I have exactly one remote work-related thing to tell you and it’s this: Tuesday, April 27th I’ll be part of a Twitter panel discussing the future of meetings. If you’re reading this post before 12 Eastern, come check it out as we Tweet live and answer questions. Fellow app is hosting the discussion under the hashtag #ManagerChat. If you missed the live event you can skim through the discussion at your leisure.
For those of you who only read this blog for the remote work articles, feel free to ignore the rest of this update.
A Doctor in Da House
Seven years ago my husband, two small children, and I left California to start a new life in Vancouver Canada. When you have skin as light as ours you get to say you emigrated and are American ex-pats. Whatever you call it, we moved to Canada so my husband could get his Ph.D.
Last Friday the man successfully defended his dissertation, becoming Dr. Douglas. We partied like two middle-aged married folk with kids locked down during a pandemic. There were naps. There were limited edition Russian Imperial Stouts for the Dr. and Canadian Ice Wine for the woman who stayed married to him throughout the making of the degree. We ordered Malaysian takeout. Our daughter congratulated her father. Our son called him Dr. Dad.
Wine, Woman, and Song
I was a one-woman cliche of celebration—I’m a woman, I had wine, and I sang songs (after the wine). And since we’re in a pandemic, and Canada is in the midst of its third wave, and all our family is in the US, that’s as much in-person celebration as this life event gets.
But just you wait until we’re all vaccinated. As my grandmother would have said “Nosotros pasarmos un buen tiempo.” (We’ll have a good time.) In fact, we’ll tirar la casa por la ventana. In English, you raise the roof, but in Spanish, you throw the house out the window. Sounds to me like Spanish speakers throw better parties since the whole house is involved.
In the 2009 movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job it is to fly to workplaces and fire people. His nemesis is a woman who wants to fire people via video meetings in order to save money. By the end of the film, you’re left with the impression that the only humane termination is one done in person.
The recent Huffpost layoffs seem to bolster that idea. Staff were reportedly told at ten am that if they didn’t get an email by 1pm, their job was safe. This means some folks waited three hours to find out if they had a job or not. Worse, they couldn’t be together when it happened since the team was working from home due to the pandemic. The people manager in me wonders why Buzzfeed didn’t just send out those infamous emails all at once. Getting fired by email isn’t great, but waiting three hours to get fired by email is even worse.
The thing Up in the Air and Buzzfeed both seem to miss is that you can, in fact, conduct humane terminations via video call. Just as you can conduct terrible layoffs in person. The mode of work–in person vs remote–doesn’t change that fact. Employees don’t lose their humanity just because leadership can’t see them.
I have a lot more to say on this topic. I’m in the middle of writing the “how to fire humanely over zoom” chapter in my upcoming business book right now. But here are two things to keep in mind if you need to lay off a remote worker in the next couple of weeks.
This is Not the Time to Hide Behind Business Speak
Human Resources and Legal Departments will want to vet whatever communications go out to your employees. That’s only natural. But make sure that your employees–both the ones leaving and the ones staying–get to see a human take responsibility for the layoffs. And make sure you show them your very human regret.
The Employees that Stay Are Watching You Too
Few people expect to stay a a company for life. But they’ll still hold it against you if you toss people aside like empty printer cartridges. They may put their heads down and continue working, but they’ll remember how you treated their colleagues. And how you act once the dust settles.
Think of it this way: you would never attend a funeral and expect the deceased’s family to go to a party right after to celebrate that they are still alive. And you would never tell the survivors that you’re happy they’re alive because they’re brilliant at what they do. The same holds true for layoff survivors. This is a case where doing the right thing is good from both a people and results perspective. Show a little respect for your employees’ feelings and they will more quickly refocus on the job at hand.
There is no magic formula that will make people happy to be fired. You’re separating people from their livelihood, after all. But you can–and should–take a human-centered approach when you do it. Doing so will both help your employees process the trauma of the terminations, and benefit your business results.
What’s That Douglas Up To?
Writing, writing, writing. I was having a tough time finding the opening for my business book’s chapter ‘How to Fire Humanely Over Zoom,’ until I had a conversation with someone about how not to lay people off a week or so ago. And just like that, the first few pages unrolled in my head and I had to type furiously to get it all down.
As a result, I don’t have a lot of other writing to share with you. I have no fewer than three accepted pieces waiting to be published in other outlets, but this is from work I wrote weeks ago. Two of them are literary and one is comedy. (When I’m blocked in one type of writing I usually switch to another so my subconscious can work through the issue on its own time.)
I’m Teaching My Kids How to Cook
This has resulted in some truly spectacular dishes. Some of them are spectacularly good while others…are learning experiences. So far we’ve learned not to use as much pickling salt as you would table salt, and that tortilla soup does not need to be thickened with tomato paste because soup is supposed to be runny. I think we’ve avoided having to learn that you shouldn’t put marshmallows in butter tarts even if you like both of those things separately. Whew!
That’s it from Douglas HQ. I hope you can find little pockets of joy this week. I’ll see you next time.
In the 1996 movie ‘Phenomenon,’ John Travolta plays George Malley, an ordinary man who develops the ability to learn and retain everything he reads. In one scene, he’s sitting in his house when some neighbors drive up and wave a book at him. “George!” They yell, “We need you to learn Portuguese!”
For many, the pandemic in March was our collective George Malley moment. We were going about our lives when suddenly we had to work remotely without a social safety net. Those first few months we were in survival mode. There was no time for deep thought or best practices. Business leaders and employees needed hacks and cheat sheets, not an esoteric conversation about meaning and fulfilment in remote work.
But here we are on the cusp of August. And honestly, some people still don’t have a lot of space for deep questions. Some of us are working while parenting. Others are trying to work in cramped living conditions, or in the ringing silence of isolation. Employees who haven’t been laid off are doing the work of multiple people. And all of us are dealing with the psychological effects that come from living in a pandemic.
Lead with Curiosity First
Good news for the time-strapped: Rebooting a culture doesn’t start with a grand gesture or a ten-point plan. Begin with reflection. When your company is at it’s best, what does that look like? Is the company friendly and productive? Energetic and data-driven? Write down some descriptive words or sentences.
Next, think about what those qualities look like on a day to day basis. If you said your company at its best is ‘a safe place to collaborate and try new things,’ then you might expect to see employees at all levels leading projects. Or perhaps you would see leadership asking for–and acting on–honest feedback. Write these ideas down as well.
There’s one very important caveat to keep in mind as you work through this exercise. It’s all too easy to stray from neutral actions into overly prescriptive descriptions of the “right” way to work.
Let’s take collaboration as an example. Saying ‘I expect that employees in a collaborative culture would reach out to different stakeholders when working on a project’ is neutral. Saying ’employees in collaborative cultures brainstorm in daily live meetings’ assumes that this is the only way to collaborate. Stick with the former and avoid the latter.
Next, Observe Your Company’s Current State
Once you have your list, it’s time to observe your remote company culture in action. When a company is distributed, it often uses different channels to communicate and disseminate information. Look at email strings, instant messaging chats, and video meetings. You might find it helpful to create a column for each communication channel and take notes over a period of time. How (and when) do employees and leaders talk to each other? Who gets to ask questions? Who influences decisions? What is the general tone in each medium?
Once you have this information, compare the results to your pre-pandemic company culture. Do things look better, the same, or worse than before COVID? Try to disprove your results. For example, you may decide that your company culture is just as collaborative now as it was before the pandemic, because you see employees talking through projects on Slack. Ask yourself, ‘Are the same three people influencing all of our project decisions? Are any groups consistently silent–or absent–during the collaborative process?’
As many of us have recently learned, testing can come with false positives and false negatives. Putting your conclusions through a second level of scrutiny can help you to minimize the level of error.
So how does your company culture stack up? Does your culture need a reboot? In my next post, we’ll discuss things you can do to tweak company culture, even if you aren’t the person in charge.
Behind the Scenes: Goings-On in the Douglas HQ
For those of you who are here just for the business articles, I’ll see you next week. The rest of this is pure frivolity.
First, and most pressing, we are still pet rat-less. And my Betta fish of two and a half years died. I bought Mac the fish when he was already mature, so I’m hoping this was old age, but between the lack of rats and the death of my fish, I feel like I’m in the middle of a COVID-themed country song. The kids were less disappointed this week because I did a better job of managing their expectations. Fingers crossed that I have more rats in my house next week. And who would have ever thought that sentence would come out of my keyboard? Weird times, y’all. Weird times.
In more positive news, I won a grant to bring kids’ books to my local community. I run two little free libraries in my neighborhood and I asked the fine folks at UTown for funds to buy books for 6-12-year-olds. Saturday is the day I get to purchase the books. Next week I’ll start dispensing them. Feel free to call me Teresa Claus, because that’s what I feel like right now.
The kids are taking more online classes. About three weeks into my satire class I noticed that my son is basically trying to build his own comedy skits. So I put him in improv. As one does. He loves it, and we’ll probably continue with it once the school year starts. My daughter is taking Spanish from a teacher from Mexico. That last bit is important to me because I want her to pronounce things the way my family does. We can’t visit our loved ones in the States, but at least we can cuddle up to our shared heritage.
Good morning! I’m writing a short post today to share some of the writing I published last week in other places. I was working on a different post for today but sadly, my time this week was spent kicking some spam bots off my blog.
Incidentally, if you’re a subscriber who hasn’t re-subscribed to my blog AND clicked the link in the confirmation sent to your email (I sent out a note about that Monday July 20th), this is the last one you’ll get in your email before I retire the old list. You can sign up again over on the right side of my website. Check your spam folder for the confirmation email. Dang bots.
How Do We Rate People Working in a Pandemic?
In this article, I talk about whether we should hold people accountable for underperformance during the current crisis. Managers, please ask yourself, ‘Is this person really the problem, or am I trying to fire the virus?’
Satire About Micro Managers
Last month I enrolled in a satire class from The Second City. Before I did so, I wrote a comic personal essay about finding accidental alone time via dyeing my hair in my bathroom. I realized after writing that essay that I don’t really know the common structures for humour. So I remedied that gap in my knowledge. Humour–especially short humour–is a tricky beast. Which makes it addictively interesting if you’re me.
In any event, I published this piece on a humour site called Robot Butt. Satire is the humour of outrage, and it probably comes as no surprise that I am outraged by micromanagers.
I’d forgotten what life was like before I had to educate my children and work at the same time. The kids’ last day of school was June 25. A week after school ended I wrote both of the pieces linked to this article, plus an assigned article that hasn’t been published yet, and a couple of satire pieces that aren’t yet ready to shop around. It’s like all of the creative energy I funnelled into making my circumstances work turned into a creative writing tsunami.
I swore that I wasn’t going to put my kids into online summer camp. We’ve had enough online class to last us the entire summer, thank you very much. Then I saw a ‘how to make mods in Minecraft’ class that had some good reviews and decided to let the kids do that for a week.
And you know what? The class was fabulous. And required very little involvement from me. I shouldn’t be surprised by this. When you approach remote work thoughtfully, you can have great outcomes. I’ve been living that dream for the last 10+ years. Remote learning is no different. If there are educators or decision makers reading this, please–for the sake of kids and parents everywhere–spend this summer researching how established online schools run their classes.
We’ve also become the people who get pets in a pandemic. It’s Friday morning as I write this, and I’ll find out this afternoon if the pet rats we’re getting from a breeder are ready to go home with us.
I made the mistake of telling the kids about the rats two weeks ago. In my defence, I had to set up the three storey rat palace in their bedroom, and that isn’t the kind of thing you can tell them to ignore. The rats were supposed to be ready for us last Friday. If you have kids, you can imagine what happened when we found out that they weren’t ready yet. Here’s hoping I have better news for next week’s blog.
Making decisions and coming up with solutions feels so good in the moment. But sometimes the best thing a manager can do is to step back and let your team do their job.
Happy Friday everyone! It’s been an action-packed week at Remota HQ. Thanks to the magic of the remote workforce, I live nowhere near the Texas Gulf coast and yet have to deal with the effects of tropical depression Imelda. Thankfully the teachers that I manage are all safe.
There’s a particular sort of stress that comes from being responsible for people who are dealing with forces outside of your control. There needs to be a specific word for this. We have a word for throwing someone out a window, for goodness sake. Standing back and letting your people work through a tough situation without micromanaging it happens way more often. (I hope.) It deserves its own word.
Have You Done Enough?
In any event, I’ve found that I’m most helpful when I take a moment to determine when I’ve done enough. Did I make all the the decisions that must go through me? Did I give my folks the tools they need to do their job? Do my direct reports know I’m in their corner, ready to support them? And then—this is important—if I’ve done everything I can do, have I stopped trying to manage the situation so my people can get on with it?
On Tuesday I had a teacher contact me to ask whether we should cancel an evening class in her area. The powers that be had just issued a flash flood warning, and some (but not all) of the businesses near her were closing early. She wanted to know if we should do the same.
Now I love solving problems. It feels so good to be the one with the answer. I even went so far as to start firing off an email before I stopped myself and took a moment to think. Remote work has its own set of challenges, but there are times when the asynchronous communication helps us make better decisions. My direct report couldn’t see me. So instead of sending a quick email to her, I instant-messaged colleague. I asked him what criteria he used to decide whether or not to cancel a class due to weather.
He replied back with “I usually trust the person on the ground to make that call.”
That was the right answer. Our teachers operate in a high trust environment. They go through a vetting process before we hire them. Of course the person in the situation should decide whether it was safe enough to hold class that night.
I emailed the teacher back and let her know that she was the best person to make that call. I would fully support her decision. We just needed to know what it was by noon.
Inigo Montoya Isn’t the Only One Who Hates Waiting
And then I waited. As the a Spaniard from the Princess Bride said “I hate waiting.” But there wasn’t anything else I could do to make the situation better. There were plenty of things I could do to make it worse. So instead, I got up and went for a walk in my neighborhood.
Don’t get me wrong. I still had plenty of other fires to put out that day. But nothing exploded in the fifteen minutes I took to walk off the urge to micromanage. Most things don’t.
I’ve found that the difference between effective and ineffective managers often boils down to how well a person manages their head space. You don’t have to be all knowing–or even particularly calm. You do have to learn the best way to short-circuit your knee jerk reactions.
For me, that means doing something physical like a walk or a run. Or I go make lunch. Once, when I was trapped in a video meeting that was making me snarky, I grabbed a nearby knitting project and knit in a way that wouldn’t show up on camera. Some people have emergency fire extinguishers in their offices. I have emergency knitting. Any port in a storm.
The things I use to short-circuit my knee jerk reactions may not work for you. The important thing is to start experimenting until you have your own toolbox of coping mechanisms. If you have anything you really like, I’d love to hear about it. I’m always looking to add to my own toolbox.
A remote team may have the same objectives as an on-site team—perform quality work under budget—but the tools you use to get high performance from them differ.
Mark Twain once said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” This is true of managers who begin managing remote workers, regardless of their experience. If anything, experienced people managers may have a stiffer learning curve than new managers.
Experienced people managers have a set of tools they like to use to motivate their people. At first glance it’s reasonable to assume that those tools will work just as well online as they do in person. After all, the objectives are the same. You need to motivate your people to perform quality work on time and under budget. People are people no matter where they sit.
This is a reasonable opinion. It’s also wrong. There are significant differences between office-based employees and remote employees. In this article we will discuss some of these differences, and how to manage through them.
You Can’t See Your Team Working
Humans are visual creatures. We pay attention to visual cues and our brains are set up to process visual information very efficiently. According to Professor Mriganka Sur, Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience and Professor Jayadeva, Associate Professor Department of Electrical Engineering, “Nearly half of the human brain…is devoted directly or indirectly to vision.”
Most experienced managers know—on an intellectual level—that people who look busy might actually be slacking. The employee typing furiously might be embroiled in a flame war. Conversely, the person staring off into space may be working through a thorny supplier problem. You can’t tell just by looking at them.
Visual cues are pleasant but not sufficient
Visual cues are comforting, but they don’t tell the whole story. Looked at one way, this is good news for those of us who manage people we can’t see. It means we can rely on other methods to verify that people are working.
Losing that visual information is still scary. And worried people in positions of power can make poor decisions. Several years ago I had a remote manager we’ll call Stan. Stan wanted to know when I left my desk to go to the bathroom. I wasn’t an intern, either. I was a seasoned manager, with a years long track record of excellent results, and none of that mattered to the boss who couldn’t see me.
Needless to say, that relationship didn’t end well. Stan’s metrics tanked and he was asked to leave. The worst part about this whole story is that my misery and his termination were preventable. Had my former manager understood that his nervousness was colouring his actions, he might not have lost his job.
Don’t let ‘I can’t see them working’ damage your ability to drive results through your team. Using software to grab random screenshots of someone’s computer, or to track keystrokes, won’t give you an accurate picture of that person’s productivity. All you’re really doing is sending the message that you don’t trust your employee.
The Remote Workforce Runs On Trust
When you can’t see your employees you have to trust that they’re working. You have to trust that they will reach out if they run into a problem they can’t solve or a situation that needs a manager. A good manager provides structure and focuses on results, but the entire system breaks down without trust.
That trust runs in the other direction as well. Your people need to trust that you will give them clear expectations and the tools to do the job. They have to trust that if they come to you with a complex problem, they can rely on your support.
There’s only one problem.
Your Team Can’t See You, Either
We learn a lot about people by observing them in their surroundings. For example, take a look at this picture of my office wall.
What can you learn about me when you look at this wall? Perhaps you noticed the truly unconscionable number of running medals, and think I have a running problem. Maybe you noticed that I’ve been to India. Or perhaps you focused on the small children and assume I have kids.
This information humanizes me. If we worked next to each other, you could also see the way I treat other people. A story of who I am would build in your mind. Consciously or unconsciously, you would use that story to decide who I am.
Perhaps you would say to yourself,’I really wish Teresa would stop going on and on about running, but I can tell she really cares about people and wants to help them to succeed.’
If you have this story in your mind, and one day I send you an email that sounds a little cold, you would probably give me the benefit of the doubt. You might even ask me if I’m doing okay.
If you manage on-site employees, then you can build a lot of trust by treating people decently as you go about your day. This is not true if you manage remote employees. Most of their experience with you will be through text. If you are the kind of person who likes to send short, very efficient, business only emails to your team, they may develop a picture of you that is less than kind.
Mindfully Manage Your Image
The solution is to supply the context that your remote team lacks. You can do this in several important ways.
Meet one on one via video call
Remember that the human brain likes visuals. Both you and your direct report will feel better if you can see each other face to face. Look directly into the camera as you talk to your employee. Make it clear by your facial expression and tone of voice that you’re pleased to be there. If you’re American (or your employee is) this means smiling.
Meet together as a team over video call
Your direct reports need to see how you treat other people. Team meetings give your team a chance to watch you treat their colleagues with respect. This is also a good time to congratulate people for good work, and to explain your reasoning behind decisions. Employees feel more settled when they know how the boss thinks. Demonstrate that thinking in real time.
Show your human side
My office wall may look random, but it has purpose. When I’m on a video call with someone who doesn’t know me, it gives them something to say to break the ice. Usually they mention all the medals. This gives me a chance to ask them if they like to run. And just like that, we’ve made a human connection. If you don’t like to over share, or are awkward with chit chat, a mindfully decorated wall can ease your way.
Share the human moments in your day
You set a lot of the team norms. Something as simple as ‘I’m going to go take a long walk. Call me if you need me,’ tells your team that it’s okay to take reasonable breaks. This will help differentiate you from Darth Vader. Do you think Darth Vader let people go for a walk to take the edge off? Not unless it was out an airlock without a space suit.
If you have pets, children, or hobbies, share small details. Telling your team in Slack, for example, that you need to go clean up cat barf may not seem worthwhile. However, it demonstrates that you are a human just like them. If you send an email later that day that seems a little short, they will probably assume you’re (understandably) still cranky about the cat barf and give you a pass.
Onsite and off site employees share a lot of similarities. Both groups want to work for a reasonable boss who trusts them to do a good job. However, there are differences in the way you demonstrate who you are as a manager. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to demonstrate to your remote team that you’re sane. Doing so will allow them to focus on producing quality work, to the benefit of the company and your career.
Today’s post is a book review of ‘The Remix—How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace’ by Lindsey Pollak.
This is a quarterly column where I talk about interesting books through the lens of remote work. I’m not paid for these reviews. I did inadvertently get this particular book as a review copy when I tried to pre-order it in Canada. You can see my previous review here.
I am a big fan of Pollak’s work. She’s a leading expert on the multigenerational workplace, and her newsletter is pithy and well researched. The book is no different. Let’s dive into some highlights.
Differences in World View
Chapter one covers the five generations present in today’s workplace—Boomers, Micro-generation Jones, Gen X, Micro-generation Xennials, and Millennials. Most of us have seen charts that try (and largely fail) to simplify these generations down to stereotypes. Pollak manages to place each generation in it’s historical context, while maintaining nuance. I loved the discussion of differing world views. She cites research from the Pew Research Center, which shows that “40 percent of Baby Boomers and 37 percent of Traditionalists believe…most people can be trusted.” Only 31 percent of Gen Xers and 19 percent of Millennials feel the same.
So much of today’s work runs on social currency. It’s really helpful to know if you are starting at zero with people or not. Age isn’t destiny, but if you have a younger workforce, Pollak’s research suggests that you will likely have to spend more time building trust.
This was certainly true when my company went remote. I took on a sizeable number of Millennial direct reports when we left our offices behind. Those folks didn’t know me and they didn’t automatically trust the emails coming out of headquarters. I spent a lot of time getting to know them as people before we could work well together. We ended up in a good place, but the collective company learning curve could have been shorter if we’d had this book in 2009.
As Pollack says, “generational characteristics provide clues—never promises—as to how certain people or actions might be better handled.” Armed with this information, you can avoid the pitfalls that come with assuming everyone shares your level of trust in authority.
And in case you’re wondering, I’m in the ‘Xenniel’—or ‘Oregon Trail’—generation. My basic world view is ‘trust but verify.’
The Remix is for Everyone
The balance of the book helps leaders navigate talent acquisition and retention, people management, training and development, and culture. These sections are geared toward decision-makers, but they’re also useful for anyone who wants to introduce new ways of working into their company. The section on remixing communication is worth the price of the book all by itself. If nothing else, it gives you studies and research you can quote when talking to management about revamping your communication system.
This book isn’t focused on the remote worker, but many of the communication ‘remix’ ideas work well in our digital environment. I’m thinking of the concept COPE—create once, publish everywhere—in particular. It might seem weird for an employee in an office to send another employee in the same office a short video message instead of just popping over to talk. In the remote environment, a short, engaging video is a welcome change of pace. Pollak has a very detailed example of how to COPE for those of us that like to see an idea in action.
Common Sense Is Not So Common
In my time as a manager of Millenials, I have:
Taught someone how to tie a tie
Discussed the pros and cons of accepting the out-of-state university offer
Dispensed (requested) marital advice
Explained how to call in sick
Given too many pep talks to remember.
As Pollak says, ‘common sense’ isn’t so common. Or rather, it’s dependent on your lived experience.
Skills that previous generations learned at home now have to be learned on the job. It isn’t because Millennials are broken, either. It’s because technology keeps marching on. And you know what? It’s a privilege to be the person that teaches someone a skill. We should all be on the lookout for ways to help our colleagues and direct reports fill a skills gap.
The training and development section of ‘The Remix’ gives some ideas for things you might need to teach your multi-generational workforce. Millennials may need to learn how to answer a phone properly. Baby Boomers may need help navigating Slack. Really, we all need to up skill in one way or another.
Overall, ‘The Remix’ by Lindsey Pollak is an empathetic, optimistic manifesto for people who want to lead successful companies with an inclusive, multi-generational workforce. If you read it, let me know what you think.
To create an effective team building day, give people a voice, give them choice, and make it accessible for all.
In ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,’ Patrick Lencioni says that “It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it’s so powerful and so rare.” While we can argue about how rare it is to find effective, high performing teams, there is research that suggests that you can improve team performance with team building activities.
I’m lucky enough to work for a company that actively tries to build a healthy remote team culture. Several years ago, one department started ‘In-service Day,’ and the sessions were so popular that other departments were invited to join in the fun. Now, if we want to get in to a certain session, we have to be quick to log onto the registration page as soon as the sign up email hits our inbox.
So how do you design a team building event or in-service day that employees want to attend? Here are four things to keep in mind:
Give People a Voice
Allow employees a voice in the process. Our ‘ISD’ (in service day) committee does this in two ways. First, they come up with some general topics, and then sends out a survey to see which ones rise to the top. This extra step saves them from spending hours putting together a presentation on a subject that few people will find interesting.
On that same survey, the ISD committee asks participants ‘if you could put together a 15 minute presentation on anything, what would it be?’ This has yielded some surprising (and highly popular) Ted-Talk style presentations. We’ve heard from people who spent a year reading books only by female authors, people who enjoy board games (and think you will too), and people who take fantastic vacations on a shoestring budget.
These shorter talks are a great way to take a mental break in between the longer, more traditional knowledge-building sessions. It’s also a great way to get to know colleagues. The most interesting thing about this success story, is that it came about almost by accident. When an early iteration of the committee was trying to generate ideas for ISD, someone said ‘maybe we should ask people about other topics they would like to hear about?’ When you ask people for their ideas, you may stumble across a jewel.
Give People a Choice
There is a school of thought out there that goes something like this: ‘We can’t please everyone, so we might as well plan an event that leadership likes. People will complain about it either way.’ It’s true that there will always be some folks out there who have to be dragged (metaphorically speaking) kicking and screaming to team building events. Most of these folks have had bad experiences with team building events in the past. That’s no reason to continue to confirm their bias.
Admittedly, there may be times that you need to train your employees on a specific topic, whether they want to attend or not. Topics such as workplace safety and security come to mind. Remember that these sorts of training sessions aren’t team building activities and shouldn’t be talked up as such. Your employees might spend some time bonding by complaining about compliance training, but the team building aspect is coincidental.
There are different ways to give employees a choice during team building activities. Depending on your budget and the number of participants, you may wish give participants the option to choose the sessions they attend. People who decide to attend a session are far more likely to get something out of it.
However, the most important choice, the choice you should never violate, is over how much personal information an employee is obliged to reveal. Some employees have survived terrible childhoods. Others belong to minority groups that face discrimination. Still others like to keep their personal lives separate from their work for their own private reasons. No one should feel forced to share personal information.
I learned this one the hard way. I was planning a party in honor of someone, and I asked a colleague–we’ll call him Don–if he would share a particular memory at the party. Don told me that he couldn’t do so, and he shared the extremely personal reason why he couldn’t. I apologized for asking. To this day I regret making him unexpectedly relive that memory.
What I should have done then (and what you can do now) is ask for volunteers. Something as simple as emailing the entire group saying ‘I’m planning a session on common in-service day planning mistakes and how to avoid them. If you would be willing to share a story about a time you created a truly boring team building activity, please let me know via email by Wednesday and I’ll be in touch,’ can solicit the same information without outing anyone.
While it’s true that employees can bond over shared vulnerability, that will only happen if the sharing is voluntary. Mandating shared vulnerability can potentially force some employees to relive traumatizing experiences. Don’t do it.
Give People Access
This is particularly important in you are planning an in-person (vs online) team building event. I had a boss who elected to get an MBA while fully employed, and his cohort was required to attend a 2 day team building event. At one point everyone was required to climb to the top of a telephone pole. (It wasn’t an actual pole with wires. I’m pretty sure using an actual working telephone pole is illegal.)
I remember thinking a) that I would have flunked MBA school on the first day because I am afraid of heights and while I have no problem climbing trees and riding roller coasters, there is no way I would willingly climb to the top of a pole and sit on it, and b) what did they do with the students who use wheelchairs? Telling people to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the team engages in a team building event sends the message that some people are second-class employees.
You still have to think about accessibility even when your team building event is remote. At my last team-building day, the organizers solicited facts from the participants ahead of time. Our job as a team was to guess which fact belonged to which person. Instead of just displaying the fact on the screen, the organizer also played a clip of someone reading the fact. This meant that every colleague–regardless of vision status–could participate in the activity.
It may feel overwhelming to try and make your event accessible to all. While you can do research on your own, this might be a good time to solicit information from the group. Again, you can email the participants ahead of time and say ‘I’d like to make sure our team building day is accessible to all. If you have ideas or tools that can help make this day available to people who have cognitive or physical impairments, please share them with me.’
As an aside, if you ask for this information, and people tell you how to make an event more accessible, use the information they give you. Asking for ways to make an event better and then ignoring the information is disengaging. For the best results, ask for accessibility tips early in the event planning process.
Creating an effective team building day requires thoughtful planning. But you don’t have to (and in most cases, shouldn’t) work in a vacuum. Give people a chance to partner with you. You will end up with great ideas you would never have thought about otherwise, avoid disengaging sessions, and create an event that is accessible for the entire team. The care and thought you pour into the event will shine through and leave employees feeling respected. And feeling respected is truly team building.
While it’s tempting to flesh out an ‘ideal remote candidate’ profile, you will have better results if you focus on capabilities instead.
In the summer of 2005, a teacher manager role opened up at Kaplan K-12. I’d been working for Kaplan as an after school teacher for a year at that point, trying to figure out if I wanted to teach once I graduated from my MFA program at Sara Lawrence College. I enjoyed the company, I liked my boss, and I didn’t seriously consider applying for the role.
There are certain moments–certain decisions–that change the course of your career. This was one of mine. I had to turn in some paperwork to my boss, and I decided to take it into the office instead of mailing it because it was a little bit late. I stopped to chat with some of the managers in the office, and one of them asked me if I was going to apply for the teacher manager role.
“Oh, it looks interesting, but I don’t have any management experience,” I explained.
The woman–we’ll call her Dana– looked at me over her glasses and asked “Didn’t you say you worked as a nanny before you came to us?” She then spent the next few minutes explaining to me how similar watching children was to managing adults. The experiences might have been different, Dana argued, but the necessary capabilities were exactly the same.
Why Capabilities Should Trump Experience in Remote Work
In a recent HBR.org article, Nilofer Merchant discussed ways managers can avoid screening out perfectly good candidates based on the wrong criteria. She shared an amusing anecdote about a hiring manager looking for a social media expert with 10 years of experience when the entire field was only a few years old. Too often hiring managers pass on capable people because they focus on whether someone has passed a very specific–and arbitrary– hurdle.
Hiring managers can fall into the same trap when looking for a great remote candidate. Not only must managers screen for people who can fulfill the basic job function, they must also find people who can produce good work as a member of a distributed team.
It’s easy to understand why we might focus on previous remote experience. We’re pressed for time. We need people to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Often there are too many candidates vying for the same position and we need to find way to shrink the pool of interviewees.
The problem with using previous experience as a proxy for ‘this person is a good remote hire’ is that remote work only went mainstream relatively recently. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the number of remote jobs has increased 140% since 2005.
The number of people who work remotely is growing, but the total pool of candidates with demonstrated remote experience is relatively small. A manager who insists on hiring someone with ’10 years experience’ in a specific role, with a specific set of skills, in a remote context, is in danger of either settling for a sub standard candidate or finding no candidate at all.
Once you’ve checked to see if a candidate has the basic skill set to perform a certain role, focus on whether someone has the capacity to thrive as a remote worker, rather than insisting on an arbitrary amount of remote work experience.
How to Figure Out if a Candidate Will Thrive as a Remote Worker
Remote employees must take charge of the rhythm of their work days. This means having the discipline to both work during the workday and to turn off the work at the end of the day.
You can find evidence of discipline in a lot of different places. The candidate’s resume may show someone who has to balance competing projects or priorities with low supervision. If you can’t find specific examples of this in a work setting, you can look for people who have successfully balanced different aspects of their personal lives.
For example, someone who worked full time while going to school shows discipline. Or perhaps the candidate trains for races, or volunteers at a local charity while caring for older parents or young children. Those personal experiences are sometimes more telling, because there is no manager standing over them, making sure they get that personal work done.
Technological advances and an ever-changing business environment mean that companies need employees who can adjust to an increasing rate of change. This is true anywhere, but is even more true in a distributed company, where the work is not chained to a specific locale or production line. A distributed company’s ability to pivot will (mostly) be dictated by the speed at which it’s workers–both employees and management– can shift gears.
This can be a hard capability to figure out. Everyone thinks they roll with the punches. Look for someone who has a variety of work experiences. Back in the old days, when jobs were jobs for life, it made sense to find someone who picked one career and worked at gaining increasing levels of responsibility.
Today, candidates who have worked across a variety of roles and functions bring more value. They have more skills to draw on when your company needs to change. This person is more likely to think ‘I’ve done this before,’ and feel more confident as he or she works through the latest shift in your business.
You can also find flexibility by looking for people who have a variety of life experiences. This includes (but is not limited to) people who live in foreign countries, persons with neurological processing differences, and those who live with disabilities. Besides bringing in a diverse viewpoint, these folks have experience navigating in a world not necessarily set up for them, and likely possess a robust problem-solving skill set.
Proactive Communication skills
Of all the capabilities that a remote worker should possess, this one is probably the easiest to spot. How often did the candidate communicate with you as you set up the interview? What was the quality of that communication? While it makes sense to ask all interviewees to discuss moments when they had to work with people via email and instant message, your interview will provide real-time information that you can assess.
Why does the person want to work remotely? The answer to this question almost doesn’t matter so long as it’s meaningful to the candidate–unless, of course, the answer is ‘because I think it’s easier to pretend I’m working when I’m at home.’ If the interviewee doesn’t treat the interview seriously, move on.
There are a lot of good answers to ‘why do you want to work remotely?’ Perhaps the candidate is a military spouse and needs a job that isn’t tied to a specific location. Or maybe the candidate loves fostering dogs in her home. Every job has its tough moments. Candidates who know why a home office works for them will weather the tough times and work hard to keep their remote jobs.
How Not to Figure Out If a Person Will Thrive as a Remote Worker
It can be tempting to take these qualities and create an image of what your ‘ideal candidate’ looks like. Or worse yet, match them against certain personality types. I would caution you against doing so.
Qualities like discipline, flexibility, and proactive communication skills can present differently in different people. If you spend too much time deciding what that candidate “must” look like, you run the risk of passing over great candidates in favor of hiring clones of yourself.
I was lucky all those years ago, chatting with that manager in the Kaplan office. She was able to see past my previous job titles to the skills that truly mattered. With her encouragement I applied for the teacher manager role, accepted the position, and have been in management of one kind or another ever since. Looking at the capabilities that really matter will have a similarly beneficial effect on your company’s performance, and on your employees, for years to come.
In this quarterly column, we take a look at resources to help you survive and thrive as a remote worker. I am not paid to recommend any tools or resources, and the opinions below are strictly my own.
In today’s post we’re going to take a deeper dive into ‘Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams’ by Pilar Orti and Maya Middlemiss.
At thirteen chapters and 100ish pages, you could conceivably finish this book in a couple of hours. I wouldn’t recommend doing so–if read right, this book works almost as a personal coach. To get the most out of Orti and Middlemass’ expertise, you’ll want to sit with the questions posed in each chapter.
Chapter 4 is a case in point. The title is ‘Now that I’m remote, how can people see how a hard I’m working?’ This should be required reading for all managers with remote direct reports.
The chapter discusses how to discourage ‘presenteeism.’ Dictionary.com defines presenteeism as ‘working long hours at a job with no real need to do so.’ This is a learned behaviour that one usually practices as a way to demonstrate loyalty and value. The authors get right to the point by addressing mindset first of all: “It is important to be sure that accountability concerns aren’t simply a projection of your own insecurities…”
From there, the authors discuss how to spot presenteeism in your remote direct reports and the systems you set up to keep track of the work. The chapter finishes up with questions that help you reflect on the current state of presenteeism in your team, and how you might “reorient” things.
All in all, the authors tackle a tricky subject with empathy and a general assumption of goodwill.
Several chapters discuss the importance of psychological safety in different contexts. Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Psychological Safety in Online Meetings,’ and gives tips on how the meeting organizer can encourage meaningful contributions from all participants. It also discusses possible reasons why someone may not talk in a meeting, and how to handle less than articulate contributions in an empathetic way.
Chapter 8 discusses how to make people feel safe enough to share their successes within the team. We all want to be noticed for our successes, but also want to avoid looking arrogant.
Chapter 10, ‘Creating a Culture of Feedback,’ ends with several specific suggestions on how to create a culture that embraces feedback, and a simple way to signal to others when you really can’t handle hearing it.
In a collocated office, you can see when your colleague is having a bad day. In the remote office, we need cues. The suggestions in the chapter are better than the ‘not now, I can’t even’ that I am sometimes tempted to use as my Slack status.
Defining the Digital Space
Perhaps the most innovative chapter in ‘Thinking Remote’ is the first one. Entitled ‘Designing the Digital Workspace: What We Can Learn from the Physical Space,’ it asks managers to think about designing the digital workspace in a way that aligns with a team’s values.
I have never heard someone ask for the digital equivalent of putting all of the toilets on the same floor to force people to interact with colleagues in the hall. I still don’t know what the answer to this one is for my work. I can say that this chapter has made me look at my digital tools in a whole new way.
‘Thinking Remote’ is a thoughtful, thought provoking work that belongs on the shelves of any leader who manages office optional workers.