Is remote work getting easier because we have collaboration tools?

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Just like that.

The world as we knew it changed almost overnight with pretty much every facet of life impacted by policy changes and closures due to COVID-19.  Businesses are scrambling to make sure employees are enabled to work remotely. Schools are enacting plans to educate students through video and electronic-based assignments. This is all for those fortunate enough to have a job where remote work is viable. Are we ready?

I’ve worked remotely from an office throughout my career with different frequencies from once a week to several times a week. During this time technology has advanced tremendously creating many more possibilities for collaborative workflow. Video and audio connections from a computer are mainstream. Sharing and editing files within a team is possible with simultaneous viewing and editing.  Group calendars are visible to quickly arrange for meetings. Electronic chat sessions are persistent, continuous, and searchable for quickly finding information. As a result, working remotely has become much easier over the years. But there is much more to working from home than technology. 

This is more than a technology enablement exercise. 

There is a large body of work to equip employees and students to work and learn remotely. The good news is we have the tools to do it. But there are behavioral changes needed to succeed with remote work many are not considering. I’ve learned about distance working over the years and created a list of actionable items for maximizing productivity and collaboration. These same actions would work just as well in an academic setting as a business.

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Make it work-life not home-life – Get up, get dressed, and go to a designated space for work. You will accomplish more and with better quality if you work as if you were in an office. This is both for own focus and so others can see you working and not lounging around the house. Look professional and act professionally. 

Use a camera – Make working from a home office feel like you are in a business office by turning on your video camera. My current workgroup has colleagues spread across the US and a couple of other countries. It’s important to me they see my facial expressions, my attitude, and my interest in the workflow of our team. When my colleagues also use their camera, it makes our relationship feel much closer because I can see the same level of engagement from them. Video cameras make distant colleagues feel local.  

Share files don’t pass files- Passing around printed paper is obviously not an option with remote workers. But we also need to get away from the habit of emailing attachments for working collaboration.  Versioning documents, consolidating changes from multiple teammates, and keeping discussion to the latest version is difficult when sending files as attachments. A better approach is to place files in a commonly accessible area and share a link. Work on the file together and screen share. Have everyone accessing the latest file to keep the conversation aligned. Google Docs and Microsoft One Drive are two common examples of this type of collaboration which increases the efficiency of workflow within remote teams.

Chat/Email/Call/Meeting –Chat when you need an immediate response.Email when a response is not urgent. Call when your message is too much to type or when written communication is easily misunderstood. Meet for conversations and group consensus.

Collaboration tools are making remote work more accessible. But distance working is easier when our actions remove distance by treating work as something local. 

Onward and upward!

Leadership Credo

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Twelve years ago I was introduced to a leadership credo as part of a management change after my employer was acquired. My new manager presented her leadership credo as a document during her formal introduction to the team. While different from past group changes, I was appreciative of her approach and felt like I learned immediate knowledge about my supervisor and her expectations. Four years later, I created my version of a leadership credo to use as I transitioned to managing a new team.  It was a communication device for establishing new relationships, but also continued to be a guide for my actions and expectations with the team.

A credo is a statement of beliefs that guide actions. So I wanted my credo to be a true representation of my life, behaviors, and expectations.  I wanted the credo to be something real and true rather than filled with platitudes and aspirations. Reflecting on my original document today, I feel like I captured my beliefs well because the only thing I changed was the first sentence to simplify it.  

Why is this important? The statements I recorded for the beliefs guiding my behaviors and expectations of employees remain the same. Similar to a purpose statement, the leadership credo should be consistent over time as a guiding instrument providing direction. I attached my credo to my LinkedIn record because it is a valuable part of my overall business profile and provides a view of how I operate each day.

If you don’t have one, you should give thought to making one. You won’t be disappointed. 

Here’s mine.


Bob Williams Leadership Credo

My role

My role as a technology professional is to connect people through systems and solutions.  I believe people are engaged with leaders that are authentic and forthright with information. I believe leadership is helping others succeed.

My values

  • Respect people
  • Listen first
  • Question to improve

My behaviors

  • Overcoming resistance to progress through persistent effort
  • Providing the ‘what’ while letting those responsible determine the ‘how’
  • Understanding each individual’s needs and goals
  • Communicating the company and group vision with clarity
  • Performing periodic performance reviews
  • Encouraging team interaction through appropriate technology use
  • Responding to employees in a timely manner
  • Reading, thinking, and writing

 My expectations

  • Show ownership
  • Take accountability
  • Be honest
  • Be proactive
  • Adapt to changing circumstances
  • Be part of the solution, not part of the problem
  • Find a balance and rhythm

Freaky Meetings

Last Fall, before one of my workouts, I queued a podcast episode from Freakonomics titled How to make Meetings Less Terrible. I was a bit skeptical about this one because I’ve read dozens of articles about meetings and what else is there to say? But the Freakonomics staff is good at producing engaging and informative content and I needed something to get me through 6 miles.

How we spend our time…

In the interview, Steven Rogelberg says most professionals attend approximately 15 meetings a week. I almost stopped running to replay-it to make sure I heard it right because I knew I was well above 15 meetings a week. That’s 3 meetings a day and now I wonder why we aren’t talking more about a scheduling capacity for workers at 60% of the work week.  I confirmed I’m sitting north of the average as I attended 43 meetings last week and it was a typical week. 

Rogelberg also commented on the average length of a meeting,

“Magically, the average length across the world is one hour. And there’s just no reason for that. This is a modern phenomenon that has emerged due to calendaring programs like Outlook and Google Calendar.” 

Steven Rogelberg

I should note, after reading this I went and updated a few of my recurring meetings to 30 minutes and have since maintained diligence to start and end on-time. Others in my organization are following this rule of thumb as well. Of my 43 meetings last week, 35 of them were scheduled for 30 minutes. (Which is a little over 60% of the standard business hour work week!)

In my experience, the number of weekly meetings I attend has grown over the years. Certainly, this is somewhat related to moving into managerial positions.  But I believe much of the increase is related to two factors in the modern workplace:

1. Geographic separation of teams – with many project team members connected by technology, there is an increased need to have face-to-face time for collaboration and discussion. 

2. Decentralization of decision-making ownership – modern workers are taught and encouraged to gather input and make decisions by consensus. This translates into more in-person meetings. 

Back to the podcast. One of the ideas discussed was how to reduce the number of people at meetings and only invite those who need to be involved. Rogelberg advises,

“So when you are thinking about your agenda, consider framing it not as topics to be discussed, but consider framing it as questions to be answered. By framing it as questions to be answered it’s easier to determine who needs to be there because they’re relevant to the questions.” 

Steven Rogelberg

The emphasis is on the meeting organizer to plan better and only ask team members there that will participate in answering the open questions. That’s an interesting suggestion, because most meetings I attend, including those I organize, have meeting agendas with a bullet list of objectives or topics. 

Let’s call these two pieces of meeting wisdom ‘Freaky Meetings’ to build from Freakonomics but to also show they counter modern meeting behavior. Will you try it with me? Go shorten some of your meeting durations and adjust the agenda into a set of questions to be answered. 

Look at your calendar last week. Comment in this post with the number of meetings you attended. Let’s see how we stack-up to the average. 

Onward and upward.

Photo credit: Lucas Serazzi via Creative Commons

Stop Chasing Squirrels

I have a friend Lynne who loves project management. Like all project managers, she has a system for how she tracks and manages projects. It shows a portfolio of projects with names, descriptions, status indicators, dates, etc. I like to think of it as an organized view of chaos. We talk often about improving project tracking and how we could view the data differently. Lynne is big on the living the saying to inspect what you expect. She likes to track attributes of a project that map to the expectations of management and other project stakeholders. 

One thing we noticed, is when the number of managed projects grows large, it becomes difficult to maintain scope, priority, and focus. I call this organizational entropy which is a measure of randomness and disorder in an organization when projects are started independently but require the same group of employees. It doesn’t take long for overlapping time frames and deadlines to create priority conflicts for employees who are assigned tasks by multiple project managers. 

A by-product of organizational entropy is active projects stalling or falling behind when a newer project receives more attention. This is a form of inventory waste and has hidden costs for an organization. What is the cost of the work expended on the stalled project with no value delivered to the customer (inventory holding costs)? What is the cost of a project work no longer needed or desired by a customer (inventory obsolescence)? What is the cost of asking project team members to context-switch to a different project (employee morale and engagement, project delays)?

I often review active projects and think about the reasons why some projects stall while others proceed.  I don’t know if ever solve anything, but it feels right to reflect, learn, and adjust. How else do we become a learning organization with continuous improvement? As much as possible, it is our job to keep employees focused on finishing what they start without stopping to start other tasks. Others call it one-piece flow, software sprint, or limiting work-in-process. I like the simple thought to finish what you start. 

Nehemiah had a good answer for staying focused. While he was rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem (a long long time ago), Sanballat and Geshem tried to interrupt the work. Nehemiah told them he was doing a great work and could not come down (chapter 6). He stayed focus on the value of the project and delivered results. 

Lynne told me once not be distracted by the squirrels in the office. Nehemiah ignored the squirrel he saw and finished the wall. Lynne’s advice promotes habits to finish more work and celebrate more successes. Nice! Go finish your great work. 

 Onward and upward!

Photo credit: Milestoned via creative commons

Write, Stash, and Wipe. A Reuse Plan.

I love productivity hacks.

Last year, at about this time, I retired one of my paper notebooks used for tracking notes and to-dos. I never liked putting old notebooks in drawers or on shelves (clutter). I dislike even more discarding old notebooks (waste).  So I researched a few options for reusable notebooks and ended up purchasing a RocketBook.  My one-sentence description of RocketBook is a portable whiteboard that uses a scanning app from your phone to store data in popular internet locations. It solved my requirement to find a reusable notebook because the pages will wipe clean with a little water and a cloth. RocketBook has 7 predetermined storage instructions that will auto-save the page(s) to a designated location in one of the following locations:

Why take time to blog on this topic?

RocketBook is a productivity hack I’ve kept. It’s simple and reusable. It integrates with electronic formats. It adds value to my work routines. 

In an earlier post, scribble scrabble, I highlighted some of the advantages of writing over electronic note-taking. Writing notes by hand allows me to slow down and think about my subject. Writing helps me engage more with the subject material. But once I put some of my thoughts down on paper, I prefer to store them electronically to make them easier to search, reference, and share.

It’s worth a blog post because I believe handwritten notes contribute to self-reflection and learning which leads to continuous improvement. 

Happy new year!

Onward and upward!