Jeff Robbins: Remote Work During a Pandemic
TEN7 is a distributed company. Jeff Robbins of Yonder has been setting up remote and distributed companies for 15 years, and has a podcast about it. Now that the coronavirus is forcing the concept of remote work into the forefront, Ivan and Jeff decided to do a podcast with some high-quality information about transitioning to remote work during a pandemic, from folks who’ve been through it, and now believe it’s a better way to work.
- The coronavirus pandemic has brought the concept of remote work to the forefront
- Let’s talk remote work vocabulary
- Companies need communication policies to define expectations, set clear direction and give feedback
- Managers have to learn to trust employees, even when they can’t see them
- Check-ins are key
- Company culture must support honesty about what’s not working
- “We’re all in this together”
- Have a physical space for your work at home, and it affects your mental space for work
- Working from home is living at work
- Overcommunicate overcommunicate overcommunicate
- Everyone should cc liberally
- Switch communication modalities if you stall (Slack to Zoom, email to phone)
- Respect people’s home space. When you call, you’re barging into their home!
- Context-shifting is a thing
- Time is relative
- Be respectful of remote workers, allow them to define and self-manage how they work best
- Remote workers will likely work too much
- Purpose is context
- Part of a leader’s job is to trust their workers (it’s not a pipe dream to have a caring manager!)
- It’s even more important to be vulnerable. Being remote can be isolating.
- Remote work is ankle weights for management
- Don’t confuse foosball with culture
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone! You’re listening to The TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic. Today is Friday the 13th of March, 2020, and in this special episode of the podcast I’m going to be joined by Jeff Robbins from the Yonder podcast. Jeff’s podcast has been around for almost four years, and he spends his time talking to company leaders and big thinkers about how to make remote work. The podcast is focused on expanding the remote work job market and helping listeners to create happy, productive, distributed teams.
Jeff is a pioneer in the field of remote work, having started his Drupal agency, Lullabot, back in 2006, as a completely distributed team. He’s been managing remote teams for almost 15 years and has a depth of experience that we’re going to draw on in this episode. We’re both a part of the Bureau of Digital community and after seeing numerous questions popping up on the network about how to remote work, we both had the same idea at the same time, record a podcast episode and get high quality information about working remotely out into the public domain quickly, especially for people who are new to it.
Of course, the idea of working remotely has been accelerated by being in the throes of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Many leaders are now being forced to have to very quickly think about work-from-home policies, think about the infrastructure that they will need to support everyone being away from the office. They need to think about how to keep their workforce motivated and productive, and I’m sure there are leaders out there also worried about how to keep tabs on their workers without being able to physically see them in their cubes, that whole butts-in-seats thing. And on the flip side, there are millions of people across the globe that are going to be working from home for the first time. We’re going to delve into some practical advice for remote workers everywhere.
So, without further ado, here’s that recording.
IVAN: Thanks for joining me today Jeff.
JEFF: Thanks for joining me today, Ivan. So, this is a little confusing right? So, we’re doing a cross-posting episode. So, this podcast will appear on the TEN7 website, your website, where you are up to, coincidentally, your 84th episode.
JEFF: And on the Yonder website where we are also posting our 84th episode. So, it is episode 84 for both of us, although of a different podcast [laughing] so, we’re unclear on who should exactly start.
IVAN: But that’s okay. We can figure it out. And, it was amusing to me to see the text message from you yesterday after I reached out about recording a podcast episode that you were thinking exactly the same thing. I mean, that was good.
JEFF: Yeah. To some extent the impetus of this idea came from—so, there’s a company called The Bureau of Digital that runs conferences and a Slack channel amongst other things, for people that run, in particular, digital agencies, they have some variance of that, but, and I was in Slack offering advice to all of these company leaders who were looking at possibly sending their people home, and people had a lot of questions and thoughts, and I started think, I’m good at disseminating [laughing] information through a podcast, maybe I should do a podcast. I don’t want to do a podcast alone, where I’m just talk, talk, talking. Ivan’s a great person who I enjoy [laughing] talking to quite a bit, maybe the two of us can do it, and then I looked at my messages and there was a message from you saying, “Hey, you want to be on a podcast to talk about all this?” [laughing] And here we are.
IVAN: I just love the way that it’s worked out. The Bureau of Digital community is just such a wonderful resource for us all, and it kind of feels like this wave of concern, and wave of worry, and then action happened in the span of a few days, after it seems to have been building up for the last few months. What are we going to do? How are we going to react? Is this really gonna happen? And then all of a sudden, in the space of about three days, people are sending all of their employees home and now leaders are wondering what’s going to happen next.
JEFF: Yeah, which still remains a question. It’s not like everyone’s just going to magically, rainbows and unicorns around remote work.
JEFF: [laughing] Right. We both have struggled with remote work in various ways. I’d like to think that I had failed so others could learn [laughing] and I’m happy to share all of my thoughts and insights from years of thinking about this, but it doesn’t just happen.
IVAN: Should we start with vocab? Definitions and words that we’re going to be using throughout the podcast, that people will be using in their remote work? Things that maybe haven’t come up in the co-located office in the past. Maybe a good place to start is, are we all working from home? Are we remote? Are we distributed? Are you hybrid? Are we telecommuting? Are we telework? What do we call it?
JEFF: Yeah, what do we call it? To some extent this has evolved over the years, and if you listen to early episodes of the Yonder podcast, the first thing that I ask people, I ask them where they live, where I’m talking to them, where they are in the world, because we’re spread out all over. But then, I was asking them, “What terms do you use? What’s the vocabulary that you use?” And everyone had different answers, although over time I feel like people have gathered around this term “remote work,” which is a little bit difficult because I have a whole philosophy around it.
So, “remote” has the same Latin roots as the word “removed.” This is the “rem” in “remote.” It means separated from. We are remote from something. I feel like for all of these workers who have been sent home because of the pandemic that’s happening, they are remote right? The company is there, and they are home. However, there are a lot of companies that we talk to on the Yonder podcast—and TEN7 is that kind of company—that does not have a central office. Those companies I tend to refer to as “distributed” and I think that’s a better word because there’s no mothership that people are not at.
JEFF: They’re not, not somewhere, they’re exactly where they need to be, they are “distributed.” Another word that gets used a lot is “virtual.” I’m hesitant using the word “virtual” around companies or people. Virtual workers or virtual companies, these are real workers, they are real companies. [laughing] “Virtual” I think tends to come with this thought of ephemeral and maybe like gig economy kinds of things where it’s like, Oh, I work for Uber when I do, but then I don’t.
JEFF: Like here and gone. But in order to establish the sense of realness around this, which is important, we want to legitimize this type of working, I’m hesitant to use the word “virtual.” That being said, I think some of the communication is more virtual. These are kind of virtual connections that we’re making. We’re virtually meeting in person. We’re not actually meeting in person; we’re meeting over video. So, the word “virtual” does come up.
Then there are these other words that get thrown around a lot that I feel are antiquated. “Telework” is one that’s coming up a lot. It just means working over the telephone. Right?
IVAN: I always thought, I didn’t like that either, because I always imagined a telephone. One of those big honkin’ beige ones which you have to hold to your face.
JEFF: Yeah, and one that’s luckily fading out is “e-work,” which is just very loose and weird. It’s like any work on a computer is electronic work, I guess. And then, work from home. Now, in the U.S., “work from home” is starting to lose the stigma it had. Growing up in the seventies and eighties, there used to be these signs posted on electrical poles [laughing] and places as you drive around your town. “Work from home!” and it was a pyramid scheme, it was like, Stuff dollars in envelopes and send them to your friends. You can work from home. You could make $50,000 a year.
It was a sort of scam kind of thing. But what we’re actually talking about, literally these days, is people working from home. They’re working from home. I tend to be hesitant using that word interchangeably with remote work, because lots of times when people are working from coworking spaces or Starbucks or [laughing] other places. They have an office, it’s just not shared with other people. However, if we’re quarantining at home [laughing] we’re working from home. So that one’s not inappropriate.
IVAN: Maybe it should be called “quarantined work” from now on. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] Yeah, that’s nice. Yeah, just associate it with sickness and the virus.
IVAN: What other words do we use in the community, in this distributed workforce?
JEFF: There’s terms that are kind of big words that come up a fair amount, but I just wanted to define them at the top because they’re likely to come up as we talk about this stuff further. The idea of “synchronous” and “asynchronous” which sound very technical programmer-y, kind of computer words, but they’re not. And we talk about “synchronous communication” and “asynchronous communication.” Synchronous communication sometimes is referred to as real time, happening all at once, and asynchronous communication happening not in real time. So, good examples of synchronous communication are recording a podcast over a VOIP kind of system or telephone call or meeting in person.
This is stuff where it needs to happen at the same time. It’s funny because this language has actually made its way into our work vernacular. We talk about “syncing up.” This is the “sync” in “synchronous.” Hey, let’s sync up, let’s talk on the phone, let’s do a videoconference. You can sync up over Slack or text messaging, but those are kind of hybrid technologies because it’s up to your company culture as to whether people need to respond immediately to a text or Slack message or not. And those things tend to live longer.
Asynchronous communication’s like email, message boards, issue queues for you programmers out there. Even things like voicemail, stuff that’s more archival that you can go back and refer to.
IVAN: You can use Slack asynchronously as well. If you’re going to spend time focusing on some work and switching Slack off, you can put it into “do not disturb” and it effectively turns into asynchronous.
JEFF: Right. And that stuff will oftentimes vary company by company and it comes down to ultimately this idea of a communications policy, which I advise most companies to implement, certainly remote work companies, to know what’s expected. When do you email, when do you text message someone, when do you message them in Slack, when do you call them? Do you just call them on the phone without any warning, or do you send them a message and say, “Hey, can we talk on the phone?” All those kinds of things come down to ultimately company culture, but I think there should be more policy around that.
Maybe expectations. Maybe, it can be loose, but I think people need some guidance around that, just to know what’s expected of them, because these can come in conflict. If you say to people, for instance, “Oh, we’ve got flex time at our company. You need to be at meetings, but other than that whenever you get your work done is fine,” And you have a policy that if you get a Slack message you need to respond to it within five minutes, those things are clashing with one another. You can’t go pick the kids up at school and try to be text messaging, Slack messaging. [laughing] I mean, I’ve done it. I remember distinctly sitting in line to pick up my son at school and responding to Slack messages on my phone. But, it’s better to be a bit more thoughtful.
IVAN: A little more planful, intentional.
IVAN: There are some misconceptions about “working from home.” I remember in a previous job when people said they were “working from home” on Fridays or on Monday mornings, usually that meant they were either planning a long weekend or had experienced a long weekend.
JEFF: Right. They say, “I’m going to be working from home on Friday,” and they're miming a golf club swing.
IVAN: [laughing] Right.
JEFF: [laughing] Yeah, you’re not doing anybody favors here.
IVAN: I think that’s changed. At least the connotations have for me. I definitely trust all the people that I work with. When people say they’re working they’re generally working from what I can tell. There are other misconceptions around distributed work and working from home. Do you want to speak to some of those?
JEFF: Yes. [laughing] I think that to try to not get too into the weeds on this, I think that it’s an issue of trust. On the Yonder podcast the word “trust” comes up a lot. I think that managers who are used to managing people by looking at them, you know, when we think of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century-style factory space, the managers have this elevated office, that’s elevated above the factory floor, so that they can look down and see that people are working. That doesn’t really work in the electronic age, because, just because someone’s sitting behind a computer doesn’t mean they’re not on Facebook [laughing] or not really working.
But it still has that primal trust-building thing, like I can see them, so therefore I can trust them. And I think for a lot of those managers there’s this feeling that if you can’t see people that they won’t be trustworthy, that they won’t act in a trustworthy way. It has been my experience that if you start to trust people and allow them a certain amount of autonomy, most of them will rise to the occasion. I think another very important part of managing is to provide really clear expectations so that people know what a good job looks like and they’re clear on what they need to do, because it can be really difficult being an employee. I mean, we try to find some empathy for these workers who might be slacking off. They might just not know what to do. They might be unclear—
IVAN: They might not have direction.
JEFF: Yeah and provide some direction, and then, feedback and not...monitoring exactly. One of the things I say is that it’s basically impossible to micromanage as a manager of remote workers, which is really great if you’re a remote worker. We need to allow people to, like I said, rise to the occasion. There needs to be feedback mechanisms: we need to check in daily, weekly, whatever to check to see how people are doing. Both of us have run digital agencies that do development, computer programming, web development in particular, but around those tools, you can see when someone has checked in their work and what they’ve done, there are these feedback mechanisms. I don’t know quite how those mechanisms work at all companies, in different environments. There are all sorts of metrics tools that have been built from everything from telecommunications companies, customer support companies. There are tools out there to help us manage more based on results, rather than whether butts are in seats.
JEFF: And it’s a better way to go. Let people work, give them autonomy. You won’t know for four days, three days, a week maybe, whether anyone’s working. But when you get to that cycle where you can check in on those metrics, you’ll have some idea. Then you also need to create a culture where you can have frank conversations with people. Maybe you do daily—especially for companies that are new to this—do daily phone calls. They don’t need to be that long, but it’s just like, “How’s it going?” “How are you adjusting to this remote work thing?” “What’s going well for you, what’s difficult?” “Is there anything I can help with?” To talk holistically about what’s working but also what doesn’t work, and some companies don’t have a company culture that supports that.
IVAN: I think that Gary Cole’s character in Office Space, what was his name? Bill? Bill Lumbergh? I think his mind would explode not being able to micromanage people, and I think the thoughts of trusting other adults to do the work that they should be doing would just blow his mind. I don’t think he could exist.
JEFF: And the keyword there is “adult.” Running my company, Lullabot, I had multiple people come in and say, “Oh wow, this is the first job that I’ve ever had where I felt like I was treated like an adult, where I was trusted, where I was given autonomy, where I could do some self-managing, and where I was allowed to be vulnerable to talk about what’s not working.”
This sort of alpha culture thing, sort of a stereotypical start-up culture—but this exists at lots of companies—where people are expected to only share their triumphs, their wins, and it’s kind of a “winning” culture, and tends to be a gender-male [laughing]-vibe kind of thing which can be difficult in its own way.
But what happens managing at any company, especially a co-located company, is that managers become really well-attuned to looking for those micro-expressions, those [laughing] When are people not really saying what’s really going on? When are they having difficulty? In order to not attack them, to help them, maybe, “Do you need some help with this?” “Oh, I guess I do, yeah, actually now that you mention it.” But in a remote work environment, that stuff can get hidden quickly. I do think that managers should still ask, but we also need to create a culture, and precedence.
You can talk about it, but people at the company see other people doing it and it’s actually working out, where they say, “You know, I was just completely unproductive yesterday. I had all these tasks that I wanted to get done, but my kid is sick, and my other kids are home, and I’m just having a really hard time with this remote work thing,” and to have the manager not go like, “Well, you’re fired.” To have it be like, “Well what can we do? Do you want to try and work evenings? We’re all in this together.”
IVAN: Right. Their options.
JEFF: Remember that, “We’re all in this together.” And it’s about collaboration and support,but it’s also about learning and employee development. This is about people—not to get the help that they need, because they’re always going to need help. There may be some of those people, but for the most part, people will get the help they need, they learn, and then they don’t need that help anymore, [laughing] and they can help other people. I think that this idea of vulnerability has come up a lot on the Yonder podcast as a key to remote work.
IVAN: Now there are going to be millions of people who are at home trying to do the remote work thing, and I thought it might be a good idea to go through some high-level tips of what these new workers from home should consider doing, should consider putting into their regular course of actions that they’re going through. I know that you have an article out, Six Tips for Productively Working from Home.
JEFF: [laughing] Yes, it might be seven tips by the time it gets posted. But it will be on the Yonder website and we’ll link to it in the show notes.
IVAN: Absolutely. But let’s give these new workers some high-level tips here.
JEFF: Yeah, I think the first one that comes up a lot is very tactical, it’s to work like a worker. Get dressed. Have a space for your work. Make physical space but also some mental space. And that could just be as simple as, “When I’ve got my headphones on, I’m working and don’t anybody in the house [laughing] bother me.” Or, “When I’m sitting at this desk,” or “When I’ve got the door closed.” And it goes both ways; there’s a message you’re sending to the people that you live with, but it’s also a message that you’re sending to yourself. This is my work chair. If I want to not work, I’m going to get out of this chair and go somewhere and then I’m not working. And you could think to yourself, I haven’t sat in my chair enough today. [laughing]
JEFF: You know, it feels like I’m not working [laughing] because I’m not in my chair. Whatever those things are, the devices you use to know when you’re working and when you’re not working, because, here’s one of my sayings: working from home is living at work. We all think, Oh, working from home is so great, but it’s also living at work. So, you need to create some definition between working and not.
IVAN: That was one of the things we very quickly learned in the first few weeks of being distributed. As you mentioned, we were co-located for the longest time, 10 years, and then three years ago we became distributed, and we had to test it out and try it out. We all started working from home for one day a week and it is so important to have an actual space you could work in. And it’s not just about everything you just described, which is very important, but it’s also being able to leave that place of work to enjoy the rest of the house and enjoy the rest of the life outside of work. And that active standing up and walking away from that office chair you just described, and the table that you usually work at, is also liberating; it gives you the ability to process the fact that you are now spending time with your family, taking a break.
JEFF: Take a break. Catch your breath. Another word for work is effort. [laughing] We are endeavoring at work. It’s not easy. They wouldn’t call it work if it was easy. And so, you need to take a break every now and then and there are different ways to do that. But, if you’re kind of confusing what a break is—you know, I sit on my couch to work and I sit on my couch to take a break—it could be difficult to feel like you could step away. You might have multiple places that you work. I get up in the morning and before I even take a shower or anything I’ll go sit on the couch and work for two hours, just catch up on all my communication, and then I take a shower, and then I go in to my office and I work there for another couple hours and then I go to the gym, and then I work at Starbucks in the afternoon... Lots of times people are changing it up some.
I think it’s important for people to experiment some, and ultimately this is finding productivity. Find your points of productivity. What works for you? What are your internal productivity rhythms and to work with those, especially if your company is amenable to working relatively flexibly. It’s hard not to work flexibly when you’re working from home, just because if you go sit in the lunchroom at the office, you still are at the office, right? Where if you go sit in your kitchen for lunch at home, you’re at home, and so, it feels like, I can’t bill, I’m not working now. Whereas, if you’re in the lunchroom in the office, it’s like, This is part of my workday. And then, I joked in the intro for the Yonder podcast, [laughing] you get things from kids and dogs.
IVAN: Pile the laundry, I hear you. [laughing]
JEFF: Yeah, exactly, that’s just sitting there and it’s like, Ah I’m not being productive right now, I’m going to do laundry. That’s okay. Maybe that’s your break. But you also need to find that harmonic rhythm of work so that you know that you can be productive.
The other thing is, I just need to say this—this is not particularly helpful to those managers who are listening, so maybe those managers can go have a little snack right now and I’ll just speak to the workers. You’re not usually very productive during the day [laughing] at your office anyways, let's be honest. Between the lunch break and stopping by peoples’ offices and connecting, all these things, they kind of amount to connecting and culture and talking about how things are, all this kinds of stuff.
Like my experience working at an office was that if I got four hours of productivity a day, that was a really good day. So, I just want to encourage everyone. Okay, managers, you can come back. I want to encourage everyone to cut themselves some slack here. It’s more about getting the work done and less about exactly the number of hours that it took. We want to try and get more results-oriented if we can and not quite get so caught up. But for everyone to acknowledge a certain amount of humanity and all that that comes with that vulnerability.
IVAN: There’s some other tips that are in your article and one of them is a word you made up, I think. Overcommunicate. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] I think it’s a word, but my spellchecker just doesn’t know it. The title of that section is “Overcommunicate, overcommunicate, overcommunicate,” which, I figure, three times is enough overcommunication. All of them have little squiggly lines underneath them because Google Docs is saying, “What is this?”
Communicate too much. There is no such thing as overcommunication in a remote environment. There are entire books that have been written to limit communication in a typical office space. Don’t cc people that don’t need to respond; only people we’re going to expect a response from this email should get this, because we want to limit peoples’ inboxes and we want to minimize meeting time. But, in a remote environment, this is how you know that people are around you. This is how you know that people are working, both as a manager and as staff, that you know that your managers see what you're doing. This is how we connect. A lot of these books talk about, You need to send out an agenda for the meeting, before the meeting, and then when everyone gets to the meeting exactly on the minute that the meeting starts—in fact, maybe you should not start the meeting at 2:00, you should start the meeting at 2:07, so that people will know how serious you are about the exact time that the meeting is starting and then exactly at 2:07, you start that agenda and hopefully you’re done by 2:12. Like, get it over with. That doesn’t really work in a remote environment. First of all, people will be there on time because they don’t get distracted getting to the videoconference. There may be technical problems that you’ll need to overcome in your first few weeks, but as people get the headphones working and figure out which buttons to press to get Zoom up and running or get into the conference line or whatever it is.
But talking about the weather, talking about the virus, all this stuff that is the human stuff, is actually really good, because we need some non-purposeful communication in our lives just as humans. In order to connect and trust each other and feel like we’re being heard, we need to be able to do that. And pretty much all communication in a remote work environment is purposeful, which is kind of a good thing, right? There’s not a lot of peripheral stuff that’s unintentional that’s coming in to confuse you and distract you, but if we’re not also intentional about non-purposeful [laughing] kinds of things, just checking in, “How’s everybody doing?” “Is everybody okay?” “Good?” Then we start to lose that connection. So, build that in, start the meeting at 2:00, and then maybe at 2:07 you can start to get around to the agenda.
But there are a whole lot of communication methods these days. Slack is one that is very, very popular with remote companies, and oftentimes has been tried in co-located companies. If you work at a co-located company, perhaps somebody tried to set up Slack at some point because they heard how great it was, but it just didn’t catch on, it’s because that type of communication, the sort of transparent public/private thing where two people can have a conversation in a room and other people can see what’s happening, but aren’t obligated to jump in, so it’s private in that it’s a private room, only to be seen by the people who are in that room, but public, because everyone in that room can see it, but it’s still a conversation that’s just happening between two or maybe three people and you could pull somebody else in, you know, @sign them @Ivan, “Hey what do you think about this? Can I get your comment?”
It’s not needed in a lot of office environments, particularly if you’ve got that typical open office space [laughing] where that stuff is sort of happening anyways, sometimes to the annoyance of other people in the office. It’s not needed, but it’s a good thing for remote work because you can get a lot of that peripheral communication, that’s the overcommunication.
One of my sayings around remote work, at least from my perspective, is that people should cc liberally, which I know is exactly the opposite of how a lot of companies encourage their people to use email. But, my philosophy is that if you are in the cc line, you are not expected to reply to this email. It’s just peripheral information; we’re keeping you in the loop.
IVAN: It’s interesting that you talk about email because I found since being a distributed company, we’ve relied internally much less on email. All of our communications happens either in Slack in real time, over Zoom for video or in an issue queue or in a wiki, or somewhere where we’re actually documenting things. I think I’m the only person who uses email in the whole company and it’s usually to talk to clients and to talk to new business prospects; it’s external. Even our clients are using Slack and the tools we use. I’m sure there are different modalities and different companies, but it’s interesting, it didn’t even occur to me that email was something that you would use internally.
JEFF: Well, email is a very low common denominator. Like the telephone, everybody who is in business is expected to have an email address, right?
JEFF: And, especially for people who are new to this whole remote working thing, you don’t need to bite off too much stuff at once, you can just use the same tools— the telephone and email—that you’ve been using, and you could use with virtually anybody on the planet, the phone probably more so than email. And you can do all the work with just those things: conference calls, telephone. I’m a big believer in telephone conference calls.
I think a lot of people think these days that remote work is going to be all about video. I like the phone. I worry less about the expression I’m making. I could be more thoughtful, and pick my nose or whatever [laughing]. I don’t need to worry about where I’m sitting and how people can see me. I can really focus on the conversation itself and also, I can do it from wherever. If I need to hop in the car, I can put on my Bluetooth headset and do that.
IVAN: That’s one of your tips too, right? Pick up the phone?
JEFF: Well, yeah. I think another misconception around remote work is that it will be all email, that it will be all asynchronous communication. That we won’t have conversations with each other, we will just send each other these paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of email and then we’ll be all obligated to absorb, Oh, what am I being asked to do? Oh my gosh I don’t think I understand it. Now I’ve got to write paragraphs. Did you mean this? Particularly for things like that, requests, what I call strategic communication, where we’re doing the planning work as opposed to tactical communication, which is the work, work, right? [laughing]
For the strategic stuff, synchronous communication works way better. Brainstorming. Again, that word syncing up. Like, Hey, let’s just sync up on this, I want to let you know what I’m thinking around it, and what’s kind of expected and what the client’s looking for, so that you can go heads down and do your tactical work. So, when things get confusing like that, if you’re finding that an email is longer than three paragraphs, and you’re really just sending that email to one person, pick up the phone.
I do recommend scheduling phone calls, even if it’s just to say in Slack or just a text message, “Hey, could you talk at the top of the hour? It’s only 10 minutes from now, but could you talk at the top of the hour?” To give people a chance, you’re kind of respecting their space, their privacy. When a company has people working at home, we’re in their home [laughing] and you don’t know if people are eating lunch or whatever, and if you do a FaceTime call with them [laughing] and they’re on the toilet, it’s like, What do I do? My boss is FaceTiming me! I feel like I need to answer! Don’t put people through that.
JEFF: And the other thing is the issue of context shifting, which managers will know but staff may not. Workers may not be as familiar with that concept. If you’re working heads down and someone calls you to shift you from thinking in a very tactical, problem-solving kind of way, to more of a zoomed-out wide, Do you think that this is the right way to go? It’s actually really hard to switch your mind from one of those to the other. And the phone call will always take precedence.
You can switch into that mode pretty quickly, but when you hang up the phone, to switch back to writing that thing or coding that thing, or whatever that is that you’re doing is difficult. So, it’s nice to oftentimes, if I’m in the middle of composing an email or something and somebody texts and says, “Hey, can we talk at the top of the hour?” and I say, “I think this thing I’m working on is going to take me a little longer, let’s talk at quarter past the hour.” And of course I’m talking about “the hour” here because I’m used to remote companies working across time zones, and that’s a way of talking about time that’s more relative.
JEFF: That won’t be so much of an issue for people who are in the same city, just all working from home, but it’s a way that we remote people talk about these kinds of things. Or we add the time zone onto everything we do. “Hey, can you talk at noon eastern today?” Because in a remote company, where people are spread out across time zones, noon means nothing. There are twenty-four noons a day!
IVAN: I love the idea of picking up the phone. We actually do that at TEN7. We have a little rule. If there is a back and forth of more than half a dozen interactions in Slack, then maybe it’s time to go to the Zoom. If you are trying to hash out a problem in Slack and you were just not getting your idea across or it’s just not working out, maybe that means there’s a time for a modality change and so, like the rule is, half a dozen, go to Zoom.
JEFF: Yeah, half a dozen’s a lot.
IVAN: Five or six back and forth? Yeah.
Flex time, we mentioned that earlier. There’s something about working remotely where if you embrace flex time, that’s another tip I think that we should talk about, because it really lets you time shift your day. It makes your life a whole lot easier with your family, you can pick kids up if you need to. What other thoughts do you have around that?
JEFF: This is going to be difficult for a lot of managers who are new to this, who are managing a remote team for the first time. This idea that people might not be working at 2:00 in the afternoon is really freaky, and maybe you need to ease into this. I write this up in my article, I feel like no one is really professional.
We pretend to be professional, and we can pull it off for about eight hours a day [laughing] but part of it is knowing that when those eight hours are over, we can go home, we can put on sweatpants that’s probably just an American thing, but it’s a thing we do, so I’m just going to say, we can put on sweatpants—and we can collapse on the couch in a wholly un-ergonomic manner, and we know that we’ve got that, so you can pull off eight hours.
When you’re working at home, there’s a lot of distractions, there’s a lot of things that are happening, and I think it comes down to this respect thing. I mentioned this earlier, but as companies, we are invading peoples’ homes. We’re being invited into their home, so let’s be respectful and let’s allow them to define, self-manage and define when and how they’re the most productive and allow them to be a little bit more human. I think we can be both human and professional.
Like I said, if people need to flex their time, if you’ve got meetings people need to be at, they need to be at those meetings. If they’ve got deadlines, they need to meet those deadlines, certainly. But beyond that, if people are going to be more productive working after the kids have gone to bed, or early in the morning or whatever, that’s okay.
That being said, I do want to alert people who are new to this that there is a problem. I’m a little hesitant to call this a problem. People who are working from home remotely, remote workers, usually will err on the side of overworking rather than underworking, just to show that they’re working. To prove that they’re working, they will work too much, oftentimes way too much. And so, the irony is of course, that managers that are new to remote work are afraid that people aren’t going to work enough. It’s been my experience and nearly universal on doing over 80 episodes of the Yonder podcast, that remote workers tend to work too much. As a manager then the problem becomes worrying about burnout and resentment [laughing] and all these other things.
So, by offering time to be a little bit more flexible, we can allow for that. Because people will work. If you require them to work the 9 to 5, they will work the 9 to 5, but they’ll also check their email at 6:00 before dinner, and then they’ll check their email at 8:00 and probably work from 8:00 to 9:30 because this email came in. It’s not really work, work, it’s just communicating. And these eight-hour days quickly become 10-, 11-, 12-hour days.
IVAN: That kind of segues nicely into one of the other tips you have which is seek purpose. You basically have to self-manage when you’re at home, right? And maybe that’s not something you’re used to when you’re in the office. You’re not going to see your team members. You’re not going to see all the people that you work with all the time, so trying to figure out where you fit in into that company might be a little harder.
JEFF: Yeah, purpose is context, right? This is about understanding where we fit in. When we’re sitting at home, we don’t feel like we’re fitting in anywhere. So, to be able to visualize, How does this work that I’m doing, what is the purpose of this work? What is my purpose in my role at the company? What is my purpose? What is my team’s purpose? The department that I’m working in, what is our purpose? What is the company’s purpose? Lots of companies have core values and mission statements and ongoing vision kinds of things. That can provide some guidance, but that also needs to filter down. So, as a worker, I think taking the initiative to ask, [laughing] “What is my purpose?” Now here is the forewarning: some managers may take offense at this, but I think there are ways of doing it if we remember we are all a team, we are all headed in the same direction.
But to ask, “Listen, I’ve got this thing. You’ve asked me to do this task. When’s it due? When do you need it? How soon do you need it? Here’s how long I think it’s going to take me,” and giving that kind of feedback. “Who else is working on this?” If you’re a services company, “What does the client need here?” Or if you’re a product company, “How does this fit into the product development?” And to just understand all that peripheral stuff around what you’re doing, I think, starts to create this warm embrace and purpose. People need purpose. They need to feel important and they need to know that the work that they’re doing matters. And so, in a company, some of that comes through this primal kind of stuff, just because you’re surrounded by people, it feels a sense of purpose. I’m working with these people and they seem nice, so that’s good. But in lieu of that, trying to seek out your purpose. Hopefully managers will do a good job of helping people to understand what their expectations are and what the purpose is and sort of how things fit in. But if your manager’s not doing that, ask, at least as best you can.
IVAN: Part of, I think, a leader’s job is to trust their workers, their team members.
JEFF: Is it?
JEFF: Is it though? I would say stereotypically, the idea of the untrustful manager is going to be the way the sitcom is set up, and not this loving, caring, empathetic trusting manager. [laughing].
IVAN: I think if you’re a leader and don’t have trust in your employees you’re going to be doomed, especially in a remote work environment.
JEFF: I agree with you. It is the kiss of death in a remote environment.
IVAN: So, I think what I was trying to say was, that’s, I think, a big part of being a leader. And I think on the other side of the equation, where you have team members, they also have to trust your leader, but I think a bigger part of it might be being vulnerable as well. If you’re a team member and you’re at home and you’re going to experience some sort of isolation—because that’s one of the things you deal with in a remote environment, you’re isolated—I think you have to be vulnerable enough to say, Holy crap, I feel isolated. Who can I talk to about this? Can I talk to my team member? Can I talk to my manager? I think that’s another tip that’s on your list is, be vulnerable.
JEFF: Yeah. Ultimately you would like that either your company culture or your department culture, your team culture, will allow for that vulnerability. I think a lot of companies have this more alpha culture where we only share our wins and don’t share any of the difficulties that we have. But it’s really important that we holistically are able to share with our managers and our coworkers what we’re doing. This is the overcommunicate part, right? It’s a little bit of overshare as well [laughing] l ”My kid’s sick.” “My dog is barking.” “I need to go walk my dog.” Whatever those things are. But also, like, “I’m struggling here,” or “I’m confused,” “I’m lonely.” And, hopefully your manager will be empathetic enough to say, “Yeah, I can see why you would be lonely. You’ve never worked remotely before. You know what, tomorrow let’s just set up a lunch call for everybody on the team. Everybody who wants to join, we’re just going to all get on video and we’re all going to eat our lunch together, and I don’t know, talk about whatever the latest HBO show is.”
IVAN: Or the coronavirus. [laughing] Talk about the virus. How many people do you know that have it?
JEFF: [laughing] That seems to be the topic of conversation, I know. Yeah, well, that’s not very settling, but okay, sure. We’ll talk about whatever we talk about to connect, because we want to connect. That is really important. And the truth is, that remote work, by default, is disconnecting. The advantage is that we have the opportunity to purposefully reconnect and define how that connecting is going to happen. Autonomy is part of remote work, right? Remote workers are going to be autonomous. They’re working on their own. They’re working separated from everybody else, so as managers we need to embrace that. As workers we need to embrace that. There’s just a certain amount of autonomy. However, I think a lot of time the trade-off feeling is, since I have this autonomy, I can’t expect to also remain connected. I’m going to be isolated because I’m autonomous. And that doesn’t need to happen. I think we should connect, but we need to be intentional about connecting as I’m saying. Like, let’s start the meeting a little early so we can talk about the weather. Whatever those things are, because we lose some of that nonverbal communication that happens in an office space. The manager can’t walk by your cubicle and give you a high-five, or “Hey Bob, great work.”
IVAN: Or a high-five elbow. Right?
JEFF: Well, there’s many reasons that we should not be high-fiving right now. But what it means is, we need to be intentional. Instead of the high-five, I need to send an email and I need to say, “Hey, Bob, I need you to know I really appreciate how you got this thing done on time, under budget. It’s great. I‘m really proud of you. It’s great to have you as a coworker, you’re a really nice person to work with.” That’s a much better message than a high-five! It’s more work. It’s certainly more intentional, but it’s all over, like, more meaningful.
I get to use all of my [laughing] sayings on this podcast. Another thing that I say is that, “Remote work is ankle weights for management.” It’s ankle weights for communication. It’s more difficult, but you are building better muscles, and ultimately in the long run, it’s going to be better. It’s more difficult at first, but once you get used to it, it’s a better practice. It’s a better workout. I’m trying to figure out how to make the ankle weights metaphor go further than it actually is. It’s difficult at first. You need to be very intentional about it and it’s going to feel like a lot of work, but once you get the rhythm of it...
I mean, part of the side effect of all this email and Slack and all this stuff is, you’re documenting all this stuff. And if you need to bring new people into the loop, you just cc them on the email or forward the email to them or invite them into the Slack channel. It’s all there, whereas lots of time in an office it’s like, “You haven’t been to the meetings that we’ve been having for the past three weeks in the conference room. Sorry. Maybe I can have someone send you the notes.” It’s just not quite the same thing as being able to syndicate all that information so quickly because it’s already stored electronically.
IVAN: We’ve talked a great deal about what new workers can expect. We’ve gone through the vernacular. I would love to hear if you have any high-level advice for company leaders, either owners of agencies that have always been co-located somewhere, or leaders of groups in larger companies that now have to manage 10, 20, 50 people. What are the nuggets of wisdom for them?
JEFF: Give me a call. [laughing]
IVAN: Absolutely. Number one, absolutely.
JEFF: I can share small doses of it for free and large doses of it, I’m happy to do some consulting.
IVAN: Everyone’s not the same right? We can’t give the same advice.
JEFF: It’s difficult because it really has to do with what kind of a company culture you’re starting with, how your company communicates, what your company values. How value happens at the company and then I guess also the company values, like the core values as well. What are those things? A thing I say is, “Don’t confuse foosball with culture.” Just because you’ve got a beer fridge at your company does not mean that that’s your company culture. Your company culture may be, “We drink. We value drinking.” Or it could be that, “We value creating things together,” but the beer fridge is not culture. And so to some extent by not having those artifacts it doesn’t mean that you don’t have culture, but you just need to rethink, “What is culture?” How you communicate what you value, what you care about, and then start mirroring that. If foosball means, Hey, we take things lightly and we have fun and if anyone wants to take a break at any time, there are lots of ways of doing that in a remote environment as well. It may be scary to jump right into that, if you also need to establish the fact that you can get work done, but eventually, if you were to take this on as a more long-term kind of thing, there are ways of doing that as well.
And I can talk, and have talked, for hours and hours [laughing] and hours about this subject. So, like I said, if anybody’s got questions, just send me an email or give me a call. [email protected] is where you can track me down in the Yonder sense. I also do business coaching. Most of that happens at jjeff.com.
IVAN: It’s been so great doing this with you today Jeff. I feel like I’m going to close it for TEN7 and close it for Yonder. Very confusing how I’m going to end this right now. [laughing] I feel like you have to say something as well.
JEFF: So, your podcast has an outro, that little thing that you say at the end.
IVAN: Yes, I do.
JEFF: Whereas mine, I just say goodbye to the guests and then we play a little music and off we go. So, goodbye Ivan, it was lovely talking with you.
IVAN: Well thank you Jeff. It was lovely talking to you as well. [laughing]
You’ve been listening to a special episode of The TEN7 Podcast and of the Yonder Podcast. You can find us both online. We’re at ten7.com/podcast, and Yonder is at Yonder.io. If you have a second, send us a message. We love hearing from you.
Our email address is [email protected]. And, if you need Jeff, just go to Yonder.io and fill out the contact form. Until next time, stay healthy, don’t touch anything and sing a song while you wash your hands. This is Ivan Stegic and Jeff Robbins. Thank you for listening.