We Can’t Solve Burnout Culture with an Email Ban

Give people solid reasons for changing their over-working ways and they will do so.

Photo by Ashutosh Jaiswal from Pexels

People Problems Need People-Centric Solutions.

The BBC published this article discussing why banning email outside of work hours might do more harm than good. The arguments focused on why highly anxious or highly ambitious people might need to access work email outside of work hours.

The bigger question is why are employees anxious if they can’t check email after work? Why does an ambitious go-getter need to log long hours in order to get promoted? There is a difference between occasionally working longer hours in order to finish a project, and chronic hyper-connectedness. Failure to disconnect from work is a symptom. If we really want people to disconnect and recharge, we need to address the root cause of the behavior.

To better illustrate this, let’s pretend that you are at a friend’s house for dinner. You’re both in the kitchen–you are cutting up vegetables and your friend is tenderizing meat with a mallet. Suddenly your friend takes the mallet and repeatedly pounds his hand with it.

There are a lot of things you would do in that moment. You might shout ‘stop!’ You might wrestle away the mallet.

Under no circumstances would you think you solved the problem by taking away the device your friend used to harm himself. Until someone uncovers why your friend did what he did, you can’t be sure he’ll never do it again.

Failing to Disconnect from Work is Also Harmful

Working all the time isn’t as instantly (and spectacularly) destructive as pounding your hand with a mallet, but it’s still harmful. People who don’t disconnect enough are prime candidates for burnout. According Salvagioni, et all 2017 in the article ‘Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies:

Burnout was a significant predictor of the following physical consequences: hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years. 

These consequences are just as harmful–if not more so–than hitting your hand with a hammer. And getting at the root causes of burnout in your company will require a thorough diagnosis.

How to Get at the Root Causes of Burnout

Employees experience burnout for a variety of reasons, just as people get sick for a variety of reasons. Going back to our earlier example, a doctor would treat your friend by asking a series of questions and making observations. A leader interested in delivering an effective solution for burnout can do the same.

It’s tempting to assume we know what’s causing the burnout and skip this step. Perhaps we have a lot of experience leading people. Perhaps we’re burned out because we receive too many emails and assume that solving our problem will solve everyone else’s, too.

As a leader, your experience at work is different from that of your employees. Your pain points may be different as well. Don’t assume you know what the problem is.

However, there are some things you CAN assume.

Assume Your Employees Know the Consequences of Overworking

People understand that working too much is unhealthy. There is an abundance of information on the consequences of burnout. Many major news feeds covered the story when the World Health Organization ruled that burnout is a medical diagnosis.

If most people know that overworking is unhealthy, then the next question we need to ask is why are they doing it anyway? It’s tempting to assume that they’re working off of faulty information. This leads to our next assumption.

Assume Your Employees Have a Solid Reason for What They Do

Most of our decisions are self-protective on some level. We wear nice clothes to protect our dignity and social status. We count to ten in our head to stop ourselves from saying something that will ruin a relationship. And we work too much because we think doing so protects us in some way. Or we are being overtly rewarded for doing so.

This is why simply implementing an email ban won’t work in the long run. If your people are convinced that they need to work long hours to keep their jobs or get promoted, they will continue to do so.

For many years, Kaplan had a “summer hours” policy. During the summer months, you could elect to work a little longer Monday through Thursday, and take off early on Friday. I took advantage of this policy for many summers, until I was given a new manager. This manager claimed that the summer hours policy was only for employees who worked in an actual office, not for remote workers. Therefore, her expectation was that our team would not participate.

I knew that manager was wrong. I tried to point out that the other remote teams were taking advantage of summer hours, and we should too. Unfortunately this manager wouldn’t listen. When faced with the choice of defying my new boss or working longer than necessary, you can guess which decision I made.

Your employees have a solid reason for overworking. They will share this information with you under certain circumstances.

Create Protected Spaces for Honest Feedback

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Telling your employer that you’re overworked feels risky for many people. As a leader, you can minimize the risk of honesty. It isn’t enough to say ‘please be honest,’ or ‘we value your honesty.’ You may foster an open and inclusive company, but your employees may be carrying baggage from previous employers. Or you may have a problem manager that you don’t know about yet.

Even if neither of these things are true, you must stay conscious of the power dynamic between you and your employees. You have the power to fire them. Your employees will always keep that in mind when deciding what to tell you.

One of the easiest ways to minimize risk for your employees is to use an anonymous survey. If you lead a large company then it may be easiest to retain a third party to handle creating a survey for you. If your company is small or there are budget concerns, you can build your own survey. Consider using a format that allows you to collect nuanced answers. I personally like ‘rate how much you agree with the following statements’ sorts of questions. This is what they look like:

Rate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements 1 = disagree, 2 = neither agree or disagree, and 3 = agree

  1. In my company, you have to work long hours to get promoted.
  2. I have a reasonable workload.
  3. My immediate manager cares about my work/life balance.

You can get more complicated and use a wider scale to ask if people “strongly” agree or disagree. Before you do so, ask yourself if the benefit is worth the added time it takes to create a more complicated survey. If this is your first time surveying your employees, understand that you may not get your questions right the first time. You might even consider adding a question at the end that asks ‘what other questions should we ask?’ to speed up your learning curve. As a bonus, you can learn a lot from the questions people suggest you add to the survey.

Everyone Has Time to Survey Their People

Back in my Faculty Manager days, I sent my direct reports an anonymous, annual survey in December. This was completely separate from the big engagement survey my company conducts every year. The big survey asks a lot of questions about many subjects–the point of my survey was to figure out how I could improve as a manager.

Your employees know what you have to work on. Mine were no different. Once I processed the information, I always did two things: 1) I shared the results with my people and 2) told them what I would work on in the following year. They could judge for themselves if I did what I said I was going to do.

I had anywhere between 50-100 direct reports spread across the state of California. Even with my hectic schedule–and no added administrative support– I found the time to create, deliver, and respond to the results in my employee survey. You can, too.

Employee surveys are humbling experiences. Sometimes you’re humbled by the trust your employees place in you as a leader. Other times you’re humbled by the things you have to work on. Often it’s a mix of both. But if you’re serious about identifying the cause of burnout at your company, don’t skip this step.

Share the Results and Talk About Next Steps

When you’re fixing culture problems, it’s really important to bring people along in every step of the process. Share the group results. Your employees are dying to know if everyone else feels the way they do. They’re anxious to see how you react to what the group has said. Choose your words carefully. You want to make it clear that you understand the problem, and are committed to fixing it. This is a huge opportunity to built your employees’ trust and respect for you and your company. Don’t blow it.

Then let your actions back up your words. Give the good assignments to the people who go home on time. Promote the people who fight for reasonable work loads. Bonus the teams that use all of their vacation time. And retrain (or rehome) the managers who perpetuate poor work/life balance.

Give people a solid reason to change their habits, and they will do so.

Burnout culture is a people problem that requires a people-centric solution. You CAN get at the root cause of the problem. Approach the process with humility and honesty–and put your actions where your mouth is. You’ll not only change your work culture, but also create a team that trusts you and will follow wherever you lead.

What I’m Learning About Psychological Safety

A tree with autumn foliage next to a beach.
Autumn at a Vancouver beach.

Happy mid-October everyone! Vancouver has reset back to normal, and we’re in for a week of rain. I spent a large portion of the long weekend soaking in the last of the beautiful Autumn sunshine before the rain moved in. It was Thanksgiving in Canada this past Monday and I was thankful for the weather. My kids found a leaf pile and I discovered that I never want to get into a leaf fight with them. They take no prisoners.

I also participated in the first ever Remote Work 5k, put together by Cantilever and Workplaceless. It was big fun. We all jumped into a zoom room at the beginning of the race, and then ran the course of our choice. I won recognition for Coldest run! I hope this is the first of many such virtual races because it was fun completing a 5k with my fellow remote workers. Some of us ran, some walked or hiked, and at least one of us swam the distance.

I also spent time studying psychological safety. A quick internet search showed that I should start with Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. Her research is at the foundation of this subject. This is the link to the article if you want to read what I’m reading.

This article represents some of the early work Edmondson has done on the subject, and few things stood out:

Psychological safety leads to learning behaviour.

When I started this research I thought psychological safety led to high performing teams. Based on what the article hyperlinked above, it really has more to do with team learning. A team that can learn quickly may lead to high performance under certain conditions. If your team deals with a high degree of uncertainty and complexity, then you want people who can learn and adapt. Most (if not all) knowledge work falls into this category. However, if your team doesn’t work in these sorts of conditions then learning isn’t a good predictor of high performance.

As an aside, I believe we should create psychologically safe spaces at work anyway. It’s the right thing to do. But the problems you’ll prevent are turnover and burnout.

Context support and leadership can impact psychological safety.

This one sounded like a real no-brainer to me. If you give your team the tools and information they need (context support) and act as a coach who sets a direction and helps people get there, then they should feel safe to learn and experiment.

The article I read focused more on whether psychological safety leads to learning, so Edmondson didn’t spend a lot of time proving that these were THE factors that lead to feeling safe. She merely said that there seemed to be a positive relationship between those factors and a healthy team dynamic. Still, there were still some interesting details. I was surprised to see that there were teams who felt safe even if one of these factors was missing. She concludes by saying that more research was needed on what causes psychological safety.

I suspect that it’s a lot harder to experience psychological safety in the remote workforce if you have a micro-managing boss. This paper was written in 1999 and Edmondson studied co-located teams. It’s entirely possible for a team to bond over the shared experience of a bad boss if they work in an office. I’ve lived that experience. The boss says something regrettable, and the team makes eye contact behind his back. Next thing you know everyone is taking lunch together so they can compare notes and vent.

It’s a lot harder to do that as a remote worker. So many of your interactions happen one on one. It’s one thing to make eye contact with your coworker when you share an experience. It’s quite another to call your co worker and ask if they like the boss. I have some theories about how to create psychological safety in the remote workforce despite having a bad boss. I can’t wait to see if some else has studied this as I continue my research.

Do you work in a team that is remote and psychologically safe? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment on this post or contact me directly. I’d love to hear from you.

On to the Next Book

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

Greetings from Autumnal Vancouver! It was 8 c Tuesday morning (that’s 47 f for the Americans), and if I could bottle the buttery light that poured through the branches of the Douglas Fir trees near my house, I would have sent it to you.

The rain will be back–I live in a temperate rain forest–but for now we’re in shorts with sweaters weather. Is this a Pacific Northwest specific thing? It’s not the most fashionable way to handle this transitional season, but I support wearing hand-knit sweaters.

And speaking of transitions, and slowing down, the cadence of this blog is going to slow down for the month of October. I have a second book to write. I know my topic, and the research I need to conduct. I’ve known for months. The only problem is that I’m not doing it. This blog will come out every other week instead of every week so I can dedicate solid chunks of time to writing.

Once I get rolling on my research, I’ll have plenty of material for both the blog and the book. So (for now) I plan to go back to weekly blog posts in November.

So What’s the Book About?

I’m so glad you asked. I’m looking at psychological safety in the remote workforce. There’s a lot of good research out there about the benefits of psychological safety in uncertain times. There’s even research on creating a sense of safety inside a company. I want to discuss how we might do this in the remote work context.

There’s more to what I’m going to write but I’m not going to outline it here. If I talk about my book in too much detail, it makes it harder to write. Some people write books by plotting everything out. Others write by the seat of their pants. The writing world calls these two groups plotters and pantsers. I am a plantster. I outline a bit, then write, then outline a little bit more and write.

Writing a book is like hiking. I like to pick my destination point but let the research tell me which pathways I should use to get through the woods. The blog will be the place where I drop little breadcrumbs along the way.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy the view.

Taking a Remote Sick Day

I looked just like this on Monday except my couch isn’t that big and my house isn’t that neat. Photo by Pixabay courtesy of Pexels.com.

I have a problem with sick days. My problem is that I don’t always take them. I caught my kids’ flu (thanks kids) Sunday evening, and still went to work on Monday.

Why Is it So Hard to Take Sick Days in the Remote Workforce?

I blame my children. (It’s what all good mothers do.) When the kids were very small I saved my sick days for when they got sick. And I’ve never broken out of the habit. Working remotely means I don’t have to.

I once worked in an office where one guy—we’ll call him Typhoid Mary—would come to work even when sick. Inevitably the entire office would catch his plague. It didn’t take very long before the office adopted a “stay home if you’re sick” work culture.

But when you work from home, you can’t infect anyone. The social pressure to stay home is gone. Now (at least for me) it’s hard to tell when to take a sick day. I don’t have to drive anywhere. I don’t even have to sit upright. If I’m well enough to binge watch Netflix, why aren’t I well enough to work?

I’m not the only one who does this. According to SoftChoice, a North American IT solutions and managed services provider, 57% of the 1,700 people they surveyed admitted to working on sick days. 80% of those folks spent sick days working through email.

There are many reasons people do this. Perhaps they don’t want to return to work and find an overflowing inbox. Maybe they’re worried that everyone will assume they’re slacking. Whatever the reason, I believe there are things we can all do to help people rest when they’re sick.

Bring Back the Social Pressure

I went to work on Monday while I was sick, and my team told me to go back to bed. Forcibly. (In a very professional, HR appropriate kind of way.) We should do this more for one another. I’ve seen other colleagues working while sick and I haven’t suggested they go back to bed. I’m going to start doing this from now on. We’re all adults. We need to make our own decisions, but sometimes we need that extra kick in the pants to make the right one. I certainly did.

Some folks may not feel comfortable telling people to go back to bed. As an alternative you might tell someone that took a sick day that you’re glad they took time to rest. Let’s reward each other for taking a balanced approach to work.

Reevaluate Work Loads

If your direct reports work while sick, you may want to perform a work load audit. Can an actual human being finish enough tasks to do a good job in an assigned role? How do you know? Do your direct reports have the tools needed to complete work efficiently? How do you know? Managers aren’t always responsible for the amount of work a company places on its employees, but we can always take on the role of advocate for our people.

Employees have to share the burden when it comes to evaluating task loads. Remote employees work out of sight for most of the day. It won’t always be obvious that we’re drowning under too much to do. If your boss is reasonable, give that person a chance to lighten your load. Speak up–and come prepared with examples.

Provide a Safety Net

If a colleague is sick, offer to take care of their time-sensitive tasks. I had two things weighing on my mind, and when I was still sick on Tuesday my team took over those tasks so I could rest with a clear conscience. It’s pretty great working on a team that has each other’s back. Don’t wait for your boss to build this sort of culture. A trusting work place begins with you.

It can sometimes feel hard to justify sick days when you already work from home. Like so many other things in the remote workforce, we each have the ability to craft the work life we want to see. Offer to help people take needed time off either through social pressure or taking tasks of their plate. Let them do the same for you. If we all work on this, we will create a more humane work culture. We’ll work for companies where people take the time they need to recover, and return rested and ready to go.

If You Want to Manage People Well Through a Crisis, First You Must Manage Yourself

Making decisions and coming up with solutions feels so good in the moment. But sometimes the best thing a manager can do is to step back and let your team do their job.

Photo by Amol Mande from Pexels

Happy Friday everyone! It’s been an action-packed week at Remota HQ. Thanks to the magic of the remote workforce, I live nowhere near the Texas Gulf coast and yet have to deal with the effects of tropical depression Imelda. Thankfully the teachers that I manage are all safe.

There’s a particular sort of stress that comes from being responsible for people who are dealing with forces outside of your control. There needs to be a specific word for this. We have a word for throwing someone out a window, for goodness sake. Standing back and letting your people work through a tough situation without micromanaging it happens way more often. (I hope.) It deserves its own word.

Have You Done Enough?

In any event, I’ve found that I’m most helpful when I take a moment to determine when I’ve done enough. Did I make all the the decisions that must go through me? Did I give my folks the tools they need to do their job? Do my direct reports know I’m in their corner, ready to support them? And then—this is important—if I’ve done everything I can do, have I stopped trying to manage the situation so my people can get on with it?

On Tuesday I had a teacher contact me to ask whether we should cancel an evening class in her area. The powers that be had just issued a flash flood warning, and some (but not all) of the businesses near her were closing early. She wanted to know if we should do the same.

Now I love solving problems. It feels so good to be the one with the answer. I even went so far as to start firing off an email before I stopped myself and took a moment to think. Remote work has its own set of challenges, but there are times when the asynchronous communication helps us make better decisions. My direct report couldn’t see me. So instead of sending a quick email to her, I instant-messaged colleague. I asked him what criteria he used to decide whether or not to cancel a class due to weather.

He replied back with “I usually trust the person on the ground to make that call.”

That was the right answer. Our teachers operate in a high trust environment. They go through a vetting process before we hire them. Of course the person in the situation should decide whether it was safe enough to hold class that night.

I emailed the teacher back and let her know that she was the best person to make that call. I would fully support her decision. We just needed to know what it was by noon.

Inigo Montoya Isn’t the Only One Who Hates Waiting

And then I waited. As the a Spaniard from the Princess Bride said “I hate waiting.” But there wasn’t anything else I could do to make the situation better. There were plenty of things I could do to make it worse. So instead, I got up and went for a walk in my neighborhood.

Don’t get me wrong. I still had plenty of other fires to put out that day. But nothing exploded in the fifteen minutes I took to walk off the urge to micromanage. Most things don’t.

I’ve found that the difference between effective and ineffective managers often boils down to how well a person manages their head space. You don’t have to be all knowing–or even particularly calm. You do have to learn the best way to short-circuit your knee jerk reactions.

For me, that means doing something physical like a walk or a run. Or I go make lunch. Once, when I was trapped in a video meeting that was making me snarky, I grabbed a nearby knitting project and knit in a way that wouldn’t show up on camera. Some people have emergency fire extinguishers in their offices. I have emergency knitting. Any port in a storm.

The things I use to short-circuit my knee jerk reactions may not work for you. The important thing is to start experimenting until you have your own toolbox of coping mechanisms. If you have anything you really like, I’d love to hear about it. I’m always looking to add to my own toolbox.

Breathing Spaces, Not Resolutions

Everything feels better on the beach.

Somehow September turned into New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2. I thought this was a parent-specific thing, but I know childless people who are caught up in the ‘new school year, new you’ craziness. According to my inbox, now is the perfect time to reset my diet, take up an exercise challenge, read the latest books by my favourite authors, and start that Coursera course someone picked just for me. It’s like everyone’s high on Pumpkin Spice latte fumes.

All joking aside, I get it. Why not put away your bad habits AND your summer clothes all at the same time? It’s so efficient! Personally, I just spent the last two months working while the kids were on summer break. I’m tired. All I really want to do is enjoy the fact that someone else is legally obligated to provide an excellent learning environment for my children, at no extra cost to me.

Last year I fell for the Pumpkin Spice fumes. I joined a run challenge, bought cookbooks to help me make healthy dinners my kids would love, and tried to Amazon prime my way to a new life.

That didn’t turn out so well. I love running and cooking; the activities themselves weren’t the problem. The problem was that I added more stuff to my already crammed lifestyle without pausing to consider where I would fit them in.

This September I did something different.

I Took a Secret Vacation

It wasn’t a total secret. I want to stay employed, after all. My job knew I was taking time off. My family and friends did not. I love my family. I love my friends. But when they know I’m off, I tend to get asked to do laundry or go out to lunch. The whole point of this particular exercise was to side-step my routine and examine it from the outside.

So on Monday I got up at the usual time, went into my office at the usual time, and asked myself questions I haven’t asked in a while. What do I really want to do with my days? What should I do to go back to work feeling like I’d had a good time off? And then I sat back and waited.

I don’t know how the rest of you see the different facets of your personality. I think of mine as a committee. There’s my inner maker, who would love to spend an entire day making things. There’s my inner athlete, who prefers long sessions sweating in the great outdoors. My inner toddler wanted to go exploring. And my inner writer wanted to write things on a more forgiving deadline.

I like doing other things too. These were simply the activities that moved to the head of the queue when I thought about what I really wanted to do. Since the stakes were low (I only had to figure out two days) the committee vote came through pretty quickly. I would spend Monday reading and writing. Tuesday I would knit and walk on the beach. The goal for both days was to spend as much time as possible neither speaking nor being spoken to.

The Secret Vacation Backstory

I’ve taken secret vacations since my first child was an infant. We all have the right to say ‘I need breathing space,’ and expect the world to leave us alone for a bit. Unfortunately babies don’t work union hours. And mothers, in particular, aren’t supposed to want time away from their children. It’s pretty easy to get to a point where you’re too tired of fighting to fight for what you need. So we suck it up.

Until the day that I didn’t. One day I got dressed for work and dropped my daughter at daycare. Then instead of going to work I drove to the beach and called in sick. I didn’t do much. I walked for a long time. My favorite yarn store in LA was six blocks from that beach, so I went and knit at their big wood table. I bought an early dinner. And then I went back to the daycare at the usual time and took my child home.

All together I played hooky for six hours. It was life changing. I went home better able to deal with new motherhood, a demanding job, and the fallout from the 2009 recession. Best of all, I didn’t have to fight anyone for the respite because no one knew I’d taken it.

It was my little secret. And I knew I would do it again.

The Power of a Small, Sneaky Escape

Some people walk the Appalachian Trail in an effort to find themselves. But you can reap the same benefits on a smaller scale with a secret vacation. There’s something powerful about asking yourself what you really want to do with your time and waiting for the answer. It almost doesn’t matter how much time you set aside. Reserving–and enforcing–a breathing space is an empowering act.

Plus, keeping things small means you can do it more often. If it’s been a long time since you’ve done the things you really want to do, your inner committee might resemble the mob outside Walmart on Thanksgiving. Every one of your interests will try to out-shout the others when you’re starved for free time. If you plan regular escapes, the committee settles down. Your true priorities emerge. You leave your vacation time with a better sense of what recharges you. And that right there is snack-sized self reflection.

Third, sneaking out of your life prevents you from spending your free time doing the soul-sucking things you “should” do. Nobody can know you’re off. They’ll figure it out for sure if your kitchen floor goes from grimy to gleaming in an afternoon. Therefore, for operational secrecy, you need to leave that floor alone.

People Think My Vacations Are Weird But Really They’re Awesome

I (usually) tell my husband about my secret vacations after they’re over. Mostly he’s bemused by the whole idea. Others look at me like I’m crazy when they find out. But for me, these little interludes are (metaphorically speaking) how I put the oxygen mask on my own face first before helping anyone else. On Wednesday I dove back into my usual schedule. I didn’t have a new life, but I definitely felt like a new me.

If you’re feeling like you need a change, maybe what you really need is a secret vacation. Give it a try. The sanity you save might just be your own.

What I Wish School Staff Knew About Remote Working Parents

Photo by Emma Bauso from Pexels

Yesterday I nearly forgot to pick up my kids from school. My only excuse is that it was their first full day back. I had finished work for my day job and was deciding between writing or practicing my guitar when I remembered that I had somewhere to be. 

Technically, I could have waited a little longer before driving to the kids’ school, but I knew that if I left home early enough I could write in the pick up line while I waited. The plan would have worked perfectly, too, if it hadn’t been for those dang kids. My son was on the playground and he saw me drive in. At that point he and his friend spent a good two minutes trying to get my attention before the supervision aide told them to “let your mom chillax in the car!” 

While I appreciate the sentiment, that innocent comment reminded me of all the assumptions school staff make about parents generally and remote workers in particular. We may look like we’re all scrolling through social media in the car, but the truth is a little more nuanced. If you work at a school and want to get more participation from the remote working parents, then here are some things you should know.

Summers Are Stressful 

We remote workers usually have more flexible jobs than our office-based spouses. This usually means we’re the ones who’ve spent the summer attempting to work while the kids are home. It’s tempting to say that teachers work surrounded by children all the time and seem to do okay. However, children are the work in this case, so the comparison isn’t a good one. Picture holding a sensitive parent/teacher conference in the middle of a classroom while surrounded by all the other children in the class. Now picture doing so for 8 hours a day for 40 days. Summers aren’t restful. 

School staff will have a better chance of getting remote workers involved in school activities if they assume we’re exhausted and behind at work. We do want to meet our children’s teachers and school staff. We don’t want to come to multiple events scheduled closely together. Instead of holding a meet the teacher event one week and a back to school BBQ the next, combined those two events into one meet the teacher BBQ. Please and thank you.

Our Remote Jobs Are Real Jobs

I no longer tell my children’s teachers that I work from home. I used to, but I had one particular teacher who took this as a euphemism for ‘unemployed and available for last minute requests’. Now I tell them that I work full time and leave it at that. 

This is a lost partnership opportunity both for me and for any school who has parents that work remotely. We remote workers can flex our schedules around to a greater or lesser extent. Give us enough notice, ask respectfully, and many of us will move things around to help you out. We know that schools are under funded and rely on parent participation to get work done. Some of us chose remote work in order to get more involved with our children’s lives. But that doesn’t mean we can drop everything to attend a field trip with 48 hours notice. 

Be Strategic with Your Requests

Personally, I either need to work late into the night or use a vacation day to make room in my schedule for you. Other remote workers might have to work on the weekend or take a pay hit. There is always a cost. The shorter the notice, the higher the cost. We’re much more likely to volunteer if we can trust that you will minimize that pain for us. 

You’ll Get A Faster Response From Us If You Go Digital

Not everyone has access to the internet at home. I am not suggesting that digital communication replace paper communication. Rather, give us the option to choose electronic communication over paper. Someone creates 90% of those forms on a computer anyway. Send them to us via email or upload them to the school website. 

100% of my children have lost paper permission slips. I think their back packs eat them. It would be really great if six year olds could responsibly manage their own paperwork and day planners. But even some university students can’t do that consistently and they have a much better grasp on reality. My kids don’t always know what day it is. Once, when my son was six, I interrupted him in the middle of tying a jump rope around his neck. The other half was already tied to the stair railing. He thought this was a great way to jump off of the top of the stairs without killing himself. Teaching my kid to give me notices is a lower priority than keeping him from dying. There are only so many hours in the day. 

That may look like an ordinary back pack, but it’s really where permission slips go to die. This is also the only first day of school picture my kids allowed me to share on the internet.

Digital Payments Are a Thing

Last year my children’s school gave us the option to pay for school expenses online. It’s wonderful. Now I get an email when I need to pay something, and I go in and do so. This cuts down on the number of phone calls I get from the school asking if I will allow my daughter to go on the field trip I didn’t even know about. Canadians are indeed a polite people, but they can weaponize that politeness like you wouldn’t believe. I only wish the website came with the ability to sign permission slips, too. A woman can dream. 

Digital Communication is Also a Thing

And speaking of dreams, many of us would love to sign up for things like parent/teacher conferences electronically. Please don’t make us sign a paper taped to the classroom door. Trying to find a parking space at the school during pick up or drop off time is like going to fight club. I have seen people pull up onto the sidewalk right in front of small children, or speed the wrong way down the two lane road, just to grab the last spot in the loading zone. Don’t make me leave the car protecting me from those people. 

I would love to tell my children’s teachers that I have a flexible work schedule. Remote work provides greater opportunity for parental involvement at school. Maybe some day things will change. However, that can only happen if there is respectful, efficient communication between school staff and parents. That sort of healthy relationship starts with a few tweaks to existing assumptions about remote workers. School staff should plan school events strategically. They should provide a variety of options to communicate, pay for items, and sign up for events. If they do so, they may find that more parents—not just remote workers—become more involved in school activities, to the benefit of the children. 

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.