I’ve been looking forward to this week of vacation since mid-February. It’s the busy season at work, and between that and additional work responsibilities, I’ve spent the last few months rushing from task to task in an effort to keep things from crashing to the ground.
I can go into hyper-drive and get an amazing amount of work done in a short amount of time–I am both a mother and a project manager, which is the same as saying I am magic–but I can only do it for so long before I run out of gas. I passed that point at the end of February. Since then, I’ve used chocolate and caffeine to prop me up until I could take a break.
This week is my break. And yet, even knowing that I need a break, I’ve been tempted to fill the free time with all of the things I’ve neglected while work has been busy. And I don’t mean cleaning. That’s pretty easy to ignore.
It’s the fun stuff that’s calling to me. The kids and I should explore Vancouver! I should go back to learning the ukulele! I should write all the things! I should make time to exercise every day, and maybe cook better, more elaborate meals. I want to film a really fun idea I have for a social media video for my book, and go on a reading binge, and start my kids on 5k run training, and sew a shirt for me and a skirt for my daughter, and…you get the picture.
I am a goal-driven person, and I like getting stuff done, but even I knew that cramming all of this stuff into my week would send me on a one way trip to insanity-land. And my kids (who are on spring break) would be miserable.
Manufacturing misery seemed like a poor way to spend my vacation, so I settled on a loose plan of exercising for 15 minutes in the morning, and writing for 30 minutes or so before my kids got up. I would then take my children to one kid-friendly activity out of the house. The rest of the time would be free for whatever floated our boat.
On Monday we walked on the beach. On Tuesday we played at the pool for hours. On Wednesday we had cinnamon rolls, and found new books to read at the bookstore. Today we’re going to Science World, and Friday we might try our hand at making soap. I’ve knit a lot, read some, and neglected the morning exercise in favor of reading in bed. In short, I’ve spent the better part of my week well rested and unstressed.
It’s glorious. I hope to hang on to this feeling when I go back to work next week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have enough energy at the end of the work day to pick up the ol’ uke again.
Whether the change is big or small, you can bring people through it with a minimum of complaining and your credibility intact
My husband ate a lot of hot dogs growing up. It was his mother’s go-to dinner and she always put mayonnaise on the hot dog buns. My husband hated mayonnaise as a child. He ate it, because he assumed that it was healthy. Why else would anyone eat something so disgusting?
And then one golden day he discovered the truth–mayonnaise was not healthy. He told his mother that he never wanted mayonnaise on his hot dog ever again. She agreed to his request. And then the next time they had hot dogs for dinner, and there was mayonnaise on his hot dog. When questioned about this unreasonable turn of events, the elder Mrs. Douglas said “Well there isn’t that much.”
This probably wasn’t the only time that my mother in law forgot to do something for her opinionated son. However this is the instance he remembers–and he will never let her live it down. I heard this story again last night, and it occurred to me this morning that those of us in business can learn how to break bad news from the story of the hot dogs.
Learn the Lesson of the Hot Dogs
To put this family situation into business terms, leadership introduced an item that bothered the line staff. Staff complained, and leadership promised to fix it. Then they forgot, and excused themselves by saying that it wasn’t that big of a problem to begin with.
Most of our business problems have nothing to do with hot dogs (unless you work for a hot dog company) but many of us have run into similar situations. Perhaps IT has introduced two factor authentication or a VPN portal to your computer systems. Perhaps the payroll department now requires all payroll approvals to happen on Mondays, even on holidays, no exceptions.
Unless you own your own business, (and sometimes even then) you have probably had someone tell you that you have to do a new thing that takes more time than the old thing you used to do. If you own a process or manage people, you may also have to break the news about the new thing to the people around you.
For the purposes of this discussion we will assume that the company must implement the change. We will also assume that leadership carefully weighed all possible pros and cons before moving forward with it. Even taking these assumptions into account, there is a right way and a wrong way to communicate bad news–and deal with the fall out.
Your Audience May Not Have a Problem
Unless you know for sure that everyone in the company hates the old system, assume that some people enjoy using it. Of the people who didn’t enjoy using it, there is a subset that can perform the clunky process without thinking about it.
These folks don’t recognize that there’s a problem to solve. They will need to hear why their system or process has to change. Saying something like ‘We need to change our payroll day to align with the parent company’ may not fill anyone with joy, but your employees will appreciate knowing the actual answer.
This approach is much better than trying to get people excited about your solution to a problem they don’t have. For instance (and apologies in advance to all graphic designers) when I get an email announcing the ‘new look and feel’ coming to my favorite website, it fills me with dread. I assume this means someone is going to break (or take away) my favorite features. At the very least I’ll have to spend extra time learning where all the buttons went. The more cheerful your email, the more I assume this is going to hurt.
Watch Your Tone
Most people hate delivering bad news. It’s no fun telling people things that will make them feel bad. It’s even less fun listening to people complain about it. Most of us think we’re pretty good at handling change. The sad fact is that we’re all very good at handling change so long as no one changes the things we care about. It’s human nature.
You can’t eliminate the human tendency to complain, but you can lower the number of people who feel the need to do so if you adopt the right tone. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to tell people that something is changing.
Don’t tell people that the change is ‘no big deal.’
Let them come to that conclusion for themselves. Some changes create unforeseen consequences, and you don’t want to lose your credibility as a trusted source of information. This is especially true in larger companies, where it’s impossible to truly understand the way work flows through different departments.
For example, my work portal signs me out of the system every twenty minutes or so. This isn’t a big deal when I’m composing an email or working on a google doc because the computer saves my work. It’s a very large annoyance when I’m using a certain system that has to query a database several times over the course of a few minutes. In some cases, I have spent time adjusting numbers and fields, only to have my work erased when the system logs me out.
I don’t have polite things to say when this happens.
Assume you are dropping this change into a complex system.
When you go to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, your pharmacist asks for a list of other medications you may be taking. This is to make sure that the prescription meant to help you doesn’t kill you when it interacts with the other drugs in your system.
When you change a work process or system, that change isn’t happening in isolation. You or your colleague may not die because of a harmful interaction between two changes, but a small change can lead to a large amount of frustration. Let’s go back to the system that signs me out every twenty minutes. I interact with this system on a computer that freezes up every time I change tabs or try to load data rich documents. Often, when I get logged out of my portal, my computer will lock up. This is also a very busy time of the year at my job, and it’s harder to work faster when my entire computer seizes.
In this case, I have a new computer wending it’s way to my home office. Relief is coming. I may have to learn to live with the twenty minute sign out, but I’ll do it on a computer that doesn’t freeze up if I look at it funny. Where possible, leadership should provide relief from the unintended consequences of changes.
Lead with empathy.
After you explain why you have to change something, acknowledge the annoyance. ‘We need to use two-factor authentication to comply with new security standards in our field. We realize this may mean you will log into the system multiple times over the course of the day. Thank you for your patience as we make our customer data safer.’
Acknowledging the annoyance helps everyone to feel seen. For many people, that’s all they need to keep them from complaining to you. Others might reach out to complain, but they will usually acknowledge that you weren’t going out of your way to ruin their lives.
In my work as an analyst, I decide who gets to run certain programs, and who doesn’t. I break bad news on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that leading with empathy is often the difference between someone flipping out, and someone telling you they understand your decision.
None of us like breaking bad news. It can be tempting to throw our hands up in the air and give up attempting to craft our message. Take time to strike the right tone, provide context for a change, and lead with empathy. If you do, you can bring people through the change with a minimum of complaining–and your credibility intact.
Whether it’s you or your coworker leaving, it’s important to say goodbye. Here’s how to put the ‘good’ in goodbye.
A few weeks ago, a colleague left our company to start a new job. It was a bittersweet ending–I was both happy for her and sorry to lose a Slack chat buddy. As much as I’ll miss my colleague–we’ll call her ‘Andi’–I’m grateful for the care she took when she prepared to leave the company.
In an in-person office, there are often clues that someone is leaving their job. At the very least, someone may escort the employee to the door, box of personal items in hand. Under happier circumstances, you might attend a goodbye lunch, or sit in the person’s cubicle at the end of the day, reminiscing about old times.
In the remote space, there are no incidental visual cues. You may not notice that someone has left until you send an email or chat message and it bounces back.
This can be unsettling for both the people who leave and the people who stay. If you’re the one leaving and no one says anything, is it because everyone secretly hates you? As the colleague left behind, you may also have questions. Did your coworker get fired? Are you next? And who is your new point of contact?
Whether you’re the one leaving or the one sticking around, it’s important to build in a sense of closure.
When You’re the One Leaving
Andi did a great job of preparing her team for her departure. After telling her manager, she made several video calls to break the news to her closest coworkers. Other folks received an instant message or an email from her. And on her last day, she sent a general email wishing us all a fond farewell.
The approach you take will be dictated by the circumstances of your departure. It’s obviously easier to give closure to your colleagues if leaving is your idea. If your workplace and coworkers are hostile, you may decide that they don’t deserve a fond farewell.
Take a moment to think about the people you know in your company before writing them all off. The beauty of the remote workforce is that you can choose to email the one or two folks that might matter to you, and ignore the rest.
Your remote setting gives you total control over how much interaction you have with your soon-to-be former coworkers. If you want (or wouldn’t mind) answering questions about why you’re leaving or what you’re doing next, set up video calls. If you don’t want to get into ANY of the details, send an email that briefly informs people that you’re leaving, and then details who the new point person will be for your tasks.
Instant message is that half step between these two extremes. You can answer questions while filtering out some of the emotional intensity you or the other person might feel. Be aware that most company-owned instant messaging apps, channels, and software are not private. You might not care about burning bridges, but your coworker might not feel the same way.
Consider whether or not you want to keep in contact with your ex-colleagues. In the age of social media, leaving a job no longer means losing track of people you care about. Think about all of the social networks you are on, and weigh the level of professional vs personal information you share on those networks. Are you comfortable with your ex-colleagues seeing what you post? If so, you might want to include your social media handles in your targeted farewell emails.
When Your Colleague is Leaving
It can be all too easy to let your colleague leave without making a point of saying goodbye. You may be uncertain if someone chose to give notice, or if someone else made the decision for them. If your colleague is being laid off, you may think that it’s better to give the person some space.
Your coworker might not want to talk to you or anyone else. There is a difference, though, between making someone talk to you, and telling someone that you’ll miss them. Most of us would want to know that our coworkers would miss us if we left. This is especially true if we were laid off or fired. Sending an email that simply says ‘I heard you’re leaving and I’m sorry to see you go. I wish you nothing but the best,’ takes very little time to write, but might give someone a boost during a tough time.
If you don’t know the departing colleague well, that email will likely be all you do to say goodbye. If you’ve worked with this person on a regular basis, you might want to suggest that you’re willing to meet with the person over video. Adding ‘I’ll understand if you don’t have any time to talk, but my (video/IM) door is open at any time before you leave’ to your email is a tactful way to suggest a meeting without putting the person in an awkward position. As an aside, don’t add this to your email unless you’re actually willing to meet.
It can be tricky to figure out if you should offer to continue the relationship over social media. No one wants to make the first move, only to find out that the other party isn’t that interested in you. Remember, though, that the person is leaving the company. If you guess wrong (and they don’t want to stay in touch) it isn’t as if you’ll have to see them every day.
If the person is worth the possibility of a little momentary embarrassment, saying something like ‘I’m not sure if you’re on social media, but here is my social media handle in case you are’ puts the onus on them to follow up.
When to Consider Throwing a Goodbye Event
The person leaving is your direct report. Unless the person is leaving due to performance issues, holding some sort of goodbye event is a classy thing to do. Perhaps you’re upset with the person for leaving. Your reaction to your employee’s departure will send a message to the rest of the team. Do you want your team to think that you the sort of leader who will prevent people from growing in their career? Do you like getting more than two weeks’ notice? The rest of your team will note your reaction and plan accordingly.
Perhaps your company forced you to lay someone off. You may have agonized over deciding who had to leave. You may be dealing with feelings of guilt and remorse. Don’t let your feelings get in the way of doing the right thing for your team. They need your help navigating through this tough situation. This is especially true if you’ve done a good job fostering a sense of camaraderie. Help your people to say goodbye.
There are situations where it isn’t appropriate to hold a goodbye party. In such cases, it may be appropriate to acknowledge your direct report at the last team meeting. Take the employee’s state of mind into account. If the person is completely opposed to attending an event, or acting hostile, then skip it.
If your departing employee is willing to attend an event, there are ways to keep things from getting too awkward. Consider reaching out to the person ahead of time to see if they want to say anything to the team. They may not want to. Reach out to the rest of your direct reports and see if they want to say a few words.
If nothing else, you should prepare your own comments. Acknowledge the length of the person’s employment, mention anything you appreciate about the person’s work, and wish them well. If no one wishes to talk, then end the meeting early. In any case, end the meeting when the conversation begins to lag. Goodbyes can be tough, but keeping them brief can prevent them from becoming painful.
The person is leaving for a happy reason, and no one else is throwing a party. Some people are terrible at saying goodbye. I’ve worked at companies where people act as if giving your two weeks’ notice is admitting to an infidelity. Perhaps this attitude made more sense when people were given a job for life. It’s hypocritical if the company has ever laid someone off. Your job is not your spouse. It’s okay to leave if you find something better.
Before you set off to plan your rogue goodbye party, ask around to see if anyone else is already doing so. This is also a good time to find out if your colleague has friends in other departments who might want to come. Put a video meeting on the calendar, and tell people they can come and go at will. Try to find some outgoing person to help you keep the conversational ball rolling. It might make sense to ask a few people to come prepared to tell their favorite story about the person who’s leaving.
Whether you’re leaving your company or your coworker is leaving, it’s important to say goodbye. Doing so can help you and those around you to work through difficult feelings and find closure. It may feel awkward in the moment, but taking the time to say goodbye will help you honor your past and clean your slate for the next phase in your professional life.
Remote workers get to take charge of the rhythm of their days. It’s what keeps many of us working in our office of one.
Recently on Twitter, someone asked what would have to change if remote workers stopped working from home. For some reason the question really caught my attention. Here is my list of things I would have to give up if I went back to a traditional office.
#1: Singing While I Work
Nothing helps me power through a a tedious job quite like belting out some of my favorite tunes. I’m sure I had a different coping mechanism when I worked in cubical land, but I can’t remember what it was so (probably) it was less awesome. Sadly, it wouldn’t matter how much I enjoy Lady Marmalade. No one wants to hear that in an open office.
I’ve heard of offices where you can’t listen to music at all. A friend of mine works at an office where you aren’t even allowed to wear headphones. I wouldn’t last long in a place that uses that level of micro control over its employees.
#2: The Continuous (Audible) Commentary
I would either have to learn to be less judgmental or go back to filtering what I say. It isn’t that I talk to myself per se–I’m more like that person who watches a movie and says stuff like ‘Watch out!’ to the characters on the screen. Only, my commentary is more along the lines of ‘oh no you didn’t just try that,’ as I’m reading my email.
#3: Wearing What I Want
The dress code at Douglas HQ is whatever I say it is. I am not one of those folks who wears pajamas all day. I usually rock a button down top and jeans, paired with fabulous hand-knitted socks. There is the occasional ‘top hat Friday.’ The added fabulousness makes up for the workout clothes I wear while I cool down from my run.
I enjoy getting dressed for work. My clothes are as comfortable as they are appropriate for my role. I can take a surprise video call at any hour of my workday without feeling like 10 pounds crammed into a five pound sack.
#4: My Office, My Rules
I have a large medal and racing bib holder on the wall behind my office chair. My office is filled with plants, a rowdy Beta fish named Mac, and books on knitwear design, management, and running. I have a funky orange throw on my office chair. My office is full of color, pictures of my kids, and souvenirs from the places and people I have visited over the years.
My office pleases me. And I don’t have to explain to anyone why I have a pair of robots dressed like Wesley and Buttercup from the Princess Bride. I keep them out of camera range. I feel that if you have to ask, then you won’t understand the answer anyway.
#5: Enforceable Focus Time
My entire career has been spent in roles where I am the nexus between people and processes. To put it in less lofty terms, I’m a choke point for several different departments. Back in my old office days I would voluntarily get into work at 6am on Fridays just so I could work without getting my elbow jogged every 3 minutes. I would eat lunch out so people wouldn’t drop by my cube to ask work questions while I was eating.
Now, when I want focus time, I turn off all of my notifications. If I work while eating my lunch, it’s because I chose to go running on my lunch break. My time isn’t always my own, but generally I am the boss of the rhythm of my day. All jokes about singing and top hats aside (though that stuff is totally true) THIS is why I love my remote office.
At the end of the day, working remotely allows me to be myself at work. I can indulge in my love of wacky office decorations and pop music knowing that my choices don’t impinge on anyone else’s concentration. I love the freedom to concentrate or connect with others on my own terms. It’s a lifestyle I wouldn’t willingly give up.