Ep. 72 - The Remote Expert's Emma Heuston

Ep. 72 - The Remote Expert's Emma Heuston

Jeff Robbins interviews Emma Heuston, Founder and Principal of The Remote Expert, about legal issues, workplace health and safety, and policies and procedures related to remote work.

Here’s the Transcript:

JEFF: Hi Emma. Welcome to the Yonder Podcast.

EMMA HEUSTON: Hi, Jeff. How are you?

JEFF: I’m great. It’s great to have you on.  We keep having Australians on, which is a really nice little look into the future for me. I get to see what tomorrow’s going to be like, as I talk across the international dateline. [laughing]

EMMA:  [laughing] It’s eight a.m. here. Nice and early.

JEFF:  Yeah, and I also get to do an evening podcast for me, which is a nice little change of pace. But, yeah, well let’s see. I find that guests usually do a better job of introducing themselves than I do. So, tell people who you are and what you do.

EMMA: So, I’m Emma Heuston, and I run a law firm which specializes in remote and flexible work solutions. So, being a lawyer for 19 years, and during that time I’ve helped many people overcome difficulty times, and in my own experience, the four years previous to this year I actually worked remotely at partner level for a law firm based in Sydney, Australia, and I live near Baron Bay which is about 1,000 kilometers away, or 500 miles away. And I worked completely remotely. I managed a team, one of whom was in Germany for a while, a team of five, and that was such a change of  paradigm in the very traditional legal industry. And through that, and through the book I released last year called, “The Tracksuit Economy”, about working  productively and effectively from home, it was clear that there was a real gap in the market between people doing this and then being able to have the policies and the procedures in place, and the law, because there are some real quirks that aren’t covered in our traditional kind of workplace policies, or employment contracts.

JEFF:  Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I’m sure that listeners are going to be excited  about those kinds of things, because this isn’t a thing that often comes up around remote work. It’s sometimes, sort of, a simple blanket question, “is it legal?”

EMMA:  Yeah.

JEFF:  And the answer is, well, yeah, it just hasn’t all been quite figured out, and the existing laws don’t exactly apply. What are the areas that you’re finding as a lawyer, both working at a law firm remotely as a remote worker, but also as a lawyer? You have an interesting angle on both of these things.

EMMA:  And so, this year, I actually started my own law firm which looks at legal issues for companies to do that. So, it might be that they wholly remote or it could be that they have one or two people who work from home, some or all of the time. So, there’s a few legal issues, and there is actually a Forbes article by Laurel Farrer published in April, I think, called, ‘Is Remote Work Illegal?’ which sort of looks really globally at those issues with a Canadian lawyer, Tara Vasdani and myself.

JEFF:  We know Laurel well. She’s a Yonder person.

EMMA:  I think that’s how I found you in the first place too. [laughing] Yeah, so, that’s sort of on a global spectrum, but sort of day to day, the things I see, the people, you know, say you got a hybrid remote workplace and people start a remote work arrangement, so they say, “I’m not going to work in the office anymore. I’m going to work from home now.” They don’t put things in writing, so you’d need to vary that, because an employer has all these obligations once someone goes to their house, to make sure that there’s work, health and safety arrangements, and a work from home policy. So, there’s all these things that are all of a sudden up in the air, like the hours that they are going to be working at home. If they’re flexible that might be alright, but they might have to be available for certain hours, for client calls, or things like that.

Or, is data security going to be an issue. Are they going to be using their own equipment, their own laptop? Or is the company going to give them a laptop? And with that, have they got virus and data protection, and then if someone goes to a café and works and uses free Wi-Fi, they’re leaving themselves open to a cyber-attack. And also, confidentiality, because you’re at a café, you leave your laptop open, you might have sensitive data on the screen, and someone could see that. So, there’s all these, sort of, privacy issues as well as workplace, health and safety. Then certainly in Australia, just because someone works at home, it doesn’t mean they’re not an employee under our local Labor Laws for Workers’ Compensation Insurance, which I believe is different in America and different across different countries, but certainly in Australia the employee is still liable as if they were in the office.

JEFF:  Yeah.

EMMA: So, it’s very important. It’s not insurmountable, but it is very important they look at where they’re going to be working, if it’s safe and secure and make sure it is. I mean,  they can’t be there watching them, but to have these checks in place and things on record to say that we’ve looked into that and that’s all working. And the other thing is policies. What to do with these unchartered territories and to make sure workers at home are being treated the same as workers in a head office, and that’s there’s sort of health and wellness policies for these people because remote work does have a tendency to overwork, so you need to have those health and lifestyle policies as well.

JEFF: Yeah. I mean a lot of it, the labor laws, and I’m guessing this is around the world, the labor laws that we have developed over hundreds of thousands of years [laughing] are based on what we conventionally think of as labor, as work, and workplace, and so, for instance, health and safety laws about working conditions and more recently it starts to get into things as specific as ergonomics, right? With people getting repetitive stress injury kind of work, [laughing] which is the kind of work often times that remote workers are doing. Having a good chair and all that kind of stuff comes up and becomes a legal issue. These are working conditions, which is one thing to enforce when you can walk around an office and say, “well, look it, you’re not providing good quality chairs, or whatever that is.” But when people are working from home and laying on their beds or sitting on their couches, it’s sort of more difficult to control those things.

EMMA: Yeah, exactly.

JEFF: But, I think, as you’re alluding to with all of this, it’s really thinking about these things and about writing down policies.

EMMA: Exactly.

JEFF:  Like, is it okay for people to go and work from a café? And I’m guessing. Is it okay to leave their laptop open and running with the screen still with the confidentiality information on it, as they go up to get a coffee? With all these things, I think most workers, particularly remote workers who are kind of trying to do their best, will adhere to guidance policies, but [laughing] you need to actually have those in place, when you tell people what you want.  

EMMA:  Oh, absolutely. That’s right. I think trust is such a big thing about remote work, and as that trust is there it builds on both sides, and it can create a really beautiful, loyal relationship, but I guess on the odd occasion someone doesn’t do that, then the business, sort of needs to be able to step in and fix that. And a policy just gives that certainty on either side, and I sort of describe a policy, an employment policy, as any type of sort of guide rails, so within there’s some flexibility about behavior by either side, this is your hard boundary to the left, and this is your hard boundary to the right, can’t do these things, there are expectations, but within there’s quite a lot of flexibility provided. You communicate and tell us what you’re doing and you’re meeting all KPI’s and anything like that, to make sure that you’re fulfilling all those job requirements. 

JEFF:  This comes up a lot on the podcast, but for remote workers who don’t have the, sort of, visual peripheral cues of an office space, as much guidance as you can give them, as to what is expected, certainly, but also kind of, what’s right and wrong. What’s the behavior that we’re looking for, and in any environment, even collocated work, there’s people who are going to go against the policy. They’re going to do something wrong. They’re going to put information on  a thumb drive and bring it home. Perhaps, malevolently, perhaps not, but it needs to be clear whether they’re doing something wrong.

EMMA:  Exactly. At least then they might do something and not know it’s wrong without the policy, and then, it’s really hard to fix that, whereas if they know it’s wrong at the start, it’s an easier conversation.

JEFF:  Yeah. And from a legal standpoint, if you get into litigation, if you have a client, to at least say, “hey, we have an employee that did something wrong. It’s clear that they did something wrong because we have a policy that they went against.” 

EMMA:  Exactly.

JEFF:  And at least there’s recourse there. It’s sort of the entirety of the legal profession comes to write it down. [laughing] This is what the law is, let’s figure it out. Write it down.

EMMA:  I wrote a blog right when I started my business earlier this year, and one of my very first blogs was ‘Five Important Legal Issues’, and legal issue number one was to make sure everything is in writing, so exactly. Whether that be for new employees, like a letter of offer, getting the contract ready, and I think the next one is what people miss of it, for existing employees if they change their arrangement, even if they already work remotely but move cities, and they’re in a different time zone, with a different remote work location, then it’s really important to actually vary that change in document, that change to their remote work arrangements, as well.

JEFF:  Have there been any surprises or, as you’re talking to people about legal issues around remote work, what seems to be the thing that comes up the most as something that maybe people are not thinking about when they should be, or, just the things that sneak up?

EMMA:  Probably workplace health and safety. People just don’t think about it. It’s interesting, I spoke at a remote and flexible work conference in Sydney a few months back, and there were a lot of companies who had hybrid remote teams, and some were Australian government departments there, and they sort of just didn’t have policies. They don’t really do checks or self checks. So, in response to that, I’ve actually developed a, sort of, interactive audit, which is sort of a quick online, check, watch a video, take some photos to upload and that generates a report, which is a nice, sort of, middle ground between a company actually sending someone out to look at a remote workspace, and there are companies in Australia and government departments which do that, but, it’s so expensive, especially if they live across the country, or the world, and not really practical.

And then there are other companies that, if they do do something, it’s sort of a checklist, make sure these things are right and there’ll be a few ticks and you’re done. So, this is a nice middle ground. Upload some photos, do some checks, get that report generated, and sort of do that quite regularly to annually. So, that’s something we just haven’t thought about yet, and they also haven’t thought about equipment. One of the questions I got in the Q&A session of this conference I did was, “well, do we have to buy them furniture?” For someone working at home quite infrequently, they kind of are, but maybe not, but then you sort of think about hiring a remote person, and the alternative would be if they were in an office being hired, then they would come into that office and they would have a chair and a desk and a computer, and all these other things that are set up, the way that the workplace had been set up ergonomically, but then if people would hire someone from home, they’re probably saving realistic costs by having less people in the bricks and mortar office. But they sort of then, take that step and give them an allowance for furniture and set them up properly. It’s a really interesting sort of thing to think about.

Well, do you give that allowance? Do you, sort of, help them set their workplace up? And if you do that,  you can be more confident that they will be a) be using the right technology and data security; but also, b) they’ll be comfortable, and they’ll feel valued and part of that company.

JEFF: Yeah. There’s a lot to be said for intent. Like, making it clear to employees what your intent is, or that it is our intent for you to have a comfortable workplace. It is isn’t our intent for you to have an ergonomic workspace and if that requires us to buy you a standing desk, or an ergonomic keyboard, I mean, a lot of the stuff that I’m talking about is computer related. Oftentimes the Venn diagram overlap between computer information, data work and remote work, is pretty close. It’s nice that there are other types of work that are emerging, but I’ll just talk about the [laughing] experience that I’ve had. 

EMMA: And I think that’s right. Yeah, mostly professional or designer. Some kind of computer-based work. 

JEFF: Yeah, but as the company to let the employee know like, “hey if you need an ergonomic chair, we’ll buy one for you, or we’ll go half with you, or we’ve got a budget.” Oftentimes a thing that I recommend at companies is that they basically give employees a stipend, a budget of maybe $2,000 a year for them to buy the equipment that they need, ongoing stuff, new computer, maybe every other year, a new chair, a new desk, a new computer monitor, of that kind of stuff. There are ways of making it work and some of this is, perhaps, a kind of United States centric way of thinking about this, but companies tax wise in the United States get a write-off if they own the equipment, so you’re kind of giving employees a budget for them to buy the equipment that they need that’s continued to be owned by the computer, until such time as they leave the company, at which point the company sells the equipment to the employee for one dollar, and so basically this is how a company can kind of own the equipment and depreciate the value of the equipment without having this kind of situation where people have stuff in their home that isn’t really theirs. 

EMMA: Yeah, exactly. I work with a lot of start-ups; they don’t have buckets of money to throw around. But even some really, kind of strategic gestures may not cost the earth, but they can make a big difference to people. I know one of the companies I met, another Australian company at Running Remote in Bali a few weeks ago, one of their things, all their remote workers use, sort of a lamp, to help illuminate because they have different time zones, and when they’re on video conferences some people would look like they were kind of in the dark [laughing]. And they said it’s made such a difference to their communication with each other. 

JEFF: They just bought a lamp for people to put on their desk that would light them up so they would show up on camera. [laughing]

EMMA: Yes. Yeah, that’s right. And then they could all see each other, and when they do have those team meetings, they’re just all there in a better way, sort of lit up and visible, which it sounds really simple, but they said it’s just made such a difference with people in different time zones and countries.

JEFF:  It’s interesting how these little things like that can kind of affect the way that you communicate, affect the culture, affect sort of how people interrelated with each other, all that kind of stuff. Tell me more about your book, about ‘The Tracksuit Economy’, and kind of how that came to be and what your mission is with that.

EMMA:  So, last year, probably three years into working as a remote worker, my team started to get even bigger, and I was really interested in going into the management side, and working out, well how do you work from home productively and how does that work? I’d been doing it for a few years and had been really enjoying it, but I still hadn’t looked into the mechanics of it so much. And I went looking for some books on remote work, and I found, I think ‘Remote’ by the Basecamp guys, Jason Fried, which was a good read, and it sort of showed what they did there. Then the only other one I really found was called ‘The Year Without Pants’.

JEFF: [laughing] which isn’t really, yeah.

EMMA:  I was like yeah okay. [laughing] I’m sort of a parent in Australia, a woman, you know, completely different.

JEFF:  In the United States pants means trousers. Pants in other English-speaking companies means what you wear underneath your trousers.  [laughing] And that’s the thing with that book. I hoped that it was going to be more insightful and it ended up being kind of an immersive journalism style thing as Scott Bergman, who worked at Automattic, the company behind WordPress for a year, at least, [laughing] in order to write the book, and explained how it was. And the funny thing about it is that, my understanding at least, the feeling that I get is that Matt Mullenweg and other people who lead Automattic read the book and immediately decided to change some of their policies [laughing], based on “well, it is kind of a party culture, maybe let’s tone that down a little bit.” And so, a lot of even the stuff in that book isn’t really how it is anymore.

EMMA: Yeah. Cause they were talking about retreats and working in hotel lobbies together.

JEFF:  Getting drunk. Yeah. 

EMMA:  I’m kind of like, “oh, well, I’m a parent, I actually try and work around school hours”, with my son, and, it’s a complete lifestyle change. We’ve had a city change; we’ve moved from the city to a regional area. It’s about work/life balance for me, and flexible work, and there are so many other parents, but people who care for elderly relatives or parents themselves, people with disabilities. So, I also have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, so working from home just helps me manage all those symptoms a lot better too. And, it’s sort of this inclusivity and work/life balance aspect that just wasn’t in, probably in either book, really. And, there was no kind of like, what are the time hacks? How do you actually save time, be more efficient? There was sort of none of that in those either, so I thought, “I’m going to write my own book.” So, in May 2018 I released an E-book, in an E-book version, ‘The Tracksuit Economy. How to Work Productively and Effectively from Home,” and it was more a blueprint, so it’s a little bit about my own journey, and then what I was doing day to day, and then I spoke to 15 other people who work remotely, some of who own their own companies or they were employees, and what they like about it, what they find challenging, and what they do to make it work. What people have told me, the feedback about the book is, 31 tips to make it work effectively, and they’ve been really helpful. And then there’s now a print version which I have sitting in my office, [laughing]  in boxes. It’s on Amazon and iTunes if you search ‘The Tracksuit Economy’ you should find that.

JEFF:  Highlight some of those tips for me. What have been, sort of, the most impactful of those?

EMMA:  I think it’s things like time blocking and blocking out emails. So, instead of being really responsive or held captive to your inbox, you’ve got some time blocking, “I’m going to spend this time doing this.” Scheduling, things like that too, just scheduling in everything, your personal aspects as well, so you’re not sitting there, sort of, doing work, cause there was sort of a time when I was working remotely and I’d get really busy, I’d find myself creeping down to my office, because my office is downstairs, and it’s quite separate, I can shut the door off, but it’s really a boundary, and that is, I think, the number one remote work tip, is have your own remote workspace and be able to shut it off, even if it’s in the living room, just have that differentiation between work and home.

JEFF: Yeah, to just know whether you’re working or not, because sometimes it could be hard to tell. If you’ve got the television on and you’re responding to email, are you working or are you watching TV? Or are you kind of doing both? And you’re not doing either very well, really.

EMMA: No, it’s just being present there, but also having that boundary. There are times when I was sort of working some weekends and evenings, and then you’d sort of creep up a bit, you feel awful, you know, I sort of committed to, early last year, actually before the book was released, five o’clock my  work emails are going off on my phone, you know, turning that mail account off on my phone at five every evening and not turning it back on until nine when I’m sitting at my desk. And that was so good, just not to have that constant kind of availability, which I think in modern society we all have now, but when you work from home, you’re actually living in your workplace, so it becomes even more of an issue. And that sort of helps employers and employees. If their employee is sort of healthy, they’re more engaged when they are at their desk in work mode. 

JEFF: Yeah. Have there been other tips in the book that people come to you and say, “oh, this has changed my life?” [laughing]

EMMA: Yeah. 

JEFF: I guess I’m just asking you to quickly change the listeners lives. [laughing]

EMMA:  [laughing] So, definitely. Other tips people were looking at was making sure people make time each time for exercise or to get out of the house. So, don’t stay in the house for a week without going out. [laughing] Try and get out each day and try and get up and stretch. There are so many yoga apps or things like that to do. Get your dog out for a walk. A lot of the case studies in my book have dogs, and they said that was amazing, just getting that dog out and going for a walk, was really amazing, getting that fresh air.

And the big thing too, is having that human contact, and it doesn’t have to be in-person contact, although it is one of the tips is to get out once a week and arrange a coffee date with someone. Not necessarily a work colleague, but just somebody to see face to face, and to make sure every single day you communicate with your colleagues or co-workers, or people you work with, whether that be through chat or phone calls or video. It’s just great to have that human contact.

And, communication is probably the biggest I think, I mean apart from your separate workspace, and that’s to be talking to the people you work with and make sure you’re all on the same page, because it’s really hard when you’re a remote employee to know, first of all, should I be doing this?  Then you want to find out where the information is when we’re talking about policies or ask someone. So, it’s really good to takeaway that doubt so to give clear instructions, communicate, talk to each other, open that dialogue up. I run my own virtual business now and it’s sort of flipped, I’m not so much talking to coworkers, but I’m certainly talking to other business owners, and clients, and that kind of thing, but when I ran a team, I made sure I spoke to them all every morning.

And when I gave a task, I gave detailed instructions, so they knew what I expected and I’d often check in on drafts and give some feedback, so someone wasn’t stuck doing these big tasks to get it to me and for me to say, “no, that’s not right.” So, that communication is really important, because those remote workers, they miss out on the water cooler talk and other talk. So, you just got to make sure it’s available for them.

JEFF:  The thing I say is that there’s no such thing as over-communication in remote work.   Always over communicate. And, lots of times, if you think about what over-communication is, in a co-located work environment it’s meetings that are too long and people are sort of antsy because they want to get some place else to get something done, but, not all remote work companies work this way, but generally speaking, maybe typically speaking, it’s not difficult for remote workers to find time to be productive, to kind of put their nose to the grindstone and really get things done, but that is quiet and maybe a little bit lonely and oftentimes they would welcome some communication, someone to get on and check in, and let them know what’s going on. So, yeah.

EMMA: Absolutely. And I think, one of the case studies in my book, she was working remotely, and then, sort of, it was lonely for her, she missed that camaraderie and she has actually gone back now to working in an in-office position at another law firm. I used to work with her and she’s happy doing that, but she does spend Thursdays working from home, so she’s sort of now going back to a hybrid mix of working from home and working in an office, because that suits her personality.

JEFF: Getting back to, sort of the legal, lawyer side of things, running a law firm that’s focused around remote work, do you find that there are laws that are changing, or need to be changed, or aspects of laws that need to start to be rethought as we’re kind of redefining  what work is?

EMMA: Yeah, I think there’s a big gap, with increasing technology there will be gaps, so our labor laws pretty much globally work as a result of the industrial revolution, which is a long time ago, and that was based on sort of factory work.

JEFF:  How we got the weekend. Right? [laughing]

EMMA: Yeah, exactly. [laughing] So, eight-hour shifts, so as now we’re available all the  time with this technology. So, I think the laws in general, and certainly France has released that digital policy where you’re not obliged to check work emails after hours and certain things like that.

JEFF: If I remember correctly, it was funnier than that, that companies couldn’t send employees emails after hours, which made it very awkward from a remote work standpoint, because when are work hours? [laughing] It’s like, how do you know, if I’m hiring a French employee and I live in California, whose work hours? My work hours? Their work hours? Like, if they’re working flexibly, yeah.

EMMA: Exactly. And that’s a whole can of worms, so you sort of got to look at, you know, instead of an international kind of jurisdictional issue as in well, where’s this person, what’s their country of employment, where do they pay tax? Looking back at where are they employed? Put that aside, a lot of countries don’t have laws around information technology and cyber security, the laws aren’t great there, and also if you look at the workplace health and safety laws we were talking about before, it seems crazy that a company can be liable for what happens in someone’s home. Certainly, in Australia there’s been some cases around this in court about an employee who fell down the stairs during her work hours and another one who slipped coming out of the shower running for the phone. And there’s been this whole broad discussion around what constitutes work? When are they working during those times?

JEFF:  [laughing] They’re not working when they were naked running across the floor, but as soon as they get to the phone and pick up the phone, then they’re working. [laughing]

EMMA: Well, interestingly, that guy succeeded, because he was on overtime. He got in trouble in the past and his boss said, “you’ve got to make sure you answer the after-hours phone because if it’s an emergency, we need you to respond.” And, he had been really remonstrated to do that, so he actually won, because he had been told that was part of his job. He was doing that overtime and he was running to do his job. 

JEFF:  I feel like the moral of that story that I take is a little bit different than people might think. It kind of comes down to this idea that, this philosophy that I have, that when we ask people to work for us from home, we are kind of, guests in their home, and we need to be respectful of that, and not be too demanding of time or responsibility. Obviously the work needs to get done, but we need to depend on people to be productive and trustworthy, and ultimately, sort of do some self-management on their own, and that some demands like that, if you need someone to pick up the phone within five seconds and absolutely never have screaming children in the background, might not be the best solution [laughing] to have people working remotely in that context. You might need to have someone who is working in the office, and not taking a shower. 

EMMA: That’s right. And I think this was a trucking company, but that’s right may be they need an after-hours call center or a virtual assistant who can do that and they relay messages to the drivers that they need to disperse. So, it sort of begs the question, well companies maybe need to look at their procedures as well, and we need to look at laws. And I don’t think it’s a matter of the current laws don’t cover it, because when we draft employment contracts, a remote work contract will have some really different provisions in there about, looking into the remote workspace, what are the core hours, what are the expectations. So, we can get around that in contracts, but certainly if it was law, and that sort of thing was given [laughing] rather than us having to specify it really clearly, then that certainly would be helpful.

JEFF:  Well, really interesting stuff here, and like I said, I think you have an interesting perspective because I’ve said before on the podcast, and I always cringe a little bit even to hear the words coming out of my mouth, but there’s a lot that just hasn’t been quite figured out around remote work. There are not clear paths, there are not clear laws, there are not clear rules exactly, and we’re still kind of figuring things out. And sometimes you need to kind of do the best you can to adhere to not the letter of the law, but sort of, the intent of the laws around the thing [laughing] you’re doing, because there is no letter of this law yet, and so it’s really interesting to talk to someone who is more inclined to figure those things out more specifically than me.

EMMA:  Yeah, and that’s the thing, I think we’re all early adopters. I think in the next 10 years it’s inevitable, it will become more mainstream, but at this stage, we had all the IT people doing it now, now there’s sort of this early adoptive phase where I think we’re all in, where is the rest of everyone else’s catching up to what IT have been doing in their industry for years? It’s interesting. I think the bridge between early adopters and when it becomes more mainstream will be probably where the laws are written. So, it’s really exciting for me, because I’m the first law firm in Australia to be doing it. I can hopefully have a say in writing those laws. 

JEFF:  Yeah,  figure it all out, and then we’ll just sort of do a bad photocopy of it and call it the American policy. [laughing] which is oftentimes how the American policies are. It’s a misunderstanding of something that smarter people did. [laughing] Alright, I won’t get political. Well, Emma, this was great. Great conversation. If people want to follow up and ask you more about this or anything related, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you?

EMMA: They can connect with me on LinkedIn or go along to my website which is www.theremoteexpert.com.

JEFF: Great. Well, thank you Emma. 

EMMA: Oh, thank you. It’s been a great chat.

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