Recently I moved my blog ‘Living La Vida Remota’ to a new web host. When I did that, it accidentally stopped sending my posts to those of you who subscribed to this function. If you would like to keep getting these posts in your email, you’ll have to subscribe again. You can find the form on the right side of the blog.
Sorry about that folks! Thursday we’ll go back to talking about remote work. I just finished an article on whether company retreats are really necessary for remote workers, and some things to think about before deciding whether or not to host one.
Writing is my go-to solution for presenting information, but the instant feedback that comes from a live audience can jump start all sorts of things.
North Carolina on my mind
I came back Sunday from my latest (and last) work-ish trip for the summer. I say ‘work-ish’ because while I was definitely at the MBA@UNC alumni weekend in a professional capacity to speak about remote work, I also got to enjoy the event as an alum of the program.
My first talk was ‘How to Survive and Thrive as a Remote Manager,’ and I already know that I need to turn this into a blog post, or a YouTube video or something. Maybe several somethings. I had people come up to me throughout the weekend to ask follow up questions and share their experiences managing remote employees. My talk—both my talks—tapped into a need.
Public Speaking is Scary and Awesome
Have I mentioned that I enjoy public speaking? I get nervous, but back when I sang in my college choir I learned how to harness the nerves and use it to energize my performance. I had one moment right at the beginning of the first talk where I had to stop and take a deep breath, but just like singing, after that the rhythm of the words I put together stepped in and carried me through to the end.
With writing, you assemble your argument, polish your prose, and then send it out into the air. Hopefully it lands well. Talking (or singing) in front of an audience forces me to know my material well enough to change it on the fly if I’m losing them.
Public Speaking is Performance
I deliberately use the term ‘performance’ to describe these talks. Anytime you’re delivering something in front of a group, it’s a performance. And if you think of it that way, you’re more likely to be an engaging speaker.
Each live performance is a conversation between me and whoever is in that room. I scripted out my talk, then changed it as I spoke it out loud. I revised it again when I found the slides I wanted to pair with my performance. It morphed a third time when I converted my script into an outline. The actual talk bore a strong resemblance to my final outline, but it wasn’t exact. I kept a few different jokes in my back pocket, and left room to incorporate the audience into my delivery.
Departures as Compost
Writing is my go-to solution for presenting information, but I love the instant feedback that comes from a live audience. And it’s been a long time since I’ve performed something in front of a collocated group. I’ve forgotten how it can jump start all sorts of things.
In his book ‘Creative Quest,’ Questlove describes these sorts of artistic departures as powerful fertilizers. This rings true. I feel like this weekend fed that part of me that makes things. I don’t know quite what will come out of it, but I have the seeds of several ideas, and I can feel them trying to sprout.
I’m flying out early Thursday morning to speak at the University of North Carolina about remote work. The two talks use some material from my book, mixed with my personal experience as a remote manager and employee. I’m honored to speak about how to survive and thrive as a remote manager and employee. I’m also looking forward to networking with colleagues I met during my MBA program. I’ll be jet lagged but it’s going to be totally worth it. Chapel Hill is a lovely place.
Not Everyone Wants to be a Digital Nomad
Even though I can work from anywhere with wifi, I usually work inside my home. I like my home office. As someone said on Twitter the other day, when people say they want to travel and work, they usually mean a few trips a year. I am definitely in that category. The last time I had to travel for work was 2014. Flying out of country twice in the space of two weeks is a refreshing change of pace–but I’m glad it isn’t my lifestyle.
The Kids Don’t Like my Work Trips
My son informed me that I ‘have too many trips,’ and the comment made me feel both guilty and grateful. Guilty because I am really looking forward to mixing and mingling without having to worry about cooking dinner or getting people off to school. Grateful because my son has no idea how much more of me he sees because I work from home. I like that my children can take my presence for granted.
I also like that while I can work while traveling, I don’t have to. I could complete my analyst duties while waiting in the airport, or late at night after the UNC event, but I won’t. It’s unplug time. In between my talks and the seminars I’ll attend, I plan to catch up on my New York Times subscription, knit, and perhaps write the start of the next book that is churning in my back brain. All these things are possible because I work for a company with a great vacation policy.
Or maybe I won’t do any of that. Maybe I’ll be too busy connecting in person with the people and the place I haven’t seen since 2014. I’m going to keep the next few days wide open for serendipity. I’m sure there will be plenty to tell you when I get back.
When you read this, I will be in New York for work. I used to live in the city many years ago and I’m looking forward to walking Manhattan once again.
I am originally from California and I moved to New York to get my MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence. I’ll never forget the moment when I came up out of the subway in Midtown, buildings all around and people rushing past me, and something inside just said ‘yep. This is my place.’ I love living in Vancouver, I love running in the forest, but I’m a city girl at heart.
And with that I will leave you with the words of Huey Lewis and the News:
NewYork,NewYorkis everything they say And no place that I’d rather be Where else can you do a half a million things And all at a quarter to 3?
What’s it like parenting in the same place where I work? There is no easy answer.
It’s almost time to break out the eye masks. The clock on the dresser says 5:30, and bright, buttery light is already streaming through my window. Pretty soon I will have to start using my eye mask if I want to sleep in past 5am, but not yet. It’s early May in Canada and the light feels like a gift after months of short dark days. Not yet. I’ll put up with being tired a little longer.
Everybody is up earlier. I start work at 6:30 so I can get some work under my belt before the children wake up, but the light drives them out of bed at 6:40. My early morning financial analysis now happens while I field requests for cuddles, breakfast, and chat. This is my quiet time to work while you are asleep, I say, and the kids are old enough to understand that means ‘leave mom alone.’
‘Alone’ is a relative term that usually means ‘go lay in mom’s bed and read while waiting for a cuddle.’ By the time 7:10 rolls around, my husband is downstairs making the kids’ lunches, and the entire house smells like his breakfast sausage. Soon he will leave for work.
Outside the sky is as bright as afternoon. I can hear the complaining cries of the eagle chicks in the Douglas Fir tree across the street, and I look up in time to see the Bald Eagle parent leave again to look for food. It’s 7:30 and I need to go make something for my own chicks. I swoop in to give them their daily cuddle, my mind already on my morning latte.
I don’t really believe in aiming for a work-life blend. That sounds like what happens when someone turns on a blender before putting on the lid. I like to keep guard rails around my family and work time, enforcing a separation between the two so I’m not pulled to pieces trying to cover too much.
If I had to pick a metaphor, I’m aiming for something like Butchart Gardens-a full lush life with little green breathing spaces between the various things. In the morning, though, it feels like I hop over fences at high speed, switching between co-parent and employee in a way that is both intense and routine.
I wonder if work/life blend believes in me, even if I don’t believe in it, I think, back at my desk after dropping off the kids at school. My latte is still warm and tastes like ginger and cloves. Or maybe the different parts of my life are like the oregano in my community garden–if given sun and good soil, they will try to spread out and colonize all available space. Some days I resent how often I have to trim the oregano back to keep it from overrunning everything else in my garden. Most days I’m grateful for it’s abundance.
And that, perhaps, summarizes the way I feel about working in the same space as I parent. Both my children and my work want my attention. Neither really likes to share. The only boundaries they recognize are the ones I enforce. And yet, like the light on a Canadian Spring day, this particular time with the children is fleeting. I can put up with being tired a little longer. I sit here in front of my spreadsheet, latte in hand and the memory of childish kisses warm on my cheeks, I am grateful for the abundance.
When you work from home, getting ready for an in-person event can seem like a hassle. Keep these 3 things in mind as you get ready.
I’m headed to New York in a few short weeks to attend a work event. Throughout the years, I’ve discovered that there are some remote-specific things to keep in mind if you rarely attend in-person events.
Go Into the Meeting With a Good Attitude
There are two primary schools of thought out there about in-person meetings. The first says that in-person meetings are mandatory if you want your remote employees to work well together. The second school of thought is that in-person meetings are unnecessary. Everything you could do in an in-person meeting you can do online. Like most things, these points of view are probably true for some people. Neither is 100% true for me.
Most days I love working from home. There is something so delightfully self-indulgent about getting to work in the quiet of my office of one. As I write this, I can hear the rushing of the wind outside, the hum of the occasional car as it goes by, and the clicking of the keyboard as I type. I need this silence regularly if I want my brain to produce stories.
I also really like seeing people in person. I can (and do) make time to connect with my colleagues throughout my work week. I have several coworkers that I consider friends even though we work in different time zones. And yet it’s often easier and quicker for me to forge those initial human connections in person.
I will suggest (with no data to back this one up) that most successful remote workers do best when they have the occasional out-of-computer work interaction. You may not feel the need to see people in person, but your coworkers may need to see you in person in order to get along with you. If you have a chance to meet your colleagues for a coffee or a workshop in person, see it for the opportunity it is. Personally, I’ve made a mental list of people I want to talk to during the conference, and I’m excited to chat with them.
Check Your Work Clothes
Very shortly after getting excited about my trip, I realized that I have no idea what people wear to work these days. The dress code at Douglas HQ is a button down shirt with a pair of old jeans and knitted socks. And while my knitted sock game is truly righteous, I suspect that I’m going to need foot ware that covers up the awesome.
I asked the internet ‘what is business casual,’ and Wikipedia said “Business casual is an ambiguously defined dress code…it entails neat yet casual attire and is generally more casual than informal (sic) attire but more formal than casual or smart casual attire,” which didn’t really help.
Other sites confirmed that a button down shirt and slacks are still fine, but how much can you trust sites that say silly things like ‘you must wear a belt’ or ‘no knitted tops?’ Does anyone else find it funny that we can get a robot to Mars but we can’t define a work style that has been around for a generation?
As far as I can see, business casual means whatever your company says it is. If you’re going to an in-person work event, you might want to check your employee handbook to see if it has any guidelines. You may also want to take a moment and think about how conservative your company culture is. And finally, take an honest look at how worn out your work clothes are. I already knew I needed to buy slacks. A search through my work tops revealed that I needed some help there, too.
Put a Face to the Name
There is nothing more awkward than showing up at a work event where people excitedly greet you…and you have no idea who they are. Ask me how I know. When you work remotely, most conversations take place via email and instant messenger. While some of these platforms give you an option to upload a picture, not all of them do. Add jet lag into the mix, and it can be very hard to remember what some of your favorite colleagues look like.
On behalf of remote employees everywhere, I ask that you please take a moment to upload a picture of yourself into your email and instant messaging platform. And please make it a recent one. My own personal rule is that I need to change my photo every 2 years. You can take a flattering picture of yourself using your smart phone. Put on a work top, stand against a wall, raise the camera slightly above eye level, and take your shot. Adding a photo gives you the moral high ground to suggest that everyone on your team do the same thing.
If you are planning a work event, ask the participants to provide a photo of themselves, and share them with the group. I work for an educational company, and the event organizer created a set of flashcards–one side has the picture, the other has the name. I absolutely love them. A quick internet search yielded several sites like this one, that lets you make your own custom flash cards if you love this idea too.
I’ll be using my flashcards every day in the two weeks leading up to the event. I might still blank out if someone greets me from across the room, but at least now I have a fighting chance.
In person events can seem like a hassle if you only work from home. For instance, you might have to buy work clothes and put on shoes. However, approach the event as an opportunity to strengthen your working relationships for years to come. If you look at it that way, it’s easier to see how the benefits in such a trip can outweigh the inconvenience. Plus you might get some nice work shirts out of the deal.
Working in the home when the children are on break can present a challenge. With introspection, planning, and focus, it can be done.
And other remote work mysteries.
This weekend I planned out what my kids will be doing over the summer. I wasn’t looking forward to it, to be honest. My husband is a PhD candidate, and for the last few years he has been the parent on deck in the summer.
My husband accepted a full time job in February, and while I am happy that his job working out, it does leave us with the problem of what to do with the children during the summer.
I thought some of you might be in a similar boat–trying to figure out what to do with the kids when you work from home–and so I’m going to share my thought process. Perhaps this will help you with your own process.
First, some caveats. My children are 8 and nearly 10, so I no longer have to think in terms of keeping toddlers from killing themselves every minute. Your mileage may vary. I also live 17 hours from my nearest relative. Leaning on family isn’t an option.
How much focus time do I really need?
We aren’t made of money, so I can’t just keep my kids in full day summer camp for two months. I need to quantify the minimum number of hours I need someone else to watch my children, and find the least expensive acceptable solution.
I am lucky enough to live in a place where kids can play with other neighbourhood kids outside during the day. There are many parents who use this as part of their childcare plan. My husband leaned very hard on this option when he conducted his research last summer.
Theoretically, this outside play option should work for me, too. The kids are old enough to entertain themselves for hours at a time with minimal supervision. My problem is that it takes me time to get into the fugue state I like to be in when I’m completing the strategic parts of my job.
Actually, that isn’t the problem. The problem is that my children seem to viscerally know how long it takes me to refocus, and they time their interruptions to happen just before I can achieve it. They don’t always spend an entire day interrupting me, but like Pavlov’s dogs, I have been conditioned to expect an interruption at any time, and that makes finding my focus all the harder. Plus it stresses me out.
I’ve found that I need four hours of child-free time if I want to turn in work that meets my high standards.
How much sleep do I need?
I need 7 hours to be able to write, and 9 hours to feel rested. Like most parents, I’ve been forced to learn to function on less sleep for months at a time, but at this stage I refuse to build a plan that requires less than 7 hours of sleep. (I’ve given up on getting 9 consistent hours until after the kids move out.) And while I’m a morning person, I have never, in the history of ever, enjoyed starting work before 6am. My ability to filter clicks in around 9am.
It’s better for everyone if I start work no earlier than 6 or 6:30am. I do my best to only schedule meetings after 9am.
How much free time do I need?
There are folks out there who do a portion of their work after their children go to bed. I often wonder who these children are, that go to bed reliably at a certain time. Mine have an 8pm bedtime during the school year, and even then, by the time we dole out kisses, stories, water, and general ‘stop talking and go to sleep!’ scoldings, it’s at least 9 in the evening.
My preference is to use the hour and a half before I go to bed to knit, read, and talk to my husband. I can use that slot for work, but doing so leaves me feeling resentful.
How does this all come together?
In the end, I decided that my working hours during the summer will be 6-2:30. Since most of my colleagues work on Eastern time, this allows me to be available during their work day. If my children are in charge of amusing themselves until 9am, then half day camp (9-12) with an added hour of lunch supervision (12-1) will cover most of my needs. I’ll spend an hour after work finishes at 2:30 to work on my writing.
This schedule is very close to what I currently use during the school year. It’s demanding and requires that I schedule everything out in advance so I can finish in the allotted time. That’s why I’ve scheduled the kids for full day camp (9-4) every other week, so I can spend the extra three hours of child free time getting ahead of my writing schedule and enjoying extra running time. That little bit of give in my schedule helps me power through the weeks where the train has to keep moving.
People have asked me how I manage to work when the kids are home. The short answer is planning. I schedule things so I can complete the thinking parts of my work during my child-free hours. I pay attention to my personal constraints–both financial and mental energy-wise–and make a firm commitment to finish my work during the allotted time. It’s amazing how much work you can get done when you don’t leave yourself the option to work on something ‘later.’ And lastly, I schedule my off time with activities that let my mind and body recharge.
I’m a veteran parent, so I know my weeks won’t always go according to plan. But if I create a plan that includes keeping my sanity during the summer, then I’m more likely to keep it on most days. For the other days, there’s always the chocolate for dinner option. I hope sharing this process is helpful for you. If you have any strategies that help you work during school breaks, feel free to share them.
While it’s tempting to flesh out an ‘ideal remote candidate’ profile, you will have better results if you focus on capabilities instead.
In the summer of 2005, a teacher manager role opened up at Kaplan K-12. I’d been working for Kaplan as an after school teacher for a year at that point, trying to figure out if I wanted to teach once I graduated from my MFA program at Sara Lawrence College. I enjoyed the company, I liked my boss, and I didn’t seriously consider applying for the role.
There are certain moments–certain decisions–that change the course of your career. This was one of mine. I had to turn in some paperwork to my boss, and I decided to take it into the office instead of mailing it because it was a little bit late. I stopped to chat with some of the managers in the office, and one of them asked me if I was going to apply for the teacher manager role.
“Oh, it looks interesting, but I don’t have any management experience,” I explained.
The woman–we’ll call her Dana– looked at me over her glasses and asked “Didn’t you say you worked as a nanny before you came to us?” She then spent the next few minutes explaining to me how similar watching children was to managing adults. The experiences might have been different, Dana argued, but the necessary capabilities were exactly the same.
Why Capabilities Should Trump Experience in Remote Work
In a recent HBR.org article, Nilofer Merchant discussed ways managers can avoid screening out perfectly good candidates based on the wrong criteria. She shared an amusing anecdote about a hiring manager looking for a social media expert with 10 years of experience when the entire field was only a few years old. Too often hiring managers pass on capable people because they focus on whether someone has passed a very specific–and arbitrary– hurdle.
Hiring managers can fall into the same trap when looking for a great remote candidate. Not only must managers screen for people who can fulfill the basic job function, they must also find people who can produce good work as a member of a distributed team.
It’s easy to understand why we might focus on previous remote experience. We’re pressed for time. We need people to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Often there are too many candidates vying for the same position and we need to find way to shrink the pool of interviewees.
The problem with using previous experience as a proxy for ‘this person is a good remote hire’ is that remote work only went mainstream relatively recently. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the number of remote jobs has increased 140% since 2005.
The number of people who work remotely is growing, but the total pool of candidates with demonstrated remote experience is relatively small. A manager who insists on hiring someone with ’10 years experience’ in a specific role, with a specific set of skills, in a remote context, is in danger of either settling for a sub standard candidate or finding no candidate at all.
Once you’ve checked to see if a candidate has the basic skill set to perform a certain role, focus on whether someone has the capacity to thrive as a remote worker, rather than insisting on an arbitrary amount of remote work experience.
How to Figure Out if a Candidate Will Thrive as a Remote Worker
Remote employees must take charge of the rhythm of their work days. This means having the discipline to both work during the workday and to turn off the work at the end of the day.
You can find evidence of discipline in a lot of different places. The candidate’s resume may show someone who has to balance competing projects or priorities with low supervision. If you can’t find specific examples of this in a work setting, you can look for people who have successfully balanced different aspects of their personal lives.
For example, someone who worked full time while going to school shows discipline. Or perhaps the candidate trains for races, or volunteers at a local charity while caring for older parents or young children. Those personal experiences are sometimes more telling, because there is no manager standing over them, making sure they get that personal work done.
Technological advances and an ever-changing business environment mean that companies need employees who can adjust to an increasing rate of change. This is true anywhere, but is even more true in a distributed company, where the work is not chained to a specific locale or production line. A distributed company’s ability to pivot will (mostly) be dictated by the speed at which it’s workers–both employees and management– can shift gears.
This can be a hard capability to figure out. Everyone thinks they roll with the punches. Look for someone who has a variety of work experiences. Back in the old days, when jobs were jobs for life, it made sense to find someone who picked one career and worked at gaining increasing levels of responsibility.
Today, candidates who have worked across a variety of roles and functions bring more value. They have more skills to draw on when your company needs to change. This person is more likely to think ‘I’ve done this before,’ and feel more confident as he or she works through the latest shift in your business.
You can also find flexibility by looking for people who have a variety of life experiences. This includes (but is not limited to) people who live in foreign countries, persons with neurological processing differences, and those who live with disabilities. Besides bringing in a diverse viewpoint, these folks have experience navigating in a world not necessarily set up for them, and likely possess a robust problem-solving skill set.
Proactive Communication skills
Of all the capabilities that a remote worker should possess, this one is probably the easiest to spot. How often did the candidate communicate with you as you set up the interview? What was the quality of that communication? While it makes sense to ask all interviewees to discuss moments when they had to work with people via email and instant message, your interview will provide real-time information that you can assess.
Why does the person want to work remotely? The answer to this question almost doesn’t matter so long as it’s meaningful to the candidate–unless, of course, the answer is ‘because I think it’s easier to pretend I’m working when I’m at home.’ If the interviewee doesn’t treat the interview seriously, move on.
There are a lot of good answers to ‘why do you want to work remotely?’ Perhaps the candidate is a military spouse and needs a job that isn’t tied to a specific location. Or maybe the candidate loves fostering dogs in her home. Every job has its tough moments. Candidates who know why a home office works for them will weather the tough times and work hard to keep their remote jobs.
How Not to Figure Out If a Person Will Thrive as a Remote Worker
It can be tempting to take these qualities and create an image of what your ‘ideal candidate’ looks like. Or worse yet, match them against certain personality types. I would caution you against doing so.
Qualities like discipline, flexibility, and proactive communication skills can present differently in different people. If you spend too much time deciding what that candidate “must” look like, you run the risk of passing over great candidates in favor of hiring clones of yourself.
I was lucky all those years ago, chatting with that manager in the Kaplan office. She was able to see past my previous job titles to the skills that truly mattered. With her encouragement I applied for the teacher manager role, accepted the position, and have been in management of one kind or another ever since. Looking at the capabilities that really matter will have a similarly beneficial effect on your company’s performance, and on your employees, for years to come.
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.