Remote Work and Creative Collaboration

I will just say it: There is no magic formula to ensure a highly creative remote team. 

If you lack the foundations, moving a team to virtual meetings will not suddenly make everyone more creative. The good news is that if a team already works together effectively, then there is a good chance they will continue to come up with creative solutions even if they can’t meet in person.

Let’s review the basics: Two key features make creative and collaborative problem-solving much more likely. First (and most important) you must have a culture where people feel that their input is welcome, and that their ideas will be give fair consideration. If you have somehow given the impression that critical feedback is not welcome, people will hesitate to speak up.

The second factor in a creative team is diversity. In particular, you want team members with a diversity of experience, viewpoints, and temperaments. If everyone around the table is pretty similar (say male, white, 40-ish, wearing chinos, grew up in Toronto), you might want to consider expanding the team to get a greater variety of outlook and attitude.

Let’s assume that the basics are in place. Moving to remote team meetings will still pose challenges. For one thing, attention spans are shorter when people aren’t in the same physical space. If the meeting seems dull, people will be tempted to minimize the meeting window on their computer screen and check email or look up news reports instead. On top of this, there are all the distractions of home, plus less accountability. There is no one beside you to notice that you’re not fully engaged. For these reasons, I would suggest that remote meetings be shorter than in-person meetings. (Most meetings are too long anyway – but that is a topic for another day!)

Second, it is harder to have genuine personal contact in virtual as opposed to in-person meetings. The person facilitating the meeting therefore has to make an extra effort to have people connect with one another. One way to do this is to start the meeting with a “check-in.” Have each person answer a question like, “How is the day/week going for you so far?” or “What has been your biggest win this week?” or “What is your biggest challenge at work right now?” or even “How did you spend the weekend?” The meeting chair should answer first. Others will take their cue from the first person who responds and likely answer at similar length and with a similar demeanor. If the chair answers in a joking way, that is likely how others will respond as well. 

Finally, the person chairing or facilitating the meeting should make a practice of repeating and summarizing what has been said. This will help keep everyone on track and focused, as well as help everyone catch-up if technical problems cause glitches. (Obviously, use your judgment. Don’t interrupt a good discussion to repeat and summarize – wait for a natural break.)

While no one knows exactly what the post-Covid workplace will be like, every indication is that remote work (and remote meetings) will be more common. So it make sense to master best practices and get the best from your team as soon as possible.

About the image:  Dali Atomicus, Salvador Dalí and Philippe Halsman (1948): Wikipedia

“We tried that already.” Handling Objections during a Meeting

You’re chairing a team meeting and you ask for suggestions. Farrah, relatively new to the group, makes a proposal. She’s reading from prepared notes and it is clear that she’s put some thought into this. You’re about to thank her when a voice comes from the other end of the table. It’s Sam, a 10-year veteran of the organization. “We already tried that and it didn’t work,” he says in a weary voice, sighing audibly. Farrah looks down, crestfallen. The others shift uncomfortably in their seats and stare at the table in front of them. What do you do?

How you handle Sam’s objection will have ramifications beyond today’s meeting. Some of the factors you have to navigate:

  • Farrah deserves recognition for preparing for the meeting and speaking up. You want to encourage her to keep offering ideas and suggestions.
  • Sam might very well be right. In most teams there is one person who can be counted on for a critical viewpoint. If this person can express their criticisms in a respectful manner, he or she is a great asset to any organization. However  if this person shares their views in a way that undermines others, he or she will create resentment and lower morale. Some managers will push to silence or remove someone like Sam. If Sam’s behaviour crosses the line into workplace harassment, you do need to do something. If the behaviour is not so severe, removing Sam sends the wrong message about critical engagement. Every team needs a Sam (or Samantha).
  • What about the rest of the team? If you show irritation with Sam or otherwise discourage him from speaking up, you risk sending the message that it is better to keep one’s opinion to oneself. The team may not like Sam but he is still their colleague and you are their manager. A public scolding could turn them against you very quickly. 
  • Sam may need some coaching, but you can hardly take care of that in the moment. You need to send the message that critical feedback is welcome, as long as it is delivered respectfully.

How to work with the Sams and Samanthas of the world is a bigger topic. When you are faced with dismissive criticism in the moment, the best thing to do is to lead by example. Be curious, open to feedback, and respectful to everyone. Here’s what that might look like:

Repeat Sam’s objection, “You say that we already tried that and it didn’t work.”

Draw him out. Ask him to elaborate. “Tell me more. Please remind everyone of what happened when we tried that.”

Repeat back and summarize the details.

Turn back to Farrah. Give her a chance to defend her proposal. Ask, “How is your suggestion different from what we tried in the past?” If Farrah really is suggesting something that has already been tried, ask, “Have the circumstances changed? Should we try it again?”

Ask the rest of the team if they have anything to add.

Thank Farrah, Sam, and anyone else who spoke up.

A goldsmith in his shop

Trust and Remote Work: How to do it Right

I was recently brought in to do an assessment of a department with very low morale and high staff turnover. I found one of the main sources of dissatisfaction to be the remote work policy.

That’s not exactly correct. The organization had a generous policy. Unfortunately the department manager refused to follow it.

This manager insisted that people show up at their desks at 9 and stay until 4:30 everyday. She was, frankly, a control freak and allowing people to work from home made it more difficult for her to control them.

Attitudes to remote work vary widely. Not everyone thinks it is a good thing, and some industries and jobs are not well-suited to it. Yet every indication is that the future will bring more remote work as companies do the math and calculate the possible savings in real estate costs. And more people, having had the experience of skipping their commute and working from home, will want to continue working remotely.

This brings me to a thorny topic: trust. Trust is probably the biggest barrier to successful remote work. If employees are not on-site, employers may be suspicious that they are not putting in a full day’s work. The flipside is resentment by employees who may be working just as hard or harder as they do at the office, but feel constantly monitored or micromanaged. Add to this mix a remote work policy that is unclear or unevenly applied and you have the makings of an unhappy workplace.

How can employers ensure that the work gets done when their staff are not physically present? And how can employees be sure that their efforts will be recognized?

We usually think of trust in personal terms. We trust some people but not others. Yet in a workplace setting, thinking of trust only as a personal attribute leads to problems in the long run. I’ve seen enough managers make the wrong choice in deciding which employees to trust to make me think that none of us may have very good judgement in this regard.

Instead of deciding which employees are “trustworthy,” set out clear expectations for everyone and put your trust in a system that tracks employee’s results – not the amount of time they spend at their desk.

Whatever system you come up with will depend on your particular industry. If you have different people doing similar tasks, you will need a way to compare them to one another. If you have a split workforce, with some working remotely and others on-site, you will also want to compare their results. Just make sure everyone knows what is going on, what outcomes you are tracking, and why. This is a case where more transparency is better than less.

I’ve heard about companies that make employees who are working remotely “sign in” at specific times and remain on-line for a set number of hours. Unless this is absolutely necessary for employees to accomplish their tasks, I would avoid such a system. First, there will always be people smart enough to get around whatever system of surveillance you put in place. Faking actual results is much harder. Second, one of the main benefits to employees of remote work is the ability to structure their time as they see fit. Some people are happy to be at their desk by 7 am, so that they can take their dog for a long walk mid-day. Some people need frequent breaks but are ready to put in a longer day. Forcing everyone into the same rigid timeframe removes one of the main benefits to employees of working off-site.

Next: Remote Work and Creative Collaboration

About the image: Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop (Public Domain, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Sharing space when you’re working from home

A classic cause of conflict is competition for scarce resources – be it sources of fuel, arable land, or access to fresh water. Today, as many of us adjust to the challenge of working from home, the “scarce resources” are more likely to be peace and quiet.

Like most conflicts over scarce resources, conflicts over how to share living and workspace can be resolved through negotiation. (Mediation is just negotiation facilitated by a neutral third party.)

Sit down with your family or housemates and decide the following:

  • Who will work where?
  • How will you handle it if one needs quiet and the other has to attend virtual meetings?
  • What will you do if one person needs to make a confidential call?
  • Will you eat lunch together?
  • What if one of you is working at the kitchen table and the other decides to make a smoothie using the fancy blender that is louder than a jackhammer?
  • How will you share childcare?

Look for creative solutions and be prepared to make trade-offs. If you need to take a call while your housemate is working quietly, can you step outside or onto the balcony? Can you attend that video conference from your car?

None of this is rocket science.  However it can require adjustment if you’re not used to sharing working space with another person.

More important than the details of whatever arrangement you decide upon is making a mental adjustment to the new reality. No one knows when things will be back to “normal” or what the new normal will look like. Assume that you’ll have to share space for the foreseeable future and make a long-term plan.

About the image: Husband and Wife. Source: Lorenzo Lotto, Wikimedia Commons

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Bullying in the virtual workplace

In the course of a recent workplace intervention, one of the employees I interviewed described a pattern of harassment via text message. While this woman was on vacation, one of her co-workers sent her a stream of angry messages berating her for (allegedly) leaving her files in a mess and letting everybody down.

Apparently thousands of miles isn’t far enough to eliminate workplace harassment.

Based on my experience there will be many people who are relieved to work at home and avoid having to face a feared supervisor or dreaded colleague in person. (This is one “silver lining” in these difficult times.)  At the same time, I also know that workplace bullying will continue in new forms, and that more than ever, leaders must insist on respectful behaviour.

Managers have to observe a delicate balance. On the one hand, everyone is under stress and we are all capable of less-than-gracious behaviour. Being forgiving in these trying circumstances is humane. At the same time I have been in too many organizations where poor behaviour is never addressed. The cost – in terms of morale, lowered productivity, and human emotion – is enormous. Leaders need to set clear boundaries and expectations around acceptable behaviour.

Here is what managers can do to ensure open dialogue and respectful behaviour during virtual meetings:

  1. Tone at the top is more important than ever. Participants will take their cues regarding behaviour from the leader. So set a good example.
  1. Begin each meeting with a quick “check in” to ask people how they are doing. This is more important than ever as employees are likely to be under a great deal of stress. A check-in gives people permission to speak personally, but doesn’t oblige them to. (Sometimes clients ask me – doesn’t this take up valuable time? On the contrary, my experience is that check-ins are a good use of time because they help everyone to focus. People will often mention something that has been preoccupying them and saying it out loud to others allows them to let go of it.)
  1. As the leader, you should start the check-in. How you answer will set the tone for how others respond.
  1. If you notice disrespectful behaviour during a video meeting – snide remarks, audible sighs, eye-rolling, or a sarcastic tone – you need to address it. However do this privately, in a separate call or video meeting. Public shaming – even of individuals who may “deserve” it – is not good for workplace culture.
  1. When addressing disrespectful behaviour, be matter-of-fact and name the behaviour that you found disrespectful. You can say something like, “You seemed on edge during the meeting. I noticed that you rolled your eyes and sighed deeply when Sally was sharing her ideas. Whether you meant it or not, your actions came over as disrespectful.  Please share your perspective in a way that doesn’t involve…”
  1. End the meeting with a “check out.” Depending on your workplace culture and the type of organization, you might ask participants to share something that they learned, something they appreciate about a co-worker, or one action they will take based on the meeting. Again, the leader should go first and how he/she speaks will set the tone for the others.

Stay tuned for a future post on maintaining a positive culture when you’re back to interacting in person.

About the image: Excluded from the Group. Source: Stuart Miles, StockVault

Myth of the “toxic” Manager

At a recent presentation, someone asked me about “toxic” managers. You can see my response in this video.

Here’s what I didn’t have time to say:  I don’t like the term “toxic manager” or “toxic employee.” My work is all about helping people resolve their differences respectfully. Coming into a conflict with a mindset that one of the parties is “toxic” is simply not helpful.

More importantly, calling someone “toxic” puts the emphasis on individuals when the problem is usually organizational structure or culture. People in an organization are “toxic” only when they are allowed to be this way – when their behaviour is ignored, tolerated or (I hate to say this – but it can be true) encouraged.

So let’s stop calling people names and try instead to understand the underlying factors that contribute to disrespectful conduct.

(I say more about this in an old blog post on bullying.)

Workplace Harassment v. Bullying

At a recent question-and-answer, someone asked me about the difference between workplace “harassment” and “bullying.”

“Harassment” is conduct that is bothersome or unwelcome. It can be one single, very bad incident or a number of smaller, less significant acts. Shouting at someone is harassment, as is name-calling, cracking jokes at their expense, and making sexually suggestive remarks.

“Bullying” is simply prolonged harassment.