Onboarding: notes from a remote-team newbie, part 2

Hi, I’m Holly. I just started at Open Door Teams, and this is my first full-time remote position. ODT is a remote (or, a better word, I think, is ‘dispersed’ - more on that later) team. I’m keeping a journal of impressions, frustrations, victories, failures, and general observations as I progress through the phases of Onboarding Newbie to Remote Team Wonderworker. I have permission to be both blunt and truthful. Please follow along. I welcome your comments and insights.

Social Cues Remote Work

I once worked with a woman who rolled her eyes whenever I spoke in meetings.

That communicated a lot about where I stood with her that I wouldn’t have otherwise known. By contrast, if any of my remote teammates were to take such a strong disliking to me that the mere sound of my voice in standups set their eyes to rolling, I’d never know about it. I’d just keep yammering on, unaware that somewhere someone was counting the seconds until I shut mercifully up.

That’s a pretty dramatic example of something that’s not dramatic at all: Social cues help us orient in a group. On a remote team, there are far fewer of them bouncing within catching distance. For me, that’s proved both difficult and freeing. And it all comes down to knowing where I stand.

Goodbye social cues. Hello anxiety.

This isn’t just about whether or not my teammates like me. Social cues impact so much more than that. Like the awareness that I’m on the team at all. Hear me out:

There’s a certain amount of anxiety inherent in looking for work. Once you decide you really want a particular job, that anxiety kicks up a notch, doesn’t it? It does for me. There’s something specific I want, something I’m competing with unseen others for the privilege of having. I may or may not measure up. It’s scary and thrilling. But that ride is supposed to end when I learn my fate. Either I got the job or I didn’t. It’s over.

Except this time it wasn’t.

Instead of dissipating, my anxiety just kept ramping up. Little by little, day after day, I got more nervous, not less. Then one afternoon I met a few members of the team for lunch, and whaddayaknow? The anxiety ride came to a stop. Just like that, sometime between drinks and entrées. Hallelujah. (I’m not much of a thrill-seeker.)

Puzzling, right? Why then? Why not when I read or signed the Offer of Employment? Why not after a day or a week of work? As best I can make out, there was still a part of me that didn’t fully comprehend that I’d gotten the job until I was physically in a room with coworkers. Coworkers who were behaving as if I was a member of the team.

Sure, I got the welcome messages on Slack (thanks, ODT). I knew I had the job. Well, I say knew. What I mean is that I had the information. It took social cues for me to integrate that information into real knowledge. Who knew a simple lunch could be so important?

Goodbye social cues. Goodbye anxiety.

This whole I-needed-to-be-near-them-to-know-I’m-one-of-them thing unnerved me a little. I’ve always experienced myself as someone who loves working in delicious solitude. Had I transformed into a social butterfly overnight and at the worst possible moment?

Turns out, no.

Some social cues—like the ones that help me integrate salient data, e.g., yes, Holly, you are, in fact, employed—are important and necessary. Others appear important and necessary when all they really are is disruptive. Like someone rolling their eyes whenever you open your mouth. That really seemed like crucial, albeit painful data at the time. After all, if I don’t know there’s a problem I can’t very well do anything about it. Now all my work meetings take place sans eyes. Sans shoulders and arms and legs and whole bodies. What if my coworkers hate me? How will I know?

Here’s the thing: I won’t.
Here’s the other thing: Who cares?

More than one arguably smart human (Paulo Coelho, Regina Brett, Deepak Chopra) has observed that what others think of us is none of our business. Working remotely, I can better appreciate the wisdom in that. It’s profoundly liberating to take the question of whether or not my personality is pleasing and remove it entirely from the equation. Not least because when I do, here’s what remains: work.

Work > Social

When I go to work, no one’s there at the coffee pot asking me what I did over the weekend. When I’m in a meeting, no one’s checking out my new earrings. Cuuuuute! Where’d you get those? At the end of the day, there’s no round of goodbyes to make. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these interactions; it’s just that, taken all together, there’s a lot resting on them. Namely, my place within the group.

And is it just me or is there an element of performance in all of that socializing? Performance that takes energy. Energy I’d rather spend on producing killer work.

Not that I’m above a good weekend story. Or divulging where I got my earrings (at a local bookshop—they sell other stuff too, it’s kind of a mish-mash). But if where I stand at work rests heavily on my talent for chit chat and schmoozing, my professional life is going to be exhausting. Until now, it’s been exactly that. Which leaves less energy for what I’m actually good at, what I’d rather be judged by: my work.

For my money, remote offers the better balance. Social cues are in short supply, and sometimes that spells anxiety. But so far that’s been rectifiable. And on the plus side, I have more energy to work with and what feels like a fairer way to earn the respect of my coworkers. Besides, they don’t care where I got my earrings.


Next up: part three | Photo by Roman Kraft