The 2021 Christmas Card

A short history of my love of getting and sending mail

My fondness for correspondence began at primary school in my English writing class.  At the beginning of the term, each student was assigned a pen pal from another “sister” school abroad in the same age group. Students addressed their letters to their peers using the schools’ addresses, and at the end of the term both students had to fill a form to indicate if they would like to continue their correspondence privately, along with parental consent.  

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the intention of this component and the brilliance of its simplicity. It helped young students apply skills that went beyond writing itself, including presentation (drawing personal letterheads, for example) and conversation (appropriate conversation topics were also taught at my strict and old-fashioned school). This correspondence portion of the class also required students to adhere to the “publishing” schedule, so there was a disciplinary aspect to this fun activity. I suspect this gave students as they grew older the confidence to network and establish a connection with strangers in various professional and social settings. 

I freaking love mail

At present, the number of personal correspondence I receive by mail is minimal, usually around Christmas and my birthday. I have two friends who still exchange letters with me, but I’m hoping that there will be a gradual return to written personal correspondence that falls outside the digital sphere. I say this fully aware of the irony of my profession as a digital communications and marketing expert. It is precisely because of my study of the science of attention and virtual limitations of affection that I appreciate physical communiques. It takes time to think about what one could write that is insightful, personal, and genuine. To me, emails and texts, however personal they may be, fail at stirring the same emotion that the sight of a handwritten and personal scribble may cause.  

I told you all this because

For the last few years, I’ve been sending friends and colleagues Christmas cards that carry my illustrations and often have a calendar at the back. For the most part, the illustrations highlight something memorable from the passing year, or are simply holiday themed. 

So for the 2021 card

I started with an illustration of a cottage nestled in a wintery scene. The idea was to share something uplifting. As I was preparing to ship it off to the printers, I realized that it did not acknowledge momentous disruptions of 2020. So I went back to the drawing board (haha) to illustrate something that reflected shared experiences and poked fun of the one thing we had all come to love and loathe at once: ZOOM!

Ta-da

I give you the year in review illustration of 2020: Woodland creatures on a Zoom call.

Front of the 2021 Christmas card
Christmas card 2021

You know these people

The illustration features many Zoom user stereotypes. Starting at the top with the hedgehog and going clockwise towards centre, I give you:

The multitasker (hedgehog)
This user is listening attentively and engaging, but has a side project on the go (usually knitting). Good on them for doing two things at once and pulling it off with no disrespect. You find yourself busy trying to make out the titles of the books in their backgrounds.

The one always late to the call
There is always that one friend or colleague who never joins a call on time, or hasn’t accepted the reality of needing a high-speed connection. They’ve missed half the call, but that’s okay, A for eventually showing up. 

The “on a walk/still figuring this out” (owl)
This close talker is joining the call while walking, offering you a chance to experience mild nausea as you watch them bop up and down on screen. They may also be the friend who doesn’t pay attention to the camera angle, and occasionally reminds everyone that they’re still “getting used to all this.” Consider yourself lucky if you’re not staring at their nostrils the entire time.

The distant participants (deer and rabbit)
This lot is likely preparing dinner, ironing, or busy with some other chore. Their webcam is at a fixed position, so for the most part you find yourself watching either a second-rate reality show featuring arguments about cooking instructions or staring into a well-decorated room.

The bored one (fox)
This is your friend who doesn’t want to decline the call because they want to maintain the connection, but are exhausted/disinterested in whatever y’all are discussing. They sit there, smiling and nodding, but you know they’re completely checked out and that’s okay with everyone. 

The serial virtual background artist (moose)
Green screens are a revelation to this one. They can’t believe the AMAZING things you can do with virtual backgrounds, and as such, take every opportunity to change their Zoom background to better reflect the mood/season/or artistic flair. Some of their limbs vanish when they move, and you’re not entirely sure if the lower part of their body is clothed. #PantsOptional

The elderly couple still figuring out how this all works (otter and beaver)
“Are we connected? Can you hear us?”
This couple needs to find their glasses first to join the call and see who’s on screen. They will spend a few minutes looking for the earphones their grandkids bought them so they can “call you on the camera.” It’s smooth sailing for everyone after the “tech support” portion is done. They have the latest info on the pandemic’s numbers, and will share with you newly-acquired “facts” that were shared by their Facebook friends. 

The chatterbox on mute (squirrel)
This one is invested completely in the conversation and has many opinions to offer… if they can only remember to unmute themselves. 90% of the interaction with them focuses on reminding them to “please unmute” and using a broad range of hand gestures to indicate “we can’t hear you!”

The all-in speaker (raccoon)
This one is talking to you just like they would in person: with their entire body. Their hands are telling half the story, their emotions and voice fluctuations handle the rest. They’re occupying the entire Zoom square and fully command your attention. Good on them, they’ve mastered this digital medium.

I’ll leave the double (triple?) entendre tagline for you to decipher.

Side note: I have received a few requests to produce cards for sale ahead of Christmas 2021/2022. At this point, I haven’t decided if I’ll offer that, so stay tuned and follow Instagram for more info.

Remote management: Advice from a career flex worker

In the last few days, I’ve seen a lot of excellent advice for first-time teleworkers, from online tool recommendations to suggested actions and behaviours, to ensure maximum productivity.

What I didn’t see much of are tips on managing remote workers. So I wanted to share some of the practices I’ve collected over the years, as I’ve been a “flex worker” in one form or another since 2009: a part-time remote worker, a digital nomad, a gig worker, and a manager responsible for remote workers (while doing it remotely myself sometimes).

These points may be particularly useful for first-time managers who may have found themselves in the midst of a management style that requires as much flexibility as network bandwidth.

Establish a list of activities or expected deliverables you would like to get from your teleworker for each day.

This may seem like micromanagement, but it is not. It lays out expectations ahead of time, and allows both parties to agree on what is reasonable and attainable without the need for constant check-ins over emails, project management tools, etc. This also helps you understand what the team will be delivering at the end of each week, so you can brief up as needed.

I usually ask my team to provide me with the list of things they’d like to deliver on the day before they’re teleworking (if it’s a daily arrangement). This allows me to see if their priorities are aligned with the team’s or the organization’s, and I can course-correct ahead of time. At the end of the day, I usually know what they were able to do, and can also measure the effectiveness of the teleworking arrangement over time. The same approach applies to long-term remote workers, except it tends to be more of a weekly list, with milestone deliverables on certain days.

The other benefit to this approach is that each employee is taking ownership of their productivity, and is responsible for what’s on the list they’ve provided. It’s been my experience that those who believe they are responsible for their work tend to deliver on time, and feel personally responsible for the quality of the work they are producing.

Do not send emails or schedule calls at lunch, or after stated working hours.

I know from my own personal experience that plowing through something to get it done feels much better than pausing for a break and picking up the work later. But when you’re managing others, it’s very important to set healthy boundaries and stick to them. Your team may feel the need to stay behind and respond to each message right away, and in doing so, they forego their own lunch hour or breaks. I learned from one of my former teams that I caused undue stress by bombarding their mailboxes on my telework day. They felt a needless sense of urgency as I did not communicate that I was simply going through my list, and there is no expectation for immediate responses. Now, I schedule emails to go out either after lunch or the next day. I’m also clear on what is something they need to respond to soon, and what can wait.

If you’re managing a whole team remotely, do a morning check-in with everyone.

Managing a few employees remotely for a short period of time is quite different from having a whole team that works remotely. Taking the pulse of the group in the morning helps you better plan the day based on the fresh data you are able to gather in those first few minutes. This is especially important at times like these, where our own personal anxiety is present and sits right next to us. This quick virtual gathering (which can also be done through texts or chat) is also a signal that you are available to discuss any issue that may have surfaced overnight, because you are allocating the first part of your working hour to your team’s needs.

Check your personal biases at the door.

You may have previously worked in environments where telework is uncommon. You may have also been discouraged from asking for remote working opportunities because it wasn’t a “serious move”, or the company culture considered teleworkers “low performers on vacation.” Of course, the last few years have provided us with enough studies and data to know that remote workers are more productive, and cost less in overhead.

When I joined a more skeptical environment a few years ago, I made a point of collecting data about my own productivity for two years to quantitatively gauge how much work I was doing. My average rate of performance was 140% more than my regular output on any given day (I used numbers of emails, phone calls, and plans or content developed as my performance indicators). That put a stop to some of the commentaries on telework.

Let me say that again, for the cheap seats in the back: check your biases at the door. If you don’t, you are not going to be an effective remote manager.

I still encounter modern-day skeptics who equate telework with an opportunity to binge watch Netflix. And after a few minutes of conversation, it becomes apparent that their previous working experiences included a manager or a culture that was against telework, so they learned the behaviour and inherited the bias.

Let me be clear, it’s not your job to defend your remote workers or telework itself all the time, but it may be part of your work to document what is working and what isn’t, and help push for slight tweaks in culture. I once gave up an office to prove a point about remote work.

Build in the mechanism to address unproductive remote workers.

This is a difficult one, and is not applicable in times like this, but it is worth remembering for the future. You need to create a process or policy for remote work that allows you to pull the plug on telework arrangements that are unproductive for your organization or team. In most of the cases I’ve encountered, it comes down to an employee who does not know their own working patterns, is unable to cultivate better remote work habits or mimic their office tempo, and needs your help because they are drowning. Remote work — that doesn’t arrive because of extraordinary circumstances like the current one — is not for every personality. Having a mechanism to talk through expectations, work on milestones, and end an ineffective telework arrangement is the best thing you can do for your team and your organization.

Ultimately, managing remote workers is a matter of trust. They need to trust your ability to communicate priorities and expectations clearly, see that you are open to emerging tools and workflows, and believe that you are available to them when they need help. You need to demonstrate trust in your team’s ability to do the work, and know when to spot an issue and have tough conversations about shortcomings (yours or theirs).