In this episode, we will visit with Ralph Viray, Associate Director of Software Development at Columbia Southern University. In this series, we’ll dive deep into the fascinating world of remote work and discover the strategies, challenges, and successes of remote professionals from various industries and backgrounds. Get inspired from insights, anecdotes, and practical advice from experts in their field who are endeavoring to master the art of working remote.
Update your status! ... and other words of wisdom
WorkForeRemote.org (Traci): Hello and welcome to today’s podcast in our How Do You Remote Series. Where we will discuss all things related to remote work from guests representing a variety of fields. Joining me today is Ralph Viray, Associate Director of Software Development at CSU (Columbia Southern University). He has been in the field of software development for over 25 years and he has extensive experience working remote. One word to describe him would be a Remote Curmudgeon. Welcome to the show, Ralph.
Ralph Viray: Hey, thanks for having me, Traci.
Traci: Sure, to start things off, can you share with our listeners how to be perceived as a remote professional in that remote workspace, so talk a little bit about that.
Ralph: With my current position I’ve been remote for close to two years now prior to this position I was fully remote with an organization in Sarasota, Florida. I’m currently in Pensacola, which is roughly a seven hour drive. I had to be very accessible at all times during the nine to five day. In software development, unfortunately, it can be more than nine to five. If things break, you need to be on your toes, you need to be accessible to everybody involved to help resolve any issues.
That’s the topic I want to talk about today – being accessible. At my job with Columbia Southern University, it’s relatively new to be a remote worker.
One thing that’s actually drives me nuts with remote work, as far as both a manager and an employee is to try to get information from people and that they not be accessible. Depending on the importance there’s chat, there’s email, there’s SMS texting what have you, I like to go through a progression.
If it’s very important, obviously, it’s a phone call – if it needs to be handled right then and there – phone call.
If it’s something important, but not life-threatening, I usually hit them up in a chat program that displays if you are available or not – and if you’re available then you should be able to communicate quickly.
I’ve found that a lot of people, especially in software development, a lot of the developers have three or four screens up – which is fine – and they use one of the screens as their chat screen. However, they don’t pay attention to that screen and only notice it 20, 30, 40, minutes after they get their eyes off the screen that they’re coding on. Which is good and bad, I want them to be doing their job making sure everything’s good to; however, I feel that they need to be more aware of every screen to make sure that if I need their help they’re accessible.
Traci: Are you finding that only happens with coders or people in IT that need that focus time with what they’re doing, so if they get interrupted they can lose track of their work, or does it happen across departments?
Ralph: I think it happens across departments – chat is a good tool, but you need to pay attention to it. That’s one of my sticking points – if I have to communicate to one of my developers and it’s taken me more than a half hour I text them, if they’re still not accessible they better have a good excuse.
I think that there should be an expectation, for anyone, to receive the communication, understand it, and reply back. That’s one of my sticking points. I try to be as accessible as possible, because I know that, during the daytime – working hours – if there’s something that I need to be aware of, or if I need
to answer a question, I don’t want to be the obstacle in their way.
I try to be as attentive in anything that gets communicated to me. I think that you should communicate with all the vehicles you have at hand. For example, if you were at lunch put yourself in do not disturb. If you are away, I mean let’s say as simple as a vacation day, calendars are updated and it’s shared by everyone. Your IM (Instant Message) or chat vehicle should be on do not disturb, or have a message that says on vacation.
That is a simple communication. I know you are not physically there. If you forget and you leave yourself green (showing available), then I’m going to hound you. My expectation is that you’re going to respond in a timely manner.
Traci: It’s the honesty of the green, that’s what we’re talking about here today. If you showing yourself as available, are you really available?
Ralph: Yes, and as a manager, I totally understand if since we’re all remote working, if your children are doing something that you need to stop and you forget that’s fine, I’m not a tyrant when it comes to that. However, if it’s consistently like that then there’s an issue.
Consistency in your communication because we’re remote and I can’t physically see you, which is fine. However, there are vehicles that the company has provided that allow you to communicate when you’re not around.
As far as this topic’s concerned, obviously if I’m not happy with how they’re communicating I will say something. I’ll just simply add something nice, for example, one of the guys last year was you know busy doing stuff for a week or so and he wasn’t communicating properly. Don’t get me wrong, he was working. However, I did have to say, “Dude, if you are busy and you’re away from your computer during working hours just put yourself on do not disturb, call it a day, and I won’t bother you. I’ll wait until you’re green or you’re available to hit you up.”
I don’t think it’s just IT, I think the comfort level and how much leeway managers give their employees it’s not really IT, it’s more on shown performance, historic performance, and the productivity of their employees. I think that if you see an employee that you know meets expectations sometimes exceeds them, you let them do what they do – let them do them – I think that would probably produce the most effective worker. Let them be themselves. You’re doing your job, you’re meeting expectations, I think we as managers should just allow them to do that.
Traci: In your vast experience as a remote curmudgeon what are your personal thoughts on dressing, their background, etc that helps maintain that standard of professionalism. Do you think that’s important?
Ralph: It depends on your audience. For me, if it’s my developer I don’t care if they are rocking a t-shirt that says Metallica. I don’t care, very little caring on. Background could be three kids in the background playing, as long as they’re comfortable and doing their job. That’s professionalism for me. They’re paying attention, sure they have to take care of their kids, or the kids are inside the room that particular time – that’s a developer. If I was talking to a vendor or if I had a leadership brief meeting, obviously I’d clean up, put on a shirt, just like here, right?
Traci: He’s indicating a collard shirt…
Ralph: Correct, the collared shirts. The level of professionalism is dictated by the audience that you will be talking with or meeting with. For example, I just got off the phone with one of my developers, because we needed to meet about some stuff I was passing down to them. We were on video, I had my t-shirt on, we went straight through and talked about exactly what I need, and my expectations, and he got it. His kids were there, and I waved at the kids, right? The kids were fun, family first – that’s the whole thing. I understand family comes first. As far as professionalism – it’s not only the dress but it’s also how you get things done during that meeting.
You can be in a meeting with dozens of leaders, but if they spend 15-20 minutes patting themselves on their backs, which doesn’t happen often, it doesn’t display professionalism for me. There’s a point to the meeting, there’s an agenda hopefully to the meeting, so let’s stick with that. That’s what I call professionalism.
Traci: That’s a really valuable lesson. What are some things you’ve seen people do in video conference that doesn’t really speak of professionalism? Are there examples that you can pull to mind of things people maybe should or shouldn’t do?
Ralph: Well, the first thing they should do is, before every meeting, make sure your equipment works. I’m not saying five minutes before the meeting I am talking 15-20- 25 minutes before the meeting, make sure you are squared away and ready for that meeting. Mic, the whole nine yards. People thinking they are muted, and because they didn’t mute themselves, they just assumed that they were automatically muted, and things in the background are being said or done.
We were in a meeting not at CSU where they were actually in a drive-through line ordering a meal – not on mute. Here’s the bad part, no one, especially people that were leading the meeting, said anything. Because everyone was taken aback and we heard, “a double quarter pound with cheese, please.” What can you say with that, and I see it happen every once in a while where the moderator would say, “Hey, can you please mute yourself if you’re not talking.” That’s one of the fails, right, not verifying your equipment works, not verifying that you are muted when you’re not muted, or muted when you are unmuted. The video, especially the video that’s is on when you don’t think it’s on. In every application, you can see yourself – it’s not paying attention.
Traci: What are some things that people have done on camera that you’re like, “Why would you not be aware of that?”
Ralph: There was one meeting that, years back, different meeting, we had about 30 people, very smart people, but they were not technically savvy. An individual was fixing their camera. They didn’t need to fix it, because it was on, and I see nostril hair – for about five minutes. It was one of those things where you either text that individual or the moderator says, “Hey, make sure you know your videos are on.” Giving them a clue that some something’s happening. It’s an embarrassing thing, and I hate to see it happen, but you need to take onus on yourself to make sure everything’s good to go – so you’re not fidgeting while you’re in the meeting.
Traci: Is there a norm to have cameras on or off in organizations you’ve worked for, and what happens if someone breaks that norm?
Ralph: I think that a large majority of the my peers, and expectations at different organizations:
you can have the camera on or don’t, just be cognizant of how you look and what you’re doing during the meeting. It’s it’s harder now right because you don’t think anyone’s paying attention to you versus in a round table or in a conference table everyone’s looking around you’re putting on your best behavior, but you’re in the office. Now you’re at the house where a cat could jump on top of your table, right?
Traci: …and they only do that when the meeting starts, or when you’re speaking that’s when the dogs start barking – when you’ve got a hot mic it likes they say, “We need to bark now.”
Is there a way that you communicate a minimum expectation when staff are onboarded? Is it something that you try to teach while you’re getting them onboarded, is it in your policies, “…this is what we expect,” or is it something you’re developing now?
Ralph: What we’re doing in my current organization, since everyone is not new everyone knows their expectations; however, you’re right, when it’s a new employee, when you’re on boarding, set those expectations – set them so that they are a rock solid rule.
Explain to the individual that there are circumstances where you will have to break that rule; however, you need to communicate to me what happened after or before. So I don’t mind if a developer said, “Hey, my next door neighbor just rang my doorbell I’ll be inaccessible for a few minutes.” That’s fine, set your self in do not disturb, take your time, help your neighbor out.
Traci: Now we see inside people’s homes. There’s an informality there where you see people eating more on video calls or either family members in the background. Instead of just seeing a picture, you actually see them behind your coworkers and you’ll wave at them. We know a lot more about people now. We’re creating that new reality of what that looks like: professionalism in the remote workplace.
Ralph: If you’re in the office it’s a controlled environment versus in the house where it’s chaos. Regardless if you have a crazy household or if you live by yourself – you’re going to get a doorbell with the UPS guy telling you that you got a package.
Traci: Or that you have to sign for it, even though you unchecked that box.
Ralph: Exactly, so it’s unknown chaos that can occur at any time versus in the office where you’re in a conference room. Everyone knows you’re in a conference room, right? If there’s an emergency someone will knock on the door or peek in and say, “You need to come out here.” That’s controlled, versus the unexpected cat jumping on your table, going around in front of your screen, those things are easily handled.
That chaos (in a remote environment) can be easily handled, right? For example, knowing your instrument of meetings: there are keyboard commands, shortcuts – boom, your your mic is off. You can have a mic that you have a mute button right on the mic, push to talk, things like that. You have to be aware and be quick when chaos happens inside that meeting in your room.
Traci: There’s a level of grace for it, but it needs to be controlled, it should be an outlier, it shouldn’t happen habitually. That’s just the new standard for basic professionalism because you don’t have that controlled environment like we used to have. There is a level of informality, but we still have to have a basic level of professionalism when it comes to communicating, operating equipment, being available when you’re supposed to be, or showing that you’re away. Just have those standards and make that something we can commit to.
Ralph: And a lot of people like to include how you look as a professional. In a remote environment, I personally can’t care less what you look like. My expectation is, “Hey, we have a meeting, try to make it look like you tried to look your best during the meeting.” I understand stuff happens, I don’t take points away. No, I don’t take points away when every once in a while your hair is not done. I don’t care if your hair is done, it doesn’t mean you just coded 15 lines of code. That doesn’t equate to that. Once again it depends on the audience.
During a leadership brief meeting at Columbia Southern, I usually don’t turn my camera on because there’s 50,000 people in there and it’s a distraction. I will have a film strip of people on the top and if someone’s looking kind of funny I’m not focusing on the meeting.
I believe it’s the comfort level of the leader of that organization or the moderator of that that meeting. If it’s a vendor meeting and they want me to turn my camera on and I’m not ready – because I didn’t want to have my camera on – then the camera’s not going to go on. “I am ready to participate on the things I need to participate in. To be honest, I don’t want to be on video because I’m not at my best.”
Traci: I want you to provide our listeners some words of advice whether they’ve just come into remote work or if they’ve been in remote work for years, what’s the one thing that you would share with them with your vast experience as a remote curmudgeon.
One, you have to be prepared, not only with the technology – if it’s a phone call, if it’s a video meeting, if it’s a chat conversation – be ready. Don’t fumble around two minutes before the meeting starts.
Number two, be on time or early into a meeting. For example, today I clicked in the link 30 minutes beforehand to double check that everything was good to go – testing mics, etc. Just be prepared.
The last thing and the key to my success working remotely is, in the software development world, we have stand-ups every morning to discuss what we’re going to do, what we did yesterday, and what we did today. I do that myself every morning to make sure that (and I didn’t even turn on the computer yet) I know exactly what I need to accomplish today and how I’m going to accomplish it.
When you’re prepared like that mentally, before you even turn on your computer, you’re good to go. You’re better able to handle the fires that come out throughout the day.
Traci: Ralph, I appreciate you joining us today, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in to WorkForceRemote.org’s Podcast where our goal is to help you continue to go remote and work on.