Communicating with Remote Workers

If you work remotely, you’ve likely heard something like this from co-workers:
“Did you finish the code on Project X?”
“Did you get my last email?”
“Are you working today?”

Eventually you have to stop what you’re doing and respond. Not because you’re ignoring them…but because they don’t think you’re communicating. Even though you’ve sent them emails and marked tasks as complete in your workflow. For some reason they don’t see those, and decide to pester you directly.

This perceived lack of communication, and how to resolve it, are what I’ll talk about today.

Remote Workers Perceived as Poor Communicators – Because of How Our Brains Work

Communication problems cited as second-biggest problem when working remotely. (Loneliness is #1. I’ll talk about that in another post.)

Why? Because of the human association between Communication (engaging in a conversation) and Presence (visibility to co-workers).

When we speak to someone, our primeval brain wants to see them present. Voice + Face = Person.
But when we’re remote, that doesn’t happen. The communication does, through a variety of mediums…but the presence isn’t the same.

As a result, people sometimes believe, “He’s not here. He’s not communicating with me.”

“I need that report 10 minutes ago!”
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

 

The thing is…this isn’t exclusive to remote workers. You can have the same communication problems with a co-worker one floor up. Only the perception is different.

When it’s different, your communications may end up missed or ignored. Not consciously, but it does happen. Like you don’t see the stop sign at the end of your street, because you’ve passed by it a thousand times already. Even if you emailed your co-worker 10 times, they may still think, “Why haven’t I heard from Bob about this?”

Where the Disconnect Comes From

The disconnect between Communication & Presence stems from 2 issues:

LACK OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION. You remember the old, “90% of all communication is nonverbal” statistic, right? I don’t think it’s quite that high, but nonverbal communication is a factor here. Body language, hand gestures, eye contact…you can’t duplicate these on the phone or through email. (I do not consider emojis ‘nonverbal communication.’ Don’t get any ideas!)

As a result, communicating with someone who’s not physically present feels a little bit like “a ghost whispering nearby” to our brains. Not a whole person responding to questions. Just some disembodied voice floating by.

INDIVIDUAL COMMUNICATION PREFERENCES. I have a preferred communications medium (email). A co-worker of mine prefers using the phone. Let’s call him Jason. What ends up happening half the time goes as follows:

  1. I email Jason with a project request.
  2. Jason replies back, asking if we can have a phone call.
  3. We get on the phone. I explain the same things I wrote out in my email.
  4. Jason says he understands, indicates when he’ll finish, and gets off the phone.
  5. I receive the requested work shortly thereafter.

Each of us has an individual communication preference. Clearly, they do not match. That’s okay though; we still used them both to communicate. Because each of us knows the other’s preferences, there’s no frustration or confusion. The communication just overlaps a little.

Which is the big takeaway for this post. When communicating with remote workers, boost your communication efforts by 20%.

Boost Communication by 20% to Engage More and Share Information Thoroughly

Why increase the amount of communication? Because the clearer internal communications are, the smoother projects run. Think of a time when your project snarled due to someone not having correct information about their input.

Here’s a quick example. Two years ago, we had five people working on a new website. A developer, a designer, two content writers, and a project manager. At some point, each of us worked remotely on said website.

One week, the developer missed a task on the list. His eye just skipped past it in the process of working. The task involved writing some CSS to arrange a webpage template’s footer.

We had a process in place for updating everyone on our work status. A short meeting over Skype for Business. But we didn’t convene for it that week. The next Monday, the designer noticed that the page footers would break whenever he inserted images. He checked his task list, but it didn’t show a missed task. Puzzled, he tried to work around it, but could not.

So he mentioned it to the project manager. A few phone calls later, and we found the missing task. The developer fixed it right away. Problem resolved. But, if we had held our weekly update meeting, we would have saved all the time taken up noticing, reporting, and discussing the missed task.

—-
“Okay Chris,” you might think, “But why 20%? That seems like a lot of time.”

Not really. How much time do you spend on communication now? If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a handful of hours per workweek on communication. In preparation for this post I tracked how much time I communicated with co-workers. Average weekly amount? 3.5 hours out of 40. Not even 10%.
Boosting that by 20% would mean adding another 0.7 hours…just over 40 minutes per week. 4.2 hours out of 40. Still close to 10%.

It’s a doable amount. It’s also easy to track, if Management wants to.

The benefit to increasing communication 20% comes from your conscious awareness. When you’re consciously thinking about communicating, you consider your statements more thoroughly. What would come across nonverbally makes it into your verbal/conscious communications…thus covering what your co-workers might miss.

A 20% boost doesn’t have to take the form of more emails or calls though. I don’t know about you, but I get enough email as it is…

Instead, try these forms:

  • A conference call/online meeting once a week (15-30 min). Use video to recapture that nonverbal communication too!
  • Add another daily check-in to project teams (e.g. in online chat like Slack or Teams). I described a method of checking in without harming workflow in my last post.
  • A few extra, smaller tasks in your project management system/project calendar. Don’t assume a co-worker knows you need a certain bit of code; spell it out!

“I always wear shades while coding. Why do you ask?”
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

How to Determine What to Communicate (and How Much)

Now, let’s think about how a 20% boost works out. Just saying you want to increase communication by 20% doesn’t make it happen.

These are some ideas I’ve used successfully. Please feel free to adapt them, or experiment with other ideas that better fit your workplace.

  1. Think about what you’ll need on this project from each colleague, in terms of their input, their deliverables, and where they plan to reach them. Make a list of all of these. Refer to the checklist at the start of the week. If you need more input on something, ask!
  2. Map out the project stages from your perspective. At each stage, think on what colleagues will need from you. Not just in terms of output, but in terms of how your output will fit into their work. Might take 10 minutes, but it’ll save everyone hours.
  3. Add a question to the end of every conversation. For instance, “Is there anything else we should cover at this point?” or “Do you need anything from me?”
  4. Do a weekly check-in with the team. Always schedule it at the same time of the week, so everyone knows they must communicate where they are and what’s next for them.

Increase Communication by 20%, Make Remote Work AND In-Office Work Easier

Remember that communication overlap I mentioned earlier? You may encounter that sort of thing when boosting communications between in-office and remote workers. If you do, don’t worry. You’re not wasting time. In fact, overlaps like those help both parties know how the other works. Which makes it easier for you to help them work more efficiently, and vice versa.

Then you never have to hear statements like, “Bob’s working remotely. I never know what he’s working on.”

How would you boost communication by 20% in your office?

Remote Work Productivity

How Task Overlap Wastes Productivity, and How One Simple List Can Stop It

“Everyone does a little bit of everything here.” It’s a common saying in startups, and some small businesses. Harmless, right?

No. If you have remote workers, you need to stamp that practice out.

It will hurt your company’s productivity and cost you valuable time. I’ll elucidate how in this post.

Productivity Drain Warning: Task Overlap

Let’s illustrate an example here. We have a business where everyone works remotely. One worker, Bob, can do a certain task. I’ll use “populating SEO metadata on webpages” in this case.

SEO population is not Bob’s primary job. But he can do it. Now, another worker, Sarah, does SEO population as part of her regular weekly tasks.

However, not everyone in the company knows this.

Jeff, Sarah’s manager, does know about Sarah’s SEO population duty. Bob does not. Bob’s manager Anna doesn’t either.

Problem: Anna receives a task request for SEO population. Her mind, of course, goes to Bob. She asks Bob to do it.

Because Bob doesn’t know Sarah can populate SEO (and regularly does), he goes ahead & does it. It takes him 15 minutes because he’s not accustomed to doing it regularly. Two days later, Sarah does her regular SEO population for all clients. It only takes her 5 minutes per task. Along the way, she sees that one population was already done. Curious, she takes 3 minutes and finds out Bob did it.

Bob has wasted his effort and 15 minutes of time. Sarah has wasted 3. This is what I mean by Task Overlap.

Frustrated Remote Worker

I wasted HOW long doing that??

Be Specific on Who Does What, to Avoid Task Overlap

If people do many things/skills, and are not expressly aware of everyone else’s duties, then they can overlap with others. Causing wasted productivity each time. Only a little time, as we saw above. But that can add up fast.

Imagine if you could get 1 extra hour of productivity, per person, per month. That’s a big chunk of useful time.

Regular thorough communication can help avoid Task Overlap to a large degree. But it’s not as effective as specifying everyone’s duties.

How to ID Remote Workers’ Specialties

Here’s a way to solve the Task Overlap issue. You only need a little time, documentation, and a shared workspace (e.g. a wiki, Asana, etc.).

  1. Survey every remote worker. Ask them to list their specialties and their regular duties.
  2. Document all of these in 1 big list. Separate by type and person. I’ve worked up an example in the below image:

    Remote Work Duties & Specialties List

    Duties and Specialties for Bob & Sarah. At-a-glance Task Overlap prevention.

  3. Publish the list somewhere ALL workers, remote or otherwise, have access to.
  4. Require all workers to view & bookmark the list.
    • Everyone can refer to this whenever they receive a new task.
  5. Update the list quarterly. You can just re-run the previous process to check in with everyone.
  6. When you do update the list, send an email reminder around so everyone knows to check it again.

Let’s go back to our earlier example. Anna receives a request for SEO metadata population. She checks the list. Sees that Bob has SEO population listed as a Specialty…but Sarah has SEO Population under Duties.

Anna forwards the request to Jeff, who adds it to Sarah’s regular weekly task list. Time? Maybe 3 minutes. Productive time wasted? Zero.

Clarity on Who Does What Saves Time AND Productivity

Don’t get me wrong…it’s good to have multi-skilled people on your team! Especially in a remote work environment. That way another person can step in to help if someone’s out sick, or on vacation.

You just don’t want to mis-target their efforts, over and over.

In a Remote Work environment, people sometimes feel they’re the “only one who can do this.” One simple list can explain otherwise, AND let them focus on what they do best.

Does your company document people’s duties/specialties?

IBM and Remote Work

IBM has decided to cancel its remote worker policy.
Extraordinarily bad idea. I’ll illustrate why.

IBM, remote-work pioneer, is calling thousands of employees back to the office – Quartz.com

IBM’s Current State: Unwell

Let’s frame the entire discussion right now. IBM as a company is not doing well. They’ve had 20 straight quarters of revenue decline, right up to Q1 2017 (which ended right as they made this announcement).

IBM stock tumbles as year-over-year revenue declines for 20th consecutive quarter – CNBC

Now, I like the Watson project. I almost can’t overstate its value to medical professionals and research teams. But even with Watson and cloud sales improving, IBM can’t pull themselves out of a LONG slump.

I find this very telling, in regards to their remote work termination.

The Reasons Given: Lofty and Shaky

Sources cited in the Quartz article talk about innovation and productivity gains. About IBM needing to be faster, more ‘agile.’

ibm photo

Used to use one of these…ahh, days gone by.
Photo by byzantiumbooks

“What IBM should value most, says John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who specializes in HR strategy, are better ideas. ‘It turns out the value of innovation is so strong that it trumps any productivity gain,’ he says, pointing to companies like Apple and Facebook that make around $2 million per employee (IBM makes about $200,000 for each employee). ‘[Remote work] was a great strategy for the 90s and the 80s, but not for 2015.’ He thinks that working together in person is one key to innovation.”

The comparison Professor Sullivan uses is, quite frankly, laughable. IBM already has to collaborate with ‘remote’ locations–its multiple worldwide offices! The marketing department alone has 6 offices across the U.S. ‘Working together in person’ is not possible.

(It’s also notable that the quote came from 2015…IBM had to go back 2 years to find it, apparently.)

Other sources appear to rail against remote work…Yahoo’s similar cancellation, Reddit’s demand that all employees relocate to San Francisco. The fact that Yahoo and Reddit both experienced severe trouble (and Yahoo’s ultimate collapse) are not mentioned.

The QZ.com author, Ms. Kessler, tries to show a bright side to the move. (The article itself is good; I always like seeing great writing.) But an upbeat article won’t make the truth go away.

Who made this ridiculous decision?

The Decision’s Sponsor: IBM’s New CMO

Michelle Peluso is IBM’s Chief Marketing Officer. She came on board in September of 2016. From the available information, it appears she set out to destroy IBM’s remote work policy from Day 1.

“In a video message, Peluso, formerly the CEO of fashion startup Gilt, explained the ‘only one recipe I know for success.’ Its ingredients included great people, the right tools, a mission, analysis of results, and one more thing: ‘really creative and inspiring locations.'”

Wait a minute. The only recipe she knows for success…from a fashion company? IBM is about as far from fashion as you can get. It’s not reasonable to presume the tactics used in a fashion company will work in a technology giant like IBM.

Another thing to point out…she’s the IBM Chief MARKETING Officer.

That’s not an HR position…she shouldn’t have anything to do with hiring & firing. She has no technical experience either. Yet she’s the one making a company-wide decision affecting thousands of technology workers?

This makes no sense at all! What’s the real reason behind IBM’s move?

Using Remote Work as a Scapegoat for Cost-Cutting

When we think about it,it’s pretty easy to see what’s really going on here. It’s all a cost-cutting effort.

  1. Declare an end to the remote work policy.
  2. Assign remote workers to a physical office. The office could be in a totally different city from your home. For example, say you work out of a Boston suburb. Your job is now assigned to the Austin office…and you have to show up.
  3. IBM has now created a circumstance where remote workers quit, since they can’t reach the office. If you don’t want to move? You’re fired.
  4. Profit?

The thing is, they’ve already done layoffs. Thousands of them, just in the past 12 months. It didn’t help their costs. This move won’t either…and in fact may do structural damage to the company.

What Happens to IBM Next?

Maybe some of the talent lost wasn’t so good. If so, a simple layoff would suffice. But a move like this sends a powerful message…a very, very bad one. To the world at large, and to the remaining IBM employees.

The remaining talent…the skilled engineers, good programmers, and so on…now know they can get dumped too. Nobody is safe from Peluso’s “improvements.” What will the skilled workers do in response? If I were any of them, I’d run for the exit as fast as possible!

Thousands of companies will happily slurp up IBM’s talent. Not only do they gain highly-skilled workers, they cause IBM damage. In trying to bolster its own innovation, IBM has sent a shockwave through its own halls.

In terms of short-term effect, here’s what I predict. Any IBM department which must reabsorb formerly-remote workers into their on-site workflows, will slow down. Workflows must change, space must be made, relationships built or rebuilt. The day-to-day of people moving about will drag down productivity.

Of course, this causes the opposite of what Peluso claims she wants. Unless she was only after destroying the remote work policy…in which case, anything that happens afterward is not her problem.

Could IBM Reverse the Remote Work Decision?

Is such a decision reversible? Yes, and that’s the best move. Reinstitute the remote worker policy. Do it companywide, right away.

But, even if they did so tomorrow, the damage is done. It would help them in the long run. But they’ve already burned their most important bridge…the one to their talent.

Even if invited back, some of the remote workers cut by this move will not return. (Nor should they; IBM has declared they don’t trust or want you.) That means IBM has to spend more time/money training new people…wasting all the time/money they already spent on the departing workers.

IBM now has to re-home thousands of workers, paying power costs, growing the needed office space, and raising pollution in every city affected.

crowd photo

“This is my office.” “No, this is my office.” “It’s my office too!”
Photo by markhillary

The sad thing is, IBM once enjoyed incredible boosts from their remote work policy. Not just in productivity, but in ACTUAL cost savings. The article even mentions this!

“And by 2009, when remote work was still, for most, a novelty, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 global employees already worked at home (the company noted that it had reduced its office space by 78 million square feet and saved about $100 million in the US annually as a result).”

Hundreds of millions in savings. Now destroyed, rendered moot.

A Bad Move by a Troubled Company

I give credit to the Captain Capitalism blog for pointing out the Quartz article. The man is brusque, but he knows his economics. Take heed.

My final word: IBM has destroyed a remote work policy that brought them provable gains, because a fashion exec says it’ll save the entire company. The IBM decision-makers are either voluntarily ignorant, or they think they’re above the market.

20 straight quarters of declining revenue says they are wrong.

What do you think?