leave me alone

You hear a lot of negative things these days about working separate from everyone else on your team. We’ve all heard the complaints (heck we’ve written enough about them here). Remote workers sometimes feel isolated. They don’t interact with their team members enough. People who work remotely sometimes go down the wrong trail and spend a lot of time on tasks that don’t add value to the rest of the team’s work.  But here’s the thing: a lot of people choose to work from home precisely because they like being alone. What do we do with that information?

A client of ours recently took our Team Tech Assessment, and he was a little disturbed by the results. “It turns out people like working without being disturbed. They don’t WANT to talk to each other very often.” Now we have the real questions that need answering:

Does the work you do impact how much or how often you interact with others?

When does the desire to work without interruption impact the person’s willingness to be a team player?

How does your preferred work style determine how you interact with teammates and others?

When leading a remote team, it’s important to remember that the goal is to get both individual tasks and the team’s work done. Here are some things to ponder.

Understand the nature of the work and how much team interaction is optimal.

A team of marketing specialists probably has to share ideas and brainstorm a lot. A sales team, with each person responsible for a single territory, or a group of coders each working on their own problems may not require that much interaction. In fact the very notion of writing code implies long periods of uninterrupted focus. Wishing John a happy work anniversary may not seem all that important (or even welcome if John is focused on a project). Not all teams function at their peak in the same way. Talk to your people about their communication needs and balance those with what you need for the sake of the team and the organization.

Set expectations early about how they are expected to communicate.

The only thing people who enjoy isolation hate more than meetings are unexpected meetings and other interruptions. When one-on-one calls and team meetings are on the schedule, they are considered part of the work process. When people get a there’s a meeting on Monday and you don’t get to know why message, it’s likely to be viewed with suspicion.

Help people realize that communication is part of the job.

The words we use matter. When a meeting starts with, “I know you’re busy and I’m sorry to be in the way,” and ends with, “okay, I’ll let you get back to work,” we create the impression that communication is actually a barrier to productivity. Good meetings and conversations are (or should be) a critical part of the work. Try making sure people understand how a meeting fits into their work “We need to solve this problem so that you all don’t have to reinvent the wheel” sets context that might lower resistance.

Find alternatives to shorten or eliminate some meetings.

Tools such as discussion boards, Slack or Microsoft Teams channels, and project management software can eliminate a lot of the administrative and time-consuming parts of meetings that introverts really hate. Encourage people to submit their first wave of ideas in a discussion so that the meeting can focus on key points. Create clear agendas that prepare people for the conversation.  Of course, this supposes people will be prepared or participate in the discussion. But if the alternative is more meetings it just might do the job.

Just as extroverts and social animals need to learn to be self-contained, those who prefer isolation need to hold up their end of the social contract they have with their teammates and employers. It isn’t always fun, but it should always be productive.

Complete your own Team Tech Assessment and find out if your team has the tools it need to communicate effectively at a distance.



Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. You can pre-order Kevin and Wayne’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, now.

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