What I learned in a Year of Blogging

Add in a cup of chai and some open browser tabs and this is how I write my blog posts. Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

Today is pretty special at Livin la Vida Remota HQ. As of today I have written at least one blog post a week, every week, for an entire year. I thought about all the things I could say about this momentous event and I scrapped most of them as self indulgent. 

Instead I want to share two things. First, my thanks. Thank you, dear reader, for being here. Throwing a party is only fun if people show up. I had no idea if anybody would. I’m not a celebrity—I’m just an opinionated woman with a lot to say about remote work and distributed teams.Thanks for coming. I appreciate each and every one of you. 

Second, I want to share some of what a I learned writing this blog. I write how-to articles because I want to help people and I see no reason to change things up on my blogiversary. (Incidentally my iPad wanted to change that last word to blog overstayer, which I shall try to avoid even as I suspect that my iPad just made that phrase up.) 

Lesson One: Find an angle that is specific and deep

I actually tried to start a blog twice before I settled on this one. The first time I had a vague idea that a I would write about the funny things I saw and thought of during the day. I wrote exactly one blog post. It’s really hard to write a blog if you haven’t answered the ‘why would anyone read this?’ question. 

The second time I tried to start my blog I thought I would talk about running and knitting. Turns out I don’t actually have much to say about these things other than ‘I really like to do them.’ This is not scintillating reading. If you’re looking for a great knitting blog, my favourite is the Yarn Harlot. She doesn’t always talk about knitting, but everything is yarn adjacent and I love it.

Those last two bits were the key to finding my blogging groove. I talk about work and management through a remote lens. And because remote work is most often done inside the home, that means I also talk about how remote work affects our personal lives. If you are struggling to find a topic to write about, try to think of a shared experience that you have strong opinions about. I have wrestled with a lot of remote work issues, and I love to help others shorten their learning curve. This one is a win win for me. 

Lesson Two: Know your boundaries 

That sub title almost read ‘this isn’t about you.’ The fact is, I don’t actually know that. For some, blogging is a way to process their thoughts and feelings in public. I don’t write that kind of blog. You’ll hear—occasionally—about my kids, my knitting and my running. You won’t ever get a blow by blow account of the last time I fought with my husband. 

My boundaries won’t be the same as yours. But it’s important to be clear on what those boundaries are. When I’ve struggled to find something to write about, sometimes it’s because I’m violating one of my boundaries. Either I’m too wrapped up in an issue and I can’t yet find the teachable moment, or I don’t know how to talk about something without violating someone’s privacy. If I didn’t have a clear sense of my boundaries, I wouldn’t know why I was blocked. The same might be true for you. 

Lesson Three: Treat your posts as important appointments

There have been times during this year of blogging when I thought about skipping the blog for a week. I didn’t because I worried that a week would turn into a month, and then guilt might keep me from starting up again at all. It’s like picking up my kids from school. I can’t just skip it because I get busy at work. Child services has strong feelings about that. And you know what? I always manage to get my children. 

When you treat your blog like an event you can’t ditch, the posts get easier to finish. They may not be perfect—I should have posted this Thursday morning—but done is better than perfect. And the whole writing process gets faster. It takes me half as long to write a post now compared to when I began this party last year. I still sweat over every word, but it’s way more efficient sweat.

Writing a blog isn’t for everyone. But if you’re considering taking the plunge (again or for the first time) then keep these lessons in mind. It can take time to find your subject. Your first idea may not work out—but if you stick with your blog, you WILL find your groove. And then you’ll meet great people and learn interesting things. I know I have. Thanks for being one of those interesting people. I’ll talk with you again next week.

If You Want a High-Functioning Remote Team, First You Need to Prove You’re Sane

A remote team may have the same objectives as an on-site team—perform quality work under budget—but the tools you use to get high performance from them differ.

Your team watches you. Photo by rawpixel at Pexels.com

Mark Twain once said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” This is true of managers who begin managing remote workers, regardless of their experience. If anything, experienced people managers may have a stiffer learning curve than new managers.

Experienced people managers have a set of tools they like to use to motivate their people. At first glance it’s reasonable to assume that those tools will work just as well online as they do in person. After all, the objectives are the same. You need to motivate your people to perform quality work on time and under budget. People are people no matter where they sit.

This is a reasonable opinion. It’s also wrong. There are significant differences between office-based employees and remote employees. In this article we will discuss some of these differences, and how to manage through them.

You Can’t See Your Team Working

Humans are visual creatures. We pay attention to visual cues and our brains are set up to process visual information very efficiently. According to Professor Mriganka Sur, Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience and Professor Jayadeva, Associate Professor Department of Electrical Engineering, “Nearly half of the human brain…is devoted directly or indirectly to vision.”

Most experienced managers know—on an intellectual level—that people who look busy might actually be slacking. The employee typing furiously might be embroiled in a flame war. Conversely, the person staring off into space may be working through a thorny supplier problem. You can’t tell just by looking at them.

Visual cues are pleasant but not sufficient

Visual cues are comforting, but they don’t tell the whole story. Looked at one way, this is good news for those of us who manage people we can’t see. It means we can rely on other methods to verify that people are working.

Losing that visual information is still scary. And worried people in positions of power can make poor decisions. Several years ago I had a remote manager we’ll call Stan. Stan wanted to know when I left my desk to go to the bathroom. I wasn’t an intern, either. I was a seasoned manager, with a years long track record of excellent results, and none of that mattered to the boss who couldn’t see me.

Needless to say, that relationship didn’t end well. Stan’s metrics tanked and he was asked to leave. The worst part about this whole story is that my misery and his termination were preventable. Had my former manager understood that his nervousness was colouring his actions, he might not have lost his job.

Don’t let ‘I can’t see them working’ damage your ability to drive results through your team. Using software to grab random screenshots of someone’s computer, or to track keystrokes, won’t give you an accurate picture of that person’s productivity. All you’re really doing is sending the message that you don’t trust your employee.

The Remote Workforce Runs On Trust

When you can’t see your employees you have to trust that they’re working. You have to trust that they will reach out if they run into a problem they can’t solve or a situation that needs a manager. A good manager provides structure and focuses on results, but the entire system breaks down without trust.

That trust runs in the other direction as well. Your people need to trust that you will give them clear expectations and the tools to do the job. They have to trust that if they come to you with a complex problem, they can rely on your support.

There’s only one problem.

Your Team Can’t See You, Either

We learn a lot about people by observing them in their surroundings. For example, take a look at this picture of my office wall.

This is the wall you see if we’re in a video call together.

What can you learn about me when you look at this wall? Perhaps you noticed the truly unconscionable number of running medals, and think I have a running problem. Maybe you noticed that I’ve been to India. Or perhaps you focused on the small children and assume I have kids.

This information humanizes me. If we worked next to each other, you could also see the way I treat other people. A story of who I am would build in your mind. Consciously or unconsciously, you would use that story to decide who I am.

Perhaps you would say to yourself,’I really wish Teresa would stop going on and on about running, but I can tell she really cares about people and wants to help them to succeed.’

If you have this story in your mind, and one day I send you an email that sounds a little cold, you would probably give me the benefit of the doubt. You might even ask me if I’m doing okay.

If you manage on-site employees, then you can build a lot of trust by treating people decently as you go about your day. This is not true if you manage remote employees. Most of their experience with you will be through text. If you are the kind of person who likes to send short, very efficient, business only emails to your team, they may develop a picture of you that is less than kind.

Nobody wants to work for Darth Vader

Mindfully Manage Your Image

The solution is to supply the context that your remote team lacks. You can do this in several important ways.

Meet one on one via video call

Remember that the human brain likes visuals. Both you and your direct report will feel better if you can see each other face to face. Look directly into the camera as you talk to your employee. Make it clear by your facial expression and tone of voice that you’re pleased to be there. If you’re American (or your employee is) this means smiling.

Meet together as a team over video call

Your direct reports need to see how you treat other people. Team meetings give your team a chance to watch you treat their colleagues with respect. This is also a good time to congratulate people for good work, and to explain your reasoning behind decisions. Employees feel more settled when they know how the boss thinks. Demonstrate that thinking in real time.

Show your human side

My office wall may look random, but it has purpose. When I’m on a video call with someone who doesn’t know me, it gives them something to say to break the ice. Usually they mention all the medals. This gives me a chance to ask them if they like to run. And just like that, we’ve made a human connection. If you don’t like to over share, or are awkward with chit chat, a mindfully decorated wall can ease your way.

Share the human moments in your day

You set a lot of the team norms. Something as simple as ‘I’m going to go take a long walk. Call me if you need me,’ tells your team that it’s okay to take reasonable breaks. This will help differentiate you from Darth Vader. Do you think Darth Vader let people go for a walk to take the edge off? Not unless it was out an airlock without a space suit.

If you have pets, children, or hobbies, share small details. Telling your team in Slack, for example, that you need to go clean up cat barf may not seem worthwhile. However, it demonstrates that you are a human just like them. If you send an email later that day that seems a little short, they will probably assume you’re (understandably) still cranky about the cat barf and give you a pass.

Onsite and off site employees share a lot of similarities. Both groups want to work for a reasonable boss who trusts them to do a good job. However, there are differences in the way you demonstrate who you are as a manager. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to demonstrate to your remote team that you’re sane. Doing so will allow them to focus on producing quality work, to the benefit of the company and your career.

How to Start Your New Remote Job on the Right Foot

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Photo by Lukas from Pexels

You Got the Job–here’s how to tweak your schedule so you can enjoy your day to day.

On August 2nd I started a new job. I wasn’t expecting to change roles, but my company’s needs changed, and I had to change to meet that need. This is the nature of remote work. One day you may work as an analyst, and the next in people management. The savvy remote worker develops skills to bounce back when life (or your company) disrupts your status quo.

We can’t always control our own destiny. No one asks to have their position eliminated. But we can all develop habits that help us deal with the unexpected. A few weeks ago I talked about how to network when you don’t know anyone. This week we’ll discuss how to take control of your day to day when you start a new role.

Start with a Positive Attitude

We’ve all had bad bosses. Many of us have worked in places with a toxic culture. Or perhaps you’re in the opposite situation. Don’t let these past experiences sour your new role.

That’s easier said than done, especially if (for example) your new boss works in ways that are similar to a previous bad boss. Know your triggers. I had a terrible boss we’ll call Stan. Stan was an extrovert who needed to talk to work things out. He would repeat what other people said in meetings immediately after they said them in order to process the information. Stan was also passive-aggressive, controlling, and enjoyed calling people names.

Intellectually, I know these things have nothing to do with each other, but when I’m in a meeting with someone who is a detail-oriented auditory processor, I think of Stan. And I have to remind myself that repeating what other people say isn’t evidence of evil. It’s evidence of an auditory processor.

Trust, But Verify

If you find yourself triggered by your new boss or team, take a step back and diagnose the situation. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself a set of questions:

  1. Let’s pretend there’s a reasonable explanation for this. What could it be?
  2. Do I have concrete evidence that this person or team is mean?
  3. Could this be explained away by lack of caffeine or sleep?
  4. What did the person say when I approached them about the situation?
  5. Is there a pattern of bad behavior or is this a one off?

Give people a chance to do right by you. For all you know, someone on your team finds YOU triggering. We don’t think of ourselves as the bad guy in our own life. Remember, though, that your new team mates don’t know you. And remote workers don’t have many unplanned opportunities to see each other interact with other people. Lead with trust. We all have to make a conscious effort to demonstrate that we’re sane people. That takes time. Your reasonable response to stressful situations will show people how great you are.

Don’t Let Yesterday’s Great Ruin Today’s Good

Or perhaps you’re in the opposite situation. Perhaps your former team was great and you’re grieving their loss. This was my situation on August 1. I’d said my goodbyes to the people who were leaving, and to the people who moved to different teams. That loss was in the front of my mind during my new team’s kickoff events on August 2.

What helped, of all things, was thinking of my son. Two years ago his best friend moved away. The boys went from seeing each other every day at school to seeing each other every couple of months. My son absolutely refused to make any new friends for a year. He thought that if he was miserable long enough, he could force his friend to move back to his old home.

You and I are adults and we understand that this isn’t how the world works. But if we’re not careful, we can act as if it does. You can like your new team and your old team at the same time. Not everybody has the good fortune to work with a great team. Enjoy your memories while you work to build different ones with a new set of people.

Assume You Have Some Agency

When most people start a new job they worry about proving themselves. This is largely a healthy reaction when you’re trying to establish a good reputation.

There’s a difference, though, between trying to be a team player and putting up with unnecessary inconveniences. The remote workforce gives us an unparalleled opportunity to craft flexible schedules. Freed from the limits of geography-based offices, we can get work done in a way that lets us live fuller lives.

Don’t be too quick to give that up with your new team. You might have a strong desire to go with the flow and accept every meeting people put on your calendar and treat them as immovable. The fact is, you don’t know how sacred those meeting times are unless you ask. So ask. Assume that your boss and your team mates are reasonable people who are willing to move things around when they can.

Lead with Trust

Again, this is easier said than done. It’s my policy to lead with trust and assume the best, but it was still scary to ask my new boss if we could talk about the reoccurring meetings he was setting up with the new team. We’re following an agile model and holding daily stand up meetings. And wouldn’t you know it, those meetings were all scheduled for the time slot formerly known as my lunch break.

Now, I don’t like eating while on camera. I don’t care if anyone else does so as long as I don’t have to hear chewing. But that wasn’t the real issue. I run on my lunch break. Running outside is how I keep from feeling cut off from the rest of the world when I work from home. It’s important to me.

It’s Always No Unless You Ask

I’ll admit that I took a few days to dither about whether I would really ask the whole team to move the daily stand up just so I could go running at lunch. Once the dithering process was over, I brought it up with my boss.

As this was a potentially tricky conversation, I decided to save it for our one on one. I wanted to see his reaction when I asked to move a work thing for my running. I already knew how he liked to communicate because I asked him in our first meeting. So I sent him a quick Slack message the day before our meeting letting him know I wanted to talk about potentially moving our stand up meetings.

I explained that I block off an hour and a half in the middle of the day to finish my morning work, plan my afternoon, and then run for 30 minutes. I wasn’t sure if he chose our daily meeting slot because it was the only time that worked for most of the team, but I would like to explore shifting the time either up or down if possible.

Give your new team a chance to show who they are

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

There are times in your life when you gear up to persuade people to your way of thinking, only to find out they don’t need to be persuaded. My boss picked that time because he thought it would work for everyone. He was happy to move our meeting since the time wasn’t working for me. When he brought up the issue with the rest of the team, it turns out they preferred to have the meeting earlier in the day anyway.

I found out two good things that day. First, that my boss values daytime breaks. Second, that my team is full of nice people. I would have figured these things out eventually, but I’m grateful I didn’t spend a lot of time bereft of my lunchtime run because I was too afraid to ask. Give your new team a chance to show who they are. You may also be pleasantly surprised at the result. And remember to be the sort of person who is willing to be flexible for the sake of other people’s schedules. We’re all in this remote working boat together.

Starting a new role comes with a lot of mixed feelings. Will you do a good job? Will you get on with your boss and your team? If you lead with trust, assume the best, and approach your new situation with a flexible mindset, you can craft a job that you enjoy going to day in and day out.

Book Review: ‘The Remix’ by Lindsey Pollak

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Today’s post is a book review of ‘The Remix—How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace’ by Lindsey Pollak. 

This is a quarterly column where I talk about interesting books through the lens of remote work. I’m not paid for these reviews. I did inadvertently get this particular book as a review copy when I tried to pre-order it in Canada. You can see my previous review here.

I am a big fan of Pollak’s work. She’s a leading expert on the multigenerational workplace, and her newsletter is pithy and well researched. The book is no different. Let’s dive into some highlights.

Differences in World View

Chapter one covers the five generations present in today’s workplace—Boomers, Micro-generation Jones, Gen X, Micro-generation Xennials, and Millennials. Most of us have seen charts that try (and largely fail) to simplify these generations down to stereotypes. Pollak manages to place each generation in it’s historical context, while maintaining nuance. I loved the discussion of differing world views. She cites research from the Pew Research Center, which shows that “40 percent of Baby Boomers and 37 percent of Traditionalists believe…most people can be trusted.” Only 31 percent of Gen Xers and 19 percent of Millennials feel the same. 

So much of today’s work runs on social currency. It’s really helpful to know if you are starting at zero with people or not. Age isn’t destiny, but if you have a younger workforce, Pollak’s research suggests that you will likely have to spend more time building trust. 

This was certainly true when my company went remote. I took on a sizeable number of Millennial direct reports when we left our offices behind. Those folks didn’t know me and they didn’t automatically trust the emails coming out of headquarters. I spent a lot of time getting to know them as people before we could work well together. We ended up in a good place, but the collective company learning curve could have been shorter if we’d had this book in 2009.

As Pollack says, “generational characteristics provide clues—never promises—as to how certain people or actions might be better handled.” Armed with this information, you can avoid the pitfalls that come with assuming everyone shares your level of trust in authority.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m in the ‘Xenniel’—or ‘Oregon Trail’—generation. My basic world view is ‘trust but verify.’

The Remix is for Everyone

The balance of the book helps leaders navigate talent acquisition and retention, people management, training and development, and culture. These sections are geared toward decision-makers, but they’re also useful for anyone who wants to introduce new ways of working into their company. The section on remixing communication is worth the price of the book all by itself. If nothing else, it gives you studies and research you can quote when talking to management about revamping your communication system. 

This book isn’t focused on the remote worker, but many of the communication ‘remix’ ideas work well in our digital environment. I’m thinking of the concept COPE—create once, publish everywhere—in particular. It might seem weird for an employee in an office to send another employee in the same office a short video message instead of just popping over to talk. In the remote environment, a short, engaging video is a welcome change of pace. Pollak has a very detailed example of how to COPE for those of us that like to see an idea in action. 

Common Sense Is Not So Common

In my time as a manager of Millenials, I have:

  • Taught someone how to tie a tie
  • Discussed the pros and cons of accepting the out-of-state university offer
  • Dispensed (requested) marital advice
  • Explained how to call in sick
  • Given too many pep talks to remember.

As Pollak says, ‘common sense’ isn’t so common. Or rather, it’s dependent on your lived experience. 

Skills that previous generations learned at home now have to be learned on the job. It isn’t because Millennials are broken, either. It’s because technology keeps marching on. And you know what? It’s a privilege to  be the person that teaches someone a skill. We should all be on the lookout for ways to help our colleagues and direct reports fill a skills gap.

The training and development section of ‘The Remix’ gives some ideas for things you might need to teach your multi-generational workforce. Millennials may need to learn how to answer a phone properly. Baby Boomers may need help navigating Slack. Really, we all need to up skill in one way or another.

Overall, ‘The Remix’ by Lindsey Pollak is an empathetic, optimistic manifesto for people who want to lead successful companies with an inclusive, multi-generational workforce. If you read it, let me know what you think. 

How to Make Professional Connections When You Work Remotely and Don’t Have Colleagues

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

A little while ago I wrote an article to help remote workers network inside their places of employment. I stand by that advice (it’s what I do in my own work life) but that advice comes with a set of assumptions.

First, it assumes that you have coworkers. If you write, freelance or consult, you may only have clients. Second, I focus on connecting within your company. If you plan to work remotely for any length of time, it makes sense to connect to the greater remote community.

This article discusses resources to do just that. The remote community is large and growing. This is not an exhaustive list–these are the places I frequent because they fit my personality. We’ll also discuss some ways to find communities that fit your particular style.

Remote Communities I Think Are Great

These aren’t affiliate links. I’m not compensated in any way for mentioning these groups. I just like them a lot.

Workplaceless

Workplaceless offers training for remote workers, leaders, and companies. They also run a free monthly networking event. I found out about them in June. They’re well put together, last 60 minutes, and run in Zoom. The Workplaceless folks do a great job of organizing the event so strangers can get together and discuss a remote-centric topic without a lot of awkward silence.

June’s topic touched on the physical and mental health issues of remote workers. We spent 30-40 minutes talking about the topic in small groups of 4-6 people. Then we broke into different groups and had an informal networking session for roughly 20 minutes. In July we followed the same format. Only this time, we brainstormed solutions to the issues we discussed in June. The next event is in September and I am definitely going.

#RemoteChat

This is a discussion that Scott Dawson (@workingrem on Twitter) leads on Twitter on Wednesdays. I really enjoy these chats though you would never know it by how often I manage to answer the questions during the actual session. I’m usually the person who starts writing five minutes before the whole thing ends and forgets to add the #remotechat label to my answers half the time. It’s good fun though. I love reading everyone else’s comments. Someday I’ll get my act together and ask Scott to add me to the reminder list. He also wrote a book that just came out called ‘The Art of Working Remotely.’

Virtual Team Talk

Lisette Sutherland runs this Slack group. The link above leads you to a form where you can apply to join. Lisette describes this as a ‘friction-free’ community to discuss topics related to virtual teams. It’s a good place to find out what other folks are doing in the flexible work space. I’ve helped people with their research and they’ve helped me with mine. The group discussion cadence is pretty relaxed. If you hit a busy period and forget to check in for a week or two it doesn’t take long to get caught up again. We all need those drama-free zones. This one is mine.

Remote AfterWorks

I haven’t actually attended one of these yet, but Laurel Farrer described them to me and it’s my intent to attend one. It’s an in-person meet up of remote workers and thought leaders to discuss the future of location-flexible work. If you go to the link above you can see what the folks in San Francisco will be talking about. It all sounds terribly interesting. If you’re in the SF area, go and then tell me how you liked it.

Ways to Find Remote Work Communities

Everyone is different, and you might decide that the groups I’ve listed above aren’t for you. Each group has it’s own personality and you’ll know when you find your tribe. I thought it might be useful to describe how I found mine so you can find yours.

Cast Your Net Wide

There’s an expression that says ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I find most of my connections by leading with curiosity. Most of us have a preferred way to learn. I like to read things, so I spent a lot of time reading books and articles about remote work.

If you like to listen to learn, do a search for remote work podcasts. I took a look on my iPhone’s podcast app and on Spotify, and the search term ‘remote work’ gave me lots of results. My favorite is 21st Century Work Life, but you do you.

If you want to add face to face interactions into your remote work life, search for meet ups near you. You can use sites like meetup.com, or join a local coworking space. Many of them have mixers or happy hours for their members.

Engage Often

Once you find people whose work you like, find them on social media. And then start commenting on their posts. Those of us who create content and source articles would love to hear what you think of them. Speaking for myself, I love it when people share their thoughts if they’re phrased politely. Just remember to keep the comments relevant to the content. I wish it went without saying, but responding to someone’s work with ‘hey I think you’re cute and would love to get to know you better’ isn’t a compliment. It’s creepy. And ‘good job!’ is patronizing.

Instead, find a specific piece of the creative work that you liked, and tell the person why it resonated with you. If the work makes you think of something else that’s relevant, share that. If you learned something new, say so. If you have additional questions after reading/listening/ watching, ask them. If someone just won an award, congratulate them.

Social media gives you many ways to meet people and build professional connections if you’re a reasonable human being. The big name celebrities may never respond to your comments. Plenty of other folks will. The remote work community is full of smart, generous people. I feel very lucky to know some of them.

Making connections outside your office of one can seem intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. Take the time to engage in the remote work conversation. You will find your tribe. All it takes is a little curiosity mixed with persistence. And if you find a great place to meet other remote workers, let me know. I’d love to share in the fun.

Go With the Flow

Today’s post comes to you from a small town in the state of Washington. The picture above is the view from the back porch of the house where we’re staying, and I couldn’t ask for a more peaceful place to write. I have visions of sitting at the table outside, cup of chai at my elbow as I write in the cool of early morning. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a great dream. I might feel bad about sleeping in except that there are folks here who are awake by five am, and there is no way I’m getting up before then. This is a vacation, not a boot camp. 

The closest I’ve come to my own personal writer’s retreat is to step outside while everyone else is busy elsewhere. The solitude doesn’t last long. I’m sharing the house with nine other people. My family is here, my husband’s friend is here with his wife and kids, and we’re all benefitting from the generosity of the friend’s mom and dad, who own the house. As soon as one person moves to the deck outside, the rest of the crew inevitably follows. 

Unreasonable Expectations

There’s an article I want to share with you. It’s about how to network when you either don’t have colleagues (because you’re an entrepreneur or a freelancer) or you want to network outside of your company. There are some really great resources out there to connect with other like-minded remote workers. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to write that article another week. 

I started writing this post on the deck outside. It took about ten minutes for someone to notice that I was alone, and join me. I tried relocating to the back bedroom with the bad internet. That worked for a little while. Then my kids came back from their bike ride, and I had a series of visitors checking in to see if I was okay, and say hi, and ask for Gatorade, etc. 

At this point I have two choices. I can wedge a chair under the doorknob and refuse to talk to anyone who tries to interrupt me, or I can go with the flow. I haven’t seen this particular family in more than five years, so I’m going to go with the flow. Enjoy your week. I’ll be spending mine enjoying the company of lovely people, in a nice house by the lake. 

Drummer Boy

My son has a drum kit and lessons. I hope our neighbours keep speaking to us.

My son had no idea he was a drummer until last week. I knew. He hears music in everyday things. As a toddler he moved to the music that the wind made as it rattled through the autumn leaves. As a preschooler he boogied to the beat of the dishwasher.

I didn’t do anything about it because drums are really loud and our home is pretty small. He’s young and clearly had no idea he was missing something. But I knew. I knew and a part of me has been on the lookout for when I would have to do something about it.

The breaking point came in the Vancouver airport. There we were, waiting for our flight to California, munching on breakfast sandwiches from Tim’s and trying to stay awake, when the boy started grooving to a beat only he heard.

“Someone’s playing music,” he said, his eyes watching me, waiting to see if I could find the beat he heard.

It took a while. It was early and I was tired and the airport people were paging a long list of passengers who were about to miss their flight to Seattle. They had been paging the people off and on for half an hour and the kids and I heartily wished they would just give up and let the people miss their flight already.

Eventually I heard it. He was bopping to the beat that the printer made as it printed out boarding passes. I bopped along to the beat with him, as I always do, and he went back to playing Minecraft.

I thought, He has no idea. As far as my boy knew, everyone heard the music in ordinary things. And I suddenly couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the thought of keeping him from a piece of himself just because I didn’t want noise in the house. It took until middle school for me to figure out that not everyone could write stories. I wanted him to meet the other piece of himself now.

Taking it to the Street

You can find anything if you know enough people. A few of my neighbours recommended a good place for drum lessons, and I took the kids there without telling them where we were going. I only planned to sign the boy up for lessons, but I ended up coming home with a used drum kit too. In my defence it was a used kit that came in that morning, and I paid half of what it costs new.

So now we have this drum kit in the living room, because that’s the only place it fits. And my boy took his first drum lesson and his teacher says he’s incredible.

All I can say is that it’s awesome watching him with his drum. He’s inspirational. I’m learning guitar so we can form our own band. No one tells me I sound incredible. That’s okay. And we may be wearing noise cancelling headphones in our living room for the next fifteen years, but I don’t mind that either. The boy found his thing. I can’t wait to see where it takes him.

I Am Not Okay

Photo by Dương Nhân from Pexels

My son almost died when he was a baby. And I thought I was okay once we checked out of the hospital. It wasn’t until three months later, when some of the trauma from that experience lifted, that I realized I hadn’t been okay at all.

Denial. Not Just a River in Egypt

I went through that same pattern for about a year. The cloud of trauma would rise up a bit, and I would look back at the previous months and think ‘Why did I think I was okay then? Boy I’m glad I’m okay now,’ until I noticed the number of times I said that. At that point I started worrying that I wasn’t ever going to be okay again.

Panic drove me to therapy. I had small children to care for, a demanding job, and the fallout from the last recession to deal with. I didn’t have time for PTSD or whatever it was that was wrong with me. The plan was to go, talk to someone to take the edge off of things, and then carry on with my life.

That isn’t how therapy works. I know that, now. But at least I went. Up until that point my only real coping mechanisms were denial and knitting, and knitting can only get you so far.

You Can’t Heal if You Don’t Admit You’re Injured

The thing is, you can’t heal if you refuse to admit you’re injured. It’s hard to admit when I’m hurting. I am the super hero of my own life. But sometimes life punches you right in the jaw and you need to admit it hurts.

My company is going through a reorganization. A lot of good people are leaving, and it hurts.

Discomfort Isn’t An Emergency

Let’s talk about running. I promise it’s relevant. Running long distances hurts. Something inevitably chafes, my muscles scream, and sweat gets into my eyes.

Long distances also scrub away the things that don’t really matter–if I can go the distance, I gain a kind of clarity I can’t find any other way. But to get there, I spend the last few miles talking myself through the tired and the pain. I’m not talking about actual injury here. I’m talking about surface discomfort–blisters, fatigue, that sort of thing.

You know what? Discomfort isn’t an emergency. Strictly speaking, if I’m running at the edge of my capability, I’m not okay. But the shortest distance back to okay is to wade right through. Running is the least traumatic way I know of to learn to cope with pain.

Almost

There’s only one word in the sentence ‘my son almost died as a baby,’ that I am grateful for. That word is ‘almost.’ The experience gave me a set of coping skills I wish I could have learned by running instead. And that’s basically where I’m at right now with this reorganization. Coping. My colleagues will find great jobs. At some point this will stop hurting so much. I will put one foot after the other and I will keep going until I push on through.

Can You Call it a Vacation if You Still Have to Work?

Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.

Photo by bruce via Pexels.com

My only niece got married last Saturday. Good aunt that I am, packed up the kids on Wednesday and flew down to attend.

You might expect me to say that I’m glad that I can both vacation and work without missing a beat, thanks to the power of the remote workforce. The truth is that I try very hard to NOT work while I’m on vacation. Just because you CAN work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should. I generally keep work out of my vacations.

Sadly that wasn’t possible this time. My fellow analysts can’t cover all of the work I do. My boss generally oversees the bit that needs special handling while I’m out. Unfortunately he was scheduled to be in Banff (that’s in Canada) that week. Since he wasn’t sure about his WiFi situation and I was going to be staying in Silicon Valley, it made sense for me to cover my own tasks.

Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.

Communicate Your Work Hours

Distributed companies with healthy cultures celebrate remote worker flexibility. Still, people need to know when they can talk to you. Remote workers can’t see when colleagues get to work. We rely on other indicators–work hours listed in an email signature, the status button on instant messaging platforms, and good old fashioned memory. People won’t always remember the time zone you live in; they are more likely to remember the time of day when they usually get a response from you.

Manage Expectations

One of my colleagues regularly sends me instant messages at 11:50am. I’ve accidentally rewarded her for doing so by responding very quickly at that time. I go running at noon, and at 11:50 I’m anxious to clear things off my plate quickly so I can enjoy my run. I don’t know if she understands why I respond so quickly, but she obviously remembers that I do. Your colleagues hold similar information about you.

You need a strategy for handling work tasks while you’re on vacation. First, weed out any work that can wait until you get back. Your out of office message will do the heavy lifting here. I lead with some version of ‘I won’t be checking email or phone messages while I’m away’ so people won’t expect to hear from me until I return.

Second, use your email’s out of office message to empower people to get work done without you. My message lists specific people or groups to talk to for specific sorts of questions. I even share which key words to use in their subject line to get faster service.

Make Sure You’re Available to the Right People

If you have to do some work while on vacation, email the specific people involved with a different communication plan. I live on the West Coast but work East Coast hours. While I agreed to work on my vacation, I drew the line at starting work at 6:30am. In this particular case I committed to checking my email and finishing my work tasks by 9am Pacific.

Your email should be short but informative. Include your amended work hours, and the specific tasks you’ll be working on. Mention that all other work will either have to wait until your return, or go to your sub. My email went out 2 days before I left, and then again the night before I left. Does this sound excessive? It’s better to assume that your colleagues are too busy to keep track of your vacation time.

Break the News to Your Family or Friends

Give it to them straight. And do it before you leave on vacation. Photo by Rawpixel.com via Pexel.com

Even when you set great boundaries, it takes constant effort to get loved ones to respect them. There’s always that person who thinks your focus hours don’t apply to them. And if you work while on vacation, you can expect that your vacation mates will point out that you’re violating your own boundaries.

Are you tempted to sneak in some work when no one’s watching? Nobody wants an argument. But keeping your work schedule a secret generally makes matters worse. This is especially true if you regularly let work take over your life. If you told your loved ones that you would focus on them during vacation, and then try to work in secret, you can damage relationships.

Talking about you work schedule up front helps maintain your credibility. It also gives people a chance to weigh in. Your friends or family don’t want you to work on vacation. However, if you ask for (and use!) their preferences to plan your work hours, that can go a long way to help them deal with your reality.

I’m part of a large family. And I haven’t seen most of them for more than a year. When I come into town I usually spend every moment visiting and catching up. Since I couldn’t do that this time, I promised I would work only 2 hours each day, and that I would get it done by 9am.

Respect Those Hours

If you tell people you are going to be at work during a set time, make sure you’re there. And then make sure you sign off when you say you will. If you’ve been setting boundaries around your work and home life before your vacation, this should feel familiar to you.

Resist the ‘Just One More Email’ Excuse

Do you feel guilty ignoring work emails? Remember my colleague who sends me instant messages at 11:50. If you answer everyone’s emails while you’re on vacation, you’re rewarding that behavior. You can even justify it by saying that taking care of the problem now means an easier transition back into work later. Don’t do it.

You won’t develop a robust vacation coverage policy if you’re too available. Nobody likes waiting for answers. Nor do we like shifting our routines so we can catch our colleagues before they go on vacation. But you know what? We don’t always like waking up early in the morning to get to work on time, either. We do it because we have to.

Many of our greatest accomplishments as a species were solutions to problems. How can I eat that rabbit when it moves faster than me? Let’s invent the snare! How do I keep from starving during the winter? Let’s figure out how to preserve food!

Do you want a work culture that respects ‘off’ time? Then act as if off time is sacred. If we assume we can’t reach people on vacation, we will invent workarounds for this problem.

I remember when my niece was born. I remember when she used to call me Auntie Orange because I let her steal them out of my fruit bowl. It doesn’t seem possible that she’s a now a married adult. Thanks to the power of my boundaries, I was able to enjoy her moment and build memories that I can look back on for years to come.

Sometimes Your Inner Toddler Needs a Cookie

This was exactly my face last week. Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

I know it’s time to take a break when my inner toddler starts whining. Some people call this part of your mind the ‘lizard brain.’ But lizards don’t get petulant if they’re run too hard. They bite. Or break their tails and run away. Toddlers, on the other hand…I’m pretty sure toddlers invented petulance.

Anyway it’s been an exhausting two weeks. I love the flexibility that remote work gives me, but recently I’ve been getting up early and sacrificing all of my breathing space so I can do things for others.

There’s a lot of advice on what to do when you find yourself running on empty. People like Dr. Brene Brown encourage us to question ‘take the edge off’ culture, and work on correcting the root causes of our exhaustion instead of drinking margaritas (I’m paraphrasing here). Others quote the line from the airplane safety manual, and advise you to put your own oxygen mask on first.

This is great advice. It isn’t always applicable. Sometimes we live in dynamics that are draining but not broken. Raising kids can be like that. You can be up half the night with a feverish child, and still have to get up the next morning and feed the other kids and go to work.

In these types of situations, it absolutely pays to have some go-to tools to take the edge off. I call these cookies. They’re small, bite sized moments of pleasure that you can give to your inner toddler as a reward for wading through the hard bits. They key is to find cookies that are both delicious and good for you.

Things to Think About When Choosing Your Cookies

If You Like It, It’s a Cookie

It’s helpful to think of your back brain as a toddler because, like toddlers, it doesn’t want to wait for gratification. It also isn’t big on rationality. You can’t appease a cranky toddler with a piece of broccoli. It’s also not a good idea to give toddlers too much junk food, or they turn into toddlerzilla. The solution is to distract one with shiny things they can’t refuse.

I once went to an event with my 14 month old daughter. We were sitting behind a family with a boy who was about two, and the child was done with sitting still. He was crying and yelling, until I offered him (with his parents’ permission) a Ritz cracker. He literally went from saying “No! Nonononono” to “oh!”

Grownups aren’t much different when we’re tired and burned out. Make sure the cookies you choose are genuinely pleasurable to you.

Keep a Variety on Hand

Cookies! Photo from Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our inner toddlers are fickle beasts. What sounds fun and shiny one day may not be so exciting the next. Different situations also deplete us in different ways. If you’ve been stuck at your desk all day, you might need a cookie that gets you moving. If you’ve been out all day in the sun, it might be time for a reading or watching tv in bed session.

My go-to cookies are knitting and running. Every so often I’ll also lay in bed and read a book. This cookie is extra special, because I don’t often do it. I knit so much because I can do it while my children interrupt me approximately 400 times a minute. I haven’t mastered the art of reading while children are talking. If this isn’t possible please don’t tell me. A woman can dream.

Don’t Lie to Your Inner Toddler

This last point is just as important as choosing good cookies. If you say that you will read a trashy romance novel after you finish the task that’s burning you out, you better do it. If you don’t, the cookies stop working because your inner toddler knows you lie.

For this last bout of burnout, I had to deploy a variety of cookies. On Sunday I slept in, went for a run, knit, and went to see ‘Taming of the Shrew’ at a local theater. I also wrote the first chapter of an urban fantasy/alternative history novel that’s been kicking around in my brain rather obnoxiously asking to get out. None of this solved the crazy business I have to wade through–but it’s recharged my batteries so I can keep going until it’s done.

If you’re currently going through a hard patch–or you see one coming down the road–I hope this gives you some tools to help yourself cope. Just remember that when life feeds you lemons, throw them away and give your inner toddler a cookie.