I may sound like a broken record, but bare with me…the importance of communication cannot be overstated in the remote environment. Ask anyone who works with anybody and they will tell you that good communication is vital for effective work. Ask anyone who works in a virtual context and they will tell you that clear and concise communication is a life line for their work to be conducted with excellence! I would even go so far as to say your reputation as a professional could hinge on it.
Why is that? Here’s some of the input we received from remote workers regarding the importance of communication.
Remote workers support the necessity of this skill because it is critical…
• in relaying accurate information;
• in eliminating ambiguity;
• because miscommunication leads to misunderstanding;
• in preventing miscommunication due to language differences which can lead to misinformation, resulting in serious errors;
• for accuracy and clarity on all levels to ensure context is preserved;
• because the absence of non-verbal messaging calls for excellence in the written word…full thoughts, meaningful words, concise, accurate;
• in creating common understanding,
• and requires active listening, engagement, and full contribution from all parties.
In other words, the language of ‘texting’ is not going to cut it when your work context calls for a ‘paper’ trail (documentation) outlining decisions, agreements, complaints, discussions, proposals, conflict resolutions, or reports. Nor can a remote worker always rely on technology that supports face to face, virtual meetings. Besides the ability to clearly articulate verbally, virtual meetings often call for a written follow up summary to be provided to all involved to ensure agreement of what was discussed and action steps determined.
The problem is that good communication takes time, something that many of us claim to not have enough of. It also takes patience, reflection, reviewing, reworking, rephrasing, and great intentionality. I’m sure we can all think of a time when we read a text or email and ‘imposed’ an emotion that was never intended. According to Nate Sawatzky
“Good communication is crafted.”
Think on this…you just received a text from someone you recently had a disagreement with. The text said ‘saw u at the mxr prty…nice outfit’. Now, imagine the ‘voice’ you use to read the message…was it positive? Did it represent the sender in a good light? Was it cordial? Or did the ‘voice’ lean toward sarcasm, abruptness, or downright snotty?
Now try this…the same person with whom you had a disagreement sent a text saying “I saw you at the mixer party last evening. I didn’t get a chance to talk to you, but wanted to say that you looked fantastic…that dress was amazing!” Try reading something into that…more challenging, right? There’s little room for ambiguity, misunderstanding, or offence. We also need to keep in mind that written communication may not be the best channel for communicating a message…in actuality, we may choose written rather that a face to face conversation because it’s ‘easier’.
While this example is on the superficial level, you get the idea. The responsibility for ensuring a message is received as intended
lies with the sender…yup, can’t blame the receiver for getting it wrong. The added complexity of virtual communication is the lack of non-verbal…you can’t see how the other person receives your message and often don’t get the opportunity to bring clarity and do damage control. The solution…prevent it before it happens. Intentionality is important…think through your message, consider
what channel is best for communicating that message…be intentional in both the content, context, and channel.
The takeaway? Do whatever it takes to grow your communication skills. When using a written channel, read, reread, and reread your written communication before hitting send…that click could either be the start of an amazing contract, or the demise of the same! (By the way, reading well written books is a great way to improve your writing skills. Ask a mentor to suggest a book that greatly influenced their life, then ask to meet and discuss your takeaways; might as well develop your verbal articulation skills at the same time.)
As I write this blog from 39,000 feet enroute to Montreal, Canada, I’m taking a sidestep from analyzing the data gathered through our remote workers interviews and survey. Join me in taking a look at the topic from a different perspective…perhaps more of a 39,000 foot view.
Choosing the when and where of getting our work done, smart working, is something I highly value. I was privileged to be a stay at home mom when our kids were small, something that lined up with our family values. When I was approached to take on a part time job I accepted only on the condition that I be afforded the freedom to be home for our kids before and after school, attend any and all school field trips, and volunteer in the classroom. It’s important to note that I wasn’t asking for less responsibilities or duties, but rather asking the organization to trust that I would get the work done, on time and with excellence, AND support a volunteer workforce of 200 people. They agreed. I didn’t realize at the time that what I was proposing was a flexible work schedule that allowed me to choose when and where I did my work, in concert with the needs of the organization. I have continued to work for organizations in various sectors that have offered the same flexibility.
As I continue to research and entrench myself in the world of remote work, I truly agree that the future of work will indeed embrace a more globally focus, and that distributed teams and remote workers are, and will continue to be, a growing reality (a positive one).
However, the questions I am still pondering are:
• Is a distributed workforce a one size fits all for organizations big and small?
• Can an organization considering such a transition expect that all of their existing employees would succeed as remote workers?
• Should finances be the compelling argument for an organization to go fully distributed? (true, you save on the overhead, but success outcomes will ask you to strategically direct that money towards excellent technology and support for your new virtual work force).
Back to my reason for being 39,000 feet in the air heading to Montreal. For the next 2 days I will be attending a Service Design Thinking Conference. I love design thinking! Why? Because it takes a human based perspective on making decisions around the who, what, where, when and how of remote work…after all Human Resources are the most valuable resources any organization has.
So, what if we reframed the above questions from a design thinking perspective…
• How might we determine the best configuration for an organization that will honour their mission, vision, and values?
• How might we train and support all employees, remote and co-located, to such a degree that where they actually ‘do’ their work sets them up for success while increasing organizational productivity?
• How might we create a strategically viable budget that reduces the organizational footprint, provides for employee flexibility, and results in growth in the triple bottom line?
Change is a certainty in life. However, what changes and how those changes impact the people involved (on all levels) must be forefront in our change management processes.
“The value of design thinking is neither in its artistic appeal nor its unorthodoxy, but in thinking differently about how to solve business and organizational challenges.”
Design thinking takes time to clearly identify what the real issue to be addressed is and collaborates with all the stakeholders to come up with a solution that genuinely addresses that issue.
As a person passionate about helping others realize the very best of who they can be, I’m committed to being a thinking partner who comes alongside and facilitates a decision making frame work, a way of thinking, that guides organizations and their teams to what is the best, strategic direction for them to take…whether distributed, semi-distributed, co-located…or whatever creative configuration they come up with.
While we have much analysis still to do regarding the data collected on the topic of worker competencies and contribution feedback from the perspective of remote workers, I wanted to share what remote workers told us are the 6 most critical competencies necessary for success in the remote working context.
To provide some context for this, let me reiterate what I said in the previous blog, skills speak to WHAT you do, and competencies speak to HOW you do it.
One thing to point out…you will notice that communication is not on the list…not an oversight! In every conversation we engaged in, and the additional comments added to the survey responses, it’s clear that excellent communication is absolutely vital for success as a remote worker…especially written communication. That, along with the ability to determine the appropriate communication channels to use, AND the ability to determine and use appropriate technology to get the job done.
So, drum roll please…based on feedback from 250 plus remote workers, home based in Canada, the US and various places in Europe, the top 6 competencies identified as crucial for success as a remote worker are:
- Self-directed: Taking responsibility for your own decisions and effectively organizing your activities based on intrinsic motivation without pressure from others
- Trustworthy: able to be relied on as honest or truthful
- Disciplined: showing a controlled form of behavior or way of working
- Taking initiative: an act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something
- Adaptable: able to adjust to new conditions
- High Self-efficacy: high belief in your own capabilities to produce quality outcomes
Let’s put some skin around these competencies: while you may be an amazing web developer, writer, project manager, or ________ (you finish the sentence), without the ability to adapt, you may not have what it takes to recalibrate or adjust when faced with continuing changes to due dates and deliverables. Without being self-directed you may not have what it takes to effectively organize multiple contracts to achieve the deliverables identified. If you’re not a person who’s trustworthy, and yes, this sounds generally like a bad thing, you’re really going to struggle to make any progress in your career. This one’s important to understand, so let me take it a step further. Some of us need the accountability of people around us to continue making progress. Sometimes the weather, the surf, depression, excitement… these things can cause us to prioritize other things when we’ve committed to doing something. Trustworthiness is demonstrated by consistently doing what you say you’re going to do. For people who view commitment as restrictive, it doesn’t mean you’re not a trustworthy person, but it does mean that it’s going to be difficult for you to demonstrate it through your actions. Moving on… discipline. Discipline is the long commitment in the same direction, the doing something because it’s the right thing to do, not because you feel like it.
Wrap these competencies up with a healthy self-efficacy regarding your ability to produce a product or service that is of the highest quality…and you may just have what it takes to be successful in a smart working context. (The term ‘smart work’ coined by Abodoo.com is another word used where the focus is on choosing the best place to get the work done; i.e. home, co-working space, office, local, global…)
The story continues…watch out for more blogs as we continue to unpack the findings of the feedback you have provided.
Knowing the right competencies to hire for is so important no matter the context, but I would suggest knowing the right competencies are even more vital when it comes to hiring for, or transitioning to, remote positions. To be clear, when I say remote positions, I mean those positions or jobs that don’t require the worker to be at a centralized location on a regular basis. This is the focus of my current research.
Note: this the final weekend for tech remote workers to complete a survey discussing their views of what competencies are needed for success (if that’s you, please click here to complete the survey).
So, why are competencies important, and how many competencies should organizations choose to focus on when hiring?
First of, what is a competency? Human Resource Systems Group explains…
“…competencies describe the observable abilities, skills, knowledge, motivation, and traits, articulated in terms of the behaviours needed for successful job performance.”
The key here is that we can actually see people demonstrating competencies (vs character traits).
As outlined in this video, skills focus on WHAT is done, competencies focuses on HOW something is done. In other words, I may be a skilled IT person, but if I don’t know how to listen effectively to the customer, I may not be successful in the role as an IT Customer Support Representative. Determining the key competencies helps HR and hiring managers think beyond the job skills necessary, to the effective implementation of those skills…the result being successful performance of a job.
What about how many competencies are realistic to focus on? From an HR professional’s perspective, I would suggest no more than 5 core competencies. Why? Well, you want to ask behavioural questions that do a deep dive to ascertain if the
candidate is adequately proficient in each competency, so any more than that would be insurmountable in a recruitment and selection process. On the flip side…if you are the remote worker wanting to ‘sell’ your ability to deliver on those same competencies the first place to start is in your resume. This blog may help describe what I mean.
As you listened to my interview with @yonder.io, you will heard Jeff Robbins and I discuss 11 competencies that are relevant to remote work…and each is very important. However, the full story has not yet been told. When the results of the survey are added to our learning from one on one interviews, we will narrow that list to the top 5 or 6 competencies that remote workers (RW), deem to be most important. After all, they are the ones doing the work, making RWs our subject matter experts! (If that’s you, you get why I ask you to complete the survey if you have not yet done so.)
Coming soon… the next couple of blogs will unpack the data gathered from this discovery process that took us to various locations in Canada and Europe over the past few months…
A tension that should never exist!
Those of you who have been following my blog know that I am a business professor at Okanagan School of Business doing research on remote work. You may also know that I am a coach/consultant who focuses on all things people development, and have a clear passion for those working remotely, or managing remote teams.
From my perspective, the conversation should not be industry vs academia, but rather ‘how can industry learn from academia, and how can academia learn from industry?’ It’s a new face to the age old ‘experience vs education’…each has incredible value on its own, but when the two are combined the outcomes are incredible.
What I find frustrating is that conversations are still happening that pit one against the other. Some say that academia is where invention and innovation happens, while other feel that academia is archaic and that new thinking happens in the ‘real world’ by people actually working in the field.
I came across this article that reported those interviewed “…don’t pay much attention to the publications about fundamental discoveries by universities because they don’t trust them.” Ouch!
Another article representing the flip side states that people don’t trust scientific research when companies are involved because of the propensity for bias. Ouch again!
While I respect the opinion of these perspectives, I tend to believe the best learning lives in the coming together of both sides, each doing their part. I appreciate the sentiment expressed by Martha Crago, VP of Research and Innovation at McGill University.
In addition, like any good partnership, industrial research partnerships need to be based on recognizing the value of the partnership, on trust, and on the ability to meet the other’s needs.
As we move through this project of learning about what makes remote workers great, I am thrilled to be collaborating with both academia and industry. Nathan Sawatzky has been working with me from day one on the research, and Rodrigo Bruno, a student at Okanagan School of Business, has recently joined as a research assistant. Both of these individuals bring immense insight from industry, and as Rodrigo digs into the academic research side of things, he is able to filter it through his own experiences and those he has worked with in remote settings.
Academia and industry collaborating for the purpose of bringing clarity and support to those working in a new era of work. I love it!
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and a passing comment just caused you to pause, hit rewind, and drill down on what was said. That happened recently in a conversation Tammy Bjelland founder of Workplaceless and I were having around competencies necessary for success as remote workers. Here is peek into where we landed.
Sometimes in life we come across oxymorons…a phrase where we put two seemingly opposite ideas together to describe something. We’ve all heard them…an open secret; pretty awful; friendly fire, unbiased opinion…you get the idea. As we learn more about what is required to be a successful remote worker, we come against such a concept: successful remote workers need to be independent AND interdependent. How can this be? Let’s take a look at the world of music to shed some light on this.
Individually, musicians need to master their instrument…they need to be able to independently perform beautifully, to know their specific instrument as well as they know themselves, to practice scales, to accurately read and interpret the score, to understand tone, to conquer breath control, to communicate the meaning of the masterpiece they are playing. Only when they have risen to a certain level of proficiency are they able to meld with other musicians in an orchestra and together make beautiful music. Only then can they perform as one, to listen intently to those around, to take the lead when the score calls for it, and then fall into the background as another instrument takes the piece to new heights. At the end of a performance, the orchestra takes a collective bow…no individual hero, just one finely tuned team of interdependent musicians bringing the best of who they are to the whole.
Ok, so you aren’t trying to be the next great maestro, but I would bet you are wanting to be the best remote worker you can be so that your contribution to a team is nothing short of masterful. What does that look like? You need to know yourself, to practice the strengths and skills necessary to thrive as a remote worker, to accurately read and interpret the details of a task, to understand people and how to best communicate with them, and to grow in your emotional intelligence. You want to master your trade whatever it may be. Then, when you join together with others to work on a project, you know the strengths and expertise you bring to the team, you know how to listen intently to your team mates, to take the lead when called for and fall back into a follower role to let someone else use their strengths to take the project to another level. The end result is a finely tuned team of interdependent remote workers bringing the best of who they are to the whole.
Daniel Pink describes a similar process in his book Drive: autonomy leads to mastery, which in turn leads to purpose. We gain autonomy when we successfully
work independently, the growing of our skills lead to mastery, which in turns equips us to contribute to the greater good knowing our purpose.
Interested in contributing to further research on the key competencies for remote workers in tech roles? Then please follow this link to complete a survey.
Before taking a break for holidays, I want to post one final blog regarding remote work (I’ll continue to post again in September). A student asked me today for clarity around competencies…a valid question. How do you differentiate basic skill know-how, from a competency? This is important to clarify as we consider those key to remote work. I like this definition from University of Nottingham…
Competencies are abilities or attributes, described in terms of behaviour, key to effective and/or highly effective performance within a particular job.
A competency goes beyond knowing the technical aspect of a task. For example…I may know how to sell a good pair of shoes and what information to provide the customer (i.e. proper fit, potential for stretching, proper care…)…easily learned. However, that doesn’t mean I know how to sell a pair of shoes in such a way that a loyalty and ‘relationship’ has been seeded with the customer. Do I discover why the shoe is being purchased? Did I learn anything about the customer and his/her likes and dislikes? Have I created a shoe shopping experience for the customer that they will come back for, AND tell their friends about? We are talking about behaviour here…what kind of behaviour would you be able to observe as I served the customer? Perhaps excellent customer service? Perhaps some level of empathy? Those behaviours are what we call competencies.
In case you’re wondering, I’ve had such experiences in 3 shoe stores…one even served cappuccino, and the other wine! @shoeembassy (Brighton, England) @strut (Kelowna, BC) and @ladifferenciate (Vancouver, BC)
In preparation for further work on this research in the autumn, we will be sending surveys to remote workers, specifically those in the tech industry, to get their feedback on the accuracy of the competencies we’ve identified. (If you’re interested I’d be happy to send you a survey to complete…firstname.lastname@example.org). Knowing that different aspects of tech remote work may place different values on each, we want to end up with a list of 5-7 top core competencies that truly reflect the worker in their respective areas.
Here’s a summary of what we have learned so far, and want to narrow down.
- Self-directed (making your own decisions and organizing your own work)
- Disciplined (showing a controlled form of behavior or way of working)
- High Self-efficacy (high belief in your own capabilities to produce quality outcomes)
- Trustworthy (able to be relied on as honest or truthful)
- Empathetic (showing an ability to share the feelings of another)
- Adaptable (able to adjust to new conditions)
- Curious (eager to know or learn something)
- Flexible (ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances)
- Taking initiative (an act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something.)
- Self-motivated (motivated to do or achieve something because of one’s own enthusiasm or interest, without needing pressure from others.)
- Focus (concentrating attention on the most urgent problems)
I agree that many of these are simply good competencies to possess in any work context, however, I would suggest that the level of proficiency needed for remote workers in each area is higher…their very success depends on it!
Next steps? 1. Survey. 2. Based on results, narrow the competency list. 3. Create specific behavioural questions a manager can ask to determine if the person they want to hire fits the criteria for success as a remote worker. Or…an individual could reflect on if they are considering remote worker.
For now, happy summer…see you in September!