Benedikt Lehnert

OMG
I’m working remotely, now what?!

Best practices and tips to help you stay sane, focused and boost your productivity while working from home, a coffee shop or really anywhere in the world, because distributed teams are a reality and remote work is the future

Table of Contents

OMG I’m working remotely, now what?!

Working remotely is much less scary than it may feel like at first. It’s much less about the tools than it is about the people. If in doubt over-communicate. Write a note, message in chat, or simply email. If it’s urgent, message to hop on a quick call. When you do that, give context why it’s urgent and what it’s about, ideally what you need as an outcome. That respects people’s time and makes things efficient. We’re all human, and we’re in this together. It’s also a lot of fun not being distracted by endless meetings and to have time for deep work as well as getting together as a team on group hangouts. You got this!

The future of work is here

The reality is that more and more (knowledge) work is done outside the office and the 9–5 hours. This fact and the transition to remote work and distributed teams is accelerating daily as tools are getting better and more companies embrace the benefits of their employees not being bound to a specific work place.

At Microsoft, we work to reinvent productivity and shape the future of work; our mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. To do that we need to continuously live in the future we want to enable for the billions of people that use our services around the world.

The office as the sole location to get work done is an illusion, in fact in most cases the opposite is already true. The 9–5 hour window is proven to be counter productive when it comes to empowering people to do their best work. And as being part of a global workforce/team we need to evolve the way we work. When one person is remote, the whole company is remote.

Working remotely, from home or a coffee shop has its benefits the same way meeting face to face in the office does. Building flexibility into our culture and becoming excellent at both will make us better across the board. In fact, most of the following remote work best practices can make your time in the office more productive as well.

Space and Time

When you’re working remotely, you’re not necessarily always working from home. More on that later though. If you find yourself working from home two factors are most important: your space and your time. Be mindful about how you design both, because they have a huge impact on your personal productivity.

Space

There’s only a few things needed with regards to your space: find a corner or room in your place that makes for a comfy work place. Ideally you can identify several of these spots in your house so you can move around, but don’t worry one spot is perfectly sufficient. I move between my actual home office, the big farm table in our dining room and the comfy leather chair in the living room. These places serve different purposes depending on the type of work I’m doing.

Get ready, set, go!

When you get ready to work from home follow a routine that gets you into the right mood and mindset. Many people prefer to follow the same routine that they have when going to the office. Let people in your house know that you’re going to work from home, communicate your schedule and availability so that expectations are clearly set.

Make it comfy

Working from home does give you the benefit of having access to more “comfy” seating, cozying up by the fire or sitting at the kitchen table. This is great when you are in a video chat or consuming information on your device. But following best practices around ergonomics still hold true (sitting up straight, right angles, not craning your neck when doing work that involves heavy keyboard usage is still a good idea).

Make sure your work space(s) are comfy and ergonomic, so you don’t end up with a neck ache or worse from unhealthy positions. A good chair, proper desk (maybe a monitor if you need more screen and/or for better ergonomics) and some good lighting is all you really need. If in doubt, set a timer and get up every hour to move your legs or invest in a standing desk. Go for a walk, it’s a productivity hack! (I just bought a desk treadmill for rainy days, thank you StayFit budget!)

Can you hear me? Is my camera on?

Most cameras that are built-in to our devices are pretty good for video calls. BTW you should always have your video on if there’s no really good reason to have it off. It may feel strange at first, but it makes all the difference for the human-to-human connection. If you want a sharper image, auto focus, fancy depth of field you can buy anything from a $99 external usb webcam to an actual digital camera with video function worth several hundred dollars (I personally think that’s overkill).

Get a good set of headphones and a microphone. You can get those separate or just get some AirPods (Pro) or Surface Earbuds (if you can get your hands on them). Some people prefer noise cancelling and/or over ear headphones, that’s your choice. I prefer my AirPods because I take them everywhere, making my phone and headphones my mini office on the go.

Note: In high internet traffic situations (like when the entire world is suddenly going to work from home) or when you’re working on a lower bandwidth connection it may make sense to switch off your video or leave it off by default.

What if I can’t work from home all the time because I’ll go nuts?

I want to acknowledge that some people need to be around others (or any other stimulation such as sound) to be productive. I do, too. That’s when I decide to either go to the Soho Office (not an option right now) or a coworking space or simply work from a coffee shop. Sometimes it’s also just nice to sit outside instead of in the house. If you’re someone who just needs some audio stimulation there are great (free) websites that play the sounds of various environments such as a coffee shop, train station or the forest. Just search for them online. Super fun!

Working from home or remotely doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of human interactions. Be sure to meet with friends or coworkers to either work together in the same location or just hang out and chat. It’s important to cultivate the mix that’s right for you. More on how fully remote / distributed teams can make this work in the “Working as a team” section below.

Time

Almost more important than your space is your time. Most of you probably know yet are not fully aware of how fragmented our time gets when we’re in an office. That’s ok, often necessary and good. The benefit of working remotely is that you can use the time you have in a more flexible way, reduce fragmentation and increase focus time to do deep work. To do that you need to be intentional about the meetings that are important for you to call into and the available time slots around those.

Work hours and how to use them

While the classic 9-5 work hours are outdated it helps to set work hours for yourself, so you feel a certain kind of structure around your day. 8 hours is a good rule of thumb, accounting for 3-4h of deep work and the rest for meetings, calls etc.

I recommend (and am fairly strict about this with my own time) blocking off time for deep focused work vs. time for meetings/calls/1:1s. In fact, my whole day (not just work) is designed for each day of the week which makes it a lot easier for me to plan, get stuff done and not drown in anxiety.

A tricky thing with work hours is that it is important to communicate with your team so that everyone know when you’re going to be available. That may feel strange or uncomfortable at first (being present in the office makes this part a lot easier), but if we all do it, it’s expected and not a problem at all. In fact, we should probably do this more often in the office too: “Hey, I’m doing some deep work right now, and won’t be available from 1-3pm”.

I personally block the first half of my work day for deep work, starting right after school drop-off and workout. That works best for me, because I work on East Coast time, and can so load balance with the number of calls and meetings that will hit me when everyone wakes up in Redmond, SF and such. Some days I move things around so I can ensure I get to meet with the folks on the other side of the world, in Europe and India, so I do meetings and calls in the morning.

Deep work, focus and flow

Since, as a company, we’re really good at setting up meetings (as in we have A TON of meetings), I will focus first on deep work. Also because I think we don’t get enough of this. This is the kind of work, where you get uninterrupted time (for a few hours) to focus solely on what you have to / want to create and get done. It’s the opposite of feeling busy. It’s where you feel in the flow and just doing work. This kind of work should feel really good and you feel accomplished once you take a break. Try and use the days you’re working from home to get lots of this type of work in.

Team work makes the dream work

There are some social contracts and habits that we’ve built as a company and in society as a whole that may get challenged by people not working in an office. Some of those are helpful other are not useful anymore in the knowledge work era. I already briefly touched at the 9-5 work hours concept which is pretty much useless already given that we’re a distributed company with coworkers in all corners of the world. Another concept that’s overdue to be changed is that presence equals productivity or productive outcome. We all know this, yet often times it’s still an existing (subconscious) bias at work.

Trust

Working remotely and as a distributed requires trust (just like working together in an office), especially since it may feel like some of those social contracts above are being removed. This trust exists between managers and their team as well as between team members.

We need to trust in each other and our process. It’s important that we establish this trust through honest, candid and direct communication. If something feels off, let’s talk about it. Especially since working remotely is new for many, we need to tune into each others concerns and experiment with what works for the individuals and the team as a whole.

My learning is that most of the time the solution lies in less process, more autonomy and better communication.

Rhythm

I will talk about the rhythm that has worked for me and my teams now and in the past, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. Find a rhythm that works for you and your team. Experiment. Focus on ensuring people feel connected and present, without overloading the day with video calls and meetings. Presence is not just a synchronous thing. Most of the work can be accomplished asynchronously. Optimize for that.

As I said a few times before, working remote and as a distributed team gives us a chance to challenge and optimize our existing rhythm and way of working. It allows us to make it better both for working from home (or anywhere in the world) and in the office. That’s a real opportunity right there!

I typically start the week on Mondays with 30 min 1:1s. That’s pretty much all of my Monday, meeting with my team members from across the globe. These meetings are to check in on how they’re doing, how their projects are going and if there’s anything I can do to help them succeed. These 1:1s are video calls on Teams.

We, as a team, also start the week with virtual standups in our special “Standup” channel in Teams. These are in written form, bullet point (emoji-rich) short lists of what every single person on the team is working on that particular week. A great way to keep the whole team update asynchronously without having to meet in person.

Over the course of the week we make extensive use of the “General” channel in Teams for any sort of discussion/topic that is of interest for the whole team. Be sure to rather over-communicate that not communicate enough. Don’t expect immediate responses here, but trust that your team mates will take a look at the messages and will respond. If you need someone’s feedback urgently, ping them in a DM. Share work early and often in Teams. Your team mates can give feedback and share ideas, it’s inspiring, makes your work better and creates a sense of presence and connectedness.

On Fridays we have our weekly team meeting where the whole team gets together for 1 hour to talk through top of mind topics, share work or discuss some bigger product related topic that we all chime in on.

At least once a quarter we meet with the entire team in the same location for a few days to see each other in person. We spend time working together, often on larger topics that requires our collective creativity and brainpower, and we dedicate time to go out for lunch and dinner to connect and have fun as people. We find these quarterly team meetings incredibly valuable because they pay into our morale, trust and culture accounts as a team, more on that below.

We also have several “casual” channels where we share interesting things to read, music or videos.

Meetings

Working remotely and in a distributed team has many challenges, especially in a company that literally runs on meetings. Here’s what I’ve learned and some things I find to be useful.

One great thing about working remotely and having to do meetings is that there’s no commute time. No walking to buildings (you still need to get up and move your legs though), no looking for rooms in places where you really can’t figure out where the heck this room is, no trying to find out which cable will actually make your slides appear on the projector. Yay!

First order: Assess which meetings really have to be meetings and which could be asynchronous chats, shared documents or simply an email. Meetings should be to make decisions, move things forward, brainstorm (careful with this one, it can feel like work but be unproductive) or simply to hangout (more on this later).

When you schedule meetings make it clear that you communicate agenda, goals and outcomes upfront. Ensure that everyone is aware of those. Everyone should have their video on, be respectful and give people a chance to chime in. Sometimes (if the meeting has lots of people) it makes sense to nominate a moderator to read through comments, questions and suggestions in the chat, or to simply ensure people get to speak.

Making use of the meeting chat can also be generally useful to document action items, notes or simply share files that people can revisit later. If some people can’t join, record the meeting (maybe make this the standard for your team) and share all notes and files after.

Write more, talk less. Optimize your team’s workflow for asynchronous collaboration by writing down thoughts, ideas or proposals. Not only does it help you clarify your thoughts, it allows your team mates to catch up at their own time. Send pre-reads before meetings and document the meeting in extensive notes so people that couldn’t attend can follow up. Writing is a skill we all can practice, so just start doing it and you’ll notice how you’ll get better fairly quickly.

How to do design critiques, brainstorming or design sprints?

I heard some people ask about how to do design critiques, brainstorming or even design sprints remotely. These all have their very own level of complexity, but the short answer is: you can do all of those remotely. I will try to at least share some suggestions and recommendations here.

Design critiques / share outs / brainstorms are all fairly straightforward. Get on your Teams call, be clear about your agenda, goals and decisions and make extensive use of sharing your screen(s). It can help to use real-time design tools such as Figma if you want to dabble in the same file all at the same time. The latter is probably more useful for brainstormings and design sprints.

Design sprints are a little trickier (at least if you want to follow the original GV method). It helps that there are several tools (from white board over notes/documents to design tools) that make it easy to collaborate in real-time. I suggest do decide on which tool matches best with the intent of every day of the sprint (the purpose of each sprint day is typically really clearly defined). Try to make as much asynchronous progress per day as possible, have people meet over video in smaller groups and do a recap call with everyone at the end of the day as well as a kickoff call in the morning to get started.

But what about the water cooler?

At times, it can feel lonely to be working remotely. You miss the water cooler chat, hanging out with your team mates and just have a casual conversation. Well, good news! We can use our tools not only for work, but also for fun. Create a “Watercooler” or “Lounge” channel in your chat service of choice and go to town! Or: Why not just set up 20 min for a coffee/tea break for the entire team: You all schedule the time, people make sure they bring their fanciest cup of their favorite hot beverage and y’all enjoy just hanging out on a video call chatting about what’s new, sharing funny cat videos and the latest Baby Yoda memes.

Inspiration and a culture of sharing

One of the trickiest things to make work when working as a distributed team is knowing what people are working on. Transparency around this can often feel heavy and forced. Instead, you'd want to cultivate a culture of constant sharing. Working on a new design or prototype, just throw it into Teams for everyone to see.

People can comment, share feedback or simply high-five you to keep going with your awesome work. Same goes for documents, notes, slides and pretty much any other thing you create. It can be scary at first, but it’s just your team mates, and since you all are doing it, it becomes normal and fun to make each other better.

Pro-tip: Do a screen recording with you talking over your design / prototype / slides and share that with your team mates. That way they get your full train of thought and can listen to you as well for an added personal touch and connection.

Tools and services that can help you make working remotely a success

As I have said before, managing and working remotely as part of a distributed team comes with its own challenges. And while success depends almost entirely on the people and culture in your team/company, there are many great software tools and services out there that can help you establish great workflows. I’m thinking about publishing a more curated list of tools here, but for now and in the light of the current situations I’d encourage you all to check out what the folks over at remote.tools have put together. The site is neatly organized based on categories, so it should be fairly quick to find what you’re looking for.

Acknowledgements and thank yous

This document was created in early March 2020 when the Corona Virus outbreak had many companies, Microsoft included, switch a large part of their workforce to work from home. This document does not aim to be complete but instead is a collection of guidance, learnings and best practices that I acquired over the years working and managing remotely, and thought to be helpful for my fellow managers and team mates at Microsoft.

There’s a lot of great thorough research and writing on working remotely out there. If you have resources that you think should be included, please get in touch via email me at benedikt.lehnert+remote@gmail.com or ping me on Twitter

A big thank you to my colleagues and my team for helping me bring this content together within 24 hours. Thank you to my manager Jon Friedman who’s taken more than one chance on me building remote teams at Microsoft over the past 5 years. Thank you also to my wife and partner in crime, Cat Noone, who’s an inspiration, sounding board and fellow remote design leader that I learn from every day. And a big thank you to all folks who have reached out on Twitter, Linkedin and other channels asking if they could read this. I hope it will be helpful for you. Please send feedback!

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