December 20, 2019 was the day life changed significantly for me. I had a total knee replacement. Believe me, the purported timelines for recovery are not to be trusted…nor is it wise to use other’s recovery milestones as targets for which to aim.
I was just starting to emerge into ‘the real world’, trusty cane by my side, when the second significant change landed bringing as much joy as an unwelcome guest. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was turned around by this global pandemic we soon came to know as COVID-19. My ‘coming out’ was quickly shut down, and the excitement of re-entry was snatched away. Conferences already registered for were cancelled, a greatly anticipated trip to Hawaii with our daughter and son-in-law was cancelled, and a scheduled vacation to Helsinki to visit our son, daughter-in-law and grandkids faded away before becoming a reality.
But life did not slow down, in fact it become busier than I could have imagined. Almost immediately I began receiving invites to present at virtual events; the answer to each invite was a resounding ‘yes!’ This remote community welcomed me with open arms when I began my journey into remote work research…this was my opportunity to return the favour. But the business went beyond that. You see, I’m an educator as well as a remote work advocate. I teach Human Resources and Management courses at the Okanagan School of Business, in Kelowna, British Columbia. We immediately went into pivot mode; face to face classes had to be transformed into on-line delivery. Within a week of the self-isolation announcement, every one of our students were fully engaged in a whole new way of learning (for them), and a new delivery platform for us (professors). Unbelievable to say the least.
Not only did our faculty have to reframe their delivery method, they were called on to facilitate learning in a manner that embraced synchronous and asynchronous learning in an effort to continue fostering impactful relationships with their students. And, they had to do this while suddenly working from home where a workspace had not yet been created. More pivoting.
I say ‘they’ in this reference, because I was not teaching in the Winter 2019 semester due to the assimilation of a new body part! However, I was able to fully engage in the facilitation of the transition and bring my expertise around remote work to bear on the situation. Ironically, it wasn’t until this event happened that many in our greater institution were even aware of the research I had conducted on remote work — research the College had funded. However, it was fortuitous that I was able to provide some support and insight to my colleagues and peers during a period of disequilibrium.
Remote work is not new to me, in fact, I have been engaged working remotely for quite a few years. However, as many of my remote work advocate colleagues confirm, working from home is not the same as remote work. By definition, remote work relates to those who don’t have to show up at a physical location on a regular basis. They are mostly location agnostic or location independent
Contrarily, COVID-19 turned the majority of us into location dependent workers — our homes. This was not a choice; time to prepare a home office was not afforded those used to going to a physical building to conduct their work. For many, the kitchen table, living room couch, or bedroom floor became their ‘home office’. Add to that the reality of a partner also looking for a quiet corner to work, while carving out space for newly homeschooled children to meet teachers on-line for the purpose of receiving their (and their parent’s) marching orders for the week. Our homes became co-working/co-living spaces. Major pivot.
In all fairness, this is not a clear picture of the realities of remote work. Sadly, for some, this experience has tainted their view of the value of remote working; being able to comprehend the benefit to individuals, teams, organizations, and communities has been greatly overshadowed by a working context that has caused overwhelming stress. I’ve heard some of your stories and can’t fathom the life challenges you are experiencing.
On the other hand, many are realizing a glimpse of ‘what could be’. Your work from home experience has opened your eyes to a way of life and work that decreases stress, allows for greater productivity, gives a sense of control over your time, and allows you to sneak extended moments to enjoy precious time with your loved ones (albeit in closer quarters than you would prefer). These pivots are positive.
We in BC, Canada are experiencing wWe keep hearing the phrase ‘the new normal’. Do we wait with bated breath for another year to see what the new normal will be, or do we start living that new normal today? hat is being called ‘stage 2’ of re-opening. What does this mean for you? Time to pivot again? Are your children heading back to school this week? Are you opening your ‘bubble’ to invite in friends and loved ones? Are you venturing out to the grocery store more often? Frequenting parks and beaches? Are you honouring social distancing? Are you feeling some anxiety…is this all happening too soon? Is this pivot more difficult that the absolute of self-isolation?
What does work look like for you now? For the organizations you work for? Will you transition back to working co-located in the office? Will you join the ranks of remote workers around the world? Or will you and your organization embrace the many who are moving to a hybrid (some folks working remote while others co-located) approach to working?
We keep hearing the phrase ‘the new normal’. Do we wait with bated breath for another year to see what the new normal will be, or do we start living that new normal today? From what I see, much of the pivots we have been asked to take are actually behaviours that we should have adapted a long time ago. Granted, the results of not adhering to these certain behaviours come with serious consequences in these current days. But let’s think about some of these suggested behaviours:
- Stay home if you are sick
- Respect those around you
- Take care of each other
- Wash your hands
- Respect other’s personal space
- Work from home…if at all possible
- Support local business
- Stay connected with friends and loved ones using whatever means possible
This brings to mind the wisdom shared by Robert Fulghum in “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten”
As blogs go, this one has found me rambling and wandering down some rabbit holes; Sunday afternoon with no virtual meetings, no marking, no schedule, tends to foster such ramblings. It actually ties into the name of my blog site ‘Probe and Ponder’. I would love to hear your thoughts; what is making you pivot, or causing you to stop and ponder life around you?
One day a week I dedicate time to researching and developing (R&D) my skills and understanding of the world of remote work. I really love those days. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the other elements of my professional life, but there’s something invigorating and exciting about setting time aside to focus on learning from various sources.
Today, for example:
- I had a virtual meeting from my home office with Ayush Jain from Remote Panda;
- enjoyed a research collaboration conversation with our son in Europe, while sipping coffee at one of my favourite cafes here in Kelowna, Canada;
- continued reading chapters from ‘Work Together Anywhere’ by Lisette Sutherland and ‘Remote Revolution’ by John Elston (I highly recommend both);
- attended a farewell lunch for a colleague at Okanagan School of Business where I’m a business professor;
- set up a November virtual meeting with some of our new faculty;
- researched resources for a winter course I am teaching on Organizational Change and Development;
- and perhaps the most important activity of the day, took time to reflect and journal about what I’m learning from various experiences and people who continue to cross my path as I continue to examine the world of remote work. (I journal with an actual paper journal using a Lamy fountain pen…definitely slows down my thinking and helps me process more effectively)
Even though I love these days, they don’t happen by accident…I have to intentionally schedule them into my week.
So why am I sharing these details of my day? So glad you asked. Technology is wonderful and is essential for just about all the work we do, even more so when the nature of your job calls for technology to connect you with your clients, teams, managers and other key people. However, for me it’s vital that I make sure part of this R&D time is spent unplugged. I need to cut out the ‘noise’ and meditate on the learning to allow time for it to connect with what is important, what’s relevant, and if necessary, file it away for further consideration, or for the ‘interesting but not vital’ file.
As a remote, (or co-located) worker, how are you building intentional time into your schedule to learn, to cultivate your craft, and to ponder the amazing experiences you are having? You’ll never regret it.
“We bring forth our best selves when we are fully activated as human beings, not just as workers.”
The Remote Revolution by John Elston
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…firstname.lastname@example.org). 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!
In a previous blog I promised to talk about the many specialty cafés we visited while on our remote research trip…and I do mean places to drink a great cup of coffee!
Coffee shops such as Lot Sixty One play an important role in the life of a remote worker…possibly more than originally imagined. For example, while writing this blog I am sitting at one of my favourite coffee shop in Kelowna…my friends and family refer to it as my ‘other office’. In fact, this would be my 3rd space…I have an office at the college, a lovely one at home, yet still I feel the need to come to Esther and Sons Cafe to create and write. (Never underestimate the contribution of caffeine to creativity!)
I previously talked about the importance of space as it relates to where we work and connect. When researching remote workers, we set up appointments to meet with such individuals in cowork spaces…and we were awarded with some wonderful, insightful, conversations. Reflecting back on those visits, we noticed some things…to be clear, these are simply observations, but we think they warrant further inquiry.
- The majority of people we met working in co-work spaces seem relatively fixed to that space.
- Many users are either small businesses, or stationed at a location distant from the organization they work for.
- The gender demographic appears to be a higher representation of male vs female.
- The age demographic appeared to be slanted toward a younger generation (younger than boomers).
- These shared spaces are not frequented as often by ‘traveling’ remote workers (those who frequently travel globally, but do have a home base).
So this is where the coffee shop space comes in. We know there are various forms of remote working…no surprise there. If it is true that a challenge for remote workers is loneliness and isolation (and this certainly was verified through our interviews), and if our observations are accurate, then where do these ‘traveling’ remote workers go to feel some sense of belonging? Enter the coffee shop.
As mentioned in previous blogs, my son Nathan is collaborating with me as I look at remote work. In his travels he often uses coffee shops to work out of…some of which we visited on our recent trip. The cool thing was that as soon as they saw Nathan, he was warmly welcomed and immediately drawn into a ‘catch up’ conversation. Places like Five Elephant Coffee in Berlin, Lucifer’s Specialty Coffee in Eindhoven, or Kaafi in The Hague.
It’s important to note that he had not been to these specific locations for months! Yet the commitment of the staff and owners was to create a space that didn’t just serve amazing coffee (and they did), but a space were the customers could feel a sense of belonging.
Another coffee shop we enjoyed was House of Tribes in The Hague. The space was intentionally designed by Jerome Vester of Ninety Nine Architects for people to come and work while enjoying a good brew. We had a choice of a ‘living room’ type space, individual seating, and even a long table that could be booked for 1 hour meetings. No matter where you sat there was a plug in within arms length…intentionally blended in as part of the décor! They advertise strong internet connection (free of course). Add to that the cheery welcome you received as soon as you walked in the door, and you have a place any lonely traveler would love to open a laptop to get some work done.
I would be negligent if I didn’t mentioned one inherent problem here…how long can someone work in one coffee shop, nursing maybe only 1 or 2 drinks, before overstaying their welcome? In fact, based on conversations Nathan had this week in London, he shared that “it’s becoming an increasingly difficult issue in the local coffee shops. Too many people are opting to use cafes as their office and feel emboldened to do so by the proliferation of cowork spaces and others doing it. Businesses find themselves in a really difficult spot.”
I don’t have an answer for this, but wonder if there might be an opportunity for some forward thinking café owners to provide a ‘remote worker’ package that includes a certain number of coffees, a snack, and a warm welcome for a predetermined amount of time? Hmmm, worth pondering.
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.