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21st Century Work Life and leading remote teams

Brought to you by Virtual not Distant, the 21st Century Work Life podcast looks at leading remote teams, online collaboration and working in distributed organisations.

Join Pilar Orti, guests & co-hosts as they shine the spotlight on the most relevant themes and news relevant to the modern knowledge worker.

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Aug 1, 2019

Maya and Pilar have always enjoyed discussing a range of conversations and ideas about remote work and collaboration, but it’s great that we’re increasingly noticing more fragmentation and variation in the public discourse around this subject.  The opening up of niche communities and content in the remote world is encouraging us to transition this podcast towards a tighter focus on remote / virtual /distributed teamwork as the conversation proliferates, and gives us more to dig down into and discover with each episode. We love to hear what you think, via our contact form, and also on Twitter (@Virtualteamw0rk)

At Virtual Not Distant we are all about a deep understanding of the world of remote and how to make it work well. Experimentation is good, but oversimplification is not - and can lead to quickly concluding that ‘remote didn’t work for us’, a lose-lose outcome. So many variables, not least between companies which start as distributed teams versus those who transition to a more office-optional situation further down the line, and also the increasing number of employees who are now working remotely - whether at home or in a co-working - alongside the typical/traditional freelancers and entrepreneurs.

This one is interesting because small and new organisations encourage and recruit for flexibility and less predictability, the wearing of multiple ‘hats’ at work… whereas traditional employees might be less autonomous and need more support. Though not everybody agrees with us! 

Maybe for a chaotic startup, a fixed office space can create the only stability to focus on. And we can personalise that space and make it our ‘home’, which is very important for some people. (have a look at the first chapter of “Thinking Remote” for more reflections on the digital vs physical workspace). And developers, why not think about giving us more customisation options in our platforms and hubs, so we can make our digital offices feel like our very own?

Another issue is the relationship between remote work and flexible work, and whether remote work means complete flexibility to work and deliver at the best time and place to suit each person… or do we expect people to be working fixed hours, contactable at specific times? In what other ways can we make the work itself more autonomous, while still being accountable and connected, and how much of this is about managerial expectations as opposed to deliverables and outcomes?

21.30 "Advice" on remote culture...

An article we encountered on social media recently made Pilar’s heart sink… We don’t often rip apart articles on this podcast (not since episode 126!), but every now and then you do feel you have to respond.

It’s called “How to build a strong company culture with a remote team” - but there was really nothing in the article about culture. 

In fact just as in an event Pilar recently attended, there was an equating of culture with banter and chat, and no correlation of the idea of culture with values or guiding decision-making, perception… Which is a reminder that culture is not something people (outside of our geeky change-management space perhaps) really talk or think about. Culture is not easy to change, it’s often deeply ingrained and internalised, and it’s much easier to focus on behaviour and changing that instead.

But there was a lot to take on in this article. It really felt like the writer had little direct experience of remote teamwork and felt insecure about being able to manage work at a distance. And apparently remote teams need to ‘let their hair down’. Oh dear. Enough said.

A sub-heading in the list (of course, it was a listicle) referenced online “meetings” - complete with the quotation marks, making Maya cringe. Their advice was to use ‘videoconferencing’ - a thing we were talking about a decade ago, so go and get your suit and tie on first. Perhaps this does remind us all that we are still struggling with consistent vocabulary as it evolves in the remote space. What do you call it when you just want to hop on a quick video call with someone in your team? We’d love to know.

Another tip from the Telegraph article suggested you “set rules about the tech you use” - OK, so far as it goes. But nothing about how you use the tech was mentioned, and the very term “rules” suggests a different approach to a team agreement, the idea of building a consensus around how we want to communicate and why. A further confusion between social media and team communications was a bit strange too, and while boundaries are more blurred now between internal and external communications, the distinctions between the two are still critical.

Finally though, one assertion in the article had Pilar and May both raging at their screens. Apparently, “introverts struggle more with remote working”.  Introverts “find it harder to initiate conversation” - well, that was bound to press the buttons of two introverted writers/consultants/podcasters who also happen to be professional communicators and remote work advocates. And it betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what the introversion/extroversion spectrum actually is.  

People who score highly on introversion scales re-energise in private, as opposed to gaining energy from the company of others - while introverts thrive on the company of others for stimulation and energy.  There is zero correlation either way with communication skills. Remote working enables people to control their environmental preferences, whether that means creating peaceful space for deep working, or enjoying the bustle of a busy co-working. But introverts are not shy, reserved, or suffering from a communication skills impairment.

45.06 Is it introversion, or a cross-cultural assumption?

To explore introversion and its implications in more depth, Pilar spoke to Allon Shevat, who shed some interesting light on the issue by reminding us that behaviour perceived as introvert could be something very different, depending on the cultural backgrounds involved.

For example a question from a business superior might be seen in Western culture as expecting an immediate response - but in Japanese culture, thoughtfulness would be valued more highly than immediacy, and a considered answer a delivered little later more appreciated.

Another colleague might be reluctant to give a negative answer in some circumstances, and prefer to respond privately if the news is bad - a sign of respect and courtesy, over the transparency of sharing bad news publicly which could reflect on the manager or the whole team. (Maya has also had experience of this when working with developers and contractors from the Indian subcontinent, who seemed incapable of expressing anything like, “no, this work is not going ok” or “nope, that cannot be done”, when that was exactly what needed saying...)

Silence or a lack of response also has cultural implications, and can be a way of expressing lack of agreement rather than shyness or introversion. Dissent could also be indicated via a backchannel or indirect communication, in cultures where it simply wouldn’t be acceptable to express a negative opinion about a colleague.  Finally Allon reminds us that on international teams, delayed or written responses can simply reflect use of a second language, rather than anything relating to introversion/extroversion, and can lead to disadvantage in synchronous calls or chats.

If you want to learn more follow @AllonShevat on Twitter (and he is the secret mastermind behind another twitter account we also enjoy - but you’ll have to listen to find out which one!)

We discussed many issues surrounding cultural differences in Episode 201 with Theresa Sigillito Hollema and Surinder Kahai if you want more on this fascinating area, and also back in episode 138 with Nancy Settle-Murphy.  

All of this reflects the fact that so much more is now going on in the remote workspace conversation - we’ll be digging into the ongoing issue about hostility in the workplace soon as it applies to remote, and other deep-dives into other burning issues are also coming your way. Please tell us if there’s something specific you’d like us to research and explore.

For now, thank you very much for listening!