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.
I found this book after seeing a Facebook post about the section on hyperbaton (defying the logical/grammatical order of words in a sentence). Hyperbaton covers three areas: prepositions (Shut up!), vowel order (tic-tac-toe), and word order (esp. adjectives and adjective-noun). This last one we all know but likely were never taught directly – it’s just such an ingrained part of the English language that we only recognize it when it’s broken. Adjective order follows this rule: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, noun. In hyperbaton, you deliberately muck that up to make a phrase that gets attention (for better or worse (a merism and an antithesis)): large, blue sweater makes sense, but blue, large sweater sounds weird.
I was thrilled (because I am a word geek) to learn also the following:
I LOVE these little tricks in language, and so loved this book (another syllepsis). There are 51 elements of rhetoric covered here, each with a clear explanation and relevant examples. The purpose is to enable one to recognize these tricks to be able to appreciate the cleverness of the writer, and also to try to consider them (obliquely or deliberately) in one’s own writing or speech. As a singer, these are very useful, as they are everywhere in music and poetry; they help in looking for meaning and phrasing in lyrics, both to understand how/why they work and to be able to sing with meaning.
So, what does this all have to do with project management? (hypophora - a type of rhetorical question.) Good question. (scesis onomaton - a sentence with no main verb.) What is communication? (anacoenosis.) Words, words, words. (epizuxis.)
Knowing and understanding how to use words and phrases for emphasis enhance communication by making important words and phrases memorable. These rhetorical turns of phrase can make the ordinary extraordinary; with just a bit of extra care, our use of language can make our communication clearer (as in more memorable). One has to be careful - be too clever and no one will know what you're talking about - but since of of the best memorable phrases, like the tricolons above, use these various approaches, learning to recognize and then apply them can enhance communication.
The book is thorough, funny, not at all difficult, entirely pedantic, and a great read and resource. When alone, I often read parts out loud, to enjoy hearing the language lilt delightfully (alliteration). If you love words and phrases, check out this book. You might like it; I did. (zeugma.)
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.
If you enjoyed this post, please share it. If you have a comment to add, please include it below. And if you have a request or suggestion for a future topic, please use the contact page or email me at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!
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.
In Part 1 of this blog series, I provided some guidance based on my own networking experience, and then provided a real-life summary of my application of purposeful networking in Part 2. Now, I’ll go through some of what NOT to do when networking.
An inspiration for this series was the book “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty”, a good book for those who need guidance or reminders about purposeful networking. The “well” is a great symbol for a network – a tool that provides you with access to a valuable resource. But like any tool, how you use it is important for making it work. Some things that can make it less than useful:
Digging your well in the wrong place: your networking efforts cannot be effective if you’re going to events or connecting with people without any basis for connection. If you want to build your network with purpose, start in places and with people where the connections will be meaningful.
Water with no well: it’s not enough just to make connections; you have to be able to maintain them, linking them in to the rest of your network. If you meet new people, then don’t follow-up with them in any meaningful way, you may find that you have met a lot of people, but don’t know any of them.
A well with no water: part of keeping your network purposeful and active is continuing to grow it and keeping people engaged with it. You might have a kick-ass website or LinkedIn page, but if no one ever connects with it, it’s not serving it’s purpose.
Water in the well but no bucket: it might be a great well, with lovely water, but if you can’t get anything out of it, it’s not very useful. How do you get things out of your network if there’s no way to interact with it? Make sure you have a good mechanism for interacting. (Aside – this is a problem with my current website platform – not a very good bucket.)
A well that you keep to yourself: as described earlier, your network needs to be able to grow, and works best when those in your network can also be part of each other’s networks. Your network needs to open and accessible to those within it, and to others who may want to connect with it. This doesn’t mean it’s completely open (you don’t want it to dry up), so having some controlled access is okay. After all, this is purposeful networking, not name collecting.
A well that’s too big (too much work to maintain) or too small (not enough water to keep you hydrated): as with other things, the Goldilocks Principle applies here – your network should be just the right size for you. As big as makes sense for your purpose, small enough that you can still maintain its purpose.
So what are some tools to build your well? I use a few social media platforms, but I try to be careful in using them for what I consider their purpose. I use Facebook to connect with friends and family; because I consider that to be more personal, I limit the number of connections I have (99 friends), and take care with my security settings to keep it that way. I use Twitter less frequently, mostly for quick distribution of things I think others might be interested in, to maintain a presence in that platform, and for some self-promotion. I also maintain two websites: robynroscoe.com is for stuff about me, and lyricmgmt.com is specifically about my company and its services; I maintain social media accounts for both of these, to extend their reach and prevent cyber-squatting.
The platform I recommend most for networking for work and career is LinkedIn. A very quick bit of online research showed me that there are few alternatives that offer the same functionality as LinkedIn (and several of the ones I tried were actually no longer active – wells that have dried up)[i]. I use LinkedIn to stay connected with professional colleagues: former and current co-workers, new connections from meetings and conferences, mentors and mentees. As such, my LinkedIn network is much larger (474 connections) than my Facebook one. I also use the platform market myself (my blog posts) and my connections (sharing and liking posts by others), which is a great way to add value to your network and give it purpose: people can see that it is valuable to be connected to you if you help get their messages out to a broader audience (your network) and if you post things that are generally of interest to your connections.
An underutilized feature of LinkedIn is the Recommendations section. You can ask people in your network to write a recommendation for you, and it will be posted on your page for others to see. Like your connections, recommendations should be real and meaningful. They should describe something real – a past project, a previous job – and be clear about the connection between you and the writer. The Skills Endorsement lists can also be useful, but can get less so if your lists are too long; again, make sure these are real and meaningful.
LinkedIn is a platform for professional interactions, so it’s not the place for recipes, quizzes, vacation photos, or political rants. While you may have close relationships with some of your LinkedIn contacts, save your more personal sharing with those people for another platform.
Whichever method or platform you choose, keep your networking purposeful. Ensure that your connections are meaningful and real. And remember: the purpose of the well is not to have a well. The purpose of the well is to have access to water when we need it.
[i] ResearchGate is an alternative specific for scientific interactions. This may be appropriate for you if you’re building up a collaborator network or seeking work or connections in academia. I don’t know much about this platform, but if science is your bag, then perhaps check this out. www.researchgate.net.
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.