Leveraging Remote Work with Laurel Farrer
How do we leverage remote work in our businesses and on our teams? In this episode of Programming Leadership, Marcus talks with Laurel Farrer, CEO and founder of Distributing Consulting, about the challenges facing remote workers and their managers. Despite being around for decades, there are still many managers pushing back against remote work. According to Farrer, this is due to myths surrounding it as well as managers not utilizing it effectively. She wants people to know that remote work, when properly understood and executed, can create more productive teams, departments, and companies.
- Understanding why isolation is such a challenge for remote workers (2:31)
- How managers can spot when isolation is affecting one of their remote workers (6:13)
- The disconnect between on-site managers and remote workers (10:00)
- Advice for managers wanting to add remote workers to a colocated team (14:34)
- Helpful mindset shifts for managers averse to remote workers (18:03)
- The challenges facing remote teams that do knowledge work (22:00)
- Turnover and termination on remote teams (25:09)
- Distribute Consulting: distributeconsulting.com
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurel_farrer
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laurel-farrer/
- Remote Work Association: https://www.remoteworkassociation.com/
- This podcast: www.programmingleadership.com
- O’Reilly Software Architecture Conference: http://oreilly.com/sacon/blankenship
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Marcus: Welcome to this episode, I am so happy to have Laurel Farrer with me today. And Laurel is an expert on distributed and remote work, and that’s what we’re going to talk about. But there’s gonna be a twist. Laurel, welcome to the show.
Laurel: Thank you so much, Marcus. I’m so happy to be here.
Marcus: Now Laurel, you own Distribute Consulting, right? Give us a quick overview of what Distribute Consulting does and how it helps companies.
Laurel: Wonderful. So, we are a traditional management consulting firm, just like Gallup and McKinsey and Bain and Accenture. In fact, we work with those brands a lot. So, we are helping businesses do business better, but with the niche and specialty of remote work and virtual distribution, virtual infrastructures, etc. So, yeah, we help enable mobile workforces, and we do that all the way from entrepreneurs all the way up to enterprises, and it’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of air quote, “remote work consultants” out there. Traditionally, those are more leadership trainers or team coaches, but we are consultants in the traditional sense of the word.
Marcus: So, I want to start off with asking kind of an unintuitive question, and that is, everybody’s so excited about remote work these days. I mean, at least—
Laurel: It’s very buzzy. [laughing].
Laurel: Right, it’s very buzzy, but is there a dark side to all this remote work? Are there problems that occur or is there kind of a negative aspect to it that you see?
Laurel: Absolutely. Remote work is young. It’s in its infancy. It’s not quite as in its infancy as some people think, so, with all this buzz and media attention, a lot of people think that this is a new and emerging trend. That’s certainly not true. Telecommuting, teleworking, it’s been around since the 80s. So, we do have a good history of 30, 40 years under our belt of knowing how this works, but, 30, 40 years in the world of business and economy and industry that is very, very young. So, of course, there’s a lot of things that are very new, and we are still troubleshooting a lot within the industry. So, one that you hear a lot about is isolation. We’re still working through that and really understanding what the source of that isolation is and looking at all of the different socio-economic factors of that. So, yeah, isolation is very, very common, that complaint that we hear from people when they first go remote.
Marcus: And I was going to ask for the context, you sort of hinted at it there. So this is where a person feels isolated from other people, from the rest of the team or from corporate. So the individual or maybe it’s everybody if it’s a fully distributed company, this feeling of being alone is a problem?
Laurel: Yes. So, there’s a lot to unpack here. But what’s happening is exactly like you said, that we’re going from a highly social, engaged environment, which is an office space with a lot of people around all the time, and then we’re going to a home office or a co-working space, or even just a coffee shop or a cafe, and we’re just independent. We don’t have that physical proximity and accessibility to our colleagues like we used to. So, there’s a lot to unpack here, like I said that, yes, people are feeling isolated. However, the multiple facets of this are that, number one, obviously we have a problem in which as a society, our friendships and connections are exclusively coming from work. That’s a sociological problem, that is not a professional problem. So, when you take work away, it really shouldn’t have that much of an impact, you should say, “Oh, I don’t get to see my work friends as much as I used to, but I still have my family, my community friends, my volunteering position, whatever. I have my social hobbies. It is that one branch of my social life that has changed the dynamic of.” However, people when that’s taken away because we’ve been spending so much time at work, when that’s taken away, all of a sudden, you have no social life, and people are really feeling serious mental health symptoms because of this isolation. So, that’s a conversation that we like to fuel on the worker and individual professional sides is we need to diversify our social streams and we need to learn and remember how to make friends outside of work.
Marcus: This got really deep—
Laurel: Yeah, [laughing].
Marcus: —because I certainly can relate to having most of the people I hung out with on the weekends, or in the evenings or went to their kid’s birthday parties, or, I don’t play golf, but you might get the idea. Those were my work colleagues. And that’s kind of the way I thought it was supposed to be. But you’ve described this as a problem now.
Laurel: [laughing]. Well, yeah, I mean, just as a society, I mean, Industry and Commerce in general, we’ve really fueled these traditions of having a very fun and engaging place to work, like, this is culture, right? These are perks and benefits like you want to work here because we’ve got the showers on site, and we provide a free breakfast and we provide happy hours after work. And so, we’ve learned how to have a work-life balance within work. And all of a sudden, what we’re not realizing is that instead of spending 6 to 8 hours a day at work, we’re spending 8 to 10 to 12 hours a day at work, and it is our entire social life and then our entire personal ecosystem is living all within work. So yeah, that’s why remote work is such a big proponent of work-life balance is that we’re trying to keep work, work, and life, life and not integrate them, but balance them.
Marcus: So, if somebody is listening and they have remote workers, how can they become aware of when isolation is becoming a problem?
Laurel: Yes. Okay. So, there’s so many different channels to this conversation. Another channel to discuss, that will answer your question is that isolation is not just social, it’s also informational. So, as a worker, we don’t necessarily miss sitting next to somebody, we miss celebrating with somebody, or we miss being able to ask somebody a question at a moment’s notice. We missed that accessibility and that dependability that our network provides. So, to more specifically answer your question, to identify isolation, people are either going to be silent. This is a whole new level of communication. [laughing]. We’re getting really deep here, Marcus. So, this is another topic that we can talk about in a minute is the difference of communication in a virtual environment versus in a physical environment. But we don’t have the opportunity to see somebody sitting at their cubicle looking sad and confused. So, we have to watch for other factors, so that can be them ghosting or just being really silent all day long on our slack channels, they’re just—they’re lost and so they’re lost visibly in our virtual world as well. It can be that they’re asking too many questions like they’re obviously missing some things, they are not capturing the vision of the project that you’re working on. So, if you’re getting frustrated with how many questions they’re asking, take a step back and say, “Alright, let’s talk about this. You are obviously isolated from something: the vision or the workflow or something.” They can also just be looking in the wrong places. And so, as managers, it’s our responsibility to over-communicate to keep communication channels very, very open, because it’s by asking them questions or them asking us questions that we really identify and keep track of somebody’s status, whether they are informationally isolated or not. So, communication is key, and we watch those new social factors and new nonverbal cues in a virtual environment to see how they’re doing.
Marcus: Yeah, it seems like the challenge is, the nonverbal. Like, on one hand, saying nothing might mean I’m really productive and so deep in thought, or saying nothing might mean I am so unhappy in my job and feeling really alone, and frustrated, and lost. And it just dawns on me that in those moments when we are feeling that way, that’s probably the least time when we’re going to put a sad emoji in slack.
Laurel: Exactly. And it’s our responsibility as managers to create the channels and to create the culture in which people are comfortable asking questions and comfortable being transparent and vulnerable about how they’re feeling. So, if they are lost and confused and frustrated and isolated, and they feel like they’re going to get reamed from their manager by being unproductive or being behind schedule, then it’s only going to fuel the problem. However, if we can create a culture of transparency and vulnerability, and so that they say, “Hey, look, I’m really struggling, I need some help. I’m missing something,” and then they can explain the entire problem in a safe place, then that’s when you as a manager can say, “Oh, it just sounds like you are missing a link to this. Here it is.” Five minutes later the problem Is done.
Marcus: Okay, I have a question.
Marcus: I have the impression a lot of managers and a lot of workers think that remote work sounds pretty great and pretty easy. Do you think we acknowledge how hard it is to be a remote worker?
Laurel: So, it’s kind of a complicated answer, because remote work is very complex and very different. But it’s also very simple and very much the same. So, if we come into remote work, understanding what those differences are, those differences are very small, but they’re very impactful. So, that’s why and how it can be both at the same time. So, if we understand what those differences are, how we need to update our, like we were just talking, about our nonverbal communication, our awareness, how to prevent isolation, and how to prevent burnout. If we can understand what those red flags are, and how to prevent them and a long term vision, then it’s a very, very easy change. However, when you don’t understand what those changes are, and you just wing it, and you just kind of go home with their laptop and keep your fingers crossed, and think that everything’s going to be the same as it was in an office, that’s when you’re going to have problems with sustainability, and that’s why we see the classic cases of large companies having to retract their policies, is because they’re trying to manage virtual operations in the same way that they were managing physical operations, and those are two different things.
Marcus: Do you think we should be giving people remote worker training on how to become a productive, happy remote worker?
Laurel: Absolutely. In fact, I consult universities on this topic. How can we be incorporating virtual collaboration dynamics directly into classroom experiences? Because this is the future of work. This is where people are collaborating. And honestly, it doesn’t matter if we’re a 100 percent distributed company or if we are a hybrid company, this is just how work is being done now. Our clients are halfway across the world. We’re operating in a global economy, so, it doesn’t matter if your coworker is six cubicles away or six countries away, you’re still emailing them, you’re still pinging them in the project management software. You’re still collaborating as a virtual team, regardless of proximity. So, yes, it is absolutely essential that our incoming workforce get trained on virtual collaboration, on digital communication, on virtual professionalism. These are all new topics for the future of work and yes, they absolutely need to be trained. We need to be more bold and comfortable with the fact that this future work conversation that we’re having so much, it’s not forthcoming; it’s not the future of work; it is the present of work, and we need to be much much more aggressive in preparing our workforce accordingly.
Marcus: Hmm. Now we typically talk about software teams, or people, or companies on this show. But I’m curious, from your perspective, what industries are really starting to push forward in remote work in a really active way?
Laurel: Yeah, so tech, obviously, like you said. This is where remote work was very incubated. Because of the workflows and processes, it was just very compatible, and so people were already recognizing that they were working independently, and so it was a natural segue. And we were able to incubate it, test all of the processes and really watch in pilot if it was possible to operate as a fully distributed team. Now we know that that is possible, and so we’re able to extend it to other industries. So, healthcare is really coming up fast, accounting is really big, the entire financial world. And we also see arts and entertainment. So, think of graphic designers and video editors. I mean, all of our tools and products and services are becoming more and more dependent on computers anyway, and that’s essentially the only criteria of if a job is remote compatible or not is, does it use a computer as its primary tool? If yes, then it’s remote compatible. So, the more that computers are used in all industries, even manufacturing and engineering, I mean, the more that we see computer use and artificial intelligence and automation, the more roles and systems become remote compatible.
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Marcus: Hmm. Okay, let’s turn to the manager’s perspective. I know some managers who have on-site teams and because of hiring, they’ve told me, “I would love to hire globally, because it’s so hard to hire in my town,” they’ve said. But they’re concerned, they’re resistant to this idea, what will it be like to have a remote employee, and what if that person is just watching Netflix all day, I would have no idea what they were doing. What advice do you have for a manager who’s contemplating adding remote people to an already co-located team?
Laurel: Yes. So, this is actually the level of our entire society in which the adoption of remote work is being blocked. So, the workers are—
Laurel: Yeah, I know. [laughing]. It just got real, real quick.
Marcus: I know. What’s gonna happen here? You heard it first on this show.
Laurel: So, the workers are hungry for it. They obviously recognize how much this would impact their personal lives, their commute times, their personal savings account, it would really benefit workers immensely. So, the workers are really putting forth a lot of pressure for scaled adoption. Now we’re entering the phase where executives are much more open to the idea as well. They’re saying, “Well, I’ve been traveling all of this time. I guess I’m a remote worker too.” And so, they are more familiar with the processes, and they are used to being the innovative thought leaders, and so they’re anxious to do something that will make them look good. So, the executives are really coming around as well. It’s the mid-level managers that are really digging their heels in, and understandably so. I mean, you and I have both been in this position before, that the brunt and the weight of responsibility when it comes to change management really falls on this level. So, when a company adopts a standardized remote work policy, and there’s a lot of change management associated with the tools and processes and methods, that falls on the shoulders of these mid-level managers, and so they’re saying, “No, that’s one more thing that I’m responsible for.” So, what is important to note about the change to remote work is that it’s still work. And like I said before, not much changes. The dynamics of just how we operate businesses right now, in this day and age is very, very virtually compatible. And so, you’re still going to be communicating with your team a lot. It’s that our dependency as managers on physical and sensory criteria that we’ve just grown used to, it’s ingrained into our entire souls as managers, right? Like, that’s how we got to be managers, is we arrived to the office early, and we left late, we were burning the midnight oil. That’s how we became managers. And so it’s hard for us to change that mindset of “No, I have to show that I’m doing a good job. I have to make phone calls look busy, giving the powerful handshake, wearing the power tie.” All of these traditions that we were taught in college were all based on physical sensory experiences. So, there’s a lot of mindset shift that has to happen. [laughing].
Marcus: There are. Yeah, I’m smiling here, because yeah, I’m envisioning a variety of things. But continue. Yeah, what mindset shifts would be helpful for these managers who are finding it really overwhelming?
Laurel: Yeah. So, the big shift, and this is a very oversimplified explanation. So, it’s important to know as I go into this explanation that remote work is a tool to be leveraged. It’s completely customizable. That’s a big mistake most managers make and assume, is that there’s no gray area. It’s black or white, you’re fully distributed and you’re the next Automattic or InVision, or you can only grant one or two employees flexibility based on maternity leave or illness or something like that. There’s not really anywhere in between. That’s completely incorrect. It can and should be leveraged in order to capitalize and fuel the objectives of the business, and of the department, and of the team. So, managers are much, much, much more empowered in this process than they think they are. So they can say, “My team, the dynamics of my team are, we get some great collaborative think tank sessions done on Mondays, and then we work on them for the rest of the week, and then we cycle back again on Monday. We regroup, do more think tank, and then we all separate and work on them independently.” In that circumstance, by all means, have everybody on site and get that great in-person dynamic on Mondays, and then send everybody to work from a location that empowers them and fuels their creativity for the rest of the week. That also might be in the office, it might be at home, it might be a co-working space. Remote work is just about fueling the conversation that the location is irrelevant to the work. And so, we want people to leverage the location, and work from a place that fuels their personality or their workflows and styles. So, it doesn’t mean that you’re sending away from the office, it just means that they don’t have to be in the office. So, that being said, to circle back to your original question, how do they feel more comfortable in making this transition? It’s about busting those myths and changing the mindset around that physical sensory experience. We don’t need to hear phones ringing, see people working in the office to know that they’re productive. We as managers, we also came from the generation of solitaire, and Minecraft, and Candy Crush. We all know that being in an office does not mean that you were being productive in an office. So, we need to shift our tracking and reporting methods to be based more on accomplishment instead of activity. And as soon as we do that, and we update our workflows, update our reporting structures to be more results based, all of a sudden that gives the manager much, much, much more opportunity to take their hands off of the production cycle, and just focus more on the results of the production cycle. The very simplified and classic example that I give is that I asked somebody to wash my car. I don’t need to know where you washed the car, I don’t need to know when you washed the car, I don’t need to know if it was done in the parking lot, or what kind of soap you used. I don’t care. I just want to know that my car is clean by five o’clock when you tell me to pick it up. And at that time, I will very much be able to see if you washed my car, and if you did a good job, and if I can depend on you to do it again. So, it’s really shifting our support as managers. It’s providing support during production, and then really being involved and being focused on the delivery phase.
Marcus: Yeah, it’s interesting with—I love the car analogy. With the car, it’s pretty easy to tell when you pick it up. Is it clean or is it dirty? Is the inside as clean as I expected it to be? So you can observe the results of that. But I feel like, with some kinds of knowledge work, especially knowledge work that has handoffs, that has a longer process than just one day, it can be a challenge to observe work in process and to understand what’s getting done. And I’m thinking of everything from software, to accounting, to all kinds of—I’m sure HR has projects that take many months. And so on any given period of time, how can we—like, it seems like we have to have new conversations about what’s expected, and how we check in with one another, and how we maybe create metrics for the transparency of work.
Laurel: Exactly. It’s all about that, and that’s why communication came up earlier in our conversation, and why communication will always come up around remote work. It really boils down to trust, culture, and communication. All of my conversations—ever—always boil down to trust, culture, and communication. And this is exactly why that we need to trust during the process, but also be communicating during the process. When we’re results focused, it does not mean that we take our hands off and never talk to our team until they deliver. It means that we need to be accessible and available and supporting them in different ways. As opposed to us directly managing and controlling the results during the production phase, we are supporting them as they manage the results, because that’s self management, that’s remote work, is you don’t have a manager sitting next to you, watching you, supervising you. So, on the worker side there’s so much more responsibility and so much more autonomy, both good and bad, that is required when you work off-site. Somebody has to manage the work, and if you don’t have a manager sitting next to you managing the work, then that means you have to. So, that’s another big misconception of remote workers is they think, “Woohoo, I’m free.” And it’s like, No, no, no, no, no, there’s so much more responsibility when you’re working off-site. You have to be responsible for maintaining your energy through the day, prioritizing your tasks, understanding what’s next, preventing burnout. All of that is now up to you, you don’t have the infrastructure of an office to manage that for you. So, yes, the new dynamic of managers, and this is why people operations is really coming into the limelight—or into the spotlight—in the HR world is because our new role as managers is that the people are managing the results instead of the managers managing the results. But now the managers are indirectly fueling results by supporting the people. So, people and operations are much, much more unified and cohesive than they have been traditionally.
Marcus: Hmm. Okay, well, I want to ask—I’ve got a burning question here. I want to talk about the T-word: turnover. Is turnover on remote teams higher? After all, it seems like once you get all your stuff in an office, a picture of your wife, or your kids, or your husband, or your family and you get your potted plant, you think about leaving, you’re like, “I gotta haul all that stuff back out.” But if you’re working from home, do people turn over faster when they’re remote workers?
Laurel: Oh, good question. This is a really great statistic, is that retention actually increases by 70 percent.
Laurel: Yeah. In remote teams, remote work is often seen as an operations strategy. Absolutely not. It’s a talent acquisition strategy. So, your recruiting costs are drastically lowered and your retention is, I mean, through the roof. So, yeah, people enjoy the flexibility. All of the reasons that they usually have to leave a job; my spouse got a new job in a new city, or the commute time is too long, or I’m just feeling burned out, or I need to be able to pick up my kids when they come home from school. Those daily life decisions that often fuel a reason to leave a job, those are resolved with flexibility. And so yeah, they are able to stay in their job, regardless of where they live, or what their personal schedule looks like. And in so doing, they are also so grateful for that flexibility, they feel so much more valued as an employee, the employee experience just soars, and as a result, they feel much much more loyal to the brand, and so they stay with the company much longer.
Marcus: Okay, I’m curious if you have statistics on the other T-word: termination. And that is, do people get fired at a different rate when they’re a remote employee, then if they’re not a co-located person?
Laurel: I don’t have a solid number on it, but the last number that I heard is that that also decreases by 30 to 40 percent, because—it’s the same reason, right? We are not… we’re putting more empowerment and more responsibility into the hands of the employee, and so they—how do I say this in a politically correct way—managers often are terminating employees because they are not fulfilling expectations. However, a really good sound compliant remote work policy articulates expectations much, much more than previous employment, right? We have to say that, we have to articulate expectations of you, you will be online during this time and this time, and you will be accessible in these channels. We have to give that checklist just for compliance reasons. And so, when workers have that very clear checklist of exactly what is expected of them, then there are very few opportunities for them to fall through on that. And they also are empowered more to control their outcomes because of this results-based tracking. So, if they don’t like something about the process, they feel very micromanaged, there’s much less opportunity for that to happen now. There’s also less opportunity for discriminatory termination as well because everybody’s results are equal. And everybody is equally measured. There are very few opportunities for discrimination to be happening at all.
Marcus: This has been an amazing interview. Thank you so much. Where can people find you online and engage with your work?
Laurel: Yeah, DistributeConsulting.com is my management consulting firm. I’ve got a team of the world’s best thought leaders and experts that were all collected there, and anxious to help managers as well as businesses leverage and capitalize on remote work. But I’m always happy to talk about remote work in any capacity, so you can also find me on social media @LaurelFarrer. I’m usually the only one so it’s easy to find me. LinkedIn and Twitter are our strongest channels. And then you can also find me at the Remote Work Association which is a nonprofit organization that I’m the founder of.
Marcus: Wonderful Laurel. Thank you so much for talking with us today.
Laurel: Thank you so much, Marcus, it has been so fun.
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