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Big Ideas

How To Become A Self-Management Superhero

These days the "office" is anywhere you can plug in. It's empowering, but it also means we must cultivate a new set of self-management skills to succeed.

Increasingly creative careers are location independent. Almost all of us are “working remotely” in some capacity – whether you’re a manager who works from home once a week taking conference calls, an entrepreneur working on the road while traveling, or a graphic designer, film editor, or copywriter who works full-time from a home office with all the amenities.

This shift is nothing new, of course. But as it becomes more entrenched – not just a way we work, but the way we work – it’s changing the “currency” of creative collaboration. The skills required to succeed as a remote worker are not the same as those required of an office worker. Without the “facetime” and watercooler catchups provided by an office environment, a new set of skills – centered around self-management and proactive communication – are becoming essential. A few skills you’ll want to cultivate to succeed as a remote worker:

1. Write well.

In the book, Rework, 37signals founder Jason Fried notes, “Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.” You write more everyday in emails, text messages, and IMs so make an effort to write clearly. When you can’t see the person you’re communicating with, it’s easy to misinterpret tone or verbal cues. It helps to be concise and use simple language.

2. Know the business case.

Inquire with team leaders about the context of your work. You may be writing a tagline for a campaign, say, but how does that line fit into the client’s overall objective?  What is your company’s stake in the client, and how does your output best represent your company or brand? What is the financial consequence or benefit? Having this information in your back pocket can help you ask the right questions and create more informed work.

3. Practice consistency.

The number one challenge managers have with remote workers is not physically witnessing productivity.  It’s easy for them to imagine you doing laundry, eating ice cream, or watching reruns on the company dime. To alleviate this concern, establish a pattern for consistent communication.  Be at your desk at certain intervals, do regular check-ins, and be responsive when problems arise. If you’re known to be accountable there will be far less suspicion.

4. Ask too many questions.

Shane Pearlman, an expert on distributed teams who co-runs the user interface design firm Shane and Peter, calls this being “artfully intrusive.”  He advises to “keep asking questions, whether you want to or not.” The communication gap inherent in remote teams requires constant double-checking. In person, you may “see” a confirmation of understanding from a co-worker. When working remotely you may need to seek confirmation: “Do you understand me?” or, “How can I help you understand this better?” It may feel like you’re being a nuisance but clarity is king.

5. Perfect informality.

The water cooler effect. It’s tough to drop by the office of a co-worker when you’re not located down the hall. Yet, unscheduled informal encounters can be the lifeblood of an organization. For this reason it’s important to purposely build in hang time before or after virtual meetings and learn about the people you work with. Hone your chat skills. The more you know about your coworkers, the easier it will be to find information where and when you need it, and become a source of information yourself.

6. Seek stability.

The future of teamwork requires constant change and a resulting adaptability. Seek a stable center.  Given the turmoil, what is it you need from your employer or team to avoid burnout or becoming overwhelmed? What patterns of stability can you construct to keep pumping out exceptional work? — How Do You Work? What’s your approach to working remotely? Any tips on managing co-collaborators and clients from afar?

More Posts by Scott McDowell

Comments (18)
  • Racó Nómada

    The best friend of remote professionals are the coworking spaces 😉

  • Matthew

    This is a really important topic- highly relevant to myself and others I know. Thanks for the encouragement and helpful tips.

  • Jbb3511

    I am a construction consultant that spends 8 months on the road. I am completely mobile. The most important aspect of my work life is organization, using both technology and personal practice. Sometimes it feels like OCD.

  • Christoph

    I still need to figure out how to really work from home. My previous boss was quite reluctant to the idea, my current one is quite open. There some goods tips in the article, establishing a fixed day in the week which you’ll spend in the office is one possibility, I think.

  • David Drake

    face time is definitely essential… working remotely day in and day out can become quite isolating creatively.

  • Miked

    I’m a freelance motion design art director. Up until recently i ran a studio but have decided to go it on my own using the freelance designers i’ve come across over the years.
    The key for me is the schedule.
    Once i’ve got client approval for the idea it’s just a matter of finding the designer with the right skill set and putting a timeline on it – i don’t give a crap really what the designer does as long as the work is up to scratch. Because i always pay on a per-job basis rather than a daily/hourly rate it doesn’t concern me whether he/she goes to the beach.

    It’s so much better than having a 9-6 life, i thoroughly recommend it.

  • Agent_J

    I’m not a remote worker (only reason is policies of my current division) but I’ve found some of the points useful for even my in-office work, particularly #3.

    My suggestion to that, which clearly doesn’t apply to every work environment, is to be careful of manager assumptions and perceptions about work schedules such as that they may not perceive time worked by you outside of their sechedule. My experience was a previous schedule of starting 1.5 hours after my manager did vs. my current 1 hour before he does. With the later start time my manager’s perception was that I wasn’t working the minimum hours even though I was working longer hours than I am with the earlier start; 40 per week now compared to 50-60 before.

  • Julia Chanteray

    It’s really important to allow (and schedule) time for coffees and catch up meetings with colleagues, freelancers, and all the people you talk to by email. We’re still cavemen/women at heart and we can never establish and maintain trust unless we can smell the person and make sure they’re not a tiger coming to eat us

  • Kevin


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  • Georgia

    amen from here,too.

  • Kendrick Disch

    Working with the freedom of location and schedule is a 5 year goal for me… I realize freedom of schedule is pretty tough, but as long as 75% of the time I’m free to work where and when I want, I would be pretty happy with that.

  • Mun


  • JMonit

    Awesome tips. Most of them I already implement from years of freelancing since 2001. Very good things to follow for people who are starting up there careers as a remote worker.

    Loved the post.

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  • TailormakeME

    I run my Australian SEO and Content company from Estonia… it’s a quiet little country in the Baltic. I live amongst the trees and animals. It’s sort of like Middle Earth. Having a good girlfriend helps to crack the whip lol. Also a simplified task-app like DO (from Salesforce) helps you juggle everything without all the unnecessary features offered by other apps.

    Also it depends who you are and how you work. I’m quite sociable but I don’t mind isolation either. I can’t speak the language here and the locals are indifferent to coloured people. But… like i said, I don’t mind 🙂

  • Naim Sheriff

    Too many meetings and email doesn’t go well. Gather all the questions/feedback and do it in one chunk! And don’t be afraid to use smileys 😉 Go Behance!

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