Remote Work Threats, Getting Help, Slack, and Meetings
May 13, 2021
This is Kommon People — the newsletter from Kommon which highlights stories about people, organisations, and technology to help you be a better manager. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
In this Issue
Back to the office, or else: a media CEO threatens to fire her employees if they don’t return to the office. Obviously terrible, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
A good time to ask for help: less experienced managers are often reluctant to ask for help with the role. This shift to new working practices is a great excuse to ask for more support.
Give yourself some slack: no, not that Slack. How keeping some free time in your schedule doesn’t make you less productive, it actually makes you better at your job.
Should this be a meeting: a fun tool for working out how to get rid of unnecessary meetings.
Back to the Office, or Else
Yeah ok, classic clickbait headline. No reasonable boss would actually say that.
In it, she expresses her ‘concern’ with the ‘unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion.’
If you think that calling the vast majority of your workforce who’ve kept your company afloat during a horrific year ‘unfortunate’ and ‘common’ is a bad start, you’d be right.
It gets much worse.
Her issue with these sorry people is that she feels they don’t contribute fully to the company.
‘I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — “extra.” It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor”.’
Come in and cut some birthday cake or you could lose your healthcare and pension. Inspiring stuff.
‘Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.’
It appears Merill quickly realised that she’d made a mistake as the title of the op-ed now reads very differently (although the article is unchanged).
In fairness, it didn’t require great powers of deduction to notice her screw-up as her staff were so furious with her article that they refused to publish her magazine and spent last week tweeting about it.
Now, we don’t expect many of you are about to threaten your teams in the Washington Post anytime soon, so what are the lessons here?
The first is about how discussions of remote work are intrinsically linked to perceptions of trust in your employees. As journalist Charlie Warzel noted:
‘In her op-ed, Merrill argues that, “a good culture of trust will be harder to build” with a full or partially remote workforce. What she’s really saying is that it will be harder for her and other executives to trust employees when they’re not in immediate proximity.’
As a manager, trust can be a difficult and delicate thing to build with your team. Leaving aside the horrors of this op-ed, in our communication with our teams about working arrangements, we need to be sure not to compromise this.
Secondly, although the solution Merill arrived at (threatening your employees) was an odd choice, and the way she communicated (lazy hearsay) was embarrassing, if you dig through the garbage, the anxieties she expresses elsewhere are those faced by many managers at the moment.
‘We face re-creating a workplace where a good culture of trust will be harder to build’
‘’As the economy rebounds, we need to hire and attract talent…how will we persuade new employees to come aboard, and, more importantly, stay, if they don’t have leaders they can build solid in-person relationships with?’
‘Professional development is hard to do remotely.’
‘Being out of that informal loop is likely to make you a less valuable employee.’
But she’s got it backwards.
Yes, you will need to hire and attract talent, but according to recent surveys, over 90 percent of that talent wants the flexibility to work remotely at least some of the time. So how are you going to create an environment where flexible work is possible, and yet employees can develop professionally, build connections and deliver maximum value to your firm?
Figuring that out rather than issuing threats is where the real work begins, for her and for all of us.
(Not to mention being a much more useful op-ed).
A Good Time to Ask for Help
We know that first-time managers can find it hard to ask for help.
We’ve written about this before. Beyond the fact that asking for help can make us feel vulnerable (particularly in high-performing teams), for less-experienced managers there’s often also:
Discomfort with asking for assistance because you’re excellent at other parts of your job and don’t want to compromise that reputation.
A cultural expectation in your workplace that ‘you’ll just figure it out’, and that you’re a bad manager if you don’t.
No-one to talk to whose opinion you respect and trust, even if you wanted to.
If some of these apply to you, then the changing debate around management and remote/hybrid work may help you raise your voice.
A recent survey by Reset Work of 55 HR leaders and decision-makers about hybrid work and the return to the office found that support and training for managers was their primary concern.
This follows a consistent stream of reporting over the past year which has emphasised the increasing importance of managers to pivoting to remote/hybrid work. This was The Economist just last month.
Learning how to manage a hybrid team is likely to be new territory for many in your company. So if you’ve previously struggled to start a discussion with your boss or your peers about help with your management responsibilities, this may be a great time to bring it up.
The conversation might even be happening already.
Give Yourself Some Slack
No, this is not a paid post about Slack.
We’re talking about:
Noun: ‘A spell of inactivity or laziness.’
Shane Parrish published an interesting post recently on the value of keeping some slack in your schedule, which we think will resonate a lot with managers.
That definition above, which comes from the Oxford Languages dictionary, neatly demonstrates exactly the issue Parrish explores. We live in a time where companies and individuals feel intense pressure to be productive, optimising every minute of our working day for output.
Parrish’s point is that this probably makes you worse at your job.
If every minute of your day is planned, you’re not able to respond promptly to new developments and opportunities, which could/should be higher priority. This makes you less effective in your role.
He draws upon the work of Tom DeMarco who used the analogy of one of those puzzle games consisting of eight numbered tiles in a box, with one empty space so you can slide them around one at a time to make the correct pattern.
As he says:
‘Without the open space, there is no further possibility of moving tiles at all. The layout is optimal as it is, but if time proves otherwise, there is no way to change it.’ Tom DeMarco
This is particularly true for roles which have lots of different responsibilities, and require frequent context-switching and decision-making, like managers.
So try and give yourself some slack in your schedule. It’s not laziness. This ‘inactivity’ will likely make you a better manager.
Should this be a meeting?
When we published our Manager’s Guide to Writing, one of the pieces of feedback we got was how useful it was because it helped our readers replace inefficient meetings with written updates.
‘In particular, if there’s one meeting we’d like to kill as a result of this article it’s anything that involves bringing people ‘up to speed’. From now on when you see or feel like uttering that phrase, run for the hills - or at least to a word processor. If it’s not a matter that’s time sensitive or requires immediate participant discussion, you’re just communicating information and it can probably be written instead.’
Well, as the next step in this crusade to rid your team of unnecessary meetings, introducing:
Yes, it’s only a light-hearted tool which asks you a couple of yes/no questions about your meetings but running a few scenarios through it might genuinely help you think about how you communicate with your team.
And if you do manage to identify an unnecessary meeting to get rid of, your team will be grateful!
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