by Wayne Turmel
Ask people why they work remotely, and they will tell you it’s “for convenience” or “I can concentrate better.” What they won’t say, even when they think it, is “because the office has become a nightmare of noise and confusion and I’d rather poke my eyes out with a stick than go there every day.” They might think it, but they won’t say it. So, what has happened to the modern workplace that makes working away from everyone else so tempting?
First, understand that nobody intended things to turn out this way. Every decision (no matter how insane it seems in hindsight) was made with the best of intentions and for what, at the moment, seemed like a good idea.
There’s no privacy
If people work from home so they can work uninterrupted, then the polar opposite of this is a space where people can see each other, meet, speak, and collaborate at will. And boy, do they. Many organizations are doing away with cubicles entirely, or at least lowering the walls so that nothing blocks your view of your co-workers.
There are two negative results from this. The first is obvious enough: if you can see what your co-workers are up to, they can do the same to you. This can be a good thing but can also mean constant interruptions. Some of them are valuable, and the price we pay for being a good teammate. If we have information someone needs to get their work done, it’s not unreasonable to ask us for it.
The lack of walls, however, can mean we don’t rely on verbal communication as much as we probably should. If it’s noisy, or we feel like we can be overheard, it might be tempting to send an email rather than pick up the phone. Or we’ll keep calls shorter than we would prefer, or present on webinars in a hushed whisper rather than present in an engaging fashion. Maybe we choose not to participate in conference calls at all, because we don’t want all the background noise to be a distraction. These are all unintended consequences of being constantly visible.
Too many distractions
People are visual creatures, and there’s a lot to see in the office. While some people possess the zen-like ability to focus regardless of what’s going on around them, most of us are mere mortals. When there is a constant barrage of visual stimuli, it’s hard for us to get our work done. Plus, there always seems to be birthday cake in the break room. On top of that, our boss can stop by our desk and try out “managing by walking around,” which is a good idea, but needs to be properly timed or it becomes yet another barrier to getting your own work done.
Meetings are too easy to hold
For many of us, the scariest words in the English language are, “do you have a few minutes this afternoon?” This is usually code for, “since we have everyone here, let’s have a meeting.” Now, sometimes this time can be for very good reasons, and the time can be very well spent. There are excellent reasons to assemble. There are also problems with it.
Often the first instinct is to hold a hybrid meeting, where the people who are in the office assemble in the conference room and those who work remotely dial in and fight to be heard on the speaker phone. In fact, a lot of these conference calls could be held with everyone at their own desk, which puts all team members on an even footing.
So, what’s the answer?
We spend a lot of time setting explicit processes about when and how we work together from afar. What are the rules of engagement? How should we use ourr status updates and shared calendars? We had to do this because we’ve learned not everyone prefers to work in the same way, and this can cause tension.
Maybe we need to establish norms and processes for when we’re together. Some people have created an informal status update position for their desks, or signs that say “please do not disturb,” or “in a meeting” so that people don’t barge in on them or hold casual conversations right behind their chairs. In addition, there are designated quiet areas where people can sit in on a conference call or virtual meeting without the hubbub and commotion.
Like we say in The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership, we need to think leadership first, location second. We need to be conscious of what work needs to be done, and the best way to accomplish that work. THEN we can think about the logistics and physical circumstances.
Just like locking yourself away and never communicating with the outside world can result in tasks being completed but not enough collaboration or teamwork, so can an over-abundance of together time mean that stuff doesn’t get done.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.