Working Remotely is a Skill

Hawley Brett

As many companies are shifting to remote work, it’s important to recognize that working remotely is a skill, in and of itself. It might seem obvious when put so bluntly, but it’s worth pointing out, because we can’t assume that we can switch to working remotely without needing to learn how. While there are many articles about strategies for remote work, here I want to focus more on the meta issue, and what changes when we start thinking of remote work as a skill.

If you set out to learn a new skill, would you expect to master it your first time trying? Of course not.

So it is with remote work.

If we understand working remotely as a skill, we’ll be better prepared to level up on it, and we’ll have more accurate expectations about how this process will go, for us personally, and for our teams.

Learning new skills is hard

Let’s start by recognizing that learning new skills is hard. Since it’s new, fundamentally you’re not going to know everything about it when you start. You might know very little. It’s often frustrating. You often fail on your first few tries, learning by experience.

If you’ve suddenly gone remote in the last few weeks, and you’re struggling with it – that’s okay. It’s normal, and it’s not your fault – you are simply learning a new skill. And of course, we’re not only shifting to remote work, but also dealing with the ramifications of a global pandemic. If the past few weeks were not your most productive – forgive yourself. If you manage others, forgive them too.

Learning new skills requires time

The idea of a “learning curve” is that, when you’re learning something, you won’t be as good at it at first, but as you learn over time, it will become easier. Expect that there will be a learning curve to going remote. People will figure out more and more what works for them. You’ll find your rhythms, spaces, and habits that help. Your team will converge on what processes and tools to use after a period of experimentation. You’re simply not going to have all of these on day one – developing this learning takes time. It’s better to bake that into your expectations than to expect that everything can go on smoothly as if there was no real change in going remote.

We were thrown into the deep end

Being thrown into the deep end can be a good way to learn new skills. Some people thrive on this. But it can also be way too much too fast. Since most people shifting to remote right now did not do this voluntarily, they might be relatively ill-equipped to make the shift. For example, people with roommates, who are now all staying at home due to shutdowns, may not have a quiet space in their house to work. People might have child care suddenly, since schools are closed. Disruption to daily rhythms and lack of social connections can exacerbate mental health issues. We’re not just going remote – we’re also dealing with the effects of an international crisis.

If we recognize that we were thrown into the deep end, we might be better equipped to deal with the situation, because, well, we know we need to keep ourselves from drowning, and, eventually, get good at swimming.

If right now, you or your teammates are thrashing wildly in the deep end, that’s okay. Certainly, it’s not the ideal place to stay, but it’s worth recognizing that that’s where we are, so we don’t expect the impossible from ourselves or others. We won’t be winning swimming races right away. We might need to start, even, with treading water and using the side-stroke (the safest stroke, if you really do need to swim to safety. For real. I used to lifeguard).

Dedicate time for your team to learn remote working skills

Since we’re going to need to learn to swim, consider dedicating time to evaluating and improving tools, processes, and team culture that help teams work remotely.

Set up a means to solicit feedback from team members about what’s working, what’s not, and what they might need that could help them.

Take the time to read up on strategies for remote work, and give yourself the space to learn them, forgiving yourself if you’re not a pro on Day 1.

Think about ways you and your team can grow the remote company culture to have more opportunities for connection and fun, and how to be inclusive. For more resources, check out our other blog posts on remote work, and the recording of our Live Q&A for product teams, “Being Human in the Absence of Humans”.

It’s going to be important to adjust to these times with intentionality, compassion, and openness to learning. A good attitude towards the learning process will go a long way.