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Remote Tech Teams: How to Make it Work with Laurel Farrer of Distribute Consulting

Ledge sits down with Laurel Farrer, a remote work strategist and consultant, to chat about what it takes to strengthen virtual communication, streamline digital processes, and develop long-distance management strategies necessary for remote teams to work.


David Ledgerwood
David Ledgerwood

Transcript

Ledge: In today’s white-hot labor market, remote work leaped from a company perk to a business mandate. Laurel Farrer is a distributed operations consultant who collaborates with the world’s top remote friendly companies to strengthen virtual communications, streamline digital processes, and develop long distance management strategies.

She advises governments, business entities, and industry leaders on how to succeed and excel with remote work.

Laurel, thanks for joining us. It’s super cool to have you on today.

Laurel: Thank you so much for having me.

David: Awesome! Why don’t you give the two-, three-minute intro of yourself and your work to get the audience up to speed, and then we’ll jump in and have a chat.

Laurel: Definitely! I’m a remote work strategist and consultant. I came from helping businesses convert their roles to be remote-friendly or update operations and processes to be remote-friendly.

But in the past year or two, it’s come into a more big-picture strategy side in which I am helping governments, businesses, and organizations all over the world really capitalize on the benefits of remote work and use remote work to really achieve a higher impact goal like strengthening economic development or increasing job accessibility for refugees or whatever but, really, just using remote work as a tool whether it’s for your business or for your entire community.

David: So we’re dealing with technical companies. The CTOs, maybe VPs of engineering, and directors of software are struggling right now to find full time onsite talent. This labor market in the U.S. ─ and, really, everywhere ─

I’m talking to people in England and Vancouver and Australia. They need to adjust to this idea that we’ve got to be able to work with remote senior engineers because that opens up the labor pool.

What is the beginning of doing that if you are, in fact, not designed that way?

Laurel: Definitely! You, guys, are a unique shift and extra high demand in this industry because tech is where remote work really blossomed and came into popularity and it’s because remote work is traditional and successful in pretty much any role that is based on computer work.

And that varies across a lot of industries but not so much in technology, right?

In tech, it’s pretty consistent that we’re going to be on a computer for the majority of the day and don’t really need to collaborate in teams as much as other industries.

Yes. We see remote roles being successful over the long term in technology. And, we, as advocates, watch the tech world because it does have the longest case studies of success. The demand is insanely high whereas other industries are just coming around to the idea.

In telemedicine, there are a lot of doctors who don’t really know that they can work remotely. But, in tech, everybody knows that they can work remotely. And so, the negotiating power is in the hands of job applicants.

In terms of how to convert and how to warm up to this idea of virtual collaboration and remote working, just know that everything is and can be exactly the same, if not, better than as it is onsite.

Your team is not going to lose any communication. Your team is not going to lose any culture. Efficiency can be even higher. Productivity can be higher. Employee loyalty can be higher. Everything can be strengthened.

But the caveat is that it has to be done right. If you just send all of your employees home and say, “Alright, we’re going to lock up the office door. Everybody work remotely” you’re going to crash hard. So make sure that you come into it in the right way and you update not only your systems and processes but also your communication styles and your management styles.

Remote work is all about measuring results instead of “Can I see somebody working in the office?”

No.

So how am I going to know that they’re productive.

We have to set different KPIs and OKR’s to make sure that sure the we are measuring and defining productivity in a more articulate and different way.

So it’s about results. It’s about communication. It’s about employee empowerment. They have to be intrinsically motivated. They’re not supervised by anybody; they’re on their own. It’s a shift.

Obviously, I can go on and on about that because that’s what I do. But that is the big message of converting to be remote-friendly. It’s not scary. It’s easier than you think but it does have to be done carefully and with intention in order to be successful.

David: Absolutely! And we see that, too, with clients. To be fair, it does take that work since you actually have to have a shift in mindset and a little shift in systems if you’ve never done this. But, now, you’re absolutely desperate to add engineers in your team and you can’t hire engineers on the street. It’s just impossible.

You’ve got eighteen open racks and you’re trying to get your product out the door.

“I guess, we’re going to have to do remote now.”

In fact, that changes the way that you do your standups or it changes the way that you do your collaboration because you can’t tap people on the shoulder. Teams are not maybe in the same space.

We see that a lot.

“I love this engineer and I’m not sure how to utilize them because our systems aren’t designed in a way that makes that work.” And you don’t get that sort of cross-in-the-hallway status check anymore. You need to be deliberate about your remote management processes.

Do you see that happen a lot where people are rapidly thrown into this world? Or is that maybe a phenomenon that is limited to sort of this tech software world?

Laurel: People are thrown into this all the time. Again, because that negotiation power is in the hands of the employee or the candidate, then, it’s putting the employer in the passenger seat saying, “Okay, fine. Go remote. That’s fine. And it means saving thousands of dollars cost. Fine.”

Yes. They come into this by default, by accident. And they are not really equipped with the education and the tools that they need to make that transition accurately.

It can be really frustrating for both the employer and the employee and it creates this big divide like, “Oh, is virtual work possible? Is it realistic?”

No, it’s not realistic. If you’re not doing it right, absolutely not! You’re going to crash and burn. But if you do it right, then, it can be even better than it was in an office.

David: Do it right. That’s easy for us to say. We live in this space.

“Hey, I’m a terrified CTO. I’ve got to get the product out the door. I’ve got twenty engineers working on the a product and I need twenty more. I’ve got to go remote. I need to do it next week. What do I do? What are the three things I simply have to do to make a quick shift?”

Laurel: A good way to think about this is that remote work is, again, based on results but it’s also about employee empowerment. That means you cannot micromanage your team. If they feel controlled, they’re going to stop producing.

The analogy that I use is that you have to create this petri dish. Your job as the manager is to create this perfect environment for them to do whatever they’re going to do but you don’t have control over what they’re going to do. So you just create the entire scenario, all the resources, all of the information that they need in order to do it.

So in order to do that, there has to be a big shift in how you manage what that entire worker-employer relationship is.

Those three things are, number one, trust, 100% trust, and that feels very touchy-feely and pathetic with a lot of emotions especially it’s not really compatible with the tech world. And so, that’s where I lose a lot of clients. I have to be emotionally available to my team. A lot of managers aren’t in love with that idea.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to send teddy bears to your team. What it means is that you are going to believe that your employees are working when you can’t see them. You give them a deadline. They confirm the deadline, and then you just have to trust. While you wait for that, you have to trust that they are going to produce and meet that deadline whether or not you can see them.

Trust is number one. Communication is number two. How we support the trust is through communication.

We’re always communicating back and forth. Nothing is really happening organically in a virtual environment. We don’t bump into them in the hallway. It is about “Hey, status check, what’s going on?”

Standups are huge in virtual environment because that’s how we know what’s going on.

I like to say that in virtual jobs and remote work, over communication is just communication. We constantly have to be reporting, tracking, articulating our thoughts, articulating our needs, and just anticipating empathetic scenarios and opportunities. Our words are what unify us as a team.

So you have to be prepared to communicate a lot more than you think.

This third point, I would say, would be very subjective and this third point will change based on the role. The third point for tech, specifically, is relevant to communication but it’s about productivity.

How are you going to define productivity? If you can’t see that somebody is working, how are you going to know that they’re working?

You and they have to collaborate to say, “This is how you will know that I’m working. I’m going to produce one of this a week. At the end of every day, you will see these results. I have this overhead goal of doing this research. I will produce a report every week that outlines what research I’ve done every week.”

You and they have to collaborate together to say, “This is what productivity means for me and this is how you will know that that is happening.”

Again, it’s communicating that and it’s also just very carefully designing work flows and processes that will allow you to measure productivity in a new way and not just see them come into the office early or see them talking in meetings. You have to completely take it away from the sensory criteria and update it to be virtually friendly.

David: As I was listening to you say this, these are all things that we do as remote natives that is really not that terrifying. And it’s not that much work but it takes enormous amount of words to describe that new way of thinking.

And that paradigm shift can be quick. If you have an organization that is used to onsite and sort of full time and whatever, it’s really going to be about that organization’s ability to be nimble and agile in any context.

It’s not really about, “Oh, wow, it’s so much work to be a remote organization.” It’s more about “Does my organization know how to adjust and change based on a macro environment and to not get completely hammered by change, in general?”

If you’re calcifying processes in any way, you’re going to fall over on this kind of conversion as well.

Laurel: Exactly! In fact, one of my favorite conversations that I’ve ever had in my life was with. We were having a conversation about this. I’m always on my soapbox like “Remote work is different. You have to update your processes and blah, blah, blah. It’s different.”

He corrected me and he said, “No, Laurel. It’s not different. This is just good business management. Period.”

And I was like, “Of course, it is! Why have I been so focused on it being different?”

No! Having a culture of trust and communication and employee empowerment very clearly articulated goals and updated measurement and to be results-based ─ that’s just good!

Even if you update your business to be cohesive with this vision and then you end up not going remote, at least, you have a better business. It’s the future of work. Remote work is only just one small part of that.

David: Sure! It’s just the delivery method of being a little bit more accountable to the right ─

Laurel: We were just forced into it because we didn’t have any other choice. We had to adopt these practices faster than everybody else because our environment is reliant on these management strategies. But, eventually, hopefully, everybody will adopt these strategies.

David: Let’s jump out of the tech scene a little bit. Where are you seeing remote work that isn’t technical in some innovative ways?

You mentioned telemedicine. We have some clients that actually have those robots that can rove around the office. And so, your face can be on a robot and you can drive the robot worker to go talk to somebody.

Some of these things sound kind of ridiculous. I just can’t imagine that keeps going.

What are some neat stories or some innovative things that you’ve seen that we can kind of keep our eye on?

Laurel: In terms of tools, that’s the thing to note. Remote work is now an industry. As of two, three years ago, it wasn’t. And that’s exciting and intimidating. So it’s going to be really cool to watch this industry evolve and there’s going to be new tools all the time. On a daily basis, there’s going to be access to new tools for virtual collaboration. It’s the future of work.

So in terms of what’s coming up, it’s anybody’s guess. But I think that every manager and every company needs to develop a culture of flexibility and innovation to be prepared for changes so that you can easily incorporate new technology in order to be able to adapt and grow with this industry as it continues to develop.

How remote work came to be in the first place is that division, that filtering of tasks. What do I have to do collaboratively with the team in person versus what can be done autonomously with just a computer offsite?

And then, that spiraled and snowballed into a much bigger division. And so, that’s kind of what we’re seeing with industries, in general, now like, “Okay, what can be done autonomously? What can be done virtually?” versus “What absolutely has to be done in person?”

We see cool stuff like sports. Sports should be done in person. But, then, we see athletic directors who can work offsite and not only with administrative tasks but with coaching like, “I’m going to review your footage then give you feedback” which can substitute an in-person coaching session.

We see the same thing with dancing. Who would have thought the dancing would be remote-friendly? But it is! People are willing to look at their career and say, “Alright! Let’s filter. Let’s divide what can be done virtually versus what needs to be done technically or mechanically or synchronously in person?”

Any job ─ even mechanics ─ anything can be done remotely. It’s just a matter of dividing the tasks appropriately.

David: Right! And you get these sort of “Well, if we can do robotic surgery remotely, certainly, we can find a way to robotically fix a car remotely or move stuff around the factory.”

Laurel: Right! I think you hit the nail right on the head. It’s to preserve that human element.

Yes, remote work is results-based. That’s how we measure productivity. And we are using technical and virtual tools.

So it does open up the path very easily for us to completely remove the human element. But when that’s done, it’s wildly unsuccessful because, at the end of the day, humans are still producing newer results and you have to treat a human as a human in order for them to continue producing.

So if they don’t feel valued as an individual, if they don’t feel remembered as an individual, if they don’t feel challenged and appreciated as an individual, it’s not going to be successful.

That’s one of the favorite questions that I always get when I request to have a video call with somebody. They say, “Isn’t this remote work? Why would you need to talk to me on a phone call or on a video? Isn’t this all about anonymity and completely removing the human element?”

It’s not. If anything, it actually increases the human element because in order to be successful, we do have to communicate more. We have to be more empathetic. We have to be more trusting. And so, it actually creates a much healthier and human-based and emotional-based work environment if done correctly.

David: And it is a cycle. There’s a production and improvement in chain cycle and there’s really just a lot of humility about “Hey, how do I do this?” and that open communication and over communication.

One thing that we know in project work or one-to-one relationships remotely is that silence is just absolutely deafening in all of these collaboration tools where you and I can maybe sit in a room and kind of say two words to each other in presence and actually feel like “Hey, we got a lot done today.”

If you don’t post in whatever project management or chat tool or whatever you’re doing, the silence is just shattering for that trust. You need to do that.

Laurel: And along the same line, you have to articulate that. As a manager, you have to set that expectation and not just have that expectation but articulate it and say, “Hey, guess what? When you’re a virtual worker, you have to be checking in. You have to be posting your progress. Share what you’re doing. Share what your wins are. Share what your failures are.”

Communicate to us or else we have no idea what you’re doing, no idea how to support you, no idea how to celebrate with you. We can’t be there for you if you are not there. And how you are there is to virtually announce yourself.

I think that kind of comes back to the tools that we were talking about a second ago. Especially with the innovation of all of these new tools as the industry continues to develop, a lot of managers are expecting the tools to do the work of management for them.

Slackbot is going to prompt my team members at this time to report; therefore, it’s done. I don’t have to do anything.

Yes, that’s convenient; yes, it’s efficient. I’ve been doing this for twelve years now.

We didn’t have any tools. I don’t mean to sound like “I walked in the snow; uphill both ways.” But it kind of was. We only had email. So we had to rely on communication reporting practices and trust in order to make this work.

So it kind of comes back to any tool like a paint brush or clay. Any tool is only as good as the way that you use it. And the same is true for tech and reporting and culture development

Any tool is great and it can help you but you have to use it in the right and human way in order for it to produce the best results.

David: Absolutely! And I would say that you and I are putting a lot of pressure on the manager. The reality is that, as the remote worker, you’re probably in the minority unless you’re in a completely remote culture, and some of those new organizations are going to be that way.

But it is incumbent upon you potentially to lead up from the bottom and to come up with the structures necessary to make sure everybody knows what you’re doing because it’s vastly more likely that you have a manager who has never managed somebody remotely and is feeling this out as they go.

And so, that collaboration goes a because you are responsible. Make sure people know what you are doing.

Laurel: Exactly! And that’s the big shift. This is what the big change is for the worker-employer relationship. In order to have employee empowerment and in order to have intrinsic motivation and results-based, the employee has to be responsible for their self-management leaving the manager without a job in terms of their traditional job description of managing the productivity and results of the employee.

Now, that’s the employee’s responsibility. So what is left for their manager to do?

Creating the environment. That’s exactly what you said. We are now just leading and making sure that they are equipped and supported and protected and that they have all of the systems and work flows and processes and resources in place so that they can do the self-management successfully.

David: That’s a big shift for everybody. Laurel, it’s awesome having you here. Maybe a final word on how the people in the audience read your work or get more connected with you if they’re interested in that.

Laurel: Definitely! Because I do work with a lot of different clients all over the world, the most constant and stable place to find me is just my personal website which is laurelfarrer.com.

If you get the spelling right, I’m the only one so it’s pretty easy to find me.

David: Laurel, thank you so much. It’s been fantastic learning with you. I’m going to go and process some of this myself.

Laurel: Fantastic! Thanks so much for having me.

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