Break the old communication habits
Don't try to replicate what happens in an office.
Can an in-office environment be replicated in a remote environment? Sure. You can gather everyone around a virtual conference table to hash out the next big company initiative. Managers can randomly pop into inboxes or DMs to “check in” the way that a head might appear over a cubicle. Team members can announce that they’re “headed to a doctor’s appointment, be back in an hour!” so that everyone knows why they’re not available for immediate response.
You can do all of these things… but why would you want to?
One of the beautiful things about remote work is that it is built on trust. An office environment offers a lot of visibility: you can “see” others working at their desks (productive or otherwise). You know what time they arrive and what time they leave. It’s easy to form assumptions about how people work in an environment, but the mistake is that more time = better results.
I have worked in a remote environment where work was explicitly based only on results. There was a concentrated effort not to talk about the number of hours worked, the time of day worked, or why someone was/was not working.
Companies that have migrated to remote environments have to decide their approach. Will they attempt to keep life the same as the office as much as possible, except that work’s location has changed? Or will they take it a step further and allow remote employees to truly benefit from the freedoms that remote work allows?
That meeting should have been an email
It’s easy for the in-office problem of “so many meetings that there’s no time for actual work” to translate to a remote environment. Maybe even more so if impromptu conversations turn into scheduled meetings.
To some extent, the scheduling part is good. During the period in my life that I worked in an office, I remember times when I’d be heads-down in work, only to have someone appear at my side with a “quick question” (that ended up being not so quick). Once the conversation was over, I’d have to re-orient myself with my project. When conversations are scheduled, I can better plan out my day.
But there are certainly ways to replace meetings with other forms of communication. Weekly or daily status updates can happen in Slack, email, or a project management tool. A team I worked with would receive an email every Monday morning with two questions: “What results did you meet last week? What are you planning to focus on this week?” Emailed responses would be threaded into our project management tool, so we had a running history.
A different team I managed used a similar approach but on a per-project basis. The projects all had client involvement, so the questions were: “How is this project going? How is the client doing? Any concerns?”
In both of these instances, responses were visible to everyone on the team. Some people certainly tried to make themselves “look busy” with elaborate lists of every task completed. No different from someone who comes in early or stays late… but doesn’t accomplish any more than the person sitting next to them that gets the same amount done in half the time. As a manager, I largely ignored the nitty-gritty details that I didn’t need. I was looking for the tangible results of what got done.
And another thing: these types of updates allow employees to make the updates at the time of their choosing. The teams I worked with had some loose guidance that updates should occur within 24 hours of when the update request went out (or any time of the day for daily updates). But this grants freedom in working non-traditional hours, choosing to be heads-down on a project and ignoring notifications, or anything else not related to work.
Rethinking the 1:1 and team meetings
Since there are so many other ways that status updates can occur, what should occur during a 1:1 meeting? Or when do team meetings make sense?
Instead, 1:1 meetings between managers and direct reports should cover “bigger issues.” The manager can offer advice for client issues, talk through interpersonal problems between employees, or be a sounding board for new initiatives that an employee may want to pursue. It’s not a recap of the work that got done (that’s what the written status updates are for) but a deeper conversation around “How are things going? How are you doing?”
I’ve also worked with teams that became so averse to meetings that it was counterproductive. Emails or DMs would be flying back and forth, with wires getting crossed all over the place. In those instances, it would have been far more efficient to hop on a call and hash out the issue.
Sometimes, if I’m DMing someone and the conversation is getting complicated, I’ll ask, “Would it be easier to talk through this on a call?” It gives an option — if the other person would prefer to keep the conversation digital, fine. If the person agrees that a call might be better, then we’ll switch.
I like this flow chart from Loom. It mirrors how I think about meetings in a remote environment.
Change assumptions around response time
Instant communication is the norm but somewhat problematic. In a remote environment that prioritizes employee freedom in choosing when and how they work, it can feel constricting. Employees may become more tied to working certain hours of the day — even if those hours are not when the employee is most productive.
Of course, some work requires availability during core hours. I do a lot of client-facing work, so I have to be available when they are available. I wouldn’t be able to meet my results if I limited the hours that I’m available for meetings or took 24 hours to respond to every email.
But internally, it can be easy to fall into old habits of wondering what other people are “doing” if they’re not quick to respond. Are they not working? Why are they not working? I was guilty of this early in my remote working career. It reverts to assumptions that work happens best in a synchronous manner during core hours of the day. It also has an underlying tone of “If you don’t reply right away, you must not be meeting results.”
Rather than dive right into a question that needs back-and-forth communication, I often preface my DMs with “Are you available?” If there is no response, I move on. Or, I’ll preface with, “No need to respond quickly, just leaving this here for when you have a moment.” Both approaches remove the pressure of constant availability.
In the News: Return-to-office plans thwarted by Omicron
Omicron has forced many companies to return to remote work. According to The New York Times, “businesses are once again weighing when to reopen, and what steps they need to take to do so safely.”
Some companies demanded that employees return to the office amid employee protests (fueling The Great Resignation). Omicron will probably not be the last variant that causes major disruptions and may offer more time to rethink long-term plans.
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