Impact Insights

Remote Work: Three Ways to be More Present

“Oh sorry, I couldn’t get off mute.”

In the past 15 months, almost every remote technology employee has become painfully familiar with this phrase.

Adjusting to full-time remote work and a disruption in regular travel has been top of mind for me since 2020. In my last blog, I explored the drastic changes that travelling employees have faced since the outbreak of COVID-19. Today, I want to look at some of the changes I have put into place to remain a vital member of my team – while still being 100% remote.

Most people would agree that being at a meeting in person translates to a large value-add for the project being discussed. There are diverse elements of the job made easier by being on-site, which is why companies pay to bring their consultants on-site frequently. But what do you do when restrictions prevent you from travelling? How do you continue to add value to the project when you cannot be on-site?

Over the course of my career, I have been working on my own strategies to answer these questions. This past year has given me the opportunity to try them out, and there are three that I have really honed in on.

  • First, be actively present, not just available.
  • Second, make sure to focus on the details; really listen, do not just hear.
  • Finally, remember we are all humans, and do not presume that open space on someone’s calendar denotes availability to you.

Be actively present

In the deluge of emails we receive daily, I am sure that we have each seen something along the lines of “if you need anything, please feel free to reach out.” While that statement covers the sender and offers support where needed, I have found that people will rarely reach out, even if they are not 100% clear about the information in the email. The recipient will seemingly push through in the dark rather than reach out for help.

In order to combat the noise generated by an online office space, take the next step and ask the individuals how they received the information. The growth our projects can experience when we take the initiative to ask our coworkers direct questions in follow-up to our requests is incredible. Building that bridge and exploring potential questions does add to the required time of the task. But the end result is much stronger than the archaic “I’m here if you need me” approach.

By taking the time to imagine potential confusion or questions, we are showing our coworkers that we are willing to walk with them throughout the project. Another way to be actively present is to turn on our cameras when we are in a one-on-one meeting. Yes, I know, it is annoying to have our cameras running when we are on a 200-person presentation. I am not talking about that – I am talking about the small-setting meetings. Turning on our camera shows the person that we are willing to share our facial cues and emotional responses. It shows we are actively engaging with them.

Really listen

Speaking of being engaged, many of us have probably heard many platitudes about the importance of really listening. I am sure it was probably something like, “We are born with two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak.”

In my experience, it is no longer enough to just listen. We must actively absorb what we are hearing, and try to flesh out the rest of the information that we do not hear. In addition to using words to relay our thoughts, many people speak volumes in the silences they choose to take.

In order to grow with our teams, we should be listening and hearing what is said, and we also should take it one step further and listen to people when they are not speaking. Maybe they always get quiet when a certain workflow comes up. Maybe they go mum when a specific coworker is talking. Pay attention to the nonverbal communication going on in the meeting. If we were in-person working, this would be known as reading body language. People rarely use their cameras, so we often miss the visual clues and cues we are used to receiving.

Another key to focusing on the details is letting our coworkers know that we remember. Maybe it is the fact that they love LaCroix, or maybe they just got a new puppy. Including this in our conversations shows them that we are invested in the team, not just the project.

Be purposeful when scheduling meetings

Being a part of our teams means setting up a lot of meetings. I am sure that we have dramatically improved our skills of searching calendars for that one 30-minute block that works for almost everyone. I like to call this practice “Calendar Battleship,” because oftentimes that is what it feels like:

How about next Wednesday at 9:30 eastern?

Nope that doesn’t work for me.

How about Thursday at 1 central?

Back and forth we go. Just trying to get meetings planned often takes more time than the meeting itself! With all of this back and forth, we know the excitement in finding that one slot of time that works. But, in order to take that next step with our team, I challenge us to see that slot as a potential time to be discussed, instead of presuming it’s a free slot.

Just because someone’s calendar is clear does not mean they are free. We should work with our teams to find time together, when possible. There have been multiple studies linking people’s time to their happiness. Many of these studies show that the ability to “buy back time” (hiring a cleaning person, handyman or groundskeeper) is worth more than just buying things at the same value because we free up precious time for ourselves.

We should also manage the time we do have with the understanding that our coworkers are humans. We have natural requirements and impediments. Scheduling meetings from five minutes after the hour until five minutes before the next hour builds in windows for what are now referred to as “bio-breaks.” In previous times, we would just excuse ourselves to go to the bathroom, but now an unannounced absence from a call can be interpreted many ways.

When we worked in the same facility, we accounted for this time as we walked from one meeting to the next, and we understood when someone was a couple of minutes late. But now that we just click the “Leave” and “Join” buttons, there’s an expectation of immediacy. I would encourage us all to take it a step further by taking just a couple minutes at the beginning of our meetings to grow our relationships. I try to spend the first five minutes of my one-on-ones talking about the other person. I ask about their weekend. I talk about their new puppy. I get restaurant recommendations. Basically, I avoid work talk for just a bit, to remind them that I know that they are human. They have lives and responsibilities outside of our company and this digital universe.

Once we have our primary toolsets, we should be able to continue to add value to our organizations and grow our professional relationships despite the fact that we are not on-site. This is a big learning process for all of us. The sooner we can embrace the beauty that comes with new opportunities, the sooner we can become more efficient.

So, I ask you, what strategies have you found helpful in the switch to a remote workspace? Do you have any tips or tricks that you would like to share?