Remote Work FAQs Answered (Plus Wisdom from Work-at-Home Experts)
News flash: remote work isn’t just a trend popular with Starbucks-frequenting freelancers and work-from-home parents. It’s an approach to work (and work-life balance) that’s increasingly becoming a viable business model for companies and a desirable benefit for employees.
In fact, Global Workplace Analytics’ analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005–2014 American Community Survey indicates that 80 to 90% of the U.S. workforce would like to work remotely at least part time.
But what exactly does working remotely involve—both on the employee and managerial sides? Is it all make-your-own-schedule, work-in-your-pajamas flexibility? Is it hard to collaborate with co-workers effectively? If you manage a remote team, how do you know your reports are actually working?
In this post, we’ll dive into these types of frequently asked questions and more, drawing from interviews with business leaders and remote workers who have experience working with organizations that have found success with a remote-friendly work policy, including folks from FlexJobs, Balsamiq, and WordPress, among others.
So let’s jump right into our list of six remote work FAQs:
1. How common is remote work?
According to a 2012 Reuters poll, about one in five workers worldwide telecommute frequently. That number has probably risen in the past several years, as working remotely has become more popular due to wider acceptance in business circles as well as the wider availability of technology and tools that make remote collaboration possible. These reasons likely explain why the number of employees in the U.S. who work from home regularly (excluding self-employed) has grown by 103% since 2005 (Global Workplace Analytics).
By all indications, this growth will only continue. At the 2014 Global Leadership Summit, held at the London Business School, business executives forecasted that by 2020, half to three-quarters of their full-time employees would be working remotely.
Adam Kingl, London Business School’s Director of Learning Solutions, Executive Education, commented on the changing attitudes toward traditional workplace policies:
“Technology and some fundamental shifts in management thinking are behind this response. Leaders are learning how to enable their teams to flourish, and there is a recognition that the notion of a traditional 9–5, Monday–Friday, commute-to-the-office job is quickly eroding.”
2. What qualities make for a good remote candidate?
Many companies have expressed that having prior experience with working remotely—whether that be entrepreneurship, freelancing, independent consulting, or other experience working with a distributed team—gives candidates an advantage when applying for a remote job.
Not everyone is cut out for the remote work lifestyle, so it helps to know ahead of time if someone has successfully navigated the challenges of working outside of a traditional office environment.
Ann MacDonald, the Director of Content Strategy at online media company LoveToKnow, explains why prior work-at-home positions can be good preparation to join a fully remote team:
“I like hearing that potential candidates are experienced with remote work already. It means they have already learned how to manage their time and organize their day for working from home. It also usually means they like it and appreciate that style of work, versus someone who might think it sounds appealing but discover they miss the hubbub of a busy office environment.”
Other beneficial qualities include:
- Being self-directed, self-motivated, and accountable: You need to be able to maintain a schedule and keep on top of your workload, oftentimes without the consistency of having regular “office hours” or frequent check-ins with a manager or supervisor.
- Trustworthiness: Successful remote teams thrive on being given the freedom to accomplish their goals how, where, and when works best for them. So that means workers need to reliably deliver on their output goals, while managers need to trust that their team members will get the work done without micromanagement.
- Excellent communication skills: Without the benefit of in-person interaction, clear communication becomes even more essential for smooth remote teamwork. Because most distributed teams communicate primarily in written form—email, chat rooms, texting, messaging apps, etc.—it’s especially important that those interested in work-from-home jobs have strong writing skills.
"Our creed includes the statement, 'I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.'"
– Lori McLeese, Head of Human Resources at Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com)
3. How can remote teams stay connected?
For many remote teams, software is their shared space—it’s a virtual office when there’s no shared physical office. So when everyone’s connected online all day, it’s especially important to be intentional about productive communication. Every remote company will have its own suite of software and tools that work for them, but some common ones for various purposes include:
- Team Meetings & Video Calls: Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom
- Instant Messaging: Slack, Hipchat, Google Chat, Skype
- Project Management: Basecamp, Asana, Trello, Google Docs
Outside of work-related communication, many companies recognize the importance of having a dedicated online space (a chat room or thread, blog, Facebook group, etc.) just for fun and informal conversations. Call it a virtual water cooler—this is the place where co-workers can bond and get to know each other personally in the type of way that’s naturally built into physical office environments.
For example, Karolyn Belcher, president of the educational nonprofit TNTP, shares how her remote workforce stays connected on a personal level:
“We do things like take organization-wide coffee breaks where we ask staff to go buy a coffee and ponder a specific question; we hold online book clubs and create communities of shared interests that range from using data tools to vegetarian cooking to working parents; around the holidays we host regional holiday parties and virtual ‘Holi-DJ’ listening parties, where team members swap playlists of their favorite music.”
Some other ways of helping teams stay engaged in a remote work environment include:
- Celebrating successes: Nothing bonds a team like meeting shared goals. Celebrating successes can help distributed teams feel like a unified whole rather than isolated in their individual home offices. Publicly recognizing both group and individual accomplishments or contributions also helps team members feel valued and creates a sense of support and camaraderie.
- Planning in-person meet-ups: Whether regional get-togethers, individual team meetings, or all-hands retreats, opportunities for co-workers to meet each other in person “recharge[s] the intangibles that technology can’t capture,” as Scott Berkun puts it in his book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work.
4. How can you stay focused from a home office?
You can get distracted anywhere—whether you’re working in an office, at a coffee shop, or from home. That being said, working from a home office does have its own unique set of diversions: there’s Netflix, and the laundry, and the dishes, that that one other chore you’ve been meaning to get to, not to mention your spouse / child / significant other / roommate / dog / cat passing by.
Despite these temptations to lose focus, research indicates that remote employees are more productive than their in-office counterparts (but that’s for another question—read on for more!).
Many of the same healthy habits that make for more productive work periods in any environment also apply to working from home, while other approaches are possible only because of the flexibility that working remotely provides. Let’s look at a few tips for working productively from home:
- Set and prioritize goals (daily, weekly, monthly).
- Eliminate the distractions you’re most susceptible to (turn off your phone or move it out of each reach; use a browser app to disable social media sites).
- Remember to move around and take breaks.
- Find the times when you work the most productively, and do your most important or challenging tasks then.
- Find what gets you into “work mode” (a dedicated workspace, noise-cancelling headphones, a certain playlist, etc.)
- Listen to focus-boosting music or ambient noise (check out our post on “How to Work Smarter” for recommendations)
Part of learning how to work from home efficiently and effectively has to do with shaking off some of the patterns and ideas of what you think work should look like and figuring out what makes the most sense for you and your working style. As Leonard Barnard at software company Balsamiq puts it:
“Forget what you think working looks like…. Learn your natural rhythms and optimize around them. Not feeling productive? Get up and go for a walk. Or do the dishes. Don't stare at your computer screen if you know you aren't feeling it. Give yourself a break to let your brain work out the problems you're dealing with. You'll be surprised what comes to you when you return.”
5. Are remote workers really more productive?
FlexJobs recently surveyed over 3,000 working professionals and found that only 7% would choose the company office if they needed to be at their most productive on work-related projects.
But it’s not only workers’ perception of their own productivity—research supports this idea that most people just don’t do their best work in a noisy, interruption-filled office environment.
One of the most prominent studies was conducted by economics professor Nick Bloom and his team from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The 10-month study at a billion-dollar Chinese company compared the performance of call center workers doing identical work at home versus those working in office cubicles, and found that work-at-home staff were more productive: got more done, worked more hours, took shorter breaks, and used less sick leave.
Other studies back up these findings, suggesting that people who have the flexibility to work remotely not only do a better job, but also have greater job satisfaction.
6. How can you measure remote workers' performance?
Since being online does not necessarily equal getting work done (as anyone who’s ever had an internet connection well knows), managers who have never supervised a remote team might wonder how they can really know what’s happening behind their team members’ computer screens.
While making good hires (people whose work ethic and integrity you can count on) is the best approach, managers will also want a way to track progress on projects and measure how team members are contributing and meeting their goals.
That’s where a productivity and time-tracking tool like WorkSmart comes in. Tools like this can help teams focus on output and results rather than just hours logged—an essential consideration when remote workers often work flexible hours.
Other ways measure performance include:
- Establishing meaningful metrics customized to each individual and/or team
- Publicly sharing updates or contributions: using a progress tracker or to-do list app that’s visible to the whole team (like Todoist, iDoneThis, or Weekdone) encourages accountability
Have more questions?
We have more resources!
For managers of remote teams: Want some more insider information about what it’s like to lead a team that might be spread across multiple continents? We answered
For remote workers: Want some recommendations for the best apps to help your work day go smoothly and make the most of your valuable time? Check out our list of