Remote work is becoming mainstream. A recent study by Stack Overflow showed that a remote arrangement is the second most sought-after characteristic in a job, beating things like health insurance and expected work hours. The skills that make for a good person to work with in any setting also apply to someone you will work with remotely. What happens is that the fact that you’re not sitting together and often not working at the same time as your counterparts skews the desired skill set towards a particular group of skills. Traits that are useful, but not critical, in office jobs become more important in this setting. Let’s take a look at some of the skills that you need to have to be successful at remote work.
Being able to carry out tasks without direct oversight is a critical skill when you are not working collocated to your peers and managers. As a remote worker, you need to be able to understand the business goal of the task you are working on so that you are able to make autonomous decisions when questions come up. You also need to ensure you have all the information you need when the task is handed to you.
While not the case for every remote company, it is often true that teams will be spread out across many time zones. This would put your company on levels four or five of the “Scale of Remote Working” proposed by Buffer’s Joel Gascoigne. This makes self-direction even more important. If you failed to understand your task’s goals or failed to ask for what you needed beforehand, imagine the delays introduced in your work if you have stop and wait several hours for a response from the other side of the world. This also means that when planning your work you need to take time zones into account. If you know you need answers from someone who is some hours ahead of you, make sure you get to that in your morning.
There are limitations in the information that can be obtained beforehand for any task. There will be times when not all information is available at first. Hence, you should also…
In times of increasingly faster change in all aspects of life, curiosity is quickly becoming the most important trait for individual success. People who are curious can foresee trends. They can link apparently disparate pieces of information to inform decisions - or questions, which are often just as useful as answers.
Curious people tend to try to look for answers themselves before turning to others for help. This enables two things. First, it leads to more original solutions. Curiosity is often directly linked to creativity, which is not only about work typically perceived as “creative" such as the arts but is also about coming up with unique and innovative solutions to everyday issues.
If curiosity makes you want to look for answers yourself, it also means that you’ll be interrupting others less often. And when working remotely, interruptions are worse than they are in an office. When you can't look over someone's shoulders to see what they're up to you’re missing a lot of signals that we use to tell whether that person can be interrupted or not. Are they distracted, or do they look focused? Do they have their headphones on? So when you can’t rely on those signals, your chances of interrupting someone at a bad time are much greater. Therefore, people who are driven to finding answers on their own through their own curiosity have an advantage here.
Even though not interrupting people is important, there is a balance to achieve between that and deciding to call for help when it is no longer productive to work on your own. This is, of course, always a judgment call that is not easy to get right.
Being a good “communicator" has more than one dimension when applied to remote work. The first aspect to this is how well people can convey ideas. Whatever medium a message uses, how it is sent across is always a good indication of the sender’s way of thinking. If the message is conveyed in a very roundabout, complex way, that is a strong indication that the thinking that went on behind that message is also maybe not so straightforward.
The second aspect to consider is the ability to adequately use the appropriate communication for the different sorts of messages that need to be sent across. When should you use email or instant messaging? Who should you CC: on that email? These all depend on a variety of factors which include the content of the message, whether a response is required and the urgency of that response. Also, all of these factors vary a lot between different organizations.
Note that none of this means you should hire only "extroverts". In fact, there are plenty of people who are quite introverted, or just shy, and yet communicate really well online. Online communication, particularly written communication, can actually make it easier for introverts to communicate, leveling the playing field a little bit - another benefit of being distributed.
Dunja Lazic, Content & Partnerships Manager at remote company Toggl, shares this view:
They don’t necessarily need to be extroverts, fabulous speakers, or writers, but only good communicators who are effective in transmitting the message they want to send.
Even though writing well is an important skill under any circumstances, it is even more so for remote work. Plenty of studies prove the correlation between writing skill and higher salaries. For instance, Grammarly published a study where they evaluated the profile of several freelancers on an online work marketplace across different industries and found that those who were better written received better ratings from their clients and commanded higher rates.
Remote companies tend to rely more on written communication. Process is written in a wiki. Status updates are often emailed out or entered into some application. The water cooler chat happens through instant messaging. Often, a large percentage of conversation about work happens through (written) chat tools. That’s why being able to effectively convey your ideas in written is such a huge skill for remote work.
This does not even mean that people have to be good writers in the traditional sense, that is, people who have perfect grammar and are able to write quality prose. While that is, of course, important, there is a lot of more informal writing that goes in during remote work that is also important to master. Think of your team’s Slack channels. There is a lot going on in there that is not formal writing at all (emojis!) and yet some people communicate much better than others.
Care About Your Work
I’ll use a personal anecdote to illustrate this one. A long time ago, I was tasked with doing the non-technical interviews for software developers and testers at the (remote) company I then worked for. The goal for these interviews was largely to identify attitude and culture fit - do these people really like what they do, are they passionate enough that they’ll want to make a difference? So I went in to interview a candidate whose resumé seemed pretty good. The guy had a good amount of experience at relevant places working on problems quite similar to the ones we were faced with. He seemed like a keeper. And yet, during the interview, there was a certain sparkle missing. When talking to someone who is passionate about what they do, it is not difficult to “prod" them in the right direction that will get them talking excitedly about some aspect of their work. When you can’t make that happen, that’s a yellow light.
This guy just could not be phased by anything - he appeared to like every unpleasant situation I threw at him. At some point, the candidate exclaimed: “I'm not allergic to anything”. Well, here’s the thing - you should be allergic. You should be allergic to things you believe prevent you from doing a good job. If you don’t care enough then I don’t want to work with you.
People who are good at their jobs are usually quite opinionated about what works and what does not, and about how they prefer to do their work. You know which tools work for you, and you’d like to use them. You know how much process you like and how you like to structure your work. Mind you, this does not mean you are inflexible and unable to work any other way or to follow existing process. But when asked, you certainly know what you like and what you're allergic to.
And here's a bonus - know why you work remotely (or want to).
There are plenty of good reasons to want to work remotely. Being able to travel, live in a more remote area, being able to stay close to family, or perhaps you work best at unusual hours… Perhaps your significant other has to move around a lot because of their job and you want something that you can keep through those changes. Maybe you’re just allergic to offices.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to work remotely, you should know what they are. Being unhappy at your current office job is not a good reason to switch to being remote. There are good remote jobs and bad remote jobs, just as there are good office jobs and bad office jobs. Yes, people tend to be happier about their jobs when they work remotely. But just as there are people who thrive in remote jobs, there are those who fail.
Remote jobs are more lonely. They require more discipline in terms of setting your hours and goals, at the risk of becoming either unproductive or of completely erasing any boundary between work and personal life. The dynamics with colleagues tend to be very different across remote companies. Also, as being distributed is a more recent way to organize a company, you need to be aware that there is a greater variety in how companies set themselves up to work. Be prepared to find some quirks along the way, and maybe work to improve them.
Just as the rewards are great and finding your stride in remote work is a life-changing experience, you need to do some soul searching to figure out if it’s right for you. If you find it is, then you can hone in on the skills and traits you need to be successful.