It's that time of year - looking back at close of this year and looking ahead to the next one. And the attendant work of making goals and resolutions. I do this every year, but I take some time to get it right for me - I start thinking about it now, but usually end up with a final list for myself near the end of the month. This gives me time to consider what worked previously, what didn't work, what my current priorities are, and where and what I'd like to be in the future (not necessarily in this year, but eventually).
The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick), by Seth Godin. Pub 2007
I was led to this brief book via this article. I'm dealing with some team issues at work (people leaving), and I am struggling to understand the choices that people are making. I wasn't (seriously) looking at quitting myself, but to make sense of why others were. The article didn't really help with that, but I was intrigued by the idea that smart people can realistically rationalize quitting, so I picked up this book. I'd read a few blog posts and articles (mostly in Fast Company) by Seth Godin, and a few books by the illustrator Hugh McLeod, so I was expecting something pretty good, if not great. Sadly, I was disappointed.
Scenario: you're at a conference event, and you find yourself seated next to someone you don't know. You introduce yourself and go through the usual back and forth. "What do you do?", "How long have you been with the company?", "Where did you go to school?" And then...awkward silence.
At this point, the default actions are a) turn to someone else and repeat the exercise, b) take out your phone to check your messages (or send out a distress signal), or c) pretend to see someone you do know and move. None of these are great, or effective networking.
Often when we're first introduced to someone, the standard questions seem like the important pieces of information we'll need to know or remember (even if we probably won't). They seem informative and safe, likely because they are the questions we're prepared to answer ourselves. They are the verbal equivalent of exchanging LinkedIn profiles, and don't tell us much more than the statistics of our new contact. They are also (likely) not very memorable, and so a few hours or weeks later when we meet the same person, we may struggle with remembering those mundane details.
Behold a solution. This great little primer on networking and starting a meaningful conversation with a new contact. These outside-the-box suggestions for questions work because they are NOT mundane. You can start with the softball ordinary ones but adding a few of these to your roster will help when the normal pleasantries don't succeed in breaking the ice, or when you need to occupy some additional time.
I especially like, "What are you looking forward to?" This open-ended, forward-looking question can be interpreted as being about the conference event you're at, individual work goals, or life in general, so can open up a lot of areas of dialogue and give you some insight into someone's focus and priorities. Similarly, “What excites you right now?” can fulfill a similar purpose.
While I’m supportive of this approach to unusual questions, I would be wary about getting too personal too quickly. “What do you do for fun?” can sound a bit like a pick-up line rather than a work-appropriate conversation, and “Who’s your favourite superhero?” might be seen as flippant or juvenile, depending on the venue and audience (whom you don’t yet know well or at all). Maybe save these ones for a follow-up meeting.
As always, you should be prepared to answer the same question back, so think about how you will answer these if asked. You don’t have to have a speech memorized but do give some thought to what you might say. Remember that conversations always have two sides, so you should expect to participate beyond asking interesting questions.
Because you won't always be able to start with, "I love your hat!"
I was hoping this article would at last be one that presented a solution to the issue of having employees and team members work remotely - i.e. at home. Unfortunately, it presents the same tired arguments with little in the way of creative answers. And that's too bad, because I think there are ways to make remote work feasible and effective. First, let's look at the four arguments:
Economic argument: office space is expensive, so having employees work remotely is cheaper. And clearing the roads of commuters is better for the environment.
I’m not able to do any economic analysis on this, but I would estimate that the cost argument is incorrect.
As for the environment piece, this is likely true. People not needing to commute will mean fewer cars on the road (and likely fewer car owners) and a reduction in the individual stress that comes from commuting. This latter piece does need to be balanced with the commensurate other stresses a home-office environment introduces (see work-life balance below).
Team work argument: collaboration and team work happen when people are comfortable, so letting them work remotely frees them to be more independent and actively seek out collaborative opportunities.
In my experience, the co-location of staff is one of the main factors in building team camaraderie and facilitating collaborative work. While independence and collaboration are not mutually exclusive, they certainly are counter-intuitive. When you are part of a team (or department or organization – whatever the group of people working with a shared vision is referred to in your world), being and feeling a part of that team is essential for effective communication, collaboration and productivity. Remote or virtual teams are inherently challenging because of that lack of face-time with colleagues. These can be somewhat overcome with technology tools such as Slack, Zoom, and other collaborative tools. But virtual teams are challenging because you CAN’T have people co-located. So introducing that challenge or complexity deliberately to a team that could in fact be co-located, is counter-productive.
Trust argument: leaders are afraid that employees working remotely will not get their work done. They fear a lack of control over what employees are doing will mean failures in productivity. They do not trust people that they cannot directly supervise.
This is a sweeping us-vs-them statement that reflects the poor leadership in place in some organizations. But it’s about as valid as “all employees will abuse the privilege of working remotely.” To some extent, leaders are right to have this fear. They will ultimately be accountable for the output of the team, so they should have control over where and how the work is done in a way that allows them to assure the quality and timeliness of the products.
This argument works just as well from the point of view of the employee, arguing against the remote work concept: good, supportive leadership means that it is easily accessible to me. Therefore, I want to be near to my leader, so I can get answers to questions, highlight my accomplishments, and be accessible for opportunities when they arise. If my leader can’t see me, they may not know about my achievements and skills and I may miss chances for development and advancement.
Trust is a two-way street and is required from both leaders and teams if a remote work arrangement is going to work. And especially if the next argument is to work.
Work-life balance argument: employees who work from home have a better balance, as they get to schedule and plan their work around their own styles and the demands of their life.
This sounds idyllic, but as anyone who does work remotely even part of the time will likely tell you, having your work omnipresent in your home can make this worse instead of better. One work-life balance benefit to having a separate workplace outside the home IS the physical division between work and home. For most office-type workers these days, work already intrudes into home life via mobile devices and the “benefit” of being able to VPN into the office at any time of the day or night. The balance is achievable, but with a home-based work environment it requires much more discipline to maintain that balance since the division between the two is now virtual. There is a cynical perspective that might argue that employers would LOVE it if everyone worked from home, because for the most part they’d be working all the time. So, working from home or otherwise remotely can more correctly be seen as one tool to achieving work-life balance, but it is not the panacea of balance that is imagined.
So, what might work? As with most things, the “it depends” principle applies. There is no absolute, one-size-fits-all solution, for employers, employees or work requirements. I recommend a hybrid approach, where working remotely sometimes (not always) is an option (not a requirement) for some (not all) team members.
When working remotely is done nearly 100% of the time, then a measure of an employee’s “work” – i.e. the way in which the company measures what and how they get paid – cannot continue to be just in hours. After all, one of the benefits of working remotely is that the specific hours worked matter less than the actual work accomplished. Timesheets and standard measures and reporting have to be replaced by review and confirmation of work to milestones, essentially making the measurements about pieces of work instead of time. This has the risk of turning employees into contractors (both legally and practically) and undermining the connection and engagement of employees with and to the organization and team.
It also requires a lot more time and judgement by leaders and supervisors to review and approve work in ways that directly affect if/how employees get paid. Most leaders consider overall performance across the year, rather than piecemeal evaluations. And so this new approach a) requires more time (and so more cost to the organization) and b) shifts the power balance in the relationship, something neither the leader or the employee anticipated or is trained for. Having remote work as an option for use when appropriate and effective (as determined by both employee and leader), can provide that desired flexibility while maintaining engagement.
Not all employees can or will thrive in a remote work set-up. In fact, some will loathe it, and may become more anxious and disengaged because of that lack of contact with their colleagues. When you consider that not all employees have the same work styles, it should be obvious that the more social ones will find that being removed from their colleagues is unsatisfying and unproductive. Also, not everyone is as adept at maintaining the balance between work and home, and so the requirement to work from home may be more oppressive than liberating. Having remote work as an option rather than a requirement means it can be use by those for whom it can be effective without undermining the confidence and security of those who prefer the community of the office space.
As described above, sometimes leaders have a legitimate concern about how productive a specific individual will be when working remotely. Let’s face it – not everyone has the integrity or commitment necessary to work unsupervised, and good leaders know both how to manage all team members effectively, including those with challenging work habits; when those team members have critical skills and abilities but also challenging work habits, good leaders need to have the flexibility and latitude (and fortitude) to manage the work environments such that everyone has the best opportunity to contribute productively and effectively. Remote work is not suitable for everyone, or for every type of work and working, and leaders need to be able to use remote work as a tool selectively and appropriately.
This means that a hybrid model is most effective – where remote work is supported and enabled, but not required. In my experience, this works very effectively to allow for employees to apply this tool when it makes sense. It allows them to contribute to their work-life balance by enabling them to be home for the business of life while maintaining progress and contributions to their work. It empowers them to create effective work time and space, such when the work requires a few hours of focus and concentration that is unlikely to be realized in the office. And it contributes to confidence, security and trust from both leader and employee that this tool is made available to them when and how the employee chooses it.
As an employee and a leader, I greatly value the opportunities that remote work options enable for me. I also recognize the inherent challenges and risk - for me, my teams and my employer - and so I treat the option respectfully, and work hard to bring balance to privilege and opportunity afforded by this option. I would not want it to become mandatory, for me or anyone else, and indeed I do not require it (establishing remote access) for anyone in my teams, but where desired and appropriate for an individual, I am supporting and supportive of it.
It is a fact in this day and age that team members – project managers and other professionals in “middle” management – are expected to maintain a virtual connection to the office outside of work hours. The advances of mobile technology intrude on our leisure time by creating an expectation/requirement that employees be available day and night. Leaders and organizations need to balance taking that next step – remote work options and expectations – carefully to ensure that employees can be productive and balanced in their lives. Applying a hybrid approach, where remote work is a tool with options and privilege, can help achieve that.
A while back, I wrote about deadlines as a necessary part of managing projects, especially research proposals with firm submission dates and times. Having recently completed another mammoth grant application project (fingers crossed – results in a few weeks), I’ve recognized some distinct levels of strength that can help in both recognizing the need for and then establishing the right type and level of deadline.
The first of these is the lightest – the deadline of convenience. This is a loose internal deadline, established to encourage progress but not really tied to any external requirement. The convenience deadline recognizes basic courtesies like evenings, weekends and holidays as being down time, and is associated with the early stages of a proposal project, when many other elements (scope, budget, team) are still evolving. The convenience of this deadline is typically linked to the schedule of the deadline setter – what is best for them in this process – and guided by the overall tenor of the team: how much encouragement versus freedom do they need at this stage.
The next level up is middleweight – the deadline of dependence. Linked to other elements, such as institutional deadlines, anticipated time required for formatting, quotes, or signatures, or other key events like conference presentations or key meetings, these deadlines indicate the dependence of other things on this work (something else needs this to get done before it can proceed), or the dependence of this work on those other things (this project needs that other thing). In proposal development, there are a lot of dependence deadlines. The budget cannot be completed until the proposal body is written. The references cannot be finalized until the writing is done. The summary sections need the main proposal to be finished before thy can be written. (Notice a pattern here?) The signatures cannot be secured until there’s a substantial enough document and a reliable budget number.
This middleweight level is where deadline setting becomes both art and science. These deadlines cascade and link to one another like an elaborate acrobatic act, overlapping and connecting pieces of the project until it all comes together as a completed thing. The reality is much messier than that, of course – more like the assemblage of a multi-course dinner with no recipes. There will be adjustments throughout, to both deadlines and content (scope change), but the goal is still the same: the completion of the project.
In the case of a grant application or project proposal, there is also the heavyweight level – the deadline of consequence. Usually established by external stakeholders, these deadlines are immovable, with the consequence of complete project failure if they are not met: there is no coming back from missing a proposal submission deadline.
Deadlines of consequence can also occur within the project itself. There are sometimes firm, non-negotiable deadlines on things such as internal approvals, hiring opportunities, and vendor quotation expiry dates. Other key dates exist as milestones – fiscal year end, for example – that can become deadlines for spending or reporting. These should not be taken lightly, as there is little to no recourse when these are missed.
True project management would have you build the schedule forwards, determining the estimated time for each task or activity, considering the dependencies and relationships, constructing a critical path, and then calculating the completion date. More often, the reality is that schedule development is best done by looking at that ultimate deadline of consequence (the submission deadline) and working backwards to populate the schedule with dates and associated tasks that are needed.
Thinking about these various levels of deadline can help when considering building deadlines into your project schedule. Where are the deadlines you cannot miss (consequence)? Where should you put the ones that contribute to bringing the project elements together (dependence). And where can you put a few to best support and enable the team and the project to be successful (convenience)? For each deadline on the schedule, make sure you know which kind it is, so that you know how flexible (or not) it is and what else it is connected to. By keeping track of progress and activities against these deadlines, and adjusting as possible throughout, you’ll have the best chance of successful completion within the time available.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.