We’ve compiled everything we’ve learned from the last seven years of remote work experience and distilled it into our ultimate guide to working from home, covering everything from making sure your team is communicating to designing the optimal office.
Working from home doesn’t need to be difficult or demoralizing. With the right resources on your side, working from home can be an enriching experience.
Remote work is often called the future, but in many ways, it’s already here. Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what we talk about when we’re talking about remote work.
What does working remotely mean?
From flexible work to working from home (WFH), distributed teams, and virtual offices, remote work can take many different forms. Simply put, working remotely means doing work outside a traditional, colocated setting like an office.
What is a remote job?
A remote job is any position that is done away from the office, whether that’s from a home office or while on the road traveling to see clients. It means you don’t commute into a location with your other coworkers every day and instead manage your responsibilities from afar and communicate with teammates virtually.
Why work from home?
People work from home for different reasons, but some of the most common reasons people enjoy working from home are increased independence, improved productivity, more flexibility, and better work-life balance.
What do you need to work from home?
Your ideal home office setup will be dependent on your job and your personality, but a good place to get started in designing your home office is identifying a dedicated space, making sure you have the tech you need, setting it up be to comfortable and ergonomic, and making sure you have adequate light sources. Artistic touches and potted plants help, too.
Remote Work 101 for Managers
Make sure your employees have what they need to work from home
Remote work involves more than a good internet connection and good hardware, but those are certainly non-negotiables for a successful remote work environment. But if flickering fluorescent lights and a folding chair wouldn’t be in line with how you want to enable employees to do work, don’t settle for each employee dealing with whatever they happen to have at home. Ensure that your employees have not just the necessary tools (fast and reliable internet, a computer, the right software, an ergonomic desk and a chair) but also the amenities (noise-canceling headphones, laptop stand, productivity software). And if you’re not sure what would enable your employees to do their best work, ask.
State the obvious
Context around work or deadlines may seem obvious to you, but might not be clear to your employees, especially since they can’t pick up on your body language as easily over a video call (or at all, over a phone call or instant messages). Stating what feels obvious–even something like a time zone–might help prevent misunderstandings in the future. It also sets a precedent for good communication. By making your meaning clear, you can ensure that you and your employees are on the same page while also showing them how to communicate.
Don’t sweat the sweatpants
Arguments have been made for and against the donning of sweatpants (or any pants) for employees working from home since working from home was even a thing. Encourage employees to dress in clothes that make them feel comfortable and help them do good work. For some, this might be what they would normally wear to an office. For others, it may be loungewear. Don’t enforce office-specific rules for the sake of enforcing them. Remember that it’s all about the amazing things your team is doing, not what they’re wearing.
Rigidity is for furniture and algorithms. As a manager who is also a human, exercise that humanity by showing flexibility. This can mean many things, like accommodating an employee’s childcare needs or most productive work hours. It can mean being understanding of circumstances outside the employee’s control, like a sudden personal emergency. While this is a good idea in general, it’s even more important to remember when you’re physically distant from your employees. You never know what you might be missing.
Virtual reality is still reality
It’s good to be mindful of the differences between remote work and colocated work, but at the end of the day, work is work. Make the most of your work time. Virtual meetings can work as well and even better than face-to-face meetings, but like the broader category of meetings in general, they only work as well as the people in them. Keep meeting times short and have them only when needed. As you’re working in a more self-directed way, stay focused by keeping browser and notification distractions to a minimum. Set boundaries around your chosen work hours for yourself, and encourage your employees to do so, too.
Remote Work 101 for Employees
Determine what you need to work from home
There are no hard and fast rules for the ideal home office. At the end of the day, what works for you is what works. But even a staunch minimalist may find that they require certain things for a pleasant and effective home work environment. Beyond basic needs like a desk, a chair, and a laptop, you might find yourself yearning for a strong but not unpleasant light source. You might discover that some greenery could help prevent fatigued eyeballs. Write down what you’re missing and talk to your manager about what you need to succeed.
Communicate any issues
Issues happen. The first step in resolving them is to communicate them. Whether you’re dealing with a sudden connectivity problem, a bout of food poisoning, or even a frustrating and unproductive email chain, telling your manager or team what’s going on is key. Clear and concise communication is important in a traditional office setting, but in a remote office situation where things like sickness or hardware problems aren’t immediately visible and obvious, it’s absolutely crucial.
Start fostering connection
In an office setting, forming connections is often only a matter of time. You can only run into your desk neighbor a few times in the kitchen before it feels strange to not say hello. But when everyone is physically alone in their respective homes, scattered across time zones, connection has to be deliberate. This might mean asking a colleague for a virtual coffee or a phone call. It could mean 15 minutes of your day set aside to connect with a mentee over Slack. It may feel strange at first, but like all unfamiliar behaviors, the more you do it, the more normal it becomes. Remote work can still come with camaraderie–you just have to be more deliberate when it comes to fostering it.
Build your own work from home best practices
Work in an office setting usually comes with a built-in routine that starts with showing up at a certain time and sitting at a designated desk. Working from home requires that you create your own routine from scratch, but that can be a good thing: you can design a process that works best for you. Maybe that means making a big breakfast before sitting down to do your hardest work in the morning, when you have the most energy. Perhaps it means starting work later and finishing later, too. A good routine can save energy and increase productivity by giving you a personalized, tried-and-true roadmap to success.
When we ask “What is a remote worker?” or “What is a remote job?”, we know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. As the future of work continues to evolve–and companies and individuals continue to test-drive answers to the question “What does working remotely mean?”–we’re hoping that by sharing our knowledge, we can support your own remote work transition or transformation.
While the above is just a starting place, and nowhere near a comprehensive guide to all of the tips and tricks (and the unique frustrations and rewards) of remote work, we hope it provides the question “Why work from home?” with a clear answer: because if done well, remote work can be hugely effective and beneficial for the employees as well as organizations.
Tools of the Trade
Change takes time to master. At work, whether you’re facing a promotion, a new company, or transitioning from an in-office work environment to working remotely, it’s important to give yourself time to adapt. When you join a remote workplace, it’s understandable and expected that it may take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for you to get up to speed with new technologies and work habits that will allow you to thrive.
Our team is well into our seventh year of all-remote work, and we’d like to share some of our strategies to help you become a work-from-home pro as quickly as possible.
How to set up a home office
Everyone’s work style is different, and when you work from home, you (finally!) have the freedom to set up your work environment just the way you like. Some simple things can help set you up for success in your new home office:
Light it up. Take advantage of the natural light in your home and set up camp near a window to get the sleep-regulating benefits of daytime light. Supplement natural light with strong, indirect lighting, like floor lamps that shine upward or desk lamps with lampshades that spread out light, both of which will provide enough light without creating unpleasant glare or shadows.
Deck out your tech. What technology do you need to get your work done? Investing in whatever that is–from double monitors to extra RAM–is worth it. You’ll be spending hours and hours a day in your home office, and those hours will be less frustrating if you have the right setup. If your company offers a home office stipend, put it to good use. If not, keep an eye out for annual sales and stock up on what you need.
Stay in good standing. Whether you buy an actual standing desk, jerry-rig one out of cardboard boxes and books, or just get up for a break every hour or so, changing your posture during the workday is a good idea. Sitting in the same position for hours on end can compress the discs in your back and lead to back and neck pain.
Be colorful. If you have the option to paint your office, pick a soothing color (like a pale blue or green). Keep decorations in line with your chosen palette. Bright colors like neons or jewel tones can be distracting, but a few pops of art or textiles that you love are certainly welcome.
Lean into green. Plants improve air quality, stabilize humidity, and may even make you feel happier as you work. And they’re nice to look at, to boot. Make sure you have a well-lit spot to place a pot or two and start with low-maintenance plants that don’t take much beyond some regular watering, like snake plants, English ivy, or succulents.
Tips for working remotely with a routine that works for you
Creating a repeatable routine can help keep work from creeping into every waking hour at home. Try being purposeful about how you start and end your day with these tips:
Create a morning routine–a “commute,” if you will. Do the same thing each day to separate your personal time at home from your work time at home. Could be breakfast, podcast, meditation, then logging on; could be dancing around for 20 minutes before checking an email; could be coffee followed by more coffee followed by opening your computer. You decide.
Also create an end-of-day routine, so that you can really log off and enjoy your private time at the end of the day.
Have everything you need for work together in one place. Whether that’s a dedicated room with its own door that can be closed or a work bag that can go with you from dining table to couch to bed, designating a work zone (even if it’s mobile) will help you maintain focus.
Speaking of focus, most humans can only concentrate for 90 minutes at a time. So it’s important to take breaks! One benefit of working from home is that you can pause and throw in a load of laundry, make lunch, or go for a lap around the block. Just do so in a structured manner that compliments your work flow. Give yourself permission to get up and do some quick chores or light exercise throughout the day–your work might actually benefit from the break.
Advice about keeping work “in its place” while working from home is all well and good, but the truth is that we live in a work-centric, always-on digital culture. Sometimes a bit more structure is needed in order to truly disengage mentally at the end of the day. We recommend time tracking. By tracking your work time throughout the day with a tool like Toggl Track, you can see when you’ve been spending too much time in front of the computer or if you’re consistently pulling 10-hour workdays.
Tracking time can also help you stay focused on meaningful tasks that actually move forward your most important projects. When you see in your time reports that writing and responding to emails are taking more time than your highest-priority work (which can totally happen), you can make more informed decisions about how you structure your time.
Choosing the Right Digital Tools
Through the miracle of technology, everything that used to happen in an office–meetings, birthday celebrations, team chants (you know, if that’s your thing)–can now happen online. To ensure that everyone on the team is on a level playing field, however, there are a few things to keep in mind when selecting digital tools for your remote team:
Is the tool actually solving a problem or just creating more work?
Oftentimes, managers will choose project management, communication, or other productivity tools based on the information and insights they can provide them, without necessarily considering how much time and effort it will take members of the team to use that tool on a daily basis. In worst-case scenarios, work continues to be done outside of the tool, and then information is added to the tool to satisfy the manager’s need for visibility. This creates busy work without actually providing added value to anyone other than the manager, and that’s not ideal.
When selecting software platforms for organizing and managing your team’s work, consider not just what you need to get out of it, but also what time and energy has to be put in to get that output.
Will every team member you are asking to use the tool feel like it benefits them to do so? Does using the tool fit naturally into the team’s workflow, or is it an extra thing they have to remember to do at the end of the day? As you’re selecting, testing, and purchasing tools, keep your team in mind and actively ask them for their input to make sure you end up with tools that are the best possible fit for your team and result in high adoption and usage rates.
Does the tool incentivize the right behaviors?
Teams work together differently in a remote setting than they do in the office. For one thing, it’s no longer a given that everyone is going to be available at the same time. A lot more communication needs to happen asynchronously, which means that the way communication is structured needs to change.
Tools that prioritize information accessibility and transparency are key to enabling everyone on a remote team to do their best work. When discussions and decisions are sequestered in email threads that someone may not be copied on, moving projects forward in a remote environment can become a massive back-and-forth headache. And if, like us, your team works across time zones, all that back-and-forth can eat away at days and weeks, significantly impacting project timelines.
With communication tools like Slack and Twist, discussions and announcements that happen within the platform are there on the record, searchable by anyone. Being able to find needed information quickly, without having to ask someone else, is a huge boon for a remote team. So be sure to select tools that incentivize the types of behaviors that are going to help your remote team be successful.
Are there high-quality “how to” resources for team members to learn and make the most of the new platform?
As companies experiment with work-from-home policies, people from a wide variety of industries and backgrounds are moving their team collaboration online. When selecting a new software tool for your team, be sure to account for anyone who may need some extra help mastering the new technology. If you’re asking folks to use a tool while working remotely that they didn’t need to use in their prior on-site work, then make sure that robust online training materials are available. Additionally, having designated members of your in-house team trained to a higher level so they can serve as a technical resource to others can be very useful.
Whether you are seeking Asana alternatives for your remote project management, need an overview of video meeting solutions, or are in search of the perfect office chair, these great resources from the Toggl Track blog have got your back!
Effective Remote Teams
Let’s introduce the classic question asked by teams considering a switch to remote work: can a remote team be as effective as a traditional office-based team?
Our answer is a resounding yes. Remote teams can be more effective, even. But only when they’re done right.
One thing many remote teams don’t get right, however, at least in the beginning, is communication. While that challenge isn’t necessarily unique to remote working, it can definitely be exacerbated by it.
If your team is working remotely for the first time (or you’re considering it), you may have some concerns, like:
- Will not having any physical face-to-face time lead to communication issues and frustrations?
- Will people be as productive?
- Will people feel lonely or isolated without regular contact?
Those concerns are valid. But getting virtual communication right goes a long way in alleviating them, we’ve found. Let’s get straight into our top tips and advice for making sure you have a happy, high-performing, and well-communicating remote team.
Master asynchronous communication
Asynchronous communication is, in a nutshell, communication that isn’t sent and received simultaneously. It’s sending a message via Slack or email and not expecting the other person to receive it immediately or to respond to it instantly.
Making sure the whole team is comfortable with asynchronous communication is super important for maximizing productivity and keeping projects on track. It will allow you to:
- Prevent people from having to sit at their desk all day just in case someone wants to discuss something
- Have a written record of correspondence
- Improve communication across time zones
- Give people time to think and give better responses
Requiring people to be constantly available through the day leads to constant interruptions, less focus, unnecessary stress, and less freedom.
There’s huge value in having the flexibility to go out for a 15 minute walk, not stressing out over if you’ll miss a message during that time. Or finishing a task that you’re laser-focused on and responding to that ping after lunch instead.
But asynchronous communication only works if everyone on your team writes well and empathetically. They need to:
- Be crystal clear on what they’re asking for (if anything)
- Pre-answer any likely follow-up questions
- Include any details, files, or assets the recipients might need
Simply remember that you aren’t around to answer quick follow-up questions. Err on the side of providing an excessive amount of information rather than too little.
As good as all of that sounds, not all communication can or should be asynchronous. You still need regular real-time communication, which is where check-ins come into play.
Schedule Regular Check-ins
With an all-remote team, you may not get together face-to-face more than one or two times per year, if at all.
For that reason, it’s important to connect regularly, chat often, and know how to run a really good virtual meeting.
Your approach to meetings and team communication will vary a lot depending on your industry, your job, and your personal preferences. However you decide to work, there’s definitely value in ensuring that you’re connecting with your team regularly via virtual video meetings.
For example, someone on Toggl Track’s marketing team will have the following regular check-ins:
- A weekly team call with the whole marketing team
- Monthly 1:1s with colleagues in the marketing team
- A weekly one-hour “campfire” meeting with the whole company
- Ad hoc meetings/calls for specific projects, where Slack or email just isn’t enough
Consider A ‘Virtual’ Water Cooler
There’s no denying that one of the things people are likely to miss most is simply just hanging out with colleagues. Having an informal chat at lunch time or around the water cooler (literally or metaphorically) is hard to replicate virtually. But you can definitely take steps to help your team connect in a similar way.
A virtual water cooler can help to strengthen relationships, give people an outlet to relax, exchange ideas & advice, and so much more.
We use Discord for that. All scheduled work meetings are done via Zoom, but if for anyone who wants to drop in and have a chat, there’s a Discord channel for that. Maybe it’ll work for your team, too!
A Final Word of Advice
Remote work is different. Don’t stress out if everyone doesn’t adapt perfectly and immediately to working from home. Don’t worry if your cat walks across the camera on a Zoom call or if your kids can be heard screaming in the background on occasion. Those things happen!
There’s a wealth of information available online to help guide you through the transition to remote work. Be prepared to have patience as you and your team adapt.
If you dig in and stick with it, you’ll be well on your way to a happy, high-performance remote team.
Above all else, trust your team. If you hired smart, dependable workers, they’ll be smart and dependable even if you’re not sitting near them in an office.
Staying productive when you’re working remotely is not easy. With your bed only a few rooms away, and the kitchen even closer…well, you’re only human.
No one expects you to be a titan of self-control at all times. And occasional 3 PM naps are one of the perks of the gig. But inevitably, the time comes when you need to crack the whip and get down to business.
Here are some personal productivity tips for working remotely, no matter what type of worker you are.
If you’re sluggish in the morning
If you’d rather eat bugs than wake up before 8 AM, we feel you. But if your job requires you to be up and at ’em in the AM, you can trick yourself into being a bit more of a morning person. Try these tips:
- Allow yourself one “snooze” alarm before the real one.
- Eat breakfast at the same time every day, which can help your body settle into a pattern.
- Don’t sleep in on weekends–it will only make the weekdays more painful.
- Get some exercise first thing. It can reduce your blood pressure, lower anxiety, and wake you up.
- Eat protein-rich foods–like eggs, milk, nuts, or yogurt–to boost your dopamine levels and give you energy.
- Don’t nap unless you really need to. It may signal to your brain that work hours = sleep hours, which will make separating them even more complicated.
If you have trouble staying organized
Working from home usually means you’re creating an office in a relatively compact space, if you have one at all. You may prefer to migrate from the couch to the counter to a chair throughout the course of the day. Wherever you’re working from, try these steps to stay organized:
If you lose focus easily
When there’s no chance your boss will walk by, it’s significantly easier to give in to distractions. Being at home means there’s no separation between all the fun projects you want to do and all the not-as-fun tasks you need to accomplish. If you’re the type to get easily distracted, here are some ways to counteract that impulse: