“You should be here!!!” my colleague emphatically messages me. “I’m in a meeting and you should so hear what this guy is saying.”
“Hey!!” texts a second colleague. “Where are you? This speaker is talking about our event. He loves us!”
Yes, I should be at that meeting.
It’s not that I’m avoiding work or didn’t feel like attending said meeting. I missed this soiree and about 1,000 impromptu water cooler conversations, sidebar rants, and in-person events every week. As a remote employee, I was in my home office at the time of this particular presentation. I was 2,277 miles away.
But not to worry. My work sister wives had my back. Within minutes of the first text, we’d hatched a plan—Work Sister Wife One would take a video of the presentation and Work Sister Wife Two would introduce herself to the speaker and pass along my information. As always, I was covered by girl proxy.
Sister wife? This sounds sketchy.
A work sister wife. To be fair, I’m taking liberties with terminology. A sister wife, by actual definition, is a controversial relationship where a woman is both sister and wife; a co-wife to the same husband. My workplace definition, on the other hand, is less likely to get you scrutinized by neighbors, colleagues, and law enforcement in 49.5 states.
Work sister wife, or husband: (noun) a person who is simultaneously a confidante, coworker, and proxy; a trusted friend who acts as a professional stand-in during meetings and presentations; an in-person voice to your virtual opinions; a decision-making delegate upon your behalf.
I’m intentionally leaving out the polyamory component of this equation, although one could argue that most people engage in a polyamorous relationship with their company. In the words of many, professional monogamy is dying out. The gig is on, so to speak.
Trust is a two-faced beast
I’ve been almost exclusively (and successfully) a remote employee for going on five years. I work from airports, hotel lobbies, coffee shops, libraries, and coworking spaces. Every six weeks or so I hijack a desk in Zendesk’s San Francisco headquarters. Mostly I work from my NOLA dining room table or my pretty little office space at the top of the stairs.
Since my remote employee inception, I’ve read just about everything (and there is much) about how to be a productive at-home worker/virtual employee/freelancer. I’ve even written an extensive guide on how to manage virtual employees. And while the advice is all good, it’s essentially all the same—capitalize on technology, be mindful of time zones, over-communicate, find a community, be willing to share workloads, and use empathetic language. All encourage leaders to trust their remote employees and to utilize tools, triggers, and technology to foster the necessary confidence bond from a distance.
But few turn the conversation from needing to trust the remote employee and take it beyond the watchful eye of the leader. Trust needs to extend from the remote employee and not just towards them. Why shouldn’t the burden of trust be shared? Isn’t it more important for the employee on the remote island to trust the people back at HQ, than for the company to trust that the employee is actually doing their job?
Isn’t it more important for the employee on the remote island to trust the people back at HQ, than for the company to trust that the employee is actually doing their job?
The risk is real
Employers assume risk when hiring virtual employees. There is company culture to consider, disparate time zones, employee-team disconnection, and a rightful concern over employee self-motivation. The trepidation over at-home worker failure is a fair concern. It should be a big concern because it is a big risk… for both parties.
“I’d been a manager with the company for three years when I needed to start working remotely,” shares Karen M. “My partner’s job took us out of state and I thought, ‘No big deal.’ I knew my job, my boss, the company culture, and politics. What could go wrong?”
According to the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM)’s report “Going remote: Leading dispersed teams,” a lot goes wrong. For starters, 88 percent of remote workers struggle with inconsistent work practices (the temptation to do “just one” load of laundry between calls) and company miscommunication (“oh shit, we forget to tell Sarah about that”). And 77 percent cite building and maintaining trust as a challenge directly affecting them and their teams.
Trust was the big issue for Karen. When she went virtual, Karen invested in a standing desk, a comfortable office chair, fast internet, and plenty of her favorite pens. She neglected to invest in real relationships with her coworkers; she didn’t secure any trustworthy work sister wives.
Karen invested in a standing desk, a comfortable office chair, fast internet, and plenty of her favorite pens. She neglected to invest in real relationships with her coworkers; she didn’t secure any trustworthy work sister wives.
“About five months in, I started feeling uncomfortable. I’d been hearing rumors about colleagues not liking my work arrangement, but I dismissed the gossip,” she explains. “Then I noticed I wasn’t being invited to all meetings. Decisions were being made, and projects were being decided on without me. I knew we had cattiness and cliques, but I didn’t know how to confront them from afar. I didn’t feel like anyone had my back.”
Karen admits she should have gone to her boss or to HR. “I felt like I was whining. I’m an adult and I didn’t know how to say, ‘People are being mean. I don’t trust my team to support me,’ and still sound like a capable professional.” Karen left the company shortly after and now works back inside an office.
Want a work wife, but don't know how to woo one? Follow these steps to be on your way to work spouse bliss.
When to find some sister wives
I’d argue that we all need work sister wives, regardless of where we work. My sisters didn’t come to me immediately, but they did come naturally. These relationships were forged partly from necessity, but mostly from solidarity. We all do better when we all do better, right?
And while there are myriad factors in any successful relationship, the primary driver here is trust. I trust what my work sister wives will say, do, and represent. They also trust what I say, do, and represent. And we do so from thousands of miles away. In “How to Decide If You Should Trust Someone at Work,” Nan S. Russell says, “the reality is that you can't get great results at work without trusting others. Vertical trust. Horizontal trust. You'll need both.”
Russell acknowledges that trust, especially authentic trust comes with risk. “Authentic trust - the kind you want at work - is not blind trust, absolute or unconditional.” So, what do you do? Give surrogacy first with a specific project or task. Talk it out. Then do that again. And again. If trust is still secure after the third instance, you’ve likely found a sister wife in the making.
Give surrogacy first with a specific project or task. Talk it out. Then do that again. And again. If trust is still secure after the third instance, you’ve likely found a sister wife in the making.
Does this still seem scary? Russell says to consider the following before you dive headlong into a commitment ceremony:
How important is this task, issue, project? What's at stake for me if it fails or something goes wrong? What's at stake for the other person?
What checks and balances or safety nets are currently in place to mitigate my risk? If there aren't any, what can I do to limit risk and increase my sense of security?
What's the worst thing that can happen if I give this person my trust, related to this issue? What's the best thing that can happen?
Even if I make a decision to trust this person, related to this issue or in this situation, how can I revisit how it's going, without micro-managing or impacting their sense of being trusted?
Does trusting him or her increase my vulnerability or impact future interactions?
What level of trust could I give as a first step?
Will this relationship (or this project) be impacted if I don't offer trust to this person in this situation? If I do? How? Am I willing to have that happen?
The power of the sisters
I feel fortunate that I’m not battling back-stabbing bitches or warding off undermining blokes on a regular basis. Our Zendesk culture doesn’t condone or incentivize that behavior and offenders don’t stick around very long.
But as good as the culture is, my remoteness does lend itself to gaps, chasms, and whitespace. And that’s where the work sister wives step in.
Work Sister Wife One understands my vision and intentions and collectively represents me, our brand, and our ideals at any meeting or in any conversation. She’s quick on her feet and quicker to speak. She also makes sure I’m aware of other team initiatives that may ultimately impact our plans. We talk, brainstorm, laugh, and vent together rather frequently. She’s the sister wife I want as my drinking partner.
Work Sister Wife Two is my boat captain and navigates the political waters—yes, every company has politics. She’s higher up in the chain and has a killer reputation—honest, well-intentioned, and purposeful. Sister Wife Two has yet to make a decision on my behalf that I wouldn’t make for myself; she’s probably making better choices than I would. While we don’t speak as frequently, I think she’s in my head at all times.
Work Sister Wife Three is my cheerleader; she’s my onsite eyes, ears, and energy. She's not about “spreading gossip,” she's about ensuring that I feel the pulse of the company. She appropriately keeps me up-to-date on rumors, organization changes, and all the water cooler conversations I can’t be privy to. This information is rarely “action-worthy” but it keeps me from being left in the dark or making misguided decisions based on no information. FOMO no more.
Whether you sit at the desk next to your work spouse, or your work sister wife is eight states away, having a trusted proxy is vital. None of us can be in all meetings, on all phone calls, and attend all work events at all times. Until cloning is commonplace, a work sister wife may be your best work relationship.
When she's not packing suitcases or unpacking boxes, Sarah guides the editorial content for all Relate publications and events. Her favorite subjects are customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Sarah’s most difficult personal relationship is with collections—they make moving difficult—yet, she’s still managed to amass too many addresses, books, corgis, and gym clothes. Find her on Twitter at: @stealeyreed.