In large swaths of a California and in the parts of Vancouver I frequent, the accepted answer to this question among acquaintances is ‘Fine.’ No one expects to find out how you really are. The question is just a greeting, or a prelude to a different conversation.
I feel like this pandemic is changing our answer. We’re in the middle of a mass trauma; things aren’t fine. The old knee-jerk answer feels a little silly right now. We may not bare our secret fears during Zoom happy hour, but few people claim to be fine.
This is the sort of balanced honesty we need to take to work.
We Can’t Be All Business
Business runs on relationships, whether that business takes place in a physical, shared office, or in a video call. But you have to tend to those relationships differently when you’re remote. When you work in a shared office, you can wave to people as you walk to your desk. You can glance significantly at your work best friend when someone says something ridiculous. And then you can laugh about it over lunch. There are so many opportunities to see each other, you can afford to focus purely on business in team meetings.
The same can’t be said when you work from home. Remote workers have fewer opportunities to see each other, so we have to make the most of them. We need to reach out proactively to see how people are doing. At the beginning of video calls, we need to ask colleagues how they are.
Managers need to take the lead in modelling this behaviour. If you want your workforce to do it’s best, if you want to help them avoid burnout, then make sure you know how they’re doing. And provide some outlets for stress relief. Consider hosting a coffee break over video call. You can even hold a company sponsored group lunch. Give everyone a dollar amount to spend, tell them to submit an expense report, and let them order their own take out.
When you mix personal attention with business, you show your remote employees that you care. And we can all use a little bit of caring during this time.
Places Where I’Ve Talked About Remote Work
it’s been an action-filled week at Remota HQ. I spoke to a reporter in the United Arab Emirates about tending to your mental health when you’re cooped up inside. I was also on the Radio Health Journal on Sunday talking about how to ease the stress that comes from working at home. Incidentally, the host Reed Pence has a very knowledgeable and soothing voice. He was born to be on the radio. On Tuesday my interview with Andi Simon went live, as did the interview in USA Today, where I was interviewed about employee wellness. Check them out if you’re so inclined.
The Douglas Family is Surviving
On Sunday my daughter made a Devil’s Food cake. It was moist and delicious. She even modified the frosting so it was flavoured with peppermint. By the time this pandemic is over I’m going to have a mini dessert chef on my hands. I will also weigh 300 pounds, but that’s a problem for later.
Right now, the kids are dealing with being cooped up by making nice things. It’s an urge I can understand and support. I also make nice things when I need to cope, which explains why I’m designing a sweater as my pandemic activity. My son is making a rope ladder. My husband bought a mini fire pit. He told the kids he bought a flame thrower. They were severely disappointed to find out what it actually was. On the other hand, we can now roast marsh mellows on our patio and pretend we’re camping. I’ll take all the breaks from the news I can get.
How are you doing? Let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There may not be a magic formula for succeeding as a remote worker, but there are certain competencies that can increase your chances of success.
I first met Roberta in a Slack channel devoted to discussions around distributed teams. When I found out that she had just completed some research around remote worker competencies, I knew I had to interview her for the blog. You can get a copy of her full report HERE.
Why did you decide to research remote worker competencies?
I care deeply about helping people realize their greatest potential, specifically in their working environment. Having worked in the areas of management and human resources in a variety of sectors (for profit, not-for-profit, academia, public sector), I saw the importance of supporting, developing, and providing valuable feedback to my team members.
I was also involved with an organization who provided notification services to employees being terminated. It never ceased to amaze me how many employees were surprised at receiving their notice, and reported having had very limited, if any, professional development offered, or feedback on their performance. When I considered how common this was in collocated organizations, when employees and employers were face to face on a daily basis, it caused me to wonder how much more epidemic the lack of support would be in a context where personal interaction and physical presence was rare.
Thus began the research to first seek out what was necessary for success as a remote worker, what feedback looked like, and what support was desired…all from the perspective of the remote worker.
Are there remote-worker specific competencies?
I would suggest that there are some common competencies between remote and collocated workers, however, the level of proficiency necessary in each competency is higher for remote that collocated.
Were you looking at things that would help remote workers do a good job, things that would help them to be happy in their job, or a little bit of both?
The simple answer is yes. Competencies by definition are the knowledge, skills and abilities a person should possess in order to successfully perform their job. If we can identify what those competencies are, and build a recruitment and selection process around them…right down to the interview questions, the likelihood of both job success and job satisfaction is greatly increased.
Was there anything that surprised you about what you discovered?
I’m not sure that I was as much surprised as overwhelmed by the honesty and passion with which the research respondents shared their opinions, joys, and challenges. These are a group of hard working, dedicated people who are totally committed to doing their best.
Probably what saddened me the most were the number of people who reported total lack of support from their managers or supervisors (to be sure, over the course of the research I met, and hear about some amazing managers that others could learn a great deal from). While some are simply negligent, I would suggest the majority simply don’t know how to manage in the remote world. What works in a face to face setting doesn’t necessarily translate into a virtual setting.
Is there any quality that guarantees success as a remote worker?
Guarantees? I would not go that far. However, possessing the competencies revealed in the research certainly will raise the likelihood of success. The one competency that was reported by 100% of respondents was communication. That includes all forms of communication as in verbal, written, and non-verbal, as well as the ability to discern the most appropriate channel for the needed communication, and taking the responsibility to make sure the message you have ‘sent’ has been received as intended. If it wasn’t, then make it right.
Do you think people can learn these competencies if they don’t have them now?
Absolutely. Some people may naturally possess higher levels of certain competencies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to develop them. Those who are not so strong can grow as well. That being said. I am a strong believer in knowing and operating from your strengths. We all have them, and we need each other to bring out the best of those strengths.
Remote work is not for everyone. Many factors come in to play, not the least of which is the simple desire that some people have to surround themselves with co-workers…and there is nothing wrong with that. Individuals considering remote work should do a serious self-evaluation. Ask themselves, ask those who know them well (and will be honest with them), ask supervisors…anyone that they trust, to provide feedback on how they would rate their ability in each of the top competencies revealed in the research. Ask for examples, for specifics. Use that input to determine a fit for remote work. It’s also important to keep in mind that some people have no choice but to work remote…I do believe that with the right support, they will survive, and even thrive.
The competencies that were
identified in the research are as follows…listed in order of
importance as reported by 250 remote workers.
A big thank you to Roberta for sharing her research and findings. Don’t forget to download the full report. If you would like to see what else Roberta is working on, you can follow her blog at www.ProbeandPonder.com. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and on her website.