Employee Handbook

Chapter A10:

Asking for help

As a fully distributed team, remote calls are our lifeblood for communication. Simply joining a remote team doesn’t make you great at communicating remotely, though, and at some point, we’re all going to need help. So who do we turn to? How do we ask? Here are a few essential tips we’ve developed to successfully ask for help within a remote team.

Be willing to ask

We all need help, and it’s inherently human to feel embarrassed to ask for it. This is something as a team we strive to push through. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. Asking for help grows you, and it empowers the individual who knows the answer to practice sharing that information. This is a balance, of course. There is such a thing as too many questions in a given period. Do your research. If it’s a work question, check the handbook. A code question, stack overflow. Use your discretion, and when all else fails, apply the 5-minute rule and phone a friend.

Requester, please communicate your need

When you find yourself in need of help, it’s so easy to vomit your problem on someone else. It takes self-control to stop and be considerate of the person you need help from. At SALT we strive to approach every conversation with an awareness of those around us. A great place to start is by clearly communicating your need. Sounds simple right? You’d be surprised how often we don’t do this.

Communicating your needs helps everyone. It makes what you need clear and equips the person you’re requesting help from to respond in kind. Practically communicating your need should have a few components:

How long do you need?

One minute, fifteen minutes, or an hour help them understand what their committing to?

What is this about?

Please help your coworker understand what they’ll be contributing to. Is this design, code, product UX, your development env, etc?

What sort of attention do you need from me?

Do you need them to listen, explain, or help you fix something? Aka, what does the person you are asking need to prepare to give.

Each of the above things allows the responder to determine what helping you is going to require of them.

Responder, please communicate your situation

As much as it’s essential for the person asking to communicate their needs, it’s equally vital that you help them understand your situation. If the requester has done their job of “communicating their need,” which is not always the case, success now depends on you responding in kind by communicating your situation or maybe even asking them to express their need more clearly.

That said, just because someone has asked for your time doesn’t mean you’re in a ready state and position to give it. The expectation is that you communicate your situation by:

Ask clarifying questions

Needs are not always clearly communicated. It’s now your job to help them understand what you don’t. Maybe this means asking for more info about the problem or asking clarifying questions like, “do you need to show me something, or can this just be a phone call?”.

Communicating your obstacles

You might not be free, and it’s ok to communicate that. “I’m in the zone and won’t be available until 1pm”, or “I’ve got my child with me for the next hour” or even “I can talk, but my kids are in the room so it might be a bit loud.”

Doing these things allows the requester to understand your situation and decide how to proceed.

While these may seem simple, and they can be, they are often quickly forgotten when asking someone for help. Practicing our ability to communicate our needs and situation will make us a more reliable remote team, who respect our teammates and optimize our time spent collaborating.

Be understanding

But what if the person I’m asking for help doesn’t respond? This is a real possibility; maybe they are away from their phone or just in the zone. Their lack of response might feel like they aren’t communicating. However, if we step out of our own selfish need for a second, we’ll see that they are communicating. Their silence is telling us that they’re not available. We need to be able to respect that.

Does the practice of “being understanding” give a coworker carte blanche to ignore your request for help for weeks? No. It is, however, essential for us to understand that a primary goal of being a remote team is to create space for everyone to focus. So if they don’t respond, they’re probably just busy.