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Are you a team member or a teammate?

That doesn’t seem at first glance like a distinction worth addressing. But with many of us hitting the one-year mark working from home, it illuminates a crucial aspect of being effective while physically isolated from others on your team.

In their book The Long-Distance Teammate, consultants Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel say remote work has turned too many of us into mere team members. We don’t know our colleagues as well as we should, don’t understand the connections that make us more effective and increasingly feel like lone wolves, focused on what we’ve been individually assigned. “While this mindset is understandable, it serves you, the team and the organization poorly,” they warn.

Being a true teammate is different and deeper. It involves a social and emotional connection beyond merely reporting to or working with someone. Teammates have a profound level of commitment to, and connection with, colleagues as well as the team’s outcomes.

Their interviews and research, which began before COVID-19, dug up three key factors that determine your success as a remote teammate.

  • Productivity: Obviously, getting the job done is typically the prime factor in whether you keep a job. It may be more important in a world where the boss can’t routinely see you at your desk. Don’t let working alone create confusion that as long as you’re highly active you will be highly successful, particularly when work is an arm’s-reach away and it’s easy to do a bit more … and a bit more after that. What counts is that you are effectively producing what is needed – and being a good teammate. “A team member focuses on their work and tasks. A teammate considers not only how to be personally productive to get the most and best work done in the time allotted, but how to help the rest of the team and organization meet its goals,” they advise.
  • Proactivity: They were surprised to find that proactivity was the word that both managers and workers agreed best described a top remote teammate. It’s about thinking long-term and seeing the big picture – something that can be more difficult as your working world narrows, in a physical sense, to your house or apartment. Proactive teammates don’t wait to be told what to do. They ask questions to help them be more productive. A good teammate will offer suggestions if a colleague is struggling and speak up in a meeting if a point needs to be made. But digging deeper, the consultants feel it traces back to mindset. When you have a question about your work, do you ask for clarification immediately or do you just try to work through it? When a meeting is running long, do you speak up to nudge the team back on track or do you sit quietly answering your e-mail instead? “Both managers and team members say that the thing they look for most in a teammate is that kind of initiative. It requires bravery, trust, and engagement but may be the single most important component in your long-term success as a remote worker,” they write.
  • Potential: Do you consider the long-term implications of your work and the choices you make? Are you so focused on your own work that you are pushy or rude to others, becoming a nuisance and taking you off your manager’s radar for promotion? You need to keep in mind your long-term goals for the job, something that can be hard to do in isolation.

So are you a team member or a teammate – and which should you be? And how can you improve your productivity, proactivity and potential?

Quick hits

  • To improve your presentations, become audience-centred rather than data-centered. Public-speaking coach Gary Genard says when you prepare a presentation, you must keep the audience at the forefront of your thinking – what they need and expect, and how you can connect with their world. Spending 100 per cent of prep time just making sure you get the data right is a mistake.
  • John Steinbeck would write in the morning and spend lazy afternoons fishing or relaxing with other writers. Deep Work author Cal Newport argues Steinbeck was productive, writing 33 books, but he wasn’t busy, understanding overload can be a foe of inspiration.
  • Instead of waiting for annual performance feedback, take the initiative and set up 15-minute monthly or even biweekly touch-points with your boss, so they know what you’re dealing with and can offer advice, suggests career consultant Punya Sandhu.
  • Everyone has ideas. But are they great ideas? Entrepreneur Seth Godin asks if you are exposing yourself to new inputs and new situations, challenging yourself to find more interesting ideas. As well, are you pushing the ideas you have further, making them more complete – theories rather than notions?
  • In Microsoft Word, the apostrophes can be pointed the wrong way when you type a term like “the ’80s.” To fix that, tech writer Allen Wyatt recommends holding the CTRL key as you type the apostrophe twice – only one apostrophe will appear, pointed in the right direction: ’80s.

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