To Mute or Not to Mute, That is the Question

man-on-phone-background-noise

Dogs barking in the background.

A noisy lawnmower outside an open window.

Doorbells, other phones ringing and text message alerts.

These and other distractions have been the impetus for many virtual teams to enforce a ground rule of muting during calls when others are talking.

Muting comes with its own set of pros and cons. Sure, the dogs, doorbells and children are not a distracting part of the meeting. At the same time, muting the line often gives way to doing other work and non-work activities.

A recent study by Intercall, supplier of teleconference lines to the vast majority of Fortune 100 companies found that many employees report doing other things while attending conference call meetings:

  • Two-thirds of those surveyed admitted to doing other work while on other calls,
  • 63% reported writing and sending email,
  • nearly half admitted to using the restroom while on a call,
  • and others reported being on another phone call or exercising while on conference calls.

Clearly mute is necessary to perform these unrelated activities without disrupting the call.

Is there an alternative?  One that will keep employees engaged in the call at hand – the one they are supposed to be on?

Indeed, there it and it is unmuting.  I advise virtual teams to UNMUTE during their meetings (think three to ten people on a call or video chat; the same rules to not apply when there are more than a dozen people on the call).  Having everyone “live” on the line fosters a more natural flow of conversation.

Social cohesion is also more likely to develop since team members’ laughter and other social cues are heard and more easily understood.

As for the issue of background noise such as a barking dog, the doorbell, or even the sounds of family members, these can be a good reminder that team members are people in real environments with real things happening in their environments, rather than work-producing robots. It’s also a good reminder that someone might be joining the call at an odd hour in their time zone or on a day when they might otherwise not be working.

So, if you’d like to create more social cohesion, more accountability and get people to pay more attention on conference calls, reach for the “unmute” button.

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    micromanaged

    “I do my best work when micromanaged,” said no employee ever.

    Managers typically do not set out to micromanage, but it is easy for those who supervise virtual employees and teams to micromanage on accident. Without observing the day-to-day work behavior of others, some managers and supervisors will resort to overmanaging the daily responsibilities of their direct reports.

    To manage more effectively in a virtual environment, follow these five steps.

    1. Provide more structure than you think they need.

    As a leader of a virtual team, you’ll need to take a more structured approach than if you were managing that same team in a collocated environment.  To provide that additional structure you can be proactive in explaining what success looks like at each step of the project team members are working toward.  Use technology tools to make sure team members know who is responsible for what and when it is expected to be done, as well as highlighting the interdependencies among team members. When this structure is communicated directly and upfront, it is far less likely to be perceived as micromanagement.

    2. Lead the person, supervise the work.

    As you set expectations and provide more structure than you think you need to, be cognizant of the possibly of micromanagement creeping in.

    Managing virtually is best done when leadership and management are clearly thought of as separate activities. Lead the employee. Supervise their work.

    That may sound simple, but it is not always easy to implement.

    What does it mean?

    Leading the employee is about imparting values, communicating vision and direction and telling the story of the team (discussed in Four Steps to Creating Community in Virtual Teams).  Supervising the work, on the other hand, is about setting clear expectations on process, outcomes and timelines. Each employee may have different needs in terms of how much supervision they need. Be aware of those needs. Ask about them if you need to so that you can avoid micromanagement.

    3. Create a supportive work environment.

    Create a supportive work environment for your virtual team members by being available, having an established rhythm and encouraging informal interactions.

    When your team members know they can reach you for a quick question, they will feel more supported and less “out of the loop,” a common complaint of virtual employees. And, when there is a rhythm to their week which includes regular one-one-one meetings with you, regular team meetings or status updates, they will be less likely feel “lost” in the organization. Further, find opportunities to engage in informal interactions with virtual employees to approximate the connection that develops with collocated employees when you visit informally in the hallways or when getting coffee. These interactions create social cohesion between you and your employees and also model that it is okay – beneficial even – for them to have social interactions with one another.

    4. Provide more feedback.

    Employees who work virtually need more feedback. They don’t get the quick look of approval from you that may transpire in a face-to-face meeting or the questioning non-verbal reaction of your knit brow when you don’t understand something.  When they do good work, especially that which is above and beyond your expectations, be generous in your praise. And, if they are new to their role, be clear and specific as they learn the ropes, again being generous when they fulfill on their expectations and being quick to provide constructive feedback if they are not fulfilling on the expectations of their tasks or their role.

    5. Clarify expectations; track commitments and progress.

    During regular one-on-one meetings and team status meetings, clarify expectations.  Do your virtual team employees know exactly what they need to do and by when?  Do they understand how their work is interrelated with that of other team members? Set those expectations clearly and explicitly.

    Use tools for team members to track their commitments and their progress on those commitments. With smart use of technology, you can take a backseat to always knowing where each virtual team member is in relation to their work responsibilities. Insist that the tools be used and explain if necessary, that this is a tool that helps you from micromanaging them.

    With these five steps in practice, you will keep yourself out of the micromanagement trap with your virtual employees.  They will respect you more for it and their true value to the organization will have the best chance to shine brightly.

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    virtual teams

    Humans crave community.  In fact, our survival depends on it.  It’s true in our personal lives and it’s true at work, too.

    Community does not necessarily develop as fluidly and naturally when managing virtual teams as when managing collocated teams. Purposefully cultivating a sense of community is often overlooked when managing and supervising virtual teams.

    However, if you don’t create a vibrant community for virtual employees to belong to, they will find their own community. Again, it is part of our very fabric to feel a part of something. So if virtual team members are not finding community in the workplace ether, they might find it on social media through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn.  Or they might find it in their actual physical community by walking the dog, hanging out with neighbors during work hours, or spending time in local coffee shops and other haunts . . . not working. Or they may fall back on other communities that they already belong to like extended family and friends.

    To create a virtual team that truly embodies community (that is commitment to one another, ability to be vulnerable, and a strong desire to see the team succeed) requires conscious, deliberate action.

    Here are four steps to create community in virtual teams:

    1. Get together in person early and often.

    Advocate tirelessly for a budget to bring team members together early and often. Although the tools for communicating and collaborating virtually have improved dramatically over the last decade, there is still no replacement for face-to-face interaction. Team members will build trust more swiftly, have a greater sense of comfort with one another and come to rely on each other the more opportunities they have to spend time together in the same room.

    2. Get to know team members.

    Into every team interaction, build opportunities for team members to get to know one another better.  Whether it is a simple round-robin roll call where you ask what people ate for breakfast or where they’d go on vacation if they had an unlimited budget, create opportunities for them to share small, relatively low-risk information about themselves.  As they build social cohesion, the team will become stronger and work together better.

    3. Create spaces and places for informal interaction.

    Whether it be through an enterprise wide tool like Yammer, Honey or Slack, or using a public platform like a private group on Facebook, team members need a place to gather, exchange ideas and be social. Consciously create the places and spaces for your virtual team members to hang out and communicate virtually.  And then get yourself there and model the behavior you’d like to see.

    4. Regularly communicate the story of the team

    While it might seem commonplace to you, your team members need to hear the story of their team regularly and told with conviction.  Include why it was formed, what it’s goals are and how it fits into the mission of the broader organization. When team members feel like their team is by design rather than by accident and fulfilling a critical role in the organization, they will be more likely to be committed and engaged.

    What are your favorite techniques for creating community in your virtual team?

    Share your ideas in the comments below.

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    change

    “Our organization is innovating like crazy lately,” Joe recently remarked to me.

    “Oh,” I responded, my curiosity piqued. “What sorts of innovations are happening?”

    “We’re converting our software development to Agile,” he shared, citing a now decades old methodology.

    Joe, like many others, was confusing change and managing change with innovation.

    Innovation is, by definition, a revolutionary new idea. When Agile was first developed, it certainly was an innovation. Implementing it now is change.

    Change is, by definition, to become different by doing one thing instead of another.  For example, converting from waterfall (or whatever other software development methodology they may have been using), is a change.

    Both are important.

    And, it is critically important to understand the distinction.

    It makes a difference in the methodologies you use, the approach you take to your work and how you design the work environment.

    Is your team or organization truly innovating? Or are you managing change?

  • 0

    66410188_s

    I’m often asked, “What’s the best solution for our work environment: open office, bullpens, work from home, or what?”

    It’s a great question and one that does not have a one-size-fits-all answer.  No one likes to hear, “It depends,” and my answer still is “It depends.”

    Specifically, it depends on these three things:

    1. Need for intense collaboration.

    Imaging employees standing in front of a white board, diagramming software functionality, a marketing campaign or any other function.

    Collaboration, right?

    Now, what happens next is critical.

    Do those same employees need to continue to make sense of their work and collaborate out loud during the creative part and the execution part of those functions?  How do they score on a scale of 1 – 10 (in which 1 is low need and 10 is high) on their need to collaborate out loud throughout the design and execution?

    Anything less than an 8 needs quiet space for deep work.

    8 and over? Put them in a bullpen or provide them with low-walled cubes, AND make sure to put some noise insulation between those teams and other teams who have different needs. And put some insulated walls between them and other teams who have the same needs, so that they are not distracted by the out loud work of others.

    2. Need for Deep Work.

    Imagine a financial analyst tasked with projecting the next quarter’s earnings in a wildly fluctuating marketplace, including the launch of a major new product from your organization nearly simultaneously with a similar product from your top competitor.

    Now imagine that analyst spinning out various scenarios, calculating profit and loss and shareholder reaction.  All in the midst of dozens and dozens of colleagues whose work demands that they work out loud.

    The analyst’s need to perform deep work (a term I’m borrowing from Cal Newport’s book by the same name) demands a space free from distraction.

    Our best thinking is accomplished when we disconnect from other conversations and interruptions (including technology).

    Take a close look at the output of the job function and ask, as a percentage of full-time work week, how often does this function engage in deep work?  Anything over 40% requires a quiet work environment where noise and interruption are kept to a minimum.

    3. Balance between intense collaboration and Deep Work.

    Some job functions will require intense collaboration and deep work in relatively equal measure.

    Imagine a usability team who is working to make improvements in the design of a product. They come together for intense collaboration, gathering around a whiteboard for the better part of a week, working out loud.  Then, each with their own part of the design to work on (or the usability test plan, etc.), they retreat to research best practices and do the more intense, creative parts of their job, requiring deep work.

    In this case, hoteling, where team members have access to different spaces that support both out loud work and quiet independent work, would be a terrific fit. (The trick here is adequate square footage of each and a calendaring system that enables availability – both when scheduled and when needed on an impromptu basis, but that’s a topic for another article).

    Yes, it depends.

    When you’ve accurately assessed these factors by interviewing your employees, evaluating the needs of their job functions and observing their best work, then and only then, will your specific flavor of “It depends” become crystal clear.

     

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    Future of work

    The design of work – from how we meet the needs of our customers to how we communicate internally to the way our work space is designed – is changing.  The workplace of 2025 will look much different than the workplace of today.

    Here are my top three prognostications for what the future of work holds.

    1. Move over, Millennials.

    In 2020 Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce and by 2025 that number will be 75%. Close on their heels are Gen Z, or those born in 1997 and later. These digital natives think differently about work than their predecessors. They were raised using technology to communicate. They were raised on an strange cocktail of autonomy and oversight (think: plans a $3000 family vacation at age 12; parent drops off forgotten items at school at age 16). They demand a larger purpose in their work, like the Millennials.  And they will demand even more flexibility in how work is structured.

    • Where they work (office, home, coffee shop, mountain top).
    • When they work (Nine to five? Nah. Work and non-work activities will be far more blended.)
    • How they work.

     

    2. Hollywood, here we come.

    Often dubbed “The Hollywood Model” where experts come together for duration of the project and then go their separate ways, project-based work will thrive as a business structure. The entrepreneurial trend that lends Uber and Fivrr success today, creates an autonomous work environment where people come together to share what they do best for the people and places who need it and will pay for it.  Project-based work already exists to a large extent within organizational walls, with people coming together for the weeks, months or years it takes to complete the project.  By 2025, however, this trend will reach far beyond corporate walls with experts for hire coming together to do the strategic work of organizations, not just give rides to the airport.

     

    3. Work environments get wilder still, then stabilize.

    Today we see organizations quick to implement the “open-office” concept, only to reverse it several years later, putting the cubicle walls back up.  The next several years will continue to see wild fluctuations in how organizations build out their space: hoteling, pods and bullpens, off-site co-working, work from home and more.  By 2025, leadership will have developed the confidence to see that their organization and their people (and by extension, their culture) have their own distinct needs. They will collaborate with their people to intentionally design spaces and places that best support their functional work, with an eye toward when to collaborate and when to have quiet time for deep, thoughtful work.

  • 0

    man_woman_discussing

    Jon just received an offer for his dream job: a more challenging job (in a good way), a bump in salary and a plum location.

    The only trouble is, he enjoys working for his current boss Sarah, and he’s unsure how to explain that he’s leaving.  Hired directly out of college by Sarah, Jon hasn’t had to navigate a resignation conversation before.

    As Jon speaks with Sarah, there are two types of rules that will govern how their conversation unfolds. Constitutive rules help us understand how to create meaning. Regulative rules guide the behavior of the conversation and communicate what happens next in a conversation.

    Jon begins his conversation with Sarah by sharing how much he has learned from her in the five years he’s worked for her.  He mentions that she has been a role model in navigating office politics and securing resources.  Sarah must determine how to interpret Jon’s praise of her leadership (constitutive rule). She will draw on past experiences of being complimented on her leadership style and what those remarks meant (as well as her relationship with Jon) as she applies constitutive rules to make sense of what he means.

    “However,” Jon continues, invoking a constitutive rule that suggests Sarah will need to make additional meaning out of what comes next. “I’ve made the difficult decision to take a role with a new firm.”

    Sarah must compose some sort of response, governed by a regulative rule.  She may ask for more information about the new opportunity Jon is pursuing or if there’s anything she could do to persuade him to stay.

    As the two engage in the conversation and co-create their social reality, they will discover each other’s rule systems. Some rules they have known from working together and some will be discovered in this novel situation.

    While these rules are not spoken of aloud, they are constantly being negotiated in the moment, drawing on the life experiences and world views of the conversational partners, which may vary markedly. They may not agree entirely on the rules they are choosing to enact, but at least they can make sense of their conversation and what will happen next.

    What conversational rules can you identify – either constitutive or regulative – and how do they shape meaning making or turn taking in the conversation?

  • 2

    argument

    Doug and Jenny were at it again.

    Another staff meeting where Jenny and Doug were on the opposite sides of the same coin: Jenny, advocating for an engineering schedule that was realistic and didn’t compromise the health or safety of her crew and Doug, fiercely arguing for a faster delivery to their clients.

    It went like this every week in the project management meeting.

    Morgan, the project manager, had spoken to each of them privately just before the meeting.  They each shared a genuine desire to be more amicable and see the situation from the other person’s point of view before reacting.

    Publicly in the meeting, their behavior was nowhere near amicable. It was the same pattern repeating itself. Again. Their pattern was not one of sharing respectful differences.  Rather, their behavior was unprofessional and ego bruising, their words like daggers.

    Frustrated, Morgan spoke to each of them privately after the meeting. She had to get to the bottom of this disagreement before it put the project in jeopardy.  How could they have earnestly promised to comport themselves more professionally and then act like small children throwing sand in the sandbox?

    Doug and Jenny were caught in an unwanted repetitive pattern or (URP), a sequential and recurring episode of conflict that is considered unwanted by those in the conflict (not to mention those around them!).

    URPs develop because two people have fallen into a pattern or script that demands each of them to behave in a conflicting manner. Often, the pattern one person is following serves to fuel the negativity of the other and the other person follows a pattern of responding in a negative manner.

    Doug and Jenny, separately, both told Morgan “I couldn’t help it, I had no choice but to stick up for [the customer/the engineering team].”

    Doug and Jenny will continue to enact their URP until the script gets interrupted. Either one of them could deliberately choose to behave differently or Morgan could choose to structure the meeting and the conversation such that the URP doesn’t get a chance to take hold.

    URPs are difficult to stop and change. The first step is to identify that they are occurring in the first place. Where do you experience an unwanted repetitive pattern and how might you interrupt the script?

  • 0

    communication-problem

    When people talk to one another, three outcomes are possible:

    • they completely miss each other’s point (zero shared meaning),
    • they understand a portion of each other’s intended meaning (partial shared meaning) or
    • they completely understand each other (complete shared meaning).

    When you miss the other person entirely, you feel like a zero.

    When you completely understand the other person, you look like a hero.

    Let’s look at each of them and turn you into a hero more often.

    1. Zero shared meaning. “We need to be more transparent with our clients about our development schedule for new features,” Shelly says to her colleague Amanda.  The next day, Shelly comes to work to find that Amanda has shared an internal scheduling document that lists the roll-out dates for all new features with all the company’s clients.

    Shelly’s intention was to start the discussion or about being more transparent. Amanda understood this as an idea to act upon immediately.  As you might suppose, Shelly was upset that Amanda had shared an internal document with clients.

    2. Partial shared meaning. “We need to be more transparent with our clients about our development schedule for new features,” Shelly says to her colleague Amanda. “It’s not going to be a simple process and I’m not sure how much we can share,” Amanda replies. “Some of our customers will be upset to see how low on the priority list the features they are waiting for are.”

    Amanda and Shelly agree in general on the premise, although there is some negotiation and compromise on how much detail to share.

    3. Complete shared meaning. “We need to be more transparent with our clients about our development schedule for new features,” Shelly says to her colleague Amanda. “I couldn’t agree more,” Amanda replies. “I will set up a time on the calendar for us to draft a message to our clients and we can decide how much information to share and when.”  Shelly nods in agreement, “Perfect.”

    Amanda and Shelly are in lock step on both the need to share more information and on the route they will take to begin the new process.  Although they are entering the conversation with their own experiences, they agree on the premise and the next steps.

    This happens at work in conversation: we nail shared meaning, miss each other completely, or find some middle ground.

    When you get partial or no shared meaning, ask yourself “Why?”  What makes the difference for you in creating more shared meaning? A history of working well together? Similar demographics?  Length of time in the organization?

    Once you understand the “Why,” the “How” (as in, how you communicate with the person) will get easier to figure out. Next time you have a miscommunication (full or partial) ask yourself “Why?” and adjust how you communicate with them accordingly.

  • 2

    information-hoarding

    information-hoardingJeannie worked at ACME Corp in a field with government regulation, and although the regulations were slow to change, she and her department were expected to keep on top of them.

    Jeannie was pleasant and fun to work for. She always had a kind word and a question or three about the family and other topics of importance to her colleagues and direct reports.

    After several decades with little change, a variety of factors both political and economic, prompted rapid and swift change in her industry.  Regulations changed. ACME Corp needed to change too.

    A team of six people reported to Jeannie during this somewhat turbulent time of changing regulations. Over the years, Jeannie had divided up tasks and responsibilities among her team members in such a way that none of them could clearly understand the “big picture.”

    Her employees were keeping abreast of the changes in the industry and regulations and that, in turn, prompted questions from them. They needed to see, more and more, how their work was interrelated and how the changing regulations impacted the processes they followed.

    “No problem, don’t worry yourself about it,” was always Jeannie’s reply when her team members asked even routine and basic questions about the bigger picture. “It’s my job to worry about those things.”

    But it became more and more clear that if Jeannie was worrying about those things, she wasn’t letting on.

    She held the purse-strings on organizational knowledge tight and her emotions even tighter.

    The more the industry and the organization changed, the more tightly wound Jeannie became.

    Senior leaders at ACME became aware of the situation. It was the perfect storm that they hadn’t seen coming: Jeannie was heavily invested in the organization (her professional identity hinged entirely on her current role and ACME) and she was faced with significant changes in her field and she hadn’t kept up.  Her tenure with the organization and her information hoarding yielded power disproportionate to her position.

    Senior management feared firing her because of all the organizational knowledge she held.  They feared the status quo even more: a breach in compliance could cost them their license to be in business.

    So they coached and prodded and pried. But they could not crack Jeannie. She was a tough nut.

    And she was a liability. So they “re-organized” her right out of the organization.

    Withholding information, the tactic Jeannie clung to in hopes of job security, was eventually what “done her in.”

    Where do you see information hoarding? How is it compromising your team or organization’s success?

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