Working Remotely

4 Skills Needed to be Successful at Remote Work

In 2015, 23 percent of employees reported doing a portion of their work remotely, up from 19 percent in 2003, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. “Remote working is a global phenomenon,” wrote Adrianne Bibby and Ann Rozier.  “A Gallup poll found that 37 percent of American workers have worked virtually in their careers, a four-fold increase since 1995.”

But despite the growth in workers who identify as fully remote – as well as job listings seeking remote workers – there appears to be a disconnect between how someone who has worked in a traditional work environment can acquire skills needed to excel in a remote role.

I recently tweeted about sentiments I hear when talking with people who dream about remote work:

I spoke to seven women who work remotely as freelancers, business owners, or employees to learn more about the skills they think are most vital to be successful in a remote role. Below are four skills someone seeking to work remotely will want to master.

Strive to become an expert communicator

Here at Piktochart, we have 12 nationalities represented on our 60-person team, and a whopping 15 languages are spoken in the Piktochart family. When working as a remote team member across timezones and around significant cultural differences, it can be a challenge. Successful remote workers work to be communication ninjas.

“Communication is hard, remote communication is a lot worse.”

“It’s safer to assume you’re speaking a different language than the opposite. Bad communication is everywhere. The tiniest slip of the mind or finger can undermine a carefully planned communication strategy: the more complex it is, the faster it will fall to the wayside,” said Liz van Dijk, VP of Business Services at Percona.

As conflicts or questions arise, she reminds her team of these seven communication core principles:

  1. Assume good intentions. First and foremost, assume those on your team share your positive intent.
  2. Beyond good intentions, do not assume anything else. Confirm your clear understanding of everything, and take your time to do so.
  3. Seek multiple perspectives. When part of a communication chain, accept that every other link before you was likely imperfect. Where appropriate, ask others about their interpretation.
  4. Acknowledge early. When receiving communication from someone that does not seem to compute, clearly inform them as soon as possible.
  5. Establish context up-front. When distributing communication, clearly define it as either fact, opinion, or a directive before taking action.
  6. Be concise. Aim to be as short and unambiguous as the format allows.
  7. Forgive yourself and others. You’ll need to do this constantly.

“Being remote actually allows you to practice intentional and thoughtful communication far more,” she said. “Own this skill and let it be a second nature to you.”

To improve the level of communication within your organization, you could invest in workplace communication tools, which make communication between team members (remote or not) much clearer and easier.

Claim ownership over the process – start to finish

Kat Loughrey, a Digital Consultant & Social Media Specialist, says a skill she identified as missing when she first started freelance and remote working was grasping her newfound control.

“Self-control, control of your time and decisions, control over budget, all of these things you can’t play the victim anymore or put off stuff to red tape or office politics either (like you might have in an office). You must have confidence to take control of everything – for the sake of your success and happiness.”

Angela Rollins, who works in Marketing at Tortuga, points to the ability to self-manage as a skill every remote worker needs to succeed.

“A skill I’ve needed is the ability to push projects forward on my own – decide what needs to happen next without needing to consult anyone. In some traditional office spaces, there can be a lot of people looking over your shoulder, more tendency of some managers to micro-manage… with remote work, not only is there nobody micro-managing me, my face-to-face interaction with my co-workers is so reduced that it’s just not efficient to grab other people’s opinions really quickly at all the steps along the way.”

Intentionally recreate the watercooler

One of the most frequently said pieces of advice I’ve heard when talking to remote workers boiled down to a simple concept: Taking breaks from work actually benefits your workflow in the long run.

The tasks remote workers engaged in during their breaks varied, but the common refrain was to identify what you will do in your workday breaks and then make it a point to take them routinely.

Arielle Tannenbuam, Community Champion at Buffer, explained that the most vital skill that has contributed to her success as a remote worker has been to learn how to build breaks into her work day.

“I definitely took for granted how many breaks are built into a traditional office job. Everything from casually chatting in the office kitchen, walking to another part of the office to do something, or taking a walk to grab coffee with a teammate,” she said.

“As a remote worker, it’s very easy to get overworked and forget to give your brain a rest. It might seem like I’m getting more done because I’m working more hours, but the work itself is less focused and more scattered, so it’s not the best quality work! So learning how to take care of my brain throughout my work day has been a really important skill.”

Sarah Hawk agrees. Hawk has built and managed communities in the tech startup space for the last ten years. She is now Head of Community at FeverBee, and spends time managing UXMastery on the side.

“I’ve had to work hard over the years to become disciplined – not at getting my work done, but at putting it down,” she said.

Hawk said that she found it’s important to find ways to stay stimulated by doing tasks that don’t involve the professional projects she is working on.

“You don’t have the same opportunities to connect with others when you need to bounce around an idea, or to go out for an impromptu lunch with colleagues,” she said. “I manage that by alternating blocks of solid work with other things that I need to get done, like exercising or hanging out the washing. This helps with balance because it means that I stay on top of tasks around the house or helping out at school.”

To reach this balance between work and life, Hawk starts her workday at 5am so she can finish at 3pm to spend time with her kids after school gets out.

For Laura Winton, a content creator and social media freelancer, being removed from a physical office location felt solitary at first. She deemed expanding her network by meeting new people was not the best use of her time.

Today, she feels exactly the opposite. Building her professional network is not just a break from her workday, it has become vital to her creativity.

“Taking time to build professional contacts, friends, and a network amongst people who work remotely has been so beneficial for me in every part of my work,” she said. “Outside input and inspiration for your work is very important. I had to take control of building a professional network and community around my new workstyle. I really delight in the opportunity to meet people with new perspectives, whereas before I might have kept my network more grounded in my niche, now I’m looking for people who share my values and are doing great work because I think there are just universal things I could be learning from them.”

Establish a workspace that works

Aimee Charlton, Digital Community Outreach Manager with Best Friends Animal Society, has been working remotely for 16 years. She takes this idea a step further.

“Create a dedicated work space with reliable and preferably fast Wi-Fi,” she recommends. “Set it up for healthy posture, comfort, and efficiency. Your dedicated work space shouldn’t be in a random spare room in a corner – inspirational vibe is key! I love the feel of my office and enjoy being in it. I also allow light into my office on purpose.”

Charlton said when she first started working remotely, she felt like she was playing hooky if she moved from her home office to a new environment like a coffee shop.

“Don’t feel guilty going to a coffee shop to work for a periodic change up,” she said. “For some reason that was really hard for me even though at the office I would take breaks to get coffee or lunch with colleagues.”

Remote workers who are also digital nomads must be able to demonstrate they are reliable, no matter the exotic environment they find themselves in.

“Your perceived reliability is only as good as your internet connection. Plan it well, wherever you go. If you rely on Wifi, make sure your phone has 4G as backup. If you rely on your phone, bring a battery or charger and even carry a backup hotspot on a separate network. Don’t miss the important phone call,” said Liz van Dijk.

In the end, it’s important to remember that the idealism around remote work is sometimes like the pedestal we place startup founders on in popular culture. Some tend to only see the benefits like skipping a long commute or having the freedom to travel as a digital nomad. We forget that being successful at remote work takes a specific skill set and also requires sacrifices.

“Remote working is not for everyone,” said Aimee Charlton. “Know your limits and boundaries. If you need to be in a building with people physically present to get the energy, direction, and connections you need to feel motivated, then working remotely isn’t for you.”

A version of this post originally appeared on

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