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Where do you Zoom? | Chris Graham

Friday, June 26, 2020 @ 2:33 PM | By Chris Graham

Chris Graham %>
Chris Graham
Here’s the thing about working remotely: it takes something ordinary (your work) and makes it seem strange and unusual. Uncanny. If you’re lucky enough to keep working during quarantine, you’re doing the same thing you were before — but also not the same thing. The setting has changed, the context, the quality of the distractions. I’ve never met a lawyer who brought their cat to the office.

Working remotely is still working, though, and the truth is your work has always been strange. The fact that you don’t think twice about, say, taking an elevator to your office in the sky, or flying literally anywhere, reflects how things that are strange can also be familiar.

Indeed, this is the point of articles claiming that post-quarantine, “Office work will never be the same.” Everything is strange; being familiar is like being fashionable.

Point being: You already know how to work remotely — at least, how to think about working remotely. How to adapt to different versions of the same challenges presented by office work of any kind.

What follows are three familiar strategies for dealing with three (seemingly) unfamiliar challenges of working remotely.

Ask people if they need directions

Many years ago, I was a summer associate at a national law firm. The firm’s orientation package included directions to the office. This was before smart phones and Google Maps were commonplace. The directions were helpful for people who’d never been to the office. It prevented us from getting lost. My guess is that someone at the firm thought, “Hey! I can imagine some people will need help finding the office. Maybe we can help them by providing a map.”

You can use the same imagination to help lawyers (especially summer associates), clients and anyone else trying to access the firm remotely. The key phrase is, “I can imagine.” Imagine a less-technologically savvy version of yourself trying remote access for the first time — what would be helpful? What’s the remote access version of directions to the office?

For example: Imagine you’re a summer associate with zero experience of videoconferencing. You live with your parents (because law school’s expensive) and you’re now logging in to summer associate orientation from your childhood bedroom. You’ve had the same laptop since undergrad (again, school’s expensive), which you normally use to check e-mail and type essays.

Now imagine your worst nightmare. After 10 minutes, your brother bursts into the room and says whatever you’re doing online is hogging all the bandwidth and he can’t check his phone. You didn’t know to mute your microphone, so your brother’s outburst gets broadcast to the entire summer class. You’re mortified and slam shut your laptop. After placating your brother, you log back into the session. Ten minutes later your laptop crashes because its operating system pre-dates modern videoconference technology.

Once you’ve imagined these and other challenges — limited bandwidth, confidentiality in multiperson households, antique software — you can figure out your organization’s response to these challenges and then communicate that response, proactively, so that people can plan accordingly. (Directions are helpful because they call attention to the possibility of getting lost.)

And if you’re thinking this is too little, too late, be apprised that lots of people suffer in silence, especially a summer associate who doesn’t want to be a complainer. Sometimes you need to ask people if they need directions.

Videoconference is basically a conference call

Until it’s unavailable, it’s hard to appreciate how much you depend on audience feedback, verbal or otherwise, to orient yourself during a discussion or presentation. Audience feedback allows you to adjust your pacing, be funny, and recognize that someone looks confused, even if they don’t raise their hand. Imagine balancing on one foot and then covering your eyes. It feels like that.

Lack of audience feedback is also emotionally draining. An audience is a source of energy for the person speaking. Sometimes not a lot, but always more than zero. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, your laptop camera is not a source of energy. It’s the worst relationship you’ve ever had. It takes your energy and offers nothing in return.

The thing to realize is that these are not new challenges. If you’ve ever talked to someone on the phone, you already know what to do.

First, be more prepared. The reason you can wing it in meetings is that the audience gives you cues about whether they understand and when to move along. The laptop camera doesn’t give you those cues, meaning that without notes you’ll have a tendency to maunder. There’s a reason news anchors read the news.

Second, stop trying to read people over video. You’ve got a lifetime’s experience reading visual cues in person, and a few months’ experience reading those cues over videoconference. (What’s the difference between someone’s question face and the face they make because they’re tired of squinting at their laptop screen?) You’re going to make mistakes, which is frustrating for everyone on the videoconference. That juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

Instead, do what you do on conference calls: Trust your preparation and make it clear when you’re finished speaking so that people know it’s time for questions, if they have questions.

Tell people it’s OK to call

Back to my summer associate experience. On the first day we got a tour of the library. We were told the librarians would be enormously helpful. The lawyer leading the tour made a joke: “Our librarians have forgotten more law than you’ll ever learn,” which was true, but also intimidating. It took me a week to work up the courage to take my questions to the librarians (who were, of course, patient and generous). After several interactions, finally, I stopped worrying the librarians would find me annoying.

This is an example of something everyone knows, at least intuitively: It takes time to feel comfortable asking questions and engaging with people, especially senior people, and it takes longer for this comfort to develop when the interactions are virtual.

The whole point of an office is to create opportunities for the interactions that, over time, make people comfortable interacting. It’s the “being” of “being at the office.” Talking in the elevator ... stopping by someone’s office ... going for coffee or a smoke.

You can do the same thing when people are working remotely. You can call people and ask how they’re doing with an assignment. If you’re a senior person and want junior people to call you with questions, you should call them first, and say, “Please call me with questions.” When they do call with questions, you should say, “I’m so glad you called.”

Conclusion: Keep doing what you’re doing

You’ve spent your entire career working in an office, which is just one way of calibrating your interactions with other people. Working remotely requires different calibration, but you already know how to make those changes.

You’re already doing great.

Chris Graham is principal and founder of TellPeople, a vehicle for teaching communication and storytelling to professionals. Twice retired from law (first in New York, then in Toronto), Chris is now a keynote speaker, consultant, producer, storyteller and comedian. Through TellPeople, he makes professionals better at talking to their clients, each other and everyone else.

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