Laurel Farrer Remote Work Expert

Remote work expert Laurel Farrer: Equip your team to be self manager

Laurel Farrer Remote Work Expert

Past few weeks have not been anything close to normal. The world in general, is still adjusting to the current turn of events, in the wake of the global pandemic spread by the insidious novel Coronavirus.

Much-talked about work-life balance, which was a difficult thing to achieve even before the pandemic, is now a distant reality with work and life boundaries blurring even further.

Leaders and managers of organizations face an extra-ordinary challenge of overcoming this extra-ordinary situation.

And hence, we spoke with remote work expert Laurel Farrer, CEO & founder of Distribute Consulting and President of Remote Work Association, seeking advice for managers and leaders to lead and navigate their way successfully through these difficult times.

As a remote work strategist, Laurel  has helped many organizations to start, strengthen and leverage virtual workforces.

Laurel has also collaborated with the world’s top remote-friendly companies to strengthen virtual communication, streamline digital processes, and develop long-distance management strategies. 

Laurel Farrer’s expert advice

Laurel covered the following topics in the interaction with Peoplebox.

  • How can managers keep themselves motivated in these testing times?
  • What can the managers do to ensure their teams emotional and mental well being?
  • Importance of one on one meetings during these testing times
  • What does over-communication meant in terms of remote work?
  • What should manager NOT do when managing remote teams?
  • What are the must have skills to make remote work a success and what kind of tools a manager should look?
  • How can managers use asynchronous communication effectively as they manage remotely?
  • Will remote work become the new reality and how can organizations make it a more sustainable model of working?
  • Top 3 tips for managers to lead remote teams successfully?

As you scroll through, you can find excerpts of the interview with remote work expert Laurel Farrer, covering each of the topics mentioned above.

How can managers keep themselves motivated in these testing times

Laurel: You know, I would say just simplify. What I’ve noticed over the past two months is that managers are really over complicating the transition process from physical to virtual, you know they are coming to me and just asking, what tools do I need and how often do I need to have a retreat.

Right now people, I mean, we’re seeing Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in action right now.

People are not concerned about when their next retreat is going to be or what software they’re using.

They’re worried about if they’re going to be able to buy groceries or not, you know, or if their family is safe or not.

I mean, we are at very very basic levels of needs right now and managers should feel comfortable in just simplifying the process right now and focussing on this massive change management process but just focus on your people.

Try answering questions like ‘what do you need, what do they need, do they feel connected to each other, do they feel connected to you, do they feel secure in their job’ and just use that as a benchmark for right now.

The change management process takes time and attention.

That’s not something we have in an emergency situation so just focus on the basics for now and then the rest will come later. 

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What can managers do to ensure teams’ emotional & mental well-being?

Laurel: Yeah, well this is a very big and complex problem because if we in the office environment have trained our workers to be dependent on each other for motivation or be dependent on us for motivation then we’re going to see a problem as they go into a location independent environment.

Because they’re independent, they are completely on their own and so if they have been relying on extrinsic motivation in order to, you know promote productivity then it’s going to be a big complicated transition.

The best thing we can do is start right now and that is just really empowering our employees to be self managers.

What do they need in order to have intrinsic motivation and get the work done themselves.

And that’s asking tough questions like – when do I feel the most motivated and when do I feel the least motivated, when do I get distracted and how can I overcome that, what are my highest priorities for the day.

And so really taking the time as a manager to take your hands off of control and say, “well, what do you think,” instead of saying, “your top three priorities for the day are these”.

It’s really giving the ball back to them and saying, “what do you think your highest priorities for the day are,” and really continually supporting them and nurturing them and mentoring them to manage themselves.

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Importance of one on one meetings during these testing times

Laurel: We don’t have contextual clues or non verbal communication to fill in the gaps for us and so we have to be much, much more open and vulnerable than we are previously used to.

It feels very open and awkward but it’s not.

You are equipping them to be a self manager.

It is important to have opportunities for that communication on a regular basis because you don’t just bump into each other in the hallways.

So, instead of quantity of interaction, we need to substitute it with quality interaction scheduling those one on one meetings and really having a meaningful empathetic conversation.

Personally as a manager, I meet with my teams, each member of my team long at least one hour, one on one with just them, setting big objectives once a month.

Then we do weekly check ins as a group and we do daily check-ins asynchronously so they are written but we do those everyday.

That works really well in our team and our team size but the only word of caution I would give is to not use one on one’s as a method of micro-management that you have to check in with me so that I know what you are doing.

Make sure that it’s coming from a place of support and empathy.

Don’t have a meeting if they don’t need one, let them lead that and say, I’m here if you need me, we have a scheduled time every week but if they say, “No, I’m good”, then they’re good and trust them and let them do that.

Because another problem in virtual work is that because you do have to communicate so much.

So be careful about ‘Quality vs Quantity’.

Make sure that the time that you spend together is very comprehensive, you’re coming prepared with an agenda, you meet all of the points on the agenda, and then you follow up asynchronously and let it be .

Don’t be afraid to wait another week to talk to them again and just let them get their work done.

What does over-communication mean in terms of remote work?

Laurel: In remote work, over communication is just communication so it’s a new benchmark because it feels like you are just talking all the time in comparison to what you were doing in the office.

In remote work, we do a different way of measuring productivity, that we measure based on results.

So, we’re measuring your output instead of your activity.

So, your job in this new style of communication is to say what you need, say what you’re doing.

Again, we don’t have those contextual clues so we can’t fill in the gaps.

You have to fill in those gaps with words and so it feels very very awkward at first.

So much more consistent, much more transparent and much more elaborate of communication that you’re used to.

So, if somebody hands you a report and you say “good job”, especially if you type it, that could mean any number of things on the end of the person who just submitted the report.

They could wonder, ‘was that sarcastic, or are they mad at me or did they really think it was a good job or maybe they are disappointed, or what does that mean’. 

You have to tell them what it means.

So you should instead choose to say, “good job on this report, I really appreciated the graphics that you put in on page 13 , I know that was above and beyond so, congratulations, I was really impressed, I’m looking forward to working with you on the next one.”

You just have to say it. So, yes it takes a little more time and intention and empathy but this is the new style of communication in virtual environments. 

What should manager NOT do when managing remote teams?

Laurel: Micromanagement is one. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of micromanagement.

If you’re coming from an office environment in which you’ve been watching people all day and that’s how you know that they are working, its very easy to translate that into a virtual experience where you say, ‘I need you to check in with me all the time, so that I know what you are doing,’ or put a camera on them and tell them, ‘turn your webcam on so that I can see that you are working’.

That’s a dangerous situation. It’s an invasion of privacy and sends across the message that you don’t trust your employees to do their work and it deteriorates the culture of your company very very quickly. 

Be trustworthy, give people their tasks, make sure that they know what they are doing for the day and then just let ‘em go.

So don’t micromanage, be very very careful of that and let people manage themselves but on the other side of that is don’t isolate them either.

Some managers take this to an extreme and they say, “Great ok, I’m just going to send a to-do list to all of my employees at the beginning of the week and then I’ll see them again the next Monday and I’ll give them another to-do list.”

That’s not true leadership either. That’s maybe delegation, but that’s not leadership.

So make sure that you stay accessible to your employees through that time of autonomy and be checking in on them.

Be supportive, encourage them and offer assistance, providing feedback and giving them updates, showing the example of what it means to be transparent.

Instead of saying something like, “I just completed this assignment, I’m feeling very good about it, about to ship it to the clients”, say, “Good Work Team”.

Just little things like that go a long way in keeping your team connected in a virtual environment.  

What are the must-have skills to make remote work a success and what kind of tools a manager should look for?

Laurel: I get asked a lot, ‘what tools do I need‘, with regard to remote work. I think, as leaders we cannot add new apps and new softwares, even as cool as they are.

There are some really cool softwares out there but we cannot add them into our lives and into our team dynamics and expect them to do our job for us.

We are still managers and leaders. We have to use the tools to enhance our job performance, not substitute for it.

And so what I think the core of that is, How do we need to be better leaders and what do we need to be teaching our workers  to do in order to be more effective in their job performance as well so that we can both thrive in this new virtual environment.

That boils down to soft skills.

To be better in our self management we need effective communication, intrinsic motivation, critical thinking (are you able to identify analyse and solve a problem on your own without somebody sitting right next to you to ask questions and bounce ideas off of).

You need to analyze yourself and understand, if you are able to exercise empathy and imagine how is somebody going to receive the message that I’m about to send, could it be misinterpreted, if not I might need to change some wordings.

Flexibility is a really big one – can we adapt to new scenarios and new changes like we are seeing on an economic level right now.

We’re seeing that the businesses that are able to be flexible and to adopt virtual work and scale are doing much much much better in business continuity and economic health as opposed to the business that can’t and if they weren’t willing to adopt and adapt.

The future of work is a fast paced and if you can teach your employees to be much more flexible, they will continue to grow and develop.

So, yes, soft skills like these are really the root and core in a virtual environment.

The more that we can encourage and nurture those soft skills the more that they will be prepared for the future of work.

How can remote managers use asynchronous communication effectively?

Laurel: Yes, so a common question that I’m getting recently is – what is the new normal, what does the future of work look like?

Asynchronous communication is always part of my answer because the goal of remote work advocates like me, is not necessarily that the entire world goes remote because that is hypothetical.

Asynchronous communication accommodates different locations different time zones, different cultures.

It accommodates diversity, it is more inclusive of a work style.

And so, asynchronous communication is where you can accomplish those same results, have the exact same conversation that you would in a face to face environment but just broken up into different times.

So classic example is instead of having a phone call, you send an email so that they can receive it on their time and you can send it on your time.

The advice there to managers is that they should be wise about how they are using different channels of communication.

A great example from a friend of mine at Evernote, he says that you would never send an email to the fire department, if your house is on fire so same rings true for managers.

So, think about how you’re using each channel of communication.

If you’re just trying to send information for searchability, use email.

If you want something to be waiting in their inbox and easy to see in the morning, probably use Slack.

Or if you’re having an emotionally charged conversation or providing some sensitive feedback you definitely want that to be synchronous so that it’s received more easily and you have more emotional context.

That would be best done in a video call.

But then there are even some tasks that some teams like to only do in person.

Reserve those for your retreat or asking your teams members to come to headquarters office once a month or something like that. This can include things like onboarding, team development, ideation and brainstorming, etc.

Utilize asynchronous communication as a quicker easier way to communicate as opposed to scheduling a meeting every single time you need to talk to somebody. 

Laurel Farrer Remote Work Expert
Click on the image to watch the full interview with Laurel Farrer

Will remote work become the new reality & how can it become a sustainable model of working?

Laurel: I’m glad you brought that up, because there is a big difference between allowing remote work and truly optimizing remote work.

A mistake a lot of businesses are making right now is that after being forced to work from home for a few weeks, they might be thinking, ‘oh, that wasn’t as hard as I thought… great, I guess we’re remote friendly now and we’re done’.

That is not accurate at all. It could result in some very major problems in the future. One of them being compliance breaches and legal infractions, I mean, very very serious problems.

So, yes there is a difference between just allowing people to do their work in a different place and really functioning and collaborating as a distributed team.

At a minimum, organizations and leaders should have a policy in place that really sets expectations for performance in this new work model. They should also get training that is specific to remote work, both for management and for workforce. 

You don’t want to be in a position where you start with thinking, ‘we could do this long term’ but then three years down the road somebody sues you for an occupational safety and health administration regulation infraction, then you say, ‘ohh, I didn’t even think about that’.

The benefit of working with a consultant and getting training is that, since they’ve been down this road before, they know what is further down the path, they do know what you don’t know and they can help you through that transition. So training and consulting would be highly recommended.

And then yes, evaluation is a critical part of our change management process when we are advising a company to conduct that trial and then evaluate what went well, what didn’t go well and so do that as a team.

I mean don’t just assume that you’re doing it right and doing it currently, don’t be afraid of that self assessment to say, what is going well, what is not going well, how can we simplify, how can we strengthen.

Continually evaluate, because remote work has been happening for about 50years at this point. But in the terms of business in general, it is very very young.

Remote work is not one-size-fits-all, so be brave enough to figure out what works best for your team uniquely.

We have a lot to learn. And now that’s the responsibility of every leader and every manager as we go to say, thinking of the new best ideas to manage their teams.

Top 3 tips for managers to lead remote teams successfully

Laurel: Good Question! I have so many, I would say, 

No1: Focus on those soft skills.
Encourage self management by training your workers on how to manage themselves, that’s going to make or break your entire success as a leader. 

No2: Develop a culture of trust.
This allows for result-based tracking that we talked about. Let go of micromanagement and really empower the workers to do the work themselves but not just teaching them how to, instead actually letting them being a trusting leader. 

and No. 3: Simplify and have fun. This is a really exciting and empowering work model and it can benefit the business in so many ways.

I mean, average savings from converting a role from physical to virtual is between 11 and 20,000 US Dollars. And that’s per worker per year, I mean, massive massive savings can be tapped into if you optimize this as a work model.

So don’t think of this as something that you were forced into and get frustrated that it’s not working.

Be flexible and be excited. Think how can you use this to strengthen your team.

Even if you do go back to the office, the exercise of being adaptable and problem solving together as a team will make you that much stronger regardless of your location in the future.

So have an open mindset and be open about that opportunity to try something new and that will make a big difference in your long term results. 

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Remote work expert Laurel Farrer: Equip your team to be self manager