In Buffer’s 2018 survey, 22% of surveyed remote workers said that loneliness was a top struggle, tying for first place alongside communication and collaboration issues. This is worrying on a couple of levels.
In an age where we are less likely to know our neighbors, workplace friendships have an increasingly important place in our social lives. The coworker you chat with today can become your movie buddy tomorrow. According to the folks at Gallup, having a best friend at work can also lead to better business performance, both in terms of profit and fewer safety incidents. Lonely workers, therefore, can miss out on a chance to feel fully engaged and to work at their full potential.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
Working remotely doesn’t have to lead to loneliness. There are many remote workers who make work friends, and enjoy a sense of camaraderie with people whom they never meet in person. They may occasionally feel isolated, but they have a set of steps they follow to bring more human connection into their lives. Those steps vary, depending on work configuration and personality. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. If we share what works for us, then that may help someone else to think of a strategy that will work for them. Anything that can help someone to feel less isolated in their office of one is a good thing.
How You Can Help
And this is where you come in. I am conducting research on how remote workers make work friends. Can you spare five minutes to fill out this survey? Once I’ve compiled the data I will write up an article with a toolkit of resources for making friends at work, and share it. Together we can help remote workers feel less isolated.
The term “remote worker” encompasses a lot of people doing many different things. We’re employees, freelancers, entrepreneurs, or a combination of all three. In today’s post, we’re going behind the scenes with Molly Hutt, owner of Molly Bee Studio and the Tribble Orphanarium to see remote work in action.
Molly, you’re a serial entrepreneur. Can you tell us about the different businesses you’ve run, both now and in the past?
It all started when I was a kid. I was pumping out craft items faster than my parents could find places to display them, so I started selling hand-stamped stationery door to door in my neighborhood. I was also a very serious purveyor of fine lemonade (none of that powdered nonsense).
I started my first real business in high school, dyeing yarn and selling it on Etsy. My shop was, embarrassingly, called Nerdclub2000, after the name of my Mathletes team. You can still see all my sales here—but be warned, it’s as dorky as it sounds. Things really blew up when I was mentioned on a knitting podcast with 60,000 listeners, but then I went off to college and discovered socializing, so that ended.
Currently I’m running an Etsy business called Adopt A Tribble (a.k.a. Terra Prime Tribble Orphanarium), where I make Star Trek fan stuff. This mostly consists of Tribbles from Star Trek the Original Series in the form of throw pillows and Christmas ornaments, but I’m also working on Tribble keychains and “Proudly Go” stickers. I’ve also been messing around with greeting cards and have some really goofy Valentine’s Day cards in the works. Every now and then I do a custom cosplay outfit for a fan.
Since I lost my day job, I’ve been preparing to launch a second brand, Molly Bee Studio, for my art and design work. I’m still figuring out exactly what the brand will look like, but for the moment I’m making hand-painted mugs and etched glassware from upcycled thrift store finds. I’ll probably add some stationery and printables, but the whole thing is still in its beginning stages.
What does your day to do look like? When do you work, and when do you turn off work?
I’m really bad at work/life balance. While I was working full-time at a non-profit, I’d often put in 35-hour weeks at the office and then another 20-40 hours at home making Tribbles. It was all production and advertising without any time to be creative. I’m probably working about as much now, but I hardly notice it because the creative parts don’t feel like work (and because I get to watch the Great British Bake Off while I’m filling orders).
My daily schedule varies, but I’m a major night owl, so I typically start work around 10 or 11am and spend a few hours filling orders, taking care of customer service, working on social media stuff, etc. I stop sometime between 4 and 6pm for dinner, social plans, etc., and then I pick up again around 9 or 10pm, which is when creative time starts. Lately I’ve been spending most of that time painting, learning Illustrator, and brainstorming potential new products.
How did you come up with the idea of making Tribbles?
My partner, Brent, is a musical theatre writer and a major Trekkie. We actually met because he was writing a Star Trek musical, so for his birthday/housewarming in April, I decided I wanted to make some Trekkie throw pillows for his couch. I figured that Tribbles are basically tiny pillows already, so I just ran with it.
At his housewarming/birthday party, a bunch of his friends noticed the Tribbles and, after giving them a thorough squish and cuddle, suggested that I make and sell them.
How do you keep your costs down?
Whenever possible, I use upcycled materials. Some of the stuffing in the Tribbles is made of fabric scraps from my studio and raw cotton insulation that I get from a neighbor. I get most of my mugs and glassware from Philly AIDS Thrift and all kinds of awesome supplies from Resource Exchange. Both are non-profits supporting great causes and keeping usable material out of landfills. The cost savings is just a perk!
Whenever possible, I buy my faux fur from local shops. I live right next to Philly’s Fabric Row (which is exactly what it sounds like), so I’ve had the opportunity to build relationships with the staff and owners. It’s always a pleasure to buy from people who have become my friends.
How do you primarily reach your audience?
I mainly reach my audience through Instagram. I’m on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, too, but those haven’t blown up in quite the same way. Instagram really lends itself to handmade businesses, since they’re often really visual. I’m also starting to look into craft fairs (for Molly Bee) and nerd conventions (for Adopt a Tribble) because I’d love to meet more of my customers face-to-face. This is partially because I’d like to get to know them and partially because people have a very hard time resisting Tribbles when they have a chance to give them a squish 😉
If you could give a new entrepreneur one piece of advice, what would it be?
Excellent customer service is free. When you’re selling online, it’s easy to think of your customers as disembodied dollar signs, but it’s rewarding both personally and professionally to remember that they’re real live people.
I wasn’t expecting to build an entire social network around my Tribbles, but I get so much more from my followers than just sales; they were there to support me when I lost my job and when I was slowed down by migraines. They’re always excited to share in my personal and professional victories. Go the extra mile! Your customers will be thrilled, and you might even make some new friends in the process.
Let’s focus on closing the year on a positive (and realistic) note.
If you believe the memes on social media, this is the time of year when we’re supposed to: 1) take control of our finances, 2) get rid of the negative people in our lives, and 3) let go of the excuses for why we haven’t done 1 or 2. Last call for completing those 2018 resolutions!
People of the internets, we have 25 days left in December. Even if you’re a remote worker with lots of flexibility, you can’t fix a year’s worth of problems in 25 days. Happily, there is a sane way to tie up the old year even if you’re broke or short on time.
What Went Right?
Most of us have a mental mix tape of all the things that went wrong in 2018. Take a moment to write down the things that went right. You can do this all in one session or during small gaps in your day. Some of those positives might be big-a new job, a new relationship—but don’t overlook the small stuff. Did you start a hobby? Try a sport? You may need to focus on very small things, at first, before you can remember some of the medium-sized positives.
There are good reasons why you need this list. Many people go through an existential crisis at this time of year. They think of all of the things they didn’t do. They think of all the things that went wrong. Don’t let the negative mix tape erase the positives. If you want to make changes to your life in 2019, you need a balanced assessment of where you are. You may not have lost 40 pounds this year, but maybe you kept a roof over your kid’s head. Go you!
Once you know where you are, you can start thinking of where you want to be. Putting your list together in December lets you test drive a few new habits before the resolutions craze in January. This knowledge will keep you from getting sucked into activities that don’t mean much to you. Even more importantly, this is a crazy time of year. If you can size your goal so that it fits into your routine now, then it will probably fit into your life when things calm down next month. Plus, you’ll have a jump on the new year. It’s a win-win.
Trying to juggle unexpected childcare can be stressful. Here are some tips to ease the stress.
What to Do When Your Childcare Falls Through
The holidays are nearly upon us, and all across the land, children will soon begin winter break. This presents particular problems for remote working parents whose home office is suddenly overrun by small people.
In our book ‘Secrets of the Remote Workforce,’ my coauthors and I discuss ways to minimize child intrusions and manage work expectations. That discussion assumes you have some form of childcare. But what do you do if your childcare falls through during the holidays? Here are some tips for when you can’t just take a vacation day.
Have a preemptive conversation with your boss. It’s easier to get the flexibility you need if you’ve prepared your manager for the possibility. I usually say something like ‘As a reminder, my children will be home during the day for winter break. I have childcare, but if those plans fall through I’ll need to talk to you about my backup plan to get my work done on time.’
Bank time. Unlike sickness, you know when winter break starts and stops. If you can, preemptively work a little later the week before so you can have an hour or so available to focus on the children.
Work early or late.Or both. Most remote jobs have some flexibility build in to them. Some work tasks can be done at any time of the day or night, while others can be done during someone else’s time zone. Most of my coworkers are on East Coast Time, so I’ll drag my myself out of bed early and work for a few hours before my children wake up. This gives me some flex time during the day when I may need it. And if I don’t need it, I now have an excuse for a long lunchtime run. Woo hoo!
Invite more children over. This may seem counter intuitive, but inviting your child’s friend over for a visit can keep both children occupied and out of your hair. Your house may be trashed afterwards but at least you can work in (relative) peace. Obviously this only works if the children are old enough not to put weird things in their mouth.
Trying to juggle unexpected childcare can be both tricky and stressful. This is doubly true during the holidays, when backup childcare options are limited. Building in flex hours ahead of time is one way to get ahead of the stress. Do you have other tips that work for you? Let me know in the comments.
Remote employees have a real job with a real paycheck. Here are three assumptions you need to check at the door.
You are Unemployed
Okay. We get it. People who get laid off or fired usually have the smarts to grab a few gigs as they look for their next stable job. In these cases, remote work is something to do for now. However, according to GlobalWorkspaceAnalytics.com in this study, the remote working population has grown by 140% since 2005. This number specifically excludes the self-employed. At least 4.3 million US employees work from home at least half the time. Translation: your friend who works from home is part of an army of unseen employees doing real work for a real paycheck.
You are “Working”
The reasoning goes something like this: your boss can’t look over your shoulder and make sure you’re working, therefore, you are binge watching Netflix. Let’s break this one down a bit. How many employers do you know that will give someone money for nothing? We’ve all seen that guy at the office who surfs his social media all day long, leeches off of other people’s projects, and sucks up to the boss so he can keep him job. This is harder to do remotely. In the online environment, you are the sum of your online actions. People who don’t respond to instant messages or hit their deadlines very quickly become ghosts. No amount of sitting in your chair and “looking” busy will save you.
Remote employees work more. With fewer in-person distractions, it is very easy to get into the zone and work until the wee hours of the evening. Most remote workers have to put processes in place to force them to stop working.
You are the Master of Your Own Time
Remote employees are not self employed. Our bosses schedule meetings we must attend. Deadlines get moved up. Projects change and we need to throw our schedule out the window and start over from scratch.
We don’t have time to take you to the airport, or pick up your laundry, or host a three hour lunch at the last minute. We could do these things. One of the joys of remote work is having the ability to go on a child’s field trip, or get a haircut in the middle of the day. This flexibility isn’t free. We start work at 5am, or log back into work at 9pm after the kids go to bed to make up the time. Sometimes we do both. If you want a remote worker to do something with your or for you during business hours, it has to be worth the sacrifice. And give us some notice.
Help Us Help You
Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 20–25% of the US workforce works from home with some degree of frequency. If you keep in mind what your friend really means when she says ‘I work from home,’ you will refrain from annoying her, and raise your chances of getting that free ride to the airport.
How do you work when your internet goes down? Planning, that’s how.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.