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June 2021

Five days ago I taught the last session of The Art of Self-Coaching to a group of Stanford MBA students. These days I teach from my home office, facing a window that overlooks a sheep pasture. I took the photo above at the beginning of Spring Quarter, but today the tree is leafy and green, and the pastures are dry and golden. This was the third time I've taught the course virtually, including a version I offered to the public last year, which is now archived on my site and freely available to anyone, and it was the 15th time I've taught it over the last 7 years.

I know my students have had a far more difficult time during the pandemic than I have, in part simply because I've been able to maintain my practice remotely while they were largely denied the on-campus experience that they had been anticipating. And yet teaching this Spring was hard for me as well, much harder than I expected.

It was hard not sharing a classroom with students. I’ve always taught in Z301, the largest classroom at Stanford’s business school, because most of the activity in The Art of Self-Coaching takes place in pair conversations and small-group exercises, and I wanted students to be able to spread out and obtain a sense of privacy and emotional intimacy. I’ve spent so many hours in that room that I can close my eyes and be there. I can hear the James Brown playlist I would stream before class, primarily to loosen myself up, but also to energize students at 8:00am. It was really hard not being there this year.

I wasn’t there last year, either, but there was a sense of adventure in Spring 2020 as I taught virtually for the first time. We all had to improvise to confront the pandemic and make the best of it. But while my students last year certainly felt the loss of their final Quarter on campus, they had already been at Stanford for 18 months, and I think it was easier for them to accept that loss. My students this year only had 6 months on campus before the pandemic hit, and it was hard knowing that two-thirds of their grad school experience had been virtual.

But it was hardest realizing that I wasn’t going to be capable of doing my best work. I hold myself to high standards, and I want my students to have high expectations for our work together. But this year it was clear that I was going to have to accept some limitations on what I could deliver. Some of that is due to the medium--I spent 15 years honing my craft as a teacher, but so much of my approach relies on the in-person experience. But I also had to recognize my own pandemic-related fatigue and ensure that I didn’t impair my ability to be there for my coaching clients, many of whom have been facing the greatest crisis of their careers.

And yet despite these difficulties, teaching this Quarter was also deeply rewarding. I truly love this body of material, and it's a privilege to share it with anyone, via any medium at any time. I wasn't capable of doing my best work ever, but I did the best I could under the circumstances, and I'm hopeful that my students feel the same. And now that it’s over, it feels bittersweet. I'm relieved that we made it. (Here on the farm I rely on a microwave network for high-speed Internet, and of course it went out on the last day of class, forcing me to rely on a not-quite-high-speed backup system.) I will be grateful to have a little more spaciousness in my life again. But I will also miss the experience of getting to know my students through their written work each week, and the perspective it provided me on their lives and how they’re making use of concepts from the course to face and overcome challenges.

The experience reminded me of the challenges faced by my clients over the past year.
While some of their companies have always been remote, and a few others adopted the practice permanently during the pandemic, the majority are now anticipating a return to the office, although not a return to pre-pandemic norms. Instead, they're in the process of defining a "new normal" that will support co-located work as needed while also accommodating much more remote work than previously.

My practice is focused exclusively on 1:1 conversations with clients, and after 15 months of working virtually I'm convinced that there's no loss of fidelity in that context. I'm confident that my clients get just as much value out of our work together as ever. But I have a heightened appreciation for the fact that group experiences are different, and we need to be particularly innovative and thoughtful when conducting them in virtual environments, which provides an organizing theme for this month's issue.

Thank you to my Stanford students from the Class of 2021, who I hope to meet in person someday.

1. From My Archives: Better Conditions for Working Remotely

My coaching practice has always been 25 percent virtual, but for the past 15 months it's been entirely virtual, and I've paid close attention to the conditions and equipment that allow me to work with clients via video and phone most effectively:
  • Standing Desk
  • Lighting
  • Background
  • Camera
  • Monitor
  • Microphone
  • Earphones and Headsets
  • Phone vs. Video
  • Connectivity
  • Scheduling
Also: CONNECTIONS: Meaningful Virtual Conversations
A structured agenda to help anyone host a virtual gathering of 6 people for 90 minutes.

2. Recommended: Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere

Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley has been studying remote work for decades, and her latest book couldn't be more timely in the wake of the pandemic. Neely draws upon her own research and consulting experience as well as efforts by colleagues to offer leaders and managers an accessible and straightforward set of recommendations to enable their teams to be more effective while working remotely.  The first four chapters are particularly useful:
 

  • Chapter 1 on Planning: "A launch session (and periodic relaunches or reappraisals), which puts in place a clear group plan to meet the demands at hand is crucial in remote work... When people work remotely, I have found that relaunching every six to eight weeks to orient or reorient based on evolving dynamics is...important."
  • Chapter 2 on Trust: "To facilitate the exchange of direct and reflected knowledge among virtual team members, leaders must proactively create a group culture for virtual interactions not explicitly related to work tasks."
  • Chapter 3 on Productivity: "For remote workers, team cohesion depends on two interrelated factors: the frequency of interactions with other team members, and the quality of relationships that those interactions form. More important than collocation is the extent to which people feel included in the group: whether they feel recognized, engaged, and up to date on the team's progress."
  • Chapter 4 on Digital Tools: "Tech exhaustion happens when we treat work communication activities in the virtual world in the same way that we do in the physical world, yet don't add the constraints that we do in the latter... Exhausted remote professionals often schedule their meetings with one ending and one starting immediately after... Just because digital tools allow us to fully pack our calendar doesn't mean we should"
One Minute in Sonoma County

3. One Minute of Calm

We need moments of calm now more than ever, and I regularly post short videos of the natural world, generally from Marin or Sonoma Counties. Visit OneMinute.co for more videos, or get them via email.

4. Miscellany: Take Back Work

My former Stanford student Val Rivera is passionate about creating workplace cultures where people can thrive, and after graduation she launched her own consulting firm to focus on this issue. Business was booming and she was traveling regularly to offer workshops and offsites to clients when the pandemic hit. As a resourceful entrepreneur Val realized that she and her team had a tremendous opportunity: Their clients still faced the same culture challenges, only now compounded by the difficulty of working virtually. So Val reorganized Take Back Work to become a remote-first firm whose services are offered virtually, with a particular emphasis on online culture and events. I think it's worth noting that in addition to earning an MBA from Stanford, Val spent 15 years on active duty with the Air Force and speaks Mandarin--even among an impressive group of people, she stands out.

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