Have you ever had a conversation with someone and a passing comment just caused you to pause, hit rewind, and drill down on what was said. That happened recently in a conversation Tammy Bjelland founder of Workplaceless and I were having around competencies necessary for success as remote workers. Here is peek into where we landed.
Sometimes in life we come across oxymorons…a phrase where we put two seemingly opposite ideas together to describe something. We’ve all heard them…an open secret; pretty awful; friendly fire, unbiased opinion…you get the idea. As we learn more about what is required to be a successful remote worker, we come against such a concept: successful remote workers need to be independent AND interdependent. How can this be? Let’s take a look at the world of music to shed some light on this.
Individually, musicians need to master their instrument…they need to be able to independently perform beautifully, to know their specific instrument as well as they know themselves, to practice scales, to accurately read and interpret the score, to understand tone, to conquer breath control, to communicate the meaning of the masterpiece they are playing. Only when they have risen to a certain level of proficiency are they able to meld with other musicians in an orchestra and together make beautiful music. Only then can they perform as one, to listen intently to those around, to take the lead when the score calls for it, and then fall into the background as another instrument takes the piece to new heights. At the end of a performance, the orchestra takes a collective bow…no individual hero, just one finely tuned team of interdependent musicians bringing the best of who they are to the whole.
Ok, so you aren’t trying to be the next great maestro, but I would bet you are wanting to be the best remote worker you can be so that your contribution to a team is nothing short of masterful. What does that look like? You need to know yourself, to practice the strengths and skills necessary to thrive as a remote worker, to accurately read and interpret the details of a task, to understand people and how to best communicate with them, and to grow in your emotional intelligence. You want to master your trade whatever it may be. Then, when you join together with others to work on a project, you know the strengths and expertise you bring to the team, you know how to listen intently to your team mates, to take the lead when called for and fall back into a follower role to let someone else use their strengths to take the project to another level. The end result is a finely tuned team of interdependent remote workers bringing the best of who they are to the whole.
Daniel Pink describes a similar process in his book Drive: autonomy leads to mastery, which in turn leads to purpose. We gain autonomy when we successfully
work independently, the growing of our skills lead to mastery, which in turns equips us to contribute to the greater good knowing our purpose.
Interested in contributing to further research on the key competencies for remote workers in tech roles? Then please follow this link to complete a survey.
My summer was amazing! I got to travel to 10 different countries over the course of 9 weeks; some travel was for business, all for pleasure. My travel companions varied from my spouse, to adult children, to grandkids, and of course good friends.
You know how you start noticing certain things around you when you’re learning or experiencing something new? Like the first time you are pregnant…you notice so many other pregnant women around. Or you bought a new car…suddenly you see the same kind everywhere you go! Well that’s what is happening to me regarding remote work…everywhere I go I notice and meet people who are working remotely either on a company’s payroll, or freelancing. And they are wonderfully interesting people.
If you are following my blogs you already know that I am researching the keys to remote worker success, and learning how they want to be supported…all from the perspective of the remote worker. I’ve learned so much…and the research continues.
However, what I have also been learning from interviews and observations is the importance of those leading and managing remote workers. If that’s you…do you realize the impact you have, both for the good and not so good, on those you lead? I hear your frustration and challenge around leading in this new context, and yes, it can be daunting; but those of you who are determined to support and champion your remote workers deserve to be recognized.
For a remote worker to know their manager…
• has them front of mind,
• is committed to removing any and all barriers for success,
• will connect just to see how they are doing (love the example Lisette Sutherland shares in her podcast),
• and will take the time to figure out how to create virtual environments that remove the idea of ‘remote’. (Follow Dr. Karen Lojeski to learn about virtual distance.)
…is like celebrating their favourite birthday everyday!
My daughter, Shannon Fieber, is a team lead for a global organization. She is responsible for leading 19 customer service reps, 13 of them work remote. While not a simple task, her determination to make each team member feel valued, heard, and supported is admirable.
So, my challenge for you…
• If you are a remote worker who has an amazing manager/leader, let them know! Thank them…you are one of the blessed ones.
• If you are a remote leader, take a moment to reach out and check in with your team members…just for the sake of letting them know you care, even if you have never done so before.
• If you are feeling somewhat removed and isolated from your leader or team members, take the initiate to start the conversation…be the creative innovator of change that is needed.
There’s no downside!
Before taking a break for holidays, I want to post one final blog regarding remote work (I’ll continue to post again in September). A student asked me today for clarity around competencies…a valid question. How do you differentiate basic skill know-how, from a competency? This is important to clarify as we consider those key to remote work. I like this definition from University of Nottingham…
Competencies are abilities or attributes, described in terms of behaviour, key to effective and/or highly effective performance within a particular job.
A competency goes beyond knowing the technical aspect of a task. For example…I may know how to sell a good pair of shoes and what information to provide the customer (i.e. proper fit, potential for stretching, proper care…)…easily learned. However, that doesn’t mean I know how to sell a pair of shoes in such a way that a loyalty and ‘relationship’ has been seeded with the customer. Do I discover why the shoe is being purchased? Did I learn anything about the customer and his/her likes and dislikes? Have I created a shoe shopping experience for the customer that they will come back for, AND tell their friends about? We are talking about behaviour here…what kind of behaviour would you be able to observe as I served the customer? Perhaps excellent customer service? Perhaps some level of empathy? Those behaviours are what we call competencies.
In case you’re wondering, I’ve had such experiences in 3 shoe stores…one even served cappuccino, and the other wine! @shoeembassy (Brighton, England) @strut (Kelowna, BC) and @ladifferenciate (Vancouver, BC)
In preparation for further work on this research in the autumn, we will be sending surveys to remote workers, specifically those in the tech industry, to get their feedback on the accuracy of the competencies we’ve identified. (If you’re interested I’d be happy to send you a survey to complete…email@example.com). Knowing that different aspects of tech remote work may place different values on each, we want to end up with a list of 5-7 top core competencies that truly reflect the worker in their respective areas.
Here’s a summary of what we have learned so far, and want to narrow down.
- Self-directed (making your own decisions and organizing your own work)
- Disciplined (showing a controlled form of behavior or way of working)
- High Self-efficacy (high belief in your own capabilities to produce quality outcomes)
- Trustworthy (able to be relied on as honest or truthful)
- Empathetic (showing an ability to share the feelings of another)
- Adaptable (able to adjust to new conditions)
- Curious (eager to know or learn something)
- Flexible (ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances)
- Taking initiative (an act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something.)
- Self-motivated (motivated to do or achieve something because of one’s own enthusiasm or interest, without needing pressure from others.)
- Focus (concentrating attention on the most urgent problems)
I agree that many of these are simply good competencies to possess in any work context, however, I would suggest that the level of proficiency needed for remote workers in each area is higher…their very success depends on it!
Next steps? 1. Survey. 2. Based on results, narrow the competency list. 3. Create specific behavioural questions a manager can ask to determine if the person they want to hire fits the criteria for success as a remote worker. Or…an individual could reflect on if they are considering remote worker.
For now, happy summer…see you in September!
It’s been a great 2 weeks of traveling in Europe learning about remote workers in the tech industry…from remote workers in the tech industry. After initial meetings with people in Kelowna, Penticton and Vancouver, I then met up in Finland with my son (who is himself a remote worker currently based in France), and visited remote workers in Helsinki, Amsterdam, Eindhoven, The Hague, Berlin, and finished up in London.
One thing I’ve been told about research is that it often creates more questions than answers…how true it is. Before heading on the trip, my research had identified various competencies demonstrated by people in the remote tech world, all confirmed through our conversations. However, we were also rewarded with some surprising new insights that will impact our learning. It will now take some time to filter through the data and make sense of what we observed, heard, felt, and experienced…I promise to get back to you on all that as the blog series continues. As well, a quick glimpse at some great coffee shop spaces totally conducive to remote work.
In the meantime, some ponderings from our travels…
• When traveling in Europe, it is possible to be on more trains, planes, busses, trams, and subways in a 2 week period than in one’s lifetime!
• Don’t ever assume you’ve figured out the ‘right’ mode of payment on any mode of transportation…will that be cash, swipe, contactless, get ticket before boarding…??
• Don’t ask for a coffee shop in Amsterdam if you truly are looking for a cup of coffee.
• When putting on 20,000 steps everyday on cobbled paths, foot massages are not considered a luxury…and they hurt! (But worth the pain)
• Never eat fish and chips by the sea without covering them with a napkin.
• Baby seagulls are the cutest things…beauty for them is truly fleeting.
• There is nothing quite so lovely as sitting outside by the Baltic Sea at 10pm, full daylight, enjoying a bevy.
• Kiitos is the most lovely word for ‘thank you’, offered by a gracious country of people.
• Freikörperkultur is a real thing quickly discovered when enjoying a German sauna!
• Appreciating and taking time for a good cup of coffee (and I do mean coffee) is a globally shared passion (at least in the places we visited).
• Having a shower in the kitchen is a wee bit strange.
• Seeing remnants of the Berlin Wall and walking through Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is both awful, and awe-full…lest we forget.
• While carry-on is the way to travel, it sure curtails shoe shopping!
• Avoiding being run over by a bike in the Netherlands is a full time endeavor.
• Everyone should have the privilege of traveling and working with their son (or daughter)…amazing!
As this remote worker research journey continues, so far we have visited 8 cowork spaces (Canada, Finland, Amsterdam & Germany), and as many specialty coffee shops (ok, more than 8 cafes, but that’s for another blog). Each space presents it’s own unique feel and appearance; some have similar characteristics while others are so diametrically opposed, it’s bizarre. Still, all have the intent of providing a place where individuals and teams can work effectively outside the realm of a traditional collocated work space.
To generalize, we have observed two main areas of differences: 1) the physical layout and elements of the space and 2)the culture or ‘feel’ of the space. Let me give a further explanation of each. Physical layout is easy to describe and observe…as they say, a picture paints a thousand words.
As you can see in these pictures, some spaces are open and airy, most have dedicated office spaces and hot desks you can rent on a monthly basis, or you can choose to ‘drop in’ and use an open space when it suits, simply paying by the day. You can choose to work in a living room type area, or have a conversation while sitting on a swing. Perhaps you need to use a board room for some presentation, or alternatively require a higher level of privacy for an on-line conversation and access a phone booth type space with a drop down desk. One day you may decide that sitting at a large work table with 8 other people is what you want, while the next a quiet, tucked away couch is what’s called for. And, not to be ignored is the need for socializing. That may look like a game of ping pong, or grabbing a cup of tea or coffee with a coworker…or stranger. Alternatively, depending on the day, or time of day, or country, you may help yourself to a beer on tap while you chat with a business startup or a remote worker from another part of the world. You may enjoy wide open work spaces or prefer more intimate, communal type spaces. No matter what your preference, in all likelihood there is a space that fits you.
The cultural differences between spaces are not quite so easy to identify, or describe. Pictures don’t adequately portray the ‘feel’ of the space. And, the ‘feel’ can be rather subjective in many cases. For example, one space we visited felt like a great fit for Nathan, while I felt like a stranger, an outsider when we walked in. Even after working there for a couple of hours, I still felt like I didn’t belong; Nathan could have unpacked his knapsack and set up shop! Yet another space we visited felt uninviting to both of us; it seemed to lack any attention to the importance of aesthetic value in making it’s users (or visitors) get a sense of the occupants and users of the space. On the other hand, a couple of the other spaces we visited provided such a warm and welcome feel that we immediately felt a sense of affinity with the space and it’s users.
Being in these different locations has caused me to consider the importance of space as it relates to how effective, creative, innovative, or productive a person can be in the pursuit of doing their ‘work’. When an individual works for a business that is colocated, their space is provided for them…it is generally dictated by way of assigned offices, departments, geographic location…the worker does not ‘choose’ their workspace, or choose where to set up the framed pictures of their families, friends, or pets. Finding or created a space or spaces to work is not a matter that calls for much thought or attention (not as much perhaps as it should?). This is not as true for individuals who work remotely either as freelancers or for distributed companies. Finding appropriate places and spaces to work, to create, to innovate, calls for greater intentionality when the
traditional office (or desk) doesn’t exist. Knowing what kind of space to use is also a challenge when the option, or need, to do so has not previously existed. So what’s person to do? I would suggest that a foundational need for the remote worker is to have a clear self awareness and understanding. A perfect work space for me is not the same as a perfect work space for Nathan…even though our values, work ethics, and passions are very similar (never mind the fact that I represent ½ of the duo that raised him). Still, we both recognize the fact that different stages of work development calls for
different spaces, and what a creative space looks like for me may not be the same that of Nathan’s choosing. When work gets frustrating or overwhelming, you may need a space that allows for quiet reflection while a co-worker may need a rousing game of pool. To work through a challenging client issue, you may need a room with several white boards to storyboard the problem, while someone else may need space to walk and talk through the muddle until clarity breaks through.
The point is, the need to know yourself well enough to actually identify the type of space you need in order to work, and simply be the best version of you, could possibly make or break your ability to operate successfully in a remote work context.
Earlier this week, Nathan and I had the privilege of presenting this research project at JAMK’s Global Colloquium in Jyväskylä, Finland. The focus of the event was the challenge faced by higher education regarding how to deliver and support innovative learning solutions in environments characterized by changing technology, economic condition and globalization. It was great to dialogue around this important topic with faculty from France, England, Turkey, South Africa, USA, and of course, Finland.
I believe it is important to keep asking the ‘why’ behind all the research we undertake. When we get our heads around ‘why’, only then can we move forward with more ‘how’ type questions. In a previous blog, ‘Remote Workers-what makes you great’ I touched on the ‘why’ behind this remote research… but what might the ‘how’ questions be? What design thinking type questions will open new doors of possibilities once the research findings have been gathered and analyzed?
As we posed these questions to the colloquium attendees…wonderful ideas began to emerge!
- How might we deliver learning in innovative spaces such as we do with trades and technology?
- How might we help students experience the life of a remote worker?
- How might we prepare our students for the global impact of work?
- How might we design our curriculum in such a way as to prepare for the competencies or ‘soft skills’ needed by our students to be successful in this context?
The exciting thing is that as educators:
- We have direct access to the workers of the future…we owe it to them to provide insights as to what they need to be successful (opportunity)
- We are charged with preparing these young minds (responsibility)
- We have the ability to reframe education in a way that reflects industry (ability), and,
- Our students need to know how they can thrive in an every changing world (compulsion)
In an ever changing world, we may not be able to prepare students for the specifics of the jobs they will do, so perhaps we need to focus more on the nature of how the work will get done. I suggest this kind of rethinking around how we prepare students must be done in collaboration with industry, with the experts, with remote workers and those who fully support remote work. Which circles right back to the research regarding what are the keys to success for remote workers, and in what ways do they need to receive feedback and support.
Next blog…what we’ve learned so far from interviews with remote workers in Kelowna, Vernon, Vancouver and Helsinki.
I am sitting at the Kelowna airport for the first leg of my research trip…still sitting because my flight got cancelled due to mechanical issue. I had hoped to get to Vancouver in time to attend a social event at WeWork and make some connections in preparation for the meetup scheduled there tomorrow. Not to be. It’s ironic that one of the key competencies for remote workers is flexibility…check!
Seriously though, travel is often part of working remotely. At times it’s because an individual has chosen remote work for the freedom of working from anywhere they desire. At other times it’s because their remote or virtual work calls for them to travel for a meeting with a client. When travel is for personal reasons, while frustrating, schedules can be more accommodating (unless you have airport connections). However, if a client is expecting you to arrive for an important meeting at a certain time, these schedule changes can be more problematic. Nathan Sawatzky, my research collaborator, experienced this only a couple of weeks ago when 3 meetings were cancelled because of multiple flight delays. Or what about the last minute cancellations made by the clients? Don’t they know how important this was to you? Flexibility, adaptability…you get the idea.
How do you deal with these unavoidable challenges? Practically, whenever possible, plan for them. Ideally, book to arrive a day ahead (my meeting is at 10am tomorrow…yup this isn’t my first cancelled flight). But even the best laid plans can go amuck calling for rearranging and rebooking of meetings. And what about the emotional toll it can take on the remote worker? Often these appointments have been made after considerable communication with existing, and potential, clients…much is on the line. How do you pick yourself up from the let down and start working on marking those new arrangements? I would suggest you make that kind of decision ahead of time. Will you choose to adapt? Will you pass on the ‘right’ to nurse a poor attitude about how ‘those’ people just can’t be depended on?
We’ve all heard the saying ‘two sides of the coin’. Well, there are two sides to the flexibility coin. The vast majority of remote workers I have chatted with cite that flexibility is one of the reasons they love their chosen work situations. They can build their work around their lives, allowing them to work when and where they choose, basically being the master of their own calendar. Flexibility also means honouring the schedules of others…when a ‘better offer’ comes along, be it for personal or professional reasons, the responsibly side of flexibility says that you get to choose which route to take. Do you honour the commitment to a client, or do you flex your ‘freedom’ muscles and go for the better offer. Again, you need to decide. It may help to consider that you may be the flip side of someone else’s flexibility coin.
I’m rebooked on a flight 5 hours later. I am hopeful that I’ll get to my meeting tomorrow (and my afternoon flight to Finland)…and the friendly Air Canada check-in lady gave me a $15 meal voucher instead of a $10 one…things are looking up.