• Jan Rybeck

Mining the Gaps

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

That should be the bumper sticker for what it’s like when you suddenly have to telework.

Like how do you fully wake up when there is no need to shower, go outside, or wrestle with a commute?

How to keep motivated and on task without being immersed in the buzz of colleagues driving towards a deadline.

Or, as I discovered when I went to full time telework, how some of the most creative moments happen during unexpected interactions. For me, that was usually when I ran into my boss in the ladies’ room… we’d start gabbing about a client issue and 10 minutes later come out with a new solution or two.

Every interaction is an opportunity. And most interactions are not planned, they happen as a result of the conditions we create.

We are creatures of habit and our environment is shaped by and shapes those patterns.

So what happens when emergency circumstances require us to rewire?

The good news is that now more than ever, we are well equipped with rich communication channels for working remotely. It is indeed the way most people in the workplace connect. Whether Teams, Zoom, Skype, Slack, Facetime, Hangouts, or any number of apps, we can now combine video, messaging, whiteboarding, screensharing, and of course email to get the message across. That’s what is newish. What is as old as time and continues to be a drag on effective virtual work is human nature.

Our minds and natural inclination towards cohesion and the perceived security that comes with it does not like gaps. And distance creates gaps. Gaps in communication. Gaps in understanding. Sometimes, gaps in productivity. And definitely gaps in connection, real, human connection, which often leads to gaps in communication, understanding, and motivation to get stuff done.

And our human brains, experiencing gaps as dissonance, go the extra mile to fill them. We make stuff up, often unconsciously, to give us a sense of knowing what is going on.

Over the past 25 years, a formidable set of practices for virtual teaming has been road tested and refined. These suggestions are great for creating structures and practices to the minimize the gaps and provide clarity and cohesion needed to work together across the gaps. One of my favorites is Michael Watkins HBR article from 2013.

Based on our experience leading and coaching many virtual teams and leaders who need to team across the ether sphere, here are 3 more tips:

1. Out of sight out of mind. Our minds tend to remember and track with what is right in front of us. Especially when things move fast. Make an effort to connect with each team member on a regular basis. Don’t count on random opportunities to connect as they probably won’t happen. Keep a list of your colleagues and network on a white board in your home office and make an effort to connect with each at some point during your day or week. Also, use the opportunity to actually connect, not just transact. Isolation and social disconnection can, over time, drain energy and motivation. Check in, see how they are doing, what they need from you or others. One of the most potent elements of workplace culture is how we treat each other and what we show each other through non-verbal contact. Shifting to virtual work provides opportunity to re-cast or reinforce the work culture you want, by making an effort to connect in ways that gets the work done AND builds inclusion, authentic connection, and a sense that you are there for one another- because that is what it takes to sustainably deliver as a team.

2. Facts vs. assumptions. Our minds don’t know what to do with disconnects and lack of information. When communication is not clear or speedy, our mind tries to connect up the information it does have with ideas and perceptions that may or may not be accurate. This might provide a momentary sense of confidence about what is going on, though, more often than not, it leaves out important bits of information as well as excludes (if not dismisses!) the individuals who are part of that information. We have found it is wise to err on the side of over communicating when working virtually. Don’t be afraid to reach out and invite a conversation for clarity. If you have any questions, doubts, or uncertainties, initiate a call with the appropriate folks to get clear. The first assumption to clear up might be that you can’t have the conversation in the first place. Be bold, be honest, drive for clarity where you need it and don’t leave the conversation until there is mutual agreement, understanding, and/or expectations. Consider also where you hold back asking questions for clarification. Do you leave every interaction with your remote colleagues with mutually agreed to understandings and expectations? If not, how might you use one more minute of time to get to that? What’s the cost when you operate from assumptions more than facts?

3. We don’t see the world the way it is, we see it the way we are. Once again, this is human nature, especially when we spend a lot of time in our own space. Not a bad thing but important none the less to recognize the limitations of our own frames, especially when we need to build cohesion and connection to get stuff done well. Alan Alda, in his work teaching scientists to communicate, emphasizes how real listening, real connecting, is about letting ourselves be changed by the experience. My favorite self-coaching questions for this one is to continually ask, “and what else might be going on?’ or “how might I be wrong?”. These questions open us up past our own world view and rote ways of seeing and being to consider what is going on for others, how they might see things. This doesn’t mean that how you see the world is unimportant or not useful. It most assuredly is! It is insufficient, however, as only a part of the total sum required to make a team successful.

“The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered, is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually, I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues.”

Alan Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned

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