INSIGHT: How to collaborate remotely with Jerks

"It helps to take a step back and consider how a basic human problem often gets overlooked and is compounded by flashy technology."

I have read many articles about how futuristic collaboration technologies, from telepresence conference rooms to virtual worlds, will improve workplace collaboration.

Recently, I saw a video of telepresence robots in a lab. Rather than being impressed, my first thought was “Great! Although I wish humanity had nailed down how to collaborate in person first before bringing in the avatars and robots …”

I don’t blame the tech industry for continually developing new ways for people to collaborate. Indeed, it’s the lifeblood of my team’s coverage of collaboration and content.

But it helps to take a step back and consider how a basic human problem – that sometimes people are jerks to you – often gets overlooked and is compounded by flashy technology.

I’ll argue in this posting that workers should be aware that dealing with people who want to abuse communication norms for nefarious purposes have been given extra ammunition by the proliferation of communication channels (email, IM, skype, phone, face to face, social postings, etc) and that the answer is to be aware of channel switching and control it to the extent you can.

My team, my peers, and I (who I get along with quite well, even when working remotely!) spend our time helping enterprise clients understand, select, and implement collaboration and communication technology.

We talk about how the technologies can improve collaboration between willing team mates, particularly when working remotely on geographically dispersed teams.

But, it’s worth noting that even before the Internet era and remote work, collaboration with fellow workers on projects was challenging.

Usually it’s simply because of the dynamics or goals of the people involved. But in a painful minority of the cases, it truly is due to bad behaviour by an individual in a given situation.

In my early days as a programmer I was the jerk to a project manager (from his viewpoint).

He didn’t have my respect and I thought he was making bad decisions. He got very frustrated with me and blurted out “You’re the most difficult case I’ve ever had!”.

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