#SXSWcorona: Living and working through your keyboard

All the sudden, millennia of civilization grind to a screaming halt. Streets are empty. Flights are cancelled, hotels go to minimal service, or close. Lockdown and curfew are used in our daily vocabulary for the first time since WWII.   A small sneeze or cough generates (understandably) immediate concern and panic. People are willing to maim each other over some rolls of pink slightly perfumed toilet paper.

Offices, restaurants and shops are moving their business out of the open. Work from home, stay in, don’t go out. Meetings that mandatory required everybody’s presence, are all the sudden morphed into videoconferences and conference calls. The laptop is the window to the world, the smartphone the only weapon against isolation.   

While most people have had multiple ways of digital contacting at their fingertips (ranging from messenger and WhatsApp, to Skype (for business) , WebEx, Hangouts, Teams…) it is shocking to see that a lot of them have never used it to the fullest in their personal or private environment.  For some employees, these platforms are just an icon on their desktop, that was never used until now. Too bad businesses did not invest in training programs and tutorials before the shit hit the fan.

Shift your thinking

Working and communicating remotely is quite a shift from being in the (open spaced) office. It is work, hard work, but not as you are used to know it. While the same business imperatives apply (delivery on time, on spec, and on budget), the rules of engagement and practicalities shift. Things taken for granted and years of habit go down the drain. You’ll have to shift your thinking, the virtual communication world is complex, powerful, and has lots of possibilities. You will just have to think outside of the non-virtual office box. Here are the tips I gathered from three decades of being a mobile warrior, enhanced with devilish wisdom from some of my fellow keyboard knights and SXSW veterans. They are brought to you from a mobile device, on the edge of the Texan desert.

The Goodies: hard- and software

  1. You need a computer (preferably a laptop), a (smart)phone and a (fast) (unlimited) internet connection. Without this, things are a tad difficult.
  2. Invest in a good headset for calls and reaching out. You might consider investing a bit more in noise cancelling varieties, with an easy mute button. A soundproof bubble with crystal clear sound is totally worth the surplus cost. (all online shops ship them overnight. Don’t rush to the store buying one). A good webcam helps obviously for the video-calls.  Most laptops and phones have them build-in. While the webcam focuses mostly on your face and nostrils, I invite you to avoid taking calls in pajamas, and -please- wear pants. I’m unable to forget the sight of one of my clients casually getting up in the middle of a video-call to grab coffee. He had totally forgotten he was only dressed up from the waist up: most disturbing Mickey Mouse sighting ever (on his boxers).   
  3. If you do video, make sure you have correct lighting. Turn your face TOWARDS the window or install a little LED that illuminates your face. Little cameras suck in low lighting.
  4. Install the right software, and check if it’s working before hopping on client calls. If necessary, contact your IT department. I am sure your email is set-up right, but ensure you have the rights to install/operate specialized tools like Slack, Skype for business, Microsoft Teams, Bluejeans, etc…
  5. Get a mobile subscription with unlimited data if possible.  That makes you truly mobile and offers a good “B” plan on those moments that Wi-Fi falters.

Your workplace

  1. Urm: it’s work. Ok, at home, but still: work. Taking that video-call in your onesie sitting on your bed chewing chips and downing a liter of Chardonnay might give the wrong impression. That basket of dirty laundry behind your shoulder, or youporn.com playing on that screen in the background are also things to avoid.
  2. Your kitchen table, dining table, or coffee table are totally acceptable. Just make sure the background is tidy, and as professional as possible. Too bad for the cat. It will have to move.
  3. Do make your home/work environment efficient and pleasant. You need outside light, a view, and some space to be creative, efficient and productive. Some soft music, cold water, and a green plant or two do wonders. Cacti might make you depressed 😊.
  4. Set a schedule. Divide your time in “work”, and “off”. Get up in the morning. Shower. Dress. Eat at noon. Turn off around end of business. This schedule is of the uttermost importance to get your spirit up, and your energy flowing. Follow the cycle of natural light as good as you can.
  5. Make your house members aware of your schedule. Show them the worktimes that you need to use to concentrate, and the video call moments where you’re going to be off-limits.  Toddlers and babies are forgiven everything, as it should be.
  6. Might seem obvious, but eat, drink (water), sleep, repeat. Being in your own bubble might make you forget that your body needs to continue to function. For that, it needs exercise, food, fluids and rest.
  7. Set a schedule with your co-workers, clients, managers. Keep taps on people, keep feeling the pulse of what’s happening. Keep connected, keep connecting. Even in lock-down: it’s not the end of the world. Yet.
  8. You need a fresh nose and some fresh air from time to time. A balcony, a garden, a terrace. If allowed, go for a walk. Even if allowed, steer and stay away from other humans. Worst case scenario: open a window. It helps clearing the lungs and the head.
  9. Code-word: healthy snacks. You WILL go for snacks and comfort food. For the sake of your wardrobe, let it be carrots, celery sticks, mini tomatoes and cauliflower.

Do’s

  1. If you can, go for video meetings. Just audio will make you lose a lot of the non-verbal communication that is essential for good interpretation and understanding. It also helps “humanizing” the whole situation. The other party is probably at work from home too: you give each other a glimpse of your private space, which is important for bonding and client intimacy.
  2. Stay close to your camera and your microphone (when not using a headset), the microphones on smartphones and laptops are excellent, but are calibrated only for short range.
  3. Please, mute if you are on a multiple person call. If you are the organizer, ask everyone except the presenter to mute. Cappuccino machines, screaming babies and an ear shattering feedback beep are very disturbing.  Mind that they are on mute, so, if you ask a question: allow them a second to unmute, or… tell them to unmute if they want to talk. It would not be the first time that somebody talks for a couple of minutes into a muted microphone.
  4. Do send presentations and documents before the call. Yes, you can share your screen, but some people on slower connections might have difficulties if there refresh rate goes down. They can still follow your talk, when they have your slides local.
  5. Send a clear agenda upfront, follow it rigorously, summarize highlights and certainly action points (and action owners) during the call, and repeat conclusions and decisions. This allows everybody to be on the same page., and gives everybody time and occasion to react, or assert that the information/summary is correct.  Send a summary of the call, with clear action points, action owners, and due dates within 12 hours after the call. Invite all to accept/amend before calling the minutes “final”.  If you plan to record the meeting: ask permission upfront and make the recording available for all.
  6. While not in the office, mail, chat, and connection tools are all you have: so, keep an eye on them during office time and (re)act timely. A nudge on WhatsApp is the digital equivalent of a little tap on the shoulder. It’s comforting for co-workers, clients and management that you are -indeed- available and connected. On the other hand, respect that it might take a bit longer for people to respond to you. There is a small natural lag in digital conversations.
  7. Do point out “better” hours for connecting via video/sound (I’ll be without kids in half an hour is a great argument!)
  8. Respect your natural working time. Working remotely does not mean “always working”. When you’re off, you’re off: except in emergencies you should not work.  

Don’ts

  1. Eat while conference calling. Food crunching during a call is gross and extremely disturbing. So is drinking. And farting.
  2. Do not take calls, even audio, from the comfortable porcelain seat in your bathroom. Just… don’t.
  3. Don’t take long calls from the warm intimacy of your bed: you WILL fall asleep, and nothing more embarrassing that snoring during your board call…
  4. Disclose if there are other people with you (kids, spouse…) so people can judge what level of confidential information they want to share. Don’t forget: NDA is NDA, at home, or not. Don’t let sensitive information spread.
  5. Make sure your mute is a real mute before cursing, ranting, or making out with your loved one.

If you have other tips, please let me know: I’ll gladly add.

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