New York, in Pictures

It was a whirl wind trip. After spending three days networking with colleagues I took a day and a half to see the sites.

Einstein gets it.
A classic show, revised to even the power dynamic between the main characters.
A glass of Tej, from the Ethiopian restaurant Injera.
New York, as seen through Central Park
This is as close as I like to get to Times Square. Turns out I still hate it.

See you next week!

New York Bound

When you read this, I will be in New York for work. I used to live in the city many years ago and I’m looking forward to walking Manhattan once again.

I am originally from California and I moved to New York to get my MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence. I’ll never forget the moment when I came up out of the subway in Midtown, buildings all around and people rushing past me, and something inside just said ‘yep. This is my place.’ I love living in Vancouver, I love running in the forest, but I’m a city girl at heart.

And with that I will leave you with the words of Huey Lewis and the News:

New York, New York is everything they say 
And no place that I’d rather be 
Where else can you do a half a million things 
And all at a quarter to 3?

Until next week, adios!

Remote Work and Motherhood, the Canadian Springtime Edition

What’s it like parenting in the same place where I work? There is no easy answer.

Photo by Michal Mrozek on Unsplash

It’s almost time to break out the eye masks. The clock on the dresser says 5:30, and bright, buttery light is already streaming through my window. Pretty soon I will have to start using my eye mask if I want to sleep in past 5am, but not yet. It’s early May in Canada and the light feels like a gift after months of short dark days. Not yet. I’ll put up with being tired a little longer.

Everybody is up earlier. I start work at 6:30 so I can get some work under my belt before the children wake up, but the light drives them out of bed at 6:40. My early morning financial analysis now happens while I field requests for cuddles, breakfast, and chat. This is my quiet time to work while you are asleep, I say, and the kids are old enough to understand that means ‘leave mom alone.’

‘Alone’ is a relative term that usually means ‘go lay in mom’s bed and read while waiting for a cuddle.’ By the time 7:10 rolls around, my husband is downstairs making the kids’ lunches, and the entire house smells like his breakfast sausage. Soon he will leave for work.

Outside the sky is as bright as afternoon. I can hear the complaining cries of the eagle chicks in the Douglas Fir tree across the street, and I look up in time to see the Bald Eagle parent leave again to look for food. It’s 7:30 and I need to go make something for my own chicks. I swoop in to give them their daily cuddle, my mind already on my morning latte.

I don’t really believe in aiming for a work-life blend. That sounds like what happens when someone turns on a blender before putting on the lid. I like to keep guard rails around my family and work time, enforcing a separation between the two so I’m not pulled to pieces trying to cover too much.

If I had to pick a metaphor, I’m aiming for something like Butchart Gardens-a full lush life with little green breathing spaces between the various things. In the morning, though, it feels like I hop over fences at high speed, switching between co-parent and employee in a way that is both intense and routine.

I wonder if work/life blend believes in me, even if I don’t believe in it, I think, back at my desk after dropping off the kids at school. My latte is still warm and tastes like ginger and cloves. Or maybe the different parts of my life are like the oregano in my community garden–if given sun and good soil, they will try to spread out and colonize all available space. Some days I resent how often I have to trim the oregano back to keep it from overrunning everything else in my garden. Most days I’m grateful for it’s abundance.

And that, perhaps, summarizes the way I feel about working in the same space as I parent. Both my children and my work want my attention. Neither really likes to share. The only boundaries they recognize are the ones I enforce. And yet, like the light on a Canadian Spring day, this particular time with the children is fleeting. I can put up with being tired a little longer. I sit here in front of my spreadsheet, latte in hand and the memory of childish kisses warm on my cheeks, I am grateful for the abundance.

How to Get Ready for an In-Person Work Conference When You Work Remotely

When you work from home, getting ready for an in-person event can seem like a hassle. Keep these 3 things in mind as you get ready.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

I’m headed to New York in a few short weeks to attend a work event. Throughout the years, I’ve discovered that there are some remote-specific things to keep in mind if you rarely attend in-person events.

Go Into the Meeting With a Good Attitude

There are two primary schools of thought out there about in-person meetings. The first says that in-person meetings are mandatory if you want your remote employees to work well together. The second school of thought is that in-person meetings are unnecessary. Everything you could do in an in-person meeting you can do online. Like most things, these points of view are probably true for some people. Neither is 100% true for me.

Most days I love working from home. There is something so delightfully self-indulgent about getting to work in the quiet of my office of one. As I write this, I can hear the rushing of the wind outside, the hum of the occasional car as it goes by, and the clicking of the keyboard as I type. I need this silence regularly if I want my brain to produce stories.

I also really like seeing people in person. I can (and do) make time to connect with my colleagues throughout my work week. I have several coworkers that I consider friends even though we work in different time zones. And yet it’s often easier and quicker for me to forge those initial human connections in person.

I will suggest (with no data to back this one up) that most successful remote workers do best when they have the occasional out-of-computer work interaction. You may not feel the need to see people in person, but your coworkers may need to see you in person in order to get along with you. If you have a chance to meet your colleagues for a coffee or a workshop in person, see it for the opportunity it is. Personally, I’ve made a mental list of people I want to talk to during the conference, and I’m excited to chat with them.

Check Your Work Clothes

Very shortly after getting excited about my trip, I realized that I have no idea what people wear to work these days. The dress code at Douglas HQ is a button down shirt with a pair of old jeans and knitted socks. And while my knitted sock game is truly righteous, I suspect that I’m going to need foot ware that covers up the awesome.

I asked the internet ‘what is business casual,’ and Wikipedia said “Business casual is an ambiguously defined dress code…it entails neat yet casual attire and is generally more casual than informal (sic) attire but more formal than casual or smart casual attire,” which didn’t really help.

Other sites confirmed that a button down shirt and slacks are still fine, but how much can you trust sites that say silly things like ‘you must wear a belt’ or ‘no knitted tops?’ Does anyone else find it funny that we can get a robot to Mars but we can’t define a work style that has been around for a generation?

As far as I can see, business casual means whatever your company says it is. If you’re going to an in-person work event, you might want to check your employee handbook to see if it has any guidelines. You may also want to take a moment and think about how conservative your company culture is. And finally, take an honest look at how worn out your work clothes are. I already knew I needed to buy slacks. A search through my work tops revealed that I needed some help there, too.

Put a Face to the Name

There is nothing more awkward than showing up at a work event where people excitedly greet you…and you have no idea who they are. Ask me how I know. When you work remotely, most conversations take place via email and instant messenger. While some of these platforms give you an option to upload a picture, not all of them do. Add jet lag into the mix, and it can be very hard to remember what some of your favorite colleagues look like.

On behalf of remote employees everywhere, I ask that you please take a moment to upload a picture of yourself into your email and instant messaging platform. And please make it a recent one. My own personal rule is that I need to change my photo every 2 years. You can take a flattering picture of yourself using your smart phone. Put on a work top, stand against a wall, raise the camera slightly above eye level, and take your shot. Adding a photo gives you the moral high ground to suggest that everyone on your team do the same thing.

If you are planning a work event, ask the participants to provide a photo of themselves, and share them with the group. I work for an educational company, and the event organizer created a set of flashcards–one side has the picture, the other has the name. I absolutely love them. A quick internet search yielded several sites like this one, that lets you make your own custom flash cards if you love this idea too.

I’ll be using my flashcards every day in the two weeks leading up to the event. I might still blank out if someone greets me from across the room, but at least now I have a fighting chance.

In person events can seem like a hassle if you only work from home. For instance, you might have to buy work clothes and put on shoes. However, approach the event as an opportunity to strengthen your working relationships for years to come. If you look at it that way, it’s easier to see how the benefits in such a trip can outweigh the inconvenience. Plus you might get some nice work shirts out of the deal.

How to Create Effective Team Building Activities

To create an effective team building day, give people a voice, give them choice, and make it accessible for all.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

In ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,’ Patrick Lencioni says that “It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it’s so powerful and so rare.” While we can argue about how rare it is to find effective, high performing teams, there is research that suggests that you can improve team performance with team building activities.

I’m lucky enough to work for a company that actively tries to build a healthy remote team culture. Several years ago, one department started ‘In-service Day,’ and the sessions were so popular that other departments were invited to join in the fun. Now, if we want to get in to a certain session, we have to be quick to log onto the registration page as soon as the sign up email hits our inbox.

So how do you design a team building event or in-service day that employees want to attend? Here are four things to keep in mind:

Give People a Voice

Allow employees a voice in the process. Our ‘ISD’ (in service day) committee does this in two ways. First, they come up with some general topics, and then sends out a survey to see which ones rise to the top. This extra step saves them from spending hours putting together a presentation on a subject that few people will find interesting.

On that same survey, the ISD committee asks participants ‘if you could put together a 15 minute presentation on anything, what would it be?’ This has yielded some surprising (and highly popular) Ted-Talk style presentations. We’ve heard from people who spent a year reading books only by female authors, people who enjoy board games (and think you will too), and people who take fantastic vacations on a shoestring budget.

These shorter talks are a great way to take a mental break in between the longer, more traditional knowledge-building sessions. It’s also a great way to get to know colleagues. The most interesting thing about this success story, is that it came about almost by accident. When an early iteration of the committee was trying to generate ideas for ISD, someone said ‘maybe we should ask people about other topics they would like to hear about?’ When you ask people for their ideas, you may stumble across a jewel.

Give People a Choice

There is a school of thought out there that goes something like this: ‘We can’t please everyone, so we might as well plan an event that leadership likes. People will complain about it either way.’ It’s true that there will always be some folks out there who have to be dragged (metaphorically speaking) kicking and screaming to team building events. Most of these folks have had bad experiences with team building events in the past. That’s no reason to continue to confirm their bias.

Admittedly, there may be times that you need to train your employees on a specific topic, whether they want to attend or not. Topics such as workplace safety and security come to mind. Remember that these sorts of training sessions aren’t team building activities and shouldn’t be talked up as such. Your employees might spend some time bonding by complaining about compliance training, but the team building aspect is coincidental.

There are different ways to give employees a choice during team building activities. Depending on your budget and the number of participants, you may wish give participants the option to choose the sessions they attend. People who decide to attend a session are far more likely to get something out of it.

However, the most important choice, the choice you should never violate, is over how much personal information an employee is obliged to reveal. Some employees have survived terrible childhoods. Others belong to minority groups that face discrimination. Still others like to keep their personal lives separate from their work for their own private reasons. No one should feel forced to share personal information.

I learned this one the hard way. I was planning a party in honor of someone, and I asked a colleague–we’ll call him Don–if he would share a particular memory at the party. Don told me that he couldn’t do so, and he shared the extremely personal reason why he couldn’t. I apologized for asking. To this day I regret making him unexpectedly relive that memory.

What I should have done then (and what you can do now) is ask for volunteers. Something as simple as emailing the entire group saying ‘I’m planning a session on common in-service day planning mistakes and how to avoid them. If you would be willing to share a story about a time you created a truly boring team building activity, please let me know via email by Wednesday and I’ll be in touch,’ can solicit the same information without outing anyone.

While it’s true that employees can bond over shared vulnerability, that will only happen if the sharing is voluntary. Mandating shared vulnerability can potentially force some employees to relive traumatizing experiences. Don’t do it.

Give People Access

This is particularly important in you are planning an in-person (vs online) team building event. I had a boss who elected to get an MBA while fully employed, and his cohort was required to attend a 2 day team building event. At one point everyone was required to climb to the top of a telephone pole. (It wasn’t an actual pole with wires. I’m pretty sure using an actual working telephone pole is illegal.)

I remember thinking a) that I would have flunked MBA school on the first day because I am afraid of heights and while I have no problem climbing trees and riding roller coasters, there is no way I would willingly climb to the top of a pole and sit on it, and b) what did they do with the students who use wheelchairs? Telling people to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the team engages in a team building event sends the message that some people are second-class employees.

You still have to think about accessibility even when your team building event is remote. At my last team-building day, the organizers solicited facts from the participants ahead of time. Our job as a team was to guess which fact belonged to which person. Instead of just displaying the fact on the screen, the organizer also played a clip of someone reading the fact. This meant that every colleague–regardless of vision status–could participate in the activity.

It may feel overwhelming to try and make your event accessible to all. While you can do research on your own, this might be a good time to solicit information from the group. Again, you can email the participants ahead of time and say ‘I’d like to make sure our team building day is accessible to all. If you have ideas or tools that can help make this day available to people who have cognitive or physical impairments, please share them with me.’

As an aside, if you ask for this information, and people tell you how to make an event more accessible, use the information they give you. Asking for ways to make an event better and then ignoring the information is disengaging. For the best results, ask for accessibility tips early in the event planning process.

Creating an effective team building day requires thoughtful planning. But you don’t have to (and in most cases, shouldn’t) work in a vacuum. Give people a chance to partner with you. You will end up with great ideas you would never have thought about otherwise, avoid disengaging sessions, and create an event that is accessible for the entire team. The care and thought you pour into the event will shine through and leave employees feeling respected. And feeling respected is truly team building.

How Do You Work When the Kids Are Home?

Working in the home when the children are on break can present a challenge. With introspection, planning, and focus, it can be done.

And other remote work mysteries.

A group of 6 children run around outside.
Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

This weekend I planned out what my kids will be doing over the summer. I wasn’t looking forward to it, to be honest. My husband is a PhD candidate, and for the last few years he has been the parent on deck in the summer.

My husband accepted a full time job in February, and while I am happy that his job working out, it does leave us with the problem of what to do with the children during the summer.

I thought some of you might be in a similar boat–trying to figure out what to do with the kids when you work from home–and so I’m going to share my thought process. Perhaps this will help you with your own process.

First, some caveats. My children are 8 and nearly 10, so I no longer have to think in terms of keeping toddlers from killing themselves every minute. Your mileage may vary. I also live 17 hours from my nearest relative. Leaning on family isn’t an option.

How much focus time do I really need?

We aren’t made of money, so I can’t just keep my kids in full day summer camp for two months. I need to quantify the minimum number of hours I need someone else to watch my children, and find the least expensive acceptable solution.

I am lucky enough to live in a place where kids can play with other neighbourhood kids outside during the day. There are many parents who use this as part of their childcare plan. My husband leaned very hard on this option when he conducted his research last summer.

Theoretically, this outside play option should work for me, too. The kids are old enough to entertain themselves for hours at a time with minimal supervision. My problem is that it takes me time to get into the fugue state I like to be in when I’m completing the strategic parts of my job.

Actually, that isn’t the problem. The problem is that my children seem to viscerally know how long it takes me to refocus, and they time their interruptions to happen just before I can achieve it. They don’t always spend an entire day interrupting me, but like Pavlov’s dogs, I have been conditioned to expect an interruption at any time, and that makes finding my focus all the harder. Plus it stresses me out.

I’ve found that I need four hours of child-free time if I want to turn in work that meets my high standards.

How much sleep do I need?

A small puppy sleeps in the crook of a person's elbow.
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

I need 7 hours to be able to write, and 9 hours to feel rested. Like most parents, I’ve been forced to learn to function on less sleep for months at a time, but at this stage I refuse to build a plan that requires less than 7 hours of sleep. (I’ve given up on getting 9 consistent hours until after the kids move out.) And while I’m a morning person, I have never, in the history of ever, enjoyed starting work before 6am. My ability to filter clicks in around 9am.

It’s better for everyone if I start work no earlier than 6 or 6:30am. I do my best to only schedule meetings after 9am.

How much free time do I need?

There are folks out there who do a portion of their work after their children go to bed. I often wonder who these children are, that go to bed reliably at a certain time. Mine have an 8pm bedtime during the school year, and even then, by the time we dole out kisses, stories, water, and general ‘stop talking and go to sleep!’ scoldings, it’s at least 9 in the evening.

My preference is to use the hour and a half before I go to bed to knit, read, and talk to my husband. I can use that slot for work, but doing so leaves me feeling resentful.

How does this all come together?

In the end, I decided that my working hours during the summer will be 6-2:30. Since most of my colleagues work on Eastern time, this allows me to be available during their work day. If my children are in charge of amusing themselves until 9am, then half day camp (9-12) with an added hour of lunch supervision (12-1) will cover most of my needs. I’ll spend an hour after work finishes at 2:30 to work on my writing.

This schedule is very close to what I currently use during the school year. It’s demanding and requires that I schedule everything out in advance so I can finish in the allotted time. That’s why I’ve scheduled the kids for full day camp (9-4) every other week, so I can spend the extra three hours of child free time getting ahead of my writing schedule and enjoying extra running time. That little bit of give in my schedule helps me power through the weeks where the train has to keep moving.

People have asked me how I manage to work when the kids are home. The short answer is planning. I schedule things so I can complete the thinking parts of my work during my child-free hours. I pay attention to my personal constraints–both financial and mental energy-wise–and make a firm commitment to finish my work during the allotted time. It’s amazing how much work you can get done when you don’t leave yourself the option to work on something ‘later.’ And lastly, I schedule my off time with activities that let my mind and body recharge.

I’m a veteran parent, so I know my weeks won’t always go according to plan. But if I create a plan that includes keeping my sanity during the summer, then I’m more likely to keep it on most days. For the other days, there’s always the chocolate for dinner option. I hope sharing this process is helpful for you. If you have any strategies that help you work during school breaks, feel free to share them.

How to Figure Out if an Employee Will Thrive in a Remote Job

While it’s tempting to flesh out an ‘ideal remote candidate’ profile, you will have better results if you focus on capabilities instead.

Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

In the summer of 2005, a teacher manager role opened up at Kaplan K-12. I’d been working for Kaplan as an after school teacher for a year at that point, trying to figure out if I wanted to teach once I graduated from my MFA program at Sara Lawrence College. I enjoyed the company, I liked my boss, and I didn’t seriously consider applying for the role.

There are certain moments–certain decisions–that change the course of your career. This was one of mine. I had to turn in some paperwork to my boss, and I decided to take it into the office instead of mailing it because it was a little bit late. I stopped to chat with some of the managers in the office, and one of them asked me if I was going to apply for the teacher manager role.

“Oh, it looks interesting, but I don’t have any management experience,” I explained.

The woman–we’ll call her Dana– looked at me over her glasses and asked “Didn’t you say you worked as a nanny before you came to us?” She then spent the next few minutes explaining to me how similar watching children was to managing adults. The experiences might have been different, Dana argued, but the necessary capabilities were exactly the same.

Why Capabilities Should Trump Experience in Remote Work

In a recent HBR.org article, Nilofer Merchant discussed ways managers can avoid screening out perfectly good candidates based on the wrong criteria. She shared an amusing anecdote about a hiring manager looking for a social media expert with 10 years of experience when the entire field was only a few years old. Too often hiring managers pass on capable people because they focus on whether someone has passed a very specific–and arbitrary– hurdle.

Hiring managers can fall into the same trap when looking for a great remote candidate. Not only must managers screen for people who can fulfill the basic job function, they must also find people who can produce good work as a member of a distributed team.

It’s easy to understand why we might focus on previous remote experience. We’re pressed for time. We need people to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Often there are too many candidates vying for the same position and we need to find way to shrink the pool of interviewees.

The problem with using previous experience as a proxy for ‘this person is a good remote hire’ is that remote work only went mainstream relatively recently. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the number of remote jobs has increased 140% since 2005.

The number of people who work remotely is growing, but the total pool of candidates with demonstrated remote experience is relatively small. A manager who insists on hiring someone with ’10 years experience’ in a specific role, with a specific set of skills, in a remote context, is in danger of either settling for a sub standard candidate or finding no candidate at all.

Once you’ve checked to see if a candidate has the basic skill set to perform a certain role, focus on whether someone has the capacity to thrive as a remote worker, rather than insisting on an arbitrary amount of remote work experience.

How to Figure Out if a Candidate Will Thrive as a Remote Worker

Discipline

Remote employees must take charge of the rhythm of their work days. This means having the discipline to both work during the workday and to turn off the work at the end of the day.

You can find evidence of discipline in a lot of different places. The candidate’s resume may show someone who has to balance competing projects or priorities with low supervision. If you can’t find specific examples of this in a work setting, you can look for people who have successfully balanced different aspects of their personal lives.

For example, someone who worked full time while going to school shows discipline. Or perhaps the candidate trains for races, or volunteers at a local charity while caring for older parents or young children. Those personal experiences are sometimes more telling, because there is no manager standing over them, making sure they get that personal work done.

Flexibility

Technological advances and an ever-changing business environment mean that companies need employees who can adjust to an increasing rate of change. This is true anywhere, but is even more true in a distributed company, where the work is not chained to a specific locale or production line. A distributed company’s ability to pivot will (mostly) be dictated by the speed at which it’s workers–both employees and management– can shift gears.

This can be a hard capability to figure out. Everyone thinks they roll with the punches. Look for someone who has a variety of work experiences. Back in the old days, when jobs were jobs for life, it made sense to find someone who picked one career and worked at gaining increasing levels of responsibility.

Today, candidates who have worked across a variety of roles and functions bring more value. They have more skills to draw on when your company needs to change. This person is more likely to think ‘I’ve done this before,’ and feel more confident as he or she works through the latest shift in your business.

You can also find flexibility by looking for people who have a variety of life experiences. This includes (but is not limited to) people who live in foreign countries, persons with neurological processing differences, and those who live with disabilities. Besides bringing in a diverse viewpoint, these folks have experience navigating in a world not necessarily set up for them, and likely possess a robust problem-solving skill set.

Proactive Communication skills

Of all the capabilities that a remote worker should possess, this one is probably the easiest to spot. How often did the candidate communicate with you as you set up the interview? What was the quality of that communication? While it makes sense to ask all interviewees to discuss moments when they had to work with people via email and instant message, your interview will provide real-time information that you can assess.

Motivation

Why does the person want to work remotely? The answer to this question almost doesn’t matter so long as it’s meaningful to the candidate–unless, of course, the answer is ‘because I think it’s easier to pretend I’m working when I’m at home.’ If the interviewee doesn’t treat the interview seriously, move on.

There are a lot of good answers to ‘why do you want to work remotely?’ Perhaps the candidate is a military spouse and needs a job that isn’t tied to a specific location. Or maybe the candidate loves fostering dogs in her home. Every job has its tough moments. Candidates who know why a home office works for them will weather the tough times and work hard to keep their remote jobs.

How Not to Figure Out If a Person Will Thrive as a Remote Worker

It can be tempting to take these qualities and create an image of what your ‘ideal candidate’ looks like. Or worse yet, match them against certain personality types. I would caution you against doing so.

Qualities like discipline, flexibility, and proactive communication skills can present differently in different people. If you spend too much time deciding what that candidate “must” look like, you run the risk of passing over great candidates in favor of hiring clones of yourself.

I was lucky all those years ago, chatting with that manager in the Kaplan office. She was able to see past my previous job titles to the skills that truly mattered. With her encouragement I applied for the teacher manager role, accepted the position, and have been in management of one kind or another ever since. Looking at the capabilities that really matter will have a similarly beneficial effect on your company’s performance, and on your employees, for years to come.

Book Review—Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams

Photo by @sharonmccutcheon on Unsplash

In this quarterly column, we take a look at resources to help you survive and thrive as a remote worker. I am not paid to recommend any tools or resources, and the opinions below are strictly my own.

In today’s post we’re going to take a deeper dive into ‘Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams’ by Pilar Orti and Maya Middlemiss.

At thirteen chapters and 100ish pages, you could conceivably finish this book in a couple of hours. I wouldn’t recommend doing so–if read right, this book works almost as a personal coach. To get the most out of Orti and Middlemass’ expertise, you’ll want to sit with the questions posed in each chapter.

Presenteeism

Chapter 4 is a case in point. The title is ‘Now that I’m remote, how can people see how a hard I’m working?’ This should be required reading for all managers with remote direct reports.

The chapter discusses how to discourage ‘presenteeism.’ Dictionary.com defines presenteeism as ‘working long hours at a job with no real need to do so.’ This is a learned behaviour that one usually practices as a way to demonstrate loyalty and value. The authors get right to the point by addressing mindset first of all: “It is important to be sure that accountability concerns aren’t simply a projection of your own insecurities…”

From there, the authors discuss how to spot presenteeism in your remote direct reports and the systems you set up to keep track of the work. The chapter finishes up with questions that help you reflect on the current state of presenteeism in your team, and how you might “reorient” things.

All in all, the authors tackle a tricky subject with empathy and a general assumption of goodwill.

Psychological Safety

Several chapters discuss the importance of psychological safety in different contexts. Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Psychological Safety in Online Meetings,’ and gives tips on how the meeting organizer can encourage meaningful contributions from all participants. It also discusses possible reasons why someone may not talk in a meeting, and how to handle less than articulate contributions in an empathetic way.

Chapter 8 discusses how to make people feel safe enough to share their successes within the team. We all want to be noticed for our successes, but also want to avoid looking arrogant.

Chapter 10, ‘Creating a Culture of Feedback,’ ends with several specific suggestions on how to create a culture that embraces feedback, and a simple way to signal to others when you really can’t handle hearing it.

In a collocated office, you can see when your colleague is having a bad day. In the remote office, we need cues. The suggestions in the chapter are better than the ‘not now, I can’t even’ that I am sometimes tempted to use as my Slack status.

Defining the Digital Space

Perhaps the most innovative chapter in ‘Thinking Remote’ is the first one. Entitled ‘Designing the Digital Workspace: What We Can Learn from the Physical Space,’ it asks managers to think about designing the digital workspace in a way that aligns with a team’s values.

I have never heard someone ask for the digital equivalent of putting all of the toilets on the same floor to force people to interact with colleagues in the hall. I still don’t know what the answer to this one is for my work. I can say that this chapter has made me look at my digital tools in a whole new way.

‘Thinking Remote’ is a thoughtful, thought provoking work that belongs on the shelves of any leader who manages office optional workers.

Spring Break Baller

Life in the (Not So Fast) Lane

Life in the fast lane.
Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

I’ve been looking forward to this week of vacation since mid-February. It’s the busy season at work, and between that and additional work responsibilities, I’ve spent the last few months rushing from task to task in an effort to keep things from crashing to the ground.

I can go into hyper-drive and get an amazing amount of work done in a short amount of time–I am both a mother and a project manager, which is the same as saying I am magic–but I can only do it for so long before I run out of gas. I passed that point at the end of February. Since then, I’ve used chocolate and caffeine to prop me up until I could take a break.

This week is my break. And yet, even knowing that I need a break, I’ve been tempted to fill the free time with all of the things I’ve neglected while work has been busy. And I don’t mean cleaning. That’s pretty easy to ignore.

It’s the fun stuff that’s calling to me. The kids and I should explore Vancouver! I should go back to learning the ukulele! I should write all the things! I should make time to exercise every day, and maybe cook better, more elaborate meals. I want to film a really fun idea I have for a social media video for my book, and go on a reading binge, and start my kids on 5k run training, and sew a shirt for me and a skirt for my daughter, and…you get the picture.

The kids are cautiously optimistic about their ability to walk a 5k

I am a goal-driven person, and I like getting stuff done, but even I knew that cramming all of this stuff into my week would send me on a one way trip to insanity-land. And my kids (who are on spring break) would be miserable.

Manufacturing misery seemed like a poor way to spend my vacation, so I settled on a loose plan of exercising for 15 minutes in the morning, and writing for 30 minutes or so before my kids got up. I would then take my children to one kid-friendly activity out of the house. The rest of the time would be free for whatever floated our boat.

Cinnamon rolls definitely float our boat.

On Monday we walked on the beach. On Tuesday we played at the pool for hours. On Wednesday we had cinnamon rolls, and found new books to read at the bookstore. Today we’re going to Science World, and Friday we might try our hand at making soap. I’ve knit a lot, read some, and neglected the morning exercise in favor of reading in bed. In short, I’ve spent the better part of my week well rested and unstressed.

It’s glorious. I hope to hang on to this feeling when I go back to work next week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have enough energy at the end of the work day to pick up the ol’ uke again.

How to Break Bad News

Whether the change is big or small, you can bring people through it with a minimum of complaining and your credibility intact
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

My husband ate a lot of hot dogs growing up. It was his mother’s go-to dinner and she always put mayonnaise on the hot dog buns. My husband hated mayonnaise as a child. He ate it, because he assumed that it was healthy. Why else would anyone eat something so disgusting?

And then one golden day he discovered the truth–mayonnaise was not healthy. He told his mother that he never wanted mayonnaise on his hot dog ever again. She agreed to his request. And then the next time they had hot dogs for dinner, and there was mayonnaise on his hot dog. When questioned about this unreasonable turn of events, the elder Mrs. Douglas said “Well there isn’t that much.”

This probably wasn’t the only time that my mother in law forgot to do something for her opinionated son. However this is the instance he remembers–and he will never let her live it down. I heard this story again last night, and it occurred to me this morning that those of us in business can learn how to break bad news from the story of the hot dogs.

Learn the Lesson of the Hot Dogs

Photo by Victoria Shes on Unsplash

To put this family situation into business terms, leadership introduced an item that bothered the line staff. Staff complained, and leadership promised to fix it. Then they forgot, and excused themselves by saying that it wasn’t that big of a problem to begin with.

Most of our business problems have nothing to do with hot dogs (unless you work for a hot dog company) but many of us have run into similar situations. Perhaps IT has introduced two factor authentication or a VPN portal to your computer systems. Perhaps the payroll department now requires all payroll approvals to happen on Mondays, even on holidays, no exceptions.

Unless you own your own business, (and sometimes even then) you have probably had someone tell you that you have to do a new thing that takes more time than the old thing you used to do. If you own a process or manage people, you may also have to break the news about the new thing to the people around you.

For the purposes of this discussion we will assume that the company must implement the change. We will also assume that leadership carefully weighed all possible pros and cons before moving forward with it. Even taking these assumptions into account, there is a right way and a wrong way to communicate bad news–and deal with the fall out.

Your Audience May Not Have a Problem

Kitten pictures are cute, but don’t send them instead of an explanation for a coming change. Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Unless you know for sure that everyone in the company hates the old system, assume that some people enjoy using it. Of the people who didn’t enjoy using it, there is a subset that can perform the clunky process without thinking about it.

These folks don’t recognize that there’s a problem to solve. They will need to hear why their system or process has to change. Saying something like ‘We need to change our payroll day to align with the parent company’ may not fill anyone with joy, but your employees will appreciate knowing the actual answer.

This approach is much better than trying to get people excited about your solution to a problem they don’t have. For instance (and apologies in advance to all graphic designers) when I get an email announcing the ‘new look and feel’ coming to my favorite website, it fills me with dread. I assume this means someone is going to break (or take away) my favorite features. At the very least I’ll have to spend extra time learning where all the buttons went. The more cheerful your email, the more I assume this is going to hurt.

Watch Your Tone

Take your time crafting your message. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Most people hate delivering bad news. It’s no fun telling people things that will make them feel bad. It’s even less fun listening to people complain about it. Most of us think we’re pretty good at handling change. The sad fact is that we’re all very good at handling change so long as no one changes the things we care about. It’s human nature.

You can’t eliminate the human tendency to complain, but you can lower the number of people who feel the need to do so if you adopt the right tone. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to tell people that something is changing.

Don’t tell people that the change is ‘no big deal.’

Let them come to that conclusion for themselves. Some changes create unforeseen consequences, and you don’t want to lose your credibility as a trusted source of information. This is especially true in larger companies, where it’s impossible to truly understand the way work flows through different departments.

For example, my work portal signs me out of the system every twenty minutes or so. This isn’t a big deal when I’m composing an email or working on a google doc because the computer saves my work. It’s a very large annoyance when I’m using a certain system that has to query a database several times over the course of a few minutes. In some cases, I have spent time adjusting numbers and fields, only to have my work erased when the system logs me out.

I don’t have polite things to say when this happens.

Assume you are dropping this change into a complex system.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

When you go to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, your pharmacist asks for a list of other medications you may be taking. This is to make sure that the prescription meant to help you doesn’t kill you when it interacts with the other drugs in your system.

When you change a work process or system, that change isn’t happening in isolation. You or your colleague may not die because of a harmful interaction between two changes, but a small change can lead to a large amount of frustration. Let’s go back to the system that signs me out every twenty minutes. I interact with this system on a computer that freezes up every time I change tabs or try to load data rich documents. Often, when I get logged out of my portal, my computer will lock up. This is also a very busy time of the year at my job, and it’s harder to work faster when my entire computer seizes.

In this case, I have a new computer wending it’s way to my home office. Relief is coming. I may have to learn to live with the twenty minute sign out, but I’ll do it on a computer that doesn’t freeze up if I look at it funny. Where possible, leadership should provide relief from the unintended consequences of changes.

Lead with empathy.

After you explain why you have to change something, acknowledge the annoyance. ‘We need to use two-factor authentication to comply with new security standards in our field. We realize this may mean you will log into the system multiple times over the course of the day. Thank you for your patience as we make our customer data safer.’

Acknowledging the annoyance helps everyone to feel seen. For many people, that’s all they need to keep them from complaining to you. Others might reach out to complain, but they will usually acknowledge that you weren’t going out of your way to ruin their lives.

In my work as an analyst, I decide who gets to run certain programs, and who doesn’t. I break bad news on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that leading with empathy is often the difference between someone flipping out, and someone telling you they understand your decision.

None of us like breaking bad news. It can be tempting to throw our hands up in the air and give up attempting to craft our message. Take time to strike the right tone, provide context for a change, and lead with empathy. If you do, you can bring people through the change with a minimum of complaining–and your credibility intact.