Monday, February 28, 2011

Is It a Curse -- or Blessing -- To be a Remote Worker?

Most of the people I know who are remote workers say just like any work situation, there's both good and bad aspects. They love being able to dress more casually, of course, and appreciate that it often gives them a chance to see their kids more. But the downside for many is that they often feel left out of the loop and find it difficult to communicate effectively with the boss. It's an issue I explored recently for my Gannett/USA Today column...

While some employees might consider it the greatest of fortunes not to see their boss or colleagues every day at work, remote workers who have that experience might disagree.

Remote workers — who may work from home or in another office away from a company's central site — are growing in number.

Technology, along with companies offering more flexible work arrangements, has led to millions of workers laboring away from a main office. Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory company, says the number of worldwide remote workers will pass 46 million this year.

Still, the growing number of remote workers also has led to some problems.

Remote workers complain they're often left out of the loop regarding company information or receive little or no recognition from others for their contributions. Those who manage such workers gripe they have a difficult time keeping track of the worker's progress or performance.

Dawn Fay, a district president with Robert Half International, says that the biggest hang-up for both remote workers and their bosses is lack of communication. Casual forms of communication — conversations around the office coffeemaker, for example — often are vital forms of connection and information.

For remote workers, that isn't a possibility.

"When you lose face-to-face time, you not only lose camaraderie and that personal touch, but you also lose spontaneity — that chance to ask a quick question," Fay says. "People still need to have contact."

Fay also says some companies haven't set up a way to communicate consistently with remote workers, such as weekly phone calls with managers or Skype interactions with co-workers. The result: a remote work force that isn't as innovative, collaborative or productive as it needs to be when companies are counting on all workers to deliver more to remain competitive.

Fay says remote workers and their bosses can better handle such work arrangements in a number of ways so the employee and the company benefit.

For bosses, Fay says they should:

• Adapt communications. Just as you can't manage every employee in an office the same, you have to understand how a remote worker functions best. That may mean using more instant messaging to stay in contact or scheduling a phone conversation once a day or once a week. The communication method should be the one that best suits the worker.

• Look for warning signs. If a remote worker is missing deadlines or being asked to re-do work, then it could mean a glitch somewhere in your communications. Meet with the worker to figure out what's going wrong and how to fix it.

• Share the love. Use a company intranet or newsletter to keep a remote worker feeling like part of the company. Post items like birthdays, anniversaries and awards to help workers still feel like part of the team. A newsletter also can help workers share best practices, or allow the boss to recognize a remote worker's contributions.

For remote workers, Fay suggests they should:

• Have set hours. Make sure co-workers and the boss know when you'll be available by phone or e-mail. You don't have to be on call 24/7 unless that's part of your job description, but you should have times when people can definitely reach you. If it's going to change from week to week, let them know your new schedule.

• Provide status updates. Even if the boss doesn't ask for it, spend time every week giving the boss an update of what you've completed, where you stand on projects and what your timeline is for completing work.

• Challenge yourself. One advantage to being in an office is a chance to learn new technology or business practices either in a formal or informal way. It's important to keep yourself current — attend classes or participate in some online training to keep skills fresh.

• Be secure. If you're using company equipment from a remote location, you're responsible for keeping it safe. Only you should used it, not anyone else who doesn't work for your employer.


Monday, February 21, 2011

The Middle

One of the most uncomfortable situations at work is when two co-workers don't get along -- and you somehow get caught in the middle.

Perhaps each person comes to you at different times to try and get you on his or her side. Heather might say, "Can you believe what Brad said in the meeting? What did you think about that ridiculous idea he had about moving the project deadline?"

Then, when you manage to wiggle out of that situation, Brad sends you an e-mail: "Why was Heather having such a fit about moving the project deadline? Think it's because she never has her work done, no matter when it is?"

It's times like these that you may start looking around for a playground supervisor. After all, such antics resemble those taking place in schoolyards across the country, so why not get someone to pitch in and help the "children" at work?

Don't despair. There are some steps to take when you feel you're getting caught in the middle of a cubicle tiff and you want to handle it as professionally -- and maturely -- as possible. You can:

* Declare yourself Switzerland. Plant the Swiss flag on your desk, stick in earplugs and just smile and keep working when they try and engage you in their fight.

* Ask questions. Sometimes an aggrieved party simply wants to be heard. Ask simple, neutral questions about concerns, but steer the conversation away from gossip and just ask for facts. If the person tries to get you to agree with a certain point of view, say that you'll have to meditate on it. This makes you look like you're going to give it careful thought. If they bug you for an answer, just say you're still meditating. Plan on meditating for a long, long ....long time.

* Play Mrs. Cleaver. No matter how many times The Beaver and Wally got into a fight, Mrs. Cleaver always found a way to patch things up between them. Ever notice how many times she'd slip in something like, "Now, Wally, you know that Beaver looks up to you. He really admires how smart you are." Don't make up fake goodwill, but try to foster better vibes between the two spatting parties.

* State the obvious. "We have to work together. We have to behave like adults or we could get fired. " This is a message that may have to be repeated over and over. In this job market, no one can afford to be thought of as a pain in the ass, and that's exactly the tag that can be applied to feuding co-workers.

What other tips do you have if someone gets caught in the middle of a dispute at work?

Friday, February 18, 2011

5 tips for Being a Freelance Worker

I often get asked how to become a freelance writer and editor, because a lot of people are intrigued at the thought of working from home in their pajamas and having time to just do what they want every day.

I always quickly set them straight: The freelance business is tough, and working in your pajamas every day starts to make you feel like a mental-ward patient. And any spare time you have will be spent throwing in a load of laundry and cleaning up dog puke.

But freelancing is a viable option for many people, and one that more employers are starting to embrace for a variety of professions. Here's a story I did on the issue of contract work for Gannett/USAToday...

Is the temporary worker about to become a more permanent fixture in the American work force?

As the economy begins to recover, more employers are sticking with hiring only contract or temporary workers. It's a move designed to give them flexibility in dealing with the improving market, but it's also a way to keep their costs under control.

Permanent employees often are provided employee benefits, and those can comprise 40% or more of a worker's total compensation package. Many companies don't offer temporary workers any benefits, so that helps greatly reduce their costs.

  • "The biggest fixed cost an employer has is payroll," says Tim Ozier, director of contract staffing at MRINetwork in Philadelphia. "It's to their advantage to hire contract workers in many cases."

Still, what does that mean for someone seeking permanent employment? Will a temporary job be the only route open to bringing home a paycheck?

No, says Ozier, because only 1.5% of the work force is considered contract or contingent workers. And even though he expects that number to rise to 5%, in line with the temporary employment figures in Europe, contract workers won't dominate the employment landscape.

"But people shouldn't be afraid of being a contingent or contract worker," he says. "Companies are opening up all kinds of work in these areas. We've place CIOs (chief information officers) and COOs (chief operating officers) for eight months or longer with one company."

The days of temp workers being qualified for only low-paying, entry-level jobs is past, and workers who embrace the work may find they appreciate the flexibility and experience they gain, Ozier says. While information technology and engineering have a great demand for contract workers, other workers being hired on an as-needed basis include human resources, advertising and marketing.

"It's a great way to enhance your skill set and broaden your sphere of influence," he says. "You can get experience with different kinds of companies."

Ozier says that staffing companies such as his also find that older job seekers — who often have a more difficult time in the job market — have skills that are in demand by employers seeking contract workers.

"Tenured, mature workers are an important part of the contingent worker landscape," he says. "They are experienced, have a shorter ramp-up time and have very sought-after skills."

For those considering contract or contingent work, Ozier recommends:

• Staying connected. Online networking sites such as LinkedIn are critical steps in letting others know of your availability for contract work and the skills you can bring to the table. Attend industry events to let employers know of your expertise.

• Seeing temporary work as a logical step. Not only can temporary work keep a paycheck coming, but it also can lead to permanent employment. Ozier says employers may use a contract gig as a way to try out an employee. When employers hire a temp for a full-time position, they often offer a higher salary than if making an outside hire.

• Being vocal. Just as if you were applying for a full-time, permanent position, be specific about what you can offer an employer as a contract worker. Cite specific cases of where you helped an employer's bottom line.

• Looking forward. Some employers may hire you with a six-month contract that can be extended — or ended as planned. If you've worked with a recruiter to land the temporary gig, plan about a month before the end date to check in with the recruiter to begin looking for another assignment, Ozier says.

• Knowing your worth. It's not unheard of for temporary workers — who prove their worth — to be able to ask for a pay raise from the employer, no matter how temporary the employment. In addition, many employers will pay some living expenses if you're asked to relocate or travel for a temporary assignment.


Monday, February 14, 2011

How to Talk to a Company VIP

Have you ever met anyone famous? Were you tongue-tied?

I'm not talking Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie famous, because the truth is most of us would be struck dumb if we found ourselves in an elevator with either one of them or their 15 kids, but someone sort of famous.

I once ran into Jim Nabors outside the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville. I was with my kids and he was just standing at the curb, looking like a man wondering where the heck he had parked the car. He saw me and smiled. I smiled back, but not wanting to look like a total goof, I just sort of looked away. But he kept smiling at me, and finally I said, "How are you?" We exchanged some small talk, and I introduced him to my kids, who had no idea who Gomer Pyle was.

He wasn't famous enough to get me tongue-tied, but I did sort of have to rack my brain to think of something more than, "So, do you talk to Andy or Barney much these days?"

Sometimes in our careers we find ourselves standing next to the CEO at a cocktail party. It's a sort of Gomer Pyle moment, because we don't want to look like goofs but we want to be pleasant. What the heck to say to the person who can fire you with a look and who makes more money in a week than you will in 10 years?

The key is not to panic. Don't start babbling about how you love your job or you wish to heaven they'd hurry up and open the bar. This is the time to come across as a sane person and and not someone who skipped her meds this morning.

To interact with a VIP, try asking some questions such as:

* What are some ways you've found to handle a busy schedule?

* Is there someone you credit with helping you be successful?

* What's been the most rewarding thing about your job?

* What was your first job? What was the best/worst thing about it?

* Is there anything in your career that you would do differently?

When Jim Nabors and I parted company, he asked where I was headed.

"To Birmingham, to see family," I told him.

"Well, have a safe trip and tell Birmingham that Gomer says 'hey.'"

It left a smile on my face all day, and I can tell you when I recall that meeting, I think about what a great impression he made on me. That's a lesson we can all take from Gomer.

What other ways can you successfully interact with a business bigwig?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Deepak Chopra: "Get Outside Yourself"

Anyone who has read a leadership book in the last decade or even watched television after Michael Jackson died probably knows of Deepak Chopra. Even though I've been covering the workplace for long time, I finally had a chance to interview him.

As he answered his phone, I heard a dinging noise.

"Are you getting in your car?" I asked.

Chopra told me that indeed he was -- he was headed to the airport. While this made me a bit nervous (what if the famous Chopra had an accident because he was being interviewed by Anita Bruzzese? An image flashed on Anderson Cooper giving me the third degree..."So, is it true your questions caused him to run off the road?")

I'm glad to say the interview went off without a hitch, and this is the column I did for Gannett/USA Today:

You may think that your complaining boss or whining co-workers — or even the gloomy cubicle where you labor — are the reasons why you're not happy at work.

But according to Deepak Chopra, a leadership and spiritual guru to people from pop superstar Michael Jackson to corporate chief executives, individuals have more control over their happiness than they might believe. If you're miserable at work or in your job search, you can do something about it — and it doesn't matter who else is whining or complaining.

He says one of the easiest ways to "be happy instantly" when you're having a bad day at work or finding a job is "helping someone else."

  • "Get outside yourself," says Chopra, author or more than 55 books. "Ask someone, 'How are you feeling?' Give them appreciation. Tell someone two things you really like about them. Or, if they're having a bad time, let them know that you care what they're going through."

He also advises that we take more responsibility for having good thoughts instead of negative ones.

He suggests that when you have a stressful thought, such as thinking you'll never get the promotion or a new job, try to assess how that thought makes you feel. Then, think about how you would feel and how different your life might be if you let go of that negative thought.

Another key for developing a more positive outlook: focusing more on relationships that matter "instead of focusing on consumption, of buying things you don't need with money you don't have to impress people you don't like," he says.

In his latest book, The Soul of Leadership, (Harmony Books, $19.99), Chopra suggests also taking responsibility for how you view the world. He says that a person's soul "wants to deny you nothing," but your beliefs could be holding you back from all the possibilities in your career or life.

You can work to "reverse" beliefs that "block your future," he says:

1. When you think you're not good enough and deserve less than others, tell yourself:"The more I evolve, the more I deserve. Since evolution is unlimited, so is my deserving."

2. If you think avoidance is a good way to put off difficult decisions, think:"Postponement is never a solution. It simply freezes the problem in place. If I solve the problem now, I have my whole future to enjoy the solution."

3. If you believe that it doesn't help to focus on the things that are wrong about you, tell yourself: "Problems aren't bad. They are indications of where I need to grow. Beneath the difficulty lies a hidden ally. If I don't focus on my problems, I will miss the path of my own evolution."

4. When you tell yourself that change is hard, reverse that thinking to: "Life is nothing but change. .. change can be conscious or unconscious. Simply by becoming more aware, I have become a powerful agent of change. There is no need to force anything, only to expand my awareness."

5. If you believe that you're a prisoner of random events outside your control, change that to a belief that being controlled by anything — including randomness — makes you a victim. Tell yourself: "I have a choice to make the unknown either my friend or my enemy. As a friend, the unknown brings new life, new ideas and new possibilities. I will focus on that and let go of the rest."

6. If you believe you'd rather avoid confrontation so you can avoid making more enemies, think of an enemy as simply being another name for an obstacle: "Whenever I meet an obstacle, my soul has put it there for a purpose and has provided a solution at the same time. I don't need to focus on what another person feels about me; my aim isn't to make friends of everyone. Instead, I am here to evolve and follow the path my soul is unfolding day by day."


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Trash Talking the Boss

If you use Facebook, you're going to think the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is your new best friend.

The NLRB has reached a settlement with an ambulance company that fired an employee after she posted snippy comments about her boss on Facebook from her home computer. Under the agreement, the company now has to revamp its policies so that they don't infringe on a worker's rights. In other words, if an employee wants to trash-talk a supervisor on social media, she gets to do it without fearing it will land her in the unemployment line.

It's the first time the NLRB has asserted that an employee can dis a boss or entire company on a social networking site like Facebook, contending it's a protected activity and that any employer who retaliates against a worker is breaking the law.

Hence the feeling that many employees may have that the NLRB rocks. Seriously.

But hold on a second. Let's think this through.

Mr. or Ms. Boss really pisses you off one day, and you head home and post lots of nasty comments about Mr. or Ms. Boss. While you may feel you're protected from the employer firing you -- and the NLRB says you are -- you're not being protected from yourself.

Because despite what anyone rules, bosses don't like it when you talk smack about them. So, do you honestly think you're going to get a raise or promotion if you've embarrassed them online? Even if you do get over your snit fit and make up with the boss, do you really think he or she has that short of a memory?

And let's add another issue: What happens when you go to apply for another job and it's discovered (and it will be) that you've trash-talked your last supervisor on Facebook or Twitter?

"Oh, goody," thinks the hiring manager, "let's hire this person who is immature and impulsive and unprofessional enough to call her last boss a 'big fat dummy head.' Can't wait to see what she says about us if she has a bad day."

Here's the point: Don't write under the influence. Of drugs, of alcohol, of anger, of frustration. Call your best friend or your mom or someone else who will give you a sympathetic shoulder or ear when you've had a really rotten time at work. Call your boss a doo-doo head to your sister over a dirty martini.

If you dream of a successful career, of your talent and abilities taking you far, then don't count on the NLRB saving your ass. It's up to you to make smart choices, and it starts with not criticizing your boss online and expecting to come out smelling like a rose. Trust me, that ain't gonna happen.

Friday, February 4, 2011

How to Recover From a Blow to Your Reputation

Do you care what other people say about you? Maybe you're one of those people who shrugs and could care less. Maybe you're someone who loses sleep over the thought of anyone saying anything negative or unflattering about you. It's an issue I explored for my Gannett/ column, and I think it will get you pondering the power of your reputation....

Some spectacular falls from grace have occurred in the public arena — people with reputations that were once sterling trashed like an old banana peel when their misconduct is revealed.

"People with good reputations are three times more likely to be influential than those with lesser reputations," Bacon says. "Your reputation is one of the most important power sources you have."That's why he says it's critical that workers work hard all the time to cultivate and protect their reputations.

Bacon, author of The Elements of Power, (Amacom, $27.95), says that while most people in your company or on your team won't speak out if you do something wrong, you can bet your reputation will begin to suffer. Some key indicators that your reputation is taking a beating might be when you're not included in key decisions or meetings, you're not recognized for your efforts, or you become isolated or ostracized.

"It's not always the end of the line for you because depending on what you did, the impact on your reputation can be severe to slight," he says. "The main thing is that you won't be viewed the same way."

Anyone with a damaged reputation for any reason needs to take steps immediately to restore it with others, Bacon says. He suggests the person can do the following:

• Make an apology. For example, a boss who yells at an innocent employee in front of others will be seen as a jerk and needs to make sure he salvages his reputation by apologizing to that employee as soon as possible in front of those who witnessed his poor behavior.

"Damage to a reputation is like a rock thrown in the water. The ripples just keep going. So the quicker you can stop those ripples, the better. The longer you give people to levy judgment against you, the worse it will be," he says.

• Ask for understanding. A boss who yells for no reason at an employee should not make excuses to others but explain what happened, Bacon says.

He suggests the boss can say, "I had a really bad night, and while this isn't an excuse, I ask you to understand."

• Never try to deny it. "Deniers are never believed," Bacon says. "You can offer all the justification in the world for an error you have made, but deniers are never readily forgiven. It just lands them in even hotter water."

• Never repeat the error. If a boss who yells at an employee does it again in another month, that boss is never likely to be forgiven.

The reputation of being a jerk is solidified.

• Seek redemption. Depending on the mistake, a person can try to recover from it by doing good works, such as Milken has.

A boss who berates a worker could inform others he or she is taking anger-management classes and working with young people who have the same problem.

One interesting thing about reputations is that they're often viewed differently throughout the world and that can affect your career in other countries.

While President Bill Clinton's scandal involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky was considered "egregious" in the United States, people in France "thought it was amazing that we would worry so much about it," Bacon says.

In another example, Bacon says that although Americans are urged to promote themselves to potential employers by highlighting their skills and accomplishments in an interview, such a practice may not go over well in Australia.

"In Australia, it's all about being one of the mates — you'll receive their disdain if you hold yourself above others," Bacon says.

What other ways can people repair -- and protect -- their reputations?


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

5 Ways to Cope With Criticism at Work

Anyone who says they like criticism is lying.

While we may say we appreciate feedback because it helps us grow, develops our skills (blah, blah, blah) the truth is that it stings when someone tells us they believe we're doing something wrong, or not doing a good job or that our new tie looks like something Yogi Bear would wear.

While you may harbor secret thoughts of punching your co-worker in the nose when he criticizes your report or would like to see your boss covered with a very itchy fungus when he nitpicks your efforts, the truth is that we've got to learn to take criticism like a professional if we want to see our career grow.

If you can't take criticism -- and get a reputation as a whiny cry-baby whenever someone says something you don't like -- then you're not going to get very far.

So, here are some ways to cope when you get stung:

1. Criticism is a fact of life. Everyone gets criticized, no matter how popular they may be, or how successful. You're in some very good company when someone criticizes you or your talents. Best-selling author John Grisham had his first book, "The Firm" turned down by more than two-dozen publishers. That book ended up being on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year.

2. Don't make yourself an easy mark. Don't like criticism? Then don't do dumb stuff like showing up late every day for work, consistently turning in sloppy work or spending half the day chatting with friends via Facebook. Once you start the cycle of criticism, it's going to be hard for anyone to see you as anything but a screw-up who deserves the insults.

3. Be honest with yourself. If you say, "Just let me know if there's anything else I can do," or "If this isn't what you want, let me know," then there is a chance you might get feedback that isn't always rosy. You can't get huffy when you get criticism if you've asked for it.

4. Avoid lashing out. I grew up with two sisters, and believe me, if you threw a punch you better be ready for one in return. Retaliation was the name of the game, whether it was ripping the head off my sister's favorite Barbie doll or tattling to my mom. But in the workplace, you can't go running to the boss or colleagues when you don't like criticism you've received. You can't fire back an e-mail to your critic, laced with phrases like "you moron" and "you're dead to me." In fact, when you're the most upset, don't say anything. Excuse yourself to go to the restroom or outside, anything to cool off so that you don't overreact.

5. Keep your perspective. So, you're told your report wasn't done very well. Your writing was trite and the conclusion was wrong. Trust me, the world will not stop spinning because you write poorly. When you go home, the dog will still love you, your family will still think you're funny and spring still will arrive.

What are some others ways to cope with criticism?