Coping with remote work overload

Q: I’m a member of a remote working team collaborating on a major project – and I’m struggling. It feels like everything has to be scheduled and I never know if people are even concentrating in Zoom meetings. I feel overloaded and I miss being around people. Any tips? (DF, email ).

A: You raise a timely question. I’m hearing this kind of observation more and more since we’ve come out of the worst of COVID-19. The novelty is wearing off – where’s our new equilibrium?

Managing a remote team to complete a significant project must be a huge challenge, particularly for managers accustomed to physical, in-the-office management. Here are a few tips that you might be able to implement yourself or suggest to your manager:

You say, ‘everything has to be scheduled’. In my opinion, a surfeit of scheduling has a deadening impact on people – why should you schedule a call to ask someone something that, in the old days, you’ve have bounced off them in the corridor or the canteen? Try calling people, on the good old-fashioned phone, if you need something small. And encourage others to do the same with you for in-and-out calls.

Cut back on email overload – email is the new tyrant of the workplace. Would a call suffice? To prompt this along, consider adding a note on your auto-signature that makes it clear you are not averse to the odd, short, unscheduled phone call. When you schedule a call, people feel the need to make it a significant one – with the result that a two-minute call miraculously expands to fill a half-hour space.

Can you be removed from CC lines on many emails? If you see yourself being copied in stuff that doesn’t really relate to you, tell the senders – politely. Explain that like everyone else you’re suffering from email overload, and you want to ensure you don’t miss anything important. Can they send you a summary email later? Or will the information naturally reach you when it needs to? CC is over-played. Often, it an ass-covering device. Avoid being its unwitting victim.

Consider ways of making your meetups better. Can your team meet less often, but for longer? Instead of rushing to and from a central location on the same day, could you hold a two-day meeting, thereby allowing for the kind of casual conversations that you once had in the office. I appreciate this takes some coordinating but many teams report that it brings benefits.

Block off your diary for a few hours of deep work each day (actually, read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, or at least watch one of his videos ). Turning the phone off is an unthinkable step for many people, but it’s got great power. Guess what, when you turn it back on you can check missed calls or 171 and return the calls you missed. It’s impossible to really get into stuff properly if you allow the phone – or any other device or platform – to interrupt you. And, no, this advice doesn’t contradict points 1 and 2 above: it is not necessary to be ever available on any device. In fact, it is madness to be ever available.

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