By , October 21, 2014

Working remotely requires special discipline and unique habits. Learn them to really contribute to the project.

Although working with distributed team members is gaining traction at companies, most people have never worked with a remote programmer. If you’re working remotely, don’t assume that your client or employer knows best — in fact, you likely have more experience with how to work this way than they do. Because of this, you will excel if you proactively offer guidance and set best practices in working together. My company specializes in placing remote workers and, in the process, we have come to recognize that freelance developers who achieve the best results typically follow these best practices.

Get Your Hands on the Right Tools

As a remote team member, you’ll probably be working with a team of other people who are either onsite internally, or spread around the world. Regardless, you’ll want to be plugged into their workflow and communications grids as soon as possible. If you don’t have a thorough sense of their organization, ask for a list of all the platforms that your fellow programmers use — for example, Slack, HipChat, Skype, and Google Hangouts. Download them right away and learn to use them well. Or, if you need to rely on internal tracking systems like JIRA, request access if it hasn’t already been set up for you. By paying close attention to tools and having them ready to go, you’ll increase your value.


The best remote programmers on my team provide progress updates (daily and sometimes twice a day). That’s because, unlike in a traditional office setting, team members can’t simply walk over to see what you’re working on. By providing regular updates, you explicitly define your value to the organization and build trust with your team members because they know you’re reliable, thorough, and a good communicator.

You’ll probably receive updates from others on your team, as well as from your client or manager. If you need to provide feedback, be as clear as possible and do so in a timely fashion, so if things aren’t going well, people are aware of speedbumps and can identify why objectives were missed. Also be sure to communicate in multiple formats. A good rule of thumb is to use two different media for each communication, rather than relying solely on email. If you give feedback during a video chat, summarize what you said in an email. This creates a streamlined feedback loop so communications are accurate, continuous, and relevant.

Finally, help guide efforts forward by scheduling real-time conversations. Talking works wonders when something complicated needs to be cleared up — email often just won’t cut it. While Google Hangouts and Skype feature talk-only functions, use video as much as possible. Seeing someone’s face helps build trust and a smooth professional relationship with your team.

Get to Know the Culture of the Organization

After you’re hired, it doesn’t mean all that’s left is heads-down programming. You should continue learning as much as you can about the organization. This will help you work smarter as well as build trust with your counterparts. Most importantly, be proactive in figuring out how your client or manager operates and build off of their style of communication.

That goes for non-verbal communication, too. If team members are expected to be available via video during their shift, make sure you’re available during yours. If they sing happy birthday to each other via Google Chat, then join in! If they send e-cards, do the same.

Be Complete When Asking or Answering Questions

Many times, I see emails or hear about issues where the deliverer fails to provide complete context. Without enough background, issues simply can’t be acted on. When you’re a remote freelancer, you can create considerable goodwill by being complete, especially if you’re working a schedule that is different from HQ’s or other programmers’. That way, your contacts will always have the information they need and can address things in a timely fashion, even if you’re not online.

Whenever possible, include screenshots, documents, and message threads. Err on the side of over-communication rather than assuming that recipients have all the information they need.



Be Comfortable Escalating Issues You Think Are Important

Many people aren’t comfortable escalating issues. They’re worried that others may see their escalations as blame or pointing fingers. To be successful, you’ll need to get over this fear.

Make a point of getting used to escalating things, but also go a step further. Think about potential issues in advance and flag them to your manager — it makes everyone’s life a lot easier.

Also, communicate rapidly: Don’t let issues linger. Escalate immediately and be direct with your team members if it’s important. This is especially important if you are working at different times than your colleagues, timeliness keeps conversations moving as people go on and offline.

Be Reliable

Consider carefully what hours will allow you to work with your colleagues most effectively. As a freelancer, you’ll enjoy more freedom as to when and where you work — but some schedules may be better than others. For example, it’s best to maintain at least a few hours of overlap with your client so you can take advantage of synchronous communication like telephone, chat, Skype, and Google Hangouts. The same goes for vacation. You may already be an expert at managing your own time, but consider how your availability will affect your client.

When you’ve set expectations as to your typical hours, show that you’re responsive during them. When you’re not in the same place, your responsiveness and patterns of availability are what foster trust. The more proactive and responsible you are on this front, the more you’ll stand out. Be available via email and at least one other platform (such as Skype) and respond quickly, even if it’s simply to let colleagues know you can’t talk but will connect later.

Since you’re likely to work with team members in different time zones, find a time zone clock likeEvery Time Zone to make sure you schedule meetings correctly and aren’t late (or worse, forget a meeting altogether).

Create a Dedicated Workspace

When you’re online working, help ensure you’re in the mood to be engaged by setting up a routine and a dedicated workspace. Some of our team members have shared with me that they run errands and get coffee, then stay dressed up and work through their shift. Some have home offices or go to co-working spaces so they can concentrate. Regardless of what works best for you, create a routine and find a workplace that helps you be most productive.

Stephane Kasriel is the Senior Vice President, Product and Engineering at Elance-oDesk. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ecole Polytechnique (France), a Master of Science in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from INSEAD.