8 principles for making remote work work for you

Apr 23, 2020

We’re living in really interesting (and dramatic) times. Cities are going into panic. Events are being canceled. People have to work from home.

For some of us, remote work was a luxury and a perk. For others, remote work is now a requirement — maybe not something we’re actively choosing.

In the next 5 years, the majority of the workforce will be independent. And 95% of people who have worked remotely in some capacity want to keep it up. Remote work is here to stay.

The first time I ever worked remotely was in 2015. I was part of a team of four. None of us had worked remotely before, but we all agreed it should be part of our team culture. I was in Portland, Oregon, and the rest of the team was in New York. What ended up happening was I did 3-ish hours of work a day and tried not to get caught. I would join calls from bed, meetings from coffee shops, and send emails from long lunches. I did work; it just didn’t feel like I was working. It was pretty unproductive, and my team had to pick up my slack.

When systems are not in place and people aren’t clear on what’s expected, work falls apart and distrust or resentment can form. When you’re not clear about what remote work looks like, things can go wrong.

At Caveday, we’ve led tens of thousands of hours of deep work for our community in The Cave, our facilitated focus sessions, both in-person and remotely over Zoom.

Two years ago, we created the Remote Cave. We were researching and learning about our diminishing attention spans and wanted to help independent and remote workers make the most of their time by creating a focused work session to do their most important work from anywhere.

My cofounders and I have experienced (with some success and lots of failure) a range of what works and doesn’t work when it comes to remote work. Here are the 9 principles to make it, well, work.

Principle 1: Be Accessible from Anywhere

Seems obvious, but there are lots of pieces to consider. Click around a little bit and see what works for you. Some people like a lot of customization and complexity. Some people like simplicity. These should enable your work, not block it.

·       Share Calendars. Sharing your availability and being able to check your schedule from any computer will make staying on track and communicating availability easier.

·       Share Files. Remote work only works if you can access the files you need and share them with your clients. Cloud storage is easy and works just like your files on your desktop. Almost all platforms will even allow you to sync your desktop with the cloud.

·       Use Proper Communication Tools. You’ll want a system of quick communication. Email is fine, but searching through threads can be time-consuming, and immediate needs don’t always get met. Find the right instant messaging and reliable video chat platforms for you.

·       Track Projects and Tasks. Keeping track of assignments, to-dos, and workflows is helpful, and if you have clients who normally expect you to work in their office, can be important for transparency. Let them know how hard you’re working!

Principle 2: Tech Should Improve, Not Impair Your Work

We live in a world where technology is supposed to make our lives better, but it often gets in the way. We’ve put together a list of tools to block distractions, keep track of your time, and help make your systems easier here.

We recommend having chat, email, file sharing, and calendar apps on your phone. But be conscious about how you’re using notifications, and see where you can turn them off completely.

Microsoft did a study that showed the average focus time in the office is 40 seconds! That’s not just from other people interrupting you or ambient noise, it’s from our own distractions. We unlock our phones an average of 80 times a day and touch it over 8,000 times. Do what you can to make your phone a tool for work, rather than a distraction from work.

Principle 3: Start and End Your Day

This is going to sound painfully obvious, but most people don’t do this. Start and end your day. Create some sort of mental trigger to indicate when you are “at work” and when you are “off.”

If you don’t treat this like work, you are just always at home, with work constantly distracting you from your life.

Morning rituals might be to get showered and dressed. Shoes make a big difference, too. We put on shoes to work, and take them off when we’re done. A simple cue like putting on shoes or going for a fake commute like a walk around the block creates space for us to transition.

The same goes for ending your day. It could be as simple as spending 15 minutes reviewing your open to-do items, responding to any last urgent emails and Slacks, closing tabs, and reviewing your calendar and making tomorrow’s to-do. Fake a commute home. Pick a 10-minute podcast, walk around the block and come back. Make a personal phone call.

These mental cues will help create better boundaries and ensure that work doesn’t bleed into the rest of your life.

Principle 4: Boundaries Create Freedom

There are some amazing benefits to working remotely, but we can only get there if we’re being responsible. The more flexible you want to be in taking breaks and working on your own schedule, the more responsible you have to be in your habits and structure. You need clearer boundaries and stricter rules for actually working, so the rest becomes easy.

·       Set up your space. Find a place that feels good to work; a comfortable chair and clean desk (not a couch or bed). This area will be mentally connected with work. Every time you sit there, you’ll be working. Every time you stand up or get out, you’re done or on a break. We’re trying to trick our brain to go into “work mode” instead of conditioning ourselves that work happens all over the house. Without designating a space, you’ll feel like you’re always working. It’ll help to leave your chargers and even your computer there. Don’t be tempted to bring your laptop to the couch, bed, or bathroom (I’ve seen it).

·       Block off your schedule. Block time for deep work, shallow or administrative work, emails, lunch, snacks, breaks, and social time. Don’t let your focus compete with your impulses. I recommend a small kitchen timer that you can wind up for 3–4-minute breaks, Or 45-minute deep work sprints. It will keep you out of your calendar tab and will give you the physical reminder you need to stay with whatever it is you’re doing.

· Put away your phone. The University of Chicago did a study in 2017 that showed that having your phone on your desk–even if it’s upside down even if it’s airplane mode– temporarily reduces your cognitive abilities. In other words, it makes you dumber.

Principle 5: If You Wouldn’t Do It at Work, Don’t Do It at Home

Be present when you are working. No TV, Netflix, Instagram, or other distractions other than music. No eating at your desk. Multitasking is not a real thing. Studies continue to show that people cannot focus on more than one task at a time when they require thinking. Tech writer Linda Stone coined the term “continuous partial attention.” Psychologists use it to talk about how our tasks gets the least possible attention. When you’re “multitasking,” not only does your focus and attention deplete faster, you’re also not ever focused on what we’re doing.

Principle 6: Don’t Forget You’re Human

At Caveday, when we think about well-being, we break that down into physical, mental, and emotional health.

·       Listen to your body. To do your best work, you need to be present and address your body’s needs. That means having real lunches (away from your computer), healthy snacks, and drinking lots of water. Exercising a few times a week is very helpful as well.

·       Re-energize your mind. Your brain can only focus at its best for up to 52 minutes. Taking a break every 45-50 minutes just to stand up and walk around the room can help re-energize you. And there’s no judgment at home if you need a good 15-minute power nap. It’s way healthier than drinking an energy drink or overdoing the caffeine.

Principle 7: It’s Not All About the Work

We need social connection and to feel seen and heard by our peers, and remote work can make it really hard to connect. Technology can act as a barrier. You can’t read my tone or facial expressions or body language as I type this. Even in video chat, making direct eye contact is nearly impossible. That can be challenging to build trust and even feel connected to each other.

In order to overcome these tech barriers, we all have to put in a little extra effort into finding ways to connect, share, laugh, and get to know each other better. Think of it like summer camp: theme days, colors wars, book clubs, lunch & learns, remote happy hours, etc. Be creative, have fun.

Building in non-work time is re-energizing to our emotional well-being. It makes our work better.

Principle 8: Change Is Ambiguous and Takes More Time Than You Think

Change is hard. Being adaptable and resilient in the face of dramatic change is going to take not only logistical work but emotional support. We have to acknowledge that all change is both positive and negative. There will be some benefits. There will be some challenges. It will always be somewhat ambiguous.

Part of your success in the next few months will be about being flexible with how you work. Your speed and pace may be different than usual. It may be faster, it may be slower. Working remotely also requires that we think differently about our output and what it means to work hard. We’re not working hard by working more hours. We work hard by delivering our work on time and by collaborating well with clients and peers.

We can help. Join us in The Cave.

Our remote Caves are 3.5-hour deep focus sessions on Zoom. Each one is led by a Cave Guide who divides the day into sprints to stay focused and energizing breaks to keep you connected.

We’ve used the science of productivity and the latest research to design our method to include non-work social connection to recreate the serendipity and ideation that come from casual office run-ins. The Cave is engineered to overcome loneliness while maintaining focus and productivity.

Jake Kahana

Jake Kahana is a designer and entrepreneur. He is a cofounder of Caveday and a founding US faculty member with The School of Life.