What Kenny Rogers Can Tell Us About Working Remotely

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels. Image is of a person in a grass field, holding a guitar.

In Dr. Seuss’ book Oh the Places You’ll Go there’s a moment when the unnamed character ends up in the waiting place. People go there to wait for their ship to come in, for a break, for a job, for that fateful phone call. Seuss makes it clear that you should get out of this place as soon as possible because life stops in the waiting place.

In other words, don’t wait for life to give you what you want–go get it! I read this book to my children when they were small. Two things occurred to me. First, is this the message you want to send a toddler? They already run after what they want with reckless abandon.

The second was this: Sometimes the best thing you can do is wait. This Pandemic is a good example. The vaccines are out and the world is in the middle of the largest logistical undertaking of our time. The best thing we can do right now is to keep our social distance from folks outside of our households, and wait our turn for the vaccine.

Kenny Rogers Gets It

The older I get, the more I’m convinced we need a children’s book based around The Gambler, as sung by Kenny Rogers. Because really, all of us need to “know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em/ Know when to walk away/know when to run.” His advice predates Marie Kondo, telling us we need to learn “what to throw away, and what to keep.” And let’s not even go into how important it is to accurately read people’s faces. That’s a lot of wisdom in a few minutes’ worth of a country song.

Or maybe we need to tell people that it’s okay to wait when they’ve done enough. It’s okay to take rest breaks when you’re looking for a job. There are only so many applications you can submit in one day and retain your sanity. It’s okay for managers to offer an appropriate amount of support to their employees, and then wait for them to either complete the task or ask for help.

Successful remote workers know when to hold off on that snarky email, know when to walk away from their computer at the end of the day, and know when to run and help their colleagues.

You have to make good decisions when no one is watching. That’s a lot easier to do when you periodically take a moment to reflect on what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Which is easier to do if you give yourself some down time. So don’t be afraid of the waiting place. Sometimes you’re exactly where you need to be.

What’s That Douglas Up To?

I am spectacularly lucky to live near a beach, and to have the luxury to walk along its coast. Image is of the coastline in Vancouver, with Downtown Vancouver in the distance.

I gave a short keynote for Flexjobs on three strategies job seekers can use to land their next job. This was extra fun because it gave me the excuse to talk to three very lovely people who used informational interviews, networking, and LinkedIn to find their jobs. I will get the recording for this in about a week and I’ll share it here if that interests you.

On Monday P.S. I Love You published my personal essay Every Stitch a Goodbye Kiss. It has nothing to do with remote work and everything to do about crocheting stuffed animals for my kids, knowing that someday they won’t want them any more.

On January 5th Greener Pastures published my short comedy piece called Taylor Swift Says We’re Never Ever Ever Hanging Out Together

Last week I gathered all the articles I’ve written on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in the remote workspace, and started making an outline for my next book. I can’t say too much about it yet or my brain will think I’ve written the dang thing and stop bugging me to write it. This would be a no bueno situation.

And finally, I’ve taken a lot of walks along the beach near my house. The end of December and beginning of January were wet and grey, and the sunshine is a gift. It was also an opportunity to take my own advice and reflect on where I am, and what I want to be doing.

Stay well friends. I’m writing this on the eve of Biden’s inauguration in America. I’m hoping the day will be uneventful and that my friends in DC stay safe. We’ll all just have to wait and see.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

It’s December and I resent the dark. The sun will rise at almost 8am tomorrow, and set a little after four. I’m a little worried my neighbours think I’m mad at them–I’ve been scowling at the dark outside my window all week.

Still, there is light–both literal and metaphorical–during these dark days. A vaccine is coming. My 24th wedding anniversary is coming up in January, and my husband bought me an electric guitar.

I bought him sweatpants. And yes, I’m feeling a little self-conscious about the relative awesomeness of our presents. Before you think bad things about me, please understand that he really wants nice sweatpants. And he hates expensive presents unless he’s the one buying them. Also, I’ve agreed to hem them, which basically means I’m making bespoke clothes. People pay thousands of dollars for bespoke clothing. Really, my gift is super classy.

Anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Hosting Year End Parties Online

I wrote an article called How to Host a Fabulous Online Party. It’s up on Medium and I hope you find it useful. I discuss some principals to keep in mind during your organization process and offer some specific suggestions for party activities that fit every budget. Even if your budget is zero dollars. I made sure all of the things I suggest are doable in both the US and Canada. For those of you who live in Europe and Asia, I hope this gives you an idea of how to find similar resources in your country.

What’s That Douglas Doing Now

More interviews and speaking gigs. Last week I did a ten-minute podcast on the Gifters that isn’t quite up yet. Tuesday I’ll be taping a segment for a virtual summit run by a nice group of folks from Australia.

I’ve also started planning out my next book. I’m not sure how other people write, but I tend to write the middle pieces first–I think in subheadings, and my intro and conclusions usually come last. The same thing is happening with this book. I was stuck for a little while because I didn’t know exactly how it was going to open. Once I gave up on starting from the beginning, pieces of the outline started falling into place. It works for me.

I also had another comedy piece published. I’m a huge Jane Austin fan, so when it came time to talk about travelling for American thanksgiving, I decided to move the Bennet family to an undisclosed location in the United States. The piece is called Pride and Prejudice and COVID. Have a read if you’re so inclined.

I hope you’re finding your own glimmers of light in the dark. Don’t be afraid to make them if you need to. To paraphrase Aerosmith, sometimes “the light in the tunnel may be you.”

The Art of Not Gathering

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels Alt text: Little girl wearing a virtual reality headset, arms out for a hug.

I dream about sitting at my Grandpa Pete’s table. Grandpa Pete is my maternal grandfather, and growing up, his was the house we went to when we hung out with my mom’s side of the family. Grandpa Pete and Grandma Bea are the sort of people who keep their house ready for visitors to drop by. You could call him at noon on a Tuesday, and when you showed up at five with a six pack of beer and a pasta salad, he’d have the chips and salsa set out, and beans and rice warming on the stove. I learned how to host gatherings by watching my grandparents work a room.

Every year, the week before Thanksgiving, my family gathers at Grandpa Pete’s to make tamales. We buy masa preparada–prepared masa–from a specific Mexican grocery store because we aren’t masochists, but otherwise make tamales from scratch. My grandparents always made the fillings ahead of time, so when you walked in the door, you were hit with the smell of chilies and corn, pork and oregano.

This year, there’s no tamale party. And I couldn’t go visit in any case. My grandpa is in his eighties, and my kids are in school. The risk is too great. Instead, I watch videos on how to make my own masa harina from dried heirloom corn and dream about visiting when I’m vaccinated in the summer.

How are you doing? Are you travelling to see family or friends for American Thanksgiving? Canada had Thanksgiving in October, and we’ve seen an exponential rise in cases in the weeks following that holiday. I’m going to take a harm reduction approach and give you a link to an article in The Atlantic that gives strategies for making a risky action safer if you choose to travel and gather with family this coming Thursday.

Working On: A Remote Work Article

A little over a week ago someone asked me for advice about online parties. This person was tasked with throwing a team party over Zoom and had no idea what to do. I gave an off the cuff answer and then realized that I have a better, more researched answer that I should give. I’m working on that article now and hope to have it up for you soon.

If you’re looking to answer more existential questions, like why are many gatherings so bad, check out Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. I borrowed it from the library after the fine folks over at Workplaceless talked about the book in a recent blog post. I’m only a chapter into the book but I’m impressed so far. I’ve definitely gone to events that felt alienating for no reason. I’m hoping to learn some tips to keep that from happening to anyone else when I throw parties. Because I dearly love to throw a party–online and off.

Procrastination is Magical

There’s nothing more inspiring for my writing than procrastination. If I’m feeling blocked with one type of writing, I can get over it by diving into a different type of writing. My inner toddler feels like it’s getting away with something. You could say that most of my work is fuelled by manic glee.

I was feeling a little blocked in the nonfiction and comedy departments, so I dove head first into writing a Fantasy novel for NaNoWriMo. I did that for the first two weeks of November before I ran out of glee at 28 thousand words. My creativity compensated me for this loss with a whole bunch of ideas for comedy and nonfiction articles. It was like being hit with a firehose of shiny distractions. (I realize this metaphor only works if you squint really hard, but let’s go with it).

I’m not saying it makes a lot of sense. I’m just saying it works. You should try it sometime. Something similar happened in October, which is why I can present the following comedy pieces for your reading pleasure.

Comedy Articles

If People Appropriated White, Midwestern Catholicism the Way They Appropriate Yoga is up at Points in Case. A few years back, a Buddhist friend from India mentioned how off putting it was to attend her first week of college classes in Vancouver, only to be asked to hold a church session (yoga) before they talked about research methods. That comment stayed with me ever since.

Are You Parenting a Toddler or Napoleon? is up at Slackjaw. I love writing lists because you can be clever about the things you’re comparing. And really, toddlers are little Napoleons. Put them in a French officer’s uniform and give them a hat and a sword and they’d probably take over Europe.

Should You Fly on the Boeing 737? A Flow Chart was one of two pieces I wrote last week and published in Greener Pastures Magazine, the comedy magazine I co-edit. There might be a worse time to clear an airplane for flight than the Pandemic, but I’m not sure when that is. I will not be applying my butt to one of their seats any time soon.

Incidentally, if you write comedy I’d love to consider it for publication. Give our submission guidelines a once over for all the info.

Speaking Gigs

I have an upcoming virtual keynote for a summit based in Australia. I was a little worried that I would have to try to sound articulate at 3am. It’s hard enough for me to filter my words before 9 in the morning. I’m not sure there’s enough caffeine in the world to make me make sense between the hours of 11pm-6am. Fortunately my portion will be pre recorded. I’m tempted to open my home office window and shout “I’m huge in Australia!” Instead I’ll share the link when the summit goes live in January.

I’m excited about getting a link to share. The majority of my keynotes have been for private companies. I hope you get something out of it.

Finding New Boundaries When Everything Happens in One Place

Photo by Diana from Pexels Alt Text: Great Wall of China with trees displaying fall colours.

In the play Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson comes back from France to the tune ‘What I miss?’ While Jefferson was in France, the newly formed United States of America was working on establishing the sort of country it would be. The new Secretary of State had some catching up to do.

This week feels like that process in reverse. Last week, if it wasn’t about the election, few in the US wanted to talk about it. Even the news sites here in Canada were dominated by the election down south. This week will still be dominated by US news, but there’s room now to talk about other things too.

Like COVID. British Columbia is staring down an exponential increase in cases, and if we can’t get ourselves together we might go back into a lockdown. Just the thought of my kids going back to online school has me writing like I’m about to lose my ability to do so disruption free.

Which made me think of all the people who are still involuntarily working from home, with or without children. These next suggestions are for you.

Rethinking Your Boundaries

Successful remote workers erect boundaries between their home and work lives. But for some folks, putting actual walls between their personal and professional lives isn’t possible. Perhaps you have to parent your children during video meetings. Or you may have to get work done while your roommate teaches music lessons over zoom.

When the literal walls between your work and home life go away, that’s when you need to rely on psychological boundaries. This can mean starting (or recommitting to) a routine to enter and exit work. Pavlov taught dogs to salivate when he rang a bell because he associated something they understood (treats) with something that wasn’t intuitive (the bell). Getting yourself to slide into work mode when you haven’t left your home works the same way.

If possible, start and stop your work day at the same times every day. Rituals can also be powerful tools for building a routine. Pour your morning beverage into a “work” mug. Choose a work uniform. Build a “go to work” playlist and listen to it at the start of your work day. Take a 4pm tea break. Or put dinner in the oven.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which actives you choose so long as you perform them consistently over time. Doing certain things at certain times will create a sense of movement and structure in your day. And there is a lot of value to having structure when COVID can make you feel like somebody took the distinct pieces of your life and ran them through a blender.

What’s that Douglas Up to Now?

Four days ago InfoQ published a Q&A about my book Working Remotely. All three of us authors participated in this one. Ben Linders was a great interviewer, and I am especially appreciative that he took the time to help us edited our responses so we didn’t all say the same things.

At the end of October I gave a keynote about balancing mental health and caregiving duties while working from home. Can you believe October was two weeks ago? It feels like a decade has passed.

The biggest news right now is that I’m participating in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t plan to. It’s just that I kept getting those emails about National Novel Writing Month and I fell in with a bad crowd. I have over fifteen thousand words written on my novel and I am a little gobsmacked that this hasn’t turned into a train wreck yet. It still could, but for now I’m riding the novel-writing wave.

Sometimes You Need to Ditch the Formal Email Voice

I’ve been dying to use this photo of an elderly man in a suit dancing with headphones on. You’re welcome. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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.

September Went By in a Whoosh

Remote work is better when you have people to talk to. Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

It feels like we went from summer, to fire season, to back to school, to both kinds of Vancouver Fall in the space of 3 days. September was a veritable weather buffet–a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and way, way too much smoke.

In case anyone is wondering, Vancouver’s Fall comes in two flavours. Fall number one is soggy and dark, and it usually hits right after Labour Day, during the first week of school. Fall number two is crisp air, crunchy leaves, and glorious light. That’s where we’re supposed to be now, but it’s so warm I’m not sure the leaves will get a chance to change before they fall off the trees. On the other hand, the Dark and the Wet is coming, so you’ll hear no complaints from me.

There have been many articles and podcasts (like this one from NPR) floating around in the last couple of weeks, talking about preparing now for a winter with COVID. There’s a nice cartoon with some great high level tips for creating your happy place. Even I wrote a ‘find your happy things’ blog post two weeks ago. Gathering supplies to get into your personal happy place is a great idea.

It’s also a great idea to take actions that will make your remote job easier to deal with in the last months of the year. Let’s talk about that.

Relationships Are Like Bank Accounts

Yes, I do know that relationships shouldn’t be purely transactional, but stick with me on this one. Like bank accounts, relationships are healthier if you feed them on a regular basis. Second, if all you do is take, someone is going to close that account.

At some point in the winter, you’re going to feel sad and isolated at work. You’ll need someone to remind you that you aren’t alone in your home office. While you can forge connections with colleagues at any time, it’s easier if you aren’t in crisis mode. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Attend a networking event. Most professional networking groups are now meeting online. A Google search can help you find networking groups of all stripes. Shop around until you find a group that feels like your people.
  2. Invite a work colleague to a zoom coffee break. Screens are definitely optional here if you’re on too many video calls. Take 30 minutes every other week or once a month to catch up.
  3. Play games. At my company, we’ve played Would You Rather, and board games like One Night Ultimate Alien. You would be surprised at the number of games you can play via video call.

Someone is reading this and cringing at the idea of online forced fun. Fair enough. If I never get asked to share fun facts about myself, that will be too soon. What you really need is a vehicle for people to talk while spending time together. You want to avoid inviting people to hang out, only to find that there is a lot of awkward silence because folks don’t know each other well enough to just talk.

Scheduling a few of these activities goes a long way toward forging real relationships. You only need to spend a little bit of time laughing with someone before you’re comfortable enough to reach out when you want to take a work break or need to vent. Start now, and you’ll have solid relationships to take you into (and through!) the end of the year.

What’s That Douglas Up to Now?

The last few weeks have been an odd mix of holding goodbye parties for departing colleagues, and speaking at different companies about remote work. I wrote an entire article about How to Say Goodbye When a Remote Worker Leaves. Leaving your job for any reason is hard. For remote workers, it can be doubly hard, because you just sort of close your computer at the end of your last day. Fortunately it doesn’t take much effort to do better than that. The above article assumes you’re a colleague of the person leaving. At some point I’ll write the how-to article aimed at managers.

On the comedy side of things, I have a list coming out on Wednesday called ‘2020 or Country & Western Song.’ I was thinking of that old joke that goes: What do you get if you run a country song backwards? you get your house back, you get your wife back, you get your dog back. Turns out there are a lot of parallels to the bonkers plot line that is 2020.

And finally, the big story (because I live a truly wild life) is that my eleven-year-old and I will be bullet journalling. The kid is in sixth grade and finally needs to use a planner to keep track of her stuff, and she’s artistic, so I think she’ll like it. My job is concluding at the end of December, and my freelance work is ticking up, so I’m also feeling the need to keep track of all the things.

Enjoy the rest of your week!

How to Work in Self-Care When You’re Overwhelmed

All this parent wanted to do was lay down for a minute alone. Image of smiling man laying on a bed, with small child whispering in his ear. Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

In January 2013, I started an MBA. I was working full-time, and had two children under the age of two. One of those children was still nursing. I had no free time for two years. Whether it was a school assignment, a work deadline, or a child who needed to eat, there was always something or someone who wanted my attention.

For many people, this pandemic is a lot like that. Work and family commitments keep them sprinting from sunrise to sunset in a desperate bid to keep everything from crashing down. Maybe this is your situation. Maybe it describes the situation of a friend or colleague.

Today, we’re going to talk about how to catch a break when you haven’t been alone or uninterrupted since early March. Veteran remote workers understand that they are their own first line of defence when it comes to taking breaks. This is even more true during the current pandemic, when many have lost access to their personal safety net.

We’ll talk a little about how to think about taking breaks when crafting your own. After, I’ll end by offering some resources if you don’t have the energy to craft your own plan. I am not affiliated with any of these offerings, and do not receive compensation for mentioning them.

When There’s Too Much to Do, You Might As Well Take Time Off

There is only so much one person can do. We all acknowledge that fact in general, but we act as if we aren’t allowed to stop trying to complete our impossible to-do lists until we drop from exhaustion. We feel bad. Or think that there’s a life hack out there for fitting 30 hours of work into a 12 hour day.

There isn’t. When you have too much to do, the best you can do is choose which balls you drop. That may mean missing a non-critical work deadline. Or not signing your kid into zoom class. Deliberately choosing to drop a ball doesn’t mean the dropped commitment isn’t important. It’s just less critical at that moment than something else you care about. And if you’re thoughtful about what you miss, you stand a better chance of preserving the things that are important to you over the long haul.

Let’s call this strategic neglect. Generally I call it ‘choosing who I’m going to piss off,’ but strategic neglect sounds so much nicer.

Practicing this strategy can feel scary. But if you eye the items on your task list through the lens of your values, you’ll start to see places where you can build in a little breathing room in your day. That breathing room may look like fifteen minutes a couple days a week, but even five minutes of break time is better than zero minutes. You take what you can get.

Break Time Doesn’t Always Have to Be Productive Time

Once you start dropping things strategically, you’ll notice pockets of time in your day. And you’ll be tempted to shove something else on your to-do list into that slot. You may have visions of starting a side business or writing a book. But if you’ve been doing too much for too long, then you may need to spend some time doing nothing at all. You might sit on your couch and pretend to read a book. Or stand in the hallway in-between your kid’s zoom meetings taking slow breaths while wearing headphones.

I can’t tell you how long you’ll need to stay in this stage. You’re waiting for that internal voice inside of you that says “you should be doing x, y, or z,” to start saying “I’m bored. I want to do something.” That’s the signal that you’ve recovered enough to make your break time a little more active.

Prep For Your Break

When you only have five or ten minutes of free time, you need to have a grab-bag of activities ready to go. Spend some time prepping for your future activities. Put all of your workout clothes in one place. Wind your yarn. Order a sketch pad from Amazon. Choose a bread recipe–and make sure you have the ingredients.

Have a couple of possible activities ready to go. I love to read, but sometimes, if I crack open a book after work, my entire family takes that as the cue to interrupt me 42 times a minute. I’m less frustrated if I switch to knitting or playing my guitar at those times.

Think in Terms of Bite-Sized Breaks

Lao Tzu once said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It also turns out that exercise, or learning a new hobby, or developing positive coping skills can also be done over the course of a few consistent minutes spread across the week. This is basically how I’m learning guitar. I have a 30 minute lesson with my teacher over FaceTime, and I fit in a few minutes of practice most(ish) days of the week.

Get creative with your definition of down time. Do you have to sit in your car while waiting for your pet to leave the vet? That’s break time. Are you stuck in a zoom meeting? Get your knitting and call it down time. Do you wake up early because you’re stressed out? Grab a mindfulness app, and learn new ways to destress.

If You’re Looking For Ideas for Your Breaks, Try These

Sometimes you’re ready for a break, but too overwhelmed and stressed out to figure out what to do, so you do nothing. Maybe one of these ideas will work for you. I use an app called Movr for bite-sized fitness. You can build a 15 or 30 minute workout, or you can pick one of the 5 minute pre-planned workouts. If you want someone to plan your meals for you, I’ve used The Fresh 20 in the past. Be aware that you have to pay for it. And if you want to work on coping with stress, I’ve found Mood Mission to be helpful.

Whatever self-care you choose, don’t give up on it just because your to-do list is out of control. Those little breaks may not change your circumstances, but they can give you enough of a boost to carry on. We’re in this pandemic for the long haul. Spend some time recharging your mental and physical batteries. You’ll be a better person for it.

Out In A Cabin In The Woods

This is not the literal cabin we’re staying in, but you get the idea. Photo by Eneida Nieves from Pexels

Happy Friday everyone! I’m writing this post from a small cabin on the Sunshine Coast. It’s been raining all day which seems pretty ironic now that I’m thinking about it. I wonder if the people who named this area had a sarcastic bent.

In any event, the area has mostly lived up to its name. We’ve been paddle boarding, kayaking, and generally enjoying the last days of Canadian summer. Fall is a gorgeous time of year here, but before the fiery colours of fall touch the maple trees, we will have days and days of rain. I need a few more days (or even weeks!) of hot sweaty weather before I can look forward to the crispness of Fall.

The kids, just before they stood up and paddled away from us.

Writings and Appearances

In between all off the summer frivolity I’ve been writing a lot. I have an article entitled ‘How to Build Influence to Improve Your Company Culture–Even if you aren’t in charge‘ up at Medium today. In it I share how I think about building influence in a company.

On August 10th I was on the Ask Sharifah show, talking about the issues of the day. This one wasn’t strictly related to remote work since there were six of us, and we were talking about things that entrepreneurs are most concerned with. But if you want to hear about how people transformed personal pain into nonprofit work, or why you need to work on your website, this might be the episode for you.

On August 8th my piece ‘Choose Your Own adventure: K-12 Back to School, Pandemic Edition‘ went live on Humor Outcasts. This one is on the more ‘biting’ end of the satire spectrum. I also co-launched a comedy publication with some of my fellow satirists from my Second City class on August 17th. It’s called Greener Pastures Magazine, and you can read a fake column I wrote from the perspective of the Greener Pastures’ mascot, Aggie Green. It’s called ‘Good Girl Aggie! An advice Column from Man’s best friend.’ It’s basically gentle comedy, because Aggie is a Very Good Girl. Check out some of the other work published there. My fellow writers are a talented bunch. I’ve always wanted to be an editor for a magazine, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity.

Change Is In the Air

I’m enjoying these last few weeks of August, because changes are coming to Douglas HQ. I’m not quite ready to give details on that yet. As with any big change, this one touches a lot of other people. But I hope to have more for you soon.

Until then I wish you well from a quiet little corner of the BC countryside.

How to Tell if Your Remote Company Culture Needs a Reboot

Does your company culture energize or suck the life out of workers? Photo of a woman sleeping at her desk by Marcus Aurelius via Pexels

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.

Image is of three out of four Douglases laying out on a blanket at the beach. The fourth one was out swimming. Some of us were more excited to be there than others.

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.

Hasta la próxima semana.

Performance Reviews and Robots

Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels

Good morning! I’m writing a short post today to share some of the writing I published last week in other places. I was working on a different post for today but sadly, my time this week was spent kicking some spam bots off my blog.

Incidentally, if you’re a subscriber who hasn’t re-subscribed to my blog AND clicked the link in the confirmation sent to your email (I sent out a note about that Monday July 20th), this is the last one you’ll get in your email before I retire the old list. You can sign up again over on the right side of my website. Check your spam folder for the confirmation email. Dang bots.

How Do We Rate People Working in a Pandemic?

In this article, I talk about whether we should hold people accountable for underperformance during the current crisis. Managers, please ask yourself, ‘Is this person really the problem, or am I trying to fire the virus?’

Satire About Micro Managers

Last month I enrolled in a satire class from The Second City. Before I did so, I wrote a comic personal essay about finding accidental alone time via dyeing my hair in my bathroom. I realized after writing that essay that I don’t really know the common structures for humour. So I remedied that gap in my knowledge. Humour–especially short humour–is a tricky beast. Which makes it addictively interesting if you’re me.

In any event, I published this piece on a humour site called Robot Butt. Satire is the humour of outrage, and it probably comes as no surprise that I am outraged by micromanagers.

Summer Writing

I’d forgotten what life was like before I had to educate my children and work at the same time. The kids’ last day of school was June 25. A week after school ended I wrote both of the pieces linked to this article, plus an assigned article that hasn’t been published yet, and a couple of satire pieces that aren’t yet ready to shop around. It’s like all of the creative energy I funnelled into making my circumstances work turned into a creative writing tsunami.

Summer Learning

I swore that I wasn’t going to put my kids into online summer camp. We’ve had enough online class to last us the entire summer, thank you very much. Then I saw a ‘how to make mods in Minecraft’ class that had some good reviews and decided to let the kids do that for a week.

And you know what? The class was fabulous. And required very little involvement from me. I shouldn’t be surprised by this. When you approach remote work thoughtfully, you can have great outcomes. I’ve been living that dream for the last 10+ years. Remote learning is no different. If there are educators or decision makers reading this, please–for the sake of kids and parents everywhere–spend this summer researching how established online schools run their classes.

Pandemic Pets

We’ve also become the people who get pets in a pandemic. It’s Friday morning as I write this, and I’ll find out this afternoon if the pet rats we’re getting from a breeder are ready to go home with us.

I made the mistake of telling the kids about the rats two weeks ago. In my defence, I had to set up the three storey rat palace in their bedroom, and that isn’t the kind of thing you can tell them to ignore. The rats were supposed to be ready for us last Friday. If you have kids, you can imagine what happened when we found out that they weren’t ready yet. Here’s hoping I have better news for next week’s blog.