A blog is a funny thing. I write, and hit send, and my words go out into the internet like a bubble into the wide blue sky. I know there are readers at the other end–I’ve spoken to some of you–but I don’t know when you read what I write. So I don’t know if anyone has noticed that I switched publishing my posts from Thursday/Friday to Tuesday.
Before the pandemic I wrote these posts over the course of 5 days, in the hour in between when my day job ended and when I picked up my kids from school. Now–well. That no longer works, even though my kids are back in school. So I switched my blog to Tuesdays so I could write over the weekend and focus on research for the blog during the week.
And that worked great two weekends ago. It worked less well this week because I caught a cold from my son. Do you remember when getting sick wasn’t terrifying? Fortunately several kids caught the cold at the same time, and one of them was tested, so I know this isn’t covid.
Which is a long explanation for why I have one short thing to say to you about remote work, and this is it:
Professional Communication Is a Little More Nuanced When You Work Remotely
Every few months someone puts out lists of words you need to eliminate from your writing. There are entire classes that teach you how to write pithy business communications that get straight to the point. I’m not knocking that information Everyone should know how to be direct and professional.
But remote workers need to know when to put those rules aside and let their personalities shine through. We don’t see each other as often as colocated employees. Our writing, therefore, has to both convey business information, and help people get to know us. And you can’t do that if all of your communication has been calibrated for maximum efficiency.
Manage Your Soundtrack
Ideally, your colleagues should “hear” your voice when they read emails and instant messages from you. This doesn’t mean you need to crack a joke with every email. If work were a dinner party they wouldn’t pay you to be there.
I’m inviting you to consider where you can inject a little humanity into your written communication. Sometimes that’s as simple as starting an email with ‘I hope this day is treating you well.’ Or perhaps end your email with ‘I appreciate you!’ Depending on the message, you might add some contextual colour. If I have to ask somebody I don’t know well for something they’re late delivering, I sometimes add in a message at the bottom of my email that says ‘And since it’s really hard to convey tone in emails, I want to let you know that this isn’t me getting annoyed. These are crazy times. If you need some extra time, I can give it to you. This is me sending supportive vibes.’
Sometimes, though, a work-appropriate informal email will go along way toward building goodwill. I made a friend at work when I sent am email to someone after a presentation that looked something like this: “Hey Brenda, fab presentation. You has mad skillz.” This email breaks at least three rules, but you know what? “Brenda” didn’t mention any of them. We ended up trading emails back and forth, and we’re friends to this day.
Sometimes we have to button up and send formal emails. But every once in a while, give people a peak at the less formal you. You’ll make make it easier to get things done at work, and forge friendships along the way.
So technically Fall doesn’t begin until Sept 22. But if it’s September and you or someone you live with is back in school, psychologically, it’s Fall. The changing of the season is a good time to take stock of yourself and your remote work. But don’t worry–this isn’t going to be one of those checklists that assumes you have any free time or bandwidth. It’s an opportunity to reflect in whatever moments you have.
How Much Bandwidth Do You Have?
Hint: If you laughed when you read that sentence, then the answer is ‘none,’ and you are nearly done with this step. You know what you have going on in your life right now. Some of you are trying to work while virtually schooling/homeschooling your children. If that’s your situation, I have a badge for you:
The only thing left for you to do is let go of the idea that you should be able to manage your kid’s schooling (whether online or homeschooling) while killing it at work, without breaking a sweat. You aren’t a bad caregiver. You are, in fact, amazing. Full stop. No exceptions. Rock on with your bad self.
If you find yourself with more bandwidth in September, I encourage you to take some time to think about what you need more of in your life. This doesn’t have to be profound. It may be that you really just need a nap. Or, in my case, I need to work on a health issue that got pushed aside at the beginning of the pandemic. The important thing is to make sure your aspirations don’t exceed your bandwidth.
Perhaps you have enough bandwidth to help other people. That leads into the next question to ask yourself.
How Are Your Friends and Colleagues Doing?
Whether or not you have extra bandwidth, it’s good to check in with your friends and colleagues. You might not be able to do anything with the information, but at least they’ll know you care. If nothing else, you can send each other memes and other gallows humour to help you through the current craziness. A text or email that says ‘I was thinking about you. Hope things are less crazy’ can make people feel seen. This is super important when we’re all living our lives remotely.
And if you do have extra bandwidth, you might try to help. Recently, an childless acquaintance reached out to a group of us with an offer of help. She suggested something specific-that she could look stuff up on our behalf. It was a very specific and thoughtful form of support. You can also show support by being calm. Anxious, overwhelmed people can be short-tempered and rash. The biggest gift you can give someone in that moment is your forgiveness.
Do You Have Your Supply of Happy-Makers?
Covid hasn’t gone away. There will be days when our uncertain situation will weigh heavily on you. You’ll need a small cache of simple things that make you happy. For me, those things are yarn, chocolate, and books. Whenever I feel anxious I crochet hexagons. They’re simple enough that I have the pattern memorized, but interesting enough that I get a little break from whatever’s bugging me. As a bonus, I will have a hand-made blanket at some point.
As you see, this isn’t a complicated checklist. But if you take a small amount of time to check-in with yourself, your friends and family, and your supply of happy-makers, you’ll enter fall on the right foot.
Stuff I’ve Published
This week’s published writing is all comedy. Some of you might suspect that I use comedy writing to cope with the Pandemic. You would be correct. On Thursday my humorous nonfiction piece Dye-ing for Alone Time, a Henna-Made Talewent live on Sallymag. I wrote this piece in April with no idea where to place it. My writing often has humorous elements, but it was the first intentionally funny piece I’ve written for publication. This was the story that pushed me to take satire classes with The Second City.
On Tuesday I published volume 2 of Good Girl, Aggie! This is my advice column written by Aggie Green, the mascot of the comedy magazine Greener Pastures. I had no idea if other folks would like Aggie. Imagine my delight when I had messages from people I don’t know, thanking me for giving them something to laugh at. I don’t know if there will be a third Aggie column. We’ll see.
The kids started school. I’d like to say that I did a ton of stuff during the 2.5 hours that they were gone (the first day was a health and safety orientation) but I don’t believe in lying to you. I sent emails to people who were waiting on me for things. I stared at my screen and thought of nothing at all. The fact is, I’m so accustomed to being interrupted that I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to focus. I expect I’ll get that back again if Covid case counts stay low enough in Vancouver that the kids stay in school. If I had to make a prediction, I predict that the kids come home to online school in November. So after a few days of recovery, I’m going to use the child-free time to write as much as I can.
That’s it from my neck of the woods. I’ll see you next time.
I made chili the other night in my Instant Pot. It’s a pretty easy meal, and I get a lot of good press from the kids when I make it, so chili shows up in the Douglas house often for dinner. I’ll play with the types of beans I use, but on Tuesday I used all kidney beans. The kids like their chili topped with cheese and chopped raw onions (I am as flabbergasted as you are about this. Raw onions? They’ve been known to turn up their noses at bananas that are the wrong shade of yellow) so the chili was a very pretty deep red with dots of yellow and white.
Part way through chopping the onions my eye started itching. My hand twitched toward the vicinity of my eye, but as is so often the case these days with all of us, I reflexively squashed the urge to touch my face.
I was busy loading chili into bowls while stopping the kids from eating the cornbread before I put it on plates, so it took a minute for me to realize that social distancing saved me from rubbing onion juice straight into my eyeball.
We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, but I’ll take all the opportunities for gratitude I can get. I had a few good ones this week.
Flame Thrower Store
On Wednesday the entire family went for a walk in the afternoon sunshine. This sounds idyllic, but as any parent can tell you, you have five seconds of peace before the children start fighting, complaining, or fighting and complaining while trying to crawl all over things that don’t belong to them. Or one tries to run ahead while the other walks as slow as possible. At one point I threatened to give my son extra pages of math to do if he didn’t straighten up. He replied that he would just go to the flame thrower store and get a flame thrower to burn up all of his math.
The entire family had a good laugh over the idea that someone would open up a flame thrower store at all, let alone one that was open to children. My son didn’t even seem to mind the gentle ribbing. He’s an extrovert and any attention is better than no attention.
I won’t lie; trying to work and parent and home school all at the same time is tough. But in the middle of the stress, there are golden moments of relaxation that I wouldn’t access without kids. None of the adults I know want to talk about how to turn wood into weapons that Ewoks can use. I’m not sure I do either, but I love getting a sneak peak at how my child’s mind works.
I was also pretty excited that the ebook version of Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams is free through April 21st in both the US and Canadian Amazon stores.
My book is traditionally published. This means that I’m not fully in charge of what can be done with it. My publisher is great, and I get royalties every time someone buys a book, but I can’t decide to make it free unless my publisher agrees. Not only did my publisher agree, they asked me if we wanted to make the book free before I got up the nerve to ask them. Feel free to download a copy, and tell your friends. I’m glad to help folks who may need some pointers during this crazy time.
The Writing Well Isn’t Dry, But It’s Slow Flow
In his book Creative Quest, Questlove describes his creativity as the state of cultivating openness vs trying to pull something up from the depths. For me, creativity is a little bit of both. I have to be open and notice things, but then I have to let whatever it is percolate through me before trying to write about it.
This process requires a certain amount of solitude and silence. Both of these have been in short supply during the pandemic. I’ve been trying to work within my constraints–I wake up early and read in bed, and go running as often as I can–but it’s hard to notice things when someone wants to talk to me every moment of my day.
It was such a gift to sit down last Friday and decide to write, and to actually have my creativity cooperate. I wrote half of a story in a few hours, and then finished it on Saturday with very little fanfare. I hope some day soon I’ll get to show it to you.
There are a lot of things to be upset about these days. Sometimes though, it’s good to act like artists of our own lives, and choose to focus on the small good things that surround the bad. What are you grateful for? I’d love to hear about it.
On Tuesday I was making lunch for my kids when the song We Speak No Americano came on, and we had to pause lunch to hold a dance party. It wasn’t a planned thing. I just started grooving while putting mayonnaise on bread, and glanced at the children to see that they were also dancing. Nobody was fighting or complaining. We didn’t even say anything to each other. We just danced.
It was a perfect moment in a week that’s had it’s ups and downs. At one point this week I shouted “No I’m not making cookies! I realize I make this whole working and parenting thing look easy, but it’s not!” It was not my finest moment. I made up for it a day later by teaching the kids to make apple pie.
These are stressful times, and we’re all going to say or do something we wish we hadn’t. All we can do is pick ourselves back up again and try to do better. I find that it’s a lot easier to be patient if I find small ways to recharge. I thought I would share some of the things I do when I need a break. After that I’ll share some of the articles I wrote to help you if you find yourself working at home for the first time.
Ways to Recharge
Craft. Long time readers of this blog know I like to knit. There’s something life affirming about creating an object stitch by stitch when the world seems to be unraveling. Some people stress bake. I stress knit. I once knit an entire sweater in three weeks because doing so kept me from saying some truly unfortunate things.
If knitting isn’t your thing, try something else. Many people swear by drawing or sewing or painting. If you don’t know how to do any of these things, you can find lessons on You Tube. Now is a great time to pick up a new skill.
Workout. I love to run. Not everybody does, and some of us can’t leave our homes right now. There are a lot of exercise apps out there that can help you break a sweat and work through corona-angst. I can’t do HIIT or I get injured, so I focus on stretching and strengthening when I work out indoors. There are a lot of folks streaming exercise routines over the internet. Try a few things until you find the activity that works for you.
Connect. I said this last week but it bears repeating. Find people to call or text. Talking to others gets you out of your own head. Humans are social creatures, and you need to feed the beast.
But please, for the sake of everyone, don’t feed the beast by yelling at people online. Instead, look for ways to help. Serving others is empowering during a time when many of us are feeling a little powerless.
I try to help by writing how-to articles. And I’ve been on a writing bender because giving people tips they can use helps me cope. Here are some of the things I’ve written, or interviews I’ve given, to try and help ease the shock of working from home unexpectedly.
If Your’re Working From Home Unexpectedly, This Might help
Last night I published Tips for Managing Temporary Remote Teams in The Startup on Medium. I published it there instead of here because more people will see it if they need it. In that article I talk about management do’s and don’ts, and what you should think about when transitioning to remote work.
My son had 24 books ready to pick up at the local library. I didn’t know this when I went to pick up his stash. There I was, with my one inadequate canvas bag, ruing the day I taught that child how to do a simple catalog search. He’s a ‘more is more’ sort of kid. I swear he requested every Minecraft book in the entire library system.
Still, the one bag might have held everything if I hadn’t promised to pick up a new series called The Unwanteds for my daughter. And of course I had books waiting to be picked up. So maybe this is more of a ‘apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ sort of situation.
I wear red in a town that loves grey. I’m already conspicuous. But today, the three other people in the library were giving me the side eye for a different reason as I lined up my stacks of books at the self checkout. It was like they thought I was trying to prepare for a quarantine. Or maybe a toilet paper shortage.
Really, if I was going to buy up irrational amounts of anything, it would be tea and chocolate. Some would argue I already do. I don’t hang out with those people any more.
All joking aside, I wanted to talk about something you should be collecting for a possible long stint inside your house.
We Should Call it Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing
Unless you live under a rock outside of wifi range, you’ve heard the term social distancing. And the thing I don’t like about this term is that it conflates physical togetherness with social togetherness. There’s a reason we do that of course. Most of us gather in physical groups in order to be social. Getting together is fun.
But we don’t have to gather physically to hang out with people. And that’s important if we need to stay home. One of the number one struggles remote workers face is feeling isolated. Fortunately there are things you can do now to fight this particular issue down the road.
For instance, you don’t need to be a business to download video conferencing software. Skype, Zoom, and Whereby all have free versions. Load one onto your device. Then set up standing appointments to meet up with your friends and family over video calls.
Holding a happy hour over video feels a little awkward at first, but I can tell you from first hand experience that you soon get over it. And talking to friends on social media isn’t always enough. We need to see each other’s faces. Consider doing this even if you live with other people. I love my children, but there is an upper limit to the amount of Minecraft chat that I can listen to and stay sane. I’m sure there are other people out there in the same boat.
And if you try it out, drop me a line and let me know how it goes. I’ll be over here planning video calls with far away family and tripping over the Minecraft books covering the floor of my house.
In the Remote Workforce, no one can Feel your sneeze
On Tuesday I woke up feeling like I put on an extra hundred pounds. I stumbled through my morning routine wondering what was wrong with me. I went to bed at a decent hour, but felt like I’d pulled an all-nighter. It wasn’t until later that morning that I realized I was sick. I excused myself from work and slept for another five hours.
On Wednesday I was quasi-sick. That’s when you’re too sick to do more than sit still, but too healthy to sleep. Had I worked in an office separate from my home, I would have had to take another sick day. Instead, I worked through my to-do list, bottle of DayQuil at my elbow.
Most managers new to remote work worry that their employees are slacking. The reality is that most of us work more. Could I have taken another day off? Sure. I didn’t want to. I have things to do. Not having to worry about infecting my colleagues gives me greater control over my paid time off.
It’s not a sick day unless I decide it is, and that’s exactly how I like it.
Access to a Couple of Articles on Remote Work
I may have missed my weekly blog post last week, but that I wasn’t completely unproductive. The Meeting Magazine did a feature on the future of work, and I appear in it. You can find the article on page 34.
Forge, a Medium publication, just published another excerpt of my book ‘Working Remotely.’ This one has to do with email management. It’s called ‘How to Manage Your Inbox.’ As usual, this is the friend link, so you can read the article without the paywall. Do you do something different to manage your inbox? I’d love to hear about it.
I Was On the Radio Again
Last of all, I spoke to Dean Rotbart on the podcast Monday Morning Radio about why remote work is important for small businesses. Can you tell I’m hopped up on DayQuil? I hope not. Don’t tell anyone.
It’s been a privilege appearing so many places to talk about remote work. The biggest privilege, though, is talking to all of you. Thanks for sticking with me, and I’ll see you next week.
Give people solid reasons for changing their over-working ways and they will do so.
People Problems Need People-Centric Solutions.
The BBC published this article discussing why banning email outside of work hours might do more harm than good. The arguments focused on why highly anxious or highly ambitious people might need to access work email outside of work hours.
The bigger question is why are employees anxious if they can’t check email after work? Why does an ambitious go-getter need to log long hours in order to get promoted? There is a difference between occasionally working longer hours in order to finish a project, and chronic hyper-connectedness. Failure to disconnect from work is a symptom. If we really want people to disconnect and recharge, we need to address the root cause of the behavior.
To better illustrate this, let’s pretend that you are at a friend’s house for dinner. You’re both in the kitchen–you are cutting up vegetables and your friend is tenderizing meat with a mallet. Suddenly your friend takes the mallet and repeatedly pounds his hand with it.
There are a lot of things you would do in that moment. You might shout ‘stop!’ You might wrestle away the mallet.
Under no circumstances would you think you solved the problem by taking away the device your friend used to harm himself. Until someone uncovers why your friend did what he did, you can’t be sure he’ll never do it again.
Burnout was a significant predictor of the following physical consequences: hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years.
These consequences are just as harmful–if not more so–than hitting your hand with a hammer. And getting at the root causes of burnout in your company will require a thorough diagnosis.
How to Get at the Root Causes of Burnout
Employees experience burnout for a variety of reasons, just as people get sick for a variety of reasons. Going back to our earlier example, a doctor would treat your friend by asking a series of questions and making observations. A leader interested in delivering an effective solution for burnout can do the same.
It’s tempting to assume we know what’s causing the burnout and skip this step. Perhaps we have a lot of experience leading people. Perhaps we’re burned out because we receive too many emails and assume that solving our problem will solve everyone else’s, too.
As a leader, your experience at work is different from that of your employees. Your pain points may be different as well. Don’t assume you know what the problem is.
However, there are some things you CAN assume.
Assume Your Employees Know the Consequences of Overworking
People understand that working too much is unhealthy. There is an abundance of information on the consequences of burnout. Many major news feeds covered the story when the World Health Organization ruled that burnout is a medical diagnosis.
If most people know that overworking is unhealthy, then the next question we need to ask is why are they doing it anyway? It’s tempting to assume that they’re working off of faulty information. This leads to our next assumption.
Assume Your Employees Have a Solid Reason for What They Do
Most of our decisions are self-protective on some level. We wear nice clothes to protect our dignity and social status. We count to ten in our head to stop ourselves from saying something that will ruin a relationship. And we work too much because we think doing so protects us in some way. Or we are being overtly rewarded for doing so.
This is why simply implementing an email ban won’t work in the long run. If your people are convinced that they need to work long hours to keep their jobs or get promoted, they will continue to do so.
For many years, Kaplan had a “summer hours” policy. During the summer months, you could elect to work a little longer Monday through Thursday, and take off early on Friday. I took advantage of this policy for many summers, until I was given a new manager. This manager claimed that the summer hours policy was only for employees who worked in an actual office, not for remote workers. Therefore, her expectation was that our team would not participate.
I knew that manager was wrong. I tried to point out that the other remote teams were taking advantage of summer hours, and we should too. Unfortunately this manager wouldn’t listen. When faced with the choice of defying my new boss or working longer than necessary, you can guess which decision I made.
Your employees have a solid reason for overworking. They will share this information with you under certain circumstances.
Create Protected Spaces for Honest Feedback
Telling your employer that you’re overworked feels risky for many people. As a leader, you can minimize the risk of honesty. It isn’t enough to say ‘please be honest,’ or ‘we value your honesty.’ You may foster an open and inclusive company, but your employees may be carrying baggage from previous employers. Or you may have a problem manager that you don’t know about yet.
Even if neither of these things are true, you must stay conscious of the power dynamic between you and your employees. You have the power to fire them. Your employees will always keep that in mind when deciding what to tell you.
One of the easiest ways to minimize risk for your employees is to use an anonymous survey. If you lead a large company then it may be easiest to retain a third party to handle creating a survey for you. If your company is small or there are budget concerns, you can build your own survey. Consider using a format that allows you to collect nuanced answers. I personally like ‘rate how much you agree with the following statements’ sorts of questions. This is what they look like:
Rate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements 1 = disagree, 2 = neither agree or disagree, and 3 = agree
In my company, you have to work long hours to get promoted.
I have a reasonable workload.
My immediate manager cares about my work/life balance.
You can get more complicated and use a wider scale to ask if people “strongly” agree or disagree. Before you do so, ask yourself if the benefit is worth the added time it takes to create a more complicated survey. If this is your first time surveying your employees, understand that you may not get your questions right the first time. You might even consider adding a question at the end that asks ‘what other questions should we ask?’ to speed up your learning curve. As a bonus, you can learn a lot from the questions people suggest you add to the survey.
Everyone Has Time to Survey Their People
Back in my Faculty Manager days, I sent my direct reports an anonymous, annual survey in December. This was completely separate from the big engagement survey my company conducts every year. The big survey asks a lot of questions about many subjects–the point of my survey was to figure out how I could improve as a manager.
Your employees know what you have to work on. Mine were no different. Once I processed the information, I always did two things: 1) I shared the results with my people and 2) told them what I would work on in the following year. They could judge for themselves if I did what I said I was going to do.
I had anywhere between 50-100 direct reports spread across the state of California. Even with my hectic schedule–and no added administrative support– I found the time to create, deliver, and respond to the results in my employee survey. You can, too.
Employee surveys are humbling experiences. Sometimes you’re humbled by the trust your employees place in you as a leader. Other times you’re humbled by the things you have to work on. Often it’s a mix of both. But if you’re serious about identifying the cause of burnout at your company, don’t skip this step.
Share the Results and Talk About Next Steps
When you’re fixing culture problems, it’s really important to bring people along in every step of the process. Share the group results. Your employees are dying to know if everyone else feels the way they do. They’re anxious to see how you react to what the group has said. Choose your words carefully. You want to make it clear that you understand the problem, and are committed to fixing it. This is a huge opportunity to built your employees’ trust and respect for you and your company. Don’t blow it.
Then let your actions back up your words. Give the good assignments to the people who go home on time. Promote the people who fight for reasonable work loads. Bonus the teams that use all of their vacation time. And retrain (or rehome) the managers who perpetuate poor work/life balance.
Give people a solid reason to change their habits, and they will do so.
Burnout culture is a people problem that requires a people-centric solution. You CAN get at the root cause of the problem. Approach the process with humility and honesty–and put your actions where your mouth is. You’ll not only change your work culture, but also create a team that trusts you and will follow wherever you lead.
I have a problem with sick days. My problem is that I don’t always take them. I caught my kids’ flu (thanks kids) Sunday evening, and still went to work on Monday.
Why Is it So Hard to Take Sick Days in the Remote Workforce?
I blame my children. (It’s what all good mothers do.) When the kids were very small I saved my sick days for when they got sick. And I’ve never broken out of the habit. Working remotely means I don’t have to.
I once worked in an office where one guy—we’ll call him Typhoid Mary—would come to work even when sick. Inevitably the entire office would catch his plague. It didn’t take very long before the office adopted a “stay home if you’re sick” work culture.
But when you work from home, you can’t infect anyone. The social pressure to stay home is gone. Now (at least for me) it’s hard to tell when to take a sick day. I don’t have to drive anywhere. I don’t even have to sit upright. If I’m well enough to binge watch Netflix, why aren’t I well enough to work?
I’m not the only one who does this. According to SoftChoice, a North American IT solutions and managed services provider, 57% of the 1,700 people they surveyed admitted to working on sick days. 80% of those folks spent sick days working through email.
There are many reasons people do this. Perhaps they don’t want to return to work and find an overflowing inbox. Maybe they’re worried that everyone will assume they’re slacking. Whatever the reason, I believe there are things we can all do to help people rest when they’re sick.
Bring Back the Social Pressure
I went to work on Monday while I was sick, and my team told me to go back to bed. Forcibly. (In a very professional, HR appropriate kind of way.) We should do this more for one another. I’ve seen other colleagues working while sick and I haven’t suggested they go back to bed. I’m going to start doing this from now on. We’re all adults. We need to make our own decisions, but sometimes we need that extra kick in the pants to make the right one. I certainly did.
Some folks may not feel comfortable telling people to go back to bed. As an alternative you might tell someone that took a sick day that you’re glad they took time to rest. Let’s reward each other for taking a balanced approach to work.
Reevaluate Work Loads
If your direct reports work while sick, you may want to perform a work load audit. Can an actual human being finish enough tasks to do a good job in an assigned role? How do you know? Do your direct reports have the tools needed to complete work efficiently? How do you know? Managers aren’t always responsible for the amount of work a company places on its employees, but we can always take on the role of advocate for our people.
Employees have to share the burden when it comes to evaluating task loads. Remote employees work out of sight for most of the day. It won’t always be obvious that we’re drowning under too much to do. If your boss is reasonable, give that person a chance to lighten your load. Speak up–and come prepared with examples.
Provide a Safety Net
If a colleague is sick, offer to take care of their time-sensitive tasks. I had two things weighing on my mind, and when I was still sick on Tuesday my team took over those tasks so I could rest with a clear conscience. It’s pretty great working on a team that has each other’s back. Don’t wait for your boss to build this sort of culture. A trusting work place begins with you.
It can sometimes feel hard to justify sick days when you already work from home. Like so many other things in the remote workforce, we each have the ability to craft the work life we want to see. Offer to help people take needed time off either through social pressure or taking tasks of their plate. Let them do the same for you. If we all work on this, we will create a more humane work culture. We’ll work for companies where people take the time they need to recover, and return rested and ready to go.
Yesterday I nearly forgot to pick up my kids from school. My only excuse is that it was their first full day back. I had finished work for my day job and was deciding between writing or practicing my guitar when I remembered that I had somewhere to be.
Technically, I could have waited a little longer before driving to the kids’ school, but I knew that if I left home early enough I could write in the pick up line while I waited. The plan would have worked perfectly, too, if it hadn’t been for those dang kids. My son was on the playground and he saw me drive in. At that point he and his friend spent a good two minutes trying to get my attention before the supervision aide told them to “let your mom chillax in the car!”
While I appreciate the sentiment, that innocent comment reminded me of all the assumptions school staff make about parents generally and remote workers in particular. We may look like we’re all scrolling through social media in the car, but the truth is a little more nuanced. If you work at a school and want to get more participation from the remote working parents, then here are some things you should know.
Summers Are Stressful
We remote workers usually have more flexible jobs than our office-based spouses. This usually means we’re the ones who’ve spent the summer attempting to work while the kids are home. It’s tempting to say that teachers work surrounded by children all the time and seem to do okay. However, children are the work in this case, so the comparison isn’t a good one. Picture holding a sensitive parent/teacher conference in the middle of a classroom while surrounded by all the other children in the class. Now picture doing so for 8 hours a day for 40 days. Summers aren’t restful.
School staff will have a better chance of getting remote workers involved in school activities if they assume we’re exhausted and behind at work. We do want to meet our children’s teachers and school staff. We don’t want to come to multiple events scheduled closely together. Instead of holding a meet the teacher event one week and a back to school BBQ the next, combined those two events into one meet the teacher BBQ. Please and thank you.
Our Remote Jobs Are Real Jobs
I no longer tell my children’s teachers that I work from home. I used to, but I had one particular teacher who took this as a euphemism for ‘unemployed and available for last minute requests’. Now I tell them that I work full time and leave it at that.
This is a lost partnership opportunity both for me and for any school who has parents that work remotely. We remote workers can flex our schedules around to a greater or lesser extent. Give us enough notice, ask respectfully, and many of us will move things around to help you out. We know that schools are under funded and rely on parent participation to get work done. Some of us chose remote work in order to get more involved with our children’s lives. But that doesn’t mean we can drop everything to attend a field trip with 48 hours notice.
Be Strategic with Your Requests
Personally, I either need to work late into the night or use a vacation day to make room in my schedule for you. Other remote workers might have to work on the weekend or take a pay hit. There is always a cost. The shorter the notice, the higher the cost. We’re much more likely to volunteer if we can trust that you will minimize that pain for us.
You’ll Get A Faster Response From Us If You Go Digital
Not everyone has access to the internet at home. I am not suggesting that digital communication replace paper communication. Rather, give us the option to choose electronic communication over paper. Someone creates 90% of those forms on a computer anyway. Send them to us via email or upload them to the school website.
100% of my children have lost paper permission slips. I think their back packs eat them. It would be really great if six year olds could responsibly manage their own paperwork and day planners. But even some university students can’t do that consistently and they have a much better grasp on reality. My kids don’t always know what day it is. Once, when my son was six, I interrupted him in the middle of tying a jump rope around his neck. The other half was already tied to the stair railing. He thought this was a great way to jump off of the top of the stairs without killing himself. Teaching my kid to give me notices is a lower priority than keeping him from dying. There are only so many hours in the day.
Digital Payments Are a Thing
Last year my children’s school gave us the option to pay for school expenses online. It’s wonderful. Now I get an email when I need to pay something, and I go in and do so. This cuts down on the number of phone calls I get from the school asking if I will allow my daughter to go on the field trip I didn’t even know about. Canadians are indeed a polite people, but they can weaponize that politeness like you wouldn’t believe. I only wish the website came with the ability to sign permission slips, too. A woman can dream.
Digital Communication is Also a Thing
And speaking of dreams, many of us would love to sign up for things like parent/teacher conferences electronically. Please don’t make us sign a paper taped to the classroom door. Trying to find a parking space at the school during pick up or drop off time is like going to fight club. I have seen people pull up onto the sidewalk right in front of small children, or speed the wrong way down the two lane road, just to grab the last spot in the loading zone. Don’t make me leave the car protecting me from those people.
I would love to tell my children’s teachers that I have a flexible work schedule. Remote work provides greater opportunity for parental involvement at school. Maybe some day things will change. However, that can only happen if there is respectful, efficient communication between school staff and parents. That sort of healthy relationship starts with a few tweaks to existing assumptions about remote workers. School staff should plan school events strategically. They should provide a variety of options to communicate, pay for items, and sign up for events. If they do so, they may find that more parents—not just remote workers—become more involved in school activities, to the benefit of the children.