Top 10 Must-Have Remote Work Skills

Remote work has never been more accessible but many people aren't prepared for the challenges that come with being a remote worker. These remote work skills are invaluable.

Abi Tyas Tunggal

Apr 1, 2022 • 17 min read

Top 10 Must-Have Remote Work Skills

In this article

We've got great news if you're part of the majority who want to continue working remotely. There have never been more remote jobs.

However, remote work has its challenges. You need specific skills to overcome them.

Remote work skills are the tangible and soft skills required for a remote environment. Valuable skills for remote positions include being able to unplug from work, overcoming loneliness, self-motivation, deep work, and asynchronous communication.

Even if you aren't looking for a full-time remote role, most companies are going hybrid, so you'll need these skills to collaborate with remote colleagues.

This article outlines the top ten skills remote workers need and how to develop them.

Woman working in cafe

1. Unplugging from work

Overworking is the most cited challenge of remote work. One in four remote workers say they struggle to unplug from work and one in five works more hours from home.

When you don't commute, you don't have a natural start and end to your workday. Work bleeds into life if you're not careful.

The best remote workers embrace fixed-schedule productivity by choosing hours that provide the ideal balance between effort and rest, then sticking to them. For example, you might decide to work one to five, five days per week.

A fixed schedule works because it adds a beginning and end to your workday and forces you to fit work into those hours.

It's simple in theory, but difficult in practice. Particularly if you have team members in multiple time zones.

Many remote workers also choose to physically separate work and life by creating a dedicated workplace they can leave at the end of their workday.

We've got a guide on home office upgrades you might find helpful.

Don't overlook intraday breaks. Rest makes us more productive and more creative.

Many of history's most impactful figures were as disciplined about rest as they were about work. Look at Benjamin Franklin's daily schedule:

He dedicated his mornings, middle of the day, and evenings to leisure while embracing a fixed schedule.

Dedicating your nights to leisure ensures you mentally disconnect at the end of your workday and come back refreshed.

Turn off your notifications outside of work hours. Notifications exploit the Zeigarnik effect, a cognitive bias that makes us remember incomplete takes more than complete ones.

Each notification acts as a "to-do" item in your head and makes it harder to unplug.

It may seem harmless to reply to one message, you may even feel good about unblocking a colleague, but one message can quickly spiral into more work.

If your organization leverages asynchronous communication, you feel the pressure to respond right away anyway.

You also need to embrace more extended periods of rest.

Studies show your performance plummets when you work for prolonged periods without a break. Vacations can improve productivity, lower stress, and improve mental health and creativity.

The best remote companies have cultures and processes that support turning off.

Now and then, you might need to break your schedule or wake up earlier for an important meeting, but most of the time, work starts and ends at the same time.

Focus on output, not hours.

2. Overcoming loneliness

If you want to be successful as a remote worker, you need to overcome loneliness. 24% of remote employees struggle with feelings of loneliness, which can compound if you work at an async or fully remote company with co-workers spread across the world.

Office life is full of spontaneous moments that break up your day and help you get social interaction. Grabbing lunch, small talk before meetings, or bumping into a colleague in the hallway all help fill your social battery.

When you leave the office, you lose those impromptu moments and need to be more deliberate about how you get human interaction. It's easy to develop cabin fever when you're alone in your house for too long, even with Zoom and Slack.

Remember, you don't have to rely on work to get social interaction.

It's great to be friends with your colleagues, but you can also spend more time with your partner, children, family, friends, or neighbors.

Make plans after work or take advantage of your flexible schedule to grab lunch with an old colleague, breakfast with a friend, or cook dinner for a group once a week.

After-work activities are a great way to stick to your fixed schedule too.

Another option is to create a quasi-office environment by working in a co-working space, coffee shop, or library. Many remote companies offer co-working stipends as part of their remote employee benefits package.

Even if you don't want to work outside of the house, you can still create informal moments. However, you'll have to be more deliberate about scheduling them than if you were in an office.

GitLab, one of the most successful remote companies, encourages employees to dedicate a few hours each week to social calls with anyone in the company. These are calls where you don't talk about work.

In the Traction Conference video below, GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij shares more on how remote teams can stay connected:

If you're taking breaks between your work bouts, it can also help to wander out into the real world to meet people in your local community. No matter how small, everywhere offers social activities that can keep you sane.

Finally, consider joining a company with quarterly or yearly retreats where everyone travels to the same place to spend a few days or weeks together. GitLab, Buffer, Zapier, Help Scout, and Hotjar come to mind.

You can use our remote company database to find more.

Woman working at desk

3. Self-motivating

When you work from home, there's no one looking over your shoulder and no social pressure to stay on task. You need to motivate yourself.

As a remote worker, you must focus on your output. When you're in an office, you can get away with looking busy without actually producing much. When you're remote, people judge you based on your output.

Everyone has different methods to motivate themself, below are a few that work for us.

Limit the number of things you aim to do each day and focus on your most important task. Only after you've completed your most important task should you worry about what to do next. Read Essentialism by Greg McKeown to learn more about how to focus on what matters.

It may seem counterintuitive, but doing less each day makes you more effective and more likely to stick to your fixed schedule.

One critical task completed is far better than ten small tasks that don't move the needle.

If you're struggling to start work, or a project feels insurmountable, it's a good sign that it's poorly defined.

Break large tasks into small discrete parts you can handle and timebox each one.

Timeboxing means blocking out time in your calendar for each task. Timeboxing gives you a greater sense of control over your workday because you decide what you'll work on and when.

It can also help you stay productive because, like Parkinson's law states, "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Don't forget to pencil in moments of rest after each timeboxed activity.

Breaking down tasks also helps you focus on the details. The big things are a byproduct of making the details excellent. Read The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh.

Focusing on the details also helps you find flow.

Flow is a state of mind where you become immersed in an activity.

People who find flow regularly "lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live."

After each flow session, reward yourself.

Humans form new habits through the cue-routine-reward cycle. If you want to get better at staying on task, develop a cue to start working, followed by a routine. When you finish, reward yourself with something you enjoy.

Woman working in cafe

4. Deep work

According to Cal Newport:

Knowledge workers dedicated too much time to shallow work – tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on. This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).

But this type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicatable, nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.

In contrast, deep work is:

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way.

The ability to perform deep work is increasingly rare and increasingly valuable.

Timebox deep work periods in your calendar. Most people use calendars as inboxes where other people can put things.

Use yours as a planning tool.

Group similar shallow work tasks or meetings together after deep work periods and keep a buffer between each task.

One interruption shouldn't destroy your schedule.

We use Centered to structure our deep work periods at Himalayas.

Centered is an app that helps you get into a flow state by playing music at a tempo of 60-90 beats. This tempo increases alpha brain waves and decreases higher-activity beta waves – the exact conditions needed for a flow state.

Start with a single hour and a half block per day, with 25 minutes of work and five minutes of rest. As you strengthen your ability to focus, build up to three separate hour and a half focus blocks per day.

In your five-minute breaks, it's important not to turn your attention to social media or another task.

When you turn your attention from one task to another, the original task leaves "residue" that reduces your cognitive performance for some time, even if the switch is brief.

The cost of checking your email during your five-minute break isn't only the five minutes. It's also the attention you lose afterward.

If you can't stop yourself from scrolling in your breaks, use apps like RescueTime, LeechBlock, Freedom, or SelfControl to block access to distracting sites during deep work periods.

Every time you let yourself get distracted, it takes 20+ minutes to get back on task.

Working at this intensity requires rest. Rest helps you stay on task during your deep work periods, while also allowing your unconscious mind to continue working through problems.

That's why it's often easier to solve issues after stepping away from the computer.

One helpful tool you can use to rest during your workday is a non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) protocol.

According to Dr. Andrew Huberman, NSDR can rapidly reset your ability to calm, focus, and ease the transition to sleep. You can use Reveri (a research-tested self-hypnosis app), take a 20-minute nap, or listen to this free NSDR script:

You could also learn to meditate.

Focused attention meditation is akin to weightlifting for your attention span.

It can increase the strength and endurance of your focus. We like Sam Harris' Waking Up app, but Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer are also great.

5. Asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication is when you exchange information without expecting an immediate response. Recipients can process information at their own speed and respond at their convenience.

In contrast, synchronous communication happens when information is exchanged and responded to in real-time. The majority of work done today is synchronous, requiring team members to be present at the same time and/or in the same space.

Synchronous communication tends to be faster and more dynamic, but less suitable for a remote team spread across time zones. Finding a time that works when everyone lives in different time zones is near impossible, so most remote workers become skilled in asynchronous communication.

Any form of written or recorded communication can be asynchronous, but only if you treat it as such. For example, email has become the enemy of productivity because most of us respond to them in two minutes!

It doesn't have to be. Email is a fantastic medium for asynchronous collaboration.

Async work is a meta-skill that supports many of the other habits outlined in this article. If you don't need to work the same hours as your team, you can unplug even if other people continue working after you've signed off.

It makes it easier to stay motivated and find uninterrupted periods for deep work because you can work when you have the most energy and control over your environment.

It also leads to higher quality communication because it reduces the pressure to answer immediately. When communication is slower, people provide more context in each message to avoid unnecessary back-and-forth.

It's even easier to provide candid feedback because of the online disinhibition effect.

Because you can't rely on someone being available whenever you need them, it forces better planning and leads to higher quality work.

Communication relies on writing or recordings, so important information is documented by default and easier to share or find later, which speeds up employee onboarding and future decision-making.

Finally, it leads to more transparency as people need to be able to find answers to their questions when other people are available.

Person writing in notebook

6. Writing

Writing well is foundational to being a successful remote worker. When the bulk of your communication happens in writing, a few poorly chosen words can snowball into bad blood despite everyone's best intentions to the contrary.

Writing well doesn't mean having perfect grammar or using big words. It's better to write how you speak. Use simple words, keep it casual, and avoid acronyms or jargon unless you plan to define it first.

These habits are vital if you're working with people with varying levels of language proficiency.

Abysmal grammar can be a problem, so install Grammarly to check for it, but don't worry too much. Most people can't identify the difference between active and passive voice, and they don't care if you start a sentence with "and."

The goal is to communicate your message, not win a Pulitzer.

Before you start writing, think about who you're writing for and what you want to achieve with your message. Then outline what you want to say. It doesn't have to be complicated. A few dot points will suffice then, arrange them into an order and add a few sentences explaining each section.

Write your first draft by filling out your outline with supporting sentences. Keep sentences and paragraphs short, use formatting to make it easier to skim, but don't be afraid to use a long sentence occasionally.

Unlike in school and university, how much you write is irrelevant. Conveying the same meaning in fewer words is better.

Dive straight into your most important point at the start of each section. Put your bottom line up front.

After you've finished your draft, have a break before reviewing it, then go back through and delete any words or paragraphs that aren't necessary.

See Jerry Neuman's guide Writing in a Business Context, Julian Shapiro's Writing Well, and Paul Graham's Write Simply and How to Write Usefully for more on how to write well.

Zoom meeting

7. Working across time zones

Working across time zones is the bane of many remote workers' lives. It's easy enough to understand what time it is where you live, but if you're working in a remote team spread across the globe, it gets harder to grok time zones.

Time zones are another reason why unplugging from work and async communication are essential remote work skills.

If you don't have clear boundaries between work and life, it's easy to burn out as you try to be online constantly to support colleagues worldwide. Asynchronous communication means people can work different hours and still collaborate successfully.

For example, one person can start working three hours before you sign off for the day and send you a message while you're asleep without expecting an immediate response.

As you wake up and start your day, you respond, and they pick it up when they're ready.

Reducing the need for people to communicate in real-time and be available at specific times gives people more control over their lives.

If you do need to collaborate synchronously, make attendance optional. Assume not everyone will be able to attend, record the meeting, and summarize critical decisions in writing.

We'd also recommend creating a remote employee handbook outlining the organization's mission, culture, core values, policies, procedures, teams, best practices, and any other information people need to do their jobs.

Async makes informal information sharing more difficult so documentation becomes essential. You can rely on people learning things through osmosis.

GitLab's handbook is one of the most famous (and best executed) examples of how to build a fantastic employee manual and distributed workplace culture. At 2,200+ pages, it's thorough, transparent, and even allows people who don't work at GitLab to contribute.

Some remote companies even hire a Head of Remote, a member of the senior leadership team responsible for building and maintaining remote company culture and employee experience.

8. Cross-cultural literacy

When you work in a fully distributed team, you need to be able to collaborate and find common ground with team members from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Offending people from different cultures with an off-hand comment about religion, politics, or habits is easy if you're not educated. Ask your teammates to teach you about their culture, and see if there are any TV shows, books, or other forms of media you could consume to learn more about them.

Do your best to promote tolerance and understanding across all topics by encouraging everyone to be honest with each other when something offends them.

You also need to be aware people may be working in their second or third language, and misunderstandings can happen.

Always assume positive intent. Write and speak clearly and use simple words.

If you need to communicate important information, do it in writing. People only have one chance to understand you when you speak but can re-read your message as many times as they need.

While learning to work with people from different cultures can be challenging, it's one of the biggest advantages of remote work. You can hire the best person for the job regardless of where they live, which leads to a more productive, diverse, and exciting company culture.

A unique and robust company culture that articulates how people work together is another way to overcome cultural differences. Common company culture helps people come together and communicate while at work.

Two colleagues talking over coffee

9. Taking care of yourself

Remote working can lead to a sedentary lifestyle if you're not careful. Staying healthy is essential to remain happy and productive from home.

Sleep is the cornerstone habit, so try to keep a consistent sleep schedule including on weekends and days off.

Sleep helps us physically heal, recover from illness, deal with stress, solve problems, consolidate memories, and improve motor skills. Read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker to learn more about the importance of sleep.

Our bodies follow a roughly 24-hour circadian rhythm that relies on consistency. Waking up and falling asleep at the same time makes it easier to get out of bed, fall asleep, and stay focused while working.

It's also important to get sunlight within 30-60 minutes of waking up. Getting sunlight on your eyes sets your circadian rhythm and triggers a neural circuit that controls the timing of cortisol and melatonin. It'll help you feel more alert in the morning and sleepier when you need to get to bed.

On sunny days aim for 10 minutes, cloudy days 20 minutes, and overcast 30-60 minutes. Pair your morning sun with a walk to get into optic flow. Self-generated optic flow shifts the brain into a state of relaxation that's not available when you're stationary.

You should also avoid caffeine first thing in the morning. As your body wakes up, you naturally start to release a chemical called cortisol that helps you feel alert. If you drink coffee right away, you won't benefit from morning alertness.

The best approach is to turn to caffeine as your cortisol levels drop. Cortisol-derived alertness and concentration tend to peak 30 to 45 minutes after waking up, so wait 60-90 minutes to get the best results from your morning coffee.

It's even more important to avoid caffeine 8-10 hours before your bedtime. Caffeine is a stimulant with a half-life of about five to six hours for the average adult, which means about 50% of the coffee you drink is still circulating through your system five to six hours after drinking it. Even if you feel like you get to sleep fine, the caffeine still impacts the quality of your rest.

Avoiding bright lights at night is vital as they can disrupt melatonin production. Light also impacts sleep quality by hindering the transition between sleep cycles, causing repeated awakenings, and reducing time spent in deeper, more restorative sleep stages.

Don't be afraid of the cold if you're having trouble getting or staying asleep. Research shows the optimal sleeping temperature for adults is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit or 15.6 to 19.4 degrees Celsius.

Outside of these habits, we'd recommend exercising consistently. It's best to get a mix of resistance training and cardio, as each has its benefits. The team of Himalayas enjoys Brazilian jiu jiujitsu, golf, and basketball. We also have Whoops to track your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, and other important health metrics. You can get a month free of Whoop here.

Rather than saying you want to maintain a certain weight, gain muscle, or lose weight, focus on healthy habits, and results will come. Read Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg and Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Woman working at cafe

10. Cybersecurity awareness

Cybersecurity awareness is an often-overlooked challenge of remote work.

Employers should provide you with the right tools when you start a new job but you need to know that you have a role to play in keeping your company, colleagues, and customers secure.

Start by securing your office.

If you choose to work at a cafe or co-working space, keep your laptop with you.

Thieves can steal your computer and gain unauthorized access to your company's or its customers' data.

Be sure to enable automatic locking on your device to prevent people from interfering with unattended devices.

If your employer hasn't encrypted your device, you should turn it on:

  • Windows: Turn on BitLocker.
  • macOS: Turn on FileVault.
  • Linux: Use dm-crypt or similar.
  • Android: Enabled by default since Android 6.
  • iOS: Enabled by default since iOS 8.

Encryption reduces the impact of a lost or stolen device as it prevents people from accessing it without a password or PIN.

Outside of encryption, it's a good idea to keep your operating systems and software up-to-date to minimize the risk of attackers taking advantage of known vulnerabilities.

To minimize the risk, ensure all your devices apply patches via automatic updates and keep an eye out for when your browser is outdated.

You should also use a strong password.

The best way to maintain good password security is to invest in a password manager like 1Password. It's also important to enable two-factor authentication (2FA). 2FA reduces the risk of phishing and prevents people from accessing your services even if they do get your password.

Finally, keep your work and personal devices separate.

While it can feel cumbersome to switch between devices, it ensures that your work stays on your work computer and your life stays on your devices.

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