Want to Get More Done in Your Remote Workday? Slow Down and Talk to People

To better control your schedule, first make room for your colleagues.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Remote work means never again listening to your colleague’s loud phone calls. But if you think remote work means putting your head down and letting your results speak for themselves, think again. The maximally productive worker balances focus time with people time. This article will show you to build that balance into your day.

But first, let’s discuss why taking time to talk to people via video call makes you a faster worker.

Talking to People Saves Time

According to an article by Kristin Byron, assistant professor at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, people “often read emails as more emotionally negative or neutral than intended.” Humans interpret tone more accurately in a face to face or phone conversation.

It’s more work to talk to people face to face. For some, finding a meeting slot across time zones and work schedules is a real challenge. For others, interacting with people drains their personal energy. You may get enough personal interaction in your daily life and have no desire to connect with coworkers. However, meeting face to face leads to more positive feelings. Those positive feelings function as the social grease that keeps the complicated interplay of business processes moving smoothly and efficiently.

I’ve certainly found this to be the case in my own work life. When I started my current role, one high ranking person in particular fought every decision I made. We’ll call this person ‘Jan’. It took twice as long to make any decisions that involved Jan, and usually she would go over my head and argue her case with my boss. The problem wasn’t me. Jan had a hostile relationship with my predecessor, and she was accustomed to fighting for what she needed. My solution was to meet every day via video call so we could talk through key decisions. Our relationship smoothed out within a few weeks, and Jan became a solid ally.

Don’t Deficit Spend

Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

This may seem like an example of how meeting with people takes more time and not less. It helps if you think of personal interactions like banking. You put money into the bank every time you meet via video or phone call. When I stepped into my role, my personal account with Jan was deeply in the red because of my predecessor. I had to do a lot of up front work to get that account into the positive. Once that happened the majority of our interactions happened smoothly through email. Cutting out all of the fighting saved my sanity, and saved an hour a day.

Not everyone will be won over because you meet with them. However, enough people will be won over and you will increase your leverage. Once Jan became my ally, she used her position and energy to fight for me instead of against me. That left me free to do my job.

Meeting with your colleagues makes practical sense for other reasons. Regular, positive human contact makes it easier to give – and get – the benefit of the doubt when the emails are flying fast and furious. People are more giving of their time and resources when they aren’t annoyed with you. It’s easy for an innocent email to escalate into a major issue in any environment. It’s doubly easy in a remote environment, where you can’t see the sender’s face or read intent. Give people a reason to think the best of you.

Face to face meetings put credit in your bank, and most written interactions deplete that credit. Meet with people often enough that you don’t deficit spend. You’ll know when that happens. Symptoms of deficit spending include sluggish email responses, misunderstandings, and fights for what you need. Choose a meeting frequency that keeps you out of the red.

It Starts With ‘Yes’

Photo by Julian Lozano on Unsplash

You may agree that meeting with people face to face makes sense, but have no idea how to fit it into your daily schedule. Most of us don’t have extra time for more meetings.

The most powerful thing you can do right now to improve your productivity is to decide that you have time to meet with people. Your mind is an amazing problem-solving organ. If you tell yourself that you have time to meet with people, you will find the time.

Here’s how this worked for me: I made a list of the colleagues I depend on the most and decided that if they asked if I ‘had a second,’ my answer would be, ‘Sure, I always have time for you.’ I would end each interaction with ‘it was a pleasure talking to you.’ No excuses, no exceptions.

Who do you depend on to get your work done? Those are the people who should be on your list.

It’s important to note that I don’t always drop everything to hold a meeting. Sometimes I tell people ‘Sure, I always have time for you. Can we meet in an hour after I finish this other thing?’ I am also very protective of when I leave work for the day. If it isn’t a client facing emergency that will explode before morning, I will address it in the morning.

Still, I say yes to ad hoc meetings far more often than I used to. And several surprising things happened.

What Happened After Yes

I have more control over my work schedule. It became easier to change, move, or get out of some meetings. Since people could theoretically talk to me at any time, they were more willing to honor my focus time. People pay attention to when you’re available, and they self-regulate.

My colleagues are more responsive. I go out of my way to make meeting with me a pleasant experience. In turn, my colleagues are quick to answer my emails and text messages.

My colleagues are more honest. Nobody was lying to me, but when you say ‘I always have time for you,’ people tell you things. We have honest conversations about conflicting priorities, stress levels, and bandwidth. I rely on the information I get from a range of people to do my daily tasks. Better data translates into better decisions.

These three factors gave me back time in my day. This is how I fit writing a book into my full-time work schedule. I get more done, and my colleagues are generally happy with what I produce. It’s a win-win.

Take a Hard Look at Your Work Flow

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So how does this work for you? Once you decide to say yes to your most important colleagues, it’s time to take a look at logistics. You’ll want to consider several factors.

What time constraints do YOU have? I have a set of tasks that must be done before 11am every day. I do a better job when I can work on them without interruption. Chances are, you have some things that need to get done every day too.

Are your colleagues in different time zones? I work in the Pacific time zone. The majority of my colleagues work in Eastern time, with a sprinkling in Central and Mountain time. Most of them finish work by 2–3pm PST. If you don’t know which time zone(s) your colleagues work in, find out. Make sure your “office hours” fit inside your colleagues’ work hours.

Are you a bottleneck? I have three departments that have to hear from me every day before they can do a set of tasks. They want to hear from me sooner rather than later. When do your colleagues need to hear from you?

Think Like a Business Owner

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

A business owner sets her schedule by considering both the needs of her business and her personal life. A remote employee must do the same thing. Your company and your boss will have certain demands, but it’s up to you to make sure your work gets done. Use that autonomy to create an ideal schedule.

My schedule looks something like this: From 8–9 I work on time sensitive tasks without interruption. From 9–10 I check email and answer questions that popped up before I started for the day. From 10–12 I focus on strategic or creative tasks without interruption. Sometimes this means working alone. Other times I collaborate with colleagues. At noon I respond to email and Slack questions before heading out the door for a run. From 1–3 I eat lunch at my desk and am available to meet with anyone who wants to talk to me. If I haven’t spoken to someone in a while I use this time to reach out. From 3–4 I make sure I’ve done everything I said I was going to do for the day. At 4 I leave.

This is my ideal schedule. Some days I have to throw it right out the window. But at least I know what I’m shooting for, and most days I get it.

What does your ideal schedule look like? You can’t get what you want if you don’t know what it is. You have more control over your day than you think. Remember that you are building social capital with regular, face to face meetings. Spend that capital creating a schedule that helps you thrive. It will enable you to deliver copious amounts of high level work. This in turn creates more social capital. When you have capital to spend, people will adjust their expectations for you. You will get more done in less time, and people will be happier with your output.

And who knows? You might even publish a book.