For remote work, try starting with trust

Nothing about working during a pandemic is normal, but one thing that has struck me over and over again is that what seems so difficult for so many — working remotely — is completely normal for me. I’ve been a remote worker for five years, the last three of those at Ad Hoc.

It’s an unusual privilege I have — while everyone around me has been transitioning to home offices and Zoom meetings, I’m following (more or less) my usual routines and workflows. Even though everything else in daily life has shifted in some fundamental way or another, work for me remains largely the same.

Ad Hoc has invested in building a remote-first team that is built around delivering on our obligations to customers while trusting staff to get their work done in a way that makes sense for their lives. Here’s how our website puts it:

Whether you need to pick up your kids from school or want to take a midday bike ride, we trust you to do your work when it best fits your schedule. You have the autonomy to choose the structure of your day, with the expectation that you’ll get the work done.

If your team is new to remote work, I recommend that you spend as much time setting up an environment based on trust as you are setting up technical tools to make it possible. When I’ve been on teams that didn’t invest in a trust-based system, they often reverted to oversight measures that soured team morale and added pressure in a time when it felt like everyone was running on empty.

“Standard” oversight measures can feel pretty horrible when we’re already trying to figure out how to live and work in the same space, often with our spouses and children and pets (sometimes literally) on top of us as well. Routinely checking Slack or e-mail because you’re mandated to respond within a certain time frame is counterproductive. Requiring cameras on at all times can be unduly stressful. I’ve heard of companies chastising people for unprofessional backgrounds during video calls, but what do you do when your only viable workspace is your kitchen? Not everyone can luxuriate in a home office, or even a corner with a blank wall.

Remote life requires trust. It requires that we trust each other as colleagues, but much more importantly it requires that our leadership trust us to get our jobs done. So my suggestion is to try trust if your team is new to remote work. Here’s what I’ve seen work as a member of a remote team.

Cut everyone some slack

No, not that Slack, though if you don’t have a good async communication tool, you’re going to need one. Please recognize that a pandemic is not a normal working environment. Even for those of us who are veteran remote workers, suddenly having our families around 24/7 represents real change. Many of us are caregiving in some form or another, managing our physical and mental health, and trying to cope. So if you notice that someone is struggling, default to kindness and see how you can offer support before assuming the worst.

Trust your subordinates

If you’re in leadership, you’re going to notice pretty quickly if someone’s not performing when everyone is working remotely. See above about why that might be the case, and default to kindness. Remember, none of this is normal right now. The reality is that if someone is a chronic slacker, that’s true whether they’re remote or in the office. Onsite, it’s just obscured by the performative aspect of being at your desk with headphones on. Try your best not to demand that people demonstrate how hard they’re working through communications and constant updates. You’re just adding stress in an already stressful situation, and that’s counterproductive. Measure outcomes, not process.

Trust your colleagues

For those of us on collaborative teams, trust each other. Again, default to kindness. Assume the best in each other, and don’t be a jerk if you have to work out a conflict. We were all hired to do our jobs because we’re capable of doing them, and nobody is out to leave someone else hanging. Everyone is probably struggling in some way or another (if you’re not, tell me your secrets!), and we all are likely going to need help at some point. So, help; be flexible about rescheduling meetings if conflicts arise. Even be flexible about deadlines if you can do that. Offer whatever support you can give — but also, ask for support when you need it.

Trust yourself

Most importantly, trust yourself. Nobody knows what you need in any given moment more than you do. If what you need to do is bury yourself in work, by all means do so. But if you need a nap, or a snack, or a break, take those things. My teammates and I feel pretty lucky that we have the flexibility to structure our days largely as we see fit, but the American culture of chronic overwork can be a hard habit to break. Taking an hour on a weekday doesn’t mean you’re lazy. And if you took that time next to your small human or your favorite person, even less so.

Reach out

I thought I was the world’s biggest introvert until introversion was forced on me. All I want to do now is be around people, but obviously that’s not a good choice to make. It’d be easy to revert to isolation, but that’s not healthy either. If you’re lucky enough to have communities, reinforce those bonds in any way you comfortably can. Technology makes this easy now — Marco Polo, Instagram, Slack, and good ol’ Facetime have been my saving graces. I was also surprised to find a strong Animal Crossing community at work, and that’s been a great place to blow off some steam. Find what works for you, and allow that to change over time if you need to.

But at the same time, draw boundaries and respect those of others. Don’t fall into the “always available because technology” trap. Just because you can be reached at all hours doesn’t mean you should be. Establish standard working hours for yourself, communicate those, and hold on tight. If your hours include 10 p.m. to midnight, godspeed. Mine don’t, so I’ll answer your message in the morning when I come online at 9.

Commit and deliver

Commit to taking care of yourself and your family. Commit to communicating what you need to the people around you, including your colleagues and your leadership. If you need to take a step back, I hope you have that privilege to exercise. The most encouraging messages I’ve seen lately have been from managers and bosses telling their teams to prioritize differently: you first, then work. But when you are working, commit to what tasks you can — and deliver on them. Don’t say you can, if you can’t.

May this lead to more human workplaces

The idea of professionalism is shifting, in some places more rapidly than others. The quality standards our work are held to are the same, if not higher, but it’s almost as though we’re becoming more human to one another by virtue of seeing each other in our home environments. Working with someone in the sterile confines of a fluorescently-lit conference room is not nearly the same as experiencing their cat walking across the keyboard, or catching a glimpse of neat artwork in the background.

It’s my hope that when the crisis has passed (and it will, eventually), we remember the graces we gave each other and ourselves. I look forward to increased trust and tighter bonds among teams. And I absolutely look forward to being able to sit and have a cup of in-person coffee with my colleagues!