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.
You Got the Job–here’s how to tweak your schedule so you can enjoy your day to day.
On August 2nd I started a new job. I wasn’t expecting to change roles, but my company’s needs changed, and I had to change to meet that need. This is the nature of remote work. One day you may work as an analyst, and the next in people management. The savvy remote worker develops skills to bounce back when life (or your company) disrupts your status quo.
We can’t always control our own destiny. No one asks to have their position eliminated. But we can all develop habits that help us deal with the unexpected. A few weeks ago I talked about how to network when you don’t know anyone. This week we’ll discuss how to take control of your day to day when you start a new role.
Start with a Positive Attitude
We’ve all had bad bosses. Many of us have worked in places with a toxic culture. Or perhaps you’re in the opposite situation. Don’t let these past experiences sour your new role.
That’s easier said than done, especially if (for example) your new boss works in ways that are similar to a previous bad boss. Know your triggers. I had a terrible boss we’ll call Stan. Stan was an extrovert who needed to talk to work things out. He would repeat what other people said in meetings immediately after they said them in order to process the information. Stan was also passive-aggressive, controlling, and enjoyed calling people names.
Intellectually, I know these things have nothing to do with each other, but when I’m in a meeting with someone who is a detail-oriented auditory processor, I think of Stan. And I have to remind myself that repeating what other people say isn’t evidence of evil. It’s evidence of an auditory processor.
Trust, But Verify
If you find yourself triggered by your new boss or team, take a step back and diagnose the situation. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself a set of questions:
Let’s pretend there’s a reasonable explanation for this. What could it be?
Do I have concrete evidence that this person or team is mean?
Could this be explained away by lack of caffeine or sleep?
What did the person say when I approached them about the situation?
Is there a pattern of bad behavior or is this a one off?
Give people a chance to do right by you. For all you know, someone on your team finds YOU triggering. We don’t think of ourselves as the bad guy in our own life. Remember, though, that your new team mates don’t know you. And remote workers don’t have many unplanned opportunities to see each other interact with other people. Lead with trust. We all have to make a conscious effort to demonstrate that we’re sane people. That takes time. Your reasonable response to stressful situations will show people how great you are.
Don’t Let Yesterday’s Great Ruin Today’s Good
Or perhaps you’re in the opposite situation. Perhaps your former team was great and you’re grieving their loss. This was my situation on August 1. I’d said my goodbyes to the people who were leaving, and to the people who moved to different teams. That loss was in the front of my mind during my new team’s kickoff events on August 2.
What helped, of all things, was thinking of my son. Two years ago his best friend moved away. The boys went from seeing each other every day at school to seeing each other every couple of months. My son absolutely refused to make any new friends for a year. He thought that if he was miserable long enough, he could force his friend to move back to his old home.
You and I are adults and we understand that this isn’t how the world works. But if we’re not careful, we can act as if it does. You can like your new team and your old team at the same time. Not everybody has the good fortune to work with a great team. Enjoy your memories while you work to build different ones with a new set of people.
Assume You Have Some Agency
When most people start a new job they worry about proving themselves. This is largely a healthy reaction when you’re trying to establish a good reputation.
There’s a difference, though, between trying to be a team player and putting up with unnecessary inconveniences. The remote workforce gives us an unparalleled opportunity to craft flexible schedules. Freed from the limits of geography-based offices, we can get work done in a way that lets us live fuller lives.
Don’t be too quick to give that up with your new team. You might have a strong desire to go with the flow and accept every meeting people put on your calendar and treat them as immovable. The fact is, you don’t know how sacred those meeting times are unless you ask. So ask. Assume that your boss and your team mates are reasonable people who are willing to move things around when they can.
Lead with Trust
Again, this is easier said than done. It’s my policy to lead with trust and assume the best, but it was still scary to ask my new boss if we could talk about the reoccurring meetings he was setting up with the new team. We’re following an agile model and holding daily stand up meetings. And wouldn’t you know it, those meetings were all scheduled for the time slot formerly known as my lunch break.
Now, I don’t like eating while on camera. I don’t care if anyone else does so as long as I don’t have to hear chewing. But that wasn’t the real issue. I run on my lunch break. Running outside is how I keep from feeling cut off from the rest of the world when I work from home. It’s important to me.
It’s Always No Unless You Ask
I’ll admit that I took a few days to dither about whether I would really ask the whole team to move the daily stand up just so I could go running at lunch. Once the dithering process was over, I brought it up with my boss.
As this was a potentially tricky conversation, I decided to save it for our one on one. I wanted to see his reaction when I asked to move a work thing for my running. I already knew how he liked to communicate because I asked him in our first meeting. So I sent him a quick Slack message the day before our meeting letting him know I wanted to talk about potentially moving our stand up meetings.
I explained that I block off an hour and a half in the middle of the day to finish my morning work, plan my afternoon, and then run for 30 minutes. I wasn’t sure if he chose our daily meeting slot because it was the only time that worked for most of the team, but I would like to explore shifting the time either up or down if possible.
Give your new team a chance to show who they are
There are times in your life when you gear up to persuade people to your way of thinking, only to find out they don’t need to be persuaded. My boss picked that time because he thought it would work for everyone. He was happy to move our meeting since the time wasn’t working for me. When he brought up the issue with the rest of the team, it turns out they preferred to have the meeting earlier in the day anyway.
I found out two good things that day. First, that my boss values daytime breaks. Second, that my team is full of nice people. I would have figured these things out eventually, but I’m grateful I didn’t spend a lot of time bereft of my lunchtime run because I was too afraid to ask. Give your new team a chance to show who they are. You may also be pleasantly surprised at the result. And remember to be the sort of person who is willing to be flexible for the sake of other people’s schedules. We’re all in this remote working boat together.
Starting a new role comes with a lot of mixed feelings. Will you do a good job? Will you get on with your boss and your team? If you lead with trust, assume the best, and approach your new situation with a flexible mindset, you can craft a job that you enjoy going to day in and day out.
Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.
My only niece got married last Saturday. Good aunt that I am, packed up the kids on Wednesday and flew down to attend.
You might expect me to say that I’m glad that I can both vacation and work without missing a beat, thanks to the power of the remote workforce. The truth is that I try very hard to NOT work while I’m on vacation. Just because you CAN work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should. I generally keep work out of my vacations.
Sadly that wasn’t possible this time. My fellow analysts can’t cover all of the work I do. My boss generally oversees the bit that needs special handling while I’m out. Unfortunately he was scheduled to be in Banff (that’s in Canada) that week. Since he wasn’t sure about his WiFi situation and I was going to be staying in Silicon Valley, it made sense for me to cover my own tasks.
Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.
Communicate Your Work Hours
Distributed companies with healthy cultures celebrate remote worker flexibility. Still, people need to know when they can talk to you. Remote workers can’t see when colleagues get to work. We rely on other indicators–work hours listed in an email signature, the status button on instant messaging platforms, and good old fashioned memory. People won’t always remember the time zone you live in; they are more likely to remember the time of day when they usually get a response from you.
One of my colleagues regularly sends me instant messages at 11:50am. I’ve accidentally rewarded her for doing so by responding very quickly at that time. I go running at noon, and at 11:50 I’m anxious to clear things off my plate quickly so I can enjoy my run. I don’t know if she understands why I respond so quickly, but she obviously remembers that I do. Your colleagues hold similar information about you.
You need a strategy for handling work tasks while you’re on vacation. First, weed out any work that can wait until you get back. Your out of office message will do the heavy lifting here. I lead with some version of ‘I won’t be checking email or phone messages while I’m away’ so people won’t expect to hear from me until I return.
Second, use your email’s out of office message to empower people to get work done without you. My message lists specific people or groups to talk to for specific sorts of questions. I even share which key words to use in their subject line to get faster service.
Make Sure You’re Available to the Right People
If you have to do some work while on vacation, email the specific people involved with a different communication plan. I live on the West Coast but work East Coast hours. While I agreed to work on my vacation, I drew the line at starting work at 6:30am. In this particular case I committed to checking my email and finishing my work tasks by 9am Pacific.
Your email should be short but informative. Include your amended work hours, and the specific tasks you’ll be working on. Mention that all other work will either have to wait until your return, or go to your sub. My email went out 2 days before I left, and then again the night before I left. Does this sound excessive? It’s better to assume that your colleagues are too busy to keep track of your vacation time.
Break the News to Your Family or Friends
Even when you set great boundaries, it takes constant effort to get loved ones to respect them. There’s always that person who thinks your focus hours don’t apply to them. And if you work while on vacation, you can expect that your vacation mates will point out that you’re violating your own boundaries.
Are you tempted to sneak in some work when no one’s watching? Nobody wants an argument. But keeping your work schedule a secret generally makes matters worse. This is especially true if you regularly let work take over your life. If you told your loved ones that you would focus on them during vacation, and then try to work in secret, you can damage relationships.
Talking about you work schedule up front helps maintain your credibility. It also gives people a chance to weigh in. Your friends or family don’t want you to work on vacation. However, if you ask for (and use!) their preferences to plan your work hours, that can go a long way to help them deal with your reality.
I’m part of a large family. And I haven’t seen most of them for more than a year. When I come into town I usually spend every moment visiting and catching up. Since I couldn’t do that this time, I promised I would work only 2 hours each day, and that I would get it done by 9am.
Respect Those Hours
If you tell people you are going to be at work during a set time, make sure you’re there. And then make sure you sign off when you say you will. If you’ve been setting boundaries around your work and home life before your vacation, this should feel familiar to you.
Resist the ‘Just One More Email’ Excuse
Do you feel guilty ignoring work emails? Remember my colleague who sends me instant messages at 11:50. If you answer everyone’s emails while you’re on vacation, you’re rewarding that behavior. You can even justify it by saying that taking care of the problem now means an easier transition back into work later. Don’t do it.
You won’t develop a robust vacation coverage policy if you’re too available. Nobody likes waiting for answers. Nor do we like shifting our routines so we can catch our colleagues before they go on vacation. But you know what? We don’t always like waking up early in the morning to get to work on time, either. We do it because we have to.
Many of our greatest accomplishments as a species were solutions to problems. How can I eat that rabbit when it moves faster than me? Let’s invent the snare! How do I keep from starving during the winter? Let’s figure out how to preserve food!
Do you want a work culture that respects ‘off’ time? Then act as if off time is sacred. If we assume we can’t reach people on vacation, we will invent workarounds for this problem.
I remember when my niece was born. I remember when she used to call me Auntie Orange because I let her steal them out of my fruit bowl. It doesn’t seem possible that she’s a now a married adult. Thanks to the power of my boundaries, I was able to enjoy her moment and build memories that I can look back on for years to come.