We have all heard the term ‘writers block’ tossed around by those who identify themselves as writers; those talented individuals who depend on the free flow of words to give voice to the fantastic worlds floating around in their heads. I don’t claim to be a member of that class. I also have great appreciation for those types of writers who seem to have endless thoughts, ideas, and advise to share on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. If any of you happen to stumble across this blog, I’m in awe of your discipline and creativity and would love a sip of your secret sauce, and I’m amazed that writer’s block doesn’t hit you far more frequently!
But here’s the deal…even though I have a very full, satisfying, challenging, inspiring, rewarding, and fulfilling life, I totally get mental stagnation when it comes to narrowing down, or sifting through the swirl in my brain, and focusing on a theme, or topic, to articulate in words that will hopefully have some impact on a reader. All my life I have been a learner, and that has not changed, nor will it ever. I’m a business professor, researcher, remote worker, consultant/coach, international speaker (now that’s a privilege!), wife, mom, sister, grandmother, friend…I am truly blessed. Needless to say each of those ‘roles’ provide an endless array of learning and reward. Every conversation has potential to teach, inspire, drain, encourage, challenge, or even bore me.
So with all that input, why do I have such a difficult time putting words to paper? Certainly not because of lack of content! Perhaps the simple fact that there is so much input, or ‘information overload’, nothing is fully landing. It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and filling your plate with everything in sight because it all looks amazing, tastes great, and is available–right under my nose.
Even as I write this, my inner voice is sending me sarcastic messages…like ‘seriously, you don’t see an issue here? You know the answer, you know better!’ And that little voice is right.
The very things, the tools, that make constant contact possible, information access more readily available than ever before, communication between the person next to me or 3000 miles away as easy as breathing, are both the cause and the cure.
I’m currently preparing a workshop on self-management. Ironic, right? One of the questions I am asking is ‘what do we need to manage?’ Perhaps time, stress, commitments, multiple deadlines, or life balance. Yes to all of these, and more. For me, I do a great job of managing my commitments; I am organized and can discipline my time well. But as I write this I am again reminded that what I don’t manage well is time to reflect, to slow down and relish the moment I am in, to ponder those special moments that happen each day. To call up the smile on the face of a grandchild or grandniece you’ve had a chance to cuddle with, to share in the joy of good news offered, or to simply walk through the falling leaves of autumn. Check out this video by Manoush Zomorodi called Bored and Brilliant And…finally realize that when your body goes on autopilot, your brain gets busy forming new neural connections that connect ideas and solve problems.
What about you? What is cluttering your mind and keeping you from finding clarity around new opportunities; current and future? What can you do about it? What are you willing to do about it?
Trustworthiness…growing the competency.
I grew up in Ireland. We lived in a town called Bangor and loved to visit grandparents in Annalong, a small fishing village. What I loved about both places was the location…right on the Irish Sea. I loved the smells, sounds, sights, and yes, the feeling of that sea salt on my lips and skin. Even now, years after immigrating to Canada, every chance I get I head to the ocean. It’s my place of refreshment, rejuvenation, and reflection. However, I have a very healthy respect for the power of the sea and the need for warning signs that both guide sea faring travellers, and bathers. Warnings that can be relied on, depended on, warnings that are constant. I think often of my grandfather sharing how he would stand at the Annalong Harbour watching for my uncle to return home after a fishing trip. At times the waves were so big, vessels would disappear from view, being tossed by the rise and fall of the sea.
For years, before the use of electronic navigational systems, sailors depended on the beacon of a lighthouse to guide them to shore, steering them away from being dashed
against treacherous coastlines and hidden rocks. They knew they could trust the lighthouse, that it was reliable, constant, a lifeline to guide them into the safety of the harbour.
Trust…a ‘thing’ we base a belief on…an action we employ when expecting people to do what they say they will do. Respondents to our research reported that trustworthiness, was a competency critical to success in the remote world. To be sure, trust is critical in all work contexts, but they suggested that in a virtual environment it becomes even more important. Sadly, many people mistake presence for progress.
Trust can be earned, and lost. Many books have been written on the topic; countless articles and blogs tout its’ value. But how do we develop it? How do we preserve it? If lost, how do we earn it back? I would offer the following three simple actions:
- If you say you’re going to do it…do it
- If you didn’t do what you said you’re going to do…own it
- If there are barriers that keep you from doing it, communicate that; once barriers are removed, if possible …do it.
- If you don’t know how to do it, ask for help, then do it
Ok, so not so simple! However, if you want to be a person worthy of trust you need to own it, preserve it, and value it. Are you a trustworthy person? If you’re not sure, ask those you work with, your family and friends, if they view you as a person they can trust. Warning, only ask if you are willing to act on what they tell you!
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In my previous blog I offered suggestions for how individuals could grow in their ability to be self-directed. Being intentional about growing such skills will increase your success as a remote worker, and set you up to answer interview questions related to that important competency. What kind of questions can an interviewer ask if they want to discern the candidates proficiency in being self-directed or self-motivated? Below are some suggestions to get you started, but first, a definition. Because it is important to use the same language when discussing competencies, clarity needs to be provided for this specific context.
Self-directed involves taking responsibility for personal decisions and effectively organizing activities based on intrinsic motivation without pressure from others. Without being self-directed, remote workers stated they might not have what it takes to organize multiple contracts in order to achieve the deliverables identified.
True, this is a great competency to possess when working in a colocated setting, but our research showed that a much higher level of proficiency is required when working in a remote or virtual setting. Let’s not forget that working remote refers to individuals who are not required to physically show up at a specific location on a regular basis.
Back to the interview, the focus is to ask behavioural questions to see how a candidate handled him or herself in the past. While it is always desirable, it is not necessary that they have previously worked remote, but it is important that they can demonstrate transferable skills that will contribute to their future success. While interviewing, don’t hesitate to dig deep with follow-up questions. Sometime the secondary questions are the ones that get you to the most vital information; listening carefully to the answers provided can’t be overstated.
As noted in previous blogs, answers should provide insight into the following:
• Situation/Problem faced
• Action (what they did, how they did it)
• Result/outcome (what was the outcome of the action taken, and was it positive or negative)
- Tell me about a time when a goal was difficult to achieve because of the many barriers before you. How did you address the barriers? (You are looking for answers that will help you discern not only the ability to identify barriers, but will describe the action taken to either overcome, or remove the barriers. Remote work can present more barriers that colocated settings. These barriers are by no means insurmountable, however, a self-directed person will not be put off by them, but will rise to the occasion and eagerly find workable solutions.)
- Tell me about a time when you took the initiate to collaborate with others in order to more effectively accomplish a task. (Listen for an indication that they believe collaboration is important, why it is important, and how working with others can aid in the effective completion of a task. As well, listen for how they chose who to collaborate with. In remote settings, it takes more determination and intentionality to reach out and build a collaborative network.)
- Describe a time when you lacked the drive to accomplish a task. How did you work through the apathy? (Listen for the humility of acknowledging they are not perfect…it’s rare to find someone who has never lacked drive. The important aspect of this question is to learn how they dealt with the inevitable lack of drive, accomplished the task, and moved on. Once more, in a remote setting there may be more distractions that pull the individual away from a task at hand…especially if it’s a task they don’t particularly enjoy.)
- Describe a time when you lacked the necessary information to accomplish a task. What sources did you use to provide the missing information or learn a new skill? (This question is driving at the importance of knowing how to access learning in order to get the job done. Some people simply rely on the person in the next cubicle to provide the answer; however, when working remote, there is no one in the next office. How resourceful are they with self-directed learning?)
- What process do you have to ensure all commitments and deadlines are met? How do you prioritize deliverables and responsibilities? (Self-directed people are pro-active. This question will give you insight into how the individual gets ahead of the game by having process and practices in place to deal with multiple deadlines and deliverables. In remote settings, performance is measured by deliverables, not how many hours a person sits at a desk in any given day…that’s why this is such a key element.)
- What book has had the most impact on your work habits? Describe your learnings. (The books people read tell you a lot about a person. In previous blogs the importance of communication is outlined; reading books is a powerful way to grow this skill. Listening to podcasts for learning is wonderful, but doesn’t contribute to growth in written communication. This question also provides the opportunity to learn if the candidate reads, AND what they choose to read and why…the ‘why’ being key. I have found that reading fiction can contribute to my creativity…many problems can be solved more effectively by putting them aside and focusing on something totally unrelated.)
These suggestions should provide a foundation for developing your interview questions. My next blog will address the topic of how remote workers can grow their trustworthiness, followed by another set of interview questions on the same competency.
Till next time…I would love your feedback and suggestion for further blog topics.
In our research around what makes remote workers great, 8 key competencies were revealed: communication, self-directed/motivated, trustworthy, disciplined, taking initiative/curiosity, adaptable/flexible, self-efficacy, and empathy. You talked to us about how each contributes to your ability to excel and thrive (and yes, survive) in your work. Great insights were provided on so many levels by those actually working as remote workers.
Since the research has been released, the question ‘what if I’m not great at a certain competency, does that mean I can’t be a remote worker?’ The answer is an unequivocal no! The wonderful thing about competencies is that you can grow and develop when intentionality and focus is applied. The next few blogs will take on a part ‘a’ and ‘b’ format. Part ‘a’ will take a look at a specific competency and provide suggestions on how to develop it. Part ‘b’, following a few days later, will suggest possible interview questions helpful to determine the extent to which a candidate possesses the specific competency.
Let’s start with the one identified as being most critical…communication. When considering this we are talking about verbal, non-verbal, and written forms, as well as discerning the proper channel when communicating a message. The simple question is, “How do I grow my communication skills so that I can be more effective in my role as a remote worker?’ Here are some ideas to get you started:
Written communication (the most important form of communication when working remote):
- Read more…not mind numbing books, but books that challenge your thinking, and stretch your vocabulary. Authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, or Stephen King.
- Make time to learn about the art of writing. A couple of suggestions would be Elements of Style by E.B. White; Draft #4 by John McPhee
- Journal…take time to record your thoughts, and when possible, use good old fashion ink and paper. Actually writing your thoughts causes you to slow down and think more intentionally about what you’re wanting to say without worrying about someone reading your thoughts.
- Check that your writing style is more about clarity and exactness, than beauty and emotion. (To be sure, there is a time for beauty and emotion, but for this situation being clear and concise, rules.)
Oral communication (the spoken word):
According to one study, men speak an average of 7,000 words per day, while women speak an average of 20,000. No derogatory comments allowed! The important point here is that even though we speak, a lot, everyday, we are not necessarily getting any better at communicating. Practice only makes perfect if you are correct in what you are practicing!
- Think about historical persons known for their oratory skills…people like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Socrates, Condoleezza Rice, Cheryl Sandberg, John F Kennedy, Mr. Rogers (yes…Mr. Rogers!). Read their biographies and autobiographies, or watch them speak via recorded videos . What do you notice about the power of their words? What observations can help you speak with more clarity and persuasion?
- Listen more, speak less (your peers, clients, and manager’s will thank you)
Practice brevity. According to tech republic, people have the tendency to make 3 mistakes when communicating: Over explaining, under-preparing, and completely missing the point. The article sums up their advice with:
- Map your message first
- Lead with a headline
- Trim away excess detail
- Finally, ask for feedback. We all have blindspots, ask a trusted peer, family member, or friend to tell you how you are doing with your oral communication…and act on what they say.
Communication Channel (what’s the best way to send a message?)
Without a doubt, the options for how to send a message are many, however, every channel is not appropriate for every message. The following are key considerations that I have found to be most relevant.
1. What is the nature of the message?
2. Is there a need for documentation of the conversation?
3. What supporting technology is available?
4. What is the urgency of the message?
5. Is there a level of confidentiality or secrecy that needs to be preserved?
6. Is there an element of safety that could be compromised through the content of the message?
7. What is the relationship between the sender and the receiver of the message?
Communication Tools (how are you sending a message?)
Finally, the tools you use will either foster rich communication, or hinder it. If your team tends to get lost in email threads or c.c. purgatory, consider messaging apps like Slack, Wire, or Basecamp. If you’re finding your team struggling with empathy towards each other, push for video chat vs audio-only team calls. Invest in good software!
Bottom line? We can all improve our ability to communicate well; via spoken word, written word, and in choosing the proper channel. It takes time, lots of it! But the results are worth it both for personal satisfaction and for personal reputation! Ready to grow?
Over the past year I have researching what makes remote workers successful. I’m happy to have been able to collaborate with my son, @natesawatzky in the research. Both Nathan and I are so thankful for the many who let us dig into their lives as remote workers.
Today, I’m excited to share a version of the report that has been created to benefit managers, remote workers, and leaders alike. You can download the report here.
questions about the report, or simply want to talk more about remote work.
It’s Dec 15, 8 above, and I’m sitting outside working…in Canada!
I am taking a much needed break from writing a report (a paper actually) on our research. Ok, to be honest, I just needed an excuse to take my iPad and sit on the patio of my favourite Kelowna coffee shop, Esther and Sons, and reflect on this past year of delving into the amazing world of remote work. If I were to sum it up, the words I would use are grateful, amazed, inspired, and overwhelmed!
Some highlights have been:
- meeting many of you;
- traveling to Europe and chatting with many remote workers in co-working spaces (intentionally), and in cafés (accidentally);
- hearing your experiences and adventures;
- learning so much from the experts (you!);
- experiencing amazing cafés (to name a few: Buro Espresso Bar, Robert’s Coffee, The Barn, Lucifer’s Specialty Coffee, Utrecht Onz Cafe, Amsterdam Lot Sixty One, House of Tribes, Kaafi);
- virtual conferences and conversations
- connecting with remote workers in my own continent of North America, and of course right here in British Columbia;
- the willingness of many of you to share resources, both your knowledge and connections;
- the honesty of remote workers in sharing their joys and challenges;
- and, last but by no means least, doing all this in collaboration with Nate Sawatzky (my son)…so great! (big thanks to the incredible support of our families)
So, where am I with all of this? 12 pages into a paper on our findings…being reminded how frustrating (but important) citations are in validating the research and findings.
One of the words I used to describe my experience was ‘overwhelmed’; let me be clear, it’s a great sense of being overwhelmed! Our focus was on learning the competencies necessary for success as a remote worker, how feedback is desired, from whom, and what support is needed. You taught me that…and so much more!
As I look at the findings, the implications for business schools, managers, HR professionals, city planners, and potential remote workers is powerful. I have so many “ how might we…” questions arising from this that narrowing down my next focus of research will be a challenge!
What do I need from you?
- I hope to have the research summarized by the end of January. If you would like a copy send directly to you, please let me know.
- If you were to identify an area of remote work that you would like to see research focused on (again, a joint industry/academia approach) what would it be?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with both your requests and suggestions.
That’s it…back to the report fuelled by coffee and vitamin D!
And by the way…Merry Christmas to all.
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.)