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Future of Work: Remote Work Truths and Misconceptions with Laurel Farrer

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About the Episode

Think you’ve been working remotely the past year due to COVID-19? Think again. In this special Future of Work episode, international remote work expert Laurel Farrer explains that many of us are not actually working remotely, but simply following a rough contingency plan to keep us all afloat. Discover remote work tips and best practices that can help you, your team, and your organization transition to a truly remote work environment.

Episode Highlights

Meet Our Guest

With more than 15 years of remote work experience, Laurel Farrer has an in-depth understanding of what it takes to build successful remote teams. As the Founder and CEO of Distribute Consulting, she collaborates with the world's top remote-friendly companies to help guide their remote strategy. She has a fresh, straightforward, and bold stance on the global economic and sociological impact of virtual jobs, which she expands on as a contributor to Forbes. Her knowledge of teleworking expands into every corner of the topic, including salary, culture, change management, and technology.

Episode Transcript

Chris Byers: The future of work is being shaped by the advancement of technology and the evolving demands of talent. What changes could be in store for the workplace, the workforce, and the nature of work itself? In this season of Ripple Effect, we're introducing a sub series called The Future of Work, exploring the answers to some of these questions.

I'm Chris Byers of Formstack, and joining us is Laurel Farrer, an internationally renowned remote work expert. Remote work is no longer an unknown term or even differentiator among industries.

Yet the notion of how we think about workplace flexibility and its impact on organizational development is not widely understood. Laurel is the founder and CEO of Distribute Consulting, working with businesses, governments, and workers worldwide to strengthen virtual communication, streamline digital processes, and develop long-distance management strategies. Laurel joins us to help us dig deeper into how we have to adapt and keeping up with the need to support office teams.

Well, before we jump into some details here, can you share some definitions I think that help kind of get us all thinking about this topic the same. And so a couple of the ones to start with are maybe the difference between remote work versus hybrid or what it means to be remote-friendly and maybe how people should think about a handful of those things.

Laurel Farrer: You know, this is actually kind of a loaded question because the answer that people want is a very clear definition, right? This is what this means, this is what this means, but the honest answer is the reason that we have so many words that are all kind of floating around is because remote work, it really is in its infancy. We were really incubating this only for a few decades prior to 2020. And so because of that, there's a lot of information and industry development that doesn't exist. I mean, the basic infrastructure of remote work, as an industry, such as common language, really didn't have time to be developed before the hypergrowth of remote work in 2020. That's the long answer. The short answer is remote work is any type of work that you don't need to be dependent on a specific location. So work is something that you do, not somewhere that you go. There's a whole lot of other terms that are relevant to that. But the umbrella of this is that we are flexible or independent and location is professional.

Chris Byers: Well, I'm curious, as you think about that, what are some of the misconceptions or assumptions about remote work that you see happening in the world, especially as even as 2020 hit and people started to experience it more, what are still some strong misconceptions out there?

Laurel Farrer: I would say that the biggest problem that we are going to face, both as remote work advocates and as a society in general, is the assumption that what people are doing right now is working remotely. We think and assume because we've changed locations, we are not working in a centralized office anymore, we are all now remote workers. And that's not essentially true. What we're doing right now is an international contingency plan for a global catastrophe. So this is not remote working. This is not optimized virtual operations in any sense of the imagination. I've been leading and building remote teams and working remotely myself for 15 years, and this past year has been completely abnormal and stressful for me, too. So we have to first recognize that what's happening now is not normal nor sustainable.

So once we acknowledge that, then it opens the door for a bigger conversation about the fact that what companies need to do in order to implement remote work sustainably is not over. In fact, it hasn't even been started. They have implemented a workplace emergency plan, a workplace contingency plan, and that's a great start and that is a good solution for the time being. But if they want to adopt remote work permanently, whether in a hybrid way or in a fully distributed way or even just as a future emergency plan, there needs to be an intentional and very proactive change management process that they go through that involves really updating all elements of their operational model, not just workplace experience.

Chris Byers: Well, I think you've hit on something really important. I kind of tell people we've been remote for about eight years and our lives were wrecked just like everybody else's last year. And the other thing I say to people is the basics of doing remote work are easy; jump on Zoom, get some Slack, get email, but there's a lot more to it. I'm curious, is there one area where you would say this is the one thing that when the catastrophe ends or looks a little bit different, that people will start to recognize. That if they keep trying to embrace remote but don't kind of make those important moves that you're talking about, what's something you think is going to break pretty quickly?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, well, we actually have case studies of this historically, right? Companies like IBM and Yahoo! that rolled out large-scale remote work policies in the 80s and 90s and then had to retract them because things went wrong. And so we understand exactly what can go wrong and what the barriers to success and the barriers to sustainability will be for a lot of these organizations that haven't gone through the change management process in the right way or enough, they haven't finished it completely. But at the real core of all of it is that we need to rethink management, we need to rethink the relationship of leadership in terms of how work is monitored and supervised and tracked, because we do rely very heavily on physical supervision in the office. When we break free of that and we start to think about a remote-first mindset and we think about that work is really empowered per individual, and each person has the responsibility to manage themselves and to be productive no matter where they are. It really starts to have a lot of ripple effects into operational models and protocols, such as how productivity is measured, how performance is reviewed. So there's a lot to unpack there. But really we need to make sure that we are thinking of the management of work as happening on an individual level as opposed to based on the location or based on the supervision of leadership.

Chris Byers: Well, along the same journey of how do you kind of engage people in a little bit of a different way in a remote world, one of the things we discovered early on was the power of onboarding in that process. Because we are all used to...We've all shown up to an office before on day one and somebody said, hey, there's your desk, see you later, have fun. And that kind of worked because enough people were around and you could meet them and then go to lunch with somebody and you could see where things are. That was never the right experience. But you could get away with it. So we kind of thought about this idea that we need a really, really good onboarding process as just kind of step one. And I would say early on, therefore, we kind of overfunded our HR team to make sure that happened. So you've kind of conceptualized a really interesting idea on your website around the idea of a head of remote. I'd love to hear more about what that is and how people can think about it.

Laurel Farrer: Well, this is a really busy topic right now because there are some big brands like Facebook and GitLab and Dropbox that are hiring these heads of remote. Now, this is another one of those big misconceptions, right? Because most of the heads of remote that existed pre COVID, they're marketing roles. They are from companies like Mural and Buffer and GitLab that have high percentages of remote workforces or have products for remote workers. And so their head of remote roles are marketing roles and they are designed to advertise and advocate for the benefits of remote work and draw attention to that to help build the industry of remote. And so when people are looking at these job descriptions, they're trying to pattern after an incorrect prototype.

Now, that's not to say that they don't need a head of remote because there is a great need, especially in hybrid teams, for somebody's mind to be dedicated exclusively to the operations of remote team members to make sure that there is equal employee experience for onsite team members versus offsite members. In a lot of historical case studies, it was contributing to imbalance and discrimination and career stagnancy. There was a lot of problems. So to have somebody thinking about this full time is really, really important. But again, another caveat is that a lot of people are saying, great, I need somebody dedicated to this permanently. And that's not necessarily the case. Ideally, you want your entire executive team to become heads of remote. You want everybody to just be thinking remote-first all the time. So essentially what people need in a head of remote is just somebody to guide them through this change management process, to be helping them design a policy.

Really, there's three different types of heads of remote. There's a marketing head of remote. There's a temporary change management head of remote, that's more of a consultant role. And then there's a long-term. If you're in a hybrid team, it's somebody that's going to be really advocating for and being a liaison for the remote workers and representing them in the executive team.

Chris Byers: Well I think the other thing, ultimately, most of us, when we have had offices, we make a choice about that space and we say, I want to get the space for a particular reason because it has a particular style or vibe or whatever. And I think there's something also about creating employee experiences. And because it is so much of your experience is on the other side of your screen. And so the company really needs to come along and help create those experiences and find creative ways to do that. I'm curious, where have you seen people kind of push the boundaries in a good way on creating kind of great experiences for their team members in a remote-first world?

Laurel Farrer: We're seeing so many new tools with new innovative functionality and just just this boom, of all things, remote work. Right. And culture development was one of those that we were like, oh, yes, we are so here for this, there's going to be so many great developments. However, what I'm disappointed about is that they're really missing the mark. And we have had to kind of step in as consultants to help bridge the gap, because what people are thinking about in terms of culture development and team bonding and interpersonal trust building is they're like, oh, if we just have some calls, right? Like we have a party, a virtual party or we have the virtual coffee break or we send them some gifts, then that's going to substitute. And it's not, like that's ridiculous. Like that's creating more touch points, but it's not about how often you're getting together. It's about how you're getting together.

We have to redefine the word visibility and remember the fact that we can be completely isolated and alone even when we're sitting right next to somebody else. So really, connection has nothing to do with proximity. We need to redefine that word visibility and remember that building true connection with somebody is about not seeing them in the office, but seeing them without our eyes for who they really are. It's about recognition and appreciation and valuing somebody else. What we need to do is not just facilitate a fun activity, but make sure that we are planning these activities with purpose, that our meetings actually have metrics to them. So that's why I've been disappointed about what I've seen so far is like, hey, folks, we've got to remember, virtual culture is not just having virtual coffee break together. It's about facilitating really meaningful, impactful objectives together to help us fulfill business and interpersonal objectives.

Chris Byers: Have you found some good? Not literally Zoom alternatives as in other kind of video providers. But have you found some ways to really help people drive that engagement more? Right now that isn't just another Zoom meeting.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, we're really working on providing some training materials for our clients that are really focused on how to increase engagement in virtual experiences and how to define one virtual experience from another. So, yeah, some tips and strategies that we are facilitating in our trainings is we've really got to set some expectations about what people should bring to each of these experiences, also being much more transparent in our emotion and sharing if we feel happy displaying that much more than we ever did in an office, so that that emotion can be conveyed more easily to each other and help build to the emotion in the room, little things like that can really compound together to define and enhance virtual experience.

Chris Byers: Yeah, I love that idea of. One funny thing we've been doing a lot more of is when we're on a Zoom call, especially if it's a team or like a whole company thing, kind of take some moments to say, hey, type in the chat, you know, what do you feel and what's going on in your life or, you know, some things like that. And it's definitely an engaging emotion in a way that we're not used to, and especially in 2020. I think that was important. I mean, as you know, when you're in your home space, it can be kind of a dry environment. You're like, yep, I'm here all the time and getting emotion over video is tough. So I think that's a really interesting point to think about it, trying to engage it more.

How do you think how do you think about the talent pool? If somebody wanted remote work, they actually probably had a hard time finding it because there weren't that many companies doing it. And so actually they would get a flood of applicants, probably if you were a decent remote organization and recruiting all of a sudden became a lot easier. What do you think that's going and how do you think that will be impacted as more and more people are attempting this?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, that's a good question, because we're really shifting kind of the tone and definition of competition in a way that we didn't expect. So pre-COVID, 2019 statistics were somewhere around the line of like 86% of workers were interested in remote work as a benefit and would prioritize it in their job search. But only about 3% of jobs were openly and actively recruiting for remote compatibility at all, not even just full time, but even that there was an option to work remotely given part time. And so now, especially in 2021, the volume is is not as much of an issue anymore. It is anticipated that 40% of jobs will continue to be remote-friendly, post-COVID, at least 40%, and that's an incredible rate of growth in one year. So now we've got plenty of jobs. So now the competition is not so much between the workers. The competition is now in between the employers. The employers are going to have to adapt and get a sound policy in place if they want to have a prayer of retaining and attracting new talent, because now it's definitely in the job seekers court to say, yeah, I'm interested in this job, but to negotiate very fiercely and say there's also two other employers that I'm interviewing with that are willing to give me full workplace flexibility. Are you willing to do the same?

Chris Byers: Yes. So if you think about kind of how you set salaries basically in a remote organization, I know for us early on we said we live in middle America, so middle America salaries is probably a rough range for how we can think about compensation. But how do you think people should think about that?

Laurel Farrer: You know, this is another one of those pain points that if somebody says, oh, this is the solution, but let's gently say that they're full of it because we know from the hyper growth of remote work and the fact that it broomed so early and so unexpectedly means that we're missing a lot of resources. And this is one of those. The bummer answer is that we don't know what the right answer to this question is. And we, meaning all remote work experts and advocates, there isn't a right answer. And so what each organization needs to do individually is to think through what makes the most sense for our organizational model and then to incorporate the ethics of society into that decision. Because not only is there not a one-size-fits-all solution yet, but there's also not legislation to help guide that decision yet. Laws and regulations and liabilities are also way behind and will take years to catch up as well. So the short answer, we don't know. But the long answer is that there's a lot of different solutions. There's a lot of different companies doing it different ways. And the best solution is to hire a consultant to work through the pros and cons of each option with you and your financial department to identify what is the best solution for your company.

Chris Byers: So one of the surprising sectors that I've seen adopt remote work has been in government like it's one that I just kind of thought would run back to the office as soon as possible. And I've been amazed to see in multiple states, lots and lots of groups moving to remote work. But as you can of consultant, just consulting with government and of course, the private sector. How do you think government needs to approach this differently than the private sector?

Laurel Farrer: So what we see in the differences between our public and private sector clients is, number one, the speed. There is a lot of red tape to go through in the public sector. And because of that, the organizations are much less agile. So that can be really, really tricky to overcome and to incorporate it into the change management process, especially because leadership buy-in is the number one barrier to success of remote work adoption. And so when you are going through all of that red tape and you have all of these protocols to follow, and it's not just a matter of getting your executive team together and sitting down and saying that we all agree that this is a good idea. Cool. Let's do it. It can really slow down and put a negative impact on the change management process. So it's not to say that it's impossible, but that is when we accept a new private sector client, we know that we're going to be up against that.

I would say the other really alarming difference that we see in public sector clients versus private is the technology that they're working with. We just didn't understand how archaic the software and digital infrastructure is of the public sector where until we started consulting. It is very, very, very common for us to work with clients that are still using software that isn't even available publicly anymore, that they implemented in maybe the 80s or 90s where there were big grants that supported the purchase of the things like that. Like there's ebbs and flows in the timeline of adoption. And you can see that in the digital infrastructures of private sector organizations that they'll still be using really old, insecure software. It's not just a matter of like, all right, let's get some culture building activities in here for you. It's like, OK, we got to completely reconstruct your entire entire concept of how to telework.

Chris Byers: How do you think somebody who's just kind of beginning to embrace this should think about remote and especially in terms of cost. Over the years, I've gotten lots of questions about, oh, I assume you have these great cost savings because you don't have big offices. And my response has always been, yeah, but I've always felt like we need to put nearly that much money back into the two live events we do have in a year and just other things. So ultimately I bet we spend the same amount of money. But how do you think somebody should think about the cost saving measure? Is that one of the benefits here?

Laurel Farrer: I mean, yes and no, especially the larger the company, the more you're going to see those savings because it's easier to save at scale. And you can like repurpose local real estate for coworking space. So you're recouping a lot of those lost costs. So at the small business and small midsize business level, you're absolutely right. You're not going to see a drastic amount of change. So the yes side of saving money, is Global Workplace Analytics has a statistic that projects about an average of $11,000 of savings for each remote worker that you have. But most of those costs that are being saved are not from overhead costs. Like you said, most of that has to be compensated in other ways, like culture development and increased travel expenses and renting meeting space when we all get together as a team and stuff like that. So those overhead costs pretty much equal out. But where we see more savings are the costs that we're usually not measuring in fully distributed teams. But we really see a big difference in hybrid teams because the majority of that $11,000 savings statistic is actually in productivity and output, that remote workers work much, much harder, more creatively and produce a higher level of output than in-office workers. It's more on the soft side that we see stronger savings as opposed to the hard side that most people are thinking about.

Chris Byers: What are some other positives that you think people should be thinking about as they're approaching kind of remote workforce that maybe haven't thought of yet?

Laurel Farrer: I think at the corporate level, the case has been made and now most leaders have been able to see their internal case for change. What I would like people to think about beyond that is the impact on society. Yeah, this is great for an individual and it's great for a business. But let's think about the impact that this can have on the world at scale. The impact that we already have been seeing in the past year of reducing carbon emissions of commuters and how that impacts local infrastructures of transportation, as well as environmental sustainability. Let's think about the impact on community health, of mental health, of children and cardiovascular health and eating habits of families that get to make a homemade meal together every single day and have an hour or two extra time for exercising outside. Let's think about the impact of economic development. When people don't have to live in hyper urbanized environments, they can move to other slower paced areas, still make a sustainable salary and start stimulating the economy of rural areas and minimizing that rural divide. Like there are incredible socioeconomic benefits here for diversity and inclusion, for equality of the workforce, that can be tapped if we're willing to think about this long-term and really optimize it within our companies.

Chris Byers: What's your prediction for what happens to kind of especially those big cities where you've had tech hubs or just large, large business hubs? What do you think's going to happen in those places?

Laurel Farrer: There's a valid argument that is coming from a lot of those big cities that are saying our residents are fleeing and this is crushing our economy. And that's true. And I don't ever want to be insensitive to how stressful that is. However, we also need to recognize that the large majority of not only our country here in the United States, but most countries are dealing with a much bigger problem of declining economies in rural communities. And so this is, I think, a very positive opportunity for us to minimize that rural divide and start creating opportunity equally between urban and rural environments. So I think it's a great opportunity. Obviously, the pain point is coming from the lack of opportunity that we had to prepare for this. And so it's happening very quickly, very suddenly, very unexpectedly. And that's where a lot of the pain points are coming from. If this had happened more slowly and the growth of remote work was organic, it wouldn't have had as major of an impact on the cities, it wouldn't have been as drastic of a danger. So it's just the speed at which it's happening that is making it dangerous. But it's certainly not dangerous that it's happening overall.

Chris Byers: Well, as you think about kind of moving forward, a lot of people are, of course, kind of anticipating the world opening back up in some ways. I think we're seeing lights of that. What do you think something that's just never going to go back to the way it was, though?

Laurel Farrer: You know, everything. I think we need to really appreciate that this year has been very difficult and very challenging for us in a lot of ways. But it has completely redefined what we consider normal. And that idea that we used to get into a car for two, three, even four hours a day and sit there and drive to a desk in which we would sit at a computer for another eight hours a day while our kids were in childcare. And often we wouldn't even see the light of day except for maybe a smoke break or running to get a quick meal at a restaurant. Like the fact that we considered that normal and healthy is pretty alarming, I think, as a society. So I'm glad that everybody had the opportunity to experience what it's like to make your own schedule and to be in control of your own life and to design your own lifestyle and to create work life balance for yourself. I think now that we've experienced it and especially experienced it for a year, it's going to be really, really hard to get ourselves back into that mindset of, wait, I'm going to get in a car and drive to a computer when I have a computer at home where my family is close by and I'm available for emergencies and I live a healthier lifestyle. Something's got to give. So I'm hopeful that our society will continue to accept this opportunity for healthier lifestyles in the future, both physically, mentally, emotionally, and certainly logistically.

Chris Byers: Well, as we wrap up this conversation about the future of work, I've got two questions to pull it all together. What is one thing that you wish was solved for you or the organizations you help related to remote work, like this one thing like and how is this ever going to get solved? What is that?

Laurel Farrer: Work life balance. That one is really, really hard for so many people, including myself. Like I said, I've been doing this for 15 years and I still struggle to unplug at the end of the day, contributing to a lot of burnout, a lot of bitterness, a lot of isolation. I really would love to see much, much, much more attention given to solutions for work life balance, both on a corporate level as well as industry level, because I think it's going to help people really reap the rewards of a remote work that much more. We'll see stronger productivity professionally and happier, healthier people personally as well.

Chris Byers: Well, what's one soft skill that you think people are going to need to develop a lot more of that they didn't maybe have to use as much in this future of work?

Laurel Farrer: I would say proactivity and accountability, that intrinsic motivation is absolutely essential. And all of the trainings that I give and all the analysis that we conduct as consultants all boiled down to this: we have to overcommunicate as remote workers. And a lot of people interpret that to mean, oh, I just need to write more or I need to talk more, like we were talking about before. Right. That power of written communication and asynchronous communication. And that's a good start. But what that is going to come from is more proactivity in our willingness to raise our hand and say, I have a problem, I need help. I have a question, I need help. I have an update that I need to share. Like, we have to be able to be self-aware enough to identify when we have needs and then to proactively articulate those to other people.

Chris Byers: Well, I think you've touched on an amazing point there. We used to have a phrase called communicate status, and it was about exactly what you're talking about. If your manager if your team is always having to reach out to you to see what's going on or check in on you, all of a sudden you're basically having to drag somebody along and you can't do that very long. And so I think you've touched on an amazing point.

Well, thank you for joining us on this special episode of Ripple Effect on the Future of Work to learn more about how people are reimagining their world of work over to

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