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How real estate technologies are still falling short

Regardless of adoption rates, real estate technologies continue to fall short in one key category, and it isn’t innovation, it’s something simpler.

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Real estate technologies and adoption

True or not, real estate agents have a bad rap when it comes to embracing technology. Unless, of course, you count the invention of the Model-T as a recent innovation. You can count on us to traverse the town with you in the passenger seat of our car while we talk about neighborhoods, recent sales, and other bits of market knowledge you might not get anywhere else, but when it comes to using more recent technology, many in the industry are the last ones to do so. Two recent experiences I had with technology might help us all – agents, consumers, and developers – to understand this issue in a new light.

Agents only want to use technology that really, really, really works. It isn’t because we are stupid, lazy, or afraid of change. It’s because our business model supports reliability over innovation. Here’s why: Even for those of us that do a lot of business, the number of clients and contacts is usually in the dozens and hundreds, respectively. The average agent has exactly as many fingers and thumbs as they do sales per year, according to the NAR 2012 Member Profile which found the average number of transactions a Realtor did in 2011 was ten!

Here are two recent examples from my own personal experience that might help everyone explain why real estate agents are often reluctant technology adopters:

Example one: lockboxes

A few weeks ago I was previewing a home on lockbox for some out-of-area clients. We use Supra lockboxes in the bay area, and I recently returned my display key and cradle for the eKey app and bluetooth fob that are compatible with my iPhone. The advantage to the software/fob solution is that I no longer have to dock a separate electronic key, which means I have one less device to forget at home, and one less device to keep plugged in for overnight updates. Seems like a smart move, right? Wrong!

When I attempted to use my phone/fob combo to open the Suprabox, I recieved a software error message. As a result of the error, the software refused to recognize my account as being in good standing, and refused to open the keybox for me. I Googled the software error message and discovered it could be fixed by logging into the vendor’s website and entering a long randomly generated code I could get from a phone call. But when I logged into the vendor’s website from my phone, it only displayed a mobile version of the site that didn’t have access to the update area where I could fix my problem.

Fortunately for me, my laptop was in my trunk, I have a wifi hotspot, and my clients weren’t with me on this occasion. But if my clients had been with me, I would have been mortified and they would have (rightly) held me responsible for failing to show them the house I had promised I would show them. Lockboxes are amongst the oldest tools in the business, and there is no excuse for buggy software that prevents them from functioning all the time!

Example two: AgentFolio by Zillow

Another example involves AgentFolio, a product from Zillow. I’ve been looking for months for a good tool for collaborating with my buyer clients on their home search. The collaboration and sharing portal built-in to our MLS provider (Rapattoni) is bare-bones embarrassing, and clients that have used it said it reminded them of using a website from the 1990s. And don’t even get me started talking about the bugs that randomly place listings in the wrong client folders on an almost daily basis.

Someone that I have a great deal of respect for suggested AgentFolio as being the best out there, so I signed up for an account to give it a test drive. When I try new technology tools, I need to understand the tool from my client’s perspective, so the first account I always create is a test account with myself as a client. If you are an agent and you’re reading this, that’s the one thing I hope you take away from my article: always be testing. If you can’t use, understand, and explain the tools you are offering to your clients from a client perspective, you shouldn’t be using them. I hope this example helps you understand why…

When I logged into Agentfolio as a client, the exact properties from my “agent created” search showed up in my folio. But the open house times were all off by about five hours. Let me be clear: The agent view showed the correct open house times, but the client view showed open house times that were so far off that if the client showed up during the times listed on the AgentFolio client view, they would have missed the entire open house by hours! Because the open house times showed up correctly in the agent view, I wouldn’t have even known my clients were getting bad information if I hadn’t used a test account. And my clients wouldn’t blame Zillow for writing bad software – they’d hold me responsible for giving them a tool that sent them to open houses at the wrong times.

agent-view

client-view

But there’s more to the problem

What exacerbates both of these problems is the support offered by the respective companies. Agents work evenings and weekends, but support from almost all technology companies is only offered Monday through Friday usually just during business hours. I didn’t receive a response from Zillow until almost 48 hours after I had submitted the help request, but to their credit, they have said a fix will be rolled out this week.

If you’re an agent: always be testing. Forget what you saw in Glengarry Glen Ross – you aren’t going to close anything if you haven’t first tested the tools that you are relying on.

If you’re a technology company: Recognize that reliability is the most important feature you can offer a real estate agent. And back that reliability up with support hours that are available when we need you most – evenings and weekends.

What are your thoughts about bridging the gap between agents, consumers, and technology companies?

Matt Fuller brings decades of experience and industry leadership as co-founder of San Francisco real estate brokerage Jackson Fuller Real Estate. Matt is a Past President of the San Francisco Association of Realtors. He currently serves as a Director for the California Association of Realtors. He currently co-hosts the San Francisco real estate podcast Escrow Out Loud. A recognized SF real estate expert, Matt has made numerous media appearances and published in a variety of media outlets. He’s a father, husband, dog-lover, and crazy exercise enthusiast. When he’s not at work you’re likely to find him at the gym or with his family.

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20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Eric Holmes

    October 1, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    The technology companies do not look at the real estate industry as an emerging market because we’re not one. As far as I can tell, we’re largely retired teachers in their 50’s. That’s not what you would consider cutting edge. While the rest of the universe covets i0s7 or whatever, we’re still trying to figure out the life alert, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Thank goodness for you and the blogs like agbeat. We’re out there. It feels like a terrible prequel for the V for Vendetta movie, but we’re out there. Hidden. Waiting. Wanting for better, but the tech real estate companies see dollar signs hidden in blue hair, senior citizen discounts and Matlock reruns. It is what it is.

    • Matt Fuller

      October 1, 2013 at 7:07 pm

      I’m not a retired teacher, and I’m not in my 50’s (yet), and until just now I’d forgotten all about Matlock. I hope by the time I’m going into the salon to get my hair “whitened” with a little blue dye I’ll be writing about something other than real estate agents and technology 🙂

  2. JoeLoomer

    October 1, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    You spoke straight to my heart – I work in an area whose MLS is so archaic as to remind me of software I used while flying as a technician in the Navy…… IN 1991!!

    Navy Chief, Navy Pride

  3. rolandestrada

    October 1, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    You are so dead on. I belong to the Orange County Association of Realtors which contracts with CRMLS. I have railed for years about our pathetic MLS system. We finally got a cross-platfrom MLS in the form of Matrix this year. But the other bolt-on products they offer us as free benefits are pathetic – Homes Connect, Listingbook, Smart Desk.

    These vendors see us coming from a mile away and laugh all the way to the bank. I did some digging and found out the costs and how-to of building a system for us similar to HAR’s solutions. However none of the OCAR or CRMLS hierarchy are willing to listen. We have the money to write our technology ticket but all I have gotten in response is “that’s not possible for us to do”. Which of of course BS.

    It is very possible to do since HAR is already doing it. However the knuckleheads that call the shots seem content to carry on doing the same old thing and flushing money down the toilet by giving it to vendors that give us crap products.

    • Matt Fuller

      October 1, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      There’s a perverse dynamic in the MLS industry – because associations have been fairly successful in negotiating with MLS vendors to pay less per user, the margins MLS vendors have to invest in innovation are also less. I’m not suggesting anyone feel sorry for the MLS vendors, while I have never seen any of their balance sheets I have a hunch they are doing just fine, but sometimes we get the innovation we pay for…

      • rolandestrada

        October 1, 2013 at 7:26 pm

        I’ve been told by an extremely reliable source with whom I had a lengthy conversation, that it would take 6 to 7 months to develop an an iPad app like the one HAR uses for it’s agents and public facing MLS. It would cost about 100K for a finished product. The hurdle in getting to a product like that is lack of truly forward thinking leadership. Our MLS and board leadership tend to just offer us bandaid products instead 21st century high quality solutions. Anything is possible. You just need to hire the right engineers to get the job done. If I had the 100K, I would do it myself.

        • Matt Fuller

          October 2, 2013 at 4:39 pm

          My understanding is that the on-going support and maintenance costs are not insubstantial – I’ve heard some interesting ideas tossed about over the years, but most associations I’m aware of lack the infrastructure to support their users and maintain software across a variety of platforms and software versions, particularly as new devices and software versions are introduced.

          • rolandestrada

            October 3, 2013 at 1:04 am

            Most larger associations like ours can invest the money. It takes about 60K per year to maintain. I’m quite sure we piss away that much ever year on products most people don’t even use. if you code the product correctly like they do in Houston, then you don’t need worry about platforms. Besides there are only two platforms to consider regardless of device – Android and iOS. You have made my point perfectly. All I ever hear is why it can’t be done. It’s just a bunch of BS.

          • Matt Fuller

            October 3, 2013 at 6:27 pm

            I can think of plenty of things associations have spent 60k on that are much less useful than supporting great tools for agents. On that one, we totally agree. I have more thoughts about associations, software products, and MLSs…. stay tuned for more columns and thanks for your thoughtful responses on this one!

        • C.j. Johnson

          October 4, 2013 at 9:12 am

          Just curious are you a member of the MLS Committe at either board/association? I found the best way to effect change is from the inside out. I worked with two Associations and CAR and yes they are very resistant to change but one person can actually make a difference. At one point I even had a word changed in the Real Estate code just because it had a negative connotation for REALTORS.

          • rolandestrada

            October 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm

            Some boards and MLSs thankfully are more willing to change than others. Our board and MLS are not very open to technical progress. I am on our MLS committee. The response I get to developing our own iPad app and IDX as HAR has done is not encouraging at all. Surely Orange County has the same financial resources as does Houston. Sad. Very sad.

  4. CJ Johhnson

    October 2, 2013 at 11:13 am

    I too experienced a SUPRA meltdown on a Saturday afternoon while showing clients which is not only frustrating its down right embarrassing. That is not MLS’s fault it’s SUPRA’s which is why I have a combo box on all my listings as back up (guess old school is not always a bad thing when used properly). On MLS systems and technology, with over 1 Million REALTORS and at least double that in MLS participants nationwide we could afford every bell and whistle we need but Brokerages are stuck in the 1970’s and remain territorial. Just say National MLS to any broker and watch them turn purple. I was on a committee that attempted to make California a Statewide MLS and we were almost tarred and feathered. I admit to being over 50, a 20+ year REALTOR Veteran, and not a retired school teacher, but I did upgrade to iOS7 last week so and old dog can actually be taught new tricks.

    • Matt Fuller

      October 2, 2013 at 4:38 pm

      I honestly don’t understand why a national MLS is so controversial. I never have. I updated to iOS7 too – I have to admit I suddenly feel a bit like the cranky old man yelling “why’d they have to go and change that?” although overall I do like it more than 6…. I’m glad you avoided the tarring and feathering – if you could make one change at the association level to make them better, what would your suggestion be?

  5. Matt Daimler

    October 2, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    Matt F and I have been in touch on this, but for anyone else who wanders by (or is an Agentfolio user with questions) we corrected the Open House time issue immediately. Regarding the welcome email, we send it within one hour of the first listing being added, again the next morning and continue to do so as long as there is some folio activity.

    Thousands of agents trust their business to Agentfolio and we’re sorry your first experience has not been top notch. You – and others – are welcome to contact me directly with any questions or concerns: matt AT agentfolio dot com

    • Matt Fuller

      October 3, 2013 at 6:22 pm

      #1 – Kudos to you for reaching out and joining the conversation. I hope that doesn’t sound patronizing, I really do appreciate it. And also thanks for providing a contact – your website makes it very hard to get in touch with anyone. I reported the Open house issue on Saturday, and when I heard back from support on Monday I was told it would be rolled into an update on Wednesday.

      If it was fixed sooner than that, I’m glad to hear it.

      When writing this article, I wanted to pick a company that’s been around forever and a newer company/product – both have support issues, and those reliability issues IMHO go to the heart of why many agents are deeply distrustful of technology.

      Thanks again for getting involved, I appreciate it and respect it!

  6. Matt Fuller

    October 3, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Kent – I absolutely agree with you that agents are the most important link between buyers and sellers, and I’ve written elsewhere about “real estate exceptionalism” so I won’t bore you with it again here. I’m curious what CRM you are using and what MLS you belong to – it sounds like the tools you are using are better than much of what is out there.

    Cheers,
    Matt

    • Kent Wolfe

      October 3, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      Matt~My MLS is Mid Florida Regional, MFR. They include just about everything I need for both mobile and computer but I have to say, the old fashioned email followed by a phone call works very well in most instances. As an “over 50” REALTOR, I get a kick out of reading opinions we’re “over-educated” retired dinosaurs and I certainly don’t take it personally.
      I keep up with the latest, greatest innovation but find most are just another variation on a basic theme. QR codes and talking real estate signs were billed as the best new inventions but really, how many people do they serve? Most buyers already have enough info long before they take a drive past the property and if not, my website and phone number is on every sign.
      Regarding open houses, MFR has that option too but an agent needs to enter the info and quite frankly, very few take the time to do it. It seems we’ve become accustomed to “automatic” everything and losing site of what we really should be doing.
      Thank you for your articles. I’ve found them quite informative.

  7. Matt Fuller

    October 3, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    CJ – You touched on one of my “peeves” which is enforcing and monitoring agent adherence to the code of ethics. What are your experiences around this, and what would you do to put some proverbial teeth in the code of ethics and it’s enforcement at the board level?

    • C.j. Johnson

      October 4, 2013 at 9:07 am

      Mine too. As a long standing member of both Grievance and Professional Standards Committees and a Panelist in hearings there are a few sticky issues I have encountered. First there is the issue of due process to protect those who are being targeted simply because of their business practices or business model as competitors. So we can not rush to judgement. There is also the fear of retaliation in the loss of potential business when one member turns in another member. The fact that the courts mandated entry to the MLS for all licensed brokers means there is also not a level playing field. We can only take action against REALTOR members. I would recommend they put more teeth in the MLS rules to model more of the code of ethics (business ethics are still ethics) and fine heavily. In higher priced areas a $500 fine is looked at as a cost of doing business. Start the fines $5000 and you might get the bad actors attention.

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Opinion Editorials

7 ways to carve out me time while working from home

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) It can be easy to forget about self-care when you’re working from home, but it’s critical for your mental health, and your work quality.

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Woman in hijab sitting on couch, working from home on a laptop

We are all familiar with the syndrome, getting caught up in work, chores, and taking care of others, and neglecting to take care of ourselves in the meantime. This has always been the case, but now, with more people working from home and a seemingly endless lineup of chores, thanks to the pandemic. There is simply so much to do.

The line is thinly drawn between personal and professional time already, with emails, cell phones, and devices relentlessly reaching out around the clock, pulling at us like zombie arms reaching up from the grave. Working from home makes this tendency to always be “on” worse, as living and working take place in such close proximity. We have to turn it off, though.

Our brains and bodies need down time, me-time, self-care. Carving out this time is one of the kindest and most important things you can do for yourself. If we can begin to honor ourselves like this, the outcome with not only our mental and physical health, but also our productivity at work, will be beneficial. When we make the time to do things we love, our body untenses, our mind’s gears slow down that constant grinding. Burnout behooves nobody.

Our work will also benefit. Healthier, happier, more well rested, and well treated minds and bodies can work wonders! Our immune systems also need this, and we need our immune systems to be at their peak performance this intense season.

I wanted to write this article, because I have such a struggle with this in my own life. I need to print it out and put it in my workspace. Last week, I posted something on my social media pages that so many people shared. It is clear we all need these reminders, so I am paying it forward here. The graphic was a quote from Devyn W.

“If you are reading this, release your shoulders away from your ears, unclench your jaw, and drop your tongue from the roof of your mouth.”

There now, isn’t that remarkable? It is a great first step. Let go of the tension in your body, and check out these ways to make yourself some healing me-time.

  1. Set aside strict no-work times. This could be any time of day, but set the times and adhere to them strictly. This may look like taking a full hour for lunch, not checking email after a certain hour, or committing to spending that time outdoors, reading, exercising, or enjoying the company of your loved ones. Make this a daily routine, because we need these boundaries. Every. Single. Day.
  2. Remember not to apologize to anyone for taking this me-time. Mentally and physically you need this, and everyone will be better off if you do. It is nothing to apologize for! Building these work-free hours into your daily schedule will feel more normal as time goes on. This giving of time and space to your joy, health, and even basic human needs is what should be the norm, not the other way around.
  3. Give yourself a device-free hour or two every day, especially before bedtime. The pinging, dinging, and blinging keeps us on edge. Restful sleep is one of the wonderful ways our bodies and brains heal, and putting devices away before bedtime is one of the quick tips for getting better sleep.
  4. Of course, make time for the things you absolutely love. If this is a hot bath, getting a massage, reading books, working out, cooking or eating an extravagant meal, or talking and laughing with a loved one, you have to find a way to get this serotonin boost!
  5. Use the sunshine shortcut. It isn’t a cure-all, but sunlight and Vitamin D are mood boosters. At least when it’s not 107 degrees, like in a Texas summer. But as a general rule, taking in at least a good 10-15 minutes of that sweet, sweet Vitamin D provided by the sun is good for us.
  6. Spend time with animals! Walk your dog, shake that feathery thing at your cat, or snuggle either one. Whatever animals make you smile, spend time with them. If you don’t have pets of your own, you could volunteer to walk them at a local shelter or even watch a cute animal video online. They are shown to reduce stress. Best case scenario is in person if you are able, but thankfully the internet is bursting with adorable animal videos, as a backup.
  7. Give in to a bit of planning or daydreaming about a big future trip. Spending time looking at all the places you will go in the future and even plotting out an itinerary are usually excellent mood-boosters. It’s a bit different in 2020, as most of us aren’t sure when we will be able to go, but even deciding where you want to go when we are free to travel again can put a positive spin on things.

I hope we can all improve our lives while working from home by making time for regenerating, healing, and having fun! Gotta run—the sun is out, and my dog is begging for a walk.

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Opinion Editorials

Why robots freak us out, and what it means for the future of AI

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Robots and humans have a long way to go before the social divide disappears, but research is giving us insight on how to cross the uncanny valley.

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Close of R2D2 toy, an example of robots that we root for, but why?

We hate robots. Ok, wait, back up. We at least think they are more evil than good. Try it yourself – “are robots” in Google nets you evil before good. Megatron has higher SEO than Optimus Prime, and it’s not just because he’s so much cooler. It cuz he evil, cuz. It do be like that.

It’s not even a compliment to call someone robotic; society connotes this to emotionless preprogrammed shells of hideous nothing, empty clankbags that walk and talk and not much else. So, me at a party. Or if you’re a nerd, you’re a robot. (Me at a party once again.)

Let’s start by assuming robots as human-like bipedal machines that are designed with some amount of artificial intelligence, generally designed to fulfill a job to free up humanity from drudgery. All sounds good so far. So why do they creep us out?

There’s a litany of reasons why, best summed up with the concept of the uncanny valley, first coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori (Wow he’s still alive! The robots have not yet won) in 1970. Essentially, we know what a human is and how it looks and behaves against the greater backdrop of life and physics. When this is translated to a synthetic being, we are ok with making a robot look and act like us to a point, where we then notice all the irregularities and differences.

Most of these are minor – unnaturally smooth or rigid movements, light not scattering properly on a surface, eyes that don’t sync up quite right when they blink, and several other tiny details. Lots of theories take over at this point about why this creeps us out. But a blanket way to think about it is that our expectation doesn’t match what we are seeing; the reality we’re presented with is off just enough and this makes us uncomfortable .

Ever stream a show and the audio is a half second off? Makes you really annoyed. Magnify that feeling by a thousand and you’re smack in the middle of the uncanny valley. It’s that unnerving. One possible term for this is abjection, which is what happens the moment before we begin to fear something. Our minds – sensing incompatibility with robots – know this is something else, something other , and faced with no way to categorize this, we crash.

This is why they make good villains in movies – something we don’t understand and given free will and autonomy, potentially imbued with the bias of a creator or capable of forming terrifying conclusions all on its own (humans are a virus). But they also make good heroes, especially if they are cute or funny. Who doesn’t love C3PO? That surprise that they are good delights us. Build in enough appeal to a robot, and we root for them and feel empathy when they are faced with hardships. Do robots dream of electric sheep? Do robots have binary souls? Bits and zeros and ones?

Professor Jaime Banks (Texas Tech University’s College of Media & Communication) spends a lot of time thinking about how we perceive robots. It’s a complex and multifaceted topic that covers anthropomorphism, artificial intelligence, robot roles within society, trust, inherently measuring virtue versus evil, preconceived notions from entertainment, and numerous topics that cover human-robot interactions.

The world is approaching a future where robots may become commonplace; there are already robot bears in Japan working in the healthcare field. Dressing them up with cute faces and smiles may help, but one jerky movement later and we’ve dropped all suspension.

At some point, we have to make peace with the idea that they will be all over the place. Skynet, GLaDOS in Portal, the trope of your evil twin being a robot that your significant will have to shoot in the middle of your fight, that episode of Futurama where everything was a robot and they rose up against their human masters with wargod washing machines and killer greeting cards, the other Futurama episode where they go to a planet full of human hating murderous robots… We’ve all got some good reasons to fear robots and their coded minds.

But as technology advances, it makes sense to have robots take over menial tasks, perform duties for the needy and sick, and otherwise benefit humanity at large. And so the question we face is how to build that relationship now to help us in the future.

There’s a fine line between making them too humanlike versus too mechanical. Pixar solved the issue of unnerving humanoids in their movies by designing them stylistically – we know they are human and accept that the figure would look odd in real life. We can do the same with robots – enough familiarity to develop an appeal, but not enough to erase the divide between humanity and robot. It may just be a question of time and new generations growing up with robots becoming fixtures of everyday life. I’m down for cyborgs too.

Fearing them might not even be bad, as Banks points out: “…a certain amount of fear can be a useful thing. Fear can make us think critically and carefully and be thoughtful about our interactions, and that would likely help us productively engage a world where robots are key players.”

Also, check out Robot Carnival if you get the chance – specifically the Presence episode of the anthology.

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Opinion Editorials

4 simple tips to ease friction with your boss while working remotely

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Find it challenging to get along with your boss while working from home? Here are a few things you can try to ease the tension.

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Woman stressed over laptop in remote work.

Most people probably feel like their relationship with their boss is fine. If you’re encountering friction with your boss for any reason, though, remote work will often exacerbate it—this is one instance where distance doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder. Here are a few ways to remove some of that friction without adding to your boss’ overflowing plate.

According to CNN, determining the problem that exists between you and your boss should be your first step. There’s one caveat to consider, however: Your boss’ boundaries. Problem-solving on your own time is fine, but demanding more of your boss’ time—especially when you’re supposed to be working—may compound the issue.

An easy way around this is a low-impact communique—e.g., an email—sent at the beginning or end of the workday. Since that’s a more passive communication style that takes only a minute or two out of your day, it’s less likely to frustrate your boss further.

If ironing out the issue isn’t your prerogative for now, examining your boss’ parameters for success is another place to start. Does your boss prefer to receive multiple updates throughout the day, or do they want one summative report each morning? Do you respect your boss’ preferred communication styles? These are important questions to ask during remote work. If you find yourself reaching out more than necessary, for example, it may be time to cut back.

It can also be difficult to satiate your boss if you don’t know their expectations. If you’re able to speak to them about the expectations regarding a project or task, do it; clarifying the parameters around your work will always help both of you. It is worth noting that some supervisors may expect that you know your way around some types of responsibilities, though, so err on the side of complementing that knowledge rather than asking for comprehensive instructions.

Finally, keep in mind that some bosses simply don’t communicate the same way you do. I’ve personally been blessed with a bevy of nurturing, enthusiastic supervisors, but we’ve all had superiors who refuse to acknowledge our successes and instead focus on our failures. That can be a really tough mentality to work with during remote periods, but knowing that they have a specific communication style that hampers their sociability can help dampen the effects.

As always, communication is key—even if that means doing it a little bit less than you’d like.

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