How to Maintain Productivity in a Remote Environment

July 15, 2020

It's difficult to be productive in even the best circumstances, but the current state of the world presents unique challenges. At Storj, the majority of our team works remote since day one, so we've had extra time to experiment with what works best in a distributed and remote environment.

Here's our best advice for maintaining productivity while encouraging a healthy work culture in a remote work environment:

Get the timing right

Get the time zones right. Storj's workforce consists of about 50 people working across 20 cities in 11 countries, so we have many different time zones to work around. We don't mandate everyone be available to work at specific times in the time zone because it would put too much strain on our employees: after all, noon in Utah is midnight in New Delhi. Instead of trying to force everyone into the same time zone, we've organized teams around timezones, while trying to avoid setting company-wide meetings outside of an hour or two window where everyone can convene.

We've adopted this stance specifically to widen our opportunities in hiring, which means we aren't constrained to hire by time zones or locations. Instead, we look purely at skill sets, going as far as making the application phase of our hiring process anonymous. This has allowed us to hire some of the best developers and employees around the world, and developers in locations that are much less competitive than the Bay Area, for example. By widening our net, our team is more diverse, which increases job satisfaction, company success, and employee retention. 

Incorporate different solutions for different kinds of workers

At Storj, we make very deliberate choices around synchronous vs. asynchronous methods of communication in an effort to respect the ways our employees work best. Synchronous meetings utilize tools such as Google Meet or Zoom to hold live, interactive meetings. But those meetings are disruptive and not nearly as efficient as they should be (we record them, so people who could not attend and participate can still at least observe).

Asynchronous tools allow for employees to address issues at their own pace. Email, design documents, code review, ticket comments, and discussions, etc., are all examples of asynchronous communication; an employee can choose when to read messages. The main thing about asynchronous communication is the participants of the conversation should not all have to be active at the same time. This is especially useful for people who use their working hours to create valuable additions to the business; they're much more productive when they're not interrupted for meetings throughout the day.

On the other hand, there are still times where synchronous work is warranted:

  • Managers are often event/interrupt-driven and need synchronous solutions where they can decide how to respond immediately. 
  • An asynchronous culture of writing also requires a culture of reading, and sometimes it's simply more effective to sit someone down and talk through a document together.
  • You can save hours of video chatting by spending weeks of passive-aggressively leaving code review comments! Haha, just kidding. Programming is fundamentally a work by people for people. The best way to get on the same page about a plan is to spend a couple of minutes using more communication cues than text.
  • Brainstorming or spitballing ideas is always important. Some people do this very effectively with long-form writing, while others don't. 

Extra advice

There are plenty of well-intentioned articles out there offering advice for maintaining productivity at home, but most of it hasn't been helpful or doesn't feel applicable to many. Why, for instance, do you need to get dressed like you're going into the office when you're really just going into the spare bedroom? For some people, this may be what works, but not all of us. The key point is remote employees need to make a mental shift between home time and work time.

Here's some additional advice we've found helps:

  1. Get a workspace - Even if it's just a portion of a room separated by a sheet. If you don't have a separate workstation, it can feel like you're constantly working and never able to recharge. 
  2. Schedule breaks - Remote workers may find that their coworkers lack context about their day and schedule. For example, you may have a 30-minute meeting with one coworker who doesn't realize you just finished a 2-hour sprint planning meeting. Many studies have shown scheduling breaks can help you be much more productive.
  3. Consider your air - In an office, someone else determines the temperature, humidity, light, etc., so it's likely not top-of-mind. But in a home office, you'll need to figure out the indoor climate that's best for you. Are you closed into a little room, or does your HVAC system circulate air well? I found myself losing steam in the afternoons and after a great deal of investigation, I discovered that it's because I was working in a room with the door closed all day—my workspace's oxygen levels were measurably decreasing. I opened the door a crack and everything got better! 
  4. Get a plant - In addition to filtering the air, plants are just—well, nice. It's great to have something green and vibrant near you as you work. If a plant isn't your idea of a good time, at least consider investing in an air monitor to make sure your air quality is as ideal as possible.
  5. Be consistent - Working from home has a tendency to let your work bleed intothe rest of your life and time. Being predictable about your work schedule isone of the most important things you can do, especially if you live with others.Leaving the office is easier when you have the social cues of everyone elseleaving. At home, it might sometimes feel like you're just trading one screenfor another. Consider setting an alarm and make a hard stop for your workefforts so you can be predictable to yourself, your family, and roommates.

Make friends

It's difficult to form close friendships with people when you only talk about business. That's why we've made an intentional point to schedule remote happy hours. Anything you can do to foster friendships will pay off; you'll have happier employees, less miscommunication, better collaboration, and more inspiration. Investing in people always pays off.

As one final note, most of this advice was formed before the pandemic, before the protests (see our blog post about George Floyd and racial injustice here), before the murder hornets, and before, well, 2020. Now, everyone is quarantined during a frankly frightening continual news cycle, trying to work. It's a very different situation. People who've been working from home for years all agree this time period is very different even for them. Please make sure to give yourself and your coworkers understanding, empathy, and space as we all deal with these frankly hard-to-believe times together.

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