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How Remote Workers Can Polish Their Soft Skills to Improve Productivity

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This is a guest blog by Barend Raaff. He is known internationally as a digital innovator in the recruitment and HR tech space. Previous to founding Harver, a leading AI pre-hiring platform, Barend was a partner at digital strategy, concept and development companies in Amsterdam. He and his team were responsible for large digital innovation and communication projects in the recruiting, banking and automotive space.

In recent years, the phrase “Work from Home” has made a monumental impact in the modern workforce. The number of workers who identify with this term has grown by 115% in the past decade!

The benefits of working from home cannot be overstated. It gives employees the freedom to live their life without being cooped up in the same office building, sitting in the same cubicle, looking at the same surroundings, and so on. Remote workers can travel the world (assuming there is an internet connection), raise their children from home, avoid long commutes, and enjoy a wide range of other conveniences. For employers, having remote workers saves money on office space requirements, utilities, and a number of other expenses involved in running the day-to-day on-site.

However, working remote, or running a remote team, does not come without its fair share of challenges. Being as how this concept is still very new to the professional world, today’s remote workers are essentially the pioneers paving the way for the workforces of the future.

Perhaps the biggest concern for companies who give their employees this privilege is productivity. All of the money saved by allowing employees to work from home can be easily canceled out if the staff cannot complete their work efficiently.

Ultimately, success in a remote position comes down to soft skills. Soft skills refer to personal attributes that give people the ability to effectively interact with their surroundings and current situation. These include listening skills, writing prowess, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, etc.

Now, at first, it may seem like an odd claim that soft skills have a huge impact on remote workers – as many spend the bulk of their days working alone. However, when the job requires teamwork and coordination among the staff, soft skills become even more important in working towards a common goal.

Let’s talk about how remote workers can hone their soft skills to be more productive at home, or wherever else they choose to work.

Make Communication Priority Number One

Communication is the key to making the entire concept of working remote function. Studies have found that productivity within an organization can improve by 20-25% if employees are communicating with each other effectively.

As opposed to an office, where back-and-forth communication is easy, remote workers must know how to convey information to team members concisely with very little ambiguity.

Depending on the time difference, communication can become even more important. For example, let’s say there are team members working in both the United States and India (12.5-hour time difference). Lapses in communication or unclear instructions could potentially render an entire day useless. For this reason, remote workers must hold communication as their number one priority.

As much of the discourse in this situation will take place over email, text, or private IM messages, employees must be able to write at an extremely high level, especially when giving directions. Shoddy writing can wreak havoc on productivity for everyone involved. There is perhaps nothing more frustrating than spending the time to complete work, only to realize later that the instructions were misinterpreted due to poor communication.

When typing up correspondence or talking on the phone, remote workers need to be able to simplify things as much as they can and make their words easy to digest. Keep in mind, the best communicators place emphasis on not just the message, but how the message is received. When you cannot communicate face-to-face, there needs to be a strong focus on the other person, and less on yourself.

For employee-to-employee communication, it’s highly recommended to invest in a communication tool that is exclusive to the team. Instant messaging programs like Slack or Skype allow remote workers to converse easily within their own system.

Have a Defined Approach to Problem Solving

When working in an office, tackling issues is much more of a team effort. When you are working from home, you need to learn how to solve problems quickly, wisely, and independently. Many companies these days place a very high importance on problem-solving skills throughout the hiring process.

Big data analytics give hiring managers the ability to gauge people’s thought processes and determine whether or not they are suited for the job, responsibilities, and the overall company culture.

Companies that use AI-driven recruiting tools are able to automatically narrow down job seekers based on credentials, then run a series of specialized assessments to get an idea of a person’s problem-solving capabilities, situational judgment, and adaptability. These are major skills that employers look for in talent. For a remote position, they need to know that you can use them to thrive without supervision.

Working remote is all about independence. Chances are, you are going to be doing a great deal of problem-solving at your job. That being said, your productivity levels depend heavily on your approach.

Start by identifying the problem in its entirety. It’s very possible that there are multiple issues that either stems from this problem or are a factor in the ripple effect. Make a list of all these issues and rank them in terms of priority.

Next, define the goals. It’s important to make sure these goals are S.M.A.R.T.

S – Specific

M – Measurable

A – Achievable

R – Relevant

T – Time-Bound

Now, the next task is brainstorming the possible avenues to get from the issue to the solution. One of the biggest mistakes people make is rushing this part. Jumping to conclusions without proper assessment can create even more problems down the road. Take your time and weigh out all the pros and cons.

Lastly, you should always evaluate your choices after the fact.

What went well?

What didn’t go well?

What can you do to solve the next problem more efficiently?

As a general rule of them, you never want to go to your superiors or clients with problems; you want to come back to them with solutions. This is especially true if you are working remote. Do your best not to disturb anyone else until you are 100% certain that you have exhausted all of your resources first.

There are plenty of tools out there to help improve your problem-solving skills. MindTools has a large selection of programs designed to strengthen your abilities for inductive reasoning, means-ends analysis, coming up with procedures, and more. Ultimately, your approach to problem-solving is what makes you a valued asset; even more so as a remote worker.

Maintain Self-Motivation

When you are working from home, there will inevitably be times when finding the motivation to be productive is tough. Combining all the distractions and the fact that you don’t have a manager breathing down your neck, maintaining your drive will require some discipline.

There are many strategies to keep in mind when it comes to staying motivated day-in and day-out. One of the most common pieces of advice that many remote workers give is to keep your work area and living area separate. If you don’t, it can be tough to draw the line between work and relaxation. Over a long period of time, this can lead to a dip in productivity, and eventually, burnout.

If you have an extra room, designate it as your office. Get rid of all the immediate distractions and make it a place that’s easy to focus.

Another key strategy is to make sure that you venture out from time-to-time. When working from home, it can be very easy to isolate yourself. If you don’t make it a point to go out and mingle with people every once in a while, communication and social skills can slowly start to deteriorate. For the most part, humans are social creatures. If you want to keep your soft skills sharp and stay productive, you need to go out and interact with the world outside your home.

In addition to going out and being social, it’s very important that you stay on top of your physical fitness. When you work in an office, life can be pretty sedentary. When you work at home, it can be even worse. This lifestyle can slowly but surely wear down on your health, self-discipline, and productivity. Whether you prefer to go to the gym, jog around your neighborhood, or anything else, physical activity is great for clearing your mind and staying motivated.

Bringing it all together, making a schedule for your days is one of the best things you can do to stay focused throughout the day. Many professionals and productivity experts claim that time blocking is an incredibly effective method for this. This involves breaking your day up into sections of 25-30 minutes, with a few minutes in between to rest and reset yourself. These time blocks should be designated for focusing on one thing, and one thing only.

For example, maybe dedicate the first time block of the day solely to answering emails or messages from clients. Then, dedicate the time blocks during the day in which you are most productive to the more important tasks that require critical thinking and in-depth problem-solving. Tools like PomoDone use the proven Pomodoro technique to make the prospect of organizing your days/weeks easy. The program is designed to be task-focused while tracking all the time you spend on certain projects.

The system can be integrated with many of the major project management software solutions on the market, such as Trello, Basecamp, Evernote, and more.

A great strategy to add to this practice is a rewards system. For example, if you tackled the tasks you needed to super efficiently or ahead of schedule, reward yourself by playing a quick round of Call of Duty at lunch or any other quick and fun non-work activity.

Most importantly, be sure to dedicate time throughout the day for taking breaks. After all, humans were not designed to stare at computer screens for hours and hours on end.

Be Flexible

Flexibility is practically engrained in the concept of working remote. Companies these days have the ability to serve clients like never before. Advancements in technology have made it possible to work with clients and partners from all over the world. When this is the case for an organization, the typical 9 am – 5 pm schedule doesn’t always apply. While you likely have some leeway as to how your work gets done, you need to be open and willing to accommodate your team, partners, and clients.

For instance, you may have a set timeframe that you will work every day. However, depending on how to spread out your organization or client base is, you might need to jump in outside of regular working hours. For example, if you are based in the Pacific Time Zone in the United States, yet you have co-workers or clients on Eastern Time (3-hour time difference), you will likely need to coordinate with those people from time-to-time, and vice versa.

When companies are looking to hire remote workers, they want to see that you are a team player who is willing to go the extra mile to stay connected. This goes beyond just personal productivity. Being flexible in a remote position enables the entire organization to be flexible.

Now, it’s not expected that you stay glued to your computer 24/7 in the name of flexibility. It just needs to be clear that you are responsive and can come through when needed. If you haven’t already, sync your email, instant messaging program, project management system, and anything else related to the day-to-day on your phone. This way, it is much easier to jump in when you are needed.

Dedicate Time to Thought Leadership

One of the best ways to stay productive in your job is to be passionate. As a remote worker, you likely spend most workdays by yourself and are not directly exposed to mentors and industry leaders.

That being said, you should make it a point to stay updated on what is going on in your field, who the major thought leaders are, what they are talking about, as well as how you can personally contribute value. This type of critical thinking is one of the most important soft skills to possess and can do a lot to maintain both your drive and productivity.

Many workers, both remote and in-office, like to dedicate a small portion to their day to reading up news and blog posts related to what they do. The information or content consumed can then play a major role in the strategies used throughout certain projects. Whether you do your catching up over morning coffee, during lunch, or over breaks, staying in the loop on industry chatter doesn’t just keep you informed, it gets your brain working and encourages you to add your own insight.

For example, let’s say you work in digital marketing. More specifically, in search engine optimization (SEO). As many will attest, SEO is a field that is chock-full of theories, practices, and strategies. Through all the opinions and tested knowledge, more or less everyone is working towards the same goal: get content ranked highly on the search engine for more visibility.

As an insider, there is an endless amount of value you can contribute to the industry because there are no university certifications or degrees awarded in this area – it all depends on how Google’s algorithm evolves. By keeping tabs on your experiences, you can create your own theories and add to the expert conversations.

Consider reaching out to the editors of the industry publications you follow and try to get a byline. This will expose your words of wisdom to a focus group with which you can interact and network with. Or, you might want to start your own blog/content channel. If you choose to go this route, it’s a smart move to start writing on sites like Medium or LinkedIn beforehand. The high traffic on these networks will help to get your name out there in the beginning. Once you have established a following, starting your own branded platform would make more sense.

Thought leadership is a fascinating concept. Just as technology has given people the ability to work remote, it also gives everyone a voice that can be heard by the masses. One of the biggest drawbacks to working from home is you don’t always have the face-to-face discourse with others in your field. It’s much harder to have in-depth conversations, share value, and stay passionate about the work.

That being said, as a remote worker, you are wise to take advantage of the technology and information at your fingertips as means to fuel your dedication while helping your company become an industry leader.

Over to You

Working remotely is both a blessing and a curse. While this type of freedom can work wonders for some people’s productivity, it can have the complete opposite effect on others.

You can be the most technically gifted worker in your entire industry, but if you don’t have the communication skills, self-discipline, or motivation to stay productive on your own, you aren’t doing anyone any good. Most employers don’t take hiring people for remote positions lightly. They need to be sure they can trust the person to buckle down and properly contribute without supervision.

Honing the soft skills necessary to work remote does not normally happen overnight. In many cases, it can take employees several weeks – or several months – to properly adjust to the freedom attached to working from home.

Once you get into a good rhythm, working remote is an amazing capability that allows you to have a fulfilling career without having to miss out on life’s precious moments.

This is a guest blog by Barend Raaff. He is known internationally as a digital innovator in the recruitment and HR tech space. Previous to founding Harver, a leading AI pre-hiring platform, Barend was a partner at digital strategy, concept and development companies in Amsterdam. He and his team were responsible for large digital innovation and communication projects in the recruiting, banking and automotive space.

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1 Comment

Posted by Paul Towers  | April 12, 2018 at 11:28PM | Reply

Remote teams and the use of freelancers is certainly the future of the workplace in my opinion.

Its expected 40%+ of US workers will be freelancers by 2020 and as a business owner it is much easier and more cost effective to hire freelancers for specific projects and tasks, rather than on an on-going basis.

I have a task management startup called Task Pigeon and I use freelancers for design, development, seo and content marketing.

It really has allowed me to 10x my productivity.


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