The other night I had the pleasure of sitting down for steak florentine, caprese salad, rosemary potatoes and pecan pie with my boss friend and his family. We drank wine, laughed, and talked about cycling for long enough to make anyone not named Lance cringe.
Largely due to the people at the table (two people in the leadership space, the head of school, a wellness consultant, a man that has started several companies and another that seemed to know something about everything), we talked technology, leadership, obsession with power, and flexible work masked under the umbrella of general questions like, “so, what do you actually do?”
The question that sparked the most debate (directed at me when I was talking about being in the office roughly one day a week for the last 8 years) was “do you feel connected?”
I’ve worked from home for almost a decade now. It started when I relocated to Halifax and has continued even now that I’m back in Ontario within commuting distance to the Toronto office (although, if you listen to people selling houses out this way, Buffalo is within commuting distance now too). At first, it was out of necessity; we couldn’t afford to live in Vancouver after we decided to start a family, so we had to move. Since my job involved countless meeting with SAP teams in Germany, gaining those extra four hours also made sense from a business point-of-view.
Remote work was not a common occurrence at the time. SAP was very much a work 1.0 organization. As a result, I felt that any concerns or issues I had – be them psychological, productivity, work-life balance or even simple ergonomics – were best left unsaid. Remote working was an experiment and if too many variables were out of whack, it might mean that the experiment wasn’t worth the effort.
The first few years were somewhat of a struggle. Although I am an introvert, I’m very social. Within days, I missed the banter and camaraderie of the office. I missed being able to walk over to someone’s desk to quickly clarify ID questions or release dates. I missed going for morning coffees. My wife joked that she’d know how isolated my day was as soon as she drove into the driveway, because she’d see my head pop up into my office window as soon as I heard the car (insert image of lovable pet dog waiting at the door with a ball in its mouth).
While that isolation wasn’t a huge surprise, I was completely overwhelmed by how quickly the line between home and work blurred and eventually disappeared completely. My day became longer; I was working 5 hours on European time and often 5 hours on Vancouver time and was quickly becoming a slave to my BlackBerry.
I was connected to work for about 18 hours a day, but began to realize I wasn’t connecting to anyone from my team. I began to feel like an island (to the point, one of my friends actually called the basketball I dribbled in my office “Wilson”), like a sinking ship. I wanted to keep my job, but was the impact on my health and wellness worth it?
I was unhappy, and unfortunately when you work at home, often that means your frustration stays there. I knew something had to change.
So how did I start connecting with people?
Like any project manager/instructional designer, I made a list of tasks/goals I needed to accomplish to be successful in this new environment. Some were helpful, others were not. I looked at the spreadsheet last night, and pulled the ones that I felt were most beneficial to me.
- Be deliberate in your social interactions
When I talk to organizations about moving away from the office, the first recommendation I offer is for all employees to formalize their social interactions. We are all busy and going from meeting to meeting, or multi-tasking through a call doesn’t mean we are connecting with our fellow employees.
I started turning on my Web cam during calls. Even if I was the only person that did so, it kept me focused. Knowing that other people would see my attention drifting or my energy dropping was enough to keep my focus.
I scheduled virtual coffees. I blocked 15 minutes to have non-work calls with people I no longer saw in the office. We talked about our kids, our hobbies and our lives, but we didn’t talk about work.
You might read this and think it’s weird to be so formal, but this routine quickly became habit. I didn’t need to schedule conversations with colleagues, because we stayed in contact. More importantly, I wasn’t only talking to them when I needed something. I can honestly say, these virtual relationships were as authentic as any I developed in the office.
- Ask for help and listen to people
When the topic of virtualization comes up, undoubtedly someone suggests that you have to ensure leaders are adequately tooled to manage and lead a team that is scattered across multiple time zones (guilty). We all talk of team norms and how to interact with people. The thing is, it’s not just about leading in a virtual world, it’s about surviving.
Until you sit alone in a room for eight hours a day, you never know what to expect. The lack of human contact is unsettling at times, but there are so many other factors you have to consider. Is your chair going to give you proper support? Do you have a door you can close if need be? Are you still eating properly? Do you get enough fresh air and exercise? Can you still hit deadlines? Do you feel like you can ask for help?
I relied on my own experiences to lead others making the transition, but in the beginning, I relied on the advice of anyone that had already gone through the process and found their comfort zone.
- Remember that thing called the phone
Emails. IM. Commenting. Likes. Forwards. Re-shares. These are easy ways to send approval and information back and forth that we all rely on each and every day. It becomes almost too easy to get data without any human interaction. I forced myself to pick up the phone and call colleagues when I had a question.
There were two reasons to do this. The first was productivity. Ignoring an email or question in an forum is easy. We all do it and will continue you to do it. How many times have people told you they were in email hell or trying to get through their inbox and would reply as soon as they could? I found people were more likely to respond to a call or even voice message, knowing that if I took the time to call it was probably important.
The second was clarity and connections. As my inbox got more and more cluttered and I was finding information in document repositories or wiki pages, I noticed that I was making assumptions on everything from tone to fact. I would scan an email quickly and assume that I knew exactly what my colleague intended. I would find a document, and not analyze the history or understand it’s context and evolution.
Yes, these are my own personal issues, but they are not unique. The easier it is to find “some” information, the easier it is to assume it’s the right information and that you understand it. Calling someone up gave me the chance to hear them speak, ask questions in a safe environment (no one wants to look stupid online) and really understand the problem and the proposed solution.
- Work with my leader, not for my leader
Your manager needs to drive results and productivity, but they are also their to help you develop. If you accept the fact you have less contact with your boss if you work remotely, you accept the fact you are mitigating development and coaching opportunities.
I was lucky. My director and manager both supported the move and had already given me the autonomy to do my job and ask for help when I needed it. That meant we could focus on my development. Scheduling regular meetings, quick check-ins and random morning calls when my boss was on his morning commute all helped bridge the gap of distance and helped me find my strengths. I never had to sacrifice development for productivity, but many do.
If you want to continue to be fulfilled at work when you never go to the office, you can’t put your career behind your life. If you do, both will suffer.
- Set guidelines for you, not just your team
It’s easy to write down your normal hours, your preferred methods of communication and even delegate backups to cover your work when you are away, but if you don’t follow the same rules why bother?
If you answer emails at 10PM from your mobile, well, people will not only keep sending them they will expect a reply when they do. If you don’t use your vacation to recharge and still call into meetings when you are off, you will burn out and the cracks will start to show.
Work / Life balance is not a reality anymore; we are always connected and accessible but if we want to continue to be productive and engaged, we need to find a way to unplug and disconnect. I started taking bike rides, going for runs or gettnig groceries in the middle of the day. If I was going to work until 9, why not get things done during “standard” business hours to minimize the stress of not having enough time to get things done because I was always working. It also helped my wife understand what I could and couldn’t not do so she didn’t feel the burden was all hers.
- Don’t let location be the excuse for not doing something
This one was huge. It was easy to accept that I couldn’t be on a project team because I was so far away. I couldn’t help plan launches, releases or courses because I’d need to be online at late hours or wouldn’t be able to interact with the team.
The thing is, technology can help us connect with anyone, anywhere. If you set guidelines and remain flexible, location will not determine success or failure. One I started using that as an excuse to not collaborate, I began to feel more connected and my team started to trust me with more and more work.
These are just a few of the lessons I learned over the last 9 years. Hopefully they help you as you start to find your rhythm in your virtual workplace. If you have any tips, I’d love to hear them.