Ask Yourself These 4 Questions about Remote Work

Wed, Jul 29, 2020 8-minute read

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Due to COVID-19, millions of people are now working from home. Consequently, everyone is currently collaborating with their teams remotely, which is an entirely new dynamic. Some may welcome this to continue beyond the pandemic, but some consider the drawbacks defeating and long to return to the office.

Either way, as we try to navigate work in this pandemic, there is an opportunity to learn more about working remotely and use this time to examine ways to communicate, stay engaged, and possibly even increase motivation at work during this time.

I’ve been in the IT industry for over twelve years and worked as a remote employee for over five, between two different roles. While I think working remotely has its benefits, it’s also quite different than working in a traditional office setting. The most significant difference is the level of communication required by all to replicate the body language and physical signals that person-to-person interactions naturally induce. When it comes to maintaining this level of interaction and communication with your boss, this could be detrimental to your success, causing you to fall behind in your work, deadlock your career, or even result in termination.

In this article, I hope to give you some tools that can make the most of this new work situation, get you thinking about new ways of interacting with your teammates, and offer a reflection on what has worked for me in the past five years.

How can I set clear goals when working remotely?
Working from home can be challenging. You might have kids who require your attention, laundry that needs to get done, a phone that keeps buzzing, and an overflowing email. With all of these worthy distractions, you can feel fatigued and suffer the negative consequences of context switching. Even though we think that we can multi-task, it’s making us less efficient and impacting our relationships.

Set up personal boundaries for yourself and others to clarify intent and prevent distractions. Like only answering emails at 10:30 am, and then again at 3 pm, or when your partner asks you a question, saying, “I have to finish this, can I get back to you at 5?” Anything that will throw you off task could cost you more than you think. Also, standardizing tools allow others to refer to the documentation or use that tool to check the status of their project versus checking in regularly.

Are you having trouble starting on that next big project? Next time you’re in the middle of it, leave some work still left to do at the end of the day. This will make it easy to pick up the next day where you left off and hit the ground running.

For me, planning out my schedule in advance is of the utmost importance. I know what I’m supposed to do, and I stick to it. Everyone around me, especially my boss, is aware of my schedule, and everyone knows when to expect a response or an update.

How do I communicate better with my remote team?
When working remotely, communication is sparse. You may only have a team meeting once a week, or worse, once a month. Even if you have a team meeting every day, some aspects of the call are lost. In an office setting, you can see when someone rolls their eyes or can feel when someone loses confidence in what they are saying. All is lost in a virtual meeting because you’re scrambling to find the mute button, or your connection is spotty because you’re in rural Montana.

Meetings in the virtual world need extra attention, and frankly, a little sprucing up. Share documents well in advance, so attendees can develop something to say and participate effectively. If you are the facilitator of the meeting, recommend that the group turn on their camera, so everyone can interact better and interpret what each person is trying to say. Stop and check-in frequently to get a feel for the room. As Nick Morgan says in his book Can You Hear Me, most people have a hard time judging tone in virtual communication. He suggests practicing empathy by getting a “virtual temperature check.”

Realize that everyone has their way of communicating. For example, not everyone will speak up in meetings, in favor of writing an email or saving it for a 1-on-1 conversation. Also, people may be less likely to respond right away. So, think of ways you can communicate to others that respect their unique communication method. End the meeting with the opportunity to express everyone’s feelings about the call and open it up to safe discussion.

For me, I feel that meetings should be very purpose-driven. Always have a plan, items to speak about, and a way to interact with participants. If you find that your sessions are falling flat, think about why you have the calls and how it adds value to your team members.

How can I stay engaged and motivated while working remotely?
To me, this is the most crucial question. Humans are connected and social beings. When you take away the office setting, you remove emotional connections and insert more misunderstandings and psychological barriers that are not inherently present in an office setting. As a result, you must put extra effort into establishing meaningful relationships and being clear about you’re message. As Amir Salihefendić said in the 2020 state of remote work: “Communication and collaboration are still the core struggles as they affect every team and [these are] things that we haven’t fully figured out, even for non-remote teams.”

For starters, limit your team size. Teams become very complicated to manage when there’s more than ten people or the manager to employee ratio is 10:1. Next, we humans crave commitment. Build connections and make them last. David Brooks said it best when referring to the three bad philosophical bets we made in our culture. He said, “1.) We chose to think of ourselves as individuals, when we’re really relationships. 2.) We think of ourselves as cognitive feeling creatures, when we’re primarily emotional longing creatures. 3.) We think our lives are organized around pleasure and pain, but really our deepest desire is for purpose and meaning.”

To me, there is no substitute for social interactions where you’re sharing your experiences with others, forming bonds and friendships, establishing trust, and strengthening tribes. I strive to create those connections whenever possible, and I know that it brings significant meaning and purpose to my life.

How can I strengthen relationships with remote colleagues?
When starting a new job remotely, it may be hard to break into that company’s culture. “That culture is often made up of unspoken goals and norms and is often wrapped up in a unique language that members of your new team have already learned to speak with ease,” says Dr. Art Markman in his article named Starting a New Job - Remotely. When you start a new job in an office, everyone sees your face and can appropriately welcome you to the team, unlike in the virtual office. Take this opportunity to introduce yourself in virtual meetings, on the company’s virtual forum (e.g., Slack), or to reach out independently if your team is small.

However, when your interactions are short and concise, they lose context and may not come across as you intend. Relationships are more fragile online, so they must be consistent, trustworthy, and transparent. Nick Morgan points out the various stages of empathy, as it relates to interacting in teams. The first stating neuroscience and what it tells us about the questions we ask ourselves when taking a friend or foe analysis. Without those face-to-face meetings, our human brain fills in the gaps that virtual communication leaves and makes assumptions about everyone’s roles and responsibilities. This is where being an excellent communicator comes in handy. You can fill those gaps, after getting to know the individuals, and establish a distinction between the main point and the distractions. Speaking of getting to know individuals, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention cultural awareness. Don’t make assumptions about how people will react based on a broad categorization of their culture or background. Open the floor for feedback and get to see their reaction first hand.

If you’re feeling bogged down with frequent meetings, trying to clarify things, try using a shared document that everyone can access and edit. Push your team to contribute to this document, and if you’re the leader, set clear expectations for who is assigned which part. Clarifying expectations for your work is something that the Harvard Business Review Press discusses in their 20-minute manager series on Virtual Collaboration.

For me, communication is paramount. The bottom line is that in a virtual setting, you must master the art of communicating effectively. If you don’t, you will find yourself frustrated and confused, which will play out in different ways in your limited communication with colleagues. If the work’s unclear nature is impacting you negatively, the people you interact with will sense it, and it could cost you valuable relationships.

In summary, I hope this allows you to make the best of this new communication paradigm and overcome this naturally flawed, and unnatural workplace situation we’re all in right now. I believe we can overcome it. Let’s all work together to improve communication, express empathy, and create the best remote work environment that we possibly can. You’re colleagues, and direct reports will thank you.