the price you're paying for the online meeting platform itself. There's the opportunity cost of taking people out of their work flow. There's the time and effort spent working through technical issues to conduct an effective meeting.

Synchronous in-person communication is the primary currency of in-office work. It’s easy to have a side conversation with a coworker in the hallway or pull a group together for a quick whiteboard session. But remote work changes the equation. It places a premium on asynchronous written communication. Rather than try to force an in-person flow through remote work tools, think about how to use the slower environment to your advantage.

Take a step back and ask if a meeting is the most efficient way to tackle the problem. Is this a question or a problem that you can solve with a few emails or Slack messages? The team might actually provide more thoughtful answers over the course of an hour or two. Nobody wants more emails, but in a remote work environment people also don’t want even more Zoom calls.

Remote work environments allow us all to be more thoughtful about how we work. There is always a place for face-to-face meetings, but being less reliant on them can also be a good thing for the bottom line and for your end product.

2. Build and Sustain a Remote Work Culture

Your remote tools and processes are only as effective as the culture you build to support them. As in the office, best practices and expectations around how your team and company want to work will organically emerge over time. But also like in the office, you'll need to solidify some of these with specific policies and guidelines.

Anybody who has been part of different Slack teams has seen the variety of ways that tool can be used. Some teams lean on its one-to-one and small group capabilities. Others encourage conversations in public channels to serve as a system of record. Both approaches work for different reasons. You'll want to consider how to limit practices that get in the way of your work and encourage habits that help move it along. A game of telephone is still unproductive even on Slack.

When building a remote work culture, it’s best to start with the assumption that even bad habits can start with good intentions. Some team members may hesitate to interrupt or distract coworkers on Slack. But that polite instinct can create much bigger problems in poor communication. At the same time, conversations hidden in small group or one-on-one channels can add time, energy and cost to share again with the larger team.

A strong remote work culture includes open communication about how team members prefer to work. It's important to establish guidelines for the team and personal preferences for individuals. This can also help your whole team be more thoughtful about how to treat dense topics. It may feel like a waste of time on the surface to spend a half hour or 45 minutes writing an email or Slack message. But how many times have you realized that putting it in writing clarified it in your own head? Sometimes the best and most productive email is the one that’s never sent.

Take some time in the new year to set some ground rules. Decide how you and your team want to use your remote work tools and processes. Set aside opportunities to check in and adjust those rules. You'll likely discover along the way how to merge remote work more seamlessly into your general work culture.

3. Leverage the Discoverability of Remote Work

We all know the advantages of pulling a coworker aside for a quick conversation. But there is an inherent disadvantage to those ad hoc talks. Think about how that verbal information could be helpful to other team members a day, a week, or a month from now. But it all disappears into thin air and is reliant on the memories of the people involved.

Remote work tools open up channels of discoverability that are not as available in person. Slack conversations can be searched. Zoom meetings with screen shares can be recorded and even transcribed. Document edits can be shared and tracked through tools like Dropbox or Google docs. These leave a record that can help a team retrace their steps or get new team members up to speed on a topic or project.

Unfortunately, most remote work tools have a lot of improvement to make in this area. We can search (and find) practically anything in the world on Google, but try finding that one conversation you had last week on Slack.

Additionally, there are few things that can replicate how we recall information in the real world. Sometimes just remembering who was in the room and what room you were in for a conversation is enough to bring back the details of the discussion. It can be difficult to even remember who you’re talking to when looking at a name or a face in a box on your screen. Add to that the fact that many of us are sitting in the same physical space all day, and our work life starts to turn into one never-ending Zoom call.

We’d love to see these tools improve their user experience and get more creative in helping us store and search for information. In the meantime, you can create clear processes and methods for where to memorialize your decisions so you know where to find them. For example, you might create a policy that requires your team to document official decisions in a system of record like Dropbox.

Of course, as many wise figures have said, with great power comes great responsibility. We need to maintain high standards of privacy and security around how we record and track conversations and decisions. Every team needs clear guidelines and policies so everybody can trust how and why their work is being tracked. Security protocols need to protect sensitive information for the business and its customers. We need to keep our workplaces safe and secure while leveraging the benefits of having more systems of record.

How Drawbackwards Does Remote Work

We've found the best way to navigate the remote work environment is to adapt to it rather than fight it. More long-form written communication and less in-person meetings are not necessarily bad for business. You just need to look at how you work in a new light and understand the value that can come from working remotely.

Many aspects of in-person work that most companies feel are necessary have proven to be more of a crutch. UX design and product teams in particular often believe that if you aren’t meeting in person you’ll lose your magic innovative touch. It's true that being together offers more opportunities to cross wires and spark interesting ideas. But that in itself is often exaggerated. A lot of business leaders think that the magic only happens when they see their teams drawing on white boards together. But we've known plenty of designers and developers who do their best work alone. It's not necessary to have them drive to an office every day to sit alone at a desk.

We deliberately steer away from big meetings with a lot of people or frequent status updates that encourage scope creep. That's because we see a one-hour meeting with five people as five hours that we could be spending more effectively for ourselves and our clients. Once you start viewing your work that way, you quickly find other ways to get the job done better and faster.

We also make it a point to choose our tools carefully and not rely on just one tool or method to get our work done. Project managers will often default to meetings because that’s their job. But we encourage our entire team to think of all the tools at their disposal and choose the one that’s the best fit for what they’re trying to do.

Finally, we fit the tools and products to our team rather than changing our team to fit the tools and products. This means we set standards for best practices like how we want to run video calls. We also audit the tools we’re paying for on a regular basis to make sure we’re consolidating to the most effective tools for our team. We also mix it up by reserving one day a week for in-person office time (when it's safe). That gives us the benefits of both in-person and remote work.

The key to making remote work better in 2021 will be resisting the urge to do what seems hip and cool and focus on what actually works for your team. Every team and organization is different. It's important to find the right tools and processes that work for you.

Need help transitioning your team to a more permanent remote work culture? We’d love to help out. Connect with us and let us know what’s on your mind.