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Showing Up. How to make working from home... work.

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Paul Keister

For most technology firms, the great transition to a fully remote workforce is now a fait accompli. For now, we are all practicing our remote work skills every business day. And while the results have been unexpectedly positive across many organizations, there are still unfamiliar challenges. There's now quite a lot of helpful commentary available on building a productive remote environment, so rather than giving a step-by-step how-to, in this post I'll focus on the most important lesson I've learned about remote work: you must show up for your teammates and reports.

Many of the challenges we face with fully remote teams are also challenges we face with a fully co-located organization, but the severity of the problems can be different in this new environment. For example, it has been said that it is important to have clear written onboarding instructions for remote workers. That is unquestionably true, but wasn't that also true when we were all back in the office? What makes it more important now that we are fully distributed? The answer reveals what I think is a core concern and a core skill for success in a remote environment: showing up.

Think about a traditional in-office organization that is suffering from a lack of documentation. When a new hire arrives, they spend an hour with their manager and then are turned loose to do their job. This is where the co-located organization has a unique advantage: the new employee is sitting at a desk in full view of their team, and it is relatively easy to become aware that they are having difficulty. It is quite likely that team members will respond and jump in casually to give the new hire the critical information that they need to get started.

This scenario could play out in a fully distributed team as well, but only if team members pro-actively reach out to check in with the new hire. I call this showing up for your team. If you don't show up, you are invisible to your team and collaborators, and the spontaneous collaboration and communication that would otherwise happen in a co-located team might not happen. In the case of the new hire, they might spend the entire day spinning their wheels but remain too intimidated to ask for help.

So how do you show up? First, you should be showing up in your team chat channel. If you don't have anything project-related to say, talk about the weather or sports, just like you would in the office. What you're really doing when you engage in small talk on chat is to say to everyone: I am here. This will lower the barrier for others who might need your help but have been hesitant to ask for it.

Another way you can show up is to literally show up: turn on your camera. Over time I've found that keeping my camera on consistently really changes the dynamic, and other meeting participants will eventually respond if you lead by example: soon most everyone is visible on a video call, which adds an important level of nuance to the conversation. Finally, don't forget that everyone's got a phone: sometimes a 1 on 1 phone conversation can create a level of intimacy this can be helpful and is impossible to get through other means.

If you pro-actively show up for your colleagues as I'm suggesting, it will probably feel awkward at times. This is not unlike the feeling you get on the first day at a new on-premises job; it can feel awkward getting to know a new team and a new office, but eventually you feel that you know the environment and the people in your physical space. In a remote world with its lack of clear physical boundaries, you won’t get the same feeling of comfort, so it takes some perseverance to establish the same level of connection. But the effort is well worth it and “showing up” in the virtual world is no less important that showing up physically in the office, if or when you have an office to show up at.


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