Imagine you are decorating a room. There is large sofa, and you have some throw pillows decorating it, but it looks a little bare, so you get some more. And some more. And some more. How many is too many? 5? 20? 65? Like cupcakes or party invitations, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. This applies to collaborative teams as well.
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 regular reader asked me to write something about helping a team as they go through times of change.
Change is inevitable, and yet it takes us by surprise, and creates uncertainty about the present and the future. As a leader, I’ve been lucky enough to be in charge of taking teams and organizations through exciting and challenging times, as well as some sad changes. Major relocations of offices and labs. Big shake-ups in institutional and corporate leadership. Installs of new equipment and computer systems. In my experience, the hardest changes to manage involve changes in team members. The uncertainty associated with a change in personnel – for the person leaving, the new arrival, and those remaining – is complicated, as it affects individuals differently, and on many levels.
To maintain a sense of calm and comfort during a transition, here are some things I’ve learned to do as a leader of teams big and small.
Be there. To be relied upon, you have to be reliable. Similarly, to be a trusted leader, you need to be present all the time, building relationships of trust with team members. If you only show up when things are going wrong, people won’t know to trust you to lead them through the difficult times. (People might even start to associate your presence with difficulty, and become wary whenever you do show up.) Good leaders spend time with their teams often, taking part in daily work life as much as possible. This helps to know who’s working on what and what the ongoing issues are, so when a challenge arises, you can contribute to or direct responses from a position of knowledge, strength and empathy.You should also be prepared to pitch in when and where you can (remembering that sometimes your “help” might be just the opposite of help). If you’re capable of taking on some of the work, then do that. It may barely make a dent in the workload, but it can make a big difference in morale.
Respond to change appropriately, and in a timely manner. Knee-jerk reactions to change can often make a bad situation worse, introducing more change and uncertainty and undermining trust. Good leaders take some time to consider the options, the impact, and the hidden angles or features (see below re: opportunity) and make sure the team knows that’s what they’re doing (you’re not ignoring the problem, but you’re taking some time to make a good decision). You don’t want to be stuck in analysis paralysis, but you do want to make good considered decisions in responding to change, so that you get it as close to right as possible the first time. When implementing a response, be sure to be clear about the what and the why, and if there are some things you’re unsure of, say so.
Be honest and open. When change is happening outside the group, people can feel uncertain or left out (“how come we’re always the last to know?”). Leaders need to recognize when this might be happening – they may be up to their ears in the direct impacts of such changes, but they still need to be aware of the potential effects on teams and individuals. Keep in mind, some information truly is “need to know”. Providing what information you have and are allowed to share in a timely manner (and to the entire team at the same time, not just to those who you happen to see) can go a long way to mitigating the distress of uncertainty or of feeling left out.
This is a tricky balance. You can’t always tell everyone everything all the time. Sometimes, you can’t see that someone needs or wants to know about something. When you discover this, you need to remedy it by communicating immediately and directly. But if you work at maintaining those good trusting relationships with people, they should recognize that either they can ask you directly about what they want to know, or they will trust that it’s not something they need to know.
Never, ever lie. If you don’t know something, or cannot share something, say so. If possible, say why. If you’re speculating or giving an opinion rather than a fact, make extra sure that this is clear. This can be very difficult for a leader to do, but if you have good relationships with people, they can and will trust you, and vice versa. Don’t ruin that.
Be firm but fair. Make sure team members know where they stand. It is important in building trust with teams that the work environment and culture include clear rules and procedures for the way things work. But also: rules and procedures need to consider the human beings involved, and be fair in recognizing that. “Firm” means that people know what to expect. “Fair” means that they can also expect consideration and empathy.
Be human. While it’s important that leaders be in control of themselves and the situation, they shouldn’t be automatons. You shouldn’t be overly emotional or over-familiar with people, but you are still a human being who can have bad days and frustrations. It’s okay for people to see that; it helps with building trust and camaraderie. Just make those times the exceptions rather than the rule, as you need people to follow your directions when times are tough.
Don’t assume – ask. Just because no one is coming to talk to you, don’t assume they don’t want to, or don’t have any questions or concerns. A good leader makes varied opportunities for people to engage. Management-by-walking-around is much maligned, but it is an important step in being accessible. Open-doors are also good, and snacks never go wrong. Make time to be available to people for open-ended questions and discussion. When attending a team meeting, always bring a message with you as an icebreaker, in case there are no questions to start with, and accept and answer every question or comment openly, directly and fairly.
Look for opportunity within challenge.
“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger--but recognize the opportunity.” JF Kennedy.
While the above quote is wrong, the idea is good – look for the opportunity in any challenge. When working through all changes, it is important to look at all sides, good and bad. Being prepared for change from any quarter can help minimize disruption and maximize chances for success.
Years ago, I received news about success on a significant grant for our centre. When I told the lead investigator, the reply was like a splash of cold water: “Now we have to do it.” While I initially resented the cynicism, I’ve come to appreciate that that flip-side was very real: this new funding came with considerable changes and challenges, which were not to be taken lightly. (Ultimately, I did also learn that a moment or two to celebrate a success can go a long way to improving team spirit, and still feel that putting the cynicism on hold for a day would not have gone amiss. See below: celebrating success.)
This doesn’t mean being overly sunny or optimistic, ignoring the challenge while looking for the opportunity. To me, this means being pragmatic and realistic, keeping an eye on the challenge while also looking for the opportunity.
Celebrate successes and positive changes. Reasons to celebrate are easy to find. They need to be meaningful and real, but once found they should be celebrated. Work is work, and it is easy for people to get bogged down and stuck on things that aren’t working well, and they forget sometimes about progress and successes. Leaders should be sure to acknowledge and celebrate success. Did a trainee successfully defend their thesis? Congratulations! Did a project get a new grant? Well done! Did the team reach a milestone of a kind? Yay – have cake! Is someone moving on to a new job? Way to go! This last one can be hard sometimes, as a person leaving the team can sometimes be seen a just a challenge – all the work to be reassigned, team mates left behind – but it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the success of that person who’s leaving. Regardless of the circumstances of their change, they contributed to your team and they deserve respect, appreciation and support. And the remaining members need to see that you will treat everyone respectfully.
Overall, the keys are to be consistent, trustworthy, and empathetic. Being a “helicopter” leader – swooping in, making big pronouncements, using hollow promises – is ineffective. Being a leader means being present through good times and bad, rolling up your sleeves and pitching in, being reliable in word and deed, and balancing challenge and opportunity.
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It happens to everyone. You’ll be in a meeting or working on a project, and someone will say something that, to you, sounds like a criticism of your work, or of you specifically. Perhaps it happens in a meeting with a group, looking at a challenge or crisis on the project. Despite your project management work to date, someone says, “we really need to start managing this project.” You think, “wait. What the heck do you think I’ve BEEN doing?”
The feeling can be very distracting. You find after a few minutes that you haven’t been paying attention. You feel a bit flushed, a cross between angry and embarrassed. The conversation has moved on, but you have not – that sentence and those feelings linger beyond the meeting and the day.
Sometimes, this can lead to or feed into Imposter Syndrome. Most professionals experience this at one time or another, sometimes often: the feeling that, despite all evidence to the contrary – like your career progress, position, recognition, and other success – you really don’t know what you’re doing and it’s just a matter of time till everyone else recognizes it.
This feeling is quite common – I’ve heard from friends and colleagues in all fields and at all levels that, every now and then, they fully expect to be found out and asked to leave. Like being unmasked a party they haven’t been invited to. There is plenty of online guidance about getting past that feeling, but not so much about dealing with a pointed comment.
It’s easy to say, “let it go”, but getting past a back-handed criticism can be difficult, especially if it is out of the blue and, in your own estimation, uncalled for. Here’s a few tips on getting past the feeling, getting to the root of the comment, and getting back to your productive self.
Consider the speaker’s perspective. It’s entirely possible that they were having a bad day, and you just happened to walk into the line of fire. That doesn’t make the comments and impact okay, but it does make it understandable. Who hasn’t had a bad day, or been in a difficult spot, and said something that afterwards they might want to take back. I know I have. When I recognize it, I always try to follow-up and apologize; even if it’s months later, and the other person says they don’t remember it, I do and I feel better for having taken it back.
It’s also possible the person DOESN’T know what you’ve been doing. Research and project managers are often behind-the-scenes people, making things happen and removing barriers such that the project personnel don’t really know what they’re doing, just that things are going well. When a problem or crisis occurs, project management is identified as the solution. Reading it like that, the comment can be seen positively – project management has helped in other areas so maybe it can help here.
It could also be a comment of support. If you’ve been having some challenges within the team implementing project management approaches or getting some team members to follow processes, the comment (especially if from a leader) can be heard as, “if you guys just listened to the project manager, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
These may seem overly-positive rationalizations, but they are legitimate possibilities when it comes to such a comment.
Get an outside perspective. Discuss it with someone who wasn’t there. Although you’ll just be representing your own perspective, describe the situation and comment to a trusted colleague, coach or mentor. They can listen without judgement, and talk you through the possible whys and wherefores of the instance.
They can also remind of you other better circumstances, that make this negative experience a true anomaly. Is this the first and only negative thing in 3 years of working with this person? Is it isolated to a specific item rather than a generalization of overall performance? Is it based in a misunderstanding?
Look carefully at your own perspective. In any situation of conflict, it is important to consider all perspectives, and to keep the focus on the work rather than on the person or personalities. That includes you. Consider the comment and circumstances and ask: is there any truth at all to it? Is there anything you could be doing differently to ensure that your contributions and challenges are understood? Perhaps you’ve been taking on too much to be able to do your best? Or perhaps you’ve not been making it known just how much you are doing already; to quote Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, “It is just as false not to blow your horn at all as it is to blow it too loudly.”
Consider the venue and context. Be sure that the emphasis and overall message is what you think it is. Perhaps you misheard, or misunderstood. Maybe your own perspective added emphasis or meaning where there wasn’t any.
This is not about blaming yourself, but it is important to be sure you’ve accounted for and owned any contribution that you’ve made to the situation. Take real opportunities to learn and improve, while focusing on your strengths.
Put it all in perspective. Ask yourself if this is a stand-alone comment, or something you’ve heard before. If the latter, see above about your own perspective. More likely, it was an off-hand, one-off comment. If all or most of the feedback to you has been positive, then put this latest in balance with that. Be sure to evaluate the feedback appropriately - don't dismiss it but don't make it mean everything. Keep it in proportion to other feedback as well as your own evaluation of your work and relationships. Think about it, talk about it, learn from it, and then move on.
Be hard on the issue and soft on the person*. This includes being respectful with yourself about a situation, considering the perspectives of others, and giving the issue the attention and concern that are appropriate, which may be very little.
Think carefully before allowing an anomalous comment to drive your behaviour or change your work. If what you’ve been doing to date has been successful, you’ll be chasing the wind if you respond too strongly or quickly to a criticism that was not constructive. Keep your eye on the real goal - the success of the project. Keeping one person happy - even the boss - should not come at the expense of the project or work, because if that fails, then everyone is unhappy. The goal should always be to keep the project on track, be respectful and balanced to everyone (including yourself), and maintaining a balanced perspective.
* I first heard this phrase in ~1997 from one of the VPs where I worked. As best as I can tell, the original expression comes from Dr. Henry Cloud. Jon Mertz elaborates on it further in the context of conflict resolution. The expression is sometimes stated as, "be soft on the people, and hard on the problem."
Scenario: you’re writing a proposal, and the funding agency (or client or sponsor) website says that the submission deadline is 5pm EDT Monday 31 August. But your project manager has said that your deadline is noon on Thursday 27 August. What the heck? Why do you have to complete it four days before it’s due? What if you really need the weekend to fine-tune the meat of the proposal? Can’t you give it to them at noon on Monday?
After a dozen or so years of working with scientists on grant applications and proposals, I’ve learned a great deal about the ways they work and their needs for time to make their great science look and sound great on paper. Having tried (and failed) several times to write grants myself, I know there is great art within that science, and so my mission as a project manager remains: enable the best possible science and more of it.
I’ve also learned, and hopefully have demonstrated, that there is method to the madness of setting deadlines for proposal projects. The method aligns with the mission – enabling the science – by making it possible for the proposal to actually be submitted. Which means that the funder deadline is not our deadline.
Deadline is actually a horrible word, when you consider its definition:
deadline (n): 1. A line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot. 2. a date or time before which something must be done.
It is no surprise then that deadlines rarely have the feel of incentive. But the modern use of the term seems odd – if I were a prisoner in such a prison, I would be staying as far away from the deadlines a possible, never mind meeting them.
Considering the quadruple constraint (scope-time-cost-quality), it’s also not surprising that deadlines quickly become a thing in projects – and a proposal is a project. Defining those boundaries is essential to planning and managing successfully. However, deadlines can quickly take over as being goal or objectives themselves, when really they are just another milestone – a point in the project to measure progress – only at the deadline milestone, estimate to completion should be zero. Milestones are tools for good project time management, but like any tool they only work well when applied appropriately. Part of using them appropriately is distinguishing between the real and the artificial.
Real deadlines are more often imposed by an external entity, such as the funder, but can also be internal to a department or institution. But, they are only real if they’re also firm – as in, there are real consequences for not meeting them. Real deadlines look like this:
They will also typically have specific scope and quality requirements, too. The above deadline requires that the complete proposal in the correct format with all the required elements is submitted BEFORE the deadline. These are as close to the original definition of deadline as we get in the research management world. Missing a real deadline can be pretty devastating.
Artificial deadlines are usually internal or self-imposed. They are more accurately called milestones, as they are (or should be) established within a timeline to enable all the participants to be able to do what is required to meet the real deadline. Unfortunately, because these are self-determined, they are often seen as more flexible and can be ignored or overruled if one part of the team falls behind schedule.
This is what I refer to as “the peril of the deadline extension”. Teams and leaders can very quickly undermine their plans and put their success at risk by extending internal deadlines. By allowing these internal milestones to be moved or circumvented, the project schedule closest to the real deadline becomes compressed, often to the point where success is now nearly impossible. Scope and quality are sacrificed to time, as the precious “last minute” becomes the last 30-seconds, giving insufficient time to deal with unforeseen hurdles.
There are a myriad of things that have to happen with a proposal to get it submitted, and while some sound trivial, they can be enormously time consuming. Converting a document to PDF should, in theory, take very little time and work the first time you do it. However, as anyone in science can appreciate, things that sound like they should work often don’t work out exactly right the first time (cell lines, anyone?).
There are more complex elements to proposal completion as well, such as: aligning other proposal pieces (budget, team description, management plan) to the aims; confirming references and citations in the proposal are correct (and in the correct order and format; checking page and character limits. Many of these things are done in parallel with the main proposal writing, but they must be re-confirmed prior to submission. Since everything else in the proposal links to the science piece, nothing else can be completed until that is done.
And so the proposal deadline becomes a few days to a week in advance of the funder deadline. The project manager sets this deadline to minimize the risk that the submission will be unsuccessful due some kind of administrative issue. Believe or not, the deadlines and milestones are not set to be maximally inconvenient – they are set to maximize the chances of a successful submission.
There is an intrinsic benefit to these internal milestones as well. Without a boundary for time, teams and writers can sometimes get stuck in analysis paralysis – the project stops moving forward while the team analyses all the possible angles and options. This endless rumination (“we should all go away and think about how best to do this”) will happen without some firm date by which decisions must be made and things completed. By ensuring that necessary decisions get made in a timely manner, all elements of the project can proceed towards completion.
A recent piece that I read brought up some interesting points about deadlines. This author asserts that there are two challenges with deadlines: they force decisions to happen within a given timeframe, sacrificing quality to time and they create a disincentive to revisit a process or project once it’s completed, as people will have “project fatigue” from having worked within a challenging timeline, and be unwilling to look at it again once it’s done. While these challenges are likely when deadlines are arbitrary or poorly planned, well-placed project milestones can encourage LEAN thinking by making time a key element in the project, and they can encourage more thorough risk assessment in project planning and better break-testing and change management processes in project implementation so that returns to the past don’t happen but continuous improvement does.
So deadlines are not the enemy – poor project planning and time management is. Well planned and placed milestones enable projects to be successful by ensuring that the project team keeps track of what they’re doing, where they’re at, and what the true project objectives are. Meeting the deadline is not an objective. Completing the project successfully – the full scope of work to the required quality within the time allowed without breaking the bank – is the goal.
Don’t believe me? Check out what NIH has to say: first-time applications (i.e. not re-submissions) submitted ON the due date are TWO TO FOUR TIMES more likely to ultimately miss the submission deadline than those submitted one week ahead of the deadline.
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.