Zen and the art of remote teams

Jun 03 2015 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

A good friend of mine the other day reminded me that it was Vesak, or the Buddha’s birthday, in Singapore this week. He posted all kinds of quotes and comics that were actually really funny and, as he had intended, got me thinking. Is there a single tenet of “zen” that managers, even barbarians like me, can take away from Buddhist teachings? While I may be the world’s least qualified person to talk about it, the short answer is yes: mindfulness.

What do we mean by mindfulness? Let’s use a totally Western, non-touchy-feely definition. Webster’s describes it as: “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis; also : such a state of awareness.”

Why is mindfulness so important? Because when we’re working, it’s easy to run on auto-pilot. We respond to things automatically. You’ve done it a hundred times. You answer an email in about 30 seconds without thinking about what you’re saying then spend two days unraveling the chaos it caused. Someone asks you a question, and you give them an answer that only confuses them more. More importantly, you can make all kinds of assumptions about what your team is working on and how high the quality is, that may be completely false.

We’re not bad people. We just get sucked up in the tactics and functions of day to day work and don’t always take into account what’s going on. We also get more cues that are hard to ignore when we work together. When you walk through the office and see Helen banging her head on the monitor, you’re more likely to check in with her and not assume that everything’s fine, or that monitor-bashing is just her work style. Without visual cues and context, it’s hard to really understand what’s happening without making some effort.

Here are just a couple of things you should take the time to be mindful of:

Are you really listening? We all know that the words people use don’t necessarily tell the whole picture, even when they’re attempting to be truthful. How often have you asked someone to do a task, and received an “okay” without hearing the doubt and panic in their voice? If you’re really listening, you’re interpreting, clarifying and picking up subtle cues that belie the words.

Is this email going to answer the real question? A simple one-word response may deliver the requested information, but does it really help solve the problem? Remember every question contains not only a request for data, but also context, support and confirmation. Ask yourself not just what the person wants to know, but why they want to know, and what they’re going to do with the information. Being mindful of the questions behind the question can save a lot of time and tension.

Can you be mindful of two things at once? When we stop to think about it, the answer is obvious. The problem is we don’t….stop…..to…….think. When you are engaged in a coaching call, focus on the listener. Don’t answer email, don’t sort files on your desk, and don’t put the red Jack on the black Queen (or whatever version of solitaire you’re playing when talking to your people on the phone.)

When we are in the moment, it’s amazing what happens. We hear and see signs of trouble before they occur, you are open to new ideas, and people get the impression you actually care about what they’re doing and saying. Not only do you get better immediate results, but the long-term benefits of proactivity and relationship building are pretty substantial.

So just for today, every time you’re engaged with your team verbally or in writing, ask yourself this: what is really going on at this moment? You might be amazed at the results.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.