Encouraging Action And Timeliness In A Remote Workplace
I have this problem at work that maybe you can help me with. If you’re a developer with a knack for words, you can definitely help me; I’m having a heck of a time getting people to write, or if they agree to write, getting them to do so in a sufficiently timely manner that my boss stops counting how many articles I’ve brought to publication. The approximately 33 spreadsheet rows of promised articles on the back burner don’t count. While the nuances of my situation are unique (trying to get people to dedicate time and brain juice to producing an interesting and often programmatically intense article of about 2,500 words for free, no less) the problem itself has to be global: How does one inspire action and timeliness from folks one is working with and depending on?
My job, rightly, hinges on finding the answer, and thus began my quest for some sort of magical social recipe that even an introvert with an aversion to hand-holding can cook together. (Spoiler: I do, sort of, but it’s a bar cocktail, a little different each time.)
To start my journey, like any good ‘80s generation techno-weenie, I took to the internet. Unfortunately, my google-fu didn’t pay off; most of what I found related to intra-office socialization, usually from a managerial standpoint. Still, some of it was applicable:
- Provide recognition in public, so they can feel good!
- Offer incentives or commissions for good work.
- Get to know them through casual interaction, such as a coffee run or a company party.
- Inspire by doing; they’ll be inclined to work as hard as you.
- Be positive, helpful, and available.
All of this harks back to my college classes on business communication, but most of those suggestions don’t work with Toptal technical editing for two key reasons:
- The folks writing for the blog aren’t employees, they’re volunteers, and in the case of guest articles, they’re not even using the Toptal platform.
- Besides the obvious advantages of exposure via blog post (public recognition, check) and the value of the experience itself (which is super subjective and not great leverage), I have difficulty speeding up the process. You’d think the exposure would be incentive enough; we have hundreds of thousands of subscribers (including many Toptal clients and thought leaders across the tech industry), and Toptalers who publish on the engineering blog are frequently requested by name.
On top of that, the remote nature of my work means I don’t really get the opportunity to socialize outside of:
“Oh, hey, how’s that article coming?”
“Hey, look at this picture of my cat. He’s like, ‘get to work!’ I have three. Can we get the tutorial project on Github?”
Honestly, I feel guilty whenever conversation goes tangentially to the work at hand, like I’m shirking duty, but socialization is important for building rapport and rapport inclines people to do nice things for you. (The internet told me so!) So, if I’m sending you pictures of cats, that’s me trying to be social.
That next bullet for good office interactions, “inspire by doing,” well, that is something I can only sort of do. In making an article happen there’s so much going on behind the scenes that doesn’t get relayed to the author; writing up a design brief for the art, fidgeting with SEO keywords, making sure the article doesn’t have too many links, making sure it has enough links, picking out tweetable content and making them the right length, coordinating with the art team to get the graphics on time, coordinating with the copy editor, double checking code, double checking links, formatting and presentation, getting the “pitch” for the newsletter approved, getting the tweets approved, getting the newsletter ready to go…I’m sure I’m missing some.
The point is, a lot does happen outside of the author’s sphere of knowledge but I can only tell you that I’m working hard and that’s by responding as quickly as I can to any inquiries, comments or edits.
So, yeah, the first round of google-fu went bust. The second search, more co-worker centric to reflect the peer relationship with my authors, brought up a short Forbes article by Jacquelyn Smith titled ‘10 Ways To Get Your Colleagues To Work With You Better’. What I took away is this:
- Ask for advice.
- Communicate directly [with your coworkers].
- Find out what their challenges or obstacles are.
Solid, but a little vague. Then I went wide and Googled “how to get what you want” (because all I really want is my paycheck so I can justify buying grain-free cat food)… The top hit was another one from Forbes listing six ways to get what I want…my take away there was:
- Ask, and be specific.
- Stop apologizing (I took this as don’t be apologetic; yes, they’re doing this for free, but they get plenty out of it, too).
- Be persistent.
Faster than a cat on a laser pointer’s dot, I noticed that “asking” was a common denominator; it continued to be a theme in my researching. Again and again, in all my reading and Googling, success pointed to one thing: communication.
Communication, but not just any communication, it has to be effective, positive, explicit communication. Here’s the magic bullet, which is more like a magic revolver because there are several different bullets in the chamber of the “communication gun” to get the job done. A lot of the advice I found carries over from how to employ effective communication in a traditional workplace, so if you’ve poked around that subject much of this will look familiar.
Explicit Communication Is Key
Anything implicit is left to interpretation and interpretations are often wrong. Granted, confusion still happens with explicit communication, but being mindfully explicit decreases the chances of miscommunication frustrations. If you’re going to talk to someone next week on Wednesday and you send an email reminder on the Friday before…
”Hey, I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday!”
Be specific, do say:
”Hey, I look forward to seeing you this upcoming Wednesday (3/30). 2:15 EST, right?”
This is even more important when you’re working with folks across multiple time zones. See how I made it a question? This encourages them to both double check time zone conversions as well as reply in the affirmative, which means it’s more likely to stick in their brain and be remembered.
Define Deliverables & Clear Expectations
Ensure that everyone is on the same page as early as possible and throughout the process. When you can’t shoot the breeze while making use the office popcorn machine, you can miss a lot of opportunities to spot warning flags that something’s been misunderstood about a project.
Put down what’s needed and what’s been agreed upon on in writing, preferably in short, digestible bullet points that can be easily remembered and referenced. In my case, technical editing, this looks like:
- Must be 2,500 words of valid content (college paper padding techniques are not welcome here)
- Not too many links (or it’s just spammy)
- Can’t be crazy self-promotional
- Example code must compile
- If it’s a tutorial, put it on GitHub
Check In, Casually
To make sure these shared expectations are maintained, check in, and do it as often as you need to get an answer/confirmation. Don’t let an unanswered email be an excuse not to know someone’s progress, especially when you’re depending on them! Ping them again and mention what part of your work is waiting on them. That said, be polite and non-accusational. Make it a question rather than a statement; a quick query invites them to relay any difficulties they’re running into and gives you the opportunity to both prepare to handle them together and Be Interactive (a part of the magic I explain later).
“Hey, what’s the status on x? I’m trying to figure out a timeline for getting y done.”
“I’m still waiting on x so I can do y.”
For the programmers out there, consider these to be like “stand-ups,” a go-around to make sure everyone’s still alive and able to do a status update on their progress.
Important: This goes both ways. If you know you’re not going to meet a deadline, be honest and open about it as soon as possible; you might be surprised who steps up with an idea on how to help.
Set Deadlines & Milestones
Deadlines, while everyone hates them, are very rarely detrimental to productivity, especially if you allow some flexibility for “expected deadline messer-uppers” (like their day job, in the case of my authors).
So talk about deadlines right off the bat, even if it feels rigid or overbearing. This is one area that I actively worked to improve since starting this article, and I’ve had decent results. I can’t expect my authors to feel any urgency if I don’t mention my schedule and any expectations-handed-down-from-above, and you can’t expect your co-workers to magically know, either. Don’t get all flustery and upset about it, but be sure to mention what constraints you’re working under, we all have them, your co-workers will understand.
That said, be careful to enforce this one. It’s easy to talk timeline when you’re dealing with an unknown, a suspected slacker, or a super professional, but make sure you clearly cover deadlines or milestones, even if someone’s gung-ho and promising a delivery in dreamy short order.
Don’t just say:
“That’s great :)”
and wait (often to be disappointed).
Do put an explicit deadline on it:
“That’d be awesome! Let’s plan for a finished draft in five days…how about noon this upcoming Tuesday?”
People like seeing their progress. This is why surveys have that little tracker at the bottom of the page telling you how much further you have to go. It’s the core of game design, the reason why we have ‘levels’ both as playable maps or as character stats. It’s why people love achievement badges. Make use of this internationally human aspect.
“Once you OK this set of changes, I’ll get this over to our copy editor and we’ll do one more review on her suggestions. After that, I’ll be tweaking formatting and SEO, and we’ll be set to go! I hope to publish by…”
Be Available, Relatable; Not Abusable
It’s good to respond as soon as you can to any inquiries or review requests, but your time is valuable too. If something has to wait a day, it’s OK to say so.
This results in a few things for you:
- Reminds whoever’s emailing that while it’s a joint effort, just as they have their own things to do, you also have your own things to do.
- Encourages them to craft a single well thought-out email for your limited attention (rather than six successive “oh, and x” emails).
- Keeps you from interrupting your work cycle every fifteen minutes to answer emails (and subsequently going cat-bat crazy).
All that said, if you get something that feels like a “stupid question” or a question that you’ve answered a dozen times, the absolutely wrong response, ever, is silence.
Don’t Be Silent
Silence is such the wrong answer that it gets it own subheader. Silence brings doubt, doubt brings confusion, confusion leads to defensiveness, defensiveness leads to resentment. At worst case, they’ll feel that you think they’re beneath you or not worth your time. Or maybe, they’ll take your silence as permission to do whatever the hell they feel like doing, and that’s how companies end up with inventions from R&D like an automatic cat petter. Don’t go there.
If they’ve asked a question that’s going to take a few days to get back to them, tell them so. Ease their minds; yes, you got their email and yes, you’re addressing it. If you’ve ever employed silence as a cold shoulder technique for a “stupid” or “complicated” question, you’re a bad, bad person.
Now that we’ve established silence as the No. 1 worst response, don’t feel bad about employing anti-silence guilt tactics on the unresponsive. You can even use, gasp, smilies.
”Hey, I didn’t get an answer to my last email. :c Did you get my question about xyz? What were your thoughts?”
Because silence is so evil, its darkness spanning across cultures, most people feel compelled to justify their delinquency, and any response means you can practice “Being Interactive” (see below) … provided that you actually gave them more than five minutes to reply to your email, that is. Seriously, wait at least a full working day. We all know someone who this applies to. Please don’t email me three times in two hours with an expectation of a reply unless the server racks are on fire and I’m the only one with a fire extinguisher. At that point, it’s probably okay to text me.
When you get a less-than-stellar status update (“Hey, my kids have the flu, I won’t get to the article for another week”), rather than just acknowledging, take the opportunity to offer support (if it’s realistic for you to help them) or build emotional rapport (sometimes, all it takes is a cute kitten pic). Give them a reply that they can respond to, they’ll appreciate the courtesy.
”Oh, OK. Send it to me when you get to it.”
”Yikes, I hope they feel better soon! My kids had it last month, kid germs are the worst.”
Harking back to my own scenario, if an author (or potential author) has a partial draft, prototype or sketch, ask if you can take a look and maybe help them brainstorm.
Even better, say:
“Ugh, don’t catch the flu while taking care of your kids. Can I read over what you have so far to help jump-start things when you can get back to it?”
This can go a few ways. They might say, ”Well, give me another day,” and then bust their butts to forge something they consider presentable; they might welcome the added insights and be productively pumped by having a collaborator, or they’ll turn you down (usually via silence). Even if they turn down the offer, they’ll remember that you asked and that will (hopefully) keep the matter rattling around on top of their to-do lists. Or, in the case of wicked, wicked silence, they might be more receptive to you in the future because of good old guilt.
While it’s not intuitive to offer assistance with someone else’s workload, it’s rarely a bad thing to get an early look at where someone’s going; it gives a wider time window in which to clear up any miscommunications (on either side) and correct it.
Practice Positive Reinforcement
Everybody like warm fuzzies. There’s no reason to be stingy with handing out your approval when it’s merited. If someone’s making good progress, say so. If a particular code method is elegantly done, say so. If you like how something was worded because it made a great mental image, fire off a “lol :).” It proves that you’re there, keeping up, and on their side.
I take every opportunity to praise my fast authors because I cannot express my gratefulness enough and I secretly hope that they’ll pick up on it and try extra hard to keep the standard high for me.
Now, this isn’t saying “pretend everything’s okay.” If there’s a problem, say so…but, say so in a way that’s as constructive and non-accusatory as possible:
“You didn’t write enough.”
“I can’t publish something less than 2,500 words. How can we expand the content scope?”
You can see how the first statement is a lot harder on the defensive reptilian brain. There’s nothing worse on productivity and quality than feeling defensive and combative with a teammate (or a boss).
Using “I” is a popular technique for conflict resolution, and for good reason. In the teamwork scenario, using positive language, even around unpleasant situations, ties back into being a relatable human being. Notice how I recommended using “we” to figure out how to expand the article. It’s you and your coworker, it’s me and my author, joint ventures taking on the world.
As for using punishment as an incentive, forget it. It doesn’t work well for your dog or your cat or your kid, and it doesn’t work well for your office mates. If a mistake has been made, talk about it in private, preferably one-on-one. Public shaming is worse than silence and rips schisms in relationships faster than a cat can shred a toilet paper roll. Ever try to piece a toilet paper roll sheet back together? Everyone makes mistakes; no one likes for them to be paraded around the office, virtual or otherwise.
Don’t ever: Engage in public shaming.
Do: Give praise when it’s merited.
Consider Using (Controversial) Smilies (Sometimes)
It’s really, really hard to read someone’s intended tone from text. If you’re saying something a little rough on the ego or making a mis-construable joke, a well placed
:) might be needed to drive it home, or at least transform a potential call to HR into a weird look.
I’ll add smilies, cat pictures and an exclamation point for enthusiasm, but you have to be careful not to over do it and put yourself in the “unprofessional buddy” category. Unprofessional buddy status risks being mistaken for being a pushover and inciting laziness in the author’s generation of content because ‘”Oh, she’s cool like my drinking bros, I can relax.” At least, in my worst nightmares it does … I might be overreacting.
Just go easy on the emoticons.
Do: Drop a smiley here and there when it’s appropriate.
Don’t: Send entire sentences that look like this, okay? 🙂 It’s unprofessional and hard to read!!! 😀
This one doesn’t need much explanation. People like swag, recognition, gift cards, and so on. Therefore, I’m going to try an experiment. In addition to the aforementioned professional exposure and career development that comes with publishing on the Toptal Engineering Blog, win a hand-crafted, digital, cat-oriented Award of Rapidity, which, while totally meaningless, will bring you pride and joy! How can you win this prestigious prize? Be the first person to get a decent, 2500 word technologically oriented draft to me following this article’s publication date (you might want to check the topic with me first). Good luck, authors!
Disclaimer: I did not write this entire article just to coax readers into sending me drafts, I genuinely vetted the recommendations I’ve presented and found improved results! Getting drafts would just be an extra, awesome, bonus.
The article was first published here.
Kate Scheer is the Technical Editor at TOPTAL, LLC.