This post is, sort of, about a $10 plastic phone I bought on Amazon.
I’m working on a massive opus of my thinking on one on ones, how important they are to remote teams, and a bunch of tall tales about the times I’ve messed them up, and how to avoid my mess ups in your own life.
(Note: This massive opus will not be a list of questions to ask during one on ones. We have enough of those 🙂 )
If I were writing for an actual publication and not my personal blog, it would have an SEO optimized, click-gravity headline: “The Ultimate Guide to Remote One on Ones” – “You Won’t Believe What This Dude Said in a Remote One on One!” – “56 Ways to WOW your Boss!” etc etc.
( You can see my first ever post about one on ones here: Communicating with a Remote Team: One on Ones)
One thing that doesn’t fit super well into that piece, but is still something I want to talk about, is that one on ones are important, and they are hard to get right.
I can acknowledge that I am late to the party, but I’m reading Lean In. It’s fantastic.
There is a ton to think about in this book, and I have a few pieces brewing on the topics within, but there was one passage that has really struck a chord – it fits into something that I’ve been wrestling with myself, the kind of idea that has a few pieces, and they don’t quite come into focus until suddenly, they do.
Let’s start with that passage, it’s on page 132 in my copy:
After the married women spoke about how hard it was to balance their lives, the single woman interjected that she was tired of people not taking her need to have a life seriously. She felt that her colleagues were always rushing off to be with their families, leaving her to pick up the slack. She argued, “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight – and this is just as legitimate as their kids’ soccer game – because going to a party is the only way I might actually meet someone and start a family so I can have a soccer game to go to one day!”
(Just a sidebar here, I thought about cutting the last part, from ‘because going to a party…’ because I think it subsumes the agency of the single woman and sort of reduces her desires into an early-game version of the married womens’ desires, but I’m leaving it since that’s how it was in the book.)
One of the other pieces of this suddenly-in-focus idea comes straight from the headlines of January of this year. Remember when the French President Hollande turned down a State Lunch with Iran because they demanded that the meal be served without wine?
Here’s a New Yorker piece on the event. It’s a good piece, and approaches this event from the perspective of hospitality – to what do we owe our guests? It is, after all, that the Iranian delegation placed their request out of religious observance – not merely to inconvenience or to bully the French.
As I do, around this time I grilled my friends about the topic – have you heard about the French Lunch? What do you think about the Iranian argument? They were mostly avoidant, being very polite and generally pretty proper. The impression I got was that in a general way, it’s assumed that religious beliefs tend to trump social norms in cases like this.
One voice that really resonated with me with David Plotz, speaking on a podcast (the part I’m referring to starts at 1:00:08) – Plotz sees this debate not as one of religious freedom, but rather in terms of what it means to lead a Good Life; “…the things that you claim as fundamental to you.”
I don’t always agree with Plotz, but here I think he is on the right side.
This idea of a Good Life is a highly personal one, and not something that we can quantify or really lend objective judgment to. A person’s life, and the goals that they have for that life, and the things that they hold dear, are deeply personal and generally not subject to debate – especially not at work, and especially not by someone who thinks seriously and deeply about leadership.
Like most of what I write here, this is geared toward folks leading teams remotely, working with people who they rarely see in person, how to make that work in a way that works. This piece is applicable to folks in traditional workspaces as well, but is especially important for remote teams.
What Iran, Sandberg and Plotz have helped to show me is that I’ve been making big assumptions about what a Good Life is, and in bringing my own sensibilities into my work, I think I’ve probably failed to serve some of my peers as well as I could have.
I think that many of us unintentionally give preference to certain ideas of the Good Life in a way that unreasonably ranks other ideas of the Good Life lower on the totem pole. Imagine at your workplace a colleague says that they cannot make an off-hours meeting because their little boy has a recital. Now imagine the same colleague says that they cannot make an early meeting because they have a brewery tour to go to.
We give preference to a particular vision of what a Good Life is – it’s kids, it’s a mortgage, it’s the picket fence and a rescue dog. This is not everyone’s Good Life.
There are arguments to be made to prefer or reject any vision of the Good Life over another – maybe having children and raising them well is good citizenship. Maybe having children contributes to the global overpopulation problem.
As a leader it is not your place to give preference to anyone’s conception of the Good Life.
Unfortunately, you probably are, though. I know I have. How many times have I assumed that a single member of my team will work on a holiday because other folks have kids out of day care? In simple terms, I was bringing in my own idea of a Good Life and using it to give preference to folks on my team.
On one level, giving up my own idea of the Good Life is in part setting aside my own ego. After all, I chose my own idea of the Good Life, I want to believe it has value; to accommodate other ideas of success means acknowledging that at the worst I might be wrong or, (gasp) there may be multiple ways to be right.
In addition to ego, there has to be a rejection of judgment – and this is probably the hardest part of all. In making space for and allowing for folks on your team to conceive of and pursue their own idea of the Good Life, it means defending that pursuit in ways that, at least at first, may seem very strange to other folks who are coming to work with their own ideas around the Good Life.
You can see more clearly now why that last part of the Sandberg quote does not really advance my argument – if the single woman had simply said, “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight – and this is just as legitimate as their kids’ soccer game,” she and I would be more simpatico.
Using the party as a route to marriage, etc, simply acquiesces to the existing status quo Good Life.
If a member of your team is productive, and efficient, and creating the results that the team needs to find success, as their leader it is not only your job to allow them to pursue their own vision of the Good Life, but to defend that vision against other members of the team, and even other people within your organization.
The reason this is more important for remote teams than for geographically co-located teams lies in the trust remote teams need in order to be performant. Working without daily schedules or shared office space means that, as a leader, you have to trust your team explicitly, and believe that they’re making the best choices for themselves and for the organization.
The pursuit of the Good Life has to be included in that trust. In a remote environment especially, knowing that you respect their choices and will stand up for them is a big piece of serving your team well.
I don’t have a great call to action on this one. It’s hard to step outside of my own idea of the Good Life. I’m starting to see things more clearly now, and I hope that you’ll think on this too, and try to recognize when you’re unintentionally bringing in your own idea of the Good Life in a way that’s reducing the Good Life of others.
On the recommendation of my friend and colleague Andrew I recently picked up a leadership book called Extreme Ownership. Here’s his take on it.
There is a lot to talk about in this particular book, but the piece that really stands out to me is the idea that structure and discipline can help an individual to a life of greater freedom. This idea is especially germane to remote workers or folks otherwise enjoying highly flexible schedules and workplaces.
Having travelled in some pretty radical circles, I am familiar with the usual backlash against structure, process, and limitations on behavior – there is definitely a mindset that rejects these things in a wholesale way, and while I don’t agree with it (or find it to be particularly coherent as a political philosophy), there it is.
I can acknowledge that on its face, the idea of adding structure in order to increase personal liberty may sound counterintuitive. Stick with me. We’ll go on this journey together.
If you’re so inclined, and have about sixty pages of time to dedicate, I totally recommend giving it a read in its entirety – it’s dense but brilliant, the kind of work you’ll get through and just nod, because it’s simply intuitively correct, something you understood before you even read it, but put into the very words you never could have.
The TL:DR of Two Concepts is that we can think of liberty as falling into two buckets: Positive Liberty and Negative Liberty.
Negative liberty is essentially freedom of movement or freedom of choice. If I stop you from eating a donut, I’m infringing on your negative liberty. If I tell you to work on this project and only this project or you’re fired, I’m infringing on your negative liberty.
Positive liberty, Berlin says, is self mastery. Being able to make decisions for yourself in an informed and critical way means you have high levels of positive liberty.
When you answer Berlin’s question, “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” – if the answer is “I am the source of control,” then you’re enjoying positive liberty.
These two ideas are often at odds in ways that will help us to understand my above assertion, that through some structure and some discipline, we can ourselves become more free.
Consider driving. I live in the US, so I’ll be referring to US-based road rules – please substitute whatever is appropriate in your region of the world.
Driving in a car requires following certain rules – you stop at red lights, you drive at an appropriate speed, you stay to the right hand side of the road. These are necessarily restrictions on our behavior and as such, limiting factors of our negative liberty.
However, even as our negative liberty is constrained, we’re able to exercise greater positive liberty, as driving becomes a safe activity, it becomes reasonable to engage in, rather than some sort of Mad Max terror situation. We’re able to effectively self govern.
By creating a more structured environment, we’re all able to thrive more fully and accomplish our personal goals. What is the end goal of liberty if not to accomplish our personal goals?
In Extreme Ownership, they talk about a very serious level of discipline, but they’re also dealing with very serious personal goals; kill or be killed. For somewhat less severe goals (decrease churn, make our customers happier), less serious discipline is probably OK.
One of the things that remote workers gain is an open day. There are pros and cons, and the freedom at hand can be thrilling, to be sure.
When you consider your work, and the way that you approach your work, let me encourage you not to mistake negative liberty for positive liberty. Creating structure around your goals and around your day allows you more freedom, not less.
When you’re your own boss, or when you enjoy the freedom to essentially behave as though you’re your own boss, creating your own schedule, etc, one of the best things you can do is to create some boundaries for yourself, to intentionally limit your own negative liberty.
Maybe that means getting up at 5AM to go to the gym, taking away your own ability to stay in a warm bed. Maybe that means always shutting off the laptop at 5PM, because you know you’ll let work creep into your personal time otherwise.
Self mastery, positive liberty, is best accomplished when you impose your own restrictions on your negative liberty – but you do so intentionally, with an eye to your own broader goals and aspirations. A lack of organization will also surely fill your time, and surely will keep you occupied – but will it move you forward in the right ways?
Working from home, being what’s called a remote worker, is a really fascinating frontier of Work. It’s fascinating both because as a paradigm, it creates new challenges, and it also makes visible ways in which more traditional work spaces overcome old challenges.
Working remotely has helped me understand traditional work places much better – if only because in stepping outside of what we see as the usual way of doing business, many of the previously invisible advantages of shared space come into stark relief.
Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently is the idea of phatic conversations – that is, talk whose whole purpose is the talk itself, and not to a larger end (find something out from a colleague, accomplish a shared goal, communicate time away from work.)
I’ve written about communication with remote teams a couple other times lately:
This term, phatic conversation, is a new one for me, and I should say that I heard it for the first time via a podcast. It was one of those moments when someone else touches on and explains something that immediately brings your own thoughts from a mess into order. This is the thing I’ve been wandering around the outside of.
In a traditional workplace, phatic conversations happen in virtue of being around people, and they serve as a real social lubricant that is mutually beneficial and builds trust and sociability over time.
You have tons of these interactions: not all with colleagues, and not even all verbal. That neighbor that checks the mail at the same time as you? Those nods and waves are phatic communication.
We can even see things like small talk as part of this: when you engage in small talk with a stranger or with someone you’ve known for a long time, part of the purpose of that talk is the talk itself.
It outlines a safe space. It’s a little back and forth to establish shared norms, we-are-the-same-tribe-right?
The same is true of colleagues; when a meeting goes long due to some inane banter on an off topic, sharing a joke and a laugh on the way to lunch – this counts, there’s a real value there.
When you work next to someone, in the same building or the same floor, you sort of get phatic conversations for free.
When we think about this concept in a remote environment, where some or all of the folks working in an organization are scattered here and there geographically, this calculus changes.
Remote workers have to get our phatic conversations on purpose – we have to reach out to one another, to grab a virtual coffee or a video-conferenced lunch. It’s really interesting, right? When I was working in more traditional environments, I would have never identified small talk or waiting in line at the copy machine as ways my workplace solved a problem.
Phatic conversations are still important – they grease the wheels and create more shared experiences, and help to humanize folks you maybe don’t work with all that often. This is important!
It’s important not just socially, not just because it’s good to get to know your colleagues for your own sense of belonging and social in-grouping. It’s important because it opens up streams of communication, it gives you and your new connection access to more and different viewpoints and parts of the company (and, if you’re sufficiently distributed, different parts of the world.)
There’s value there – real, demonstrable value for the company or organization. Getting fresh eyes and fresh ears on problems is where innovation comes from. It’s by combining diverse viewpoints that we’re able to approach our problems and obstacles in new and exciting ways.
I have a few scheduled lunches every week where I sit and eat my lunch on camera with someone else (they’re not always eating, time zones means that lunch is relative!) – it’s a really nice way to spend lunch, and I’ve gotten to know folks a lot better this way.
Over the next few months, I’m going to start reaching out to folks specifically to have a coffee, and make it clear that it’s a chat to have a chat. Not people I already count as friends, but really intentionally folks I wouldn’t otherwise ever have face time with.
I don’t want to pull their developers away. I don’t want their designer to work on my project. I just want to have a coffee, to see how their day is going. It feels like this is a way to stoke the fires of serendipity a little, allowing space for unusual combinations to surface and flourish.
If you work in a remote environment, I encourage you to do this, too – it’s just coffee 🙂