Remote Work

Remote Work: Past, Present & Future with Laurel Farrer

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October 7, 2020
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Today we're talking to Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting, founder of Remote Work Association, and a true remote work advocate. Laurel reflects about the time 13 years ago when she had to "hide" that she doesn't have an office and highlights the differences between "then" and "now". She also discusses why building a good team culture is the foundation of a successful company and why the emerging Head of Remote position is necessary for the future of remote work. During the conversation, Anja and Laurel talk about how formal education is shaping to be inclusive and why remote work has major socioeconomic benefits for the global workforce.

Anja: Welcome, Laurel, good to have you with us today! You've been working remotely for more than 10 years. How did you decide to go remote? Did you already know back then it was going to be big?


Laurel: It's been 13 years. I took my company remote as a COO, it was a small business and the CEO and I were looking to cut costs. We were in this really critical stage of growth where you need to get into a bigger, nicer office to house a bigger team, but you also need a bigger team in order to make a bigger revenue. We didn't have the revenue yet, though. We saw that real estate was the easiest way to cut costs because we were in the event industry and we were often out of the office on the event sites. So we thought it’s probably going to be our best bet, and at the end of the busy season we will get the office. Spoiler alert, we never went back to the office. We saw these immense savings which were so critical to our profit margin, plus flexibility and schedule for both of us. And we thought there's no reason not to stay remote, but it was at a time before it was “cool” to be a fully distributed company- so we had to hide it from our clients. There's no way that we would have been taken seriously as a small, woman-owned business, without an office space. When we had client meetings, we would use the conference room in the CEO’s husband's office space downtown.


Anja: Apart from having to hide it from your clients, what was working remotely like? What was different compared to right now?


Laurel: I think tools come to my mind right off the bat, because we didn't have Slack and video calls, we had email and phone. That may be what I call an old fashioned value now. So often, especially right now, with change management being such a hot topic, the first question that everybody asks what tools should they use, what software they need. I have to remind people these tools are helpful and they certainly make virtual collaboration a lot easier, however, at the core of this matter is not the tool, but the processes and the soft skills that you're using as an individual, as a self-manager. Then come the tools to enhance that.


Anja: Whenever anyone talks about remote work, there are always many benefits that are mentioned: the flexibility, the freedom, the ability to travel and work from wherever you want. But is there one specific benefit that is not that obvious?


Laurel: My personal mission in the remote work world is to help people think bigger. We all get so caught up in the personal benefits, because those are the first that we experience and the easiest to see. I'm wearing sweatpants right now. It's awesome, there's no denying that. However, the way that this work is managed and the ripple effects that remote work models have are so incredibly impactful. I really hope to help people open their minds to the socioeconomic, environmental and sustainability benefits of remote work.

Just now post-COVID outbreak people are saying, “I live right next to this mountain range and I have never seen it until now” or “The air pollution was so bad, but now I can see this mountain range”,  and that’s amazing. Childhood obesity goes down because people are eating healthier and they're eating at home. There are things like urban and rural divide and economic development that are incredibly impactful as well. People are able to move out of urban environments but still make urban-level salaries, and that diversifies the wealth on a national and international level.

These are the ripple effects that we don't take time to think about because we're so focused on the fact that we don't have to drive for an hour a day and we get to wear sweatpants. We should think about how this is impacting our community, family and the world. At least 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations are impacted by this. I hope that people will take just a minute to think about remote work more seriously and give it the credibility that it deserves.


Anja: One of the things that you wrote about in your articles is that remote work helps close the gender gap. It also enables overall inclusion of people, especially minorities. Can we elaborate a bit more on the topic, what does that mean?


Laurel:  This is one of those larger, bigger picture things. This happens because of the way the work is measured in a virtual environment, it automatically opens the door for more equality. When we're in an office environment work is supervised very physically, much with our senses. I can see work happening. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a derivative of hundreds of years from the Industrial Revolution. We had physical processes, physical products, and therefore we had physical management. The role of a manager was literally to count the goods with their hands and watch people working, making sure that the production workflows were working swiftly. But now we have virtual equipment, virtual processes, virtual products, and we haven't updated our virtual management yet.

The big transition is happening right now. This is the last hurdle that we need to overcome before remote work becomes more standardized. When we convert our management to be virtual and compatible with virtual workplaces, it becomes much more focused on results. We open the door to say who is going to produce great results. That's really what brings up the equality piece, the fact that anybody, regardless of parental status, gender, age or height, or any of the traditional “office space factors”, can produce great results. Because of that, we see really encouraging statistics such as an increase of at least 42% in women who are in leadership positions and distributed teams compared to the ones in office environments. So overall, it's really encouraging to see more equal opportunity, true equal opportunity in the virtual business world.


Anja:  It's amazing to see that. Also, the remote work world is generally very community-driven. It seems that support and being there for one another also plays a big part.


Laurel:  I think there's just like more patience and more empathy in general. And these are the critical soft skills for virtual collaboration. Because of that, we are more understanding of each other, and we see the rise of asynchronous communication because people can be more patient. Obviously, it's a dynamic that we need when working across time zones, but it also opens the door for topics like neurodiversity. People process information cognitively at different speeds. They have that ability to control their work speed in an asynchronous environment, and that opens up an entire branch of diversity as well. So it's just fascinating to be a part of a movement like this that can facilitate change in so many people's lives.


Anja: Another thing I wanted to talk about is comparing the future with the present/past. It seems that formal education should prepare us for the workforce, but I have a feeling that a lot of educational institutions are still missing the piece of preparing people for a remote world. How are we supposed to be prepared for this if we're not being taught how to work remotely, at least not in universities?


Laurel: This is a really fascinating conversation. As hard and traumatic the COVID shock was, the silver lining of it is that it brought attention to remote work equally to everybody at the same time. The path that we were headed down was that the skills were being adopted very quickly in certain sectors like tech and fintech, and then it was being trickled down slowly to others. Certain universities were thinking about this, others weren't and some government agencies were allowed to think about it and others weren't. There was just all of this diversity and subjectivity in the adoption of remote work, and so it meant that there was going to be a much larger learning gap if we continued down the path that we were on. However, because of the way it went down, as horrible as it was, it also meant that everybody is now accessing the future of work at the exact same time, and that is a benefit that we did not see coming. It's a huge game changer, again, for equal opportunity. Now teachers, whether it be at the elementary schools or at the universities, are being thrown into this world where not only do they need to be thinking about these skills and preparing the incoming workforce for it, but also start adopting the skills themselves in the classroom immediately. They have to learn how to operate as a distributed team in the academic world and then be exercising those skills as a student so that they can then pass along those skills as a teacher.

That's a big conversation that we're having with the education departments all over the world- how can we be preparing students for this type of work. That really falls into two categories. One is teaching individuals to be better self managers. As a society, we have become very dependent and very reactive. We wait for instructions. Here is the assignment, do the assignment, give it back. And that we've been taught that since childhood. And so our skills in terms of autonomy have really, really deteriorated, that we're not critical thinkers, effective communicators, empathic people. Now we need to focus on those and have a resurgence of how we can develop those soft skills because they are critical to self management and independence. 

The other category is the need to be operating our classrooms as we would a distributed team, because what it means is equal opportunity in the education world as well. This means equal access to high quality education all over the world. No longer will we have the nice neighbourhoods with the highly paid teachers and the poor neighbourhoods which don't even have access to proper equipment. It levels the playing field and means that any child anywhere, regardless of age, regardless of income level, can be watching the same video and getting the same education. It is not trying to say that all education needs to go technical overnight, but what it does mean is that location can be irrelevant in the workplace and it can be irrelevant in the classroom as well.  We all have access to this new mobility and new freedom all at the same time. It's exciting. It's really exciting.

Anja: This will for sure be the time of testing different waters. People also talk a lot about what it takes for a remote working environment to work, what tools and processes are needed. This is something that you and your company do really well. You guide people through either transitioning to or just diving deeper into remote. But there is one thing that is really important as well, and that's building a strong team/company culture. What does it mean? How does it work and how does one go about building one?

Laurel: This is a question that we're getting so much, how to preserve the culture if the team is separated. People fear they’re not going to have a culture unless they’re not physically together. So the harsh reality that I have to remind people of is that culture has nothing to do with proximity. And if it does, it's not a healthy culture. The culture is the personality of a team, the culmination of individual components of individual workers. It’s the way they come together with a shared mission and vision in a unique working collaboration style in order to make a unique employee experience. That has nothing to do with sitting in an office, to the point that it is extremely common to feel completely disconnected and lonely sitting in an office, five feet away from somebody. Connection has nothing to do with proximity, it's about how we engage our employees, how we connect them to each other. It's about how we communicate that they are valuable and appreciated. We just think about how to transition our language and our communication of those messages of value and appreciation and camaraderie into a virtual experience. This is where we see people just being more transparent in their communication. Just sending an email that says ”You did a really great job on this project, it really fulfilled our company values of A, B and C. I appreciate the work that you've been doing. It's not going unrecognized. Keep up the great work.” 

Doing that doesn't have to require any great tools. That's just human to human connection. And we've been hiding in the office because if a human is standing next to a human we have good culture. Or if humans are engaging with other humans, we have a great culture. So now when we don't have that physical environment to hide in, we're really being much more transparent about how we're actually connecting with each other. 

Anja: Talking about human to human connection, it seems that a lot of remote companies often meet in person for retreats or team buildings. Does that mean that it's impossible to have everything online? Is it the physical human to human connection necessary?

Laurel: The biggest misunderstanding about remote work is that it is all or nothing. People think “Ok. well, this isn't working for us, we have to go back to the office!” or “Wow, this is working really great. Oh, I'm sad that we'll never see each other again” 

It's like this death sentence, but remote work is not a life commitment, it’s a strategy to be leveraged and customized by any company that is uniquely applying it to their culture, location, products and their clients’ experience. Whatever you need remote to be, make it that way. It's completely unrealistic to say that every single company that could go remote is going to go remote overnight. That's going to completely crash our economy if that happens. Instead, think about how to make this transition work as a company. What can be done asynchronously and offsite vs what needs to be done on-site. Think about the criteria, if there is some really expensive equipment that people need access to once or twice a week, it's completely unrealistic to think that you're going to buy that equipment for them in their home office. That doesn't make any financial sense. Have them come on site 1-2 times a week whenever they need access to that equipment, they will still need to live in close enough proximity to the office so that they can do that. But all of the other tasks can easily be done offsite. Let's talk about the marketing team for a second. They do great work, but every once or twice a year, it is nice to just have that energy that comes from in-person brainstorming. Send them on an ideation retreat twice a year. Think about how to leverage your location, allowing people to have more deep head-space and uninterrupted work time in a coworking space or at home as opposed to more collaborative time in an office and use it to your advantage. Be strategic about it, don't just say it has to be one or the other. Don't feel confined by remote work, allow it to really give your company and your processes much more freedom than you've ever had before.

Anja: Another thing that I see more and more is this emerging position called Head of Remote. What does that mean? What do those people do?

Laurel: Yeah, this is a great topic to bring up because this is a new service from Distributed Consulting- we find experts in your field and we outsource that Head of Remote position for the companies individually so that they don't have to go through that process of finding the real experts. Because let's be honest, there's been an explosion of let's call them “experts” that have come out of the woodwork. I'm not trying to make fun of those people, but I'm also making companies very aware that they could get into a lot of trouble and put their company at a high liability risk if they are leaning on somebody with very little experience. The Head of Remote position is something that we want to make sure companies have access to because it's a very dynamic role. This person should be somebody who has extensive experience in remote work, having seen the good, bad and the ugly, having had negative experiences in the past. This is somebody that is well versed in knowing what remote work policies should be, that they're not just a legal document. It's somebody that can provide leadership training and workforce training on the new skills that are required in the virtual business world. It's a very dynamic role that needs to be able to take the lens of remote work and apply it to all of the different departments of a company. This requires involvement from every single member of the executive board, everybody's job is going to be impacted by new remote work collaboration. There needs to be a Head of Remote, an expert on every single thing that leads the dynamic change.

Anja: It sounds like a very interesting “all hats” position, but how does one decide that they need a Head of Remote?

Laurel: If you have a remote worker in your staff, you need a Head of Remote. Period. At this point, it’s just about any knowledge-based company in the world. And we know that just in the United States this is just over 65% of companies right now. So if you have a team member working remotely, you need to make sure they are getting an equal employee experience, that there is learning and development created specifically for this work model, that business operations are continuous. That really needs to be coming from an expert. Instead of hiring a consultant over and over, it’s much more beneficial for your company to just have someone in-house.

Anja: The future of work is remote, a sentence we hear very often. Do you think it will still hold true even though many companies are forced to go remote and might not get out of this with a smile on their faces?

Laurel: Yes and no. The fact that every company is going to have pain points with remote work is inevitable. And that’s what I’ve been trying to shout from the rooftops since the beginning of COVID. If you don’t make this transition in the right way with intentional, proper, well-planned change management, you’re going to hit pain points in about 3-6 months. The companies will be saying “Ugh this isn’t working, this is the worst“ or “I told you so, remote work is never going to catch on” and that’s because we went into this in an emergency situation. That’s inevitable, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t work. It just means that we have to optimize it and there needs to be, again, an expert consulting on the risks and the liabilities and the solutions on how to resolve them.

All of a sudden you encounter these massive problems that you didn’t think about so I think what the future of work right now is going to be a long period of healing and optimization. There’s going to be a lot of crisis management, a lot of cleanup work that needs to happen from going remote in such an unprepared way. There will be a lot of optimization, a lot of strengthening, a lot of policy revisions. 

Ultimately it’s not a conversation about will the world go onsite or offsite. As a remote work advocate, my goal is to just ironically eliminate the term “remote work”. I don’t want people to be talking about if they’re working remotely or if they’re working at the office. Our platform and our premise is the fact that location is irrelevant, that work can be done from any location. The point is that work is something that you do and not somewhere that you go. I think that the future of work is going to be less about location and more about what elements and criteria are we learning from higher mobility models like remote work that empower the employee more, so more autonomy, more asynchronous communication- that will be the future of work, as opposed to the conversation about location.

Anja: Laurel, that was it for this interview. How can people reach out to you and find out more about Distribute Consulting?

Laurel: You can always find our consulting firm at distributeconsulting.com or if you’d like to talk to me directly, the easiest place to find me is on Linkedin. I’m always happy to meet new people and hear about new products and just network in general. This is how I got started in remote work in the first place, talking to other leaders and finding out what those best practices were through comprehensive research. I want to continue doing that, learning more about what’s on the horizon, what people’s pain points are, and what their new products and innovations are because that is really what leads to the growth of our industry.

Laurel Farrer is a Distributed Operations Consultant that collaborates with the world's top remote-friendly companies to strengthen virtual communication, streamline digital processes, and develop long-distance management strategies.

Distribute Consulting is empowering governments and businesses to distribute the benefits of remote work.

Listen to this interview on All Remote Podcast.

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