But what if I can’t tap my remote employee on the shoulder?

Ah, but perhaps the worst frustration you might have experienced with a partly remote team: you (slash anyone) cannot just walk up and talk to people.

Back in this post we examined a question: why do large companies abandon remote work? We looked at several examples, but most salient to our conversation today is this part about Reddit’s decision to recall their remote employees:

Reddit closed their New York and Salt Lake City offices in 2014, and they insisted that employees who wished to stay move to the San Francisco flagship office. The stated reason was that “There were too many times when we just needed to be able to walk over and tap someone on the shoulder and discuss a complex issue in-depth, right away.”

That is, folks in decision-making positions experienced a breakdown in their conversations with remote employees.

Perhaps you have a personal experience like that. You walk in and the remote workers’ desks are empty. You’d love to share a piece of news with them, but they’re not here. You’re used to tossing around ideas with the team in the office, but now people in the office are missing. How will you toss around ideas? Where is the spontaneity and creativity?

There’s a somewhat well-known comic in the programming community that depicts this kind of interaction:

programmer interrupted

Though the comic is about programmers, the phenomenon affects folks of all business functions. Jason Fried at Basecamp describes it thusly:

The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done. In fact, offices have become interruption factories. A busy office is like a food processor–it chops your day into tiny bits. Fifteen minutes here, 10 minutes there, 20 here, five there. Each segment is filled with a conference call, a meeting, another meeting, or some other institutionalized unnecessary interruption.

It’s incredibly hard to get meaningful work done when your workday has been shredded into work moments.

The Two Complications of the Shoulder Tap

When someone comes to your desk and starts a conversation without checking to see if it’s a good time, they might catch you in the middle of something involved. Depending on how involved the task is, you may lose a lot of time by abandoning your train of thought. Once the side discussion is over, you could spend the next 25 minutes trying to get back into what you were originally doing. Suppose that this happens to you three times in a day, each time for a ten minute conversation. Were those collective conversations worth the two hours of work time they set you back?

Or consider this: you and your colleague, Nina, are working on a project together. Roger, who oversees the project, stops by your desk with a speculative question about that project. Nina isn’t around right now, but Roger just wanted to ask you one thing real quick, so the two of you start talking. Inadvertently, you dive into a deeper discussion, and maybe some sort of half-decision is reached. At this point, you both know: really, Nina should be involved in this. So you set up a meeting later for the three of you. In that meeting, you now need to rehash the conversation that you and Roger had to bring Nina up to speed. For you and Roger, this part of the meeting is repetitive: you’re spending double time doing the same thing twice at work. Meanwhile, for Nina, the beginning of this meeting is hammering home for her that a whole conversation happened about a project in her purview while she was out of the room getting coffee or something. She didn’t get a say in any of this buildup part of the conversation, and now she’ll need to proffer an opinion with less time and consideration than the rest of you had to ponder this question.

Why do we value the shoulder tap?

We harbor this illusion that the shoulder tap helps companies succeed. But it does not help folks get work done, and it often does not include the key collaborators to answer the question at hand. So where does the illusion come from?

Similar to caucuses, shoulder taps are an informal system that shuffles power toward those who already have it. It does this by situating folks in authority roles to perceive themselves in control of company operations. They can direct anyone’s attention to anything they like, for any length of time, at any point in time.

If that perception feels tenuous, recalling remote employees creates an opportunity to rebuild that perception for the decision-makers. But it doesn’t rebuild actual control: rather, it transfers it back to managers and directors from those to whom it was transferred by remote work.

That control isn’t evaporating into a void when employees work remotely. Instead, it is being transferred from colocated decision makers to the remote employees themselves. You cannot prevent the shoulder tap when you are colocated, but you can prevent it when you work remotely. You can do this by assessing incoming messages and questions, and only responding immediately when the discussion is both a) truly urgent and b) isolated to the group of people who can see that message.

If the conversation can wait, you can pretend you didn’t see the message and get back to people when you’re ready.

If the question appears in your private messages and other people besides you and the asker should be involved in the discussion, you can create a message channel that loops in everyone who should be privy to the conversation. Alternatively, you can schedule a meeting that gives everyone space to consider the question and then talk about it together in real time. An additional advantage of meetings: you can schedule around them. You can set up stopping points in your day-to-day work to accommodate them. For this reason, it can be easier to get back to work after a meeting than after a disorienting shoulder tap.

But Chelsea, what if I really do just have a quick question?

Yes, sometimes we all have a quick question for someone at work. In these situations, I try to respect my colleagues’ time by asking if now is a good time before barging into their lives with my question. It’s worth noting that this only works it is safe for my colleagues to say no to me. And that’s a bigger ‘if’ than you might assume.

Depending on the culture at your company, and irrespective of the culture at your company once the power differential gets big enough, people in hierarchally lower roles will have a hard time saying no to people in hierarchally higher roles. Career politics guides both for tech and for general office work drum in a ubiquitous adage: be helpful and available to everyone, but especially to higher ups.

Remoteness provides some distance that is helpful for employees to cope with this power differential. When a colocated higher-up shoulder taps, employees have no way to indirectly defer a response. But when they are remote, it is possible that they simply have not seen the message. This can help employees defer responses in situations where directors might be perfectly happy getting deferred, but the subjects of their inquiries don’t feel comfortable deferring. That power balance helps teams get more done as a whole.

Conclusion

When employees go remote, it can feel to decision-makers like some of their control is evaporating into the ether because they can no longer tap those employees on the shoulder and expect immediate answers. But instead of evaporating into the ether, that control instead transfers to the remote employees themselves. This is a good thing.

There are two problems with the shoulder tap. The first is that it can interrupt a deep train of thought or work that takes a long time to reestablish after a potentially inconsequential question. The second is that it can spark a discussion that excludes relevant parties based purely on time and place. And that exclusion, down the line, can result in wasted time and damaged morale among team members. Instead of a physical shoulder tap, a message gives a remote recipient space to time their response or loop in other collaborators.

Regardless of whether coworkers are remote or colocated, it is polite and helpful to ask if they have a moment before launching into a discussion that they did not know was coming. But if the interruptor has more corporate power than the interruptee, even this may not help, because the employee does not feel like they can say no. Instead, the space provided by messaging with a question allows the employee the space they need to decline an immediate response.

The shoulder tap helps decision makers feel in control, but it detracts from overall productivity and collaboration. So it’s helpful for the team to instead adopt a message-style introduction of impromptu discussions—followed, if appropriate, by a group chat or by scheduling a meeting. Conveniently, these tactics work equally well for colocated and remote employees. So if the team employs them universally, then the remoteness of the employee makes no difference in someone’s ability to get ahold of them—rather, it creates a consent structure that offers both parties control over how to spend their day most productively and still answer everyone’s questions.

If you enjoyed this discussion on remote work, you might also like:

Why are there always technical problems in remote meetings?

Why do remote meetings suck so much?

How do we make remote meetings not suck?

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