Seven Pillars of remote work

When work and home blend together into one, telling yourself to “just stop working” rarely works.

July 15, 2022
Table of Contents

1. Build trust: Show your hands

Speaker and founder of Science of People Vanessa Edwards starts all of her company video calls meetings the same way — with a big wave. When you first meet someone you’d think that your attention goes directly to their eyes, face, or perhaps what they’re wearing. But according to eye-tracking studies, they’ve found that the very first place you look is someone’s hands. Researchers believe it’s a leftover survival mechanism. Back in caveman days when we were approached by a stranger, we’d glance at their hands to make sure they weren’t carrying a rock or spear that could kill us. So showing your hands is one of the easiest ways to build trust. You’re basically saying “I have nothing to hide.”

Here’s how: Make your hands visible during your video calls! Most webcams are not positioned for this, which means you might need to scoot your computer or camera back a bit to at least show the top of your hands.

People trust this guy.

2. Save time: Record and share videos is a fully distributed team without a physical office. Our team is based in Japan, the UK, Saudia Arabia, Canada, India, and the Netherlands. One of our best practices, in particular for sharing design feedback, is to record videos. This is useful because of the time zone difference. Rather than schedule a call, our designer Joe screen records a 20 minute video via Quicktime sharing his feedback on our new home page design, during a time that fits his work schedule. I can open it up the next morning to review the feedback and then follow up with questions via chat or a call.

Here’s how: There’s plenty to record instead of doing live: Reviewing a new feature, giving feedback on a meeting, proposing an early-stage idea, or doing a quick weekly update. Recording shouldn’t replace actually calling your team weekly, but it provides another avenue of communication that can speed things up without having to wait hours/days to align time zones and delay meetings.

“In distributed teams, demo videos are a gold mine. If a designer wants to get across a change they need, making a small quick prototype and explaining it in a video is gold.” – Matt Mullenweg, Founder of Automattic, the company behind WordPress

3. Get nuanced: send voice messages

Your kid won’t stop crying, your cat just peed on your leg, and you’ve been forced to work from home during a global pandemic. You’re a little bit less patient than usual. When you’re in a bad mood, research has found that you’ll tend to read people’s messages the wrong way. But oftentimes the reason we text/message is because we don’t need to jump on a call. An easy solution is to record 30 second – 1 minute voice messages. This allows people to catch the nuances of what you’re saying, and you’ll find many people leave voice messages back.

The difference between a call is that the voice text is usually shorter, but also that you can respond to the message whenever you want. It’s easier to make your point and — call me human — I like actually hearing people’s voices (crazy, I know). On China’s WeChat messenger app that has 1 billion + users, voice messages make up a whopping 16% of all messages sent and over 200 million voice texts are sent every day. I really hope that the trend continues. Frankly I’ve been finding it a lot more enjoyable to send messages now, and I feel a lot more connected now that I can mix up communication between chat, recorded voice, and video calls.

Here’s how: It might be a little awkward at first, but after a couple of tries you’ll quickly get over any fear of sending recorded short messages. Almost every platform has a voice record feature – Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Slack. For Slack I use a plugin called Standuply. Pro tip: Voice messages are good for making short points and giving short updates. But if you find yourself sending a stream of more than 5 voice messages in a row, it might be better to do a regular call.

4. Make meetings less awkward: turn off the mute

When I’m on call with a small group (from 3-10 people) and people are on mute, I get an uneasy feeling that I’m talking to a brick wall. Without the added noise of hearing people’s voices and rustling mics, wouldn’t this increase my concentration? Actually, no. We depend on feedback cues and signals to know how people are responding to us. This rhythm or “music” of language is called prosody. Norwegian linguist Mattias Heldner found that even deaf children who never speak a word naturally develop the equivalent of the “mmhss” and “yah’s” in sign language. These cues reassure us that there’s someone listening, make the conversation flow, and allow us to adjust our message and tone. Without them, communication can break down — or at least feel more awkward.

Here’s how: Let people know that you prefer to keep off mute. While there are plenty of ways to mute someone during a call, my rule of thumb is to only mute when we’re in a big group or webinar. And obviously, if there’s someone in the call with a screaming baby that’s not participating in the conversation, ask them to mute. When you have a larger group that is muted, ask them to periodically unmute for a minute to give an applause, or to say yes/no to an issue. This simulates a real group discussion.

5. Get enough sleep: you’re making more enemies than friends

When you forego a good night’s sleep, you’re more likely to mistake someone’s neutral face for a scowl or a frown. A study out of UC Berkeley found that without quality sleep, you’re prone to misread facial expressions. Sleep researcher Dr. Matthew Walker explains: “Insufficient sleep removes the rose tint to our emotional world, causing an overestimation of threat. This may explain why people who report getting too little sleep are less social and more lonely.” This is a double-edged sword. People can subconsciously tell when you’re sleep-deprived by looking at your face, and will tend to find you less attractive and are less likely to trust you.

Here’s how: When you’re tired, opt out of video calls and stick to voice or chat. Check out Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep for more tips on getting great sleep.

6. Boost confidence: breathe properly, and always warm up

Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons when she became prime minister. The before and after footage shows her transition into a more confident speaker with a slightly deeper voice.

When you begin a sentence and speak after breathing out, your voice is deeper and more confident. When you start speaking as you’re inhaling on your in-breath, it’s higher and squeakier. This is public speaking tip #1 straight from Toastmasters. (But please don’t overdo this, or you might sound like Elizabeth Holmes).

Secondly, vocal warm ups. In an office environment, you chat with people before meetings and your vocal chords are already warmed up. But virtually, the first time you speak may be on that conference call in the morning. So before my first meeting of the day, I always make funny noises and stretch out my mouth, just like I used to do in high school theater class.

Here’s how: The beauty of doing Zoom calls is you can record your video and review it later (Personally, I use for video). While it’s painful to hear your own voice, try this and observe how you’re breathing and talking. Take note and practice. Repeat. Check out this post about vocal warmups. You could also sing in the shower before your first call of the day.

7. Separate work/life: Rearrange your furniture

When work and home blend together into one, telling yourself to “just stop working” rarely works. If you’re lucky you have a separate room to work in. But if you’re like me, your dining table and work table are one and the same. The simple answer is to move your table to a different part of the room. I move our dining table towards the big kitchen window to get some sunlight, and then after I’m done I’ll move it back for dinner. This is a small change, but environmental cues and this routine is a sufficient trigger to signal “I’m done for the day.”

Here’s how: Think about whether your WFH setup is ideal. You probably don’t need to tear down any walls, but you could:

  1. move furniture to create a different atmosphere and then move it back at the end of the day
  2. a small touch like moving books/pencils/pens to your work table at the start of the day and removing them at the end of the day and
  3. place/remove your tablecloth to signify the start and end of the workday. Check out this DIY home office video.

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