Saying no with grace on remote teams

stop sign showing stop

March 23, 2021 by Jason Yavorska, photo by Kai Pilger

When someone is busy at the office you can see it.. you can even feel it when it’s really bad. But when you’re working remotely, especially if you don’t spend a lot of time with someone, it’s hard to tell the difference between when they are open and ready to help, or when they are so busy that they just need to not be interrupted for a while.

People who are natural helpers are often the first to find themselves underwater in this situation. They are motivated by helping, and so for them it’s unnatural to push back. They often hope that others will notice that they are busy and back off, but with remote work that just tends not to ever happen.

I know because this is exactly what happened to me when I first started with remote work. Since then, though, I’ve learned a few techniques for saying no that don’t feel negative, and that I hope can also help you.

Be transparent with your workload

Something that I started doing pretty early on after switching to remote work was to set up a personal README page. It had a bit about who I am and how to collaborate with me, but it also included what my priorities were, and what I hoped to accomplish that week. Not only did making this each Monday help me get more organized, but it radiated out to everyone else what my focuses were, and let my coworkers see what I was up to.

This context not just shared what I was working on, but also created a space where I could explicitly say that I was looking for something I could contribute to. Everyone could see where I stood with my workload, and this gave others the chance to self-moderate their requests.

You could even add an emoji each week indicating your workload/stress level. I haven’t tried this yet, but I imagine it could be a good way to signal to your colleagues how open you are that week to ad-hoc requests.

Ask some questions to explore options

Sometimes, even with a clear README, requests will come in. It could be because they know and value your help, or perhaps they are blocked by something that only you can help with. This is the point where you need to resist your urge to put others ahead of your own schedule, and first ask a couple questions:

  • When do you need this by?
  • Do you have any other options?

With this additional context (that you would have missed if you just jumped to figuring out how you can help) you have more options. Perhaps you can get to their request a bit later in the week, when you know you’ll be less busy. Perhaps they will be able to find someone else that can help, or they’ll realize they didn’t actually need you to give your input. Maybe there’s a minimum version of what they can get from you that can unblock them and let you get back to what you were focusing on.

Either way, the conversation has changed from you silently putting their priorities in front of your own, and falling further behind, into a more collaborative discussion around what’s possible. More often than not there’s a lot more wiggle room in these requests than what might initially appear.

A firm and clear no

This is the hardest for people who are naturally helpers, but there does come a point where it’s time to give a firm but clear no. You know your priorities, and you know how you’re doing to deliver them, and ultimately you are the one who is accountable. Because of this, sometimes the options don’t work out and you need to just say no.. and that’s OK.

In some cases this can mean that you escalate (together) with the requestor, because if they are blocked and you’re the only one who can help, then it may be important to bring visibility to the conflict in priorities. But, it can be done in the spirit of cooperation, and oriented more around making a prioritization decision, than around some idea that you were just unwilling to help.

In the end, knowing how and when to say no can make the difference between feeling great about work and reaching critical stress levels. Try some of these approaches and let me know how they work for you. And remember, as important as it is to be a good “no” sayer when you’re at capacity, it’s also important to be a good listener and respect other people’s workloads when they tell you they are busy as well.


Person working remotely

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