A tension that should never exist!
Those of you who have been following my blog know that I am a business professor at Okanagan School of Business doing research on remote work. You may also know that I am a coach/consultant who focuses on all things people development, and have a clear passion for those working remotely, or managing remote teams.
From my perspective, the conversation should not be industry vs academia, but rather ‘how can industry learn from academia, and how can academia learn from industry?’ It’s a new face to the age old ‘experience vs education’…each has incredible value on its own, but when the two are combined the outcomes are incredible.
What I find frustrating is that conversations are still happening that pit one against the other. Some say that academia is where invention and innovation happens, while other feel that academia is archaic and that new thinking happens in the ‘real world’ by people actually working in the field.
I came across this article that reported those interviewed “…don’t pay much attention to the publications about fundamental discoveries by universities because they don’t trust them.” Ouch!
Another article representing the flip side states that people don’t trust scientific research when companies are involved because of the propensity for bias. Ouch again!
While I respect the opinion of these perspectives, I tend to believe the best learning lives in the coming together of both sides, each doing their part. I appreciate the sentiment expressed by Martha Crago, VP of Research and Innovation at McGill University.
In addition, like any good partnership, industrial research partnerships need to be based on recognizing the value of the partnership, on trust, and on the ability to meet the other’s needs.
As we move through this project of learning about what makes remote workers great, I am thrilled to be collaborating with both academia and industry. Nathan Sawatzky has been working with me from day one on the research, and Rodrigo Bruno, a student at Okanagan School of Business, has recently joined as a research assistant. Both of these individuals bring immense insight from industry, and as Rodrigo digs into the academic research side of things, he is able to filter it through his own experiences and those he has worked with in remote settings.
Academia and industry collaborating for the purpose of bringing clarity and support to those working in a new era of work. I love it!
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…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.