Because Who Needs Another Self Improvement Project?
The dark and wet of December was getting to me, so I put on a fake mustache and beret and let my son chase me around our living room with a cactus balloon. This story isn’t going on my resume. Truthfully, it almost didn’t make it onto the blog. Then I read an article by Kaki Okumura entitled ‘The Very Serious Benefits of Being Silly,’ which changed my mind.
Okumura discusses how she is using playfulness to cope with the Pandemic. And she may be on to something. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, said in a TED talk that he believes“the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”
The field of adult play research is woefully underfunded–when I researched ‘benefits of adult play,’ the most recent article I found was the 2017 study Okumura cites in her article. In it, Dr. Rene Proyer says that “Playful people are able to reinterpret situations in their lives so that they experience them as entertaining or are able to reduce stress levels.”
This seems like a useful skill to have during the dark cold months of a pandemic winter.
In a Home Office No One Can See Your Cowboy
When you work from home, you can inject a little silliness into your day without consequences. If you showed up to the office in a fake mustache and chaps, HR would probably require you to take a drug test. Or get counseling.
Either would harsh your entire groove.
But when you work from home, you can dress like a cowboy if you want to. Just remember to have some way to get rid of the evidence. You might need to take a video call with someone without a sense of humor.
Bring a Little Playfulness to Your Day
You can interject playfulness into your day without investing in a full costume. Personally I love a good hat. I have a beret, a velvet top hat, a baseball cap with the word ‘NO!’ in large font on the front, a couple of fedoras and a sun hat. A good hat can give you a whole lot of swagger.
But maybe hats aren’t for you. One of my children draws on themselves when they’re bored. This annoys me (which is probably the point). But giving yourself a little temporary body art might be just the pick me up you need.
Or perhaps you can balance an orange on your forehead.
Don’t be afraid to try out different things. And if another adult catches you being silly, brazen it out. That’s what I did when my neighbour saw our family wearing moustaches outside while we hit our piñata. I was also wearing a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat at the time.) As Mr. Bennet said in Pride and Prejudice, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” I enjoyed myself. Hopefully she also got a good laugh. She still talks to me so we can’t have freaked her out too bad.
What’s That Douglas Up To?
A bunch of things, actually. I spoke at a Flexjobs event called Beyond the Application. One of the resume coaches gave some excellent tips on getting past the resume bots, and then I came on and talked about ways to connect with people to land your next job.
I’m also reading through a bunch of research on empathy and grief, as it relates to remote work. This is going into a chapter of my next book. But you all may see some of this research sooner, because it’s pretty great stuff. And definitely not as depressing as it sounds.
But don’t worry. If it gets to be too much, I know what to do. Putting on a hat and moustache was just the thing I needed to lift my spirits in December. I’m sure it will help again. May you also find some silliness to light these dark winter days.
I’ve been working remotely for more than a decade. And no matter how many great tech products come out to make remote work easier, I’m even more convinced that the ultimate success or failure of a remote company rests on the people.
Does your company feel like a safe place to try new things? Or is it the sort of place where colleagues swoop in to judge you for errors? There’s always the danger that a remote business will acquire trolls. The same conditions that allow trolls to flourish on social media–anonymity, a lack of empathy, and no oversight–can develop in a distributed company if we aren’t careful. Today’s post was going to be about how to build empathy for colleagues you don’t see every day. When I hit 1000 words and still had more to say, I decided to post it over on Medium. You can read ‘How to Build Empathy for Remote Colleagues–3 Techniques to ‘See People as Fully-Realized Human Beings’ using this friend link.
We live in difficult times, and when we feel anxious, it’s hard to remember that other people are also afraid, stressed, and generally not their best selves during a pandemic. Build empathy now for the people at the other end of those emails and instant messages. Doing so will lower the chances that you’ll ruin a relationship–or your career–when you’re too anxious to think straight.
I have a lot to say on this topic. If I get a few hours of quiet any time soon, I’ll figure out if what I have to say fits in a series of articles, a short ebook, or something longer. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
Last week I have the privilege of speaking to the Puget Sound Chapter of the Association for Talent Development. These folks are communications professionals, which meant we could take a deep dive into inter-colleague communication. I may be the presenter during these keynotes but I always feel like I learn something new from each engagement.
This time, one of the participants pointed out that we shouldn’t forget to provide equal resources to people going back into the office if we don’t want them to resent their remote colleagues. This is such a great point, I needed to share it with you. Equal resources can mean a lot of different things–schedule flexibility is the first thing that pops into my mind. The world of work has been turned upside down due to this pandemic. Let’s use this as an opportunity to ask what else needs to be changed.
Things I’ve Published
The ‘How to Build Empathy’ article is the only remote-related thing out there right now. The rest of my publications are all comedy. I wrote ‘Are You Getting Laid off or Divorced‘ back in September, after a round of layoffs at my company. ‘2020 or Country & Western Song‘ came to me when I thought of that old joke, what do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, your wife back, and your dog back. ‘MLMs and Mompreneurs: A Half Baked Recipe‘ popped into my mind when I thought about companies that prey upon women who want to raise their children AND be financially stable.
I partnered with a super talented illustrator/cartoonist to create this single panel cartoon we’re calling Retirement Fund. Which is also a good way to say that if you are a cartoonist, the comedy magazine Greener Pastures (where I am an editor) is accepting illustrations for our Saturday morning cartoons section. Woo!
And finally, ‘Paul Simon Finds 50 Ways to Leave Online School‘ has been playing in my head as an online school parody for almost the entire pandemic. I had to write it out so the parody would leave me alone already. I’m very proud of the fact that you can actually sing my lyrics to Paul Simon’s original song. My husband thinks I should actually sing this in real life, after learning the chords on my guitar. I’m not sure anyone needs that. The point was to get the song OUT of my head, not weld it into place.
Goings On in the Douglas Household
On Saturday we attended a Zoom funeral for a relative. This was 2020 loss number three for our family, but it was the first one that my kids really felt. A wise friend once told me that however you feel after a death is the right way to feel. It was my privilege to pass that wisdom on. Another friend told me about a place in Japan where someone has an old style phone attached to a telephone pole. It’s impossible to make an actual phone call because the phone isn’t wired into any system. People go there to use the phone to say goodbye to relatives that have died. We don’t have that phone here in Canada, so my daughter wrote a poem instead. It helped.
As is true in most things, these weeks haven’t been all sadness. The temperature dropped enough for the leaves to change colours, and Vancouver is bathed in glorious light. This year I took Fall celebrations a little further by making my own apple cider. I’m a little embarrassed that it took so long to figure out how easy it is–just boil apples in water, add seasonings and sugar, and Bob’s your Uncle. And there’s nothing better than making a hot toddy on a cold night, out of cider you made yourself. Yesterday I sipped a hot toddy while knitting a sweater and I felt like I won Fall.
I hope you’re savouring your own small joys. I’ll see you next time.
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.
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.
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.
Yes you need the right tools, but this is still a people issue.
On Wednesday, my eldest child came stomping into the living room to declare that her brother farted on her book, and she was forced to wash it because it “Stunk SO bad!” I double checked that no books were harmed in the cleaning process, and thought ‘I really hope we aren’t cooped up in the house because of COVID.’ Half of my parenting strategy involves yelling “Go play outside!” when they get too fidgety indoors. I’ll have to be a better parent if we must quarantine inside. Or we’ll need to re-institute the indoor laps the kids used to run when they were toddlers.
I’m luckier than many. My job is already fully remote, my husband and I know how to work while both of us are home, and none of us have any underlying health conditions. We bought our (small) box of non perishable foods and extra toilet paper to augment the emergency supplies we already had in storage. And most importantly, I have a lifetime supply of yarn, books, and other craft supplies at the ready. As far as I’m concerned this makes me a hard-core survivalist.
In the Right Place at the Right Time
Still, it’s been a wild week. On Friday my publicist said that a reporter from CNN wanted to talk to me. On Monday morning she interviewed me about staying productive if you have to work from home due to CoronaVirus. Later that evening I spoke to someone from the New York Post about remote work. (That story isn’t live yet at the time of this writing). Monday was also the day that my article on how to rock your first month at your new remote job went live at Training Magazine, so it was a big news day for me personally. This is all heady stuff for this poor kid from San Jose.
Both reporters focused on the concrete things employees can do now to prepare for remote work. What we didn’t talk about were the emotions. And folks, we need to talk about the emotions.
How to Mess Up Remote Work
There are two main ways to fail at remote. You can 1) fail to provide the right tools, and 2) fail to provide the right employee support. It’s a lot easier to fix the former because your employees will tell you if they don’t have the right software at home. They are far less likely to tell you that your management style leaves them feeling like you don’t trust them to do their work.
This is true under normal circumstances. But we aren’t dealing with normal circumstances. They folks who go remote due to COVID will be under additional pressure.
Remote, Without a Support Structure
There will likely be a lot of people who feel well enough to work, who must stay home. Perhaps they’ve been exposed to the virus, or have to care for a sick relative. Perhaps their child’s school has closed.
Regardless of the circumstances, most companies will have people who are trying to work with family or housemates in the background. The single biggest service a manager can do for her team is to acknowledge that these are extraordinary circumstances. No one will be at their best, but together, you will do your best. Someone’s kid is going to scream the second they come off of mute. Someone’s internet isn’t going to be as good as advertised. Provide some forgiveness up front, and your team will forgive you when you inevitably hit a snag.
None of us asked for this. But if you play your cards right, your team will come out the other end stronger, and united.
Working from home means opting out of morning rush hour. This is a huge bonus when the weather outside is frightful. On Tuesday we had a heavy snow event that closed the schools and stranded buses on bridges. I was very happy to miss all of that mess.
Of course, there’s a less positive side to that privilege. If you aren’t careful, you can get to an unhealthy mental place where you both hate the inside of your house but have no motivation to leave. If you’re in this boat, there are things you can do that will help. Here are some ideas that have worked for me. Feel free to use them as jumping off points for your own troubleshooting toolbox.
Get Outside Anyway
Some people enjoy rambling walks. They don’t need an excuse to get outdoors. That isn’t me. I need a specific destination or a workout plan to get me out the door. This is why I’m always on some kind of run plan, usually with a race at the end to keep me focused. Not wanting to die during my spring half marathon kept me running through the rain and snow of 2016.
It wasn’t until the Spring of the following year that I realized the other benefit to running in nasty weather. I didn’t mind the weather so much because I was out in it. You would think that running in icy rain would demoralize me. Nope. Somehow going for a jog in the rain makes me feel like the weather isn’t winning. As a bonus, there are fewer people to dodge on the sidewalk.
Not all places have temperate winters. I have several friends in Winnipeg, where temperatures can easily get to -50 Celsius. That’s not something you linger in. If this describes your weather, you may want to consider a gym membership. Heck, I have a gym membership and my weather only dipped to -10c.
Pick a Second Office
Your second office could be a coffee shop, a library, or a co-working space. Take some time during your non-work hours to investigate new places and try out their wifi. And don’t be afraid to get creative. I once went to my local yarn store early and worked for a little while before the weekly knit night. I’ve worked in bars. If you try this, remember to support the establishment by purchasing something. And make sure it’s okay for you to be there. Don’t be that creepy person squatting in the aisle.
These first two ideas assume you can leave your house. Sometimes a blizzard comes along or you have to care for sick family members, and you can’t leave. These next two tips are for you.
When my children were in kindergarten, they had something called ‘stations’ spread across the classroom. These were spaces with a specific activity all set up. All the children had to do was go there and begin playing.
Consider setting up stations in your house. I have my guitar on a stand next to my couch, ready to play. My purse is a mobile knitting station. I have at least one project in there at all times. Sometimes you just need to walk away from your computer for a minute. Try placing a project in a different room or a different part of your work space. Separating your hobby from your work area can help you “leave” work when you can’t leave your home.
Some enterprising soul is reading this thinking ‘I should clean my house or do laundry if I’m taking a work break.’ If cleaning makes your soul sing, go for it. Cleaning doesn’t feel like a break to me, so I focus on other things.
Take a Virtual Coffee Break
Sometimes your house isn’t the problem. The issue is that you need human contact. Consider arranging a video call with a friend or colleague. If you want to talk to people outside your organization, you can join an online networking event like Networkplaceless. Or spend time talking to people via social media. I’ve met people on Twitter and ended up setting up meetings so we can talk about remote work in real time.
Working from home has a lot of positives, but it also has a unique set of challenges. One of those challenges is feeling marooned in your home during the winter months. The good news is that you can ease those claustrophobic feelings. Try these suggestions. Come up with some of your own. Do you have something that works for you? I’d love to hear about it.
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.