by Molood Noori Alavijeh
Should remote teams be discouraged or tolerated?!
As I work with IT companies most of the time, I get asked this question a lot by managers in those companies, especially if the company is transforming to agile ways of working. To those of you who know me and/or have attended the Remote Forever Summit that I organized, it is no surprise that I believe remote work should neither be discouraged nor tolerated, it should be embraced, learnt and practiced.
Companies that offer remote work usually get to choose the best from a global pool of talent instead of limiting the search to one city, and therefore often find the best candidate for the jobs they have.
If you are a remote worker, you have most probably seen other people who work remotely as well. Many knowledge workers have already started seeing the benefits of a remote working lifestyle where they get to spend more quality time with their families, dedicate time to their interests, and travel whenever they want to without having to be on vacation. The majority of people who work remotely report higher levels of productivity and happiness which is both beneficial to employees and employers.
However, remote work is not for everyone. In fact, in order to be able to work remotely and effectively, not only you need to be disciplined and self-motivated, but also you must learn a few specific skills in order to be able to stay focused on the work results, build relationships with your co-workers remotely, and attend to your health, hygiene and nutrition.
Once you start working remotely, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of forgetting self-care. It can become a habit to work outside of regular office hours once you’re in the flow and more importantly your social life might suffer as you will not get invited to after work drinks with your colleagues any more.
What is remote work?
Many people when they think or talk about remote work imagine working from some beautiful beach in a warm country. For some others remote work is about working in one company on one product or project but from different geographical offices (that includes home or cafés.) I would like to propose a more inclusive definition of remote work in this post.
I believe the moment you sit in a different room from your coworkers, you’re working in a distributed team or organization and therefore you need to learn the skills for remote work. The moment you find yourself sending an email or writing a chat message instead of tapping on someone’s shoulder and speaking to them face to face, you are working remotely and you should invest time to learn and adopt the communication practices of great remote work!
Spoiler alert: These skills would improve your non-remote work habits and relationships too.
What is self-leadership?
There are many articles written about communication tools and practices that remote workers need in order to work effectively in teams. I think self-leadership is the first and the most important set of skills you need to learn and master in order to succeed as a remote worker.
As I was thinking about writing this blog post, I realized that I could write about visible skills you need to pick up and practice and become a better remote worker, or I could take you on a deeper journey of self-discovery and get you thinking and reflecting at a deeper level about how you can learn and practice self-leadership. I decided to do the latter. (Although I did include a section at the end of this post with a list of those practical skills you can pick up right away.)
In this post, I will introduce four self-leadership skills that you can learn, practice and adopt in order to become an effective and productive remote worker. The first two are about your relationship with yourself and the last two are about the relationship you have with other people when you work remotely. And at the end of this post, you can find a section with a list of the more spoken about skills that you can pick up and practice right away.
Self-Leadership Skill #1: Always. Know. Yourself.
You might be one of those people who find anything with the word “awareness” and “authenticity” vague or un-actionable. If you are, you should know that I totally understand you and that is precisely the reason for why I have done my best to outline actionable skills you can take away from this post, even when the underlying ideas are about awareness and authenticity.
As a remote worker, you need to master self-awareness. In other words, you need to always know yourself so that you can reflect and adapt promptly and appropriately in every situation. The bandwidth for your communication with other people you work with is limited compared to the situation where you have a lot of face time with people in an office environment. That is why understanding yourself and how you relate to your work, your colleagues, your customers, and the product you are creating is essential to your success — remote or otherwise.
I can pitch to you to go find your vision and your mission in life and discover your values and strengths, etcetera. Those are all important but no one ever tells you how to actually do that, do they? I personally believe that it is not possible to find your vision without trying new things all the time and failing and learning. I think you cannot find your calling and your mission in life in a vacuum by just sitting and thinking about it. You need to get out there and do something and build your vision and mission. But that’s a blog post for another time…
What does self-awareness have to do with remote work?
As a remote worker, you are going to experience freedom, joy, power, but also you may feel overwhelmed, bored or lonely at times. When you work remotely, especially when you do not work in an office with other people, you are not able to engage in social interactions with your colleagues over coffee or drinks as easily. You need to take deliberate action to have virtual coffee meetings.
At first, many remote workers do not even acknowledge the need for socializing in person. Maybe you experienced this excess joy and freedom when you first started your first #WorkFromAnywhere project. You may have felt at ease and connected to your colleagues by just chatting with them in your chat messenger. This happiness and joy usually persists until someone shares a picture in the chat messenger that shows a few of those colleagues hanging out in a bar.
That’s when you start to feel left out or maybe even experience a little bit of jealousy. You might even question whether or not you made the right decision going remote. That is why I recommend that you learn and practice self-awareness before you really need to cope with those emotions.
There are many ways to learn this skill, the easiest of which is to begin reading books that help you understand yourself as a human better. The book Managing For Happiness of Jurgen Appelo — although not written for this purpose — is a great start. Some other books to read are Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau.
If you have not acquired the skills to recognize and cope with your own feelings and mental states, you will find it difficult to stay productive and happy as a remote worker. This is especially true if you are a generally social person who gains energy from interacting with colleagues. Knowing yourself is very important so that you can maintain a healthy level of social interaction.
To start, be proactive in creating socializing virtual events with your colleagues such as virtual coffee, virtual champagne to celebrate reaching a new milestone and do not be afraid of starting seemingly silly conversations in your chat room. My favorite ones are: “Share your mugshot” and “Describe your mood with a .gif.”
So, how can you always know yourself?
Invest time to learn about people by reading books and observing your own emotional states. Learn to acknowledge and articulate — not necessarily out loud — the emotion you are experiencing in any given situation. And when you are aware of the emotion just observe it as it is. Awareness of the existence of the emotion is a great step towards self-awareness.
This doesn’t become useful until it’s coupled with actions — which brings us to the second section of this post…
Self-Leadership Skill #2: Take responsibility.
A much more interesting (in my opinion anyway) and practical method for understanding the mental state you are operating from is the Responsibility Process (a trademarked brand) by Christopher Avery. This model can help you gain a deeper understanding of how your mental state causes your behavior in different situations especially the problematic ones.
When you are faced with a problem, you go through every step of the Responsibility Process from denial all they way up to responsibility. People stay in each state for different durations of time. Christopher’s research has shown that you might be in one state for just a fraction of a second, but you do pass through it nonetheless.
Check out this video to get more in depth knowledge about the Responsibility Process.
When you are done watching the video, come back here, think about a situation in which you faced a difficulty, and answer these three questions:
- What were some of the emotions that were present in you in that situation?
- Which mental state were you operating from for the majority of the time?
- What could you have done to help yourself move toward the mental state of responsibility?
As this little exercise shows, it is possible to go through lay blame, justify, shame and obligation even when thinking about a past experience.
How does the Responsibility Process help you become a better remote worker?
When you work remotely, a large portion of your communication happens in writing. Written communication does not allow much space for hearing tone or observing body language. This makes it extra important to keep an open mind about the intentions of the person who is writing to you when you read a text. By understanding the Responsibility Process and identifying the mental state you are operating from, you can more easily catch yourself when you operate from a mental state of putting an external person or factor at fault. Having self-awareness and knowing the mental state you are thinking, talking and working from, can help and allow you to move up in the process and act from a state of resourcefulness and responsibility where you ask yourself “What can I do to help this situation?” before doing or saying anything.
Self-Leadership Skill #3: Face and resolve conflicts.
People who talk about remote work, often assume that communicating with other people is an inevitable part of work. This assumption is true to a large extent. Even if you are a freelancer who works in isolation and has no team, at the end of the day you create your craft for some kind of customer who is another person. Learning how to communicate effectively is essential in any role in any business, but as a remote worker, it becomes even more important.
When we work remotely, it is easy to hide behind technology when we get into trouble. Sometimes we face conflicts with people we work with, whether they are coworkers or customers.
In cases of conflict, you might find yourself in a conflict situation where you know something to be absolutely true and you advocate for your position excessively and you are unwilling to be moved by the other party. In situations like that, even when you are face-to-face with the other person, sometimes you may not identify with any of the mental states in the Responsibility Process, especially if you are a beginner at practicing self awareness and responsibility. Conflicts are generally challenging situations to handle. And conflicts in remote work setups are even more challenging because of the shields that technology places in the relationship. In a face-to-face conflict you may notice a rising in voice level and you may see body language that shows you the emotions the other person is experiencing. But when you are working remotely — especially when you do not have a camera on when running into a conflict — knowing how to handle the situation is a critical skill to have so that you can continue to work and collaborate with the other person and your other teammates (if any).
What you can do to handle this situation is temporarily relaxing your identification with the idea you strongly believe in and stating to the other person that you may not agree with them but that you’re open to hearing more about their idea and trying to understand it. Then you should explore their idea by asking open-ended questions like: “What is important about that?” or “What would this achieve?”
By practicing this skill in combination with those explained in the previous sections, you will gradually learn to lead yourself and other people you work with toward excellence and happiness. Conflict resolution is an especially important skill for leaders in remote teams. One thing you can practice as a leader of a remote team is to identify and acknowledge such conflicts in your team members’ conversations and offer to help by taking a neutral stance where you facilitate the conversation among them until everyone reaches a shared understanding.
Self-Leadership Skill #4: Express your “I” perspective
As you learn the skills for self-awareness, responsibility and conflict resolution, it becomes apparent that you also need to put some time and focus on practicing how to express and communicate the knowledge you gather from observing your emotional and mental states.
When you are in the middle of a creative collaboration with other people, practice expressing your “I” perspective in a way that creates information for the human system, rather than a blame. For example when you feel bored in a meeting, instead of saying “This meeting is boring.” you should say: “I feel bored.”
Observing the impact that the situation has on you and expressing it from an “I” perspective creates information for the group and allows for a conversation to get started about taking actions to improve the situation for you and consequently for the group as a whole. As you practice this, you become better at helping improve the relationships you have with other people you work with.
As many people might struggle with finding the words to describe their mood, pictures can act as a replacement for beginners. The exercise mentioned earlier where you encourage your team to share their current mood with a ,gif is an excellent start for learning and practicing this skill.
If you find yourself in a position of status, authority or leadership, you should strive to create an environment for other people in your team to feel safe and encouraged to observe and express their “I” perspective in different situations.
Bonus section: Health, Sleep and Communication
In this bonus section, I have listed a few simple yet important skills you need to practice in order to become a good remote worker. This might be a repetition of what you have seen elsewhere. If it is, just skip this section.
- Dedicate time to exercise and remember to eat and sleep enough.
- Make sure you have at least four hours of overlapping work time with your colleagues.
- When you work with other people, always check in (say hello) at the beginning of your workday and always check out (say goodbye) at the end of your workday. This is particularly important if you work in different time zones.
- Always have the camera on when you communicate with others so that you do not lose the human connection with others. Also use a good microphone.
- Work out loud i.e. make your plans, progress and problems visible to your team members. Visualizations such as Kanban boards are a great way to do this.
- Do not forget your interests and hobbies. One of the advantages of working remotely is that you can finally take those music lessons in the middle of the day or go to the gym outside of rush hour.
When you work in an office, it is quite natural for you to build friendships with some of the people you work with. As you start working remotely, even if you have a strong bond and connection with your remote colleagues, the human need to be around other people from time to time builds up. Therefore attending to your social life, making friends outside of your job, and spending time with family becomes more necessary than before. You should actively set aside time and space in your awesome remote work lifestyle to socialize frequently, especially if you don’t want to end up being a person who cannot express their feelings in real life without an Internet meme.