Working from home

Remote Work Etiquette Rules

When you’re trying to figure out how to be the best remote team member you can be, it helps to take a step back and think about how you do things. How do you show up for work every day? What does showing up mean when you’re behind a screen? 

When we work in physical offices, we take for granted that our teammates can see when we arrive and when we leave. That they can tell when we’re happy or stressed or sad or excited or busy. 

When we’re working from home, it’s almost like we’re working in the dark. If someone doesn’t say, Hey, I’m here, we may not realize that they’re right there with us. 

Quite often, they’re not: Most remote teams have people working across different time zones. When communication is asynchronous—that is, happening at different times, based on schedules or time-zones—it tends to be very work-oriented and efficient. How do you overcome that to form relationships? How do you show personality, kindness, and empathy?  

These are just some of the things we need to think about when we’re trying to be better at being remote. Luckily, remote work isn’t as new a concept as it might seem. Although it has risen in popularity in the last few years, and of course, increased dramatically in 2020, many people have been working remotely for decades. And not just working, but thinking about ways to organize work and collaborate, reflecting on the subtleties of remote work and its intrinsic challenges and figuring out how to behave so that we can be happier and more productive as remote workers.

This knowledge about how to behave in a way that is courteous and generous in remote work is what is commonly referred to as remote work etiquette.

In defense of etiquette

Do you hear “etiquette” and think negatively of it? Most of us associate the word with snobs or elitists. And that makes sense—there’s an aspect of aristocracy to the idea of etiquette. But if you look at some of the first etiquette manuals ever published, you’ll find that what they recommend as good behavior is pretty much what we would consider basic human decency. You’ll see rules like “if you blow your nose, don’t subsequently wipe your hands on the tablecloth.” Or “do not spit in a cup when it is passed on to you.” Keep in mind that this was a time when cutlery and dishes were sparse and people had to share them. 

So they’re not so much about being posh as they are about promoting basic hygiene, controlling savage impulses, and ultimately helping people not just to survive but to coexist. 

Think of the etiquette rules of a place you know and frequent. What purpose do they serve? When taking the subway, it’s best to wait for the people inside the car to come out before going in. When using the escalator, it’s good to leave the left side of the step empty so that people behind you who are in a bigger rush than you can get through. 

Subway station
Photo by Nicole Y-C on Unsplash

On the subject of subway etiquette, there are two things to note:

First, that these are rules, not laws. You and a friend won’t get fined for occupying both sides of the escalator step. So it’s almost like people have been thinking about how to coexist inside this very complex space that is the subway station and silently agreed that there are certain actions that are good. That when you take those actions, things work out. And when you don’t take them, problems happen. And these problems, which can be caused by one individual, can affect hundreds of people inside the subway station. 

Second, that these known and accepted behaviors aren’t by any means obvious or “natural.” Someone using the subway for the first time is likely to break the rules because they don’t know better. If they’re lucky, someone will kindly point them in the right direction, or they’ll see a helpful sign that suggests how to behave.

This is all to say that, although etiquette gets a bad rap, etiquette rules are generally just things people have found helpful to keep things running smoothly in the places they occupy together.

Remote work rules

Here some of the behaviors that contribute to a happy, productive remote work environment. 

How to show up for work

  • Be visibly active or online. If you use a team collaboration tool that enables you to be visibly “online,” being online equals showing up for work.

How to make yourself known

  • If you have a profile, fill it out. Make it easy for team members to know who you are, what you do, and when you can be reached. Add a clear picture of your face, your name, your location, your timezone, and your job title.
  • When communicating with a team member for the first time, introduce yourself. It can also be helpful to provide additional context, such as who you report to or what project you’re involved in.
  • Take part, or at least acknowledge, public discussions taking place. Be engaged in what happens in your virtual office. Participate in polls, contribute to discussions, even if it’s just with a thumbs-up. 

How to communicate

  • Use your status as a communication tool. If you’re using Slack, or even WhatsApp for work, use the status field to let your teammates know if you’re available or at lunch or a meeting.
  • Use the right channels. This is one of the things even a newbie can get right if the channel creators or admins make the distinction between channels known.
  • Share complete thoughts. This is very important. Communication in a virtual setting is mostly asynchronous. Even if the person is online, you shouldn’t expect an instant reply. They might be chatting with somebody else. Or they might have left the computer and forgotten to change their status. Plus, when you share incomplete phrases like, “Hey” or “Are you there?”, that tends to trigger a notification each time, which can be very disruptive. Remote work culture places a big value on efficiency, and sending complete, detailed messages is very much in line with that.
  • Communicate efficiently, but stay human. Write clearly and concisely. Writing too much or in a way that’s confusing or ambiguous can be stressful for the reader and lead them into error. So it’s important to be efficient. But careful not to be so efficient that you deplete your communication of any warmth. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask how someone’s day is going for the sake of efficiency. You can be efficient and personable at the same time.
  • Use emojis. Without visual cues, it can be hard to understand subtle forms of expression such as sarcasm or dry humor. By using emoticons, emojis, and GIFs to express our moods and feelings, we can communicate more clearly.
  • Write as if everyone’s too busy to read. People tend to reserve the principles of information architecture for external communication. We know the readers of our blog will probably skim our content, and so we use headers and bullet points to help them. Yet, when it comes to our team, we assume they are interested and willing to read large portions of text. But if you think of your own reaction to lengthy emails, you’ll know that this is a wrong assumption. Your team members appreciate content signposts like any other busy, distracted reader. 

How to share

  • Make sure everyone has access to what you are sharing. One of the most frustrating things in the day-to-day of remote work is being asked to look at a document and finding out you don’t actually have access to it.
  • Use video messaging when possible. “Why type it when you can show it?” That is the catchphrase for video and screen recording app Loom, and it’s true. Sometimes it’s easier to walk someone through a process or interface. We tend to want to do that live because that’s what we’re used to. But as we mentioned before, in a remote workspace, not everyone is working at the same time. So rather than make your Japanese coworker meet with you at 9 pm so you can show them something, send them a video message that they can watch when they’re wide awake.
  • Share task and project updates. Contrary to common belief, remote employees work more than office-based workers. But doing isn’t enough: in remote work culture, communicating about what you are doing is also important. Establish a weekly check-in via email or your team collaboration platform to share what you worked on during the week and what you will be working on next.

How to meet

  • Make sure you actually need to meet. Should It Be a Meeting? helps you decide whether what you want to discuss should be a meeting or something else, like an email.
  • Check your team members’ availability before sending out invites. This is to ensure everyone is available to attend the meeting, at least in theory.
  • Add a Zoom link and an agenda. Rather than sending multiple emails related to the meeting, send a single one with all the information.
  • Be brief. Set a reasonable duration for the meeting—30 minutes to 1 hour is the average length—and respect that.
  • Prepare in advance. Don’t force team members to wait while you shuffle around looking for files or figuring out how to use a certain tool.
  • Turn on your webcam. Seeing each other’s faces helps you connect with one another. Keeping your webcam off while everybody else’s is on sends a message of disengagement.
  • Mute your mic if the room you are in is noisy. You can unmute when it’s time for you to speak.
  • Don’t multitask. We can hear you typing.
  • Avoid private messaging. It’s distracting and a form of multitasking.
  • Give lots of acknowledgment. Smile, nod, give thumbs up etc. to show you are listening and engaged. 

How to resolve conflict

  • Hop on a call when things get tense. If a discussion in chat starts getting tense, move it to a call. Face-to-face, real-time conversation can clear up misunderstandings and dispel assumptions of negative intent.

How to collaborate

  • Tag to draw someone’s attention. In most team collaboration tools—Google Docs, Slack, Basecamp, Trello, Asana—tagging is a way to call someone’s attention to something. If you don’t tag them, they might not see it. But—and this is very important—only tag someone if what you are posting affects them directly, for example, if they need to take action in regards to what you are posting. If it’s a general announcement about a project they are not involved in or only marginally involved in, do not tag them. 
  • Let them know you’re done. Establish a way to let your coworkers know when you’re done with your part of a task. That could be sending an email,   reassigning a task, or marking it complete on your project management tool. Again, it’s important to not just do, but to communicate what you do.
  • Learn how to give constructive feedback. Rather than saying, “This doesn’t work” or “Remove,” explain your logic, and try do so courteously so as to not hurt anybody’s feelings.
  • Careful with overcollaboration. Don’t tag everyone in everything! Again, if someone is only marginally involved in some aspect of a project, you should not tag them in every single communication about that project, but rather craft a targeted message for them and post it in the right channel at the appropriate time. 

How to be social

  • Be personable. Don’t be afraid of making small talk. There’s a focus on efficiency in remote work that can do more harm than good. That said, it’s important to find the right place and time for chit chat.
  • Go where people go to be social. Most remote teams have a place within their collaboration platforms for chatting—that could be a channel on Slack or a Campfire chat on Basecamp where it isn’t weird to share gifs, memes, talk about recent events or share photos of your dog.

How to delegate

  • Make sure it’s okay to delegate. In remote-first companies, especially startups, the hierarchy isn’t always clear. Check with your manager or supervisor before assigning tasks to somebody on another team.
  • Clearly and concisely describe the task you are assigning. Many people assume that delegating should not consume any time. That’s a wrong assumption. Delegating is a job in itself. As the person delegating the task, you need to make sure your team member has a clear understanding of what you need them to do. You shouldn’t flood them with information. You shouldn’t copy and paste an email someone else wrote. You shouldn’t copy and paste an email thread or a conversation. 
  • Give enough advance. Friday 9 pm is not a good time to request that something get done by Monday. Also, be mindful of the time zone they are working in.
  • Always set a deadline AND check if it is reasonable. The task you are assigning may be more time-consuming than you imagine.
  • Don’t create a false sense of urgency with unnecessarily tight deadlines. Remote work culture is based on transparency and trust.
  • Add all relevant links and files. Don’t just allude to documents or webpages and leave your teammate to go look for them. If they need these materials to complete the task, it’s your responsibility to attach or link to them.

How to show respect

  • Avoid reaching out to people outside of regular work hours. If it’s late, consider postponing or scheduling your message.
  • Be mindful of the difference in time zones. Consider where your teammates are based when scheduling meetings and other virtual events.
  • Treat people as people. There are people in the company we might never have a chance to interact with frequently. Resist the tendency to see them simply as task completers.  Show an interest in them. Be mindful of their needs. Thank them for their help.

Get good at being remote

Some of the things that are a given in a physical work environment may not be available, or possible, in a remote work setting. You need to behave intentionally to achieve the same effects given the specificities of the virtual office. 

The rules we compiled here are what we believe to be essential positive behaviors in remote work and should equip you to be “remote work fluent”. The rest, including the specifics of your company culture, you can pick up as you go. 

What other rules would you add to this list?

Learn more about remote work: