Jeff Robbins interviews Rebecca Corliss, VP of Marketing at Owl Labs, where they delve deep into Owl Labs’ annual state of remote work report (2019 version just released here) which leads to multiple philosophical discussions around remote work.
Here’s the transcript:
JEFF: Hi Everyone. Jeff Robbins, back with Episode 75 of the Yonder Podcast, where we talk to company leaders and big thinkers, about how to make remote work. We’re focused on expanding the remote work job market, and helping listeners to create happy, productive, distributed teams. Did you know that remote workers are 29% happier with their jobs than office-based workers? On this episode I’m talking with Rebecca Corliss, who is the VP of Marketing at Owl Labs. They have a really interesting product called “Meeting Owl” which is a 360-video camera, webcam kind of thing, for meetings. It also has microphones. It’s a really great tool for particularly hybrid teams where you’ve got some people in the office who are maybe sitting around a conference table, and then you’ve got remote people that need to be able to see all of those people around the table, and be able to speak and be heard, and more importantly, hear [laughing] the people who are in the office. It’s a really interesting product. We talk a little bit about that, but in particular we delve deep into their annual state of remote work report, which they just published the 2019 version, that has some interesting stats in it such as, one in four workers would take a 10% pay cut in order to work remotely, or that 29% of remote workers are happier with their jobs than office-based workers. Just a really interesting conversation around all of this. We use the report as kind of a “jumping off point” for several different philosophical discussions, including one about proximity bias, which I think is a really interesting idea, and if you listen, I make up a new management slogan that Rebecca and I are going to get printed onto T-shirts. It’s still a good management slogan, nonetheless.
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Alright. Let’s get to our interview with Rebecca.
JEFF: Hi Rebecca. Welcome to the Yonder Podcast.
REBECCA CORLISS: Thanks, so much Jeff. I’m really excited to be here.
JEFF: Yeah. I feel like we’ve already gotten to know each other. We had some technical issues [laughing] getting set up here today, the recording software wasn’t quite working right and so, we had all these non-verbal interactions and then finally managed to actually hear each other, and it just feels great. [laughing]
REBECCA: And here we are. We were successful, nonetheless. [laughing]
JEFF: (laughing) Yes. (4:05) So, Rebecca, first of all, where are you talking to us from?
REBECCA: I am from, and talking to you from Boston, Massachusetts today. It’s a beautiful fall day [laughing], and I’m actually joining you from my home, which is a little bit unique, but felt in very good strides with the alignment of this podcast today. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] (4:26) Nice. And, so, you are VP of Marketing at Owl Labs. Tell us about Owl Labs and what you do there.
REBECCA: Sure. I had the pleasure of joining Owl Labs back in 2017 when we were really in stealth mode, and we’ll talk a little bit more about Owl Labs, but we’re a technology company looking to make meetings more productive for hybrid teams and remote workers. But I had the fun opportunity to both launch the company out of stealth, launch our product, and today we’re growing quite rapidly, and I have the pleasure of running a really amazing marketing organization that’s all focused on spreading the gospel of remote work and hybrid teams and helping managers and leaders be successful with that. So, it’s a very, very fun role for me. Love our group. Love our company.
JEFF: As is often the case, when we’re talking to people who are providing products, sasses oftentimes, but you have an actual, physical product, “the Meeting Owl,” but when we talk to people who are doing support around remote work, they oftentimes are working in a remote company themselves, so there are sort of two different aspects. (5:44) My understanding is you have a hybrid team. Is that right?
REBECCA: That’s exactly right. So, our group particularly, it’s a perfect third, third, third. Third that are fully remote. Third that are half and half based off of the weather, their job, their focus of the day, and a third who are mostly office workers. So that’s actually the place that we look to support as well, for hybrid teams, whether you have a few remote people or only a few office people. It’s usually meetings that are the most difficult to overcome because that’s when there’s a lot of inequality, so the Meeting Owl is a 360 camera/mic speaker device, and it actually looks to give those remote participants in a meeting, an experience that feels nearly like being in the room of whoever is sitting together. That’s our mission, to equalize that conversation because everyone should have a seat at the table as we like to say, [laughing] which is especially important in today’s modern workforce for all the obvious reasons.
JEFF: (6:47) Yeah, meetings in particular is a real pain point, particularly for hybrid teams. When you’ve got people that are sitting around a conference room table, oftentimes on a speakerphone that has really bad duplexie things when one person is talking and you can’t hear the other people, and then oftentimes there’s no video component, the person who is on the speakerphone is not being seen, and they can’t see the people in the room, it’s oftentimes a pain point. To the point that I oftentimes discourage people away from being hybrid teams, not because I think it’s easy to overcome, the truth is it’s actually probably way more common than a fully distributed team, but because I feel it requires a level of advancement. It’s like the easiest thing, or at least the most conventional thing is, having an in-person team. This is what we think of when we think of work. Right? Then in my mind the next most difficult thing is having a fully remote team, at least that’s an even playing field. The more difficult thing beyond that in my mind, is having a hybrid team and really it has to do with the communication and communication tools and the difficulty, particularly for those remote people connecting when there’s an in-person team with all of those advantages of a bazillion years of evolution. [laughing] We communicate by getting together in person and when you’ve got a person who oftentimes isn’t even seen in the room it can be really difficult.
REBECCA: You’re on the money, that the hybrid team is the most difficult by far. I love to be a little controversial. I wrote a medium article, I’ll be PG here, and I won’t curse. One of my lines I had is that, “if remote work is the future, I’m in deep trouble.” (I’ll say deep trouble here). [laughing] The reason I speak to that and I can understand how it might be obvious or a good technique to think, “should we just all be remote then, because that’s a great way to equal the playing field?” I actually like to speak to my own style in that case and just be frank and say, “if that is the answer, I’m not sure where I personally will be able to work.”
JEFF: It’s not for everyone. Like I’m saying, I think hybrid is much more where the ball wants to roll. It seems to be the next evolution or it’s how we are. We can’t define, “no, no, we can’t be together in person.” Especially if you’re speaking holistically about all companies and not just web development companies, you’ve got companies where they’re shipping things. There’s people that need to be together in the company in order to do physical work, and so, it’s not practical to be fully distributed.
REBECCA: I think in that exact same vein, I like to think of a “higher power” if you will, [laughing] and basically where I hope the future goes is one where we’re not necessarily categorizing ourselves. “Oh, I’m an office worker.” “I’m a remote worker.” “I’m a whatever worker.” But more that we start creating a working society that’s just based on choice. We’ve been thinking of this as the “work from anywhere movement”, where at any given time people are choosing to work wherever it makes sense for them, and we’re actually helping form of society where location is fully irrelevant, whether it be you’re sitting right in front of me, or you’re sitting a thousand miles away; whatever it may be. So, that’s what I hope for. That is quite the utopia and will take some time [laughing] and some really great technological advancements, but I’m optimistic that that is the world that we’ll get to, because I think when people have choice, that’s when we’re able to do our best work, be our most successful and be our happiest.
JEFF: (11:14) I think it has a lot to do with an empathetic accommodation of people who aren’t in the office; and a lot of that has to do with embracing the technology that accommodates those people. Generationally, to some extent, I think there are people now who have grown up with mobile technologies and are used to incorporating those tools into their productivity. I advise oftentimes if companies are thinking of moving to a more remote way of thinking to adopt a remote first approach, or at least a remote first mantra, and bringing in technology, like the Meeting Owl, into meetings, and getting over that hurdle to figure out how to set it up and the tools are getting easier to set up.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Meeting Owl. I want people to understand what it is and then also just to tease this one to people who are listening, Owl Labs has sponsored this really great state of remote work report that I want to really dig into as well. So, the Meeting Owl, describe it to people.
REBECCA: Sure. Well, first, if you’re wondering, and I bet you are, if it looks like an owl to those listening, it does [laughing]. You should just google it and look at it [laughing]. It’s adorable. I love that our cofounders and our original team took the leap to really make a business product that has the same sort of coolness factor that a consumer product might have. So, I love that. In terms of its value and what it’s for, basically, the picture I like to paint first is, imagine the last video call you might have joined when you were a remote participant, and you were joining a team that was sitting altogether, and if you could think of what your experience was, you mentioned maybe it was really hard to hear and maybe it was really hard to see what was going on, and this is really a problem because so much of effective communication comes from nonverbal communication; your body language, your facial expressions. And, if you’re not seeing that, that’s how you get that awkward, “when the heck do, I interject?” paranoia. [laughing]
JEFF: Yeah, exactly.
REBECCA: It’s a real problem, and I mean the other miscommunication that can come with it, long of the short of it, the Meeting Owl solves this by being a smart 360 mic camera and speaker device that goes in the center of the conference room table. That’s really the biggest difference, and then it actually intelligently uses audio and visual cues to focus on different people as they talk and even split the screen. So, it’s kind of like a live talk show happening, if you will. Always seeing who just spoke and the person who responded and getting all those important points. We found the best compliment we can possibly get is when a remote participant says, “I just joined the meeting with the Meeting Owl, and I felt nearly like I was sitting in the room with the team.” That’s the experience we really want to create, because we want to level up the experience of the remote participant to those in the room. So that way everyone has the same context information, visual information, that can make those types of conversations go from really frustrating to really successful. So, that’s our world.
JEFF: (14:47) Let those remote participants know that they’re important and that they’re being accommodated. Fun technology, as well, just that immersive sense of it. GoPro makes a 360 camera as well that does not work for videoconferencing, [laughing] it’s a totally different purpose. But this idea of capturing everything in the room is really powerful. I’m sure there are all sorts of wonderful directions that you could take this in the future, and I’m sure that you’re having meetings [laughing] and Owl Labs planning all that out. But, even just where it’s at right now is really amazing.
REBECCA: Thank you.
JEFF: (15:39) That’s cool. So, owllabs.com is where people can find the Meeting Owl, and it’s also where people can find your state of remote work report. Let’s talk about that.
REBECCA: Sure. So, we’re really proud of it. This is actually our third annual state of remote work report, and really the mission of this report, there’s a lot of amazing data out there and we wanted to take a slice and really find opportunities where we can both help those that might be looking to accept remote work more in their organization, give them data that really helps them advocate for that shift, to data that really helps people think through the types of circumstances that makes remote working really, really successful, and what is required to make it work. So, we were really proud to partner with Kate Lister, who is the President of Global Workplace Analytics on this report. This was a U.S. based report, so we surveyed a little over 1,200 folks in the U.S. of working age and really dug into understanding frequency, impact on work life balance, retention, [laughing] hiring, all those things that are really crucial, because we found there are some organizations that are starting to see the shift within their employee base of an increasing need and interest for remote work and flexible work options, that would bring them to become a hybrid team, and some folks are embracing it with open arms and some folks are fearful. So, we see our obligation as showing the benefits, so companies then can be thoughtful and considerate for themselves and have those really thoughtful conversations into what makes the most sense for their organization.
JEFF: (17:30) That describes a lot of the listeners of this podcast. Oftentimes people who have started a remote team or distributed company, or are thinking about it and trying to gather the information [laughing] of, “what do I need to know?” “How can I make this feel good?” I think part of that is understanding what other people have done. So, research like you’re doing here is hugely powerful and I think really important. Let’s go through it a little bit. Should we go through this in a more linear way or maybe start with some of the things that were most exciting and surprising to you about this.
REBECCA: I’m happy to do that. I’ll start with my favorite stuff that I thought was really fun. One of the things we wanted to know, and we said, okay, when talking to businesses about really evaluating the impact of remote work and the desire to work remotely, how can we dive into this? What we wanted to learn was, if given the option, would people take a pay cut in order to then get the opportunity to work remotely and how would people perceive that.
We actually found that one in four U.S. employees would take a pay cut up to 10% in order to work remotely.
So, if that doesn’t really paint the story of how much people are valuing remote work, I don’t know what does. Just to be clear, I am not saying then now go use this, “hey businesses across the world, use this as an opportunity to slice your salaries,” no, by all means, but use it as a tool to understand how valued remote work is to so many people, that people would even consider such a thing.
JEFF: (19:34) I think that that’s particularly interesting when you combine it in with the fact that by hiring remote workers, you’re decoupling yourself from the local job market oftentimes. So, because these jobs are super enticing for people and you have a larger market of people who you could hire because of it means that you could hire better people, maybe for the same money. I’m always a little bit hesitant about the assumption that our company will save money by hiring remote workers because I haven’t really seen that aspect of things. Even oftentimes when you include the cost of having an office and stuff like that, those costs oftentimes go to travel and things like that. But people love it, and they are certainly enticed by it.
REBECCA: I do think, however, there are a few ways in which organizations can save money on their bottom line by leaning into remote work. Not quite a literal cost savings saying, “okay, I can reduce everyone’s salaries by 10%, blah, blah, blah.” Not in that way. But actually, in terms of the hiring retention engine within an organization. So, you spoke to hiring. Absolutely the case. I’ll give an example in Owl Labs. We had the opportunity to hire a new Director of Design and we are a hybrid company, we don’t care if you live in Boston like me, or if you live wherever, and so, when thinking about who might be the right person for the role, I had the opportunity to talk to a woman who was from a Great Harbor company previously in Southern California, and it happened to be a slam dunk for her too, so that was an example that I was able to hire faster, because I was able to broaden my scope of where I was looking and, I believe, find the absolute best person for the job because her location was completely irrelevant in that search, and we were able to find it. So, that’s an example of saving money, because it didn’t take me half a year to find the best person in Boston; I could look everywhere.
JEFF: (21:46) Right. And, also people don’t leave because their spouse got a job in another state. They don’t leave because the commute is difficult. They don’t leave because the person that works in the next office is annoying. There are, I think, efficiency improvements around remote work.
REBECCA: To keep on the thread of hiring, we found that 71% of our respondents would actually agree that the ability to work remotely would make them choose one employer over another. So, in terms of companies that are considering making their workplace more interesting, or a bigger attractor to applicants, that can help. And, we found that actually 81% of U.S. workers agree that the ability to work remotely would make them more likely to recommend their workplace. So, that’s really cool too. So, not only is it going to make them pick your company over another, it might make them recommend it to a friend, which is also going to help your hiring pool. So, that was very, very cool to learn and see those benefits of hiring, just considering that. It’s wonderful that unemployment is lower than 4% right now, but it does mean that it’s a workers market, and companies have to be really thoughtful about how they flex their recruiting pool.
JEFF: (23:13) Absolutely. So, the people that you surveyed kind of ran the gamut. Some were remote workers, but this wasn’t just a survey of remote workers. It wasn’t all remote workers saying that remote work is great; it was a wider cross-section than that?
REBECCA: Correct. It was very important to us that we surveyed a population that represented the population of the U.S. workers, so we could get a really, great strong mix of all perspectives, whether it be you do work remotely all the time, you work part of the time, you don’t work at all, and that was really, really important to us. We found of the group that we surveyed, two of three employees actually did work remotely at least some of the time, and that was really great, and we thought represented to a lot of the other data that we’ve seen in regards to how frequently remote work is happening across the U.S.
JEFF: (24:12) One of the things that happens and certainly happened to me and I’m guessing to a lot of listeners of this podcast is, when you run a fully distributed company, you’re not interacting with other companies so much. [laughing] You’re not like, “oh I run into those guys at the deli all the time; they have the office downstairs,” or whatever. So, you kind of lose track of how things are happening. You also get very focused on your own team, which I think happens for everyone. But who works remotely? [laughing] I think for people that work at tech companies they think that only tech companies work remotely, for people that work at customer service businesses, they think that only customer service businesses work remotely. What did you find? Where is remote work happening?
REBECCA: That’s a great question. One, we found across the board, we were very curious of how likely people across different levels will work remotely. We found that sea level folks are actually working remotely 55% of the time. That was fascinating. That was actually quite higher than I was expecting [laughing], which I think is great. Why not? I think that’s wonderful. We also looked at different specific industries. Kind of going down the ranks in terms of where it was most prominent. We found healthcare actually at the top of our list.
JEFF: That’s interesting.
REBECCA: Technology being second. Financial, education, manufacturing, in that order. So that was really interesting to see a great spread of those types of organizations represented. I’m playing in my own bubble, one might think, “oh, of course it’s those really innovative the companies [laughing] that are flexing this muscle,” and they are, however they are second to healthcare which I thought was very, very cool and interesting for us.
JEFF: (26:22) So, when we stereotypically think of healthcare, we think of doctors and nurses and how would they possibly work remotely? But I’m guessing there’s some stuff we’re missing here. Is this like insurance companies? Who are these people working in healthcare and how are they working remotely?
REBECCA: Great question. I’ll hypothesize. We didn’t ask so far as to the particular roles in this case, but to hypothesize, I would say these might be a lot of the individuals who either come to one’s home and, thus might not be office-based.
REBECCA: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
JEFF: (27:03) In fact my brother is a nurse and does exactly that. In-home calls.
REBECCA: Oh perfect.
JEFF: (27:12) It’s funny because when we think about remote work oftentimes, and a lot of the tools we’re talking about, like Meeting Owl or Slack or Google Docs, nurses who are doing house call things like that, maybe need different tools than those [laughing] things exactly. But it’s a really interesting thought to start incorporating those people into all this thinking that we’re doing around this stuff.
REBECCA: Of course. And I would say essential. To the point if you’re hoping to retain these folks, and they’re absolutely quite qualified, look at the service they are offering, very important and with the same love and care that great organizations are thinking about how they offer the best possible experience for those in the office, we have a great distance to go to really give that same love and care to the experience that we’re giving those out of the office. They are not of lesser importance. They should receive this similar type of report but in the way that makes the most sense for them. So, I think that’s important.
JEFF: (28:23) I think, we’re hypothesizing and philosophizing here, but that’s okay, [laughing], we can have whatever conversation we want. But I think in the past there’s always been these concessions around remote workers - well, these people work from home and I guess it’s okay that we don’t communicate as well with them. Or even these assumptions about how work should work stereotypically; that remote workers are people that live at home, maybe in their parents basement, and just work from their inbox and send the work out and they don’t really want to interact with other people. And that’s not true. We’re seeing this transition happen around those people that we had in the past said, “oh well, he’s a technical person so he probably doesn’t want to interact with real people, anyways.” We’re finding that’s not true. And, I’m guessing that we could probably support all of these salespeople and healthcare workers better as well.
REBECCA: Very true. We found there’s a lot of fun biases that were slowly [laughing] watching away -- that being a great one. I think the other one that probably a lot of people can relate to is the idea that, “if she’s going to work from home today, it’s because she’s going to (I like this pun) phone it in.” [laughing] “She’s going to do her laundry and probably take plenty of naps and watch daytime TV.” So that’s what she’s doing. And, actually with that in mind, and knowing obviously that’s an extreme, that bias might exist especially among managers and leaders who are fearful of allowing and supporting remote work. The data that we like to showcase is, we found that 79% of remote workers actually work from home to increase their productivity, to be more effective. I don’t know about you, but if I am prepping for a new quarter, I have a ton of analysis to do or there’s this really intense focus time that I need, or really big challenge at hand, I will likely choose to do that from my home in order to get the focus and productivity time I need to be more effective. I think it’s really important to showcase that fact.
JEFF: (30:57) Yeah, and there’s probably even aspects of remote working or working from home that fit into our more, sort of Dick Vandyke [laughing] conventional style, of thinking about work, taking the work home, “oh, I’ve got this report that’s due. I’m going to work on it tonight after the kids go to bed.” You’re working from home. That’s remote work, right? [laughing] You’re taking it home to be productive on it in a place where you’re not going to get interrupted and you can flex your own hours and stuff like that.
REBECCA: We also need to be careful that we’re not taking advantage of that. [laughing] We found in the same study that actually remote employees are working more than the standard 40 hours per week, 43% more often than on-site workers. [laughing] Which on one hand maybe you can say maybe it’s because of the benefit of the lesser commute or they’re actually getting time back, but I think also the other side of that coin is, we need to make sure that while it’s a little bit harder to have the really clear division between when I’m on and when I’m off, we need to be mindful of that as leaders and those supporting our teams, because people are working more and that’s wonderful, but we need to make sure it’s a choice in the moment versus an obligation or something that’s harder to shake because we do deserve that work life balance.
JEFF: (32:24) And those stigmas, that idea that she’s phoning it in today is the thing that we work against, and the truth is, “well, I did turn on Oprah (or whatever the equivalent of that is), [laughing] while I was eating lunch, but on the other hand, I worked until 10:00 at night because I felt guilty about that.” I think it’s just that matter of finding the balance, and ultimately starting to lose some of these preconceived notions about what it means to work from home, and ultimately moving to a little bit more, looking at the proof in the pudding rather than thinking about these preconceived notions about it.
The truth is people are productive and we’re starting to see that and we’re starting to see reports saying that people feel more productive, and they are more productive.
REBECCA: I think that’s true. I’m curious if you’ve seen this Jeff. An idea I’ve been thinking a lot about, kind of at the core of this biasses that either leaders have or workers have themselves, I’ve been calling it “proximity bias” with the idea that people have the bias that, intentional or not, subconscious or not, that if someone is physically present they’re going to do better work or they are working harder, and I find that so interesting especially when it is self-imposed. I actually like to tell a story in a previous role because Owl Labs, I can recall a particular day in which there was a big brainstorm or something we’re planning, like the Q4 priorities, or something like that. Very, very important brainstorming. And maybe this is a story that a lot of people have experience. Anyway, I had a terrible cold, a really bad cold, and I exerted poor judgment and said, “well, instead of staying home, I’m going to go in because I believe I will not be as productive and impactful in this brainstorm if I am calling in,” an din that case we even had video conferencing technology, and so, I went in and probably made all my coworkers terribly sick, which was terrible, because we were entering Q4 and the holidays. But anyway, that I thought was interesting because it was a self-imposed bias. No one was going to judge me. Everyone on my team was incredibly supportive, would’ve completely understood, and yet I still made that choice. So, I bring this reflection up because I think one of the things that managers and leaders can do, is not only give obviously the resources and tools to remote workers and work from home people partially or full-time that they need to be successful, but also really showcase that remote working is accepted, whether it be by having the CEO work from home once in awhile to show that is a OK, but encouraging it, whatever it may be, because a lot of the shift not only needs to come from the leadership but also the employees and allowing themselves to have that freedom and have it work together at the same time.
JEFF: (35:46) Yeah, absolutely. Yes, I’ve seen this proximity bias and I think that it is the definition of management for the past 100 years. This is industrial revolution management. The managers had offices way above the factory floor so they could look down on the factory workers to know that they were working. Right? And that just doesn’t really work these days. I do think that it’s to some extent, an evolutionary bias. I think that this is just how we learn to trust each other, is getting together in person, looking each other in the eye, and kind of, “do I trust you?” I do think it ultimately works against management, particularly in an environment where it’s not just about the widgets the people are cranking out, it’s more thoughtful and people are on computers and you can’t quite tell if they’re on Facebook [laughing]. They’ve got Facebook on their phone. There are any number of ways that people could be at their desks and not being productive. Even just simply the water cooler hanging out and talking and getting to know people, rather than work getting done. I’m not against the water cooler. I think in distributed teams we need to find ways to emulate the water cooler, but it’s not the default. It also has a lot to do with culture and especially when you talk about managers leading by example, there’s what you say and what you do, and lots of companies have this culture of proving by [laughing] overworking. It’s sort of like, “I’m here before everyone gets here,” and “I’m here after everyone gets here, and therefore I’m more important,” but when we start to decouple being the presence, the proximity from value and trying to find value in other ways, we can actually move that value metric to something that’s actually closer [laughing] to what the business needs. The business doesn’t need people to be there. The business needs people to create those widgets, and when the widgets are digital or abstract, or services business in some way, you want to have an actual interaction with those workers and talk about what they’re creating.
REBECCA: You’re exactly right. I would say one of the tips that I’ve been giving managers who are trying their very best to walk away from this idea that I monitor productivity of the “buts” and move away from this, as I bring it back to really encouraging a performance based management system, as their way of working with their team, which for what it’s worth really is the way to go if you have a team that’s onsite or not.
JEFF: Absolutely. All of this stuff is good practice for collocated companies as well. It’s just better.
REBECCA: I think it’s really helpful, and you used a great word a little bit earlier. You mentioned the word “trust.” So, so crucial. I go ahead and say it, “if you don’t trust your employees, remote work in any level is not going to work,” because that is so much at the core of it and we’re seeing that in fruition. 82% of those who work remotely say that the ability to work remotely and getting that privilege actually does make them feel more trusted, and when you feel trusted, you feel more effective, you have a better relationship with your manager, you are proud to work harder, better, faster, you name it. So, we thought that was really wonderful to see that fact echo in the data.
JEFF: (39:58) Having done so many of these podcasts now, [laughing] I’m starting to wonder if that trust and that culture of trust, that openness is a cause or an effect. Are we able to build a remote team because I’m a trusting person or oftentimes I almost feel like I took a leap of faith? I didn’t really trust people to work from home, but I figured I would try it. Remote work is autonomy. In order to grant people autonomy, you need to allow the, to give them at least enough trust to start and try. Then the effect is, “wow, actually people are being productive. They are getting the work done. They are showing up and I mean that proverbially. They’re showing up to meetings or even in person. They are showing up [laughing] when they need to be there; and now I can trust them. It ends up being an effect, or at least a perpetuating factor in ultimately a more respectful environment, more respectful culture and I think in my mind, if I can get super highfalutin and super philosophical about it, I think that we’re starting to see a new paradigm in work in the relationship between the employer and the worker is, where we can start to include the workers in a lot of the things that had been shielded off to them in the past. The fact that the company needs to [laughing] sustain itself was often a thing that was hidden away from workers. There was this adversarial relationship, and this assumption that workers were untrusting and were going to try and get away with things. But, when we can all get on board, this is what we need in order to keep our jobs, in order to keep the company in business, I think workers want to be present. They want to be trustworthy.
REBECCA: I think especially in the coming workforce, right now millennials are the most present and Gen Z is right on their heels, and these are a group of workers that are really looking for sense of purpose and people are being really selective in the companies that they choose because they want to feel some sort of connection to the mission, or some sort of connection to the value they’re offering customers. These are employees that care quite a bit, and I would say the best way to build that trust, even if maybe you’re nervous about it from the leaders perspective, to really echo what you said is, take that leap of faith, and then give your worker the opportunity to rise to the occasion, because it’s going to be those moments in which someone meets and then exceeds your expectations, is when that trust is really going to be fortified. So, I would say, you won’t even have the opportunity to have that experience if you don’t take that leap of faith first. So, I think you’re exactly right. Some people are trustworthy and are trustful from the get-go and that can help, but it’s really having that experience of saying, “hey, you know what, John [laughing] I wasn’t sure John would be a successful remote worker, or how this dynamic would work,” and now I know for sure.
I had an experience (semi) like this myself. So, prior to coming to Owl Labs, I had never managed a remote worker before. I had never done that. I had been in support of remote work, worked from home frequently, but I wouldn’t go so far to call myself a leader of remote workers. A woman I hired, her name is Erin, she lives in the St. Louis area, and remarkable person, and was very interested in joining our company and I had a previous experience with her and knew she’d be exceptional, [laughing] and it was crystal clear if she were to join Owl Labs, she would be remote. Then you’d say, “well, good. Makes sense given our mission as an organization,” but it was actually a really interesting moment for me as a leader to say, “okay, here we go. Now I get to learn my own style and how this is going to work.” I will say, I’m thankful I embraced it very openly, with a very open mind, but even with that open mind, it wasn’t until the experience of working with her and saying, “this is incredible,” and “she is incredible” that really sealed the deal to showcase that this could work. And that is what helped me fortify my own trust.
JEFF: (44:41) And there’s a certain humanity that comes with it. We need to accept the whole person. They’re allowing us, as an employer, into their home usually, and into their lives as they’re working flexibly. So, as an employer, it’s like, “oh, yeah, go pick your kids up from school. That’s okay.” Whereas in the past it felt like, “wait, this is the workday, 9-5, I own you during this time.” I think by starting to create that new relationship people are oftentimes more open, more vulnerable, and ultimately can share that deeper stuff, which oftentimes is a compassion for the company and the work that would otherwise be hidden away.
(45:38) In light of this report, I don’t know which direction to go here, but I’m guessing that there’s probably an interesting dovetail. What were the things that you found as a manager building a hybrid team that were echoed in this report, or felt like epiphanies for you?
REBECCA: Epiphanies. I would say I’m really thankful to see things echo my instincts [laughing], if you will. That was very affirming. For us at Owl Labs, it’s all about the opportunity to choose, that’s what is most important, and give people the ability to work at their best. Things that weren’t going to be a big surprise. Better work life balance was the number one reason people to choose to work remotely. Is that an epiphany? No. But it makes complete sense that that would be echoed. So, that was really interesting. I was really hopeful that just using instincts, that the flexibility and remote work abilities would influence how people perceive their employer and the longevity they might have at one.
We actually found that from a retention standpoint 74% of workers agree that the ability to work remotely actually makes them less likely to leave.
So, that’s wonderful; nearly 75%. It all comes together if you feel trusted [laughing] and have a strong relationship with your manager. If you are able to be productive in your work. If you are able to get the work life balance so you can be really, really successful in your job, as well as have the other parts of your life, you’re going to stick around. Again, I think there’s two ways to look at it; there’s the capitalistic view which is ‘great’ ‘good’, we want to get the biggest impact [laughing], more people as possible, we want people to stick around, hiring is expensive, let’s improve our retention, but then there’s also the human aspect which is, isn’t it wonderful that there’s an opportunity to engaged in this workplace shift and then truly create a workplace that’s worth staying and being a part of for a long time. I like that version better. It makes me proud to think that hopefully in terms of the environment that I’m creating across my team and across Owl Labs, that people feel that flexibility to choose and be at their best, because I don’t know about you, but for the other managers listening, I imagine you get a sense of pride knowing that you’ve done something right and you contributed positively to someone’s life. That personally means a lot to me.
JEFF: (48:20) Absolutely. I think we all want to make the world a better place and the world of work [laughing] represents a significant part of that. For anyone who is listening who maybe has a collocated company and they’re thinking of hiring a remote person, or are thinking of giving up their office altogether, especially pivoting off this report, what data or straight up advice can you give to them? What are the things that are like, “well you need to know this?” This is the thing that is going to push them over the edge [laughing] and help them get it.
REBECCA: That’s a great question. I think there’s a few ways to dig into that. One, I’ll go off an idea that I really care about, especially if you’re going to be hybrid, which as we mentioned in the beginning is the most difficult [laughing] type of workplace set up to manage and make successful. I would say a rule of thumb you could use is, “is the way I’m either working with my team, communicating with my team, supporting my team, managing my team, is it something that crosses boundaries that works while you are in person and works while you are not in person?” Because if you have a style that only functions in one particular way, you’re going to create a disadvantage. So, I would almost start with taking an audit. The real stereotypical one is, “if your way of engaging and socializing with your team is to wander through cubes, [laughing] that’s what you do and that’s the only thing you do.” That’s quite obviously not going to translate.
JEFF: (50:08) The example I always used to use was the ‘high five’. High five a manager. Walk through and high fiving everybody.
REBECCA: Oh yea. It’s great. By all means you can still do that [laughing] but hopefully that’s not the only thing you’re doing, and you’re having that human connection with everyone else. The high five emoji on Slack or whatever Chat you’re using is great. Go for it. [laughing] So, I think that’s important.
I would say another, I’ll call it a ‘mistake’ that some folks might make that I think is a bit of a shortcut is, trying to directly translate management techniques that are normally done in person to the virtual remote world. The example I would say is, if you still are in the habit of monitoring productivity based off of how long you’re working or when you’re working, I know that some folks have said, “oh, your light on Slack,” or, “your chat light wasn’t on at 4:00. What are you doing?” [laughing] Those are fun ones.
JEFF: Monitoring is not managing.
REBECCA: Oh, you could put that on a T-shirt. [laughing] You should put that on a T-shirt. That’s a great line – monitoring is not managing. If you’re a Twitter person, tweet that. That was great. [laughing]
JEFF: Every so often I come up with one.
REBECCA: [laughing] I love it. That’s perfect. That’s very on point. There’s so many things I could say, but the one I really believe, we mentioned performance-based management, I believe in this so thoroughly for any team, any make-up and it’s that, in today’s modern age especially, make sure you’re evaluating your employees based off of the impact that they’re having, nothing else. Because that really is what they’re hired to do – have an impact, drive results, really make your company successful. So, make sure you have really key goals that you’re going after. Make sure you have really key milestones that you need to hit and you’re on the same page, because that also is going to help you get and give autonomy to anyone wherever they are working, and it just removes that barrier completely. That is a technique where location is absolutely irrelevant because there’s a world, I don’t know about you, but I’m a night owl (pun intended) [laughing] and I personally love to write and I love when I have the opportunity to write blog content, things like that, “I’m going to do my best work after dinner, after a glass of wine on my kitchen table at 11:00 p.m.” That is just when it is going to be. That is just my brain. So, again, I’m lucky to have a very, very supportive team. My boss, in this case, would understand that. “Oh, it’s okay that she slept in the next day.” [laughing] The impact she has had.
JEFF: (53:14) Again, that holistic view, “we got the report from Rebecca that she wrote up, the whole new thing and the email went out at two o’clock in the morning. I don’t expect to see Rebecca until ten or eleven o’clock today.” That’s sort of the holistic thing, whereas that traditional punch the clock style thing, from a management perspective, is something we need to start moving away from.
REBECCA: Actually, can I tell you what I would do in that case just because I think it’s fun? I actually would likely schedule my email. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] Because that is another issue. If you’re leading a team do you want to set the precedent of sending email at two o’clock in the morning? There are downsides to that as well. Certainly, I’m going to repeat it again, monitoring is not managing. What is managing especially in this environment, and I think you’re right. I think it’s a matter of starting to look more at the results and the output and ultimately, I think oftentimes for managers there’s this question of, “I don’t know how much output I should be expecting,” and it’s like “well, compare it to the other people at the company?” [laughing] Right? I suppose you could have a low performing team overall and it would make the bell curve a little difficult to figure out. We want to support the process as well and ultimately support people so they can find their point of flow and peak productivity in a way that obviously feels good for everybody involved.
(55:25) Another one of my sayings around this is, ‘making the formal informal’. Things that we have historically thought of as formal, particularly in an office environment; “hey John, are you free at four o’clock to meet with me?” Historically it had been just stopping by John’s office cube and going “hey, here’s the thing I need.” But when you schedule it, John thinks, “I’m getting fired.” [laughing] This thing that’s so formal, but if you do it every week or this is just how Jeff communicates, then John starts to calm down around it, and these things like a videoconference that we’ve historically thought of as this ‘formal’ thing, become informal and it just becomes better communication. It becomes a time when John can be focused on the conversation. I can be focused on the conversation. It’s not this haphazard half communication that oftentimes happens in collocated environments as we said. Based on that evolutionary thing we feel like, “I was in person and I talked to you, so we must’ve’ communicated.” “I gave you a high five, how did you not know that what I actually meant was you’re doing a great job. I really value everything you do at the company. I really feel like over the past six months you really improved.” That stuff seems too formal, but in a remote work environment, we can’t high five so maybe we need to get a little more informal about that formal communication. Ultimately, it’s better communication; John actually knows.
REBECCA: I love that. I have two ideas. I love that. I never thought about it in those terms and I agree. I have two things to contribute. One, I’ll tell a little story that I think fits this philosophy. A woman on my team, her name is Sophia, she’s a 50/50 gal [laughing] which is how I like to describe, and probably pretty early after she started at Owl Labs, she was very open saying, “I love writing with my cat at home,” and [laughing] “I love doing this type of work in the office.” I said, “great. Now we know how you will chose.” And she said, “So, Rebecca, should I make sure that I let you know or ask to work from home before I do?” I said, “oh, that’s interesting.” No one had asked me that before. And I said, “you know what? No. No, I don’t think so, because you would never be asking me to work from the office. [laughing] That would never be your instinct.” And so, the system we have instead is I mentioned Slack a few times, we love using Slack as our internal chat, and we actually put the little home emoji icon next to our names, just for informational purposes, just to be clear, but it’s not a formal request because to do that would just change the perception around remote work, which is the problem. So, that’s one thing.
JEFF: Right. That it should be an even playing field. I think that that culturally in a company, what you’re talking about right there, encourages or even defines a remote first work environment. That it’s not like, “I’m going to be in the office on Tuesday so let’s have the meeting on Tuesday because I obviously can’t meet with you on Monday because I’m working from home.” If being from home inhibits some aspect [laughing] then it’s not really quite being treated the same way. It’s like, “hey, let’s meet at 4:00.” That’s a little bit more formal than just stopping by, but I don’t know if you’re going to be there when I stop by. I like it.
REBECCA: I think that’s so true, and actually to that, my other one actually relates to that idea. I would say I hope that it will be very, very soon where videoconferencing is not a novelty at all. It shouldn’t be. The ability to see someone should not be a novelty. [laughing] it’s not a novelty in person. You’d never go to a meeting with a paper bag on your head, [laughing] so why should it be a novelty? I would say, I believe in a world in which it is by default the same way how you would think to use your phone to call someone. You would use your camera to call someone in that case or get the group together. It is always by default. By default, everyone always assumes that there is likely going to be someone remote, and that is just so engrained in our habits, that meetings are much more seamless, and this is available across an entire organization. So, if you’re a big organization every room is enabled for this, because every room is a meeting space or someone might be remote, and that’s the default at all times.
JEFF: Anything else that we should touch on here?
REBECCA: We talked about so many. I’ll just talk about a nice one. A feel good, punctuation if you will [laughing].
JEFF: [laughing] I’m always a fan of the feel-good punctuation.
REBECCA: And that’s the fact that remote workers are happier in their jobs, 29% more often than onsite workers, and I just think that’s lovely, and something to lean into and I’m not surprised, and it just reinforces what I hoped to be the case. It’s wonderful when data paints a story that helps us work better together. I love that one. It’s a good feel good.
JEFF: 29% more. It’s not that they are 29% happy or happy 29% of the time. Most people like their jobs, but remote workers like it nearly 30% more. That’s amazing.
REBECCA: Yeah, isn’t that great? I love that. That made me happy. [laughing]
JEFF: Yeah. Well, Rebecca, this has been a great conversation. (1:01) If anybody has questions about this or wants to follow-up with you about anything, where should they track you down?
REBECCA: I love Twitter. I love connecting with folks on Twitter. If you want to connect with me there, my name is @repcor, so I love talking to folks there. And, then if anything we said about Owl Labs or our meeting, we’re owllabs.com so feel free to check us out in the report. We’re really happy to contribute to this incredibly important world with technology, with our leadership with data, so we’d be happy to keep giving you more.
JEFF: Well great. Thank you, Rebecca. This was a great conversation. I feel really energized [laughing] about remote work, and I hope our listeners do as well. Take care.
REBECCA: Thank you so much.