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Working Remotely: Here’s what we’ve learned after 8 years

March 19, 2020

6 Minute Read

Tips for working from home from Thorn, a remote-first organization

Eight years ago, when Thorn was founded, we challenged ourselves to find the best talent to support this mission, regardless of geography. It was this decision that led us to become a distributed organization.

Today, this team works from 18 U.S. cities and in 3 countries.

In this unprecedented moment, we’ve been leaning into the culture and practices we’ve developed at Thorn to help us be flexible, supportive, and empathetic to our staff and partners, and the survivors and victims we work to serve.

Despite these uncertain times, we are thankful that Thorn’s work will be able to continue. And we know for workers across the country it’s happening in a new way, whether in shifts at a workplace or the corner of your kitchen table.

In the midst of so much change, we want to share some of the most-important things Thorn has learned over the years to manage a connected yet distributed team, as well as what staff do every day to help us make progress in our mission, together.

For our first segment of Working Remotely, we asked staff for tips on getting started that help them feel most successful working from home. Below are a few favorite practices we’ve learned along the way. We hope they help.

Develop a routine

A man works from home at his desk.Bench Accounting/Unsplash

Build a routine to start your day.

Creating distance between your personal time and your professional time helps get your brain and body ready to be productive. You can think of this process as your mental commute.

Get out of your PJs. Get dressed. Take a shower. Prepare.

Are sweatpants OK? Absolutely! Sweatpants are a no. 1 benefit of working from home. But mark an intentional shift in your day, even if you’re sitting in the same place you always do. (If you can sit in a different place, however, you’ll be glad you did.)

Some Thorn staff have a water glass or coffee mug that they use only for work hours. Little tricks like this help build even more separation between your work and personal space.

When you stop working, the trick is that you actually have to stop.

The more senses you engage in this process the better. Physically close your laptop. Light a scented candle you only use at the end of the day. Put on your after-work slippers. Make the ritual your own.

Some folks on staff like to close all their browser tabs and software every night to put away all the thoughts from the workday, and help transition into being present in personal life.

Other people love wiping down their laptop and workstation with sanitary wipes. This sounds related to the current health crisis, but for us it isn’t— we’ve been doing it for years. Trust us, it feels really good to put your workstation to bed.

Create work space, physically and digitally.

A bright home office setup with iMac on top of desk.Norbert Levajsics/Unsplash

Set up your work ambiance.

A shared space, such as an office, comes with ambient noise. To create a similar feeling you can use white noise or put on music. Some people on Thorn’s staff work from home with animals and like putting birds on their TV for their pets’ enjoyment. Here are some lo-fi beats to get you started, and here are some birds. If you need help concentrating, try

If you need some white noise to help tune out, here are a few programs we like: A Soft Murmur, White Noise Lite, and Simply Noise.

Set up a visually distinct workspace in your digital life.

Personal email and professional email? Use different browser or email themes. For example, Gmail offers several different themes. Multiple Slack channels? Again, different themes. You’re trying to create a distinction between your personal and professional life, while you do both in a much smaller space—doing so with visual cues on your computer will help to create a clear distinction.

Carve out specific time to answer emails and other digital communications.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s still true. Protect your work time—Slack feels really important, but it can wait. You don’t have to answer every doorbell at every moment.

Connection is key

Woman working from home on a video chatsilverkblack/Adobe

Schedule time to connect with colleagues.

Schedule time to connect with your colleagues the way you would around a water cooler. Those connections are the hardest to recreate in a distributed team. If you can find time to laugh with each other, it will make a world of difference. At Thorn, we carve out time for virtual coffee breaks or to chat about non-work topics.

Use video as often as possible.

Facial expressions and body language communicate so much more than just a voice on a phone. Zoom is a great tool, and the one Thorn uses, but there are plenty of options. (Pro tip: embed Zoom into your Google calendar so you can default to video for every meeting.)

Mute all notifications (such as Slack or email) while you’re on a video call.

Make a little space for small talk with your team before diving in. Connect here since you can’t in the hallways or on your way to lunch.

Use body language. Nod along, look engaged, look into the camera. All of these non-verbal communications will make a world of difference.

Create shared context in your written communications.

Writing in a digital medium without shared physical context? Re-read what you wrote. Are you sure all the other people know what “it” means or are you making the type of assumption you would when speaking to someone? This is especially true for tools like Slack where context can change swiftly.

Discover what works for you.

This list isn’t complete, but we hope it’s a start you can use. These are methods that are tried and true over the course of working as a fully distributed team for nearly a decade, but we all have our own unique ways of optimizing how we work as a distributed team.

As our daily lives are disrupted, we hope these tips will help to make your new routines feel as comfortable as they can as quickly as possible—and discover some new things we haven’t thought of! Make sure you share them with us on social media by tagging our accounts.

Please stay tuned for upcoming segments on Working Remotely, including how Thorn manages a distributed engineering enterprise, and how we prioritize wellness for ourselves and teammates. 

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