Smith’s beautiful lounge area is very quiet these days. To maximize social distancing we only have one person in the office each day. It’s a sad (hopefully brief) new reality. Fortunately, Smith’s ability to serve our clients has not being disrupted at all.
Since our inception in 2005, every Smith employee has been set up to work remotely. Some of us do it all of the time. Some of us choose a hybrid model, where we both go to an office and work from home.
We know a lot of you have been thrust into working from home and you’re figuring things out. Over the years we’ve learned a few tricks. Here are a some tips that might help you navigate this stressful time, with sanity, humor and success.
Set the Stage
My grandfather was a professor of theology who often worked from home and sometimes conducted classes in his home office. The office had two doors. His eight children — eight! –understood that if the first office door was open, they were allowed to knock on the second office door. If both doors were closed, they were to keep on walking.
So when we built our house, and I knew I wanted to work from home, I had French doors installed on my office, and tried to teach my twin girls roughly the same system. It worked some of the time. The most notable failure was the time they got into a screaming fight right outside my door while I was on a conference call with a client. I had to go on mute, scramble with my laptop upstairs, and finish the call from the master bathroom with the door locked.
I have a standing desk and try to stand for at least a 1/3 of my day. Helps my back!
Maximize your shared drive. At Smith, we’ve been using Google Drive for a few years. This service lets you access files from any device, online or offline. It makes it easy to collaborate with others (at a distance), retrieve deleted documents and restore earlier versions of documents.
When I need to laser focus on a topic, I close the door to my office and turn off all electronics. I have a couple chairs in my office and when I am really busy I put a backpack and a box on them to prevent visitors from sitting down! Mean … but effective. 🙂
My desk faces the window. So my back is to the door into the room. If I don’t turn around, Jay knows not to venture in. Lastly, I’m trying to Marie Kondo my desk so it won’t look overwhelming in the morning.
I work in different areas of the house to change up the scenery. Helps with my creativity. If it’s nice out, I work on the front or back porch, or on the deck. I’m typically home alone. But if someone is home with me and I can’t be bothered, I lock myself in my office.
If there’s a storm coming, I work while my laptop is plugged in. If I lose power, I can continue to work with a full charge. Best to do this on a surge protector.
I also never answer the front door during my work hours. It sets a standard for neighbors, friends and/or solicitors that I don’t want to be bothered. Those that really need/want something would text first.
At the end of each day, I aspire (don’t always succeed) to straighten my desk and make a to-do list for the next day, including work and personal items. This way, I walk into the office the next morning and can immediately begin work.
My wife and I both work from home. We placed our offices on opposite ends of the home—cuts out noise and distraction. Another thing we do is hang a hotel’s “privacy” sign on our door when we can’t be interrupted.
Create Healthy Habits
A couple of years ago, Allison gave everyone “Dammit Dolls” for Christmas. They come in handy sometimes. Make a little room for frustration. It’s going to happen and it isn’t the end of the world.
I try (emphasis on the try) to maintain a normal eating schedule. In other words a regular lunch and not snack every hour.
I don’t know if others struggle with this but because I am home, people will call wanting to “ask a quick question” or come into my office “to visit.” That just irritates me to no end!
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been wearing a smart watch that, among other things, reminds me to pause my work and walk for just a couple of minutes each hour. Inevitably, when at the office, I often find it difficult to break away from my work at hand. However, when working from home, I have numerous more interesting quick destinations available to me — our mailbox, our garden, our bird feeder, etc. — that make taking 2-5 minute health breaks more inviting during my day.
I am in a rather unique situation. Last year, I moved to an active adult community, age 55+. This is important for two primary reasons:
Most of my neighbors are in the danger zone, age-wise if not health wise. So, we are having parties in the street in the early afternoon, remaining safely distant from each other, to sing happy birthday to our friends … including champagne toasts. Later this evening, we are having a block party … from our driveways, wishing passers-by well from a distance, and air-toasting each other with beverages of choice.
Our yard has never looked better — and is free of doggie presents. With compulsory outdoor time every day…we have picked up all the sticks, raked all the leaves, planted 300+ bulbs that were sitting in the mudroom for the last year (but will they grow?!), uncovered an old brick path, and last — but certainly not least — for the first time ever picked up dog droppings every single day.
Add Children and Stir
Mothers of a bygone era taught their children to identify plants that would help them survive in the wild, if necessary. This knowledge has been largely undervalued in recent times, but my mother did convey one key piece of wisdom that I’m especially glad I follow. She said, “Toilet paper will never go to waste,” so I’ve always kept a case on hand!
Summers working from home with little kids were always the most challenging. One idea that worked well was rolling a bar cart outside of my office door and filling it with crafts and games. When they wandered in my office to say they were bored, I could point them back out to the cart.
Now that my kids are going to school from home and husband is working from home, it has been a learning period for all of us. Most of the time, we are all on separate calls, in separate areas of the house. I mostly stay on mute when I am not speaking, but have had to exercise strategic use of the mute button to help with interruptions.
My daughter figured this out the hard way during one of her virtual classroom sessions. She was talking and accidentally stepped on a Santa Claus stuffed doll and it began playing Christmas music. She apologized for the disruption in the chat feature of her Google Meet call. A classmate responded in the chat, “Why do you still have your Christmas toys out?” Which raises a good question.
From my children’s online class meetings to ducking under the camera as I walk by Jeff’s Zoom calls, everyone in my house is becoming more comfortable with video conferencing. This is something many have resisted but can truly be uplifting, motivating, sanity saving in times of isolation. While there are many tips about how to feel better about being on video from using your app’s preview feature to inserting custom backgrounds as on Zoom, the bottom line is the more you do it the more comfortable you become.
Also blackjack with candy is good for math fluency.
My workday has changed now that I have my 7 year old who needs constant help with her schoolwork and is hungry every hour. We are both out of routine and trapped indoors which has caused us a lot of frustration. I sent her outside in the backyard to get fresh air in which she said, “That’s boring” and sat on the deck with her arms crossed pouting. I was forced to go outside and help her think outside the box. We explored areas of the yard we haven’t before, looked at new sprouting plants and blooms…along with many weeds. We collected sticks and looked under rocks, logs and plants for bugs. She even found a cocoon! As we went back indoors, she said, “That was FUN!” That fresh air really changed our moods!
I downsized into a two-bedroom home when I moved here. Shortly thereafter, my son and his wife moved in to live with me while their new home is being built. So, my daughter-in-law has all her computer equipment in the dining room, my son is floating from their room to my room to the living room with his laptop and phone, and I am primarily in my office. I am enjoying having them here, and we are having fun cooking, etc. My daughter-in-law is a gourmet cook so I am learning from her, and I am a “Southern” cook so we have a variety.
Before getting on conference calls I’ve learned to check on our dog, Charlie, to make sure he’s occupied and happy. Otherwise, invariably, he contributes his thoughts to the discussion!
We use to freak out whenever the dog barked. Now, even before the coronavirus crisis, it isn’t so much an issue because so many people work remotely.
Like Norine, I make sure the cat is happy. She has walked in on me during a conference call screaming that her food bowl is empty. Another reason to lock the office door.
I’ve heard it said that 2020 will be the worst year many of us have ever experienced. If you’re a dog, though, these are the best of times. My dog, Trooper, is loving a full house of people ALL day EVERY day; not to mention the seemingly constant parade of walkers (and other dogs) strolling past our house. He’s never received, nor given, more attention.
RC: We’ve agreed that a consultant needs to be relatable, capable and reliable to earn the confidence of our clients. Let’s dig a little deeper into how each of those qualities comes into play.
Relatability: Connecting with the client and providing reassurance that you understand the demands on them and the larger enterprise and that you are genuinely interested in accomplishing important work with them.
TW: After almost 30 years in this field, I believe there are usually two aspects of relatability that the prospective client looks for before they will hire a consultant.
First, experience. They need a consultant to be experienced enough in a given area to be understood as a reasonable risk for the conduct of a project.
Second, an interesting and engaging person. Consciously or unconsciously, clients ask themselves, “Would I want to have lunch with this person?” For the clients to answer “yes,” sometimes requires the consultant to show an ability to relate to the buyer on issues beyond the immediate business issue at hand. “Oh! I, love classic movies too!” Or, “Yoga has changed my life.”
GG: I’ve been working with a great client for 12 years, as she has worked in senior leadership at two different organizations. The other day, she said to me, “You know, you’re very highly regarded here.” I felt like she had just handed me a gold plaque.
I think more common signs that you’re really building trust come in off-the-cuff moments. When a client calls out of the blue and says they just want to run something by you or that they recommended you to a colleague or that they caught wind of a new initiative and immediately thought of you, then you know they think of you as part of their team, their network, their brain trust.
JN: I’m reading a book now called The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. It focuses on seven open-ended questions to ask (coaching) clients. I see a lot of application between this technique and how we might conduct a get-to-know-you meeting or a kick-off meeting. Our clients often know the way in which they need to solve their problems. They just don’t know how to get started—or, maybe, how to execute it well. When they find a partner who listens and cares, and who they like spending an intense amount of time with, that’s a project that can succeed.
DM: It may sound sort of silly, but my clients appreciate that I’m a “real person” with real solutions coming out of my consulting and corporate experience. I have one client who is working with another consultant (to use up a monetary credit) and I know the other consultant pretty well. She’s a tough person to connect with. She’s pleasant, and I imagine her work is fine, but it’s difficult to follow her thought process. Whereas, my client and I are to the point that we sometimes finish each other’s sentences. When we may not immediately understand each other, I can probe and ask coaching-type questions to draw out what she’s trying to communicate. And then we get to work.
MG: To me, this comes down to one simple tenet: Consultants are not “better” than their clients. We must check our egos at the door. Our clients are smart people who usually know what they want and where they want to go. As Jennifer said, our job is to help them get there.
Our clients’ desires and objectives for their work are more important than our desires and objectives for their work. I’ve seen many consultants fail—and earn the disdain of their clients—because it was apparent that a given project was a vehicle for the consultant to do what they wanted to do rather than the other way around.
Capability: Demonstrating that you possess the expertise and experience to consult on and deliver against the client’s goals, standards and objectives.
TW: I believe we demonstrate capability during the course of an assignment. Yes, the buyer has attempted an evaluation by review of previous work and through client references. However, all knowledgeable buyers attempt to confirm their earlier decision in the first days and actions of a project.
GG: A firm can make all kinds of claims on their website, but firms don’t work on projects. People do. I think one gets a much clearer sense of the kind of work you’re going to get by talking to the people who will actually be doing the work.
JN: This is where Smith’s promise that “we don’t just show up for meetings, we actually do the work” matters. Probably the most frequent question I hear from prospective clients is, “Have you done X before? What’s the best practice?” If we can tell a story and show a work sample from another engagement that is closely related to their issue (and better yet, also in their industry) that immediately makes the prospect feel more confident in our ability to lead them to a solution.
DM: Thinking of “best practices” as plug-and-play solutions is dangerous. We can draw from past experiences and “best practices,” but it’s long-term experience and deep knowledge that helps us create and deliver the best solution for our client’s immediate need. Tailored, specific solutions—rather than just “best practice” solutions—bring the most value and deepen the relationship.
Reliability: Earning the client’s trust that you will deliver what you’ve promised according to stated and unstated needs.
TW: Only after we successfully complete more than one assignment are we given the opportunity to be considered reliable.
JN: Last week, I called a long-term client to outline a scope change on a project. He was fine with the related fee increase, told me to move forward and then pivoted to “When should we schedule our enrollment kick-off meeting?” That sentence was our proposal process. There is nothing like past success to build trust and the sense that the consultant is part of the extended team.
With a prospective client, I think the trust organically emerges from the relatability and capability factors that we touched on earlier. If a prospect feels you are genuinely excited about doing the work, that you’re eager to try the proposed solution, and they are excited about applying the quality of our past work to their new situation, we’ve become reliable.
DM: I recently had a client say to me, “I know that when I need you, you’ll respond; some of our consultants don’t.” I was floored. Responding is the easiest step in getting the work! And hey, if we’re known for being responsive, I’ll take that!
Like Jennifer said, it’s wonderful when the new business process is streamlined to “It’s time to renew our Master Services Agreement—can you update the date so I can sign” or “Let’s get our next kick-off meeting on the calendar.” Your past work is earning new work.
MG: Another way you earn trust with a client is by always being honest, especially when things go bad.
I remember a meeting early in my career at another firm. We were brought in to explain to a client how and why things had gone so poorly on a project. I was an underling. My job in the meeting was to sit there, be quiet and take notes. So the meeting started badly and only got worse as my superiors attempted to explain how and why our failure occurred, attempting to displace blame.
It sounded like we were making excuses. And, to my astonishment, no one apologized. Our client was fuming. Finally, against my better judgment, I spoke up and simply said we were sorry that this happened, it shouldn’t have happened, and we will not let it happen again. I owned the mistake—all our client really wanted. Within three months, I was leading the account. That was an important lesson for me.
RC: What really jumps out at me, as the person with least direct client contact, is the personal nature of consulting. And how “relationship” is more than jargon, it’s a foundational principle. Thank you, all.