Surviving in the remote office

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love over-communication

I’ve worked with remote teams before. Partially remote. They we’re remote and the “company” was in one place. Anyone who has worked with clients or in a customer facing role could probably reasonably abstract things out to a person working remotely without too many new skills in their toolbox.

But there is no easy framework when part of an office becomes removed from you. The remote worker is the “other”. They have the hard job of figuring out what you are thinking.

I recently began working with a team that is for the most part remote:

The Developers, frontend and backend, are mostly remote.

The UX/UI expert is remote.

The Quality Assurer is remote.

The Marketing, Support, and Sales team are mostly remote.

We have a small office and some of the management and executive functions reside there and work there, but not always. I work out of it everyday. Not for any particular reason except maybe that i’ve found myself to be astonishingly unproductive working from home. But that’s another story…

What I came to realize is that in the past i’ve probably made remote worker’s lives profoundly harder. Its only now that i’m just as remote to all my teammates as they are to me that the value and quality of our communication becomes clear.

When you’re remote over-communication is just… communication.

I’m still not as good as I could be but I find that what’s required of me as a good coworker has been crystalizing; thanks in no small part to feedback from those I work with:

  1. 📖 Text is a sponge and you are the water

It absorbs your context, your feelings, your biases, and intent. If you’re upset and defensive then feedback will read as more accusatory and malicious. If you’re happy and energized then proposed ideas will seem more insightful and valuable. Text can’t defend itself with the context of facial expressions or tone of voice and so is completely at the mercy of your lizard brain.

You have to assume the best intentions from your coworkers or the message won’t survive the medium.

I’m still struggling with this as I’ve been forced to change the context of how I gather feedback and build consensus from 20:80 written and spoken to the inverse. After a few weeks of trying to think this way it felt for a while that my feedback and communication from my coworkers was improving… but I realize now that I was just finally starting to give their text a fair trial in the court of my brain.

2. Face time 😄 🎥 über alles

If you have the opportunity to have a high stakes conversation face to face then you should take it. There is an incalculable amount that can be conveyed in a video chat would never survive the context compression of chat or email.

I’ve found increasing value in prepending and appending a video chat with my coworkers on small and large “runs” of work: prototyping, testing, wire-framing, planning, etc. Once a direction is set people are remarkably skilled at maintaining their direction, on the whole, but being aligned at the start and contemplative at the end helps give shape to the work that happens in the middle.

3. Tools amplify 📢 communication habits, whatever they are

There’s been an avalanche of thought pieces on what using Slack means for teams who are remote or office bound and i’ll resist the urge to slide into one… But, there is something to be said for understanding the role tools play in amplifying the subconscious behaviors of its users.

A tool creates paths of least resistance for certain behaviors and creates barriers to others and this is not inherently a bad thing. Chat apps reduce friction for instantaneous conversation and feedback and allows casual conversations to thrive. Chat apps in the office also drastically lower the barriers of access to your team members.

All of these things can be good, but you will end up managing the behaviors that emerge from these paths of least resistance.

What that has meant for our team is searching for tools that enable asynchronous and thoughtful contributions and feedback. Being a team that spans continents means that being accessible instantly to everyone can create friction and stresses from unrealistic expectations.

European employees shouldn’t be held to account for immediate answers from American employees and vice-versa, but our tools may unintentionally set that expectations.

It isn’t the fault of the tools that some of these behaviors emerge, but it is the responsibility of the team to be thoughtful about the repercussions.

4. Emoji are surprisingly good context builders 🤔

In a work place where context comes at a premium its important to find lower friction ways to re-introduce it where we lack it. Emoji, as it turns out, are pretty great for this.

The difference between:

“How are you, we need to chat.”

And

👋 🏻How are you, we need to chat 😎

Is so gargantuan as to almost defy classification. In the top message you’re probably thinking you’re about to get reprimanded if you’ve had a bad day…

And in the second message someone is probably about to tell you how great your taste in shirts is and how can they find one like yours. Or maybe if you want to hit the skate park and then get ice cream.

Ok… maybe not quite that, but the tonal shift is clear. With the right emoji you can overcome the tonnage of ambiguity that text can contain and start a conversation off the right way.

How are you finding ways to communicate better while working remote?

Let me know in the comments as i’d love to continue improving and serve my team better as I level up my remote skill set.

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