March 17, 2020

The Capiche community guide to remote work.

How to work from anywhere, get things done, and stay sane.

by @maguay

Founding editor @capiche. Writer. Amateur photographer. Information architect. Older work: @zapier, @AppStorm. Personal blog: @techinch.
maguay's avatar

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

For those who have worked remotely for years—decades, even—it often started as a gradual process. We worked freelance first and figured out collaboration remotely on individual projects. That’s easy enough: One task, one set of deliverables, a deadline and a scope that keeps things focused.

Then it's only a small step to go remote full-time. Freelance, consulting, a small business on your own, or a joining a fully remote company—the skills transfer and scale and you figure out you can do the same great work anywhere.

So it seemed inevitable that remote would gradually spread and become increasingly popular over time. As FYI’s Remote Work report found, 96% remote employees they surveyed recommend working remotely, and 95% of the knowledge workers surveyed in Zapier’s Remote Work Report said they’d like to work remotely.

Then the world shut down, and suddenly people across the globe are working remotely for the first time.

Remote works great in the best of circumstances. 2020 is far from the best of times. When remote work gets thrust upon you without any prep after, years of working in the office, things can get crazy, fast.

How do you hold meetings? How do you collaborate, brainstorm, plan, prioritize, and move things forward? How do you sketch ideas on a whiteboard? How do you stay caffeinated?

Fresh coffee beans and a trusty French press help with the latter. For everything else, here’s our crowdsourced guide to remote work, backed by our small team’s experiences of working remotely since we launched and in other remote teams before that.

First things first.

You’ve got this.

If you already spend most of your day in front of a computer, the same tools you use to get work done in the office work at home, too. And if you have colleagues at satellite office around the world, or ever have freelancers join in projects, you already know how to work with folks in different places.

The changes in software over the past decade—as desktop software was replaced with subscriptions and web apps—have made remote work the new normal. Even when working in an office, if you’re chatting on Slack, adding comments on documents in Google Docs and designs in Figma, tracking code changes in GitHub, sharing documents on Dropbox and Box, writing notes in Notion and Quip, you’re using the same tools that remote teams rely on.

The only difference now is you have to rely on them. There’s no other choice. When you go remote, you’re on your own, and the only other humans are on the other side of a screen.

But you already send Slack messages and emails to colleagues down the hall instead of taping a post-it to their desk or tapping them on the shoulder. It’s not that different.

So let’s get it figured out.

Place. Time.

9 to 5 at Main Street Office just turned into 9 to 5 at dining room table.

Fix that. The dining room table part, anyhow. Keep the hours.

“If you work from home, one of my biggest tips is having a dedicated space that is only used for work,” shared Yac CEO Justin Mitchell (@jmitch) in the most popular response on Capiche’s remote work tips discussion. “Having a dedicated work room makes all the difference,” agreed Integromat growth lead Arpit Choudhury (@iCanAutomate).

The idea is, you need somewhere that says “work” to your brain. Go to the office in your home then leave it when you’re done. The set place “helps you focus and get into your work mode when you need to,” says @jmitch. Get up, get ready for the day, dress for the job you want to do, and head to the office even if it’s only a few steps away.

You might not have a dedicated space—your apartment might be too small, or already filled with others working at home. So at least find somewhere to mark as your workspace, somewhere reasonably good for work. “Few people are productive in slouchy positions, and they are also bad for your back,” advises Wirecutter’s Melanie Pinola. So make sure you have a good desk and office chair, then “do as much as you can to separate that space.”

Now, I have some bad advice to add. I like to move around during the day, change up the view, and move away from the afternoon sun. That sometimes means working from a dining room table, other times from a desk.

That fits with Alan Witt’s (@kil0ran) advice to change the scene. “Spend at least one day per week not in your home office,” he advises. The typical advice there—one I tend to follow under more normal circumstances—is to go work at a coworking spot or coffee shop once a week or so. That’s not the best idea right now, but the logic of changing up your environment remains. It’s hard to be creative when staring at the same wall all day, so don’t pin yourself to one spot. The kitchen table might be the break you need after a while.

Speaking of, time.

“Create a set schedule of working hours and keep it,” advises Brendan Ciccone (@brendanciccone), “otherwise, you'll never stop.” @jmitch said the same, with a benefit: “Keeping a schedule helps not only you but also helps your team know when you’re working. This helps prevent interruptions during focus times and keeps you accountable.”

It’s easy to work at all hours nowadays. Email and Slack notifications don’t stop at 5, after all. That’s when you have normal social obligations and a commute; it’s even easier to get pulled back into work at all hours—thinking about work and looking at notifications, anyhow, even if you’re not actually being productive—when working from home.

Separating your work space helps; blocking out time helps more. Sure, you could do random things during the day and catch up later. But odds are you’ll be better off focusing on work during set work hours and keeping a regular schedule. So set a time—and perhaps experiment and find a time that you prefer better than 9-5 if that works with your team.

Then stop. Stop at the end of the day, and stop sometimes throughout the day, at least as @brendanciccone said "Take breaks and go outside at some point,” even if it’s just to your balcony or porch. There are no water cooler chats in home offices, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop to grab some water, either.

Productivity. Tasks.

A good setup and schedule give you a good start. Then it’s time to actually get work done.

To start off right, @kil0ran suggests to “Do that thing you've been putting off first thing in the morning.” That’s good productivity advice, in the office or not.

You’re working on your own, so your day ends up being largely self-directed apart from meetings. But your team still needs to know what’s going on. @brendanciccone recommends to “Keep tasks somewhere everyone can see them so you never have ghost work.” It’s great if you’re extra productive and ship things your team didn’t expect to be done yet. But it’ll slow the whole team down if you don’t get your tasks done on time and leave others waiting.

Perhaps the best part of self-directed remote work should be that you have plenty of time for uninterrupted, focused work, but even that’s not a given. Between notifications, meetings, and team members reaching out at all hours looking for help—along with all the distractions of being home—it can be as hard to focus at home as in a busy open office.

“Use your calendar efficiently,” suggests @iCanAutomate. “Block time for focused work and have fixed slots for calls.” Just like you’d schedule meeting rooms in the office, schedule calls. Be available to jump on a call when it’s helpful to your team. Schedule far more calls than you normally would, even, to help navigate the adjustment to remote work and the lack of interaction. But there’s no more reason for calls all day long than a day full of random chit chat at the office.

The same goes for checking other apps. Plenty of people would advise turning off work app notifications or only checking email later in the day. Neither are great options when that’s the only way you know what the rest of your team is doing in a remote office. Instead, schedule times for chat and email—perhaps first thing in the workday to catch up, and later to check in again—but don’t check it all the time. It’s ok if you miss a few things in Slack.

Then, always have something else to work on if needed. “Plan, plan, plan,” advises @kil0ran. “If you hit a roadblock have something on the subs bench ready to pick up and go.” If a tool breaks or you can’t get ahold of a colleague, switch gears and focus on something else. Fixing things might be more difficult remote, but there’s always something else you can do in the meantime.

People. Team.

Teamwork isn’t the same when everyone’s in different places. Sometimes it’s better. Work across timezones, and you can hand off work and keep things going at all hours—something my previous editorial team at Zapier used to get content edited while we slept.

Other times it’s the same or worse. People are people. They’ll drop the ball, mess things up, forget about things you needed them to do. They’ll misunderstand you, especially as calls and chat remove much of the context and emotional clues. That may be worse in stressful times.

So talk. “If something is bugging you, talk to a team member,” suggests @kil0ran. “The very act of talking out loud often solves the issue, and it's something missing when you work from home, particularly compared to open plan offices.”

You can’t go tap them on the shoulder, but you can jump on a call. Slack and other chat apps work for most conversations, but when something’s going a bit off the rails and you’re feeling annoyed, it might be better to see if they can jump on a quick call. I’ve found Slack’s voice calls perfect for this. They’re a quick and easy way to chat over something without the pomp and circumstance of a meeting.

Then, in meetings, @brendanciccone suggests to “Always use a webcam during meetings, if possible, to have more presence.” Capiche founder Austin (@awwstn) agrees: “I think it makes a huge difference in facilitating productive conversation, preventing distraction/multi-tasking, and simply getting a bit closer to the experience of an in-person meeting.”

That’s a good reason to stay dressed for the job you do, and to keep your work area tidy and away from your everyday life if possible (to try to avoid the BBC Dad’s viral interview). It’s also an ok excuse to be a bit more casual too, perhaps on a Friday call if you want, and share a bit more personally than you typically would in the office. You could even have virtual lunch or drinks over a call, if you want. Your call.

Above all, trust your team. They’re good people you’re working with for a reason, people you’ve already worked with at the office. Trust their best intentions and go from there. “Work with people you trust, work to develop that trust, and start from a point of assuming good faith, not bad faith,” says @awwstn. One common objection to building fully remote teams is that it’s hard to know if people are being productive or not—as a manager, or as a colleague who’s waiting on someone to finish a shared task. But it comes down to people—“a person who wants to slack off can easily do so in the office as well,” says @awwstn—and remote only highlights the people problems that might be easier to overlook when distracted by the office.

Products. Tools.

Ok. You’ve figured out somewhere to work, got a schedule, and planned time for meetings and focused work. You know what you’re working on, for now at least. Now it’s time to get things done.

Ideally, you’ve already got a laptop from work, along with something of a home office setup (if not, Wirecutter has some testing-backed recommendations for office chairs, desks, keyboards, monitors, and more). All you need are software that makes remote work easy.

You need four main things: somewhere to chat, something for calls, somewhere to write stuff down, and tools to create together. Everytime we’ve chatted about remote work at Capiche, it’s some combination of those four that people rely on.

Chat: Somewhere to quickly share anything.

Slack team chat screenshot

Announcements taped to the elevator wall or bulletin board. Post-it notes left on your desk. Things people shout across the office. Things people tap you on the shoulder to say. Things you talk about in groups in the hallway. Things you might otherwise email people about.

There’s a lot to talk about in the office, a lot of ephemeral stuff that together is the pulse of your company but individually is closer to noise. That’s what chat’s for.

Chat is the place to say anything. It doesn’t have to be that profound or well-written. Chat’s in the moment, the pulse of what’s going on in your company. And it can be anything you want it to be. Here are some tips to make the most of it:

  • Organize. Make channels for each part of your company—individual channels like #marketing and #devops for smaller companies, more detailed channels with prefixes like #marketing-editorial and #support-technical for larger companies with more specialized teams. Make fun channels for chit-chat, even, such as #fun-cooking to share recipe ideas for some less serious downtime.
  • Automate. Channels don’t have to only be for people; bots are welcome too. At Capiche we have a variety of channels (including the one mentioned above) that show notifications, stats, error messages, survey results, and more to make chat a way to see what’s going on, much as a dashboard TV might in the office.
  • Focus. You don’t have to read every message in chat. Focus instead on the channels most closely related to your work. Noam Benamy (@NBNite) then suggests to star channels as “a great way to separate the channels you use the most from the pack.”
  • Search. The best thing about chat is that it’s written down and searchable so people can catch up on what was said or go back and find something later if needed. Use advanced search filters to find old documents and advice, without having to ask colleagues for it again.

Don’t have a team chat app yet? Slack is the crowd favorite, loved for its fun design, emoji reactions, a wide range of integrations, and smart notifications that manage to always show notifications only on the device you’re using at the time. Other options include:

  • Microsoft Teams, a chat app included with Office 365 Business subscriptions, is popular for Microsoft Office integration and built-in Skype-powered calls. As Henrik Jeberg (@HenrikJeberg) said for his team that uses Office and Sharepoint already, “Teams has been a great unifier. The office integration works really well for your daily tasks.”
  • Twist, a “distraction-free teamwork app” from the Todoist team, is a new take on team chat built around focused discussions. If you find the always-on nature of most team chat distracting, it’s a different, calmer take to try.
  • Basecamp, the popular project management app, includes Campfire team chat along with its task management tools—and only costs $99/month, no matter how many people are in your company (and has a free 3-project plan for smaller teams).
  • Missive combines email and team chat, if you want to use the two most popular online communication tools together.

Calls: Somewhere to have meetings.

Zoom screenshot

Boardrooms. Meeting rooms. 4 chairs pulled in a circle. One-on-one talk behind closed doors. Company-wide town halls.

Remote offices still need face-to-face. Video calls aren’t only for large-scale teleconferences. They’re also to catch up with a colleague, to jump on a call and discuss things, to hold standup meetings and planning meetings and more.

Chat’s for sharing ideas and files and status updates. Calls are where you talk through those ideas, plan for the future, figure out how to fix problems, and move stuff forward. Voice calls work; video’s better. It’s the closest you can get to actually working together while remote. And as @awwstn mentioned previously, it lets you see the emotion and facial context you’d otherwise miss in chat or voice calls.

I’ve found it helpful to keep two call apps around: One for quick calls, another for meetings. I use Slack calls (or FaceTime or Messenger, even) for one-on-one calls as a quick way to catch up or get more context. Neither work great for large groups (Slack only lets you have 15 people on a call, for instance) but they’re handy for quick calls.

Zoom, then, is the call app I’ve found best for team calls, and the one most popular on Capiche (enough that they’re willing to pay for Zoom over using free alternatives). It doesn’t look beautiful, but it does reliably keep calls going even on less-than-perfect internet, and that’s the reason it’s become so popular over the past few years. It can record calls and save a transcript of what was discussed if you want. And, it’s free as long as you keep your meetings under 40 minutes—over that, and only the person who started the call needs a paid account.

Other great call apps include:

  • Google Hangouts Meet is another great group video call option—and it’s included with G Suite, with live event streaming available with G Suite Enterprise. It looks nicer than Zoom, but you’ll need to use Chrome for best performance. One convenient thing (or annoying, if you use another call app) is that every Google Calendar event already includes a Hangouts link.
  • Whereby (formerly Appear.in) is a super simple online call app. Make a room name, then have people go to whereby.com/yourroomname to join the call. Or start a call with a slash command in Slack. Perfect for those unscheduled quick calls.
  • Microsoft Teams includes Skype-powered calls, for a slightly more powerful alternative to Slack’s built-in calls. Even if you don’t use Teams, the original Skype is still around, too, and is a great way to make actual phone calls from the computer.
  • GoToMeeting is the other standby call app, along with its sidekick GoToWebinar for online conferences.

Commentary (Notes): Somewhere to write things down for the record.

Notion screenshot

Now that you’ve shared ideas and made decisions, it’s time to write things down. You need a shared place where your team can save details about work, progress updates, postmortems after projects are finished, and more.

Some teams accomplish that with an internal blog. “Today we use an internal blogging system instead of email. The system is called P2,” mentioned Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg in a recent interview with Stratechery’s Ben Thompson. And then, Mullenweg mentioned using the other two apps mentioned above: “We use Slack for real time chats and things like Zoom for calls and meetings, and that’s the tech stack.”

Zapier, the remote team I formerly worked on, originally used P2 for a similar internal blog, before switching to an internal tool called Async. Older teams often used intranets like Microsoft Sharepoint for similar purposes, where dev teams might use Confluence.

The newer option is to use a notes app instead, something like Notion, Quip, or Coda to write things down and share them with the whole team. Each are notebook apps that include spreadsheet and project management features so you can write down plans and turn them into projects all in the same app. They each also let team members store personal notes alongside team notes shared with the whole company—complete with comments and collaborative editing on the latter. Or, if you already have a bunch of internal documents in Google Docs and Word, Slite is a new team notes app built around pulling in your existing documentation.

At Capiche, we rely on Notion—and after Slack and Zoom it was the next most popular remote tool in the Capiche community. But the most important thing isn’t the app you pick. It’s how you use it.

In remote teams, you really need to write everything down. Record ideas and decisions, record what was talked about it calls for those who weren’t present, record what worked and what didn’t. Write down team policy so you don’t have to repeat yourself. It might get messy, you might end up with a million random notes and be a bit too reliant on search. But when you get stuck and need something, you’ll be glad it’s in your team notebook.

Collaboration: Tools to work together with your team.

Google Docs collaboration screenshot

Here’s where the paths diverge. Ask people about their remote work tools, and everyone mentions a chat app, calls app, and notes or internal blog tool. Then they talk about task-specific apps—and every team and role has something that works best for them.

Writers and marketing teams swear by Google Docs for its suggested edits, real-time editing, and commenting. Devs couldn’t imagine life without GitHub or GitLab for tracking code changes and merging everyone’s contributions. Designers rave about Figma’s collaboration tools or InVision’s comments. Customer support wouldn’t get done without collaborative inboxes like Help Scout or Front. And almost everyone fills the gaps with shared files in Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive.

The core thing is collaboration. You can still use Photoshop and Sublime Text and iA Writer and all the other software on your computer to get work done remotely; most of us do. But when works’ finished and ready for comment and feedback from your team, you need tools built around collaboration. Maybe you’ll use those by default; maybe you’ll stick with old favorites and use the newer tools when you’re ready to share. Either way, you’ll need tools that are built around collaboration. The good thing is, most newer tools are—and for the ones that are (especially design, coding, and writing apps), it’s easy to use them alongside their collaboration-focused alternatives.

There is no single app to recommend here—but there are bound to be collaborative tools perfect for your role (and if you can’t find the right tool, ask on Capiche—odds are someone in the community knows the right tool for your job).

Whiteboard, paper, somewhere to draw and brainstorm.

But sometimes there’s not an app for that. There are plenty of brainstorming and whiteboarding apps, tools like Miro and Conceptboard and InVision’s Freehand feature. But sometimes it’s easier to just grab a pen and paper and sketch your ideas.

If you have a whiteboard in your home office, great. Otherwise, a notebook and your favorite writing instruments work. Mockup what you’re thinking, jot down ideas, then hold them up during a team call or snap photos and include them in notes or team chat.

It’s not the same as sketching ideas together on the same whiteboard, but it still works. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, and sometimes the simplest tool really is the best.

We’ll figure this out together.

Remote work doesn’t have to be scary. It's not going to be easier than the office, aside from the lack of the commute. But it's also not going to be much harder. Think through your work, make sure you've got the tools you need, then give it a try. Adjust as you go along. It'll work.

Have any remote work tips we should include, stuff you’ve learned over years of working from home or have figured out over the past few weeks? Share them in the discussion below, and we’ll keep this article updated with the latest tips. Or email—seriously. We’d love to help you figure out how to make remote work work for you, and if there’s any way we can help, just ask.

The remote work resources to learn more.

Want to learn more about remote work? You’re at the right time in history. We’ve gone from piecing the tools together to having nearly every new software being designed with remote work in mind. And the teams who grew through the shifting landscape have the most to share about it.

Here are some of the books and resources we’ve found most helpful in making remote work:

  • Remote, a book with short, actionable tips from the Basecamp team about working remotely, as a followup to their bestseller Rework. Also worth searching for remote content on the Basecamp team’s blog, Signal v Noise, as their team often explores ideas first on their blog before polishing them in their books.
  • The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work, a free online book from the Zapier team about how their company and others have built fully remote teams.
  • The Year Without Pants, Scott Berkun’s narrative book about his first year working at Automattic, the company behind WordPress, for an on-the-ground perspective from one of the larger remote employers.
  • The Remote Manifesto, an online set of 7 principles that help GitLab work remotely, based on the Scrum and Agile manifestos.
  • Buffer’s The State of Remote Work, FYI’s The Remote Work Report, and Zapier’s Remote Work Report put data behind the ideas of remote work and help you know what to expect.
  • Notion’s Remote Work Wiki pulls together a number of other resources, including newer guides to working remotely.

Image Credit: Header photo by Chris Benson via Unsplash

FORMAT WITH MARKDOWN; DRAG AND DROP IMAGES
sarah's avatar
@sarah (replying to maguay )
6 months ago

Love this

3 points
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @sarah )
6 months ago

Thank you!

1 point
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