Office Frustrations

Now that COVID-19 has demonstrated many offices are unnecessary, we must keep our eyes out. Another issue surfaces on the horizon, like a sleeping tiger just beginning to rouse.

It’s the blaring horn of the office. The company-wide email saying, “All employees will return to the office on X Date.”

Let me take a guess as to how this email will go. It will include phrases like, ‘how companies should run,’ and/or ‘where employees need to be.’

Beware! These are signs of managers trying to return to old thinking.

Prairie Dog Yelling

Not actually a boss yelling for you to get back to the office. I just thought a prairie dog yelling was hilarious.
Photo by Arnaud STECKLE on Unsplash.

 

We’re already seeing companies try to bring people back to the office. The managers and VPs woke up, and now want to force employees who’ve dealt with a severely stressful situation – and KEPT WORKING – back into their cubicles.

Why would they do this? The entire world has now seen through the lie of, “You have to be in the office to work!”

Nope, we sure don’t. And everyone knows it now.

The managers who demand employees come back are essentially saying two things:

  1. “I won’t change my thinking for anything.”
  2. “I don’t trust you.”

This is quite sad. It reflects badly on managers in general (and we’ve all known good ones).
We’re coming out of a global Black Swan event, and they want to pretend it’s the 1990s again?

What Managers Need to Know About Demanding Employees Return to the Office (and What Employees Should Do In Response)

Whatever the motivations, we still have to deal with the demand. Both as individual employees and as companies. Let me help you do so.

I’ve put together a detailed response to this old thinking below. It’s divided into two parts. One for managers who want to force employees back into the office. One for employees facing a manager who wants them back in the office.

First up, managers. Time for some hard truths, folks.

Hard Truths For Managers:

  • If you give people the option to remain home, many will take it. That’s not a mark of laziness; it’s a mark of efficiency. Most people want to do good work. If they’ve found they can do so remotely, why take that away from them?
  • If you’re worried about internal communications, then your communications plan has flaws. Ask several employees how they prefer to communicate day-to-day. You may find some using channels you didn’t provide them, like texting or personal Skype. That’s a weakness in your own communications, and it’s something you need to fix pronto.
  • If you do insist of people coming back, expect lower productivity, poorer quality of work, and higher turnover. Why? Because you just injected a huge amount of stress into an already-stressful workplace.

    Office Frustrations

    “I didn’t have to deal with this at home.”
    Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash.

  • Do you have some employees in the office and some remote? Maybe you’re thinking the remote employees aren’t working as hard as the on-site ones? Statistics say the opposite. Remote workers are MORE likely to work harder and put in more hours. You’re barking up the wrong tree.
  • Finally, let me say this. Thousands of businesses have decided to make remote work a permanent part of their infrastructure: Facebook, Twitter, Shopify. They’ve seen its benefits during the lockdown, and recognized that it helped the business to survive. If you take your team’s remote options away…well, those other companies look quite appealing now, don’t they? You will, in effect, drive your own team out the door.
Unproductive Work

Unproductive employees are, well, unproductive.
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash.

 

I mean no malice in saying all this. Directing people and processes is not an easy task under any circumstances. It’s simply necessary to understand these points. This change was coming either way…COVID just shoved it forward.

Next up, employees! You may wonder how to respond to a “Heading Back to the Office” email. Options do exist, though you should exercise caution in using them.

How Employees Should Respond:

  • If your manager announces a “Return to the Office” directive, ask for a discussion. Decisions like this usually take place in a vacuum. Asking to talk it over allows for feedback, which can prompt more thought and collaboration among the whole team.
  • Bring talking points to the discussion.
    • Has your productivity gone up while working remotely? Cite an instance of this. Perhaps you were able to respond to a customer request right away, because you’d already finished a project that would have otherwise blocked you.
    • Familiarize yourself with up-to-date remote work statistics. Hubspot has compiled several such statistics in this article, updated May 2020. I’ll give two examples below:
      • 74% of employees say that a remote work option would make them less likely to leave their company.
      • Businesses would save an average of $11,000 annually per half-time telecommuter.

        Remote Working Well

        Don’t mind me, just doing my work (with good posture no less!).
        Photo by Susanna Marsiglia on Unsplash.

  • If you have a story about continuing to work during the pandemic due to the remote option, bring it up. Nothing persuades like a story.
  • Prepare for success and for failure. Success is easy – just keep doing what you’re doing. Failure may take some mental adjustment (not to mention scheduling). Be aware of this going in.
  • If in the end, your manager insists everyone return, take a little time to consider whether this is the company for you. Other companies will keep Remote Work environments open…perhaps you’re better off with them?
  • I recommend against staging a protest, unless you’re part of a large team who all want to work remotely. Instead, keep talking with co-workers, and continue to bring the subject up with Management wherever appropriate.

Remote Work is the Future, Whether Management Likes It or Not

I did expect managers to push for a post-lockdown return to the office. You did too, right?

For some, it has nothing to do with productivity, and everything to do with their own control. That’s an emotional reason, not a rational one. As we’ve all seen lately, it’s nigh-impossible to reason with emotional people!

That said, the Remote Work genie is unquestionably out of the bottle. No amount of pushing & demand-issuing will put it back. Even the most die-hard anti-telecommuter has seen it.

The next 10 years will see dramatic shifts in what constitutes an ‘office’ and a ‘company.’ I trust that the COVID pandemic will pass, but the truths it’s shown the world about remote work will linger. As they should! They demonstrate that we can all do great work from any location.

What’s your situation with the office? Please share in the comments.

Coronavirus Innovations

Yes, I’m piggybacking on the coronavirus madness. However, this post will not screech about how we’re all going to die. We’re not. It’s serious, but it will pass.

What I do want to talk about is the benefits coronavirus has begun to generate.

Now, I’m not saying this to sound callous. No disease spreading across the world is “a good thing.” (Unless you’re someone who thinks humans should all go away. Hmmm…a debate for another time.)

I’m speaking about two benefits that the coronavirus/COVID-19’s global spread may yield for the world. We’re already seeing the beginnings of both.

They are “International Healthcare” and “Remote Work.” This post will show you how & why…and why I believe this is ultimately a good thing.

International Healthcare: Innovation from Adversity

Right now, across the world, countries have devoted significant resources to their healthcare systems. South Korea has graduated a large group of nursing students early, so they can work in the field with coronavirus patients. Vaccines, studies, and new treatments are on the fast track.

This illness has reawakened worldwide interest in healthcare improvement. That alone is a fantastic advancement…one that will benefit the entire world for years to come.

Healthcare Innovation

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash.

 

it’s unfortunate that a pandemic had to come about in the first place. Yet such events spur innovation on every level, from local to international.

The Spanish Flu had a similar effect. In its wake after 1918, governments began tracking diseases and working on public healthcare programs. These were enormous innovations at the time. Our very idea of tracking disease progression – currently in use worldwide for COVID-19 – spawned from the Spanish Flu’s wake.

(Source: How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Revolutionized Public Health)

Right now it’s too early to say what specific types of healthcare innovation will come from COVID-19’s response. Were I to speculate, I would say:

  • Improved disease tracking
  • Open data sharing worldwide
  • New vaccines developed for related flus

All of which will save millions of lives. Spare millions more from suffering.

Remote Work: A Spike in Worldwide Adoption

Since coronavirus spreads so easily from person to person, many companies have decided to expand their telecommuting options. Keeping people apart so as to blunt the disease’s spread further.

Companies like Box and Apple have encouraged employees to work from home across the entire nation. This includes employees previously required to come into the office.

 

Desk Working from Home

I want this desk.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash.

A list of companies working from home due to COVID-19: StayingHome.Club

They’re taking precautions. Understandable. It’s an excellent approach to the situation. Hey, if nothing else, it demonstrates some care for the employees.

This also benefits Remote Work as a whole. When the pandemic subsides (as I can reasonably say it will), what will become of these companies?

Many will have witnessed firsthand what we, as Remote Work advocates, already know: Remote Work works!

Productivity’s still good. Safe workers can continue to work. Even though they’re not jammed into the office. Imagine that: People can still do good work outside the office. You can even trust them to do their jobs!

Now, some may experience a slowdown in their workflows. If they’re new to remote work, that’s expected. It takes a few adjustments over time, in process and mindset.

This is another area where the coronavirus spurs innovation. More people working remotely = more investment & attention to efficient remote-work processes. More companies exposed to the benefits.

Not the best possible circumstance to spur changes in your company structure, I agree. However, it still serves.

Will companies go back to “everyone must work from the office” after the pandemic subsides? Some will. They won’t accept the benefits, stubbornly digging in their heels. That’s too bad for their employees…especially because it’ll hurt them (via the company’s issues) in the long run.

Refusing to accept remote work, even after it proves valuable to your employees, only demonstrates your refusal to adapt. Fatal to every business out there.

A Bright Side to COVID-19 – Since We Must Deal With It, Let’s Embrace a Better Future

Would I prefer innovations like these come on their own, apart from major events like pandemics? Of course I would! Yet the fact remains that we have one on our hands now. We must deal with it.

Innovation will come one way or another. In the end, we must use those innovations to keep improving. personally and professionally.

I choose to see the bright side of the global situation – improvements in healthcare systems, and a spike in the adoption of Remote Work. These are both good things, and will benefit millions in the coming years.

What do you think of the situation?

Telecommuting and Traffic

It amazes me that we still need to make a case for remote work in Corporate America. Yet we do, even today.

Which is why I always like seeing good strong articles on it. Case in point: this excellent overview of the ‘state of telework’ at Ars Technica.

The future of work looks like staying out of the office (February 18, 2020)

Ars Technica Logo

Logo image courtesy of ArsTechnica.com.

The article calls up the major arguments for telecommuting – time recaptured, traffic reduced, flexibility leading to more productivity. It debunks a few common objections. Then it concludes with a discussion on telework among federal employees. (Which has gone down in the past few years…a little surprising, honestly.)

One point I did like seeing was the fact that telecommuting helps with a tight labor market. Right now we have less than 4% unemployment – which is extremely tight! Here in Silicon Valley, positions can stand empty for months. Not due to lack of demand, but due to lack of skilled people. Even if you find someone, another company will happily poach them from you in an instant.

This not only means companies must scramble to find people, but they have to keep them once hired. Telecommuting opens up more options in the talent pool, and provides a valuable benefit to staying on.

For example, a friend of a friend is a programmer in the Midwest. He is disabled due to a severe car accident in his teens. He must use a wheelchair. As such, he cannot drive. Even if he moved into a city where he could find work, how would he get there & back every day? Uber would add up fast.

Instead, he telecommutes. He works for a Silicon Valley company as one of their programmers. Does a great job, as I hear…with zero commute and no worries about getting around.

Remote Work advocates like me will read this article and simply nod along with it. If you’re curious, or want to understand why remote-friendly workers believe in it, this article is well worth the read.

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?

Must keep a close eye on those remote workers...

You just know they’re goofing off, don’t you? Those remote workers on your team. They’re not working…you can feel it.

The deadline for the next blog post is in 3 hours. You haven’t heard anything from them in the past 2. If only you could prove their laziness. You could force them back into the office. Or fire them, and replace them with someone who stays in the office who doesn’t goof off!

So you call up one of your remote workers. Out of the blue. You’re going to get them back on task, or add fuel to your righteous firing fury.

“Hello? Oh, hi Boss. Yeah, I’m working on it now. Have been for the past 2 hours. Almost done. No, just a few minutes more. I’ll message you when it’s ready.”

 

Oh. So they were working on the blog post that whole time. You not only misjudged their efforts…you disrupted their workflow with the out-of-the-blue call. The blog post you get back may not have the same quality as the one you’d get if you hadn’t broken their concentration.

This sort of scenario plays out way too often. It’s 2018, and yet, some managers cannot let go of the old office paradigm. “If I can’t see you, you’re not working!”

Of course, this is so far from the truth it’s almost insulting. A manager cannot see someone homed in another office…do they make the same assumption about their lack of productivity? (Sometimes they do, believe it or not.)

Remote workers take that a step further. Even though they build software, create good content, and keep huge parts of the world economy working…they garner much more managerial venom than they deserve.

So what’s the solution? That’s what we’ll go through today.

Managers & Employees Have Different Perspectives

Here’s a portrayal of a sadly-typical exchange between Managers and Employees Working Remotely. It shows how one small change in perspective can have disastrous consequences.

  • Manager – I must keep the team on deadline. Checks in with Employee. Demands an update.
  • Employee – Stops working at each check-in. Breaks their workflow. Gets nervous. Over time, they become paranoid about their job.
  • Manager – ‘Invites’ employee back into office. “You’ll be more productive here.”
  • Employee – Sees this ‘invitation’ as magnifying the problem. More interruptions, more surveillance! Has to go into the office, but is now more nervous than ever. Work suffers.
  • Manager – Terminates unproductive employee. Sees the whole thing as justifying their negative view of remote work.
  • Employee – Finds a new job working remotely again. Enjoys the focus & freedom. Work quality soars.

See what just happened? The manager, due to their preconceived notions, essentially sabotaged their own employee. They lost out on all the productive work that employee could have done, without the manager breathing down their neck.

The employee doesn’t understand why their manager targeted them. They likely never will. No one will speak to the manager about this chain of events. The cycle will repeat, until either:

A. The company ceases allowing remote workers. In which case the manager will focus all their interruptions within the office, lowering OVERALL productivity.
OR
B. The manager realizes their disruptive behavior & changes it.

Focus During Remote Work

Two of these people are building new software to do amazing things. The third just got an email from his manager, who wants to talk. Guess who’s who.
Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

The Importance of Focus (and Letting Workers Employ It)

What’s one of the most important things to an employee…no matter where they do their work? FOCUS.
Using long chunks of time to eliminate distractions, focus on the work in front of you, and knock it out.

Without this Focus Time, you’ll never do your best work. Distractions break concentration, pull you out of the flow, and then your work suffers.

I looked up articles on “eliminating distractions for remote workers.” Every single one stressed having a chunk of Focus Time:
Remote work: 9 tips for eliminating distractions and getting things done – GitLab (#3, “Book out your ‘focus time'”)
11 Ways to Eliminate Distractions While Working from Home – TechRepublic (#2, “Break up your work”)
8 Remote Workers Explain How They Avoid Distractions – Remote.co (#6, “Set a Timer”)

Now, if you’re a manager, you can easily understand why remote workers deserve Focus Time. Set the guidelines and the deadlines, and let them deliver the goods. Hey, while they’re focused, you can focus on clearing your own task list too! Everybody wins, right?

But you still have that shred of paranoia. You can’t SEE them. How do you trust what you can’t see?

We have a question before us…How do you make sure remote workers stay on-task, without disrupting their Focus Time and hurting their work quality?

Luckily, I have a solution that should work for you. Manager and remote worker alike.

Use Software to Monitor Remote Workers, and to Check In With Them (Sparingly)

This is a two-part solution. One part is monitoring remote workers (to indeed verify that they ARE working). The other part is a good check-in strategy to stay up-to-date and stick to deadlines.

The first part: Monitoring. This involves keeping silent, unobtrusive tabs on the activity & output coming from a remote worker’s computer. (Or tablet; I’m not picky.)

I recommend taking a two-part approach to monitoring. First, institute a project management platform, and have everyone track their activity therein. Doing this not only verifies time worked on projects, but gives everyone a reference for co-workers’ progress.

Many project management platforms exist; I like Asana and Trello myself. They don’t track time on their own, but you can install an add-on like EverHour to do that.

Second, use subtle software tools to sample activity data from all employees’ computers. I’m talking about software like Screenshot Monitor here. This tool takes screenshots of your employees’ screen, so you can see what they’re doing. That’s not the only monitoring option though; here are ten more from PCMag.

Most importantly…neither part of this approach gets in a remote worker’s way.

A Work-Encouraging Check-In Strategy

Now for the second part of my solution. Monitoring activity & output is a big help. But what about communication? Those regular check-ins every manager likes to do, just to see how you’re doing.

You may want to haul remote workers into a daily (virtual) meeting for check-in. Don’t do that. Meetings, even remote ones, take up time better used for Focus Time.

Instead, do one-on-one check-ins twice to three times per week. Keep to a per-person time limit, but don’t try to squeeze everyone into 5 minutes each. Some people may need more time.

(I’ll cover more on communication intervals vs. quality in a future post.)

This check-in method is easy to schedule, eliminating the nervousness of out-of-the-blue calls. Scheduling them at the same time each week eliminates the sense of disruption. Finally, it’s one-on-one; you’ll have direct communication each time.

Check-In with Manager

Oh, five minutes to my check-in.
Photo by Jessica Arends on Unsplash.

Any communication method will work for such a remote check-ins. I like this order of methods, from best to worst:

  • Slack (or Teams, Google Hangouts, etc.)
  • Slack/Email Combination
  • Email/Phone Combination
  • Email Only
  • Phone Only

If you’re instituting a project management platform, schedule a recurring task for each check-in. Everyone gets a reminder beforehand. Nobody’s surprised. Everyone can gear up for the check-in, go through whatever needs going through, and get back to distraction-free Focus Time!

Don’t Let Paranoia Drive Your Remote Workers Away

My last post on communication “burstiness” plays into the check-in side of this monitoring solution. If you take a moment to read it, I’m sure you’ll see how it helps.

Managers! I’m sorry to tell you this, but your “If I can’t see them they’re not working” paradigm died years ago. Remote workers DO stick to their work. They’re turning in some fantastic work, in fact.

If you’re unsure of their progress at any given point, that’s a problem you must solve. The answer is NOT to force people back into the office. They’re actually more likely to get distracted that way!

Instead, use a little software and scheduling to keep lines of communication open. I’m 100% certain you’ll find those remote workers will stay in contact, keep up good productivity, and remain excellent workers for years.

Do you manage remote workers now? How do you keep an eye on their work?

Communicating Remotely

A recent study recommends remote teams communicate in “bursts,” not constantly throughout the workday.

The website behavioralscientist.org, a site discussing human psychology, published the following article on May 29:

“Bursty” Communication Can Help Remote Teams Thrive – Behavioral Scientist

I find the fact that a psychology website brings up Remote Work very important. Adoption of Remote Work is more a question of psychology than anything else.

The tech IS available, and has been for years. Implementation only takes days. But before that you need the company to accept the notion of Remote Work (what many call ‘buy-in’). After implementation, you need work habits to change, adapting around the new Remote Work option.

These are both a matter of human beliefs, attitudes, and habits – all aspects of human psychology.

So let’s examine what the BehavioralScientist.org article has to say.

Study Done on Remote Team Productivity when Using 2 Communication Methods

The article discusses a study which tested remote teams’ communication strategies. Specifically, they measured two different communication methods:

  1. Standard communication: Communication occurred constantly, in small exchanges, all throughout the day. Lag time often occurred between initial requests and responses.
  2. “Burstiness”: Communication “bursts” – rapid exchange of messages within a short time period – occurred sporadically during the workday. Then people went back to their work until the next “burst.”

The result? The teams using “burstiness” were more productive, more coherent, and had higher-quality work at the end of the day. Findings included this statistical result: “A one standard deviation increase in burstiness lead to a 24 percent performance increase.”

24% improvement is pretty darn significant for a controlled trial!

What This Means: Nonstop Conversation Trickle Disrupts Work. Communication Bursts Allow Focused Work.

I’ve seen this reflected in my own telecommuting. As you’re working, you begin to run into snags. I need this file from Sharon…are we debuting the new trial version on Thursday or Monday…

You ask the co-worker about the snag. But co-workers, wrapped up in their own work, don’t answer right away. What do you do? You either a) keep bugging them, or b) wait (causing what I call ‘Question Buildup’).

Within a normal office environment, you could go ask them & get back to work. But that creates another type of disruption. You go to Sharon’s desk, ask her a question, and get an answer. Then someone else asks Sharon a question & gets an answer. Then someone else…

How much work can Sharon accomplish like this? None!

A constant trickle of quick conversations, facilitated by an easy-to-access office environment, just RUINS productivity. But without those questions answered, you get Question Buildup, and your work can’t progress. It creates a bad Catch 22.

“Bursty” communication periods can solve this problem, according to the study.

Here’s how I envision using “burstiness” during the workday. (Forgive the crudely-basic infographic; I am not a designer.)

Burstiness for Remote Teams

“Burstiness” and its role in the remote team’s workday.

  1. All team members proceed with their work.
  2. Questions begin to build up among them.
  3. One or more persons calls for a Burst session.
  4. Everyone stops their work & converses with the team.
  5. Questions are answered, issues resolved, direction obtained. Could take as little as 5 minutes.
  6. Team members go back to work.
  7. Repeat cycle if necessary.

Communicating in Bursts Lets Remote Workers Do Their Work, AND Stay Productive. Try It!

Take a minute and read the BehavioralScientist.org article. It’s an excellent study, and a short read.

We glean a strong two-part point about remote work from the study results:

  • Communication is key for ALL teams, but especially remote teams. Doing so productively translates to big productivity gains.
  • Remote Work is more a matter of psychology than procedure. If the psychological acceptance isn’t there, someone will sabotage the whole effort.

How do you handle communication when working remotely?

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?

Paying Remote Workers in Crypto

More avenues than ever exist to pay remote employees & contractors. Should you add cryptocurrencies to the list?

That’s what this post will discuss. We all saw the meteoric rise of Bitcoin in late 2017, blowing past everyone’s expectations in a sudden rush to the $20,000 mark. It’s now dropped back down around $4,000 and waffles every day.

Personally, I think of Bitcoin itself as a bubble. But it served a valued purpose—moving the blockchain (its core) from a small Web-only curiosity, to a globally-recognized technology. Thousands of blockchain-development companies now exist, seeking to capitalize on the tech everywhere from identity to security to business operations.

Including, of course, payments using cryptocurrencies. Which any business can do already, in one of several available currencies. If you prepare a little bit.

ethereum photo

Photo by stockcatalog

Prerequisites for Using Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrencies (or “Cryptos” as I’ll reference them in this post) are still in early stages. It is possible to use them for remote worker payments. But some preparatory steps are required.

Any business wanting to use cryptos as a payment method must have staff (or a consultant) who knows the crypto space. They must have:

  • Technical acumen (for knowing/learning the process)
  • Forward-thinking mindset (to see the value in using crypto)
  • Familiarity with current payment options (so you’re not bleeding money on every transaction!)

To assist, here are some resources which will help you familiarize:
What is Cryptocurrency: Everything You Need To Know [Ultimate Guide] – BlockGeeks.com
Reddit – Cryptocurrency
What is the best way for a beginner to learn about the cryptocurrency market? – Quora

When to Use Crypto for Payments

Cryptocurrency as a payment method is viable. It actually has been for a few years, but recent interest compels a more serious look. If your business finds itself in the following circumstances, maybe it’s time to consider a crypto payment:

  1. Other payment methods are not available.
  2. Fees for invoices (or an invoicing software) are too high
  3. Your payroll system doesn’t handle international payments well, or it’s slow.
  4. Overdependence on one payment option, like PayPal.
  5. Workers request it. Yes, this does happen! Witness Ethlance.com, a freelance jobs website like Upwork…only it pays workers in the Ethereum crypto.

Sounds intriguing, right? But even if you’re interested in doing this, it may not make sense for your particular business (or industry). In such cases, we should take a moment & determine if you should embark down the cryptocurrency road.

Should You Pay Remote Workers in Cryptocurrency? How to Tell

The old rule goes, just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD. It still applies to cryptos. Let’s say your business wants to explore using cryptocurrencies. Which businesses would benefit from doing so?

Yours would, if the business meets these criteria:

  • Some of your remote employees are international. Or they might live in high-tax states (e.g. California), where you’re based in a low-tax state.
  • Your remote workers are tech-savvy. For instance, software engineers. This makes them more likely to know the crypto space. They might even hold some cryptocurrencies already.
  • You can handle volatility. Cryptos change value like other currencies…but they do so a little more ‘vigorously.’ At least for now.
  • Your business is flexible enough to switch from one cryptocurrency to another. This is important; it means you can switch to a crypto which works better for your industry. The technology for this is still developing.
  • You have in-house talent capable of managing crypto for you NOW. You’ll have to poll workers to find this out. More than likely if someone knows the technology, it’s due to personal testing. They may not want to share that knowledge publicly (people have ridiculed cryptos in the past).

Finally, one caveat. Do not hire someone just to manage cryptocurrency payments! Unless you plan to switch the entire business over to crypto payments, it should not have full-time focus.

Think of it this way. Your bookkeeper doesn’t spend all day, every day, paying staff. They’re also managing the books, collecting from customers, handling tax preparation, etc. The most efficiency method of adopting cryptocurrency is to fold it into the existing payroll structure as much as possible.

crypto photo

Time for payroll!

How to Select a Cryptocurrency & Pay Remote Workers With It

So you’ve determined that you want to add a cryptocurrency to your employee payment options. Which one? And how do you work it into payroll?

Here’s how. There’s a few steps…but most of these are the same steps you’d take to add any other payment method.

  • If you haven’t yet, survey your remote workers. Do they want the option to receive payments in cryptocurrency? If so, which crypto would they prefer?
  • Choose a crypto based on feedback. I recommend starting with only one. You can add more later if desired.
    • See the next section for recommendations on cryptos to use.
  • Set up accounts to buy the crypto. This is where you need the crypto-familiar employees or an expert consultant. Lifehacker.com did a piece on how to buy cryptocurrency which can help guide you. So can a recent Bankrate.com guide, “How to Responsibly Invest in Bitcoin.”
    • Coinbase is the most popular method of buying cryptocurrency. I recommend starting here, as they take pains to make it easy for everyone. But you have many other options. Search for “Buy [Your Chosen Cryptocurrency]” for more help.
  • Familiarize Accounting with the buying process. At least two people should know how to exchange regular currency (referred to as ‘fiat’ in the crypto space) into the desired crypto.
    • If you’re not sure where & how to buy crypto, use CryptoRadar. They show you several exchanges (and their current exchange rates) depending on which cryptocurrency you want to use.
  • Set up an interval to buy & hold the crypto. One hallmark of cryptocurrency is its fast transfer speeds. It’s easy to buy all the crypto you’d need for a while, and just leave it in your wallet (the storage medium for crypto, like a bank account) for when you need to pay out.
    • I recommend a 1-month interval to start.
  • Pay out to each worker on your normal payment schedule. Like initiating transfers to remote workers’ account numbers, you would initiate crypto transfer to your remote worker’s crypto wallet.
    • Do a live comparison of the crypto’s CURRENT value to your regular currency first. Use a site like CryptoCompare; it will always tell you what 1 of any listed crypto is worth in US Dollars. That way you’re not overpaying unintentionally.
    • Each remote worker must provide you their wallet’s “public key” to do this. Treat these like a bank account number.
  • Record the amounts in existing books. You can use the crypto’s Currency Code instead of marking them in dollars. (Some examples of Currency Codes included below.) If you want to record the corresponding US Dollar amount alongside it, go ahead. This may help you come tax time.

Speaking of taxes! Don’t neglect tax planning. Cryptos aren’t yet considered ‘legal tender’ by the U.S. Government. But they already have regulations in place to tax it. The Simple Dollar posted a starter guide to cryptocurrency and taxes that will help you work crypto into the tax plan.

Six Cryptocurrency Choices

When you ask your remote workers, you may hear a bunch of names you don’t recognize. “What’s an Ethereum?” you may wonder.

Let me offer a few explanations beforehand. Many cryptos are popular now…mostly because they can make people money. But for business, you’d want to concentrate on value and fair cost. With that in mind, here are few cryptocurrencies I think are either good for business use, or ones you should avoid:

  1. Bitcoin (BTC) – It’s big, it’s well-known…and it’s crazy volatile. Not recommended.
  2. Monero (XMR) – This is a privacy-focused crypto. It’s good, and better priced than Bitcoin. But as of early 2018, cybercriminals are flooding into Monero use. They like receiving ransomware payments in it. Which may cause volatile price swings and/or unwanted attention. Not recommended (at least for now).
  3. Litecoin (LTC) – The “silver” to Bitcoin’s gold. It’s a longtime crypto, and stable enough to use.
  4. Ethereum (ETH) – A versatile crypto, with many subprojects. Usable.
  5. Ripple (XRP) – Made for international banking, so it’s quite usable. For now, very cheap too.
  6. Industry-specific crypto – Many industries already have one or more cryptocurrencies specializing in their needs. For example, we have Atlant (Real Estate), Ambrosus (Food & Medicine), Stellar (Banking), and many more. Just search for “crypto [Your Industry]”.

I recommend: Litecoin, Ethereum, Ripple, and Industry-Specific. In that order.

Why?

  • Stability. Each is stable enough in terms of pricing.

    litecoin photo

    Photo by btckeychain

  • Purpose. Each has a defined purpose and a team backing it.
  • Familiarity. These are recognized by other crypto-friendly businesses.
  • Lower Cost. Even the most expensive of these, Ethereum, isn’t nearly as expensive as Bitcoin. As of this post’s publication, 1 ETH is worth $205.18 USD.

Cryptocurrency Payments are Here. Will You Put Them on Payroll?

While I am familiar with the crypto space, I am NOT a Cryptocurrency expert. Please do some research before making your crypto selection.

Disclosure: I hold some of the following cryptos – Ripple (XRP), Stellar (XLM), Ambrosus (AMB), and the Basic Attention Token (BAT). If a business wanted to pay me in cryptocurrency for my labor? I would accept payment in Stellar, Litecoin, or Ripple.

I agree with those who’ve said that cryptocurrencies are at the tail end of the “Wild West” stage. I’m writing this post now because I see a lot of value in blockchain technology in general (of which cryptocurrencies are a big part). I also want to give fellow remote workers a resource to which they can point, if they want to accept crypto.

Remote Workers, would you accept payments in cryptocurrencies? Which ones? Sound off!

[UPDATED 5-25-20]

Traffic Jam

Remote Work doesn’t just benefit you, the worker. Or you, the manager (from the greater productivity your workers gain). It also benefits something you both use every day.

Your environment.

How? By not contributing to environment-damaging conditions—when commuting.

Think about this. In any given major city or large metro area, what happens every workday? The Commute. Lots of people in cars, subway trains, and buses. Millions of bodies clogging up transportation routes at two (sometimes 3) times of the day.

Every vehicle filling the air with smog, heat, and soot.

Let’s see how Remote Work and commuting work together. You’ll see pretty quickly that even a small amount of Remote Work has a notable effect on the local environment…benefiting everyone who lives there.

Commuting Exposes You (and Everyone Else) to More Pollution Than Ever

According to StatisticsBrain, over 128 million people commute every day in the U.S. The majority (75%) drive their own car, going between 1-10 miles one-way. The average commute is about 25 minutes.

(Speaking as someone in the San Francisco Bay Area, I can confidently say…we commute on average FAR longer than 25 minutes. It’s taken me 45 minutes to go 3 miles, more than once!)

Commuter Train

That’s definitely not a BART train. There’s way too much space open.
Photo by Adelin Preda on Unsplash

Now, let’s broaden our perspective a little. What ELSE happens as a result of all those vehicles moving back and forth?

  • Air pollution.
  • Lots of fuel/energy use.
  • Each person loses time in traffic/delays.
  • Stress.

All serious problems. More so now than ever before.

In July 2017, just days before I wrote this, Duke University published a study on in-car pollution levels for commuters. They found that commuting drivers breathed in twice as many pollutants as sensors checking the air from the sides of the road. The kind of pollutants that not only make you cough, but can contribute to heart disease and cancer.

The study measured air in Atlanta traffic. But I’ll bet it’s just as bad, if not worse, over here on Silicon Valley’s clogged highways.

How Remote Work Saves the Planet! (Or at least improves your health.)

Just by commuting, you’re causing environmental damage, wasting time, and actually hurting yourself. 5 days a week, (nearly) 52 weeks a year, every year.

“Yeah, it’s not good for the planet. But what can we do?”

Simple. We can work remotely.

Imagine that same big city/metro area, with a large number of local businesses switching to Remote Work strategies. It wouldn’t affect ALL jobs (can’t telecommute to a construction site…yet). But even a 10% drop in people commuting could yield incredible improvements.

  • Better/lighter/faster traffic (I’m sure you’d appreciate that!)
  • Hours regained every week
  • Higher productivity from said regained time
  • Reduced air pollution
  • Lower stress levels
  • Happier workforce
  • Lower fuel/energy costs
  • More flexible business hours
  • Improved health for everyone!

Let’s gather some statistics to back these up. Here in the Bay Area we have a “Bike to Work” Day in May. They list the environmental benefits of such on this page:
Environmental Benefits – Bike to Work Day

According to their statistics, a mid-size car generates 1.3 tons of CO2 commuting 5 days a week for 1 year. Now, according to BayAreaCensus.gov, we had 2,674,000 people driving to work in 2010. I will round up to 3,000,000 for present day.

3 Million Cars x 1.3 Tons of CO2 = 3.9 million tons of CO2 dumped in the air. Every year. Just in one metro area. Multiply that by over 10 metro areas…yeah. That’s BAD for everybody.

If 10% of those workers telecommuted, it would stop 390,000 tons of CO2 from billowing up into the air.
Air you and I breathe each day.

Plus, you have time saved. Not just for telecommuters not driving to/from work, but for everyone else too. 10% of 3 million cars is 300,000 cars. What would happen to the people still commuting if we removed that many cars from daily traffic?

300,000 cars removed gives us 2,700,000 cars still commuting in the Bay Area. This Texas A&M study says that 148,000 person-hours are lost in traffic congestion for the San Francisco-Oakland area. A 10% reduction gives us 14,800 person-hours back. Divide that by 2,700,000 and you get…
32 seconds.

Okay, so a 32-second time savings on your commute isn’t much. But that’s with only 10% of commuters shifting to Remote Work. Imagine if we went to 20%. Or 50%.

You’re looking at huge pollution reductions, as well as more & more time saved for people who still commute.

Sounds like a good way to help prevent more heart disease and stress, doesn’t it? It sure does to me.

I have to say, that’s pretty smooth traffic for the Golden Gate!
Photo by Freddie Collins on Unsplash

Remote Work Helps Worker Productivity, Traffic, AND the Environment

The tremendous rush of commuting contributes to pollution and stress, every day. Helping keep the air clean and stress low is easily doable. All it takes is the decision to use a Remote Work approach.

If you use this “environmental benefit” argument to request Remote Work, please comment on the experience! I’d love to hear how well it works (and if not, what does!).

Productive Worker at Home

But I have a different perspective on 1…

Let me share a great article on telecommuting with you today.
Why Working from Home is the Holy Grail of Productivity Hacks – BestLife (Alex Daniel)

Overall, it’s a great article. Well written, and does a good job of illustrating the 10 most-commonly-cited productivity boosts you get from working remotely. I’ve already shared it on Reddit, and sent it to some managerial friends.

However, I have one minor issue to raise.

(Okay, two. Alex recommends two days a week telecommuting. I recommend all five, depending on the industry. But, that’s me. Okay, onward!)

The Issue – One Productivity Boost Can Go Even Further

The author talks about 10 different ways telecommuting improves productivity. Regaining commute time as work-time, controlling things like noise level and workflow pace, killing meetings, and so on.

(Sheesh, the TIME we spend stuck in meetings…how many of us have screamed in our heads, “We could have done all that in 3 emails!”)

office meeting photo

“So, we’re all going to remember everything on these posters tomorrow, right?”
Photo by Hollywood_PR

It’s with meetings that I have to raise my minor issue.

The author quotes David Niu of TINYPulse about when it’s a good time to have a face-to-face meeting: the Ideation phase of a project. When you’re figuring out the project’s objective, goals, and planning out steps.

I have to partially disagree here. As sourced, David’s quote talks about the value of face-to-face to “rapidly exchange ideas and read each others’ reactions to feedback.”

Essentially, he’s talking about nonverbal cues. Body language, eye movements…the opinions we give without speaking of them.

Thing is, you don’t necessarily need face-to-face to read verbal cues. Instead, you need:

  1. A video medium
  2. Familiarity with co-workers

If you’ve worked with anyone for a while, you’ve picked up on their typical nonverbal cues. (We don’t have a lot of nonverbal variance from person to person…nobody looks you in the eye when they’re nervous.)

Once you know how to tell when your co-worker likes/dislikes an idea, all you need is a way to track that.

Remote-Work Solution? Group video chats.

video chat photo

Everyone sees everyone. Nonverbal cues come with the discussion.

Dozens of software apps do this already. Skype, Skype for Business, HipChat, Workplace, Slack, etc. All you need are the devices you’re already using, decent bandwidth, and time.

Wait, wait. I can already hear the objection in your brain. “But you can’t see the whole person! It’s not face-to-face, so you can’t be sure!”

A very quick realization for you: You don’t see the whole person when face-to-face anyway. They’re sitting down at a table, leaning forward, partially blocked by a computer or tablet. Unless everyone’s standing up and spread out 10 feet from one another – which would be a little weird anyway – you’re pretty much concentrating on their face and hands.

What does a video chat display? Their face and hands.

It’s a minor quibble. but it does illustrate that sometimes, you can still do those “must be done in person” workday elements remotely.

Alex, great job. Hope to see much more of the same!

I don’t see a Comments section on BestLife, so…what are your thoughts?