Image credit: Alessandro Valli

Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind: Succeeding as a Remote Employee

Heather Martin is a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

Imagine waking up when you want, not having to shower or get dressed in the morning, sitting around with your feet on your desk drinking as much coffee as you need, taking a break and binge-watching Netflix—and getting paid to do all that. This image is what most people think about when they think about being a remote employee… unfortunately, it’s a myth.

When it comes to working at home, there are some definite perks: no commute, wear what you want (your pj’s!), fewer interruptions from your colleagues, less focus on the daily concerns of office politics, and the potential to multi-task with household chores. But to get these perks, you need to first prove that you can be productive and successful at your job. It’s up to you to make it work.

Last year, I wrote an article for NTEN, “Managing Virtually for Ultimate Productivity.” I focused on companies, providing tips for how the organization can successfully support remote employees. In this article, I turn the tables, looking at what remote employees need to do to make this relationship successful.

Communication is key

As a remote employee, you may assume you have all the information you need to get your job done. If that is not the case, many remote employees get frustrated, upset, and even angry, asking “Why is my manager not communicating critical information to me?”

To be as successful as possible, you first have to assume positive intent. Your manager is not trying to keep things from you, or purposely keeping you out of the loop. They may not even realize that the information was not pass on as clearly as possible.

As a remote employee, your job is to take responsibility to make sure you have all the information you need. You need to ask questions, request information, and clarify expectations. The more you communicate with your team and your manager, the more necessary information you will have to do your job well.

Create a routine

If you go into an office to work, you create a routine: wake up, shower, get dressed, make coffee, take care of kids/pets/spouses, and get to the office. This routine helps you start your day and be ready to jump into work. When working remotely, a morning routine is similarly helpful to jumpstart your day and be ready to be productive. There is no right or wrong routine, just create one that works for you and stick with it.

Ensure you have a good work environment

Invest in a stable internet connection, a good headset (if you will be on the phone or video conferencing), and a comfortable chair. Make a space for yourself that is conducive to getting work done. For some people this may be an office with a door, for others a desk in the basement where no one can disturb them, or even a table by a window at a coffee shop or a coworking space, if you are more productive around others.

Make sure you are given the proper tools to use, as well. If you need to communicate via video conferencing, make sure your camera and computer provide you with what you need. Find software that works best for your needs. A great place to start looking for ideas and information is Idealware. They have reviews on everything from online conferencing tools to software that helps manage team communications.

Work with your manager to set goals

If it is not part of your manager’s or organization’s process to set goals for employees, insist on it. Or start by writing your own and sharing them with your manager. Being on the same page as your supervisor and aligned with the organization’s overall vision and mission is essential to an employee’s success.

I like the story that my father once told me when he first used a GPS system in a car he had rented in Chicago. He was on his way to catch a flight home and put the airport into the GPS. The directions took him exactly where they were supposed to, even avoiding construction and other detours, while making great time. When he got to his destination, he realized he was in the wrong place. Turns out he put the wrong airport into the GPS system. Moral of the story: You may be excellent at what you do, but if you are doing the wrong thing it doesn’t matter how good you are at doing it.

Pick up the phone

Reaching out by phone can nip all issues in the bud before they are blown out of proportion. My rules for reaching out by phone include:

  • If you are on the 3rd email back and forth on a topic, pick up the phone.
  • If you are unsure or do not understand the project and timeline, pick up the phone. There are no stupid questions.
  • If you are waiting for a response to something and it has been a reasonable amount of time, pick up the phone.


If you are ready to take on the challenges of working remotely and have a realistic view of what that work environment will be like, there can be many rewards. Keep an open mind, be flexible, over-communicate, and have patience—you will be provided with the flexibility to be even more productive and succeed in ways you may not have been able to in a traditional work environment.

Heather Martin
Heather has extensive marketing and operations experience in both for-profit and non-profit companies and organizations. She has diverse experience with management, HR and leadership. Heather has helped InterfaithFamily transform from a 2 person organization to a 20+ person organization with staff in 8 different cities. She has spoken about managing virtual employees at multiple HR, technology and non-profit conferences including the Nonprofit Technology Network's 2016 annual conference. She holds a Masters of Science in Industrial Administration (MBA) from Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Industrial Administration and a Bachelor of Commerce Degree from McGill University. You can find her on twitter @hjsmartin.