The world has changed.
Upon first glance, that statement seems obvious and almost a little silly. Of course the world has changed. The world changes every day. People grow and learn. New products come out.
The concept that is really on my mind here is the massive changes in the workplace due to the coronavirus. Maybe a better phrase to use here would be something like this:
The workplace has changed. And it will probably never go back to the way that it was before.
Yet, even thinking through this idea, this is nothing new. Go watch an episode of Mad Men. The workplace that we know in 2019 looked nothing like that office ideal. While it can be said that any dramatization of workplace culture and etiquette can only present one ruby-lensed viewpoint of any workplace, some big differences can be seen when comparing and contrasting the workplace of the second decade of the 21st century.
Which leads us to the changes in 2020.
We are transitioning into a contactless society. Money transactions have already been moving in this direction for years. Even before COVID-19, you could wave your phone over a payment terminal without touching it to purchase goods or services.
Even people who are still in office buildings are attending virtual spaces to have meetings and converse with coworkers. This is occurring even if people are physically in the same building.
Even huge companies are making dramatic shifts to their workplaces.
Take REI for example.
The company that focuses on the outdoors and sells copious amounts of outdoor gear and adventures just spent 3 years building a new corporate headquarters complex. This workplace that was finished in 2020 was intended to expand the companies idea of “everything outdoors” and blur the distinction between being inside an office building with being outside.
In early March of 2020, this article was published stating that the company planned to start moving into this beautiful new campus starting in July of 2020: REI’s new headquarters are like summer camp for grown-ups. The tagline even reads:
Complete with blueberry bogs and a campfire.
Fast forward a mere 5 months to early August and the company suddenly announced that they are selling the entire complex without moving in at all: REI Co-op to pursue sale of headquarters, embrace distributed work model
One thing stood out when reading this press release. Not only is the company shifting to a remote-focused workplace, but they have now shifted to start describing the place that they do business as a “headquarters”. The quotes are theirs.
As I was unaware of the term behind using quotation marks in this way, I looked it up. According to Wikipedia: “Scare quotes (also called shudder quotes, sneer quotes, and quibble marks) are quotation marks that writers place around a word or phrase to signal that they are using it in a non-standard, ironic, or otherwise special sense.”
What is so special about having a company “headquarters”?
One of the big fundamental changes to the workplace this year is that remote work is occurring throughout many different industries in ways that have never before been considered.
Now you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to work for Silicon Valley.
This is great, right? More choices for who you work for due to the change in how we work. More “headquarters” and less driving to the same old cubicle every day.
Yet, we are also rewriting how we work every day in this new environment. As a manager and an employee, I am responsible for ensuring that work is getting done. This has led to a necessary increase in the most important component of remote work.
Do we trust our employees?
Am I trustworthy?
This feels like a much bigger change than it actually is. Much of this has to do with changing perceptions about what work is and how we do it. Let me give an example.
Employee A shows up to work a few minutes early every day, is always studiously hacking away at their keyboard, and even stays late a day or two a week.
Employee B shows up late most days, spends a lot of time chatting with coworkers, and will often stay late into the evenings working.
However, Employee B closes nearly 50% more tasks every week than Employee A.
From a management standpoint, two schools of thought are commonly applied. The first standpoint says that an employee that is here and appears to be working, one that attends all the meetings and looks to be taking notes, is the more productive employee.
The second standpoint states that the results are the important thing and for many roles in the workplace, overall output is much more important than a strict and rigid attendance policy.
Where and how we work is not the only thing changing right now. Management ideals need to change as well during this transition.
The key aspects when moving away from the direct observational perception of what makes someone a good employee can be summed up by one phrase:
Trust, but verify.
This is not a new concept. Many employers and managers embraced this long before remote work became nearly mandatory for large parts of the population. However, it required a lot more change for it to gain traction in being embraced by more mainstream businesses.
The verification part is a whole other topic. That would cover how managers would verify the work that has been completed.
The focus here is on the first part of that saying. The trust part.
So as a manager, here are seven things that I want my teammates to know about building trust between us so that we can be successful even if we only ever see each other on a screen during our daily standups.
Building Trust Step 1: Communicate, Communicate, Then Go Back and Communicate Some More
Communication is one of the most important aspects of working with other humans. Do you understand the person that is in front of you? Do you know their reasons for being there? Are you on the same page for working together?
Working remotely only makes this critical skill even more important. How do you effectively communicate over textual messages or emails? Can you see enough of each other during video chants and meetings to gauge body language?
When communicating with my team I cannot stress enough the importance of clear and open messaging. This is a lot harder in a remote scenario and does take quite a bit more work.
Know that this is not a one-way street. We often look at people in positions of authority and think that it is a single communications channel always moving down the food chain.
This is not a dictatorship. This is a partnership. While there will be times that a decision is needed that you won’t like, there will be reasons behind that decision that a manager needs to make and they should be communicated appropriately.
See? More communication.
There will be times when that deadline is simply impossible and needs to be changed. During those times we need to listen to each other to come up with solutions to challenges like this.
Yes, listening is just as critical to good communication.
The more that we promote effective messaging, the better our understanding, and the more efficient we all work together, no matter where our office is located.
Building Trust Step 2: Show Your Emotional Intelligence
Let me share a little secret with you: Managers are people too.
We laugh. We cry. We have good days and bad days.
The concept of emotional intelligence is all about recognizing the emotions ofthe people around you. While this is certainly an important skill for managers, everyone in the workplace should work on building up these skills.
Showing empathy for your manager helps to build a solid relationship with that person and can help both of you get through tough times together.
At times I have been a great manager who knows the names of people’s kids and pets and has 1-on-1 meetings often and who puts a lot of effort into the well-being of people on the team.
There are also other times where I have challenges going on in my life outside of work and I am covered-up and overwhelmed by the body in work in front of me and my actions as your direct manager are not that great.
You could even say that there are times that I am not doing a good job as your manager.
I hope that you can recognize my intent to be a great manager, practice empathy for when I can’t fulfill that intent, and that we can work together successfully no matter what.
So don’t be afraid to show your skills in emotional intelligence to your manager. If you aren’t sure how then there are a few simple steps to take.
First, communicate more. If I am your manager then ask me about my day, what I did this past weekend. Ask me how you can help make my day better.
Next, repeat step 1.
It is pretty simple. Together, we can accomplish great things as a team when we are on the same page.
Building Trust Step 3: Take Responsibility For Your Actions
This is important in the best of times and critical in the worst of times.
You are responsible for the work you do and the output and results of that work. Period. Managers are responsible for the cohesiveness of a team and the collective output from that team.
This is a case where many parts come together to form a whole. In the best cases, the collective sum of results is greater than the individual sum from each of the members of the team.
In those cases, the team is highly functioning and kicking some major butt.
However, for a team to get to that point it takes a lot of trust, not just between the team members and the team leader, but also between teammates. Every person must pull their weight.
Also, every person must take responsibility for their effort.
Please know that this does NOT mean that you need to be perfect and right all the time. While writing bug-free software is a wonderful ideal goal, it is not possible in reality to hit this mark.
The point of taking responsibility is an acknowledgment that there will be issues, there will be bugs. Yet when they occur you are jumping in to fix them and make things right.
As a manager, there is no more frustrating event than seeing people play hot potato with an issue and just pass it around the circle hoping that someone will step up and do something about it.
Sure, we can all agree that this thing is a problem. Yet nobody wants to take responsibility for fixing the problem.
I don’t even care if your solution is the correct one as long as you focus on achieving a solution.
That is called taking responsibility and the best people on the best teams grab it and don’t let go.
Be that person. Be tenacious. Be consistent. Latch on and don’t stop until a solution is found.
However, there is more than just problem-solving in taking responsibility. This leads me to the next item…
Building Trust Step 4: Show Up On Time
Being responsible is not simply about dealing with issues, problems, and roadblocks.
This is one of those KISS Principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) things…
Show up on time.
That it is it.
Quick, easy, simple.
This is the simplest thing to do on this entire list. Yet it is a very important item. Most days I don’t know where my teammates are at any given time. They could be home working (hopefully!). They could be out walking their dog. They might be binge-watching CSPAN.
However, there are a few points in the day where we get together. Yes, meetings can be a huge drain if not handled correctly, but these are points where we see and hear each other no matter what else is going on.
Oversleeping, forgetting, losing track of time means that we don’t have these interactions.
When we are all working remotely this becomes very important. If we were all in the office then we are going to run into each other multiple times during the day. Coming and going. Taking a bio break. Grabbing more coffee. Going to meetings.
When working remotely, meetings become the only time that we see and hear each other.
One of the big downsides that people call out regarding remote work is the lack of human interaction. While I agree with that, I disagree that the only way to make it happen is for us to be in the same building together 8–12 hours per day.
As a manager, I may not be able to reach out and talk to you every day. However, I believe in daily contact.
So it is pretty easy. If you want my trust? Show up to meetings.
Building Trust Step 5: Build Skills In Situational Intelligence
We all know and love the concept of emotional intelligence and showing empathy to others.
Situational intelligence is a concept of reading, understanding, and being in tune with the workplace environment around you.
Reading the room. Reading between the lines. Understanding intent.
All of these are examples of situational intelligence.
It is street smarts for the office.
This concept can become monumentally harder to do when not face to face with someone. How do we understand intent and context when we can’t pick up the normal visual clues that provide that information?
This comes down to communication and…surprise:
How do you know that you are creating the right product? The perfect workflow? How do you know that you are solving the right problem for a customer?
If I have a car and my tire goes flat, that is a pretty easy thing for someone to recognize and address. It doesn’t take a lot of situational intelligence to create a solution there.
However, if a key customer keeps complaining that your app is too hard to run, are you going to spend four weeks rebuilding workflows to try and make them happy? What if instead, you worked to build context and understanding with them only to realize that someone was complaining about having to go to the start menu to open the app and all they needed was a desktop shortcut?
Listen, understand, communicate. Build your skills around situational intelligence as they are critical for achieving the best outcomes when working remotely.
Not surprisingly, the same skillsets used to create empathy in emotional intelligence are transferrable to these situations.
Listen. Put yourself in their shoes. Ask questions. Communicate. Work to build understanding around intent.
Building Trust Step 6: Do Your Work
What a simple concept.
Geez, this guy must be an idiot, of course, we need to do our work.
How many of you are reading this while you are supposed to be working?
People will always find ways to goof off and avoid work. Work is…. work. It defines itself as something not very fun in most cases.
When working remotely, the possibilities for distractions and interruptions change and grow in many cases.
That TV in the corner could be playing the next episode of your new binge-worthy show. That game controller is just begging to see some action and take out some more zombies. That puppy is so cute and the day is so nice outside…
Attitudes are changing in the workplace, but they haven’t wholly morphed into the idea of trust but verify. There are still plenty of managers who grew up in an environment where a butt in a seat means that work is being done.
That attitude does not jibe with remote working unless that manager wants to take draconian measures to monitor keystrokes and watch a webcam to ensure that an appropriate amount of butt-to-seat time is being achieved every day.
Yuck. Oh yeah, how must trust is an experience like that affecting the trust between that manager and that employee?
So if you want my trust and the freedom to time-shift things around and go for that walk while it is nice out? Then it is pretty simple.
Just get your work done.
Building Trust Step 7: Be The Person You Want To Work With
This one is so easy on the surface, yet covers so many areas.
Be honest. Have accountability. Work hard. Show up on time.
If you want something from me then why shouldn’t I be able to expect the same from you?
Us trusting each other while working remotely has nothing to do with personalities, dress code, political leanings, or whether Star Wars is better than Star Trek.
I don’t care if you are wearing pants today as long as you aren’t standing up in front of your webcam. Heck, I might not even be wearing pants today.
What is important here is that together we produce results.
In the remote environment, results are king.
We see this all over the place. While it isn’t a great reflection of our society, how often does management or even the fans ignore or turn a blind eye to off-field issues for someone good at moving a ball around? These people produce amazing feats and spectacular results and are lauded for that output, even if the circumstances outside of the arena aren’t ideal.
We are professionals. We get paid to make things. To write code. To produce amazing products. To make ideas come to life.
As professionals, we are judged on the products that we create.
As we work on teams, this is not all about individual effort. It was called out above:
Be honest. Have accountability. Work hard. Show up on time.
These things build trust.
Sprinkle in some extra communication, show some empathy for your boss and teammates, take ownership for problems (especially the ones you create), simply show up to meetings on time, read the room, and get your work done is an amazing recipe for success and trustworthiness in any endeavor.
Maybe the inimitable Spongebob and Patrick said it best:
Spongebob: “What if I break your trust someday?”
Patrick: “Trusting you is my decision, proving me wrong is your choice.”
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on October 1, 2020. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.