Have a Plan

How do you work when your internet goes down? Planning, that’s how.

Photo by Laura Johnston on Unsplash

I read in bed for 30 minutes every morning before I get up. I didn’t notice the problem at first because my phone had cached my usual websites a few minutes before I started reading. I’m not sure if this was coincidence or not. Should I be creeped out? Hmm.

In any event, by the time I rolled* into work at 8am I knew my internet was down. No internet = no work. Fortunately I have a plan for this. I sent a text to my boss and packed my mobile office**. There is a coffee shop a mile and a half from where I live that isn’t on the same grid as my house. Packing to leave only takes a few minutes, and I finished just as the internet came back online.

I didn’t end up using my Plan B this morning, but having one saves me time. I know which coffee shop(s) have reliable wifi, and when they will have a place for me to sit, because I scouted them out ahead of time.

Developing your own fallback plan is as easy as googling coffee shops and taking the weekend to make a few visits. Research may require you to sample the coffee or baked goods but I know you’re up to the challenge. Do it for science.

Do you have a favourite coffee shop to work in? Why do you like it?

*If by ‘rolled’ you know I mean ‘walked a few feet.’ Rolled makes me feel like I’m James Bond coming at you in a tux and expensive sports car. Possibly I should get out more.

**It’s a small black backpack with a spare set of cheap headphones, pens and post-it notes.

How to Know if Your Remote Employee is Really Working

Back Away from the Surveillance Equipment 

If you read the comments section on articles about working remotely, someone inevitably asks ‘how do I know if my remote employees are working?’ The concern is that employees will loaf without a manager to watch them. I’ve managed remote teams as small as twenty and as large as 100, spread across California. Most of my people did their jobs and did them well. Identifying the shirkers didn’t require fancy monitoring systems. You don’t need them, either. There are cheaper, more effective ways to prove that your remote people are working. This article will discuss a few.

Hire the Right People

Screen out the loafers. There are people who want to do a good job and fulfill their commitments. But be warned, you will not find these people if you assume everyone is a money-motivated shirker. Check for evidence that your interviewee has completed tasks even if that meant doing things outside her job description. Ask about projects that have gone wrong or changed in scope. How did the person handle the situation? Can she accept fault? Look for people who do good work despite challenges. Look for people you can trust.

A lack of trust can damage any office, but it is particularly poisonous to the remote workforce. I once had a boss we’ll call “Stan”. Stan lived in perpetual fear that his team was loafing instead of working. In order to “prove” that I was working, I had to answer all of his emails within minutes of receipt or Stan would call me to find out what I was doing. It made me miserable. Worse, it made me inefficient at the job I loved. I explained the effect Stan was having on my ability to do my work, and his answer was to send me a $10 gift card to a local coffee shop. Otherwise his behavior remained unchanged. So then I was miserable AND offended that he thought he could buy me so cheaply. Stan didn’t understand what motivated his team. Stan didn’t last long.

You may think you don’t have time to figure out someone’s motivation. In reality, the time you spend on this task up front will save you from performance problems in the future. Remote employees have a degree of autonomy that in-office employees do not share. Any of them could shirk. Hire people who don’t want to. No amount of surveillance can take the place of hiring trustworthy people.

Hiring the right remote workers is a necessary first step if you want people who work, but it isn’t the only one.

Weed Out the Wrong Ones

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

 

Not everyone thrives in the remote workforce. When Kaplan Test Prep transitioned from a brick and mortar business to one where 90% of full-time employees worked remotely, some employees left. For some, home held too many distractions. Others couldn’t turn the work off, and they burned out. Whether you are hiring someone new or assessing members of an existing team, weed out those who can’t succeed in the remote environment.

The employees that thrive have some commonalities. Consider three:

  1. They self-structure. These are the college students who set up a study plan and used it. These are the athletes that found a training plan and followed it. Look for evidence of consistency and self discipline. These folks will work on their projects, even when you are too busy to check on them.
  2. They communicate proactively. Remote employees need to be better communicators than their colleagues in the office. When an in-office employee encounters a problem, other coworkers may see or hear it unfold. The same isn’t true for remote employees. Hire people who will reach out and tell you what you need to know so you can do something about it.
  3. They show initiative. Hiring remote workers means you get to hire the best people for the job, no matter where they live. On the flip side, you won’t always be available to answer your worker’s email if your team works in different time zones. You can’t operate effectively with direct reports who must always be told what to do. Hire people who will try to solve problems.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of qualities that make a great remote worker. However, you will be hard pressed to find a successful candidate who lacks any of them. In a perfect world, managers would weed out unsuccessful candidates before they get hired. In reality, this doesn’t always happen. If your direct report truly lacks the discipline, communication skills, or initiative to work in this way, then it is better to identify that as early as possible. Use the time you would have spent cleaning up performance problems to help your employee find a different role.

Hiring the right people and weeding out the wrong ones will go a long way toward ensuring your people work when you don’t watch them. The rest of the solution comes from you. Set up systems to monitor your people the right way.

Set Up Smart Checkpoints

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

While micromanaging can smother a direct report, a completely hands off approach can also damage efficiency. Some solutions require more authority than others. Depending on the company, decisions to spend money, to change a deadline, or to redirect the course of a project fall to you. A standing meeting is an efficient way to plow through these items. Experiment with meeting cadence to find what works best. I’ve found that monthly meetings worked well for my part-time staff. All other business happened through email and one-off calls. My director and I meet once a week for 15–30 minutes, and the entire team meets for an hour every other week. These meetings keep everyone on track. They are also great opportunities to update everyone on wider company news.

It’s important to note the difference between regular check-in meetings, and the check-ins that Stan the micromanager arranged. Stan did the remote equivalent of jumping out of the bushes and yelling ‘Gotcha!’ In contrast, holding a regular, scheduled check-in to clear away obstacles helps your report do her best work. Your employees will notice the difference.

Focus on Outcomes

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Once you’ve scheduled regular check-ins, focus on outcomes. This is what you are measured against anyway — the volume and quality of work your people produce. It doesn’t matter if your remote employee answers all of your text messages within five minutes. He could do so from a bar. Or, from the beach. There is nothing wrong with working from a bar or the beach (or a bar on the beach), if the employee is actually working (and not intoxicated). Does the employee meet his deadlines? Is he delivering quality work? Is he on time to scheduled meetings? If colleagues and clients know when and how to reach him, then it shouldn’t matter if he works from 8pm-10pm on Monday so he can take 2 hours on Tuesday to go to a doctor’s appointment. Employees work harder when they have flexibility. It’s a perk they wish to keep.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

Managing remote employees can throw even the best in-person manager off balance. Techniques you may use to monitor and support your people in a traditional office don’t always transition well into the remote workforce. Hire people you can trust. Set up smart systems to help them do their work, and focus on outcomes. If you do so, you won’t wonder if your employees are working. You will know they are.

I Wrote a Book

Amazon Cover Reote Workforce_

In 2010, the company I worked for transitioned from a brick and mortar business into one that was 90% remote. There were few companies that worked this way in 2010. Still fewer of them were as big as us. We had to write our own road map, and as is often the case we didn’t get everything right the first time.

My fellow authors and I took different paths inside the company that reinvented itself. This book is the culmination of the hard earned wisdom we acquired along the way. If you’ve ever wondered how to ward off toxic levels of loneliness or build your career as a remote worker, then this book is for you. You can find it here: Amazon.com

Tax Marathon

Think taxes and half marathons have nothing in common? Think again. And pass the cake.

I did the family’s taxes this afternoon, and it struck me that taxes have a lot in common with running a half marathon:

  • Both take hours to complete.
  • It goes better if you have lots of carbs to help you through it.
  • At some point in the process I question my commitment, my sanity, and the parentage of the gear I am using.
  • Something is going to  chafe.
  • My play list better be good.
  • I get faster every time, but it’s still painful.
  • I deserve a medal at the end.
  • And despite everything, I’ll sign up to do it again next year.

It isn’t as fun, though. Maybe next year I’ll wear a technical t-shirt and a racing bib and see if that helps.

 

We Are the Stories We Don’t Tell

Not all stories are safe. Some have fangs and claws and they bite.

I have an MFA in fiction, which makes me an actual, professional B.S-er. I make stuff up. Worse, I’ve done it for money. Not much money, mind you; creative writing isn’t like trading stocks–but I have exchanged words for lucre on more than one occasion.

And yet, recently, at a friend’s dinner table, when asked to tell the story of my family coming from Mexico to the United States, I edited out certain details.  Here’s the thing about stories–and any dictator can tell you it’s so: Stories are not safe. They have claws and fangs and they bite.

When I think of my relatives coming to the United States from Mexico, I always think of my paternal grandfather. His story is the most vivid, and I only know it because of a school assignment. I was supposed to interview someone older than 65, and at the time, the only person who qualified was my great grandmother, who spoke no English. My grandfather agreed to translate. Grandpa wanted me to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher. If my school wanted a story about someone older than 65, then I would get that story.

Things started off tame enough. I don’t remember everyone who was in my grandparents’ house at the time, but a bunch of us were sitting on the plastic covered couches as I rattled off my list of questions. Where were you born, how many siblings did you have, blah blah blah.

The problems started when I began asking questions about my great grandmother as a young woman. She could remember her childhood home perfectly, but when I asked about anything from her teens to early twenties, she claimed she didn’t remember.  This included the story about the birth of my grandfather. And how he came to be born as a US citizen. This incensed grandfather. He promptly took over telling the story.

My grandfather wasn’t a particularly nice man.  He was a survivor, a fighter. I wasn’t afraid of him because he saved his rough words for adults, but he wasn’t the guy who let you climb all over him either.

Which made it all the more shocking when he began to cry. I like to think that telling his story was cathartic. The words came out so fast that it was hard to write them all down. I will never know. He never referred to his history again in my hearing, and he died five years ago. My dad later told me that he had never heard some of the things grandfather said that day.

As a Sophomore in high school I didn’t really understand the depth of what my grandfather gave to me. The events he talked about were, at that time, almost forty years in the past, but anybody with eyes to see could tell that his story still made him bleed when he thought about it.  Even as a teenager,  some instinct of family protection made me edit the story into a safer form. And now?

Is this my story to tell? The man quite literally gave it to me. I will tell it to my children because it is a part of who they are. I may even tell it to my friends in certain circumstances. But not at a dinner with acquaintances, curious about my exotic (to Canadians) heritage. It isn’t a comfortable story. And it isn’t just another episode of Game of Thrones, packaged for public consumption.

This story’s fangs bite me too. I didn’t know that until my friend’s dinner party. It’s my story, and I’m not telling it to you.

 

 

Workout Pants Are Better Than People

Sometimes you just need to ditch the people.

If you think about it, you know it’s true. People are great. I love people. However, there are times when you are just going to have a better life experience if you ditch the people and spend some quality time with your workout pants.

Flexibility. People can leave you if you change too much. Your workout pants are in it for the long haul. There is expandable spandex for when your weight waxes, and a drawstring for when it wanes. Your workout pants will stick with you until they literally burst their seams

No judgement. I sweat. The temperature can be literally freezing outside, and if I’m running, I’m sweating way more than is socially appropriate. Do my workout pants judge me? No they do not. They are part of the solution–wicking away that extra moisture and spreading it out into the universe. That’s deep, that is.

Secret pockets. How many people do you know who are willing to hold whatever crap you choose to bring with you? Most of our moms quit doing this somewhere in elementary school. My workout pants pockets just don’t quit. Plus storing stuff in secret compartments makes me feel like a ninja. It’s a storage solution and a morale booster all in one zippered package.

Are people are getting you down? Throw on a pair of workout pants. They will never tell you to change your attitude, and will help you work it out in whatever way suits you best.

Hives

Step away from the face paint.

Definition: Hives is an allergic reaction characterized by localized redness, itchiness and swelling.

My kid has allergies. After several months of back and forth with doctors and a visit to the allergist, we discovered that dust mites were to blame for most of her issues. The hives, though, had no explanation. I was advised to observe her carefully and try to see if there were any patterns to when she gets them.

As far as I can tell, this is the list of activities that can potentially cause hives in my kid:

  • excessive cold
  • excessive heat
  • excessive excessiveness
  • face paint
  • Thursday
  • homework
  • bacon
  • parents who Just Don’t Understand What I’m Saying

Once you compile your list of triggers, it is best to avoid them whenever possible–unless, of course, your seven year old decides to wipe face paint all over her face on a Thursday just before doing her homework, all the while complaining that you don’t understand what she’s talking about. In that case, you might as well pull out the bacon and give up because you’re totally hosed.

 

The Five Stages of (Sickness) Grief

Kids. Cesspools of disease in a small package.

Denial
No, I can’t be getting sick. I was just sick a month ago. I’m supposed to go knit night tomorrow. It’s allergies. It’s lack of sleep. I am definitely not getting sick again.

Anger
This never would have happened if my kid hadn’t coughed in my mouth. Little viral cesspool. Why don’t they teach hygiene in school? What are my tax dollars paying for over there? Either he learns to cover his mouth when he coughs, or he has to stay in his room for the entire month of March.

Bargaining
I will take ALL of the Vitamin C. Zinc. If I take zinc right now it will head this thing off. If I can just stay well enough until the weekend, I’ll go get a flu shot.

Sadness
I’m going to be sick for the rest of my life. No one will ever invite me over again because I carry the plague. I will lose all of my friends and die alone, surrounded by used tissue.

Acceptance
Well crap. Time to mix a DayQuil martini for one.

In Defense of Self-Serving, Fun New Year’s Resolutions

Just eat the cheese. Come on now.

It’s that time of year again. That moment when we pull our collective head out of the eggnog and gingerbread and resolve to be better people in the New Year. We’ll lose weight. We’ll reinvent ourselves. We’ll yell less and dance more.

The problem with resolving to lose weight or learn a language or stop yelling at your kids is that you’ve set yourself up for failure. The reason we drink eggnog, or sleep in instead of going to the gym, is because we like to do these things. Or, in the case of yelling at your kids, it’s more pleasurable to yell at them, than it is to let them drive you crazy for one minute more. It’s human nature to do more of the pleasurable things and less of the not so pleasurable things.

And the first time you don’t get up and go to the gym, or you break out the Oreos after a stressful day at work, you’ve failed. And that little failure makes it easier to keep on failing. As any regular gym goer knows, you only have to put up with all of those get in shape resolutions for the month of January before you get your gym back.

There is another way.

The best New Year’s resolution I ever had was ‘eat better cheese.’ At the time I had two children under two, a full time job, and a family member suffering from depression. It was a chaotic, stressful, sleep deprived time, and I had nothing left for self-improvement. I like cheese. I figured that this was one resolution I could nail.

The thing is, something happened after I ate that first triple cream brie. Hint: it wasn’t weight gain. I had a goal and I hit it. I didn’t just taste great cheese, I tasted success. My goal wasn’t supposed to be serious, but my subconscious reacted to hitting my goal the exact same way it reacted to getting in a great workout at the gym, sans sweat and spandex.

Turns out success was more addicting than the cheese. Everyone needs a win once in a while, and I finally had it. I tried one new cheese every other week. And if it wasn’t a “better” cheese, I didn’t eat it. It wasn’t worth my time. This actually helped me lose a few pounds, which bred more feelings of success. I rode the success wave and hired a personal trainer to help me get in touch with my abs again.

I’m not going to try and convince you to eat great cheese so you can lose weight. That isn’t the point. If you’re going to resolve anything at all, pick something that gives you a shot of success. Resolve to learn how to swear in a foreign language. Resolve to sleep in late more often. Every time you nail your resolution, that success acts like gas in the engine of your motivation. Who knows where it will lead you? Today it may be cheese, tomorrow, the world!

Happy 2016. If you need me, I’ll be drinking more ice wine.