Remote work is a trendy concept you're probably hearing a lot of. It's being touted as a new-age employee engagement tactic that tech companies and startups alike are putting to work in their organizations.

Like a lot of young companies, Bananatag offers employees the option of having a flexible and mobile work environment -- in fact, it's one of our company values. While most of our employees are located in either our Vancouver or Kelowna office, we have some permanently remote workers in other provinces in the country spanning different time zones and we work hard to ensure we support employees who want to work in other places in the world.

As a company that makes a tool for internal communicators to better engage employees through email, we want to practice what we preach and help our employees feel included, wherever they may be.

What better way to write about remote work than to try it out for ourselves? I set out on a three week trip to Reykjavik, Copenhagen, and Toronto, working remotely in three different time zones. It was the perfect opportunity to research if remote work really works and discover the ways to make it easier on everyone in an organization.

How remote work impacts employee engagement

The jury is still out on whether anyone really believes in the elusive "work-life balance"; it seems like a goal many are working towards without truly understanding how to undertake -- COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg seems to agree. But maybe remote work is a step in the right direction for employees feeling overwhelmed or bogged down by work and life and the closest we might get to "balancing it all".

In fact, a Staples study shows that remote workers were happier and experienced 25% less stress when they worked from home. Along with that, a whopping 80% of those surveyed felt that they were achieving a better work-life balance since being able to work from home.

There's an added sense of freedom with remote work that employees crave but are often unable to attain in most office environments. It can be as simple as wearing more comfortable clothes or getting that extra hour of sleep you naturally lose when commuting. While employee engagement doesn't simply equate to employee happiness (there's more to engagement than happiness), there is a connection between company productivity and employee happiness, it's one that organizations can't ignore.

Remote work allows employees to work when they are naturally most productive. Without sacrificing deadlines, when you work remotely and even in a different time zone, you're able to set your own, optimized schedule. For example, my brain tends to wake up at 9:30AM - 10AM and 2PM is a difficult time for me to regain focus, whereas at 4PM, I can easily hammer out 500 words for a blog post without pausing. I'm not sure why this type of schedule works best for me, but it's clear to me that my mental energy doesn't perfectly fit the 9-5 schedule. Remote work allowed me to harness and take advantage of my most productive hours.

Quick tips: Making remote work, work

After almost a month working from various time zones and communicating with my office back home, I found the tactics that worked best both for my productivity and for my managers at the office:

1. Where to go: Cafés, libraries, co-working space -- anywhere that has a table, a power outlet, and good WiFi. If you're staying at an Airbnb, having access to a kitchen is a plus but look at this as an opportunity to try something new and work in a place you wouldn't normally see as an office for the day. For example, when I was travelling in Iceland, I made my office Reykjavik's beautiful Harpa Icelandic Opera and sat at a top floor in a cozy spot with a view of the ocean. Remote work FTW.

Working remotely in Iceland Opera- Bananatag

2. 
The basic necessities for work productivity: Snacks, internet, a comfy chair, relative quiet. Whatever productivity means to you, use this. Just because you're working remotely, it doesn't mean you have to be missing your entire desk -- if you usually have a certain notebook in front of you, bring that.

3. Communicate well and communicate often: When you're far away, communication is more important than ever. During my remote work time, we relied on Google Hangouts and Slack calls for chats that required real-time communication. Skype is also an inexpensive way to make VOIP calls to landlines for remote work. You can set it up so your caller ID appears as your own wireless number too. Being ahead in time, I made sure to update my managers on my work at the end of the day with a quick and thorough email. When we were online at the same time, Slack was our go-to messaging channel.

4. Have a process and set the ground rules: This point is huge. It's crucial to make a plan with your boss and set the expectations of what your remote work time will look like. It might be the first time your company has done remote work and it's unchartered territory. Make this process easier by having a chat in person before you depart so that everyone is on the same page. Discuss working hours and flexibility, your location, availability, what you'll be working on, how often you'll communicate and when you'll have virtual meetings to check in with progress. Follow this up with an email summarizing your discussion.

5. Work in sprints and take breaks: There are distractions in remote work and it's hard for anyone to stay focused for hours at a time. Try working in sprints to avoid the inevitable distractions that will take away your focus. Commit yourself to working 30 minutes at a time, breaking for five and then getting back to work again.

Airport remote workplace- Bananatag

6. Remember timezones:
Remote work is dependant on communicating at the right hours and you need to find the best time for everyone to get online and catch up. Time zones make this tricky but Every Time Zone makes this easier on all involved. Be able to quickly see what time it is back at the office or for other remote members of your team -- avoid making a mistake calculating the time difference and accidentally miss a video call meeting. Yikes.

7. Make ultra specific, reasonable to-do lists: At Bananatag, we're addicted to Asana and it was especially helpful for remote work. My managers could view my to-do list, assign new tasks to me when I was offline, and view progress on my tasks. With this, I made even more tasks than I usually would and forced myself to plan ahead, including my meetings.

What I learned from this experience

Remote work can be refreshing.

We'd be kidding ourselves if we thought that working in the office is always the best place to let our creative juices flow. There are times when employees might feel that being in the same place everyday can get uninspiring, especially if you spend your days writing or designing new things. For myself, most of my time is spent writing and writer's block is a common issue I run into. But a new environment and even a new routine can create some manageable inconsistency employees crave.

Remote office in Copenhagen cafe - Bananatag
 

Travel and work are not mutually exclusive.

Despite what the old work rules might tell us, you can explore a new place and work at the same time. Gone are the days of work being completely separate from 'life'. From my remote work experience, you might be doing less travelling than you normally would in a new destination, but walking through non-touristy neighbourhoods of a city, finding coffee shops with reliable wifi and a quiet place to work is surprisingly lovely. You have the freedom to change scenery whenever you want (not into coffee? Try a restaurant or the old, Hogwarts-like library in the centre of town). If one spot wasn't working for me, I was easily able to go somewhere new, set up my laptop by a window and get inspired by the new place I was in.

You eventually miss the people.

Even if you don't have an office as great as mine with ping pong, fun colleagues, and a kick-ass mountain/ocean view, you eventually find yourself missing the camaraderie of everyday work life. Being around colleagues and having lunch together can give you energy and when you step out of that routine, you learn to appreciate your office set-up much more than you would have anticipated. Take it from me!

Other organizations that live remote work life

Remote work at other big companies has it's fare share of fans and supporters, some of which you might even be using in your internal comms.

Basecamp really, really loves remote work; they wrote a book about it which you can find below. Over 70% of their employees work remotely and didn't see distance and borders as a barrier to finding a great team, but the key to getting the best people out there.

Buffer is a huge proponent of remote work, with a team distributed across the globe since 2012. They want their employees to save time commuting and spend time with family. After all, the happier employees are, the more productive.

Additional reading on remote work:

21 Tried-and-True Tips for Remote Working - A bible of tips for remote work employees and organizations.
Remote: Office Not Required - Interested in taking on a remote workforce? This book looks at the challenges and benefits of remote work and how to do it in 2016 from the Basecamp people.
Remote by Default: How GitHub Makes Working Remotely Not Suck - A 37-minute video presentation on the benefits of remote work in their company of 75% remote employees.
 
I'd love to hear your thoughts on remote work and how you make it happen in your own organization. How can remote work further impact employee engagement? Comment below with what you think!