How to Balance Communication in a Remote Workplace, with Jill Duffy

Gabriela Molina

Jill Duffy is a writer and editor specializing in areas of technology such as productivity, collaboration, digital organization, health and fitness tech. She is the author of The Everything Guide to Remote Work, as well as Get Organized: How to Clean Your Messy Digital Life.

Remote leader

Read the transcript

Luis:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to another episode of the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. I am your host as usual, Luis, and my guest today is Jill Duffy.

Luis:

Jill is the author of The Everything Guide To Remote Work, a writer, editor, and speaker.

Luis:

Jill, welcome to the show.

Jill Duffy:

Thank you for having me.

Luis:

It’s an absolute pleasure having you, and I will just start with a short disclaimer, which is, ladies and gentlemen, Jill’s book, it is literally The Everything Guide To Remote Work. It’s in the title. It’s a super expansive 260 page book, minus references, and indexes, and glossaries and etc. So this podcast is not an excuse not to go out and get the book. It’s not intended as a Cliff Notes as the book.

Luis:

If you find anything that we speak about interesting I encourage you to go and get the full version. Listening to the episode does not in any way exempt you from getting the book.

Luis:

So that is my disclaimer.

Luis:

I do know that partly because of me, we are short on time. Actually, fully because of me, but we’re a bit short on time, so I wanted to jump directly into a bit of your history with remote work, and then after that, maybe we can tie that with why you decided that it was the time to write the book.

Luis:

Tell me about the day or maybe it was a period of your life where you realized that remote work was a thing for you. How did you realize that this was what you were going to want to write a book about?

Jill Duffy:

Sure. So I have a very long history with remote work.

Jill Duffy:

When I first got into the workforce in the early 2000s, I had coworkers who were already working remotely, and I think it was a little unusual. It wasn’t like everybody was allowed to do it, but there were some people on a team of about four or five of us who were working on a magazine who needed to move to different parts of the country for personal reasons. And the company didn’t want to lose them. The team managers didn’t want to lose them, so they just said, “Well, if you have internet access, we could make this work.”

Jill Duffy:

So I wasn’t doing it way back then, but I saw that it was possible, and I saw how easy it was if you had the right kind of job, if you worked with the right kind of people. It can be done. All the work can be done just the same as if you were next door in the office down the hall.

Jill Duffy:

So I really started working remotely because similarly, a personal life experience came up. I had an opportunity to move to a different place and I approached the company and said, “I still like working for you. I know you like having me. Can we work this out?” And they said, “Yes.”

Jill Duffy:

So I moved from San Francisco out to London for about a year, and I just worked remotely there and I was able to get everything done. I was still working in publishing and it was great.

Jill Duffy:

And then as time went on, I had more experiences with remote work.

Jill Duffy:

So for a little while I was working on a special project. I was working in an office full time, and I said to my team, “To get this special project done, it would really be great for me to work from home every Friday and just take that time to be uninterrupted, have no meetings, not have any noise and just work on this project.” And that was successful.

Jill Duffy:

So little by little, I’ve had these different kinds of experience. Sometimes I was the only person remote. For little while I worked with an all remote company. So nobody had any office in the company. Everybody was remote. I was a freelancer for a long time, working remotely from different countries. So just lots and lots of experiences.

Jill Duffy:

So when the COVID-19 pandemic started and people were really thrown into remote work without having any preparation, any forethought about it, any notice that it was going to happen, I really wanted to share with people my experiences about how good it can be when you take the time to think about doing remote work in the way that supports the people and the work that you need to get done.

Jill Duffy:

So that’s really how the book came about, was saying, “Hey, we’ve got all these people who are trying to work remotely now. They don’t have any idea how to start. Let’s share with them what we’ve already figured out in the decades of remote work experience that’s been going on for a small fraction of people. Let’s try to share those best practices, give people an idea how to do it right.”

Luis:

Yeah. That’s an interesting point. Especially people in writing and journalism, this is not our first rodeo. Some people still enjoy having [interactions 00:05:06] and being in a same office, but there’s definitely been a lot more leeway there in what you can do from home and not.

Luis:

So I’m assuming when you were doing your own remote work journey, you didn’t get many surprises, but I’m sure you got some.

Luis:

Would you like to tell me the story of something that you were expecting that went against your expectations, and something that you weren’t expecting that surprised you?

Jill Duffy:

I worked with one team where my manager liked to have a lot of meetings, and that was a surprise. I thought a big purpose of remote work is to give people the time, and flexibility, and autonomy when the job supports it to do the work in the way that works best for them, and to do a lot of uninterrupted work, to really minimize meetings. Because if you set up remote work in a positive way, that should really be the outcome, is people get to choose how to do it, protect their time, and you can usually minimize meetings, especially when people are in different time zones.

Jill Duffy:

So I worked with this one manager who just wanted to have a lot of meetings all the time. And I think what was surprising about it was I didn’t feel like all the meetings were necessary. And I think maybe this person had some other issues, maybe a mindset of a manager has to manage. So if you have nothing to manage, you’ve got to create problems to manage.

Jill Duffy:

What eventually happened was I said, one of the core values that this company talks about in supporting remote work is over communication so let me over communicate with this manager and tell him, “We’re having too many meetings. These meetings are long. I feel like they’re unnecessary. I feel like we are just discussing problems that aren’t there. Can we make our one-on-one shorter? Can we skip it from time to time? Can I get out of some of these big, all hands meetings where I’m getting a lot of information that isn’t really relevant to me?”

Jill Duffy:

So I was able to cut back on the meetings that way.

Luis:

All right. I suppose that’s the manager’s credit that you were able to cut down because a lot of people, sadly aren’t as successful in cutting down the amount of meetings on their agenda.

Jill Duffy:

And it’s hard for people to speak up too, because if you’re in a setting where you’ve been onboarded remotely, you’ve never met people face to face, you have limited interaction with them, so you don’t really know how they are as people. You don’t know if you should be able to speak up about those kinds of issues.

Jill Duffy:

So if you have a remote work team, have a policy of over communicating. Tell people all the time, tell them over and over again. If you have something that’s not working for you, speak up about it. And maybe even give them some example language so that they’re not feeling like they’re complaining all the time, but say, “When we have these meetings and they’re an hour long, it takes away from the time that I need to focus on my work. It takes away from those hours that I like to have to really focus on the tasks that are very hard and require my undivided attention, and I think for me, it would be more productive.”

Jill Duffy:

So that’s a way of framing a problem to say, “Here’s how I would like it to be,” rather than feel like you’re complaining all the time. And that’s really got to come from management, that emphasis that over communication is okay, and give people some idea of how to say those words so they don’t feel like they’re being the problem child.

Luis:

Yeah. A lot about this is explained very detailed in your communication chapter in the book.

Luis:

And a lot of the people listening to this podcast are managers, are in that seat. And one of the thing that you do very well, even though you write the book… At least as I’ve read the book, I felt that you were talking to the employee, to the person doing remote work but obviously, there’s a lot to learn there for managers as well.

Luis:

One thing that you do, is that you give them a bit of an a la carte. You give a lot of options so they can find what fits better for their team, for their management style, for their work style.

Luis:

But now it’s just the two of us, so I actually want to probe a bit deeper. You in the manager’s shoes, what is your favorite course of action? What is your favorite policy regarding meetings and communications?

Jill Duffy:

Yeah, it’s hard. I think the over communication piece is probably the most important. So you can’t just tell people once, “Hey, let’s all over communicate.” You have to tell them often, which is over communicating itself, and you have to model what you want people to do.

Jill Duffy:

So if you want to give and receive feedback often, you have to be willing to do it and you have to solicit it, so you are becoming the model example of how to do those behaviors.

Jill Duffy:

I think another thing managers can do in terms of over communicating is put information in more than one place. So if you have a new policy that’s come down, tell your team in a meeting, post it in your Slack channel or whatever team communication app you use. Maybe send it by email. Maybe repeat it in the next meeting, so that you’re giving people information more than once.

Jill Duffy:

We can’t assume that on every call, people are always tuned into everything that somebody says, so it’s really important to repeat information, and don’t feel like you’re repeating it because you don’t trust your team. Feel like you’re repeating it because it’s purposeful to do so.

Jill Duffy:

And again, if you model that behavior, you can start to see it in other people too, hopefully. So I think that’s really the most important management piece from my perspective, is learning how to over communicate and getting other people to over communicate.

Luis:

Got it. So what does your virtual office look like? What are the tabs that are open in the morning? What are the apps that allow you to do your work? What is your selection?

Luis:

I know this is the subject that you have well in hand.

Jill Duffy:

Yeah. So in addition to being the author of this book, The Everything Guide To Remote Work, I’m also a deputy managing editor for PCMag.com, and I’ve been writing about software for many years for that team. And a big part of what I do is write about software for communication collaboration. And of course, it’s super important with remote teams.

Jill Duffy:

So I use Gmail. I use To-Do List for my own personal task management. I use Asana with my team to manage the tasks that are being tracked there. I typically write in Google docs because I like everything to be saved and backed up. And not too much else.

Luis:

It’s also great for collaboration. I’m a Mac user. I love writing in Pages and stuff like that, but it’s just not good for sharing a document with many people. I’ve yet to find a better alternative.

Luis:

So tell me something. If you were to have, let’s say $100… Well with inflation, we might as well make it $150. If you were to have $150 to give to everyone in your team, and the twist is you can’t give them cash or an equivalent like a gift card, you need to buy something in bulk, but could be digital, could be physical, could be an experience, whatever, what would you give to improve their work life situation?

Jill Duffy:

Well, let’s see. So I think it really depends. A lot of people have items around the house that they can use to make their remote workspace more comfortable.

Jill Duffy:

So you could spend a budget of $150 very easily, or you could save that budget and maybe find some other items. So for example, I have a back cushion on my chair. I find that’s really important. It cost me maybe $50, but if you don’t have one, you can use a pillow, you can use a rolled up towel. There’s other things you can use.

Jill Duffy:

I think an external keyboard and mouse is probably something that makes life more comfortable for most people, and you can easily spend $150 on that. So that might be the most important.

Jill Duffy:

Although laptops, these days are usually thin enough that you don’t create a whole lot of risk strain anymore if you are typing on a table that is the appropriate height. So I still think an external keyboard in mouse makes life more comfortable for people who spend most of their time on a computer.

Jill Duffy:

And then if we were to increase that budget a little bit, maybe to $700, $800, I would say an external monitor. So most people these days are using a laptop for work. An external monitor helps a lot, especially if it has adjustable height, you want to make sure that your eye level is hitting just about the top of the monitor so that you’re not craning your head up. You’re keeping your head pretty level, and that will do a lot to reduce neck and back pain.

Luis:

Yeah. That’s definitely something that I’m adjusting too because I just moved, and right now my monitor is way too high, so I can definitely agree to that.

Luis:

Spend time today so you don’t have to spend at the physical therapy later.

Jill Duffy:

Yes.

Luis:

Okay. So what about for yourself? What have you purchased this in the past, let’s say, six months, a year that has significantly improved your work life situation?

Jill Duffy:

I have a lovely microphone that I think helps a lot with meetings. I paused earlier because I thought there was a helicopter going overhead that you would hear, but it canceled out that noise nicely, so that makes a big difference, especially for people who are working with kids and elders, and roommates who might be in their space and making a little bit of unwanted noise. It’s really helpful to have a microphone or even a pair of headphones that has a microphone attached to it that will reduce the ambient noise tremendously.

Luis:

Absolutely. I’m using one of those. It’s off screen, but I’m using one of those right now, and the reason I use it’s because I’m in Portugal. It’s super hot and I can’t stand putting some cans in my ears, so this actually allows me to record without the guest having feedback. So it’s quite a good one. It’s quite a good one for sure.

Luis:

All right. So you have an extensive right index in your book, but I didn’t want to skip asking. Apart from your own book, what books do you gift the most? It doesn’t necessarily have to do with remote work, but it can be if you want.

Jill Duffy:

I really loved Bridget Schulte’s book a few years ago. The name is escaping me, but it’s about time management, and it specifically talks a lot about women and how managing time is often quite different for women than it is for men.

Jill Duffy:

So she was a journalist for many years at The Washington Post, I believe, and now she heads up an organization that deals with time management and maybe consulting. I’m not exactly sure.

Jill Duffy:

She’s a brilliant writer though, so it’s a very personal book that talks a lot about her life and her daily struggles of figuring out how do you manage your time well, and she, as a reporter, spends some time in an office, a lot of time working at home, and then a lot of time working in her car while she’s waiting for her kids’ ballet class to wrap up, and late at night in her kitchen.

Jill Duffy:

And so she gives you this really intimate look at what it is to be a working parent, juggling time.

Jill Duffy:

Part of the book, she goes on a journey to do things that bring her joy and happiness, and really start to spend a little bit more of her time thinking about that big picture of, “At the end of my life, am I going to focus on all the stories that I filed by deadline, or am I going to have memories of enjoying my life, doing things that gave me pleasure, spending quality time with my kids, where I didn’t feel super stressed out about the next thing that the kid needs to do?”

Jill Duffy:

So Bridget Schulte’s book, maybe you can look up the title for me, but I really love that book.

Luis:

I will. That sounds great, actually. I have a kid coming, so I will definitely read it myself.

Jill Duffy:

Yeah. She talks a lot about how we have slippers of time rather than big chunks of time.

Jill Duffy:

So when we think about leisure time, for example, and how do we create better work life balance, especially if we’re working remotely from home, she talks about what tends to happen, especially for women, especially for parents, is instead of getting three hours of time every day to read that’s in one big block, we get two or three hours, but it’s in little slivers of 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there. So it doesn’t feel like you’ve had this luxury of time.

Jill Duffy:

So she spends a lot of time thinking about that challenge. How do we take those slippers and make most of them? Or how do we rearrange how we use our time so that we have bigger chunks.

Luis:

Yeah. That sounds like a great idea. We’ll look it up and we’ll have the book in the show notes. So I know we’ve gone longer than we had planned, and I want to be respectful of your time, so I’m going to ask one final question. This is the one question that I ask every guest, because the podcast is usually fully unscripted, but there is one final question that I ask every guest, which is, so let’s say that we are in a situation where it’s fine to go all dining together, because I know that in some places that’s still hard. Fortunately, that’s not the case where I am. Let’s say that it’s okay to have a big dinner, and you are organizing one such dinner. In attendance are going to be the decision makers at top tech companies from all over the world. And the twist is that this dinner happens in a Chinese restaurant and the round table is about remote work.

Luis:

So you, as the host, get to choose what is inside the Chinese fortune cookie. So what are you going to write in that fortune cookie?

Jill Duffy:

Oh, fortune cookies are always such a tough thing because they often don’t have fortunes. They often have words of wisdom. So is it going to be a fortune or is it going to be a word of wisdom?

Luis:

It’s your fortune cookie. You decide. If you decide the world needs more wisdom, well, go ahead.

Jill Duffy:

Yeah. Oh, maybe I wanted to say something like, “Think about what matters most.” And I think it’s a little cryptic. Should you think about what matters most for your business? Should you think about what matters most to you? Should you think about what matters most to the people who work for you?

Jill Duffy:

I think you can take that in a lot of ways. What matters most?

Jill Duffy:

And if you start with the question, what matters most, I think your answer, hopefully gives you a guidepost where you can start making other decisions. So if you align your priorities, if you align your ideals to what matters most, you can start making more effective and powerful decisions for your company, for your life, for the people in your life, etc.

Luis:

All right. That’s actually very good, and I love the concept of alignment. Find what matters most, not only for you, but for your company and your employees, and the people you serve.

Luis:

I think that there’s a lot of wisdom in that cookie. Thank you for that.

Luis:

So, all right. So where can people find you, find the book, and continue this conversation with you?

Jill Duffy:

Sure. So the book is The Everything Guide To Remote Work. It’s by Simon & Schuster, so you can buy it direct from Simon & Schuster. You can find it anywhere online that you like to buy books.

Jill Duffy:

There is both an ebook version and a physical print copy. There’s no audio book at the moment. We’ll see about that in the future, maybe. But I think it works as a physical book, because it’s nice to pick it up and flip to the areas that you’re having a problem in today. It’s really set up to be a true guide in that sense.

Jill Duffy:

Another place I like to tell people to buy the book is IndieBound. If you would like to support independent book sellers in the US and Canada, you can look up book sellers by your postal code that way.

Jill Duffy:

And then online, I’m at pcmag.com. You can find some of my work there, and I’m also active on Twitter as Jill E Duffy, J-I-L-L-E-D-U-F-F-Y.

Luis:

Got you. Okay. Well, we’ll have all of that in the show notes.

Luis:

Jill, it was an absolute pleasure talking with you. Again, I’m sorry for the delay, but you are very generous with your time. I really appreciate, and it was a pleasure having you here.

Jill Duffy:

No problem. Thank you for having me.

Luis:

It was my pleasure.

Luis:

Ladies and gentlemen, this was the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams, and my guest today was Jill Duffy, the author of the new book, The Everything Guide To Remote Work. See you next week.

Luis:

And so we close another episode of the DistantJob Podcast. And if you enjoyed the episode, please, you can help us out by sharing it on social media. That would be great. It’s how we reach more listeners, and the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me, and I hope they’re a joy for you to listen to as well.

Luis:

You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners.

Luis:

Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to distantjob.com/blog/podcast. Click on your favorite episode and any episode really, and subscribe.

Luis:

By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode up, so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form.

Luis:

And of course, if you need to find a great employee for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration and not just look to hire locally, not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent.

Luis:

And to help with that, again, distantjob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who you need and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate, 40% faster than the industry standard.

Luis:

And with that, I bid you adios. See you next week on the next episode of the DistantJob Podcast.

Over communication is one of the fundamental factors of a remote team’s success. However, managers need to balance over communication with flexibility, as otherwise, this could lead to employees feeling controlled and burnout.

During this podcast episode, Jill Duffy shares her first-hand experience working with remote teams for more than a decade. She highlights the importance of building the right communication policies and encouraging employees to feel comfortable enough to speak up when problems arise.

Highlights:

  • Why having too many meetings is unnecessary
  • Challenges of remote work
  • Why is over communication fundamental in remote teams?
  • Management best communication practices

Book Recommendations:

 

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