Like most things in life, work is governed by unwritten rules. Pre-pandemic office life had its own norms to navigate: What time to schedule a lunch meeting? How many minutes to wait before knocking on a conference room door when someone else’s meeting was running late? We all had answers to these things without thinking about how we knew them.
Now we’re all remote and work is fully distributed. Distributed work has unwritten rules, too—but the rules are different. It’s a little like the difference between old-fashioned dating and online dating. When your interactions are virtual there’s more room for misinterpretation. Signals can get magnified and take on outsized importance. Is the word “Hey” in a chat thread a friendly greeting or the opening salvo of an incoming tirade?
It’s worth noting that many etiquette norms in our daily lives were far from inevitable and needed to be hammered out over time. Alexander Graham Bell may have invented the telephone, but he couldn’t get his preferred greeting of “Ahoy” to stick. Thomas Edison championed “Hello” and the first phone books recommended it, to Bell’s chagrin. Apparently Bell hated “Hello” so much that he kept answering the phone “Ahoy” until the end of his life, long after the “Hello” train had left the station.
To make a smooth transition to distributed work and continue building positive relationships with colleagues, you’ll likely have to redefine some things you used to take for granted and embrace new behaviors. Thankfully, we’re all capable of this. Some of our habits have already changed since working from home—we’ve redefined pajamas to simply mean “pants,” for example. Now that many companies are embracing distributed work permanently and making it clear this isn’t a passing fad, it’s time to master the subtler nuances of remote work etiquette. Your team will thank you for it.
Make no assumptions
The first golden rule of remote work etiquette is, “Make no assumptions.” It’s pretty simple, as golden rules go. Beyond the physical edifice, the office served to reinforce something more abstract—the presumption of availability. Outside of vacation days or the occasional dentist appointment, you knew where your colleagues would be at any given time for eight hours a day, and could more or less presume you had access to them. If a question came up, you could check their calendar and, if it was open, find a conference room and drop a meeting titled “quick sync” for half an hour from now and expect them to show up. In the office, firing off a Slack message like “Hey quick question” seemed harmless enough because you didn’t really have to consider the context in which this message was landing. You knew where it was landing, because you were there, too.
But in distributed work, especially during the pandemic, the opposite is true. You explicitly have no idea what your colleagues are up to at a given time or when they’re available to you. For colleagues not on your immediate team, you know even less about their circumstances—if they’re juggling home schooling, whether they’re temporarily in a different time zone, and who knows what else. Presuming unavailability as the default, instead of immediate availability, changes how you behave.
- Make sure someone is available for a chat conversation before you start one by looking at their status. If their status is set to “Away” or their notifications are snoozed, they don’t want to talk. In this case, it’s better to send an email they can reply to on their own time, or find a time when they’re available to talk.
- Before you DM or @ mention someone to engage them in a chat, check their calendar to make sure they’re not in a meeting. Unlike office life, in which meetings often meant putting aside the computer and engaging in conversation with actual humans, in remote work every meeting is on a screen, with all notifications ready to pounce. Having your Slack light up with notifications mid-meeting is distracting (especially if you’re screen sharing). And most of us forget to snooze notifications before each meeting. Ensuring that your message isn’t an unwelcome intrusion will give it the best chance of a warm reception, and keep you from becoming that annoying person who’s always popping up at the wrong time.
- Don’t ask to see your co-workers’ kids over Zoom. Their kids are probably not wearing pants or are in all manner of disarray. If someone’s kid is fit to be seen and they feel like showing them off, they’ll put them on camera themselves.
- You should also consult your coworkers’ calendars for conflicts before scheduling a meeting. There’s nothing more off-putting than having a meeting drop on your calendar when you’ve already got a meeting. It’s a hat on a hat. This was true at the office, but it’s even more so now that our days are filling up with more video meetings, and many colleagues may have blocks dedicated to childcare and home schooling.
- Add an agenda or meeting description so people know what they’re walking into and why. Don’t assume they know what the meeting is for. Your coworkers are overloaded and likely stressed. Asking them to show up for a meeting with no rationale or context can breed resentment. And giving people a heads up lets them opt-out or send a delegate if they don’t think they need to be there.
- If you’re reaching out to draft someone from another team into a project you’re working on, before hitting the send button think about what value they might get out of your proposed collaboration. Especially during the pandemic, everyone is overwhelmed. In this environment, just dryly stating what you need could tempt the recipient to move your email to the “not important” folder to wither. Pitch your project like you’re selling a script in Hollywood. What might excite someone about it or make them want to be involved? You’ll get a faster reply, and probably have a better time on the project.
Respect others’ time as if it were your own
According to a new study from the Economist Intelligence Unit and Dropbox, the volume of emails and scheduled meetings has gone up since shifting to remote, as have volume of work and total working hours. Accordingly, overall stress is also up. Which brings us to the second golden rule of remote work: “Respect others’ time as if it were your own.” Time has always been our most precious resource, but it feels acutely so in the transition to remote work. How to manage the time expectations of colleagues and domestic partners when work and life are piled on top of each other at home—it’s a lot to adapt to. Respecting your colleagues’ time by intentionally taking steps not to waste it is key to good etiquette in this environment.
- Before sending an email outside of work hours, ask yourself whether it’s urgent. Are you sending it because someone needs to receive it now, or just to get it off your plate? If the latter, use your email scheduler to deliver it the next workday after 9am. That way you can get it off your plate while helping keep your colleagues’ sanity intact.
- Before scheduling any meeting, ask yourself, Does this really need to be a meeting? Could I just email and wait for a reply? See here for a practical guide to deciding when you need a meeting, but a basic rule of thumb is that you really need to talk it out.
- Don’t schedule a meeting for 8:30am because we “would have been commuting” at that time before the shift to remote. Elimination of the commute is a silver lining and the best thing about remote work to those surveyed in our study with the EIU. It’s also the most important factor contributing to high worker engagement while remote. Don’t take that away.
- Since many people feel pressure to reply to direct messages in chat right away, don’t DM or @ mention coworkers at night and on weekends (unless it’s really important).
- If you’re messaging someone at the company you don’t really know, remember they can’t tell much about you from your handle. Introduce yourself properly. Let them know what team you’re on and give some context for your request. Don’t make the person go to your company’s internal directory and look you up to understand your job. Not cool!
- If you’re initiating a chat and you have a few thoughts to communicate, batch them into one message instead of sending multiple messages with a thought in each. This will mean the recipient sees your communiqué as one notification instead of five. This is one of the things that makes chat overwhelming—every sentence typed can register as a new notification. If you’re fielding questions from multiple coworkers who have all sent you a few sentences, it can be easy to come back from lunch with a ton of chat notifications, which just looks stressful. Help your colleagues de-stress and batch your messages.
- Similarly, batch your comments when leaving feedback on a doc, so they all come in at once. That way someone can see all your input together and respond to your thought process holistically, instead of seeing fragments drip in over the course of the day. You can batch by simply writing a comment but not not hitting “post.” Leave it in draft form until all your comments are written, then go back when you’re ready to share your feedback and hit “post” on each comment. That extra sweep will take you maybe 15 extra seconds, and will save the recipient a whole day of cognitive disruptions and the need to return to the doc multiple times. It also gives you the opportunity to review and make sure all your comments make sense together, and that they communicate everything you need to get across.
- When you send a link to an article or doc through Slack, and have something to say about it, use the command to link on your written comment rather than just pasting the URL as a separate comment. After you hit send, click the little x at the left to “remove preview.” Your sentence will stay linked, but the big annoying preview will disappear. This way the person getting your comment won’t be distracted by a huge display in the middle of the thread. Instead, they can focus much faster on what you’re saying and calmly click over to the link with your comment in mind.
- Make your emails scannable. Use bold section headers and bullet points where possible. Avoid long paragraphs. If it’s a long email, add a tl;dr summary at the top in bold. We’re spending more time wading through email than ever while remote. It’s unlikely volume will go down soon—but we can make it less overwhelming with a little creative information architecture.
- Only include necessary recipients on an email. Cc’ing your boss’s boss just to show that you’re keeping busy only wastes valuable time and irritates everyone. Similarly, you’ll be doing everyone a favor by not hitting “reply all” when your reply is only relevant to one person on a group thread.
- Resolve comments in docs where a discussion has been resolved or a question answered. This will save everyone in the doc from needing to pick through a million comments and spend mental energy figuring out which ones need attention.
- Don’t send anything that someone has to print and (god forbid) mail. Odds of your recipient having a working printer at home are 50/50 at best. You can use HelloSign or another option to e-sign anything you’d need to sign on paper. And you’ll save a tree.
- Finally, respect vacation days. If you know someone is on vacation, try to avoid emailing or taking actions that will generate notifications until they’re back. Especially during the pandemic, when they’re likely on “staycation,” they will probably have a harder time not checking notifications than if they were parasailing in Bali. Help them decompress and just don’t contact them unless it really can’t wait. Again, you can use an email scheduler to deliver messages for when they return.
Pay attention, because your presence depends on it
We’ve established that it’s good etiquette to stay out of people’s hair and avoid wasting their time in distributed work. But the flip side is that, if you don’t assert your presence and make it felt, it can be easy to vanish into the ether. In the office we could rely on friendly smiles around the water cooler and even attentive listening in a conference room to build the bonds of trust implicit in all successful teamwork. But those non-verbal queues and our physical presence doesn’t translate over digital tools. You can counterbalance this and make your presence felt by paying close attention and engaging deeply with your co-workers’ thought processes.
- The achilles heel of every Zoom meeting is eye contact. If you look at your colleague’s eyes on the screen, you’ll appear to them to be gazing down. If you look directly at your computer’s camera, you’ll appear to them to be making eye contact, but you’ll never see them yourself. Plus, even if you were to be generous and stare into the camera the whole time, constant unbroken eye contact is unnatural and creepy. The only solution (given current technology) is to try to get into an unspoken eye dance with your colleagues, where you each fluidly move back and forth between looking into the camera and looking down at the screen. At best, it approximates some version of what’s called “synchrony”—the effortless in-person tradeoff of eye contact and sympathetic body gestures that happens in a good conversation. At worst, it’s what most of us call a typical Tuesday on Zoom.
- Having 2 monitors is great, but if you’re going to multitask during a meeting, have the courtesy to work on a doc on the screen that has your camera. It’ll appear to others that you’re paying attention instead of staring off intently at a 45 degree angle, which signals to everyone that your attention is elsewhere.
- Make meetings inclusive—especially if you’re the host or manager. Ask for the opinions of people who tend to be quiet. We all have to get more comfortable with the discomfort of VC, and this helps creates a little more space for them to break into the conversation.
- Keep your audio on mute when you’re not talking. Don’t be that person unwittingly cooing to your dog in front of the entire company.
- Exaggerate your responses. You need to make your body language bigger in order for it to translate over video. Exaggerating your nods and “aaahhhs,” or giving a simple thumbs up, will let people know you’re listening or that their point landed.
- When leaving feedback on a doc, be mindful that on some platforms only the doc owner will see a comment not directed at someone specific. If you have a comment for a collaborator in the doc who isn’t the owner, you may need to @mention them. If you forget, there’s a good chance your comment will fade into oblivion. To be safe, it’s a good habit to @metion on each comment.
- Finally, it’s helpful to tell the recipient that all your notes are in, so they know where they stand and don’t have to wonder if there’s more coming. It’s the remote equivalent of walking by someone’s desk and saying, “over to you!”
We’re still in the early days of distributed work going mainstream. Eventually, new technologies will probably help limit some of the human error addressed here, and the thought of receiving a non-urgent Slack at 8pm on a Saturday will seem as odd as hearing someone bark “Ahoy!” to answer the phone. Until then, good remote work etiquette is on us.