Sean Loughran explains how to survive and thrive while working remotely for an executive in another country
I’m the Executive Assistant to the CEO of Zapier, a workflow automation tool that integrates thousands of apps. Wade Foster, my CEO, is based in the San Francisco Bay area, USA, whilst I work 100% remotely from my home in Vancouver, Canada.
Until starting with Zapier, I had always worked in person with my executive, so it took some getting used to going from an entirely physical to a virtual relationship. It’s been a change I’ve welcomed, but such a change also comes with its challenges.
The first week of my remote job, several of my friends reached out asking me to join them for brunches, cocktail hours, and matinee movies, assuming that because I was now working from home, I suddenly had all this free time. My parents assumed I was spending my days in bed bingeing Netflix shows and avoiding social interaction.
I find I’m working just as much now as I was when I was in an office, but the surprising thing is that I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been. I’m also socializing with my colleagues more than I ever have before. With more than 200 Zapier team members spread out across over 130 cities in 18 countries, I never feel alone.
There are several tips I recommend when working remotely, especially for supporting an Executive or CEO located in an entirely different country than you.
1. Wake up, work out, then get to work
Each day starts the same for me, my alarm goes off at 4am, followed by yoga at 5am. And usually by the time most folks are starting their days around 9 or 10, I’ve already accomplished most of what I need to for the day ahead.
My inbox is at zero, to-do lists have been checked off, and meetings have been scheduled for the day ahead. The hours between 6:30-9:30 are my most productive and I believe by getting up, focusing and centering myself with a dynamic yoga practice, and getting things done, I can be more attentive to Wade’s needs for the remainder of the day.
2. Check-ins are crucial
Daily check-ins with my CEO are the most important part of my day. As an assistant, daily check-ins and open communication are the key to success in your role. Wade and I connect with each other first thing every morning, which helps me prioritize and plan for the day ahead.
3. Invest in the right tools
With so many productivity and to do list apps and services on the market, it took me a while to take each one for a test drive while figuring out which works best for me.
As an assistant, it’s essential to take notes. A good place to start is Evernote, which I use both for taking notes and creating to do lists. I love the mobile syncing Evernote offers because it allows me to add notes on my cell phone while I’m out and about, then catch up later from my computer.
Calendly is my go-to for scheduling and TripIt is my favorite for organizing and making sense of complex travel itineraries.
I also use my iPhone X for getting a ton of stuff done; it’s where I answer emails when I’m away from my computer, where I set alarm reminders, and where I update the #PeopleofZapier campaign I’m currently running over on Zapier’s Instagram channel.
Before starting at Zapier, I had no idea what the term automation meant. I used to rely on multiple calendar invites to remind myself to do something and I’d spend hours copying data from one app to another. I now heavily rely on Zapier to automate some of these workflows for me, and by doing so I’m saving myself between 5-10 hours per week, precious time that I can now dedicate to work that actually matters.
My favourite Zap integrates Slack and Gmail, so now every time I receive a message in Slack I get an email with the message which serves as a reminder to do that thing. I also love that I can use Zapier to track social media hashtags and to auto update spreadsheets.
5. Master the calendar
Master the calendar and you’ll master your role as an Executive or Personal Assistant.
I live by the calendar, meaning that whatever I schedule, I make sure it gets done. If I need two hours to review emails, focus on project work or to organize an event, I block off the time in my calendar and take that time to focus on the work at hand.
Since my colleagues are spread across a few continents, I have to work with multiple time zones which can be complex when scheduling meetings. This requires a certain level of focus and attention to detail. Using apps like The Time Zone Converter makes my life easier when scheduling.
6. Default to Action and Default to Transparency
Our company values include ‘Default to Action’ and ‘Default to Transparency’ which in short mean jumping in to help with something whenever you can and being transparent about whatever you’re working on.
Defaulting to Action means I can get involved in a number of projects beyond my job title, whether that’s working with PR and Marketing or our People Ops team. By defaulting to action, I’m showing my worth and other skills to the organization at large but also working as part of a team to get the job done, whatever it may be.
Since communication is everything at Zapier, having access to Zoom and Slack is non-negotiable. Slack is our virtual office and we use it for everything from sharing what we’re working on to posting pictures of our dogs and cats.
While in a traditional office you may hear wind of news or projects that others are working on, in a remote environment there’s no way for us to know this without openly communicating it with each other. Over-communicating is better than no communication.
8. Connect in real life
We organize in-person retreats at Zapier twice a year, and then we also have several team retreats throughout the year.
These are a great opportunity for Wade and me to get together in person to build our relationship. It’s also a fun opportunity for me to hang out with my teammates in a new city and use my job as a perfect opportunity to see the world while doing something I love.
9. Set Boundaries
It’s crucial to set boundaries when working from home. I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes find it hard to unplug after a long day and while I’m still figuring this out, I’ve found the best way to set boundaries is to work only from a dedicated space in your home.
When the day is done, close your laptop and leave that space. Get out for a walk, go to the gym, or have dinner with a friend. I have Slack and WhatsApp on my phone so I can respond if a project requires urgent attention otherwise it can wait until the following day. It’s important not to burn out and overdo it while working from home.
10. Show passion in everything that you do
Some friends assume I get coffee for a living while others think I spend my days shopping for my executive. And it’s true, those tasks are required at times, but what I do is so much deeper than that. Being an assistant is a position that’s often looked down upon, considered a stepping stone to another role. For me, this is my career and something I’ve always been passionate about despite the other opportunities that have come up along the way.
Robert Sher of Forbes put it perfectly when he described EAs as “masters at unraveling complexities, guarding access, juggling competing demands for your time and anticipating your needs… EAs can free up your time and extend your reach so you can focus on leading the company”.
I love what I do and have continued to push the boundaries of what this role really is over the past 10 years. And the truth is, the possibilities of where this role could take you are endless. And what’s better than sitting side by side with the leader of a company you’re passionate about and having the priceless opportunity to learn from the best, every day?