Jeff Robbins interviews James Carrier, co-leader of The World of Work Project, about agile working, diversity and inclusivity, changing company culture and how you might do that, and the idea of transitioning a company by going remote first.
Here’s the Transcript:
JEFF: Hi James. Welcome to the Yonder Podcast.
JEFF: Yeah, it’s great to have you here. I find that our guests are usually able to introduce themselves better than I can. So, why don’t you introduce yourself to our audience.
JAMES: Yeah, sure. I’d love to Jeff. As you said, my names James Carrier. I currently co-lead a small business called “The World of Work Project”, with my business partner, Jane Stewart. Fundamentally, what we do is, we help individuals and organizations develop. So, we do it in a couple different ways. We do some consultation work around the people side of change. We do some coaching for individuals to help them with their organizations and careers. But mainly our focus is on delivery and, sort of, personal management leadership development programs. So, that’s kind of what I do from a work perspective. From an individual perspective, I guess if I start by saying I’m a dual national. So, I actually grew up out in the states, but you’d never be able to tell by my accent.
JAMES: Yeah. That’s right. I grew up, of all places in Virginia, in Charlottesville, which has shot to fame over the past few years.
JAMES: Yeah, lucky us, right? So, I grew up there. I finished my school in the UK, done my education here in the UK. For University I did an economics degree and then on the back of the economics degree, I went and became a very exciting accountant. [laughing] Yeah, that’s great right?
JEFF: [laughing] I have a lot of respect for accountants, because my mind does just not work that way. I mean, I can usually get the numbers to add up, it’s just sitting down to wait for the numbers to add up. That’s the problem. [laughing]
JAMES: Oh, it takes a whole lot of skills. In the end I didn’t necessarily think I really had. So, I did a graduate program. I went and joined Ernst & Young and worked for them doing all that sort of auditing stuff in the finance world, which was what it was. I left as soon as I could, and almost as contrast to that, I moved out to Switzerland with some dreams of setting up a bar/restaurant and living in a ski resort for a while. So, I moved up there, I met some people, got some money, set up a business out there. I ran a bar/restaurant for two years until I ran out of money, and life got a bit tough, and then I moved back to the UK. So, that was a good lesson. Then, once I got back, I spent 10 years doing the core bulk of my career, which is working in financial services for a large banking organization with multiple divisional businesses. I went in initially in a finance capacity, so I was involved in delivering and leading finance change programs, mainly, looking at combining businesses, and improving their performance of finance functions and then other operational areas of corporate banking division.
I realized along the way that what I really liked was working with people and trying to get people to have a better working experience, a better quality of life, and better ways of working, and with that, increased performance and engagement.
So, I jumped over about five years into my time in, sort of industry, into roughly an organizational development role, and then I spent the subsequent five years until I left, working in that organizational development space, fundamentally helping teams and individuals improve their performance in their engagement. That was through a mixture of leadership coaching, team coaching, changes to ways of working, things like culture change, things like working on inclusion and diversity programs, and trying to improve both the diversity, but also the inclusive nature of the organization. I got to work on internal calms and sort, of, culture change as well, that fits loosely within that space. So, it’s within that, sort of five-year period of my life, that I got closer to the remote working side of things. So, that’s my background. And, then, I left to set up the project that I mentioned earlier, “The World of Work Project”, a little over a year ago. So, I guess that’s my background.
JEFF: Where are you talking to us from today? Just so people can kind of picture you on the globe?
JAMES: Yeah. Okay. So, I’m quite far north. I’m in Edinburgh, in Scotland. I believe we are 56 degrees north. So, to give you some sort of vertical context, we are north of Moscow, how about that.
JEFF: [laughing] Wow. I did not realize.
JAMES: Yeah, we are way north up here. It’s August, but the sun is still out late.
JEFF: You think of Moscow, it’s so cold. I suppose you have more ocean around you? Maybe it keeps things a little bit more temperate?
JAMES: Yeah, we’ve got that gulf stream, which basically keeps this a green country. If we didn’t have that it would be snowy and icy out there all the time. It would be horrible.
JAMES: As it is, it’s lovely. But we’re blessed.
JEFF: So, tell me more about “The World of Work Project”. What was the impetus for starting this?
JAMES: Yeah. I’ll tell you what it was. Obviously, I’m really interested in the type of work that I’ve done for large financial services organizations that I’ve been involved in, and it’s something that I wanted to carry on. It was time for me to leave. It took me about a year to leave that organization. I left with an intention of carrying on in the same line of work that I’d been doing previously, but doing it not in that scale of organization, so that hopefully I could make more of a direct impact, and also so that I could get more community engagement, and work with more charitable sectors and try to contribute a little bit more.
So, having left to do that, I actually met my business partner, Jane, who had relocated to Edinburgh, partly because she wanted to have more control over her life, to have a bit more remote working, a bit more, sort of, self-determination. She moved up from London for that with her partner. I met her through a friend of a friend, and we started talking and realized that we were both heading in roughly the same direction, aspiring to do the same types of things and make the same types of changes for the people that we work with.
The core of that is really this belief that, the quality of an existence for an individual is hugely shaped by their experiences at work. We think that if we can help people have a better existence in work, it’ll just help improve their lives a little bit, and through that it’ll help improve the lives of those around them. They’ll be more positive, more socially involved, have a greater sense of value and inclusion at a societal level. We think that’s fundamentally a good thing and something we both aspire contributing towards. So, we had conversations that talked about things like that and sort of branched out. We explored different ideas.
Then we realized we kept meeting up to have these conversations, so we thought, “you know what? Why don’t we just start to record some?” So, we actually just started out doing podcasting ourselves. We did “The World of Work” podcast. We recorded a whole bunch of those, and we released them, and we thought, “well, you know, this is kind of fun.” Then about three months after that we thought, “we’re still doing this podcast, we’re talking about all these other projects, we’ve got basically the same types of things that we want to do, why don’t we, sort of, bring our ambitions together and set up a company to do it?” So, that’s where it’s come from. My business partner, Jane, has her own business at the minute that’s up and running doing this consulting piece in the background, and I’ve got some of my stuff. So, we’re pulling it altogether at the minute.
JEFF: (10:35) That’s interesting, that you’ve started a company out of a podcast. I like that idea, for a lot of reasons. [laughing]
JAMES: [laughing] Well. Where you gonna go next, Jeff?
JEFF: Well, partly because I could relate. A podcast is sort of getting together to talk and think things out, and kind of put together ideas and ultimately, sort of find your philosophy and your mission.
JEFF: And I think that you end up with a more mission-based company than sitting down with a more, business school, kind of, business plan, focusing more on the financial side of things. You talked a little bit about this integration of home life and work life. I think there’s also this integration of the mission side of a business and the financial side of a business, and it works much the same, right? We’re all one person and if you don’t [laughing] believe in the company that you’re running, despite the fact that it can be financially successful, it just could be kind of soul sucking.
JAMES: (11:55) Well, absolutely. It just undermines the quality of your existence. It’s, as you say, soul sucking.
JAMES: And what happened with us is we talked through, it really was that exploration piece that you talked about, about kind of trying to define your philosophy, and I think between Jane and I, we kept influencing each other a little bit, and we’d go one way a little bit, back a little bit, and over time we just refined our way of working and aspirations for what we want to do in business, and ultimately realized they’re basically the same, so we kind of talked ourselves into that.
JEFF: Yeah. This topic of, sort of, to even call it integration, it’s actually more bifurcation or disintegration [laughing]. When we talk about this separation between work and personal. People are a person. I think in the past businesses have tried to distance themselves from peoples personal lives. Partly because people want their own privacy, and they want to be able to not have that hinder their work. But the truth is that, people bring themselves to work. All of us will be better served by acknowledging that. This comes up exponentially more when we’re asking people to work at home. Right?
JAMES: Yeah. (13:35) I think that’s absolutely right. I think that point around trying to bring your whole self to work and what that means now versus what it meant a long time ago is a really valid point. Certainly, in the organizations that I’ve been in, when we’ve looked at the inclusion agenda, if you will, and how do you create spaces that let people be their best, a lot of language we use in that space is around bringing your whole self to work. With that ability to bring your whole self to work and to be your whole self to work comes an ability to be at your best which is captured by things like increased creativity, increased freedom of thought. And, fundamentally, in my experience and in my opinion, a lot of that comes about because you get to drop all the underlying anxieties and emotional energy spent on things like trying to perform, and trying to please, and all that kind of stuff.
JEFF: Absolutely. Yeah. The word vulnerability comes up on this podcast a lot, which seems odd on a podcast that’s talking about business and work. Here again, I find that with remote work, I’ve said this on the podcast before so I apologize to listeners who have heard it, but I’m going to just keep hammering it that, you need to create an environment where people can communicate fully, and without the non-verbal cues of people walking around with their shoulders down or not making eye contact that you can pick up in an office you need to create a culture. You need to create an environment where people can speak up about what’s not working for them, which is a very, very vulnerable act, but you have to have that with remote work, because otherwise you won’t know what’s really happening. But the flip side of that is, it creates this wonderful culture of acceptance and allowing of diversity, a little bit of discord because obviously you want people to be working well, you want people to be productive, but you need to acknowledge that sometimes people aren’t going to be able to do that, which is a little bit of a leap of faith for leaders, sometimes. [laughing]
JAMES: Yeah, absolutely. You know when you’re talking about trying to get over the fact that you can’t see people’s shoulders slump, and you can’t see somebody’s smile on their face when they’ve come out of a meeting that’s gone well, you lose all those tertiary social cues around how people are feeling and what they’re thinking. And, trying to recreate that is difficult in a remote environment. We talked when we’ve tried to roll out what we referred to as agile working. That was a phrase we used which incorporated remote working. We talked about trying to create basically digital water cooler moments as part of this. So, how do you get that sense of conviviality that you can generate in a built environment where people are co-locating? How can you try and create that remotely? That was a challenge. That’s around the team cohesion aspect that we focused on. We also focused on trying to get some of that perception of current state of being from the people that you’re working with. Those were both really big challenges. But, like you say, if you get it right it can work really well. If you get it wrong, it think it can be a really difficult thing for both organizations and individuals when people are working remotely.
JEFF: Yeah. Absolutely. (17:23) Another one of the things that I say a lot is that, the best practices for remote work are best practices for work full stop. Good remote management is good management. You’re working with ankle weights, oftentimes, [laughing] it’s sort of more difficult, but once you get it right, and you kind of have to get it right, then I think a lot of this can translate…
JAMES: I probably, now that you’ve said that, I probably believe that good remote management is better than good face to face management, because I think you need to bring a different set of skills to it, so you need to demonstrate different levels of trust, you need to not place value on somebody’s effort at work. You’re not watching how long they’re at their desk. You need to really understand the value of the output that they create, you need to understand what metrics and measures are important for your business. So, you really need to know what you’re doing to manage remotely, I’d say.
JEFF: Absolutely. And, I feel like there’s some sort of nature, animal instinct, [laughing] kinds of things that come into play when we’re together.
JEFF: We sort of judge each other on non-verbal, visual cues, almost more than if you ask someone how they’re doing and they slump their shoulders and they look down at the ground, “I’m doing great.” Right? Then you know that they are not doing great.
JEFF: Not having those cues, we need to kind of find other ways of doing things, other ways of communicating. Almost more honest ways of communicating. We need to actually say what’s actually happening, and I think that’s good.
JAMES: I agree. I think it’s a challenge to our social skills both as individuals who are working remotely, but also as leaders who are trying to work in a way where we’re managing teams. You’re point there about how much weight we place on the non-verbal cues. (19:50) Do you know that guy Moravian, who did a communication model? I don’t know if you know this. He had a communication model that is attributed to him, Moravian, I can’t remember his first name. But it’s called, like, “The 7 38 55,” and it says that based on analysis, when you’re communicating to people about, “send me emotive content, or personal content,” that actually only 7% of a communication that is relevant, takes place through the words for your ears; 38% takes place through tone and voice and pace and nuance, stuff like that; and the remaining 55% he actually reckons is body language. So that gives a huge context in terms of the benefits that you get from face to face communication. There’s something else that you mentioned that I think is important. When we think about the way people work together, we tend to think about people in teams and things like that. In that you get the fundamental tribalism of human beings in groups, and you get your group dynamics. So, within the workplace you get people who are building their teams, jostling for a position, they’re defining their pecking order, but while that is disruptive in some stages, it also, once you go through that process, creates a clear sense of where different people are within that group, and you get your defined roles, and you get your roles, and you get your dynamics and you can gel and work effectively, and that, sort of, creates that sense of in group. So, even though the person that I’m working with might really annoy me or be slightly above me or below me in the pecking order, they are my person and they are part of my intimate working group. And that brings a lot of power to it in terms of team cohesion, which I don’t think you always get remotely.
JEFF: Yeah. There’s also sort of, this idea I have of the physicality of office politics. That it’s the way that people carry themselves, the sort of status symbols, the sort of outgoingness, and when we can kind of move to a more results-oriented focus and actually, kind of, creating a more even communication method. I don’t mean to overstate the evenness or the filtered-ness of remote work, but if you use, for example, Slack, as an example, of everyone’s just got text and emojis. It’s an even playing field. Everyone can communicate, everyone can communicate to anyone at the company, and it’s a very different dynamic than when you think about this sort of stereotypical office space.
JAMES: Yeah, you know, with a lot of us, sort of team coaching and different activities like that, when we work with teams, one of the things that we do is we want to occasionally elicit ideas from people around the room. So, for example you’ve got a problem you’re trying to solve, or you’re trying to develop something, you’ll try and get ideas from people, and what we find is that, and I’m sure you’ve seen stuff like this before, say you’ve got 10-15 people it the room, if you ask an open question of a room in that type of forum, the dominant voices will jump in right away, and they’ll control that narrative and they’ll drive our agenda. And the future conversations anchored on that initial positioning that they’ve introduced. And so, when we do that kind of stuff in a team environment, in a physical environment, when coaching we’ll always basically try to do silent brainstorming which basically just says, “here you guys go. Here’s some post-it notes. We want all of you to independently come up with your ideas,” and then we’ll share those collectively and that’s the way to sort of even out those voices, to dampen down the exuberant, strong, dominant voices, and give voice to people who are often quiet, but often have really great to say, they just never get a chance to say it. So, to some extent that democratization fits with what you were talking about.
JEFF: Yeah, and I would argue that it’s the manager’s job to democratize, to give voice to the quieter people in the room. But, on the other hand, if the company culture, or just the evolution of the company has been such that those managers were the louder people who were promoted, [laughing] oftentimes it will just perpetuate, right? And then that’s where you are.
JAMES: Yeah, we see a lot of that. It’s a real challenge.
JEFF: Man, I’ve got so many questions, but let’s kind of zoom out, because your focus is on “The World of Work”, the wider world of work, and even when you talk about remote work, it’s kind of as a subset of this agile work methodologies. Talk to me about that, kind of, where you see remote work sit in this larger view. We’re kind of down in the weeds here, on this podcast, talking just about remote work, but help us understand sort of where all of this sits in your view.
JAMES: (25:31) Sure. So, when I speak about agile working, I’m not speaking about, sort of, IT methodology and agile work in that way. So, it’s the way that agile working’s referred to in the organizational context, in the UK, kind of led by an organization called the “Agile Future Forum”, that’s about trying to change the way the UK works fundamentally. And the “Agile Future Forum” looks at four different pillars of agility, fundamentally, and those four different pillars cover what they think are the core ways for people in organizations and react to those organizations from a work perspective.
So, the first piece that’s really in there is around where people. So, are they remote, are they in the office, are they in a local Starbucks? From a banking perspective, in my background, do they work in a head office building? Do the pop into their local branch and is there a spare office there? Do they work out of a call center? Where do they work? So, physically where do they work and with that, to some extent, what’s their built environment like and what’s their technology to support that. So, pillar one is around where people work.
Pillar two is around when they work. So, this firm looks into agility of hours effectively. So, do people work traditional 9-5? I guess that’s traditional in the UK, I guess it might be a little bit different in other parts of the world. Or, do they work compressed hours instead of contracted arrangements. Do they work, maybe 8-6 four days a week and have a day off on Friday? Do they work entirely flexibly? Is there any control over their hours? Do they work as long as it takes to get the job done? Do they work part-time? And increasingly, when we’re looking at these large organizations and the agility of a workforce within there, we start to question things like, do they work slightly different patterns? Do they work two weeks on, two weeks off? Do they work, maybe in for example, a tax organization, maybe they work three months high intensity around tax year-end and work reduced hours for the rest of the year. So, that’s for what people work.
The third pillar’s around what work they do. So, who defines the work that individuals do within an organization? Is it purely hierarchical? Are they told what to do? Do they have some autonomy around it? Do they get to create and shape their own work? Does it work on, maybe a ticketing system? So, do people pick up tickets of work, and deliver those independently? Is there some sort of internal market? Do people auction pieces of work and bid on it internally? How does that definition of who does work and what work people do, get created?
And then the last pillar that we look at in this context is around the contractual obligations between the person delivering the work and the organization, I guess, benefiting from that work. So, are people in full-time contracts? Are they in part-time contracts? Are they on fixed term contracts? Are they agency workers? Are they supplied through another organization? Are they gig workers doing piecemeal pieces of work? How does that work? And, so, certainly in our context, when we think about agile working, what we’re really saying is that, through these four different pillars, you can help redefine the agility of an organization. So, as you get more flexibility and variability around these different factors, what you create is an organization that benefits as well as benefits for the individual. So, an organization if it gets these things right, can benefit by being able to flow it’s work in new directions more quickly. So, if there’s a change, and it’s say regulatory environment and it needs to increase work on a certain aspect of compliance, it’s got flexibility in it’s labor force that lets it move people to focus on that different area to change capabilities, to bring in resource quickly, to reduce resource quickly. So, all that, sort of flexibility, creates benefits to an organization as well as obviously some aspects of cost saving, around where people work, and things like that.
And then from the individual perspective, it gives people choice, it gives people variety, it gives people opportunity, to fit jobs around their lifestyles and to fit within the requirements of what they do. So, we think of agility as being a really key aspect of inclusion. So, if you want to bring in people, you know, maybe you want to increase availability of your roles to people who are, maybe less physical able than others. They might find it a real challenge, for example, in London get to a tube station, get across London on the underground, get out and get out into an office, and that’s a barrier to their engagement. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] That’s difficult for an able-bodied person.
JAMES: [laughing] I realized when I said might it was a little bit optimistic. But you know what I mean. So, all the agility that we talk about here is part of the inclusion strategy, and in turn that means that all of this really becomes a strategic imperative to organizations looking to exist into the future. You know, you want to have a competitive advantage through the people that you have in your organization, and to do that, you need to attract and retain the best people, and with that, means that you’ve got huge numbers of really excellent people who need to work part-time who are not able bodied. You have other commitments that mean that they’re committed to being geographically in certain places. They might be careers. There are all these types of people that you want to make sure that you have access to in your recruitment and retention. So, agility fits within all of that. So, remote working in my perspective, is a really core part of that overall strategic imperative around the agility of an organization, and through that its ability to, I guess, to deliver its strategy and to survive in the future to use, particularly, corporate sounding words there for a bit.
JEFF: Yeah. And all of these things expand the talent pool that you have available for hiring great people. [laughing]
JAMES: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we call our project “The World of Work”, and I guess we’ve ended up with that title because we’re interested in all aspects of work. We think that works important, as we said, for individuals, but I think both Jane and I ended up settling on this, sort of consensus, but we believe that work is more important than just something that we do, right? We think work defines to some extent or contributes to a definition of our identity, so at an individual level it’s really important. But we also believe that, at a sort of cultural or societal level, the way that we shape work and the way that we define what work is within our cultures and societies, really helps shape who we are at a societal level. Then that means that we progress in certain directions, or we regress in other directions, depending on what our relationship with work is.
So, for example, if we think about the remote working side of things, if we work in a world where we maybe do a bit more supporting of remote working, we’re a little bit more granting of autonomy and empowering to the people, then we give people scope to do this kind of stuff and reap benefits of that, or not just to the individuals themselves, but we believe that those seep through into society. So, if I am working from home because I’ve got care and responsibilities for an elderly parent with dementia and I’ve got a young child, right, that means that I can have that good job, I can be there. I can do it in the windows of opportunity that I have within my day, I’m better able to care for the people that I need to care for, I’ve got better relationships with them, and through that I’m a healthier, happier person, and I’m having better touch points with those that I interact with around the world. So, you know, fundamentally at our core we think all of this stuff is really about trying to improve, you never lift experience with people at all levels of society. Does that make sense? I kind of went off on one there.
JEFF: It makes wonderful sense. (33:35)and really brings a sort of wonderful, higher purpose to all of this. Certainly, the stuff that we’ve been talking about with remote work, but even when you look at it in this larger context of flexible work or agile work, yeah, it’s great. [laughing]
JAMES: Well, I guess I aim big, right?
JEFF: Yeah. And I think there’s this subtext, it’s an effect of gratitude, that seems to come up around this as well. It’s kind of difficult to talk to because you don’t want to expect it or demand it, but if you talk about it, it’s sort of a wonderful side effect. People are usually really appreciative of ultimately the respect that is underlying of all of these things, and it goes both ways, right? I am appreciative that people would be willing to work for me and kind of open their homes to my company, and do work for us, and they’re appreciative to be able to work there and in that way. So, there’s that side of things, that isn’t constrained to remote work specifically, but sort of comes with this sort of wider flexibility and ultimately sort of trust and respect.
JAMES: I think trust and respect are really key words in this. Both parties need to trust the other party. From both sides you need to trust. If you’re managing remotely then you lose your eyes. You see the outputs, but you’re not able to peer over your desk, you’re not able to see what time somebody walks in, you’re not able to see how long they’re there. So, you’ve got to develop that bit of trust. But, likewise, if you’re working remotely some of the challenges are that you need to trust your leadership to really understand what you do, to value it, to speak up for you in events where they need to. For example, if it comes to what we’d call a calibration session, you do your annual performance management cycle or quarterly, or however you do your assessment of employees. If you’re a remote worker in an organization that’s not entirely remote you need to trust that people will remember you. You will have the same visibility and share that conversation about your performance. So, you really need to build that trust for it to work, I’d say.
JEFF: Yeah. (36:37) So, again, coming from this sort of wider context, talk to me some about culture change. This comes up a lot around companies that are “thinking about going remote” or “thinking about harnessing this remote thing”, but aren’t quite sure how to get from point A to point B. Because usually in my experience, this is more of a cultural change, and trying to insert this trust and respect, or managers to kind of loosen up. I’m curious what other cultural blockages you might see.
JAMES: Sure. I can tell you. So, what I’d say is that it’s just a kind of difficult and messy process, right? And I think you’re right that at the heart of this is change of a culture of an organization, and as you are moving away from a fixed location to a remote working process, you come up against a fair number of obstacles, and a lot of those obstacles we touched on in relation to trust and things like that. But the ones who move first in this process are the ones who are probably going to find it the most difficult. Once you get over that tipping point, and if you get to a stage where maybe 20-25% of people are remote then, then it kind of changes and the dynamics change.
If you’re looking at changing culture, then I’d actually look to follow some of those sort of traditional organizational change models, something like John Kotter, but really like my preferred overall change process goes back to Kurt Levin and he’s got a three-stage model of change which I think is beautifully simplistic which says, unfreeze, so, shake up the stuff that you’re doing, change it, and then refreeze. So really what he’s saying there is:
Allow stuff to unfreeze so that it can change, then introduce some changes, and then embed those changes so it sustains.
So, as a high-level framework for any change process that’s broadly what I’d look to have in the back of my mind.
When it comes to culture change specifically, I think you’ve got some particular challenges in that culture change is really fundamentally about people and social relations and interactions and interpersonal relations. All that type of stuff, right? So, culture change is not about the process of your organization really. I mean processes can contribute to it, but they’re not really what it’s about. It’s about the people, and it’s about the emotions and it’s about how people rub along together. It’s about how people feel that their actions are fair, it’s how people think things are equitable. It’s all those types of things. So, if you’re looking to introduce a change program like this, I guess you need to first make sure you think it’s the right thing for you. So, you need to understand the costs and benefits associated with it, and the risks associated with it, and make sure it’s the right thing to do. Then if you’re going to go ahead to deliver it, I would say that almost, and I hate to say it, unfortunately one of the really key things to do is to get real buy-in and sponsorship from your leadership team, right? Because you’re going to need to get people to help you. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] We could say this, right, that they’re paid to fall in line except that you’re asking for plate tectonic shift sometimes here. I think sometimes managers can see this as, especially micromanagers right, could see this as, “what am I supposed to do if I’m not micromanaging?”
JAMES; Exactly. And that’s a big change.
JEFF: It’s scary. Yeah.
JAMES: (40:41) And so like, you’re saying it later, I need to understand what it is. I need to do things like create a common language around what remote working is. So , you need to get all those shortcuts to communication, so people really understand what you mean and by having the shortcuts in language, so if everyone has a shared understanding of what you mean by remote working, then let that be a shortcut. You can introduce other language around that, that could help people communicate more effectively around it. And, you need to get to a stage where your leaders are role modeling. So, your leaders need to behave in the right way.
(41:17) When you speak about organizational culture, people speak about roughly three levels of organizational culture. At the top you got roughly your values and behaviors. Those are the things that you espouse about your culture. Then if you go down a little bit further what you get is things like your artifact of culture, So, if we look at this, you’ve got your value “we support remote working in a great organization” would be your organizational value.
The next level down, this may be the artifact level, on each of the front doors to your building you have a sign that says, “we value remote working,” “are you working remotely enough?” “Have you taken a nice walk at lunch today?” Whatever happens today is a sign there. So those are the two layers.
Then the third layer down is really the lift experience. Values and behaviors and actions and things like that. If you’ve got an espoused value that would value remote working, if you’ve then got artifacts around the building, you’ve got posters and stuff like that [laughing], at the third level what happens is your boss is in there everyday saying, “why aren’t you in the office?”
JEFF: [laughing] Right. The whole management team is in there saying, “no, you can work from home, but the action is happening here at the office. But, if you want to work from home, that’s fine.”
JEFF: You probably just won’t ever get a promotion, but it’s fine. Do what you want.
JAMES: Yeah. It’s the right thing to do, work from home.
JEFF: We’ve got the signs on the doors.
JAMES: Exactly. (42:43) So, breaking that down requires real leadership by an engagement, and that’s a challenge. And like you said, you’re micromanagers are scared by this, because at least some of them that I worked with suddenly realize that they don’t really know where the connect is between effort and output within particularly some of the more complex pieces of work that their teams do. They see the output and they see the input, but they kind of lose track of what people are doing and the control that they have for it. So, it’s rather difficult.
When we go ahead and do this we talk about all this stuff, we think it’s important to have effective communication and to have your leadership role modeling. But what we’ve done, which I think has been the most successful is, when we’re trying to introduce this into the team that’s changing, we do tend to introduce what we call “remote huddles” or “daily standouts” and get those touch points for people. So, when we’ve rolled stuff like this out to teams, we’ll normally work with teams of between six and 15, so that level within an organization that works under a single leader, and we roll out a series of management practices, for lack of a better word, that would support remote working. With that would be both the technology to enable them to all communicate effectively, but also with process.
So, we work with them to build out what we’d call a “team information center”, which basically you could think of it as a kanban board, but it’s not really that. It’s a visual representation of the performance of the team with everybody in it. We’d help them design that; it would be a co-created piece with them. We would then get them used to using that. Depending on the platforms that people use, we’ve probably have that in something like Excel or Enterprise Social Network, or somewhere that lets them all access and see the same thing, and we’d create that information center. Then we’d introduce daily check-ins for that team or maybe three times a week depending on how they work, and we’d then try and have those touch points at the start of the day where the remote team gets together and everybody has a chance to check-in what the whole team is doing to air their grievances, to raise concerns, to ask for help, and within that we’d always try and build in some focus on the individual. So, we recommend that teams always basically ask, “how is everybody doing today?” “How are you feeling today?” “How are you feeling about your workload?” “What’s going on in your personal life?” “Have you got any personal successes you want to share?” And we try and allow for some of those more personal conversations to take place in that forum. We find to achieve and embed some of that, it takes 10-12 weeks really, from starting a creation process to having it effective.
But having those remote checkpoints for remote teams is a really helpful thing.
So, that’s a series of things that I think about from trying to introduce about change.
JEFF: I find that lots of times companies who are thinking about transitioning to remote think of it a little bit too much around the physicality, geolocation of things and there’s sort of this idea of, “well, we’ll allow people to work from home one day a week and then six months later we’ll allow people to work from home two days a week, and then three days a week, and then four days a week, and then we’ll be a fully distributed company.” It’s been my observation that that does not work. Because as you’re saying, there’s cultural change and process change and organizational change that needs to happen, that has nothing to do with where people are working. And, without those changes, what will inevitably happen is we’ll schedule meetings around people, “oh, we won’t have meetings on Friday because everyone works from home on Friday.” “We won’t have meetings on Thursday because now people work from home Thursday and Friday.” Eventually we just get to this one day that there’s meetings and all the stuff is happening and then we try to remove that. Everyone is standing on this teeny little island of meetings and all of a sudden, we try to remove the island, that it’s not possible.
JAMES: A snorkel sticking out of the water, or something like that.
JEFF: Yeah. So, one of the ideas that I’ve had, and I think this fits into what you are saying, but I’m curious to get your thoughts about it, is, (47:37) this idea I have of what I’m calling “go remote first, first”. So, remote first is sort of the philosophy of a company, particularly a hybrid company, and let’s be honest, hybrid companies are much more common than fully distributed companies, right? In the same way that flexible work and agile work is more common. And, it is ultimately a superset of remote work, but remote first is basically this idea that we need to all work as if we are remote workers. So, if we have a meeting and some of us are in the office and some of us are remote, we don’t go into the conference room and add the people on the conference phone who are remote because that’s not even, that’s not first. They are secondary in that equation. So, instead we all call in. We all connect through Zoom or whatever, from our desks, and all work as if we are remote, remote first. And the interesting thing about that style is that anyone can do it. You can do it if no one works remote.
JEFF: And, you start to adopt some of these cultural changes, certainly the sort of technological changes. It seems a little weird and awkward at first, especially to kind of go through this extra effort when people are in the office together, but I think it’s a really nice way to get started down that path.
JAMES: I’d 100% agree with you. In teams where we’d work with them, we would say as you said, “everybody should be dialing in, onto a video conference platform. You should not be in a room with one person dialed in, and it’s for the equity piece. It’s about having that equal experience, that’s really important. So, I think that’s absolutely right. And as you said, I think you can embed the practices of remote working without ever leaving your office, if you want to. And that’s kind of a good test bed in which to work on some of this stuff. So, I’d absolutely support that as a direction progression.
JEFF: Yeah, and obviously you should be thinking about all of these other things, but I think that they’ll almost come out of necessity from a remote first approach. I think it’s a good introduction. Much better than working at home one day a week.
JAMES: Well, you know, if you just tell people to work from home, they’ll just not really know what to do. “So, I’m at home today, what’s that?” And it’s all that stuff about “what’s the purpose? Why am I doing it? What do I get out of it? How does the organization benefit? How will people see me? What do I do if something doesn’t work?” All that kind of stuff. It’s a big change and it’s got to be a gradual thing.
ffJEFF: Yeah. (50:55) Another thing that you’ve thought about a bunch and I wand to get into is diversity. We sort of touched on this a little bit when talking about agile, flexible work and being able to hire a more diverse set of people who are available to work. But talk to me about that. Oftentimes there’s the Venn diagram between remote work and computer technical, developer, community of workers which oftentimes is not as diverse as it should be. That Venn diagram overlaps more than I would prefer [laughing] in general.
JAMES: Yes, I’m with you.
JEFF: So, how can we help all of this?
JAMES: Trying to create diverse teams, again like all these things, it’s a bit difficult. In the organization that I was in, we actually ended up inverting the traditional diversity and inclusion and referring to inclusion and diversity. We really ended up believing that creating the inclusive space was the first thing that you needed to do and everybody, as you said, should be able to bring themselves to work. That’s an equal statement. That’s not about any protected characteristics or anything like that. It’s about giving everybody the equal opportunity to be themselves at work. So, we really think of that as the starting point. With that comes, at least in the types of organizations I’ve worked in, almost a softening of what was historically, fairly macho dominant type environment to some extent. So, with that you get aspects around emotional intelligence, you get things around communication, you get things around psychological safety, self-awareness, values. All that kind of stuff within the creation of that inclusive culture within an organization. Then you also get the, sort of built inclusion, access, workplace adjustment for people with different needs in the workplace, and things like that. So, that inclusive piece is a really important key bit.
Then when you get to diversity of your population, you’ve got your traditional protective characteristics. Things like age, gender, ability, sexual orientation, increasingly you bring in things like mental health, potentially as part of health, some big things here are around social mobility and social diversity. So, how do you bring people in who haven’t had an opportunity to go to university? How do you get the best outcomes for people who have maybe been in the social care system in their young lives? How do you bring all of these people in? And it’s difficult.
A lot of what you need to do, or at least in the scale of organizations I’ve been working in, you work by creating to some extent communities of interest around the different diversity strands that help you raise awareness, create allies of people with productive characteristics, raise awareness of what’s going on in there, but also let you reach out to and influence the leaders in relation to these different topics and different strands.
So, by getting your leaders in your organization to understand and empathize with the experiences of different people from diversity strands, you develop a real sense of empathy. We ended up doing things like, tell me anything sessions as opposed to asking, and we’d get ?, senior leadership and we basically had to sit there and we’d get young people from a specific diversity strength come in and say, “this is what it’s like being me.” And these senior people had to listen to it. These are really senior people and it’s hugely powerful. Stuff like that could be really hugely powerful. Again, unfortunately, a lot of that is about trying to almost change the mindset around some of the leadership of these areas.
We’ve also, although I’m not convinced entirely it’s a good thing, done things like tried to bring in, to some extent, quotas around applicants. So, for roles we’ve said that x proportion of people need to be female, x proportion should be from an ethnic minority, whatever it happens to be, which can be beneficial but there’s some real challenges around that. We’ve also done things like making sure you always have exit interviews with people who are leaving your organization, so you understand the challenges and trying to remove bias from your recruitment process by maybe stripping out applicant names and things like that. So, a lot of that goes on. One of the things that we’ve had as a real challenge was getting, for example, in the financial services industry, women into senior positions.
We’d work really hard on that and we’d create accelerated development programs for young women, and we’d have bits of target, female networks, role models coming to speak to them, mentor them so we’d have senior to junior mentoring, the tell me anything sessions. We’d invest a fair amount in this. What we found happening was we got a lot better at supporting women into stepping into more senior roles, but we couldn’t retain them. Which I thought was interesting.
We managed to overcome that one hurdle of helping them progress up in an organization, but fundamentally they got there and didn’t like the culture and what it was like to be there, so they left. So, again, for me, a lot of that comes back to your inclusive culture and how you get that right and how you manage your expectations. I know that’s a bit of a round about conversation about inclusion, but hopefully there’s some interesting stuff in there for you.
JEFF: Yeah. It’s all logical kind of stuff. But it’s another red flag to put next to those dominating personality people kind of moving into management roles, and ultimately pattern matching that thing that comes around, the role of having an inclusive culture and pathetic culture, vulnerable culture and allowing for a wider variety of people. There was some company that came across my radar a while back that really prided themselves, they had a thing, every Friday afternoon it was cigars and whiskey. [laughing]
JAMES: [laughing] Well that sounds just like my kind of place. Sign me up.
JEFF: And they couldn’t understand, those things are not necessarily inherently gender specific. They’re not inherently ethnically specific, but boy, it paints a picture. [laughing] It’s really hard to move into that when you’ve got that kind of thing going on. You can obviously go so far in the other direction that we’re really hesitant about having any fun because there is some sort of tribal stuff where, I don’t know, playing rock, paper, scissors at the company retreat, arguably, there’s a culture that comes with that. [laughing]
JAMES: Yeah. It’s all about a balance. I think when you look at celebrating different things and say you’ve got your team lunches out or whatever you do, you have an end of month and everybody goes out for lunch, and it’s okay to go places that serve alcohol. That’s fine sometimes. But sometimes you might want to do something else as well. So, if you have people that don’t drink for whatever reason, well they’re welcome to. It’s just that awareness.
JEFF: (59:16) I like this idea that inclusivity comes first. That’s it. Once you create a more inclusive environment where you’re thinking about including people, in a very literal and direct way. Like, what if we have someone at the company that doesn’t drink, then do we keep that company culture? We have this blow out beer pong every Friday night. [laughing] Is that inclusive? And once you have a more inclusive environment, then at least it opens up the possibility for more diversity in the company.
JAMES: Yeah. Absolutely. We also did a fair amount of work around culture sharing (1:00:05) Again, the scale of organization I was in was very, very large so there was more opportunity for that. There were regular communications, artifacts around the building, things posted up by places like the printers, sometimes people need to print stuff out because as much as we’d like to be paperless, we’re not. [laughing] There are things up there and it would talk through all the different religious festivals. So, basically a calendar that exists and talks about different cultural events all the time. So anytime anyone’s at a waiting place, outside a lift, or at a printer, wherever it is, there’s something up saying this is for the nearest upcoming religious festivity. This is what it means for these people and here’s an example of somebody from our organization who finds this an important event. So, that’s a powerful thing. And, drawing those real connections between people helps bring to life that sense of inclusion and helps break people out of boxes and helps people think of each other as real people and explore by lift experiences and that leads to inclusion.
JEFF: Yeah, right. Rather than trying to homogenize the environment to allow for this mix and openness. I find that this is a wonderful thing about remote work as well, when you have a distributed team or distributed company, oftentimes they’re spread out across the world, and so it’s not that someone is out of their culture, and they want to celebrate a holiday that we’d never heard of, it’s that that they are in their culture. [laughing] Now we’re like, “please tell us about this Indian holiday that I don’t know about. I want a wonderful chance to learn about it.”
JAMES: Yeah, and to celebrate it and share. It’s exciting. Interesting stuff.
JEFF: [laughing] Well, James this is a great conversation. Your website is worldofwork.io. I’m a big fan of the .io domain.
JAMES: Good. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] Other than visiting the website, if people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way?
JAMES: Yeah, so, obviously there’s contact stuff on the website, but we’re on Twitter. You can get me @jgcarrier, get in touch with me that way, I’m quite responsive on Twitter. We’ve got Twitter for our podcast which is @thewowpodcast, and then we’ve got one for the website which is @worldofwork_io. So, all those things work. You can find us that way. I’m on LinkedIn. All the usual places. We’re out there and we like engaging with people and chatting and all that kind of stuff. Feel free to reach out.
JEFF: Yeah. Super. Well, thanks for coming on, James. This was really fascinating, and it’s nice to step out of the remote work scope a little bit and understand where it sits, and I think we sit well. [laughing].