Remote work, working from home, freelancing, telecommuting…whatever name we give it, is not a new phenomenon. Let me explain.
I recently gave a presentation at an event in Budapest…let me say it was an amazing experience to come along side people passionate about remote work. Represented were remote workers, professors and students from Corvinus University in Budapest, and decision makers from the halls of government. All were interested in learning and advocating for remote work.
In preparing to speak I came across two articles that gave me some perspective on the history of remote work. What amazed me was how much remote work has been an integral part of our lives from cave man days to today.
I was also struck by how similar the concerns regarding remote work in the 1970s are to what we hear today. As noted in the above mentioned articles, The Washington Post (1979) in the US shared these three reasons why working from home is not ideal…
- How do we know they are actually working?
- How will they stay connected with the office and team members?
- How will they handle all the distractions of working from home?
Fast forward to today…Millions of people globally work remotely, a high percentage being employees of organizations, not just self-employed, freelancers, or digital nomads.
Research shows these people:
- Are more productive
- Experience a better work/life balance
- Save organizations money on office space and equipment
- Save time and money on driving back and forth to the office
- Leave a smaller environment footprint
And this is all made possible by advances in communication technology. However, many organizations still offer the same objections as to why remote working should not be considered…46 years later! Fortunately, research (and experience) has proven the objections offered no longer need to be issues.
So what might be the root of these concerns? Let me offer some suggestions
- Lack of trust
- Lack of understanding regarding the technology available.
- Concern over employee’s lack of self-motivation or self-leadership.
- Unwillingness to give up control.
Are these concerns actually valid? Do those things really describe the work habits of remote workers? Only one way to find out…ask remote workers. That’s exactly what we did. Over the past year we interviewed and surveyed over 200 remote workers in North America and Europe. We wanted to know, from their perspective, what they knew was key in being successful as remote workers. The results? They identified, in this order of importance:
- Tech savvy
- Taking initiative
Notice the top 4 they identified. The very competencies that counteract what was just noted as being the root causes of organizational skepticism.
Remote work is not a new phenomenon, but it has evolved, and the tools enabling it to happen effectively have developed to levels beyond what our predecessors could have imagined. And, work will continue to change and evolve, as will the technology enabling it to be even more effective.
These 4 things, communication, self-leadership, trust, tech savvy, all lay a foundation that will prepare you for whatever the future of work looks like. So let me ask, how might we…
- build our communication skills? Are you reading books that challenge you? Are you taking every opportunity possible to speak publicly? Are you honing your writing skills?
- become more self-led? Are you taking the initiative to get better at what you are already good at? Are you continually challenging what you know? Are you taking responsibility for your own decisions and actions?
- become people worthy of trust? When you say you are going to do something, do you do it? Are you honest, do you demonstrate integrity?
All these things are under our control, and only we can truly own them.
*Note…I’ve decided to start numbering my blogs for ease of reference. I was shocked to see this is already #65!
In our research, 58% of respondents stated that to be successfully as a remote worker it’s important to be disciplined. We defined discipline as showing a controlled form of behavior or way of working. Respondents agreed that discipline is about the long commitment in the same direction, doing something because it is the right thing to do, not because it felt like it. As I consider the practice of discipline, I’m learning that self-leadership and discipline are closely connected.
Sue Stockdale, a British polar adventurer, athlete and motivational speaker, wrote a insightful article regarding this topic. Her 3 suggestions for becoming more disciplined were:
- Be clear about what’s important
- Imagine yourself at the end point and work backwards
- Short term pain vs. long term gain
Let’s consider self-leadership as being the fuel that enables us to be disciplined, to stay in the game for the long haul. A definition of self-leadership shared in an article by Charles C. Manz is helpful…
A comprehensive self-influence perspective that concerns leading oneself towards performance of naturally motivating tasks as well as managing oneself to do work that must be done but is not naturally motivating.
The question is, how do we develop self-leadership? Here are five practical suggestions:
1. Take time to learn and grow your strengths: I am a strong proponent of knowing our individual strengths , and taking responsibility for growing them. Realizing individual uniqueness and ability is important, as is recognizing that our strengths are most effective when used in collaboration with other’s strengths. If you are serious about discovering your strengths, click here to start the journey.
2. Be aware of, and grow your emotional intelligence (EI): EI measures your ability to recognize and manage emotions in yourself and others. A TedX talk by Ramona Hacker not only explains EI, but provides some great insights regarding how to grow your EI. Also, this free on-line tool will help assess your EI level, and pose questions to walk through some growth steps. The great news about EI is that no matter where you score today, you can grow to new levels!
3. Collaboration: by collaborating with others we are privileged to learn from their expertise. Another benefit of collaborating is having our weak areas and blind spots uncovered; as the Proverb says…“Iron sharpens iron.”
4. User Manual for ‘me’:
Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Lao Tzu, Chinese Taoist Philosopher.
It’s difficult to grow in self-leadership if you don’t know yourself, or know where to start. On a recent web conference I was introduced to the idea of creating a User Manual on ‘me’ to share with my team or co-workers. It basically summarizes who I am, how I operate, my ideal work environment, what I excel in, and even where I am not so strong. When looking at developing and growing in self-leadership, this is an important tool. In a video produced by Kevin Kruse, the audience is encouraged to create such a manual on a semi-regular basis…perhaps at significant milestones in life.
5. Turn discovery to action: Self-discovery is most valuable when you do something about it. What’s your action plan. How will this learning enable you to lead yourself AND contribute to the growth and success of others? Self-leading cannot be self-serving…it can’t be motivated by a desire for personal power. Rather, the discipline that results from self-leadership should contribute to the greater good of the teams and organizations you are part of.
How do we pull it all together? In a nutshell…know who you are and what you love doing. Consider what motivates you intrinsically and use that knowledge and passion to turn work that is not naturally motivating into something meaningful. Finally, use that motivation as the impetus to inform your disciplined approach to committing to excellence in the long run.
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In my previous blog I offered suggestions for how individuals could grow in their ability to be self-directed. Being intentional about growing such skills will increase your success as a remote worker, and set you up to answer interview questions related to that important competency. What kind of questions can an interviewer ask if they want to discern the candidates proficiency in being self-directed or self-motivated? Below are some suggestions to get you started, but first, a definition. Because it is important to use the same language when discussing competencies, clarity needs to be provided for this specific context.
Self-directed involves taking responsibility for personal decisions and effectively organizing activities based on intrinsic motivation without pressure from others. Without being self-directed, remote workers stated they might not have what it takes to organize multiple contracts in order to achieve the deliverables identified.
True, this is a great competency to possess when working in a colocated setting, but our research showed that a much higher level of proficiency is required when working in a remote or virtual setting. Let’s not forget that working remote refers to individuals who are not required to physically show up at a specific location on a regular basis.
Back to the interview, the focus is to ask behavioural questions to see how a candidate handled him or herself in the past. While it is always desirable, it is not necessary that they have previously worked remote, but it is important that they can demonstrate transferable skills that will contribute to their future success. While interviewing, don’t hesitate to dig deep with follow-up questions. Sometime the secondary questions are the ones that get you to the most vital information; listening carefully to the answers provided can’t be overstated.
As noted in previous blogs, answers should provide insight into the following:
• Situation/Problem faced
• Action (what they did, how they did it)
• Result/outcome (what was the outcome of the action taken, and was it positive or negative)
- Tell me about a time when a goal was difficult to achieve because of the many barriers before you. How did you address the barriers? (You are looking for answers that will help you discern not only the ability to identify barriers, but will describe the action taken to either overcome, or remove the barriers. Remote work can present more barriers that colocated settings. These barriers are by no means insurmountable, however, a self-directed person will not be put off by them, but will rise to the occasion and eagerly find workable solutions.)
- Tell me about a time when you took the initiate to collaborate with others in order to more effectively accomplish a task. (Listen for an indication that they believe collaboration is important, why it is important, and how working with others can aid in the effective completion of a task. As well, listen for how they chose who to collaborate with. In remote settings, it takes more determination and intentionality to reach out and build a collaborative network.)
- Describe a time when you lacked the drive to accomplish a task. How did you work through the apathy? (Listen for the humility of acknowledging they are not perfect…it’s rare to find someone who has never lacked drive. The important aspect of this question is to learn how they dealt with the inevitable lack of drive, accomplished the task, and moved on. Once more, in a remote setting there may be more distractions that pull the individual away from a task at hand…especially if it’s a task they don’t particularly enjoy.)
- Describe a time when you lacked the necessary information to accomplish a task. What sources did you use to provide the missing information or learn a new skill? (This question is driving at the importance of knowing how to access learning in order to get the job done. Some people simply rely on the person in the next cubicle to provide the answer; however, when working remote, there is no one in the next office. How resourceful are they with self-directed learning?)
- What process do you have to ensure all commitments and deadlines are met? How do you prioritize deliverables and responsibilities? (Self-directed people are pro-active. This question will give you insight into how the individual gets ahead of the game by having process and practices in place to deal with multiple deadlines and deliverables. In remote settings, performance is measured by deliverables, not how many hours a person sits at a desk in any given day…that’s why this is such a key element.)
- What book has had the most impact on your work habits? Describe your learnings. (The books people read tell you a lot about a person. In previous blogs the importance of communication is outlined; reading books is a powerful way to grow this skill. Listening to podcasts for learning is wonderful, but doesn’t contribute to growth in written communication. This question also provides the opportunity to learn if the candidate reads, AND what they choose to read and why…the ‘why’ being key. I have found that reading fiction can contribute to my creativity…many problems can be solved more effectively by putting them aside and focusing on something totally unrelated.)
These suggestions should provide a foundation for developing your interview questions. My next blog will address the topic of how remote workers can grow their trustworthiness, followed by another set of interview questions on the same competency.
Till next time…I would love your feedback and suggestion for further blog topics.
Over the past year I have researching what makes remote workers successful. I’m happy to have been able to collaborate with my son, @natesawatzky in the research. Both Nathan and I are so thankful for the many who let us dig into their lives as remote workers.
Today, I’m excited to share a version of the report that has been created to benefit managers, remote workers, and leaders alike. You can download the report here.
questions about the report, or simply want to talk more about remote work.
It’s Dec 15, 8 above, and I’m sitting outside working…in Canada!
I am taking a much needed break from writing a report (a paper actually) on our research. Ok, to be honest, I just needed an excuse to take my iPad and sit on the patio of my favourite Kelowna coffee shop, Esther and Sons, and reflect on this past year of delving into the amazing world of remote work. If I were to sum it up, the words I would use are grateful, amazed, inspired, and overwhelmed!
Some highlights have been:
- meeting many of you;
- traveling to Europe and chatting with many remote workers in co-working spaces (intentionally), and in cafés (accidentally);
- hearing your experiences and adventures;
- learning so much from the experts (you!);
- experiencing amazing cafés (to name a few: Buro Espresso Bar, Robert’s Coffee, The Barn, Lucifer’s Specialty Coffee, Utrecht Onz Cafe, Amsterdam Lot Sixty One, House of Tribes, Kaafi);
- virtual conferences and conversations
- connecting with remote workers in my own continent of North America, and of course right here in British Columbia;
- the willingness of many of you to share resources, both your knowledge and connections;
- the honesty of remote workers in sharing their joys and challenges;
- and, last but by no means least, doing all this in collaboration with Nate Sawatzky (my son)…so great! (big thanks to the incredible support of our families)
So, where am I with all of this? 12 pages into a paper on our findings…being reminded how frustrating (but important) citations are in validating the research and findings.
One of the words I used to describe my experience was ‘overwhelmed’; let me be clear, it’s a great sense of being overwhelmed! Our focus was on learning the competencies necessary for success as a remote worker, how feedback is desired, from whom, and what support is needed. You taught me that…and so much more!
As I look at the findings, the implications for business schools, managers, HR professionals, city planners, and potential remote workers is powerful. I have so many “ how might we…” questions arising from this that narrowing down my next focus of research will be a challenge!
What do I need from you?
- I hope to have the research summarized by the end of January. If you would like a copy send directly to you, please let me know.
- If you were to identify an area of remote work that you would like to see research focused on (again, a joint industry/academia approach) what would it be?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with both your requests and suggestions.
That’s it…back to the report fuelled by coffee and vitamin D!
And by the way…Merry Christmas to all.
I may sound like a broken record, but bare with me…the importance of communication cannot be overstated in the remote environment. Ask anyone who works with anybody and they will tell you that good communication is vital for effective work. Ask anyone who works in a virtual context and they will tell you that clear and concise communication is a life line for their work to be conducted with excellence! I would even go so far as to say your reputation as a professional could hinge on it.
Why is that? Here’s some of the input we received from remote workers regarding the importance of communication.
Remote workers support the necessity of this skill because it is critical…
• in relaying accurate information;
• in eliminating ambiguity;
• because miscommunication leads to misunderstanding;
• in preventing miscommunication due to language differences which can lead to misinformation, resulting in serious errors;
• for accuracy and clarity on all levels to ensure context is preserved;
• because the absence of non-verbal messaging calls for excellence in the written word…full thoughts, meaningful words, concise, accurate;
• in creating common understanding,
• and requires active listening, engagement, and full contribution from all parties.
In other words, the language of ‘texting’ is not going to cut it when your work context calls for a ‘paper’ trail (documentation) outlining decisions, agreements, complaints, discussions, proposals, conflict resolutions, or reports. Nor can a remote worker always rely on technology that supports face to face, virtual meetings. Besides the ability to clearly articulate verbally, virtual meetings often call for a written follow up summary to be provided to all involved to ensure agreement of what was discussed and action steps determined.
The problem is that good communication takes time, something that many of us claim to not have enough of. It also takes patience, reflection, reviewing, reworking, rephrasing, and great intentionality. I’m sure we can all think of a time when we read a text or email and ‘imposed’ an emotion that was never intended. According to Nate Sawatzky
“Good communication is crafted.”
Think on this…you just received a text from someone you recently had a disagreement with. The text said ‘saw u at the mxr prty…nice outfit’. Now, imagine the ‘voice’ you use to read the message…was it positive? Did it represent the sender in a good light? Was it cordial? Or did the ‘voice’ lean toward sarcasm, abruptness, or downright snotty?
Now try this…the same person with whom you had a disagreement sent a text saying “I saw you at the mixer party last evening. I didn’t get a chance to talk to you, but wanted to say that you looked fantastic…that dress was amazing!” Try reading something into that…more challenging, right? There’s little room for ambiguity, misunderstanding, or offence. We also need to keep in mind that written communication may not be the best channel for communicating a message…in actuality, we may choose written rather that a face to face conversation because it’s ‘easier’.
While this example is on the superficial level, you get the idea. The responsibility for ensuring a message is received as intended
lies with the sender…yup, can’t blame the receiver for getting it wrong. The added complexity of virtual communication is the lack of non-verbal…you can’t see how the other person receives your message and often don’t get the opportunity to bring clarity and do damage control. The solution…prevent it before it happens. Intentionality is important…think through your message, consider
what channel is best for communicating that message…be intentional in both the content, context, and channel.
The takeaway? Do whatever it takes to grow your communication skills. When using a written channel, read, reread, and reread your written communication before hitting send…that click could either be the start of an amazing contract, or the demise of the same! (By the way, reading well written books is a great way to improve your writing skills. Ask a mentor to suggest a book that greatly influenced their life, then ask to meet and discuss your takeaways; might as well develop your verbal articulation skills at the same time.)
As I write this blog from 39,000 feet enroute to Montreal, Canada, I’m taking a sidestep from analyzing the data gathered through our remote workers interviews and survey. Join me in taking a look at the topic from a different perspective…perhaps more of a 39,000 foot view.
Choosing the when and where of getting our work done, smart working, is something I highly value. I was privileged to be a stay at home mom when our kids were small, something that lined up with our family values. When I was approached to take on a part time job I accepted only on the condition that I be afforded the freedom to be home for our kids before and after school, attend any and all school field trips, and volunteer in the classroom. It’s important to note that I wasn’t asking for less responsibilities or duties, but rather asking the organization to trust that I would get the work done, on time and with excellence, AND support a volunteer workforce of 200 people. They agreed. I didn’t realize at the time that what I was proposing was a flexible work schedule that allowed me to choose when and where I did my work, in concert with the needs of the organization. I have continued to work for organizations in various sectors that have offered the same flexibility.
As I continue to research and entrench myself in the world of remote work, I truly agree that the future of work will indeed embrace a more globally focus, and that distributed teams and remote workers are, and will continue to be, a growing reality (a positive one).
However, the questions I am still pondering are:
• Is a distributed workforce a one size fits all for organizations big and small?
• Can an organization considering such a transition expect that all of their existing employees would succeed as remote workers?
• Should finances be the compelling argument for an organization to go fully distributed? (true, you save on the overhead, but success outcomes will ask you to strategically direct that money towards excellent technology and support for your new virtual work force).
Back to my reason for being 39,000 feet in the air heading to Montreal. For the next 2 days I will be attending a Service Design Thinking Conference. I love design thinking! Why? Because it takes a human based perspective on making decisions around the who, what, where, when and how of remote work…after all Human Resources are the most valuable resources any organization has.
So, what if we reframed the above questions from a design thinking perspective…
• How might we determine the best configuration for an organization that will honour their mission, vision, and values?
• How might we train and support all employees, remote and co-located, to such a degree that where they actually ‘do’ their work sets them up for success while increasing organizational productivity?
• How might we create a strategically viable budget that reduces the organizational footprint, provides for employee flexibility, and results in growth in the triple bottom line?
Change is a certainty in life. However, what changes and how those changes impact the people involved (on all levels) must be forefront in our change management processes.
“The value of design thinking is neither in its artistic appeal nor its unorthodoxy, but in thinking differently about how to solve business and organizational challenges.”
Design thinking takes time to clearly identify what the real issue to be addressed is and collaborates with all the stakeholders to come up with a solution that genuinely addresses that issue.
As a person passionate about helping others realize the very best of who they can be, I’m committed to being a thinking partner who comes alongside and facilitates a decision making frame work, a way of thinking, that guides organizations and their teams to what is the best, strategic direction for them to take…whether distributed, semi-distributed, co-located…or whatever creative configuration they come up with.