You Can Learn to Meet People When You Can’t See People
In the modern workforce, the quality of your professional relationships can determine whether you complete tasks efficiently or get bogged down in minutia. While building and maintaining good working relationships can be a challenge in any office, they can be doubly challenging in a distributed company.
How do you learn to trust someone if you’ve never seen their face? Remote workers do not bump into each other in the hallway. We can’t rely on the company potluck to meet the new person in accounting. If our organizations shift and we find ourselves working in new roles or with new teams, we may not even know the names of everyone we will interact with–at least initially.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to meet new (or new to you) coworkers. This is true even if your company lacks a formal introduction process. Here’s an approach that has consistently worked for me over the last eight years.
Don’t Wait for People to Come to You
Assume that you have to be the one to take the first step. There are a host of reasons why your new colleagues might not reach out to you. Perhaps they wish to avoid overwhelming the new person. Others may feel awkward emailing a stranger. If your company has just reorganized itself, your colleagues may be overwhelmed by the change or waiting to see what happens next.
You may also feel awkward reaching out to strangers, but your work still needs to get done. The sooner you develop a sense of how to best work together, the better. If you want to be included in the informal information exchanges that will help you succeed in your remote job, then make time to meet people as soon as possible.
Ask for an Introduction
Ideally, your boss will act as your bridge to the rest of the company. Most managers will introduce you to the people on your immediate team. Your manager’s personality, work load, and number of connections will influence whether they introduce you to anyone outside the immediate team. They may simply expect you to interact with everyone else in the course of your duties.
If your manager is in the latter camp, ask him or her to introduce you to people via email. Your boss doesn’t have to know the person–the simple act of having your manager send the email gives you some legitimacy when you follow up.
This works particularly well if the person you need to meet outranks you. I recently started doing work that affected a new (to me) team, and this is exactly what my boss did. This gave me the chance to meet a director I didn’t know and start the relationship off on the right foot.
There may be some situations where your manager can’t introduce you to your new colleagues. Perhaps your boss is new to the company. Perhaps there’s an unfortunate history between your manager and that person. In these cases it’s best to see if someone else in your network can send an introductory email.
If you don’t have someone to introduce you to your new colleague, be prepared to introduce yourself. Remember, in the remote workforce no one can see you squirm. You may feel weird taking the first step, but no one can see that in your email. In fact, your colleagues will probably be grateful that you got the ball rolling.
Pretexts I have Used to Introduce Myself to Someone
- The other person was just promoted.
- I saw them copied on an email chain and came up with a plausible a follow up question.
- Someone in my network mentioned that the person and I share a common interest.
If you’re looking for it, any contact can be used as a pretext to start talking to people.
Schedule a Video Meeting
While it’s possible to develop a good working relationship via email and instant message, you’ll get quicker, more reliable results if you add in a video meeting. I usually send an email that says something along the lines of ‘Hi ______, we’re going to be working together pretty closely. I would love to schedule 20 minutes so we can get to know each other a little and talk through how we can best work together.’
This approach leaves little room for a polite refusal. Some of your coworkers may come to the meeting and give the impression that they aren’t sure why they’re there. Here’s the thing I’ve noticed in the eight years that I’ve used this approach. Even the people who don’t think they need to see people face to face act more friendly toward you after they’ve seen your face. So go to those meetings secure in the knowledge that you’ve accomplished 70% of your end goal simply by getting the other person into the (video) room.
You may want to use a softer approach for people who don’t interact with you daily. For those folks I wait until I have a legitimate question I can ask, and finish the (email or instant message) conversation with ‘I’d love to meet some time when you have a moment.’ That way the person is free to ignore the request if they so desire. I make a note to try again after some time has passed.
What to Talk About in Your Video Meeting
Use that twenty minute meeting to ask a mix of personal and logistical questions:
- How long as this person worked for the company?
- Have they held different roles?
- Where is their home office is located?
- What time zone do they work in?
- What are their usual work hours?
These things don’t always line up. For example, I have a coworker who lives in Pacific time and works on Eastern time. Do they prefer to get instant messages or emails? Are there things they need from me before they can complete certain tasks? Find some way to remember this information. I usually write it down.
During the course of your conversation, your colleague may mention other people that are affected by the work you do. Ask if your colleague can send an email introducing you to that person. Then ask that person for a meeting.
Meeting New Coworkers Gets Easier With Practice
Working from home doesn’t have to mean working in isolation. Meeting remote coworkers is a skill that anyone can learn. With practice, you will get better at making those connections. If you’re patient and willing to take charge of the situation, you will soon get to know the people you work with every day.
There may not be a magic formula for succeeding as a remote worker, but there are certain competencies that can increase your chances of success.
I first met Roberta in a Slack channel devoted to discussions around distributed teams. When I found out that she had just completed some research around remote worker competencies, I knew I had to interview her for the blog. You can get a copy of her full report HERE.
Why did you decide to research remote worker competencies?
I care deeply about helping people realize their greatest potential, specifically in their working environment. Having worked in the areas of management and human resources in a variety of sectors (for profit, not-for-profit, academia, public sector), I saw the importance of supporting, developing, and providing valuable feedback to my team members.
I was also involved with an organization who provided notification services to employees being terminated. It never ceased to amaze me how many employees were surprised at receiving their notice, and reported having had very limited, if any, professional development offered, or feedback on their performance. When I considered how common this was in collocated organizations, when employees and employers were face to face on a daily basis, it caused me to wonder how much more epidemic the lack of support would be in a context where personal interaction and physical presence was rare.
Thus began the research to first seek out what was necessary for success as a remote worker, what feedback looked like, and what support was desired…all from the perspective of the remote worker.
Are there remote-worker specific competencies?
I would suggest that there are some common competencies between remote and collocated workers, however, the level of proficiency necessary in each competency is higher for remote that collocated.
Were you looking at things that would help remote workers do a good job, things that would help them to be happy in their job, or a little bit of both?
The simple answer is yes. Competencies by definition are the knowledge, skills and abilities a person should possess in order to successfully perform their job. If we can identify what those competencies are, and build a recruitment and selection process around them…right down to the interview questions, the likelihood of both job success and job satisfaction is greatly increased.
Was there anything that surprised you about what you discovered?
I’m not sure that I was as much surprised as overwhelmed by the honesty and passion with which the research respondents shared their opinions, joys, and challenges. These are a group of hard working, dedicated people who are totally committed to doing their best.
Probably what saddened me the most were the number of people who reported total lack of support from their managers or supervisors (to be sure, over the course of the research I met, and hear about some amazing managers that others could learn a great deal from). While some are simply negligent, I would suggest the majority simply don’t know how to manage in the remote world. What works in a face to face setting doesn’t necessarily translate into a virtual setting.
Is there any quality that guarantees success as a remote worker?
Guarantees? I would not go that far. However, possessing the competencies revealed in the research certainly will raise the likelihood of success. The one competency that was reported by 100% of respondents was communication. That includes all forms of communication as in verbal, written, and non-verbal, as well as the ability to discern the most appropriate channel for the needed communication, and taking the responsibility to make sure the message you have ‘sent’ has been received as intended. If it wasn’t, then make it right.
Do you think people can learn these competencies if they don’t have them now?
Absolutely. Some people may naturally possess higher levels of certain competencies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to develop them. Those who are not so strong can grow as well. That being said. I am a strong believer in knowing and operating from your strengths. We all have them, and we need each other to bring out the best of those strengths.
Remote work is not for everyone. Many factors come in to play, not the least of which is the simple desire that some people have to surround themselves with co-workers…and there is nothing wrong with that. Individuals considering remote work should do a serious self-evaluation. Ask themselves, ask those who know them well (and will be honest with them), ask supervisors…anyone that they trust, to provide feedback on how they would rate their ability in each of the top competencies revealed in the research. Ask for examples, for specifics. Use that input to determine a fit for remote work. It’s also important to keep in mind that some people have no choice but to work remote…I do believe that with the right support, they will survive, and even thrive.
The competencies that were identified in the research are as follows…listed in order of importance as reported by 250 remote workers.
- Taking initiative/curious
- High self-efficacy
A big thank you to Roberta for sharing her research and findings. Don’t forget to download the full report. If you would like to see what else Roberta is working on, you can follow her blog at www.ProbeandPonder.com. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and on her website.
Remote employees are more successful balancing work and life if their managers do the same.
Sometimes the Company is the Problem
Before my husband started working at his present place of employment, the interviewer highlighted the firm’s pro work/life balance stance. Unlike the majority of architecture firms, this one did not require long hours at the office. This sounded good, but we took it with a grain of salt.
Wanting to appear keen, my husband showed up early on his first day of work. Hardly anyone was there. Still wanting to appear keen, he attempted to stay late to work on his first project. The work day ends at 5:30, and at 5:45 someone came around to tell him that he might want to wrap it up because all of the lights in the building turn off at 6pm.
Everyone in that office knows how to operate a light switch. In theory, then, an employee could turn the lights back on and keep working. However, the senior partners were sending a clear message. You don’t have to go home, but we don’t want you to stay here. And people don’t.
When Is It Safe to Log Off for the Day?
I’ve worked remotely for eight years, and I’ll admit that I fight a tendency to work long hours. There have been some years when I’ve consistently worked past the time when I should have logged off for the day. Generally, this isn’t because I lacked the discipline to overcome this tendency. I also fight the tendency to buy too much yarn or eat cupcakes for dinner. I have plenty of experience overcoming these urges. Just as I can skip the cupcakes in favor of a vegetable curry, I have the ability to log off from my remote job and spend time with my family. The question that any worker–remote or not–has to answer is, when does it feel safe to log off of work?
For employees, work is a power arrangement. Our ability to pay rent, feed our kids, and buy necessities depends on a regular paycheck. Most of us are exquisitely sensitive to whether we are working “enough” to keep our jobs.
My husband’s company has an unambiguous way to demonstrate when its employees cross the ‘you’ve worked enough’ threshold. Managers in distributed teams have to find other ways to demonstrate when it’s safe to log off. Let’s consider a few possibilities.
How Leadership Can Communicate When It’s Safe to Log Off
Celebrate different schedules. One of the joys of a remote office is its flexibility. Alternative schedules shouldn’t be reserved solely for working mothers or part-time caregivers. Senior leaders could make a point of working an alternate schedule a few times a month, and share what they do during their flex time. Something as simple as sharing pictures from your walk on the company Slack channel demonstrates that employees can use flex time to enjoy life.
Turn the metaphorical lights off. In the remote workforce, no one can see you leave. If you are a people manager, consider making it a practice to tell your team when you leave for the day. Something as simple as ‘I’ve put in my eight hours, I’ll see you all tomorrow,’ communicates your definition of a work day.
Use your vacation days. Nothing says ‘it’s okay to stop working’ quite like demonstrating that you expect people to use–really use–their vacation days. How do you demonstrate this? My director makes a point of taking occasional half days, in addition to full weeks of vacation. He tells his team that we can call him on his personal cell if there’s an emergency, but otherwise he will be away from his computer. How often do you unplug from your job? Your team knows the answer to this question.
Craft a coverage plan for your team. My boss reminds us when we’re getting close to major holidays or the summer months, and asks us to get our vacation requests in so he can coordinate coverage. Our team coverage plans assume that we won’t contact the person on vacation. Consider how you can do the same on your team. If a member of your team were suddenly hospitalized, you would find a way to cover for him or her. Do the same for someone on vacation.
No company can solve all of its employees’ work/life balance problems. However, leadership CAN model a healthy flexibility, and clearly demonstrate that it’s safe to log off for the day. That way, employees can focus on building the cues they need to end work on time without worrying that doing so will jeopardize their jobs. This leads to better outcomes for both the company and the employee.
Can you think of other ways distributed companies can demonstrate livable hours? I would love to hear about it in the comments.
I was talking with a fellow author today about where we are in the publishing process. My book came out a few months before hers, so we’re both in the thick of the new book activities.
We’re getting many things done, but writing on other long term projects isn’t one of them. I touched on this lightly in the article ‘How to (Successfully) Write a Book as a Team‘ that I wrote for the Writer’s Cooperative on Medium, but these specific issues deserve their own post, so here it is.
You’re Not Done When the Book Gets Published
Writing a book is a monumental task. If you finish writing a book, go celebrate. If your book gets published, celebrate even more. I celebrated by signing up for a weaving class because I’m cool like that. You do you.
Once you’ve had your victory lap it’s time to move into the next phase of the book publication process: getting the word out about your book. Ideally you’ll have your author platform in place before your book is ready to buy. If you haven’t, it isn’t too late to start.
In October 2018, Publisher’s Weekly stated that “the number of self-published books topped the 1 million mark for the first time in 2017.’ Add in books published by micro-presses and traditional publishing houses, and the number is even larger. If you want to be seen in the vast sea of published books, become your book’s advocate.
It’s Hard to Mess Up Your Author Platform
Running taught me that discomfort isn’t an emergency. When you’re reaching for that next big distance, your body is going to feel tired and uncomfortable and that’s okay. It will adapt. Turns out that the same goes for learning how to position yourself as an expert.
I agonized over every little detail at the beginning. I procrastinated about coming back to writing this blog, and creating my Facebook author page because I was worried about getting it right. Turns out no one was watching me. And when I finally did have readers, most of those first readers were friends and family (hi friends and family!). They aren’t a hostile audience.
Once I let go and began posting regularly, I started noticing that other were also talking about remote work and distributed teams. It’s been rewarding listening to what they have to say. Joining the conversation has also led to some interesting opportunities in the near future. It’s even given me my next big research topic. Will this turn into another book? I don’t know. I do know that I wouldn’t have thought of the topic if I hadn’t been participating in discussions online.
I’ve learned a lot in the months after the publication of the ‘Secrets of the Remote Workforce’ book. But if you’re a writer looking for advice, this would be mine. Start your author platform, understand you’ll be working at it over the long haul, and keep your eyes open for new opportunities. Your next book may just find you.
When the Tough Can’t Run, They Knit
Saturday I was supposed to run a half marathon. I hurt my foot a week before the race, two days after my ten mile run of fun. I wish I could tell you what I did, but we’re still figuring that out. All I know is that I didn’t tear a ligament, and I haven’t broken anything.
Am I upset? Yes. Not as much as I was Saturday, but yes. I didn’t run very much last year because my daughter gave me a concussion in the spring of 2017. She didn’t mean to. She is always very sorry when she hurts me, but that doesn’t change the fact that the child has been banging her head into mine from babyhood on. At six months old she knocked my front teeth loose.
After that first memorable whack, she’s specialized in hits to the chin, which throws my neck out. This is why I keep my chiropractor on speed dial. The poor man was half way convinced I was part of a fight club. That’s code for ‘I worry someone is hurting you.’ I am beyond grateful to him for having the courage to ask. It turns out that my nine year old is the one hitting me. While it’s sometimes debilitating, it isn’t abuse–but he didn’t know that. I might have needed help getting out of a situation, and he was willing to help.
In any event, it was a bad concussion. I was banned from all screens, all reading, and any exercise over a slow shamble, for two weeks. I couldn’t run for a month. And once I could run, I had to start very conservatively lest I suffered a relapse.
2018 was the year I returned to health. It’s been slow–it turns out that sitting on a couch not doing anything is a signal that my body should start breaking spontaneously–but I’ve gradually regained most of my endurance. I even started strength training semi-regularly. I can’t sign up for a half marathon every three months the way I used to, but Saturday’s half was going to be the signal that I was almost there. A symbol of good things to come.
I’m trying not to think about how long this injury might take to heal. I have two main coping mechanisms–knitting and running. On the down side, this means I’ve (temporarily) lost 50% of my coping skills. On the up side, I have finished a sweater, a pair of boot socks, and I have another pair of socks on the way. Some people go on drinking benders. I go on fiber benders. And the knitting will continue until morale (and my foot) improves.
Change isn’t going away so let’s get good at dealing with it.
The era of the job for life ended before my generation joined the workforce. Most of us know that our employment situation could change with little warning. Maybe it was the recent layoffs at Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, or the government shutdown in the U.S., but I’ve been thinking about how the average person can get better at dealing with change.
I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to how to do this. I DO have an approach. I call it riding the chaos wave. There have been long stretches of my professional life where my role, my boss, and my entire company structure has changed every few months. This is how I surf the wave.
My goal in any new role is to start functioning nearly autonomously by the end of the first week. Some people drink and know things–I talk to people, read, and write stuff down. This is how I learn.
You may learn a different way. Figure out what works for you. Learning how you learn can make change less scary. You may not know everything now, but you will have confidence in your ability to succeed in your new situation.
Don’t Take the Drama Personally
Everyone around you is anxious. It has nothing to do with you. It will look personal because people will question your decisions. They may even act resentful or cold.
For me, it helps to pretend that I’m wearing my ‘newbie’ hat and that people are reacting to it, not me. Remember that the person who keeps a cool head the longest, wins.
Do Take Time to Grieve
Most job changes and restructurings mean losing things and people you like. Give yourself time to process your feelings. Think of your grief as a forest fire–it’s better to hold a controlled burn.
I am not a therapist or a mental health expert. I do know that going for a run helps me process many things. Find what works for you.
Make New Connections
This one can be hard if you’re grieving. Or perhaps your company has gone through so many changes that you’re burned out on change. You may also have some survivor guilt if you kept your job when others didn’t.
Make connections anyway. I have never, in the history of ever, learned how to excel in a job by reading the company manual and doing exactly what I was told. In my experience you get the real scoop from the people around you. Even if everyone else thinks they’re clueless, you can start to get a sense of the bigger picture by putting together the little bits everyone knows.
Change is Like Coffee
It’s an acquired taste. I don’t like losing coworkers. I do like learning new things, and pursuing new challenges. If you can’t stop change, then it makes sense to try to find something to enjoy about it along the way, even if you have to do the metaphorical equivalent of dumping a metric ton of cream and sugar into your change cup before you choke it down. Do this often enough, and change may not taste so bitter.
Change is Also a Chaos Wave
It can come at you from any direction, and if you stand still it will crash into you. I believe that each one of us can learn the skills to ride the wave instead. This is my approach to riding the wave. Do you have a similar or different approach for dealing with change? I’d love to hear about it.
This has been one of those days where I’ve spent all day frantically not getting quite enough done. As I write this, it’s Wednesday evening, and I am studiously ignoring the lack of a dinner plan in favor of writing a blog post before I have to drive my kid to dance class.
Remote work usually gives me more time to enjoy my life. Ditching the commute lets me cuddle my kids, knit most evenings, and run in the middle of the day. But there are some days–some weeks if we think about summer–when working from home means I’m constantly fighting interruptions.
I’m not talking about family interruptions though I have my share of those. When you work in a traditional office, people can usually look up and see that you’re busy. Either you’re frantically typing away at email, answering the phone, or speaking to someone standing at your desk–or attempting to do all three.
In the remote office no one can see that your instant messenger is pinging with three different conversations and that your email is blowing up. No one else in your office of one can tell those folks that you are on another line and can’t answer right now. There’s just you.
Wouldn’t it be great if our email and instant messaging apps had a way of telling people that you are currently busy, and added an expected wait time for a response? Something along the lines of ‘I’m sorry, but Teresa is responding to 2 different gChats and a Slack channel right now, and is unavailable. If this is an urgent matter, please resend your message via email, with the word URGENT in the title,’ would be genius.
The key here is that it needs to happen automatically. I can (and do) tell people that they are my fourth instant message ping and I need to get back to them, but typing that out takes time and focus away from the other three conversations I’m having. There is only so much juggling I can do before I start sounding like an idiot. Or feeling like the little old lady who lived in a shoe, who had so many chats going she didn’t know what to do. That’s how that goes, right?
Of course, this functionality might already be out there. If you’ve heard of it, let me know because I would love to use it.
You don’t have to go it alone
In November of 2010, there wasn’t a whole lot of guidance for people who wanted to ditch the traditional office in favor of a home office. I looked. My company had given me the option of going remote or finding a new job, and I desperately needed tools that could help me navigate this new world.
Most of what I found fell into one of two categories. First, there was the ‘scam group.’ The less said about these folks, the better. The second group I’ll call the ‘C-Suite Club.’ These people targeted their advice at the senior decision makers in a company.
I was a mid level manager, not a senior decision maker, and my concerns were more personal. How did I keep my work and home lives separate if they now happened in the same building? How could I keep my family from interrupting me during the day? No one seemed to be answering my questions in any venue I could reach. I stopped looking. Several of us figured out our own answers to these questions, and eventually some of us wrote a book about it. It’s called Secrets of the Remote Workforce.
This summer, as I began blogging, I found that there are many conversations going on about remote work. I wasn’t the only one who thought we needed to be talking about how to navigate the remote space. Here are some of the things I’m currently reading/listening to. This isn’t an exhaustive list of what’s out there–just what I’ve enjoyed.
Trello has a simple (but effective!) guide on How to Embrace Remote Work that is visually lovely. It’s easy to read, and a good document to send to your in-office coworkers or managers if you want to give them a gentle hint about how to work better with their remote coworkers. After all, YOU aren’t the one telling them that they need to stop crowding around a single computer to talk to you, it’s TRELLO doing it.
21st Century Work Life is a podcast about the different ways people work. Many of the episodes focus on remote work issues. I am not a podcast person, mainly because I can only listen while I knit or run. If I try to listen while working, I either stop working or I stop listening. This podcast is my exception, because there is a treasure trove of information in each episode. Pilar Orti is the host, and she also blogs at Virtual, Not Distant.
I found out about Lisette Sutherland through the 21st Century podcast. She has her own podcast called Collaboration Superpowers, and she just came out with a book called Work Together, Anywhere. The podcast is a great way to hear about what other remote people are doing, and how they get their work done. I just started the book and so far I’m enjoying the personal stories.
I am also a part of a couple of remote focused Facebook groups. The Remote Workers group is a good mix of job postings, commiseration, and links to articles about remote life. It’s a moderated group, and that seems to keep everything positive. Grow Remote is trying to build out remote opportunities in rural Ireland. I don’t live in Ireland, remote or otherwise, but it’s interesting watching them implement their dream of growing the local economy with remote jobs.
The deeper I dig, the more conversations I find about remote work. Do you have any books or podcasts about remote work that you enjoy? I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to drop me a line in the comments so I can check it out.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I spent the better part of two days not getting access to a work system. Of all the things I didn’t think of when I went remote, tech issues are probably in the top ten. When your computer crashes at a typical office, you can move to a different computer. If the internet drops or the power fails, everyone is at least in the same boat.
The closest thing remote workers have to a company-wide power outage is if a shared system stops working. Otherwise, tech issues are localized. This means that a company can continue operations even during a natural disaster–employees in unaffected parts of the world can take over for those that may need to evacuate.
The down side is that when you have a tech issue, you are more or less on your own. I can’t take my computer to the tech team and stand there until they fix it. It’s a lot easier to put off my particular issue, or ignore me to answer a phone call. Or, as happened at the end of my workday, stop texting with me when my problem isn’t easy to solve. Side note: Ghosting in the middle of a work conversation is still rude even if the conversation is in instant messenger.
To be successful in this environment, you need to become your own tech support. Or at least become tech support adjacent. Some companies (like mine) will lock you out of certain computer functions in the name of security. If this is your situation, there are still things you can do to help the tech team find what’s broken.
Try to figure out what the problem is NOT. Restart your computer. Restart your modem. Consider resetting your password. The faster you can move away from tech asking you ‘did you turn it on?’ the faster you will arrive at a solution.
Some apps have code embedded in their error reports. I found out last year that sometimes, this code is invisible unless you select everything on your screen. Copying the error code(s) and including that in the email or support ticket can save time.
Document EXACTLY where things went pear shaped. I save myself a lot of aggravation if I write down my problem in a separate doc so that I can cut and paste it when I’m asked repeatedly to describe my problem.
Tech issues seem to drag out longer than when you can’t visit tech support in person. Don’t make the mistake of suffering in silence. Your colleague may know how to fix your problem, or have a work around. If nothing else she may have a moment to let you vent. This may not resolve the issue, but the shared experience may lead to a work friendship. And that’s something.