Teleworkers and Celebrations


I first started teleworking 19 years ago, and have worked out of my home ever since, in all sorts of configurations:

  • the only remote worker on the team
  • a team that’s entirely distributed
  • teams mainly located in 2-3 sites
  • teams on 2 or 3 continents
  • solo projects.

So I’ve seen a lot of successful and a lot of not-so-good configurations for teleworkers.

One of the challenges of being a teleworker is the issue of celebrations and recognitions.  It’s hard to find something individualized that fits each team member, and it’s easy to forget the remote contingent when planning the “We Shipped It!” release celebration, even when the remote contingent played a strong role in the accomplishment.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for ways to do celebrations and acknowledgements for remote employees so I could reward my own teams.  There are some pretty decent ideas out there, but most didn’t seem to resonate with me or my software developer peers. So I started assembling my own list.

Acknowledging  teleworkers’ contribution to a big accomplishment with a line or two in a mass “Thanks, folks!” email message while the local contingent goes on a harbor cruise  or out to dinner or to a movie to celebrate sends a strong message.  Especially when that happens during a workday while the teleworkers are expected to just keep mushing along, like any other normal workday except with fewer chats from on-site coworkers. Yes, I’ve experienced this, including attempts to keep the celebrations quiet because remotes don’t feel left out of something they don’t know about.  Pro Tip:  They know and they do.

Seriously, if you’re fond of your teleworkers, that’s probably not the message you want to be sending.

And seasonal parties, summer picnics, and weekly wine-fests?  Sometimes seems like “Working remotely is reward enough!” so no need to even think about including remote workers in these celebrations unless they just happen to be on-site.

I’ve been there and done that on the receiving end.  Or been told, “Go take two hours and do something at the same time we’re watching our movie.” When presented like this, it’s not the same, not at all, and I sure don’t feel rewarded because it’s an isolating experience with no connection to colleagues, not a bonding experience.

For major milestones and even small celebrations, swag gets handed out.  Small laptop accessories, stickers, little mementos, flags, the occasional T-shirt, whatever.  Freebies for the employees and free marketing/branding for the company.  Remotes often get overlooked for these little items, because they’re not there for the party favors and besides, shipping things to them is a hassle.  On one memorable trip to visit colleagues on a different continent, we carted 15 baseball caps from that summer’s group picnic to a remote site where we had 15 employees on the extended team.  One of the people I was traveling with came from the main site and they brought them in their luggage.  Was there a hat for me or for the other five who worked remotely in the US? No, of course not.

Seriously, the swag problem is a no-brainer.  If you have 25 employees, then you get swag for 25.  Not 20 who go to the party and those 5 other folks who you never see but are voices on the phone and people who do pull requests and code reviews.  When the celebration is done, put the swag in the box and mail it, along with a “We missed you!  Too bad you didn’t get to see Avery bowl – 7-10 split Every.Single.Frame!” (or whatever) note.

Of course, the first and best way to include remote folks in celebrations is to actually include them.  Bring the team together regularly after a big milestone and hold celebrations then, along with planning for the next steps.  That way everyone’s there for the experience and the team is automatically strengthened.

But don’t hold off celebrating things, big and small, because “we’ll be getting together in a month.”  To be meaningful, the celebration has to be timely. When far-flung folks can’t be there for a timely celebration, be it a holiday party (any holiday’s a good time to celebrate) or a milestone, the show still goes on because that connects the team. So yay, we shipped!  Celebrate it!  And tell everyone that we did celebrate because building a culture that celebrates accomplishments and shares success is a good thing.  Put up pictures on a company board.  And ask the remotes to join in with theirs!

And that, right there, is the actual goal:  celebrations build team closeness.  Check your actions against that as the motivator, asking yourself:  Knowing what I know of this remote worker (you do take time to just chat with each worker, nearby or far away, right?), how can I use this to connect rather than exclude?

First, don’t hide the celebration and pretend it doesn’t exist.  Treating it as a shameful secret heightens the feeling of separation and second-class citizenship, whether or not there’s some sort of alternate compensation. If there’s a party or celebration coming up, let the remote workers know, “Hey, we’re all going canoeing next week to celebrate our release.  Friday, 2-5pm”.  At least they’ll know where everyone is.

And if it makes the celebration organizer feel a bit guilty to have this as the full sum of the conversation, well, that says that the remote worker should get something too….  So at the least, follow it on with “You’ve worked hard on this too, and we’re sorry you won’t be able to be there.  So take a couple of hours off to go see a movie or a ballgame or kayak on the river on us next week and send a selfie!” or something like that. If you have a display of pictures from these celebrations (electronic or on a wall somewhere) , make sure it includes the remote workers’ celebrations too.

This basic, simple format meets all the goals. Your remote worker

  • Had her accomplishment recognized
  • Had an opportunity to celebrate in a way that left the team still supported
  • Had an event that aligned with her activities, interests, and schedule
  • Had her celebration recognized just like everyone else’s
  • Gave others another topic for informal chat to bring the team closer together as people, not just voices on the phone

All with just a slight adjustment on the negative scenario above – in some ways syntactic sugar.  But also, with the pictures, actionable.

Sometimes generic ideas “Go do what you want!” don’t quite cut it, so here are some specific other ideas as well:

  • Dinner on us!:  A gift certificate for the remote worker and her family, which acknowledges the impact of the milestone on not just the worker but also the family.
  • Movie/Concert/Sporting Event on us: Again, with tickets for two and/or family.
  • Holiday concert:  In lieu of the generic holiday party or summer barbecue, maybe there’s a local seasonal music performance (Spring in the Park! 4th of July Blues Festival, Summer Art Festival).
  • Surprise!  It’s always been a simple morale booster to get a surprise package with thoughtful recognitions – a mug and some hot cocoa or coffee or tea for a winter celebration, seasonal food, simple things, and the seasonal party swag.
  • Coffeeshop get togethers: If your team is going out to lunch or a meal, end it at a coffeeshop or other IM location and invite your remote workers to join in then from a local equivalent, or even their own kitchen or back yard.  You can time this so that it adapts to different timezones – morning coffee, afternoon drinks, evening decaf.  Connect via IM or voice chat.
  • Togetherness via Technology:   If your team does monthly informal birthday celebrations or other similar milestones, put them on Skype or Hangouts or your favorite IM program, and everybody sing to the birthday folks!  If an in-office holiday party with caroling, send the music and join in the songfest.  Halloween? Everyone dons a mask and takes a picture then arrange a “who’s who?” guessing game.  Arrange for cupcakes or candy apples to be delivered separately, ideally timed for the morning of the party.
  • Personalized greetings:  Put together a chart or certificate with a personal acknowledgement and send it out.  Doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, just “Thanks for making a huge contribution to the coolest project ever!” with screenshots, and then write a note, “Dave, the graphics wouldn’t’ve been this awesome without your attention to detail – THANKS!”  Frame and send. Or for local employees, do the same thing, but drop them off after hours, so when they come in the next morning, they have a “We belong to the team!” moment.
  • New toys: If the team is going on an active outing (picnic at the beach or park), send a related toy (flying ring, beach ball, whatever) or gift certificate (local cinema, spa, bakery), again with a “Create your own special moment!” theme.
  • Magician of the month:  When someone does something amazing or unique, send them a superhero cape or a magic wand or something to celebrate.  Ask them to send a picture back in their favorite place, with them doing magic things!  Highlight that in the group’s communications channels (slack, photo board, etc.)

Some people really don’t like to celebrate, whether on site or remote. Personally, I don’t like to expense personal meals, even when traveling, so telling me, “Go buy yourself lunch and expense it” just isn’t going to happen.   That’s OK, don’t force it, but do acknowledge their contributions and make sure they get swag.

These ideas really take just a little bit of thought, and even less action.  But it takes paying attention to detailsto make sure your far-flung team goes from good to gelled to great.  Because the team that accomplishes great things together also celebrates them together.  It just wouldn’t feel right to ignore Alex who lives in Minot, even if the rest of us are in Tallahassee – we’re a team.

The converse is also true: If it feels fine to celebrate without acknowledging remotes’ contributions, you’re sending the message that they don’t really matter.  And they know it.


Eyes on the Prize

In a confluence of events this weekend, I was reminded of the difference in focus between folks who are highly reactive and folks who have systematized a long term approach and align actions against that.  Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses, and I’m finding myself living in situations where I see the drawbacks and advantages of each.

First a bit of definition:  What the heck am I talking about?  Well, consider a situation where you’ve got a bunch of short term issues where you’re guiding other people, and where there’s an issue.  Maybe a new product and “what color is the print on the packaging?”  You’ve got a product team reporting to you that’s owns the product, and that team has a structure, and they’re working on on the package.  Meanwhile someone on the team other than the lead comes to you informally and asks that question “because we need to order that today.”  Without thinking, and because you want to move on, you give them a response.  And the person goes back to the team and says, “Decision made.  Pat says it’s blue #23.”

Most people see the immediate problem here.  You just bypassed and undercut the team structure you built and subverted the team.  Even if it’s just 2-3 people there’s a structure here and you’ve changed it.  And that means a bit of jitter on the team until the structure is redone. If that was your intent anyway, fine.  But if not, the next decision that the team makes is going to be harder and for no good reason.

Most people don’t fall into these traps for big decisions. It’s the smaller decisions where these sorts of things come up, nibbled to death by ducks.

And yet….

Sometimes these decisions should just be made and move on – the ROI on discussing every decision in the team context is painful.  Besides, some decisions really are time critical. And sometimes the lead or boss has to overrule for what appears to be capricious reasons.  And efficiency, especially in a startup, is a good thing.

But overruling too frequently, and “just because I was asked” creates a bigger problem, because doing it too often means that the team doesn’t make decisions easily (for fear of being overruled), and when they do, they have little sense of ownership “because Alex is probably going to overrule it anyway.”  The opposite of empowering.

The lead has to take the long view, but balanced against the number one rule of startups:  There is no long view if the short view doesn’t pan out.

Still… eyes on the prize.

If the goal is longer than right here, right now, and the team isn’t stuck and needing guidance, then it owns the decision.  The lead owns the structure, but the outcome?  That’s owned by everyone.  Because really, if you already knew what outcome you wanted, then why take the team’s time to rehash and potentially come up with a different result?  Like getting 5 people to agree on a pay-for-yourself dinner destination and then the organizer announces, “I have reservations and a coupon for a-totally-undiscussed-place so that’s where we’re going.  See you all in 15 minutes.”  Ummmmm, why did we just spend 30 minutes discussing something else?

So when someone comes and asks “What color do you want for the printing on the package?”, the answer is “How are you deciding?  Have you looked at ink costs?  Tested it? ” and other process guiding questions.

Last weekend, it was about an event and people wanting a decision from one of the people running it, without consulting the folks in the area that were responsible for that decision.  I was there and asked, What do the people in that area think?  And the leader said, “Oh, yeah!  We need them to decide this!  I’ll get back to you!”  Not because Bobby wanted to undercut the team’s ownership, but to get the decision made and get the interruption managed.

In another instance, it was about a process structure at our startup.  Startups are trickier than single-events because 80% done and alive is better than perfectly dead.  Still, when setting up a replicatable process,  you still need to be careful to put the bumpers up where you don’t want to go off the rails.  If customer facing means don’t execute commands on the customer’s system, be very firmly clear that when someone asks to “let me go in directly and run a few probes to see why the server failed.”  Not “just this once” and especially not before the (make it lightweight!) process has been tuned and owned by the team. Well, because there’s a reason that we ask customers to take action on their servers, not us – liability and safety and customer policy just requires it.

If a relatively routine decision stretches the structure near to breaking or similar situations recur frequently, there’s an underlying issue instead.  The real questions to ask are:

  • Was the structure wrong?   In this case, there is no “just this once”; it needs to be acceptable regular practice
  • Is there another issue on this team that forces team decisions to external folks?  Things like,  someone jockeying for position, deadlocked members, inability to find a time to discuss, unclear requirements.  If so, address that and give the decision back to the team.

A fully engaged empowered team owns the decision, and everyone on that team has a role in that process and understands the goals that were used to structure the process.  It takes a lot of hard work to build that level of trust and interaction and ownership.  It’s easy and fragile to undercut, especially early in the process or when stress is high.

So if you’re a lead or setting direction for a team that reports to you, be very careful when someone comes and asks you for a solo decision – are you undercutting what you’ve worked so hard to build?  Your first response should always be a question to yourself:  “Do I have to make this decision?  Right now?”

And if the answer is yes, be prepared to support the team as you pull rank.


This. At least sometimes, and when you least expect it

This article about the crap that women put up with every day and don’t even make visible because it’s so normal really got to me. I don’t go looking for being treated differently because of my gender. In fact others have to point it out to me at times because I’m pretty thick about such things.  So it’s gotta be gobsmackingly obvious before I even notice.  No females in any position of authority obvious, and it took me a long time to notice even that….

But if I mention something egregious, whether or not related to being female to a male colleague, friend, or family member, it’s immediately doubted and questioned:  “Are you sure?  Are you being rational or overreacting?  You know you can be a little too strong when you express your opinions, so it’s your issue to deal with.  Just rise above it and don’t say anything.”  and the like.

I’m reminded of Sheryl Sandberg citing the number of women who’d been warned about being too “aggressive” (aka bitchy) in performance reviews, as opposed to the number of men at GHC 2015.  Ok, men don’t get called “bitchy.” and the term “bastard” is almost a term of endearment.  As in, “the bastard got away with another one” said half admiringly.

I am reminded of the old posit that a lone woman on the team frequently finds herself with a minimal selection of roles:

  • one of the guys
  • bitch
  • group/room mom
  • temptress
  • invisible

I’ve been fortunate that on many teams, I’ve been a team member or team lead.  Not one of the guys, but folks don’t first think of me as a female to whom they have to apologize for swearing (my delicate lady-ears fall off at the sound of four-letter words) and don’t feel obliged hold the doors for me either .  Just how I like it(first one to the door opens and holds.  Easy peasy).

But sometimes when I least expect it, the gender thing hits me again, sometimes even with my normally well-adjusted colleagues.  I look around and I’m the only female in the room and there are 17 men. Or I interrupt someone who has similar group social capital and I’m a bitch, though I’ve not managed to complete a sentence without interruption.  Celebrations and thank-yous fall to me by default because “you’re so good at it, and I have no people skills!”  Told, “Oh, that’s just his way of giving you a compliment!” Or stares, though as a telecommuter, that’s been less of a problem.  I get rescued in weird ways, with a “lemme do that for you….” kind of thing.

And it’s a shock and I’m reminded again that it’s a crazy, unbalanced world we’re in.

The thing every single person, male or female, wants most is to be listened to and understood.  You don’t have to agree, just don’t say, “you’re wrong” or “Men have it much worse.”  Because, y’know, women leave this field at a rate 45% higher than men because men are masochists and enjoy having it much worse, right?

I will go far out of my way and give up sleep to listen to someone, hear them out.  If you’re on my team, that’s important to me.  Because, as I said before, I work with people, and people are very human.

Hat tip to a tweet from Rands (go follow his blog and tweets if you don’t already).