These are unsettling times. We’re living through a pandemic that will undoubtedly change the global political and economic landscape for generations to come. The global economy is coming to a screeching and painful halt. The fabric of social life is being challenged in ways many of us could have never prepared for. With work shutdowns happening everywhere and school districts shuttering one by one, each of us is being asked to perform in heretofore unfathomable circumstances. For the first time, many people are being asked to continue producing while cloistered away or sheltering in place.
I’ve been working remotely as the Executive Assistant to the Founder & CEO of a Fintech Company in Silicon Valley for over a year. After years of frustrating and stress-inducing commutes into San Francisco’s financial district, my husband and I had both had enough. Parents to three young children, we were committed to finding the ever-elusive work-life-balance lauded in every self-help book. We made a decision that going forward we’d only work with companies that embraced remote work.
For my software engineering husband, this was a much easier task. The jobs for qualified engineers who wanted to work remotely came directly to his inbox. Finding a role for myself on the other hand proved to be a bit trickier. What some people call picky, I describe as intentional. I refuse to do the resume blast job search that usually leads to nowhere. I do my best work, the kind of work that’s truly rewarding, when partnered with ambitious, mission-driven leaders who understand that the foundation of a strong working relationship is mutual respect.
I feel incredibly grateful to have found that several times over the course of my career, and even more thankful to be partnered with an amazing leader in a remote company. In this role, I have the freedom to work from whatever location suits me and collaborate with brilliant people from all across the globe.
Over the course of my tenure in this role I’ve learned a lot about how to collaborate with people you rarely see, how to connect with people you rarely speak to and how to build trust with a leader you’ve never actually met. With this new requirement that we all find ways to be productive from home, I’m sharing five tips for assistants who now find themselves working from home.
Being productive at home requires more intent than you might think. There are a ton of best practices shared on how to work in office environments but few of us know what those would be in a remote-first environment. A major lesson for me when I first came to this role was building a remote-first mindset.
A remote-first mindset is a way of organizing your operations so that the work you do is clear, documented, and communicated proactively to the appropriate people.
What does that mean exactly? A remote-first mindset is a way of organizing your operations so that the work you do is clear, documented, and communicated proactively to the appropriate people. It should inform the strategic approach you take to completing work so that everyone is left with a clear understanding of what’s been done. The primacy of documentation is difficult to overstate in a remote environment where everyone is working in different locations and across multiple time zones.
A remote-first mindset also means that you find ways to creatively collaborate to ensure work doesn’t become siloed and overwhelming for a small group of people. Working remotely can make it easy to forget about more tertiary stakeholders and see you attempting to take on too many things solo. Find ways to connect, whether that be opening up a “Working Room” virtually – where team members gather and work quietly with occasional questions or entertaining interruptions – or setting up channels in Slack with a bot scheduled to check in and ask strategic questions that everyone has visibility into. Doing these kinds of things can open up your siloed work station at home and turn it into a genuine collaborative remote work environment.
Setting up a space to be productive will take time upfront but will save you a lot of stress down the road. No matter where you live, set aside a place for your laptop and a second monitor. If you don’t have a second monitor, order one. If your place of work refuses to reimburse you and you absolutely can’t spend on a second monitor, consider purchasing a keyboard and setting your laptop on paper reams.
Setting aside a place to work will help to ensure you’re able to stay productive over the long term, not just send a few emails. In time you may notice neck keeps hurting, your eyes get strained, or you start to develop carpal tunnel because you didn’t invest the time and energy to create a dedicated workspace. As a result, your productivity will likely plummet.
If you don’t have a working desk at home, order one. If you can’t, claim a coffee table or even the backyard or patio (weather permitting) as your working space. Having a hybrid set up can work as long as you are diligent about transforming the space each time. Once it becomes a mix of whatchamacallit’s, it will be impossible to stay organized and find your sanity.
When calendaring remotely there are some additional moving parts. Gone is the competition for a limited number of conference rooms – phew! The details matter in remote meetings, getting everyone on a call feels like a bigger deal for some reason than everyone in person. When you’re in person, adjusting to requests in the moment seems a lot more plausible, if things go wrong on a call there’s nowhere to hide.
Most of us are probably using Zoom, Hangouts or Teams. If you haven’t worked with any of these before, familiarize yourself with them now. Most of these systems are straightforward and your organization will likely choose one or two to work with. General best practices here include adding the link to the virtual room right in the “location” section of the invite. Additionally, you should be sure to add the call-in information to the body of the message.
Calendars get complicated, and sometimes getting every single stakeholder and like-to-knower into a meeting can actually be impossible. (Especially given the set of circumstances we’re currently in, where people have children at home now). Leverage the RECORD feature on these platforms to help preserve content and decision making so that those who are unavailable have an opportunity to quickly come up to speed.
Prioritize What Matters
The essence of remote work is change, during this time of uncertainty change is happening at a breakneck pace at nearly every level of decision making. This is likely to be true for your organization as well. Priorities will shift so remain flexible while insisting on maintaining continuity in key areas.
As an Assistant this means your 1:1 with your executive. Do not, I repeat, do not let this meeting slip because you are remote. I am a mother of three young children working from home in France with a boss on the other side of the world and I do not let this meeting slip. This is the most important meeting for the success of your organization, team, or department. It’s up to you to ensure that it continues and remains a highly productive touchpoint.
Asking the right questions during your remote 1:1 will help to set you up for success during this period and ensure that you set yourself apart as a trusted partner by demonstrating that you can remain focused and productive even during global upheaval. You are your executive’s manager; help manage them by finding out which of their core needs aren’t being met. In her article, Creating Predictability and Stability in Time of Rapid Change, Lara Hogan identifies our five BICEPS as Core Needs. Belonging, Improvement/Progress, Choice, Equality/Fairness Predictability and Significance represent what each of us needs in order to be successful in the workplace and in life. Your 1:1s are an opportunity for you to be the mentor your boss needs by honing in and supporting places where there are gaps.
Working at home has its perks: no hectic commutes, being free to hang out in your PJs a little longer than normal and of course the flexibility. However, there are some unique challenges you need to be aware of and prepare for.
One of the things I’ve learned while in this role is that setting clear boundaries is one of the most important things I can do for my sanity and productivity. At first I found myself enjoying the option to pick up and put down work at any given time, only to realize I was picking up way more than I was putting down. When working from home it’s easy to feel like you need to “overperform” to answer every Slack ping or email right away so people “know you’re working”.
How do you set boundaries when working remotely – leverage the resources already at your disposal. Establish blocks of time that allow people to see what you’re up to and for how long. This helps to set expectations clearly with your team or executive so they know when they can expect a response. With the recent outbreak, my calendar now includes “Home School” blocks that mean they shouldn’t expect a response.
I also set aside time to process email and review the calendar to ensure everything’s ready to go. People across the org can open my calendar and quickly get a download on what I’m up to when they can connect with me. If you don’t have calendar sharing set up, this may be a good opportunity to get into the practice. That may not work at your org, try setting your status in whatever direct messaging app you use.
On the weekends, if you haven’t explicitly set aside time to catch up on work you missed during the week – turn off your notifications. Study after study has found that when we don’t take time away from professional stressors, our health suffers. Do not put your health at risk – especially during this time. Set boundaries and respectfully maintain them whenever and wherever they’re challenged.
Entering into this new style of work isn’t going to be easy and not everyone’s unique skillsets lend themselves to this more isolated working style. However, in times of necessity, finding ways to make remote work productive can mean the difference between your organization’s success and failure.
Check out my collaboration with Join The Officials if you’d like to learn more and take the Remote Assistant Success course!