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.
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 🙂
Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot these days is the role that structure and discipline play in the life of a remote worker, and a downside I’ve noticed to becoming too structured.
I wrote a little about the import of creating your own signals – in some way we can see that through this same conversation, right? We have to make our own signals in order to keep things running smoothly, to ensure we have the discipline or structure to work the way that we would like to work.
There is a definite tension when it comes to the idea of structure and the idea of working remotely: I think personal freedom is a huge part of what attracts people to a remote lifestyle.
I often find when chatting with others who work remotely, that there is a certain sense of reluctance around creating more structure in their day, or in their approach to work. This Post isn’t all about freedom and structure, although I do think that’s a topic 100% worth really taking a bite out of.
For today, let’s take a look at how I think about structure in terms of what helps me work most effectively, and then we can move on to this bigger topic of going a bit too far in terms of structure.
I structure my work time entirely around my calendar (Google Calendar that is) – I move everything from my to-do lists and legal pads to my calendar as quickly as possible. It’s where I keep everything.
That’s from Ramit. He and I agree on this one.
Especially when working remotely, having things laid out very clearly, in a structured and time-bound manner, helps me ensure nothing slips through the cracks, and allows me to see what my day will be like without having to check a dozen different places or processes.
It has been working really well, for years now. It’s kept me focused and successful and impactful in the ways that I have envisioned and planned out ahead of time.
As an aside, do you remember Blockbuster video, or other video rental places? I have really fond memories as a kid, high schooler, and even into college, going to the video store and just sort of wandering until something caught my eye. There wasn’t an algorithm or selection mechanism at play, other than the ones in my own mind, I guess.
I watched some awful movies, but also some really great ones, ones that wouldn’t ever show up on my Netflix queue today. This was a little bit of serendipity, a minor act of finding something that I wasn’t looking for.
The same thing happened in public libraries for me a lot growing up. That’s how I first found and read Stranger in a Strange Land, which was my absolute favorite book for decades. In fact, my first tattoo was from another Heinlein book, TANSTAAFL.
Before our last Grand Meetup, I told the newest folks on my team, joining Automattic for their first ever Grand Meetup, that the most important thing they could do was to leave room for luck – to avoid overpacking their days, to leave room to decompress, to engender chance; meet someone new, join conversations you’d otherwise rush by.
For some reason it never occurred to me, at least until now, that this advice is actually very important for everyone who is engaged in remote work, all the time – not just during a once-a-year workcation.
I would argue that not only is it important for remote workers to try to leave time for serendipity, you actually must find and create space for it. Teams and departments and approaches being siloed is bad enough when folks are in different offices – when you’re on different continents, the odds of a serendipitous meeting of the minds at just the right moment, well, it’s unlikely.
If you work remotely, you need to not only leave space in your day for chance, you also need to get out there. You need to ask folks in the design department to lunch – yes, maybe it’s a voice call while you’re eating breakfast and they’re eating lunch. You need to see if your HR rep would join you for a coffee – maybe they’re in a Starbucks in London and you’re having Cheerios in Chicago, but it’s still a coffee!
When we’re not physically close to one another, we lose something without the chance meetings of mere proximity. To recapture this, we have to make time, and make friends.
Get out there and meet someone new.