In this quarterly column, we take a look at resources to help you survive and thrive as a remote worker. I am not paid to recommend any tools or resources, and the opinions below are strictly my own.
In today’s post we’re going to take a deeper dive into ‘Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams’ by Pilar Orti and Maya Middlemiss.
At thirteen chapters and 100ish pages, you could conceivably finish this book in a couple of hours. I wouldn’t recommend doing so–if read right, this book works almost as a personal coach. To get the most out of Orti and Middlemass’ expertise, you’ll want to sit with the questions posed in each chapter.
Chapter 4 is a case in point. The title is ‘Now that I’m remote, how can people see how a hard I’m working?’ This should be required reading for all managers with remote direct reports.
The chapter discusses how to discourage ‘presenteeism.’ Dictionary.com defines presenteeism as ‘working long hours at a job with no real need to do so.’ This is a learned behaviour that one usually practices as a way to demonstrate loyalty and value. The authors get right to the point by addressing mindset first of all: “It is important to be sure that accountability concerns aren’t simply a projection of your own insecurities…”
From there, the authors discuss how to spot presenteeism in your remote direct reports and the systems you set up to keep track of the work. The chapter finishes up with questions that help you reflect on the current state of presenteeism in your team, and how you might “reorient” things.
All in all, the authors tackle a tricky subject with empathy and a general assumption of goodwill.
Several chapters discuss the importance of psychological safety in different contexts. Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Psychological Safety in Online Meetings,’ and gives tips on how the meeting organizer can encourage meaningful contributions from all participants. It also discusses possible reasons why someone may not talk in a meeting, and how to handle less than articulate contributions in an empathetic way.
Chapter 8 discusses how to make people feel safe enough to share their successes within the team. We all want to be noticed for our successes, but also want to avoid looking arrogant.
Chapter 10, ‘Creating a Culture of Feedback,’ ends with several specific suggestions on how to create a culture that embraces feedback, and a simple way to signal to others when you really can’t handle hearing it.
In a collocated office, you can see when your colleague is having a bad day. In the remote office, we need cues. The suggestions in the chapter are better than the ‘not now, I can’t even’ that I am sometimes tempted to use as my Slack status.
Defining the Digital Space
Perhaps the most innovative chapter in ‘Thinking Remote’ is the first one. Entitled ‘Designing the Digital Workspace: What We Can Learn from the Physical Space,’ it asks managers to think about designing the digital workspace in a way that aligns with a team’s values.
I have never heard someone ask for the digital equivalent of putting all of the toilets on the same floor to force people to interact with colleagues in the hall. I still don’t know what the answer to this one is for my work. I can say that this chapter has made me look at my digital tools in a whole new way.
‘Thinking Remote’ is a thoughtful, thought provoking work that belongs on the shelves of any leader who manages office optional workers.
Whether the change is big or small, you can bring people through it with a minimum of complaining and your credibility intact
My husband ate a lot of hot dogs growing up. It was his mother’s go-to dinner and she always put mayonnaise on the hot dog buns. My husband hated mayonnaise as a child. He ate it, because he assumed that it was healthy. Why else would anyone eat something so disgusting?
And then one golden day he discovered the truth–mayonnaise was not healthy. He told his mother that he never wanted mayonnaise on his hot dog ever again. She agreed to his request. And then the next time they had hot dogs for dinner, and there was mayonnaise on his hot dog. When questioned about this unreasonable turn of events, the elder Mrs. Douglas said “Well there isn’t that much.”
This probably wasn’t the only time that my mother in law forgot to do something for her opinionated son. However this is the instance he remembers–and he will never let her live it down. I heard this story again last night, and it occurred to me this morning that those of us in business can learn how to break bad news from the story of the hot dogs.
Learn the Lesson of the Hot Dogs
To put this family situation into business terms, leadership introduced an item that bothered the line staff. Staff complained, and leadership promised to fix it. Then they forgot, and excused themselves by saying that it wasn’t that big of a problem to begin with.
Most of our business problems have nothing to do with hot dogs (unless you work for a hot dog company) but many of us have run into similar situations. Perhaps IT has introduced two factor authentication or a VPN portal to your computer systems. Perhaps the payroll department now requires all payroll approvals to happen on Mondays, even on holidays, no exceptions.
Unless you own your own business, (and sometimes even then) you have probably had someone tell you that you have to do a new thing that takes more time than the old thing you used to do. If you own a process or manage people, you may also have to break the news about the new thing to the people around you.
For the purposes of this discussion we will assume that the company must implement the change. We will also assume that leadership carefully weighed all possible pros and cons before moving forward with it. Even taking these assumptions into account, there is a right way and a wrong way to communicate bad news–and deal with the fall out.
Your Audience May Not Have a Problem
Unless you know for sure that everyone in the company hates the old system, assume that some people enjoy using it. Of the people who didn’t enjoy using it, there is a subset that can perform the clunky process without thinking about it.
These folks don’t recognize that there’s a problem to solve. They will need to hear why their system or process has to change. Saying something like ‘We need to change our payroll day to align with the parent company’ may not fill anyone with joy, but your employees will appreciate knowing the actual answer.
This approach is much better than trying to get people excited about your solution to a problem they don’t have. For instance (and apologies in advance to all graphic designers) when I get an email announcing the ‘new look and feel’ coming to my favorite website, it fills me with dread. I assume this means someone is going to break (or take away) my favorite features. At the very least I’ll have to spend extra time learning where all the buttons went. The more cheerful your email, the more I assume this is going to hurt.
Watch Your Tone
Most people hate delivering bad news. It’s no fun telling people things that will make them feel bad. It’s even less fun listening to people complain about it. Most of us think we’re pretty good at handling change. The sad fact is that we’re all very good at handling change so long as no one changes the things we care about. It’s human nature.
You can’t eliminate the human tendency to complain, but you can lower the number of people who feel the need to do so if you adopt the right tone. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to tell people that something is changing.
Don’t tell people that the change is ‘no big deal.’
Let them come to that conclusion for themselves. Some changes create unforeseen consequences, and you don’t want to lose your credibility as a trusted source of information. This is especially true in larger companies, where it’s impossible to truly understand the way work flows through different departments.
For example, my work portal signs me out of the system every twenty minutes or so. This isn’t a big deal when I’m composing an email or working on a google doc because the computer saves my work. It’s a very large annoyance when I’m using a certain system that has to query a database several times over the course of a few minutes. In some cases, I have spent time adjusting numbers and fields, only to have my work erased when the system logs me out.
I don’t have polite things to say when this happens.
Assume you are dropping this change into a complex system.
When you go to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, your pharmacist asks for a list of other medications you may be taking. This is to make sure that the prescription meant to help you doesn’t kill you when it interacts with the other drugs in your system.
When you change a work process or system, that change isn’t happening in isolation. You or your colleague may not die because of a harmful interaction between two changes, but a small change can lead to a large amount of frustration. Let’s go back to the system that signs me out every twenty minutes. I interact with this system on a computer that freezes up every time I change tabs or try to load data rich documents. Often, when I get logged out of my portal, my computer will lock up. This is also a very busy time of the year at my job, and it’s harder to work faster when my entire computer seizes.
In this case, I have a new computer wending it’s way to my home office. Relief is coming. I may have to learn to live with the twenty minute sign out, but I’ll do it on a computer that doesn’t freeze up if I look at it funny. Where possible, leadership should provide relief from the unintended consequences of changes.
Lead with empathy.
After you explain why you have to change something, acknowledge the annoyance. ‘We need to use two-factor authentication to comply with new security standards in our field. We realize this may mean you will log into the system multiple times over the course of the day. Thank you for your patience as we make our customer data safer.’
Acknowledging the annoyance helps everyone to feel seen. For many people, that’s all they need to keep them from complaining to you. Others might reach out to complain, but they will usually acknowledge that you weren’t going out of your way to ruin their lives.
In my work as an analyst, I decide who gets to run certain programs, and who doesn’t. I break bad news on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that leading with empathy is often the difference between someone flipping out, and someone telling you they understand your decision.
None of us like breaking bad news. It can be tempting to throw our hands up in the air and give up attempting to craft our message. Take time to strike the right tone, provide context for a change, and lead with empathy. If you do, you can bring people through the change with a minimum of complaining–and your credibility intact.
Whether it’s you or your coworker leaving, it’s important to say goodbye. Here’s how to put the ‘good’ in goodbye.
A few weeks ago, a colleague left our company to start a new job. It was a bittersweet ending–I was both happy for her and sorry to lose a Slack chat buddy. As much as I’ll miss my colleague–we’ll call her ‘Andi’–I’m grateful for the care she took when she prepared to leave the company.
In an in-person office, there are often clues that someone is leaving their job. At the very least, someone may escort the employee to the door, box of personal items in hand. Under happier circumstances, you might attend a goodbye lunch, or sit in the person’s cubicle at the end of the day, reminiscing about old times.
In the remote space, there are no incidental visual cues. You may not notice that someone has left until you send an email or chat message and it bounces back.
This can be unsettling for both the people who leave and the people who stay. If you’re the one leaving and no one says anything, is it because everyone secretly hates you? As the colleague left behind, you may also have questions. Did your coworker get fired? Are you next? And who is your new point of contact?
Whether you’re the one leaving or the one sticking around, it’s important to build in a sense of closure.
When You’re the One Leaving
Andi did a great job of preparing her team for her departure. After telling her manager, she made several video calls to break the news to her closest coworkers. Other folks received an instant message or an email from her. And on her last day, she sent a general email wishing us all a fond farewell.
The approach you take will be dictated by the circumstances of your departure. It’s obviously easier to give closure to your colleagues if leaving is your idea. If your workplace and coworkers are hostile, you may decide that they don’t deserve a fond farewell.
Take a moment to think about the people you know in your company before writing them all off. The beauty of the remote workforce is that you can choose to email the one or two folks that might matter to you, and ignore the rest.
Your remote setting gives you total control over how much interaction you have with your soon-to-be former coworkers. If you want (or wouldn’t mind) answering questions about why you’re leaving or what you’re doing next, set up video calls. If you don’t want to get into ANY of the details, send an email that briefly informs people that you’re leaving, and then details who the new point person will be for your tasks.
Instant message is that half step between these two extremes. You can answer questions while filtering out some of the emotional intensity you or the other person might feel. Be aware that most company-owned instant messaging apps, channels, and software are not private. You might not care about burning bridges, but your coworker might not feel the same way.
Consider whether or not you want to keep in contact with your ex-colleagues. In the age of social media, leaving a job no longer means losing track of people you care about. Think about all of the social networks you are on, and weigh the level of professional vs personal information you share on those networks. Are you comfortable with your ex-colleagues seeing what you post? If so, you might want to include your social media handles in your targeted farewell emails.
When Your Colleague is Leaving
It can be all too easy to let your colleague leave without making a point of saying goodbye. You may be uncertain if someone chose to give notice, or if someone else made the decision for them. If your colleague is being laid off, you may think that it’s better to give the person some space.
Your coworker might not want to talk to you or anyone else. There is a difference, though, between making someone talk to you, and telling someone that you’ll miss them. Most of us would want to know that our coworkers would miss us if we left. This is especially true if we were laid off or fired. Sending an email that simply says ‘I heard you’re leaving and I’m sorry to see you go. I wish you nothing but the best,’ takes very little time to write, but might give someone a boost during a tough time.
If you don’t know the departing colleague well, that email will likely be all you do to say goodbye. If you’ve worked with this person on a regular basis, you might want to suggest that you’re willing to meet with the person over video. Adding ‘I’ll understand if you don’t have any time to talk, but my (video/IM) door is open at any time before you leave’ to your email is a tactful way to suggest a meeting without putting the person in an awkward position. As an aside, don’t add this to your email unless you’re actually willing to meet.
It can be tricky to figure out if you should offer to continue the relationship over social media. No one wants to make the first move, only to find out that the other party isn’t that interested in you. Remember, though, that the person is leaving the company. If you guess wrong (and they don’t want to stay in touch) it isn’t as if you’ll have to see them every day.
If the person is worth the possibility of a little momentary embarrassment, saying something like ‘I’m not sure if you’re on social media, but here is my social media handle in case you are’ puts the onus on them to follow up.
When to Consider Throwing a Goodbye Event
The person leaving is your direct report. Unless the person is leaving due to performance issues, holding some sort of goodbye event is a classy thing to do. Perhaps you’re upset with the person for leaving. Your reaction to your employee’s departure will send a message to the rest of the team. Do you want your team to think that you the sort of leader who will prevent people from growing in their career? Do you like getting more than two weeks’ notice? The rest of your team will note your reaction and plan accordingly.
Perhaps your company forced you to lay someone off. You may have agonized over deciding who had to leave. You may be dealing with feelings of guilt and remorse. Don’t let your feelings get in the way of doing the right thing for your team. They need your help navigating through this tough situation. This is especially true if you’ve done a good job fostering a sense of camaraderie. Help your people to say goodbye.
There are situations where it isn’t appropriate to hold a goodbye party. In such cases, it may be appropriate to acknowledge your direct report at the last team meeting. Take the employee’s state of mind into account. If the person is completely opposed to attending an event, or acting hostile, then skip it.
If your departing employee is willing to attend an event, there are ways to keep things from getting too awkward. Consider reaching out to the person ahead of time to see if they want to say anything to the team. They may not want to. Reach out to the rest of your direct reports and see if they want to say a few words.
If nothing else, you should prepare your own comments. Acknowledge the length of the person’s employment, mention anything you appreciate about the person’s work, and wish them well. If no one wishes to talk, then end the meeting early. In any case, end the meeting when the conversation begins to lag. Goodbyes can be tough, but keeping them brief can prevent them from becoming painful.
The person is leaving for a happy reason, and no one else is throwing a party. Some people are terrible at saying goodbye. I’ve worked at companies where people act as if giving your two weeks’ notice is admitting to an infidelity. Perhaps this attitude made more sense when people were given a job for life. It’s hypocritical if the company has ever laid someone off. Your job is not your spouse. It’s okay to leave if you find something better.
Before you set off to plan your rogue goodbye party, ask around to see if anyone else is already doing so. This is also a good time to find out if your colleague has friends in other departments who might want to come. Put a video meeting on the calendar, and tell people they can come and go at will. Try to find some outgoing person to help you keep the conversational ball rolling. It might make sense to ask a few people to come prepared to tell their favorite story about the person who’s leaving.
Whether you’re leaving your company or your coworker is leaving, it’s important to say goodbye. Doing so can help you and those around you to work through difficult feelings and find closure. It may feel awkward in the moment, but taking the time to say goodbye will help you honor your past and clean your slate for the next phase in your professional life.
Change isn’t going away so let’s get good at dealing with it.
The era of the job for life ended before my generation joined the workforce. Most of us know that our employment situation could change with little warning. Maybe it was the recent layoffs at Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, or the government shutdown in the U.S., but I’ve been thinking about how the average person can get better at dealing with change.
I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to how to do this. I DO have an approach. I call it riding the chaos wave. There have been long stretches of my professional life where my role, my boss, and my entire company structure has changed every few months. This is how I surf the wave.
My goal in any new role is to start functioning nearly autonomously by the end of the first week. Some people drink and know things–I talk to people, read, and write stuff down. This is how I learn.
You may learn a different way. Figure out what works for you. Learning how you learn can make change less scary. You may not know everything now, but you will have confidence in your ability to succeed in your new situation.
Don’t Take the Drama Personally
Everyone around you is anxious. It has nothing to do with you. It will look personal because people will question your decisions. They may even act resentful or cold.
For me, it helps to pretend that I’m wearing my ‘newbie’ hat and that people are reacting to it, not me. Remember that the person who keeps a cool head the longest, wins.
Do Take Time to Grieve
Most job changes and restructurings mean losing things and people you like. Give yourself time to process your feelings. Think of your grief as a forest fire–it’s better to hold a controlled burn.
I am not a therapist or a mental health expert. I do know that going for a run helps me process many things. Find what works for you.
Make New Connections
This one can be hard if you’re grieving. Or perhaps your company has gone through so many changes that you’re burned out on change. You may also have some survivor guilt if you kept your job when others didn’t.
Make connections anyway. I have never, in the history of ever, learned how to excel in a job by reading the company manual and doing exactly what I was told. In my experience you get the real scoop from the people around you. Even if everyone else thinks they’re clueless, you can start to get a sense of the bigger picture by putting together the little bits everyone knows.
Change is Like Coffee
It’s an acquired taste. I don’t like losing coworkers. I do like learning new things, and pursuing new challenges. If you can’t stop change, then it makes sense to try to find something to enjoy about it along the way, even if you have to do the metaphorical equivalent of dumping a metric ton of cream and sugar into your change cup before you choke it down. Do this often enough, and change may not taste so bitter.
Change is Also a Chaos Wave
It can come at you from any direction, and if you stand still it will crash into you. I believe that each one of us can learn the skills to ride the wave instead. This is my approach to riding the wave. Do you have a similar or different approach for dealing with change? I’d love to hear about it.
I love to talk about the Seattle Seahawks with one of my coworkers. The Seahawks are her home team, and I hate them on principal. I’m not a big football fan–I’m in it for the Superbowl half time show–but the Seahawks got on my bad side after one particularly painful game against the San Francisco 49ers a few years ago, and now I root for whoever plays against them.
Talking smack about someone else’s sports team is a time honored way of building a human connection. And if you are a remote worker, it’s easier to build a connection with colleagues if you have something to talk about. But you have to be careful. Here are some things to keep in mind before you try to make friends with your remote colleague by talking smack about her sports team.
How Well Do You Know Your Co- Worker?
Does your coworker already joke with others about her team? Are you sure she’s joking? Some people have no sense of humor when it comes to sports. It’s also very hard to read tone in a text exchange. You may see the talk in the team Slack channel as playful and engaging. Your coworker may see it as harassment. Take the time to figure out if everyone is enjoying the banter before you target any particular person. And if you could rate smack talk on a scale of 1-10 in intensity, start off at level one and check to see how people react. Go slowly.
Start the Smack Talk Over Video
Video meetings are the best place to gauge your smack talk opportunities. Most remote meetings should begin with a few minutes of off-topic chit chat, and an upcoming game can be a good excuse to bond with your coworkers. Pay attention to visual cues and change your approach if necessary. Your coworker may enjoy an impassioned debate, but the rest of the attendees may find it distressing. If that’s the case, enjoy your smack talk one on one.
In one video meeting, I figured out that the head of my department enjoys bantering about the Dodgers. In a different meeting, I found out that a colleague hates LeBron James with the fiery heat of a thousand suns, and enjoys having a chance to explain why. I feel totally confident that if I try to talk smack about the Dodgers or LeBron James, a good time will be had by all. It’s nice to have colleagues to chat with during the day, especially as I work in an office of one. There may be no one else in my office space, but thanks to these incidental conversations, I don’t feel alone.
Talking smack about someone’s sports team is a time honored way of forging a human connection through friendly rivalry. If you keep your remote context in mind, then you and your remote coworkers can trade quips without ruining the relationship.
In Buffer’s 2018 survey, 22% of surveyed remote workers said that loneliness was a top struggle, tying for first place alongside communication and collaboration issues. This is worrying on a couple of levels.
In an age where we are less likely to know our neighbors, workplace friendships have an increasingly important place in our social lives. The coworker you chat with today can become your movie buddy tomorrow. According to the folks at Gallup, having a best friend at work can also lead to better business performance, both in terms of profit and fewer safety incidents. Lonely workers, therefore, can miss out on a chance to feel fully engaged and to work at their full potential.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
Working remotely doesn’t have to lead to loneliness. There are many remote workers who make work friends, and enjoy a sense of camaraderie with people whom they never meet in person. They may occasionally feel isolated, but they have a set of steps they follow to bring more human connection into their lives. Those steps vary, depending on work configuration and personality. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. If we share what works for us, then that may help someone else to think of a strategy that will work for them. Anything that can help someone to feel less isolated in their office of one is a good thing.
How You Can Help
And this is where you come in. I am conducting research on how remote workers make work friends. Can you spare five minutes to fill out this survey? Once I’ve compiled the data I will write up an article with a toolkit of resources for making friends at work, and share it. Together we can help remote workers feel less isolated.
Take some time to understand the problem before giving up on remote work.
Remote employment won’t work for everyone. Before you decide to give it up in favor of a more traditional office, take some time to clarify what isn’t working for you. You can start by asking yourself the following questions.
Is this Really a Work Culture Problem?
Do you dislike working from home, or is your employer making you miserable? This can be surprisingly hard to differentiate. Do you have a flexible work schedule, or does your boss require you to rigidly adhere to a specific set of hours? Are you expected to complete reports whose sole purpose is to “prove” you’re working? Does your company use tracking software to keep tabs on you?
None of these things, by themselves, necessarily point to a culture problem. Call centers record calls in order to train their agents. All employers require that you show up to work on a consistent basis.
The question is if you feel trusted to do your job. Can you leave your desk to make a cup of tea without the world falling apart? Does your work treat you like a slacker looking for an opportunity to loaf? If so, you may have a work culture problem.
Alternatively, you may have problematic boss. If the problem is your boss, you might consider transferring to a different department or role in the same company. If there is very little trust anywhere in your company, it may be time to move on. In both of these scenarios the problem lies with the people running the show, not with your home office.
Has Your Mental Health Taken a Hit?
Some people need to work in an office because it acts as an early warning system for their depression or other mental health issue. No one will notice if you don’t bother to shower when you work from home. This can be a godsend for those of us who run on our lunch breaks–I am often glad that no one, including my Betta fish, can smell me after I run–but this freedom can be disastrous for others. If you discover that you need to be surrounded by coworkers to keep your mental health in check, you are not alone. Many high-performing people do their best work in an office.
Other people find that remote work actually enhances their mental health. Before you ditch the home office, add mental health breaks to your day. Go for a run. Take a few minutes to work on a craft. Read a book. Lately I’ve been listening to audio books while running, and I come back to work refreshed. When you work in an office of one, you don’t have to explain why you decided to carve stamps on your coffee break. You get to do you.
Remote work may not be for everyone, but don’t be too quick to assume that it doesn’t work for you. Take some time to zero in on the specific cause of your unhappiness. It might be remote work. However, you might find that with a few tweaks, remote work allows you to live your best life.