Instead of guessing about people’s work habits, communication styles, idiosyncrasies and quirks, get it out in the open through personal user manuals.
October 24, 2022
As Head of Company Vibe, my role isn’t as unique as it sounds; it’s just spelled out more explicitly (and colloquially) than at most places. Vibe cultivation was always part of my job before it was formally part of my job. I’m just that person – the one who remembers small details about coworkers’ lives and checks-in regularly to ensure everyone is happy, healthy and aligned to the same goals.
It’s not news that the world of work has irrevocably changed; intergenerational, geographically-dispersed hybrid/remote teams are now the norm, which makes vibe checks a formal necessity. Owing to my background in global mobility and international education, I’ve been doing this for nearly a decade and not every organization gets it (as evidenced by the recent conversation around “quiet quitting.”)
Quiet quitting, a misnomer for not going above and beyond for your employer, can be caused by many things, including the depersonalization (i.e. standardization) of workplace norms, protocols and interactions. Are you a person of value or just another cog in the wheel? Does your manager on the opposite coast care about you, or are they just trying to hit their productivity goals for the quarter?
As tools such as Slack, Teams and Zoom become more prevalent, colleagues can seem even more distant and removed from our experience of work. Can a smiley face emoji really be a substitute for feeling someone’s happiness? These changes to how we communicate make it ever more important to understand the people you’re working with.
The hybrid world presents myriad challenges, but Martine Haas, professor of management at the Wharton School, sums them up nicely as “the 5C Challenges:” communication, coordination, connection, creativity and culture. In my experience, user manuals effectively alleviate challenges with communication, connection and culture.
I learned about user manuals some years ago when I took responsibility for planning and leading our inaugural work retreat. A gathering like this tends to leave a mark on your psyche; you either never forget how uncomfortable and worthless it felt or can’t believe how productive and inspirational it was. Attempting to avoid the former, I searched for an adult icebreaker that wouldn’t feel childish or cheesy. After coming up empty, I stumbled across a New York Times interview with Ivar Kroghrud, the lead strategist at QuestBack.
Kroghrud described his role as “chief ironing officer.” “If you want to get extraordinary results,” he said, “you have to play to people’s strengths and you have to help them work as close to plan as possible.” A big part of project and people management is ironing out the wrinkles – facilitating a smooth process (at both the technical and personnel levels) from start to finish. To that end, Kroghrud developed a one-page user manual to help people understand how best to work with him.
It made me realize that, when it comes to people, there is no guide for how we work. People’s values, triggers and idiosyncrasies are something we learn over time, but when a new team is tasked with executing on a complicated project within a tight timeframe, there’s little space for ironing out differences or learning the hard way that Jane isn’t an email person. Reading her user manual in advance could have clued you in.
Think about the radically different styles of email responses you receive on a given day. There’s the one-word response without punctuation type, the lengthy tome with exhaustive details type, the polite and succinct “I’m sorry to bother you” type, and the list goes on. Some people avoid phone calls at all costs (you know who you are) while others prefer it to all other forms of communication. While these differences are often assumed to be generational, it’s dangerous to make conclusions about people’s communication preferences based on their age. User manuals eliminate the guesswork.
They also promote inclusivity, vulnerability, transparency and reflection – the fundamentals for developing and sustaining a culture of conversation. What’s more, they provide a psychologically safe way for introverted team members to communicate their preferences and triggers. Research from the University of Alberta shows that isolation has been harder on introverts than extroverts. “Extroverts find a way to connect,” says researcher Anahita Shokrkon, “whereas introverts are less adept at maintaining their fewer social connections.”
Making user manuals a universal requirement is a way to engage introverted team members and mitigates the discomfort of seeming too outspoken (or even confrontational) in asserting one’s preferences. It provides the opportunity for everyone to candidly express themselves without fear of how others might respond. In this way, user manuals help to create a more just organization, where everyone has an opportunity to be heard. If this all sounds too touchy-feely for you, consider that even public companies like software giant Atlassian promote user manuals for effective teamwork and communication.
According to RingCentral’s Connected Culture Report, people who feel more connected to their colleagues are also more productive. Thus, employers who want to prevent quiet quitting should do what they can to encourage open communication and connectedness. This type of culture helps retain top talent. Personally, I know connecting with my colleagues – whether it’s over a project hiccup or a vomiting cat who’s determined to interrupt my workflow – does wonders to elevate the vibe. Trust me; it’s literally my job to know these things.
So, how can you utilize this effectively where you work? It depends on your audience. A manager’s manual, for example, might include details on what they value, what they lack patience for, how to best communicate with them (is it email, chat or phone?) and what others might misunderstand about them. Each employee can create their own manual too. There are plenty of templates online to get you started.
I suggest you begin by engaging your team around the idea of creating personal user manuals. This alone can help with team alignment. Questions like, “How well do we know each other’s preferences?” can get the ball rolling. “What might people misunderstand about you that you’d like to clear up?” is another good conversation starter. If no one speaks, it’s probably a sign you need to implement user manuals.
As part of the onboarding process for new employees, user manuals help get everyone on the same page and immediately set the tone for a culture that values individuals above job titles. New employees benefit from learning about the values, work styles and idiosyncrasies of existing team members and vice versa. At The Fossicker Group, we even share our user manuals with clients. In doing so, we hope to communicate transparency, a collaborative spirit and clear expectations around healthy working relationships.
My friends Seth Weiss and Wendy Hanson said it best here: “Individuals thrive when they form meaningful relationships, and meaningful relationships are formed and sustained through high quality conversations. Whether in-person, online, or in writing, conversations are the connective tissue of human relationships.” Everyone will benefit from knowing each other better, and likely, it will improve the vibe and effectiveness of your organization.