Blog Post

How to Communicate Your Busyness to Remote Colleagues

As we face up to the holiday season, many of my colleagues and clients are beginning to feel the pressure of deadlines. Time is running short, and suddenly they need my contributions to their projects immediately — if not sooner.

Distance compounds this issue. If you work in an office, your colleagues can actually see you toiling away at your desk. They know how often you stand around chatting in the kitchen, and how often you take a lunch break. If you’re already at your desk when they get in in the morning, and you’re still there when they leave, they’ll probably presume that you’re busy.

But the remote worker’s busyness is obscured. If you work with me, you’ll know when I’m online, because of my IM status. Sometimes I might reply to your emails immediately; other times it may take a day or two. You won’t have any idea whether that’s because I’m busy with work, distracted, or just lazy.

This can be frustrating on both sides of the equation: I’ll find my colleagues’ need-it-yesterday mentality stressful; they’ll wonder why on earth I’m taking so long with their task. It’s even worse for freelancers, where the sum total of a week’s work may not be visible to the client. In those cases, it can be difficult for the client to see why a reasonably small or straightforward task should take “so long” — however long that may be.

These are the tactics I use to try to manage the need-it-yesterday mentality in the people I work with. I’m a remote freelancer, so some of these ideas might seem like overkill for you. If you have ideas to add, let us know in the comments.

Share Your Calendar and Task List

Sharing your calendar with your colleagues works, whether you’re an internal or external resource. In the last few months, I’ve shared my calendar with my key ongoing freelance clients, which has made it very easy for them to see when I have availability.

I plan out my time a few weeks in advance, and refer my contacts to my calendar when they ask if I’ll have time to do a task. This encourages them to look at my schedule, which gives them a clear idea of what I’ve got on — not just with them, but with other clients, too.

The shared task/to-do list is another no-brainer. I have a task list for each of my key clients, and share it with them so that they can add to and prioritize the tasks on it. When they contact me to ask them if I can do something, I can easily refer to my task list in asking them how to prioritize the new task.

Don’t Agree to Deadlines Without Consideration

I’ve learned through bitter experience that when it comes to agreeing to deadlines, glibness doesn’t pay. Even if you can easily meet the deadline, telling your contact, “no problem” off-the-cuff communicates more than the fact that you can meet the deadline. It indicates that you have so much free time that any deadline is doable.

These days, when someone gives me a deadline, I tell them I’ll check my diary and let them know if it’s achievable. If I have my diary with me, of course, I’ll check it right there and give them an answer. The important point is not to commit to a deadline without consideration. This approach needn’t make your contact feel like they’re low on your list of priorities; on the contrary, it shows that you’re taking their work seriously and you want to put aside due time for it in your schedule, so that it doesn’t get swamped by something else.

Communicate Task Status

No matter how diligent you are about sharing your calendar and task list, it’s unlikely that your colleagues are going to look at them for fun, or out of sheer curiosity. You need to take it upon yourself to communicate the status of your tasks with your manager, team leader or client.

Whether you do this weekly, daily or as you remember will depend on your work, your schedule, and your colleagues. The important thing is to make it as clear as possible what you’re working on and what progress you’re making.

You might also provide estimates for times-to-completion for each task you’re working on. This provides a great opportunity for you to mention that more work will extend the time to the task’s completion, and acts as a clear signal to colleagues that your time isn’t elastic.

Ask for Priorities

Every time a colleague gives me a new task, I ask where it fits among the other tasks I’m completing for them. What’s its priority?

Asking for priorities gives my client control over the work I’m doing for them, but again, it brings the fact that my time isn’t limitless into clear focus. There are only so many hours; I can only work on one task at any one time. Once they’ve given me the task’s priority, I can alter my task list and send them a link to it so that we’re both clear on task order.

Make Task Completion Clear

After I present a piece of work to a colleague, I’m careful to ask them, point-blank, if they feel the job’s done. No matter how small the task, I ask this question.

This tactic helps avoid the scenario where a task I thought was completed drags on and on, with changes or additions that my colleague decides they want after the fact; changes or additions for which I haven’t scheduled any time, because I thought the task was done. It gives my contact the chance to say, “No, we still need to do x,” and for me to put aside time for that task in my calendar.

Agreeing with colleagues that the task is done reinforces the sense of progress and achievement. It also provides a break-point at which you can reassess the priorities on remaining tasks, and provide your colleague or client with a current picture of how much time you have available currently.

So far, these techniques have worked well to help me manage the need-it-yesterday mentality that emerges in my colleagues at this time of year. How do you ensure that your contacts have reasonable expectations of your capacity and availability for work?

Image by stock.xchng user Rendy.

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8 Responses to “How to Communicate Your Busyness to Remote Colleagues”

  1. Music to my ears. Email and IM just don’t cut it for syncing with people. Transparency, Accountability and most importantly Priority are vital pieces of information that everyone in a team needs to be aware of with regard to each others Tasks. Technology should be able to help us bridge this gap.

    That’s what we do here at – I hope you’ll check us out and see if what we offer could assuage part of your frustration.

  2. Stephanie

    Giving your clients and coworkers a single place, like a virtual workspace, where they can easily access both your schedule and tasks in one place could help you cut down on email communication as well as keep them updated with your progress at the same time. I work for Onehub and we provide a service that let’s you do that. I would recommend our Workspaces product because that is the one I am most heavily acquainted with and know that freelancers enjoy using it, however I would suggest giving a couple a try to see which product best fits your specific needs.

  3. Hi Georgina,

    Thanks for writing this article. I’m interested in your idea of sharing your task list with your clients. I’ve tried before but people always end up emailing me or calling instead :(

    Out of interest, which website/app do you use to share your task list? And do you let your clients add to the list, or just view it?


    • Hey Paul,
      I just use a BaseCamp to do list, and yes, I give ongoing clients with whom I’m working closely the ability to add and move tasks. They don’t, though — they contact me and ask me if I can fit something in and I add it :)

      I think the benefit of the shared task list is less about them using it autonomously and more about the sense of shared responsibility it brings. When you refer them to it in an email or conversation, it illuminates the fact that you’re both responsible for managing the task priorities, and that you can only do one thing at any given moment :)

  4. Georgina, we actually founded our own start-up to make freelancers like you collaborate better with remote clients (although we focus on web-designers)

    The tips you are mentioning could be a starting point to some of our next features.