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.
Curious, Self-directed, Empathetic …three of the competencies that are vital for the success of a remote worker. How do I know? I asked a bunch of remote workers, and they answered…but we have only just begun asking!
Thanks to a grant (CSBER) from the Okanagan School of Business in Kelowna, BC, Canada (I’m a business prof there), I am formally embarking on a research study of remote workers. I want to know what competencies contribute to the success of remote workers? What effective feedback looks like, and from whom? What qualifies as a great workspace?
Why am I asking?
- Because remote work is the new reality of a growing and changing workforce;
- because organizations need to know how to best support their people who work remotely;
- because we need to know how to prepare our business students for the nature of the careers they will be entering, and
- because the best people to learn from are those already working remotely…they know what works and what is important.
Because remote workers are not restrained by co-located offices, hours of operation, nor physical location, it’s important that the scope of this research is globally focused. The remote worker can change locations–even continents–every month or so. The various maturity of each co-work space reflects the unique cultures developing around this growing working context (this is a topic we will jump into in a later blog…amazing spaces!)
I’m excited about the co-work locations on the itinerary so far: Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon, Edmonton, Vancouver, all in Canada, then Jyväskylä and Helsinki (Finland), London (England), Amsterdam and Einhoven (Netherlands), and Berlin (Germany). Each of these locations supports several co-work spaces of varying maturity, design, and purpose.
Add to this is the privilege of collaborating with Nathan Sawatzky, a global remote worker (and my son), who has already spent a great deal of time working from various co-work spaces across Europe. I can truly say that he has introduced me to a world of amazing people who experience opportunities, challenges, AND great rewards.
So, whether you are a remote worker, support one, know one, or want to be one…follow along and explore the world of work ‘outside the walls’.
Mid October and I am full into teaching again at the Okanagan School of Business. That means my scholarly/academic hat is on, but always tempered with ‘why?’ and ‘so what?’ questions (from myself, to myself). One of the topics we explore is motivation; what causes people to do what they do? How do you move people from solely working for a pay check (we all still need that), to also working towards contributing to something greater than themselves? This doesn’t have to be solving world hunger, or obliterating child exploitation (although these are right up there in the hierarchy of importance). Most great organizations have a cause, a reason to exist, a purpose, a why?, that fuels the motivation for their people to see beyond the day to day tasks.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is one theory that we offer up to our students…the ultimate level being self-actualization. Meeting the needs of our employees should be foremost in the minds of all managers, something that those working with remote workers need to pay special attention to. This issue was well addressed in an article by Yonder ‘What Does Maslow Have to do with Remote Work?’
Self-actualization is great, but for me it has always come up short…it feels rather self-focused and self-centred. Needless to say I was intrigued when presented with the idea that Maslow’s later work actually added a 6th level…Self-less Actualization. This moves the individual from self fulfillment, to helping others realize fulfillment.
Koltko-Rivera (2005) sums it up as
“At the level of self-actualization, the individual works to actualize the individual’s own potential [whereas] at the level of transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others …”
Ok, a little heavy for a blog on supporting remote workers…I get it, but stay with me on this. If the greatest level of motivation happens when we take the reality of who we are: the gifts, talents, and strengths we have, and use those for the betterment of others, then we immediately realize the importance of also helping our remote workers be able to connect with and contribute to a cause outside of their need for connectedness, trust, or communication. What does that look like? Is it possible to measure that for success, and not simply performance outputs and deliverables?
This challenges and expands the traditional scorecard…how do we measure a worker’s contribution to the growth and well-being of others?
For the past 5 months I have been looking into the area of remote workers…I have learned much and I know I have only begun to scratch the surface. So, as summer comes to a close I want to hit pause and reflect on what I have gleaned so far.
- Remote work is alive and well across all industries, in all sizes of organizations from start ups to those that are well established.
- Remote work is not a ‘fad’…it’s here to stay and will only grow in it’s reach and impact.
- People are at the centre of a successful remote workforce
- Many reasons exist for people to choose this form of work: freedom, flexibility, increased productivity, and greater opportunity for creativity to name a few.
- There are also challenges inherent to working remote: limited communication, lonliness, poor or limited technology, time management, self discipline, focus …however, each can successfully be overcome.
- Trust is the key ingredient that will make or break a successful romote working arrangement.
- Communication needs to be intentional and customized to each situation.
- Face to face interactions still need to happen, even if only once every 6 months.
- Distributed vs co-located work arrangements does not necessarily mean organizations will save money…that can’t be the motivation.
- Organizational fears that remote workers will slack off is unfounded; research actually shows the opposite is true…remote workers have a tendency to over-work.
- Great locations like Co-Lab in Kelowna are available around the world so that remote workers (and those amazing digital nomads) have a place to connect and collaborate.
- The resources available on this topic are excellent…people continue to learn, to perfect, to mentor, to share, and to dedicate their efforts to support others entering into this exciting world of remote work.
- Working remote is not for everyone…and that’s ok.
So where do I go from here? I keep learning, keep experiencing, keep asking questions, and do whatever I can to share what I learn with those who want to know.
Some ideas? Continue to include this critical aspect of work with my business students (both in class and on-line); create a case study on the topic; be a resource to managers transitioning from supporting co-located teams to supporting distribute teams…pretty exciting from where I sit as a remote worker, business coach, and professor