Jeff Robbins interviews Wayne Turmel, the co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute, and co-author of a book called “The Long-Distance Leader” about richness and scope in communications, productivity optimization, and tips for remote managers and leaders.
Here’s the transcript:
JEFF: Hi Wayne. Thank you so much for coming on the Yonder Podcast.
WAYNE TURMEL: Well, thank you for having me. I’ll go pretty much anywhere I’m invited.
JEFF: [laughing] Well, thanks for being here. As I often ask people, the first question on the podcast is, where are you? (2:39)
WAYNE: I am in Las Vegas. We just relocated here from Chicago a few months ago. I am getting used to looking out the window at bright blue sky.
JEFF: [laughing] And warmth, and the lack of humidity.
WAYNE: All those things, yes. Of course, it is 112 degrees, so, the lack of humidity is basic chemistry since water evaporates at that temperature.
JEFF: It’s true. Like, sweat works.
JEFF: [laughing] It actually cools you down when it’s so dry like that. Great. So, introduce yourself to people. Tell us what you do. (3:27)
WAYNE: I am one of the co-founders of the Remote Leadership Institute. As part of the Kevin Eikenberry group, Kevin is infinitely better known than I am [laughing] in the leadership circles, but for 20 years or so, I have been involved in teaching communication skills and leadership skills, particularly at the middle management type level. About 10 years ago, the world started moving in this new direction and people were saying things like, “gosh, communication skills and presentations skills are great, but I only talk to real people once a quarter, because I’m on WebEx, or whatever,” and so I spent 10 years as my own company, teaching those kinds of skills. Then a few years ago, Kevin and I merged to create this new entity “The Remote Leadership Institute,” and that’s how we came to write The Long-Distance Leader together, and all of that good stuff.
JEFF: Yeah. That’s right in light with all the stuff we talk about on this podcast. It’s really great to have you here.
WAYNE: [laughing] Better to be lucky than good.
JEFF: Yeah. So, where should we start. Have you had a lot of experience as a long-distance leader yourself, or has this information come from talking to a lot of people who’ve done this kind of work? What have you gleaned through all of this? (5:08)
WAYNE: Wow. A lot of gleaning over the years. Truthfully, from my very first management job, I have had team members that did not share a workspace with me. I started in the training business and had independent trainers all over the place and have always kind of worked that way ever since, as well since joining Remote Leadership Institute I am a remote worker. Our headquarters is in Indianapolis, and I, of course, am not. So, both the managers side and the employee side, which I think is important for leaders of remote teams. There are a couple of key things, I think. One is remember what it’s like, because most managers have at one time or another, been a part of a remote team. Either they have been the one whose remote, in which case their empathy level goes off the charts, or they haven’t, and they understand the frustrations on some level. (6:22)
JEFF: Empathy is usually a good skill for management [laughing]. I hadn’t thought about this too much, but there are all sorts of different ways that remote work can happen, and lots of times it will be a company that starts hiring remote workers, and in that event, oftentimes you have a manager who works in the office, whose never really had much experience working remotely, who’s management a remote team, and they kind of need to jump over some hurdles in order to really start to build that empathy.
WAYNE: I think a lot of us have gotten into the remote part of this by what I call, stealth telework, which is the company doesn’t officially have a policy, theoretically everybody’s supposed to work here, but it starts with, “hey, can I work from home a couple days a week so I can get this project done?” Or, “my spouse is being transferred to Denver and I really like working with you guys. Can I keep my job?” And, they go, “yeah, fine, no problem.” So, it starts with one or two people or an instance, nothing formal, and then they wake up one morning and as most people in big city offices will attest, on any given day 50% of the assigned desks are empty. I remember walking through a big international companies bullpen with the manager and she was going on about how, “no, we think everybody should come into the office and we don’t really have a remote work policy, blah, blah, blah,” and I went, “so where is everybody?” 50% of the desks are empty. They’re assigned. There are cat pictures and deflated birthday balloons and obviously somebody works there. “Oh, so and so is in Boston today.” “So, and so has a sick kid.” Well then how could you tell me you don’t have people working remotely. I think that’s the challenge for a lot of us. It’s kind of the frog in the boiling water analogy, which is a horrible analogy and makes terrible soup. (8:42)
A lot of organizations that we work with, the conversation now is, “holy cow, this thing is happening, and we never planned for it, and we never really saw it coming, and now how do we fix the boat when it’s in the water?”
JEFF: Right. Our communications have moved on from printed memos being passed around the office to email, and now everyone’s got their email on their phone.
WAYNE: It’s not just that. This is a really interesting thing, and for somebody who is of a certain age, certain age being my first corporate job. My first big project was to roll out email to the company. That’s how long I’ve been on this earth, and there’s been a huge change that most of us have never taken into account, which is in the, let’s call it 25 years, that email has been a thing; 70-75% of all business communication now happens in writing.
WAYNE: That has never happened in the history of the human race.
JEFF: Yeah. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
WAYNE: (9:54) It’s just a thing, and if we’re not aware of it, if we’re aware of how we write emails, how we use emails, when it’s appropriate, when it’s inappropriate. If we don’t give it some conscious thought, which 99% of us don’t, we find ourselves getting into problems. We find ourselves overwhelmed by the share volume of incoming email. We find ourselves stuck in email threads that aren’t solving problems and just seem to go on forever. Who’s insane idea was it to let every salesperson in America write their own correspondence and not have it checked first?
JEFF: [laughing] Yeah. When we think about the stereotypical remote worker, I think oftentimes there’s this sort of unspoken belief that management or leadership has that remote workers will just work asynchronously, we will send them email and they will do the work in the email and email it back to us, and they work for us, and that’s how it goes, and that’s oftentimes, most of the time I would venture to say, not the most efficient way, certainly not the most mentally healthy way of working and keeping your employees connected to you and to each other.
WAYNE: (11:22) What it does is it falls into a trap which is all too common. Since everybody on this call is a manager and concerned and cares, I’m going to talk a little treason. A lot of this trickles down from the C-suite where the number one concern is ‘are they working?’ How do we know that they are working? We’re paying them darn it, how do we know they’re not on Facebook or whatever? That concern about tasks and measurable behavior results in remote work often becoming extremely transactional. It becomes a series of tasks and as long as you are doing the tasks you are assigned; I’m going to assume that everything is fine. What that does, and there’s been lots of studies about this, the most famous one is The Harvard Review Study. The headline was Remote Workers Get More Done, which hallelujah everybody that supports telework and all the rest of it said, “see, we get more work done than people in the office.” The problem is if you go into the data, that it’s what they’re working on and how they’re working that is both good news and bad news. The good news is, yes, they are getting more done. The bad news is, they are getting their tasks done, they are extremely focused on what’s directly in their control, and so their task list is getting completed, but the tasks that involve other people contributing to the group, brainstorming, collaborating, all that stuff, very often suffers.
The second thing is the reason they get more done, is that they work longer days. Your day starts when you stumble out of the bed in the morning and you pick up your phone and the kids are in bed at night and you’re still answering email, you better be getting more done because you’re working more hours. And, that’s not necessarily a good thing. So, as the leader of the team, there’s a bunch of stuff that we need to do besides just get the work done. It’s our we working with them on their priorities and making sure that they’re working on the right things? Are they engaging with the rest of the team and how could we help make that happen? Am I getting emails from them at all hours of the day or night and what am I going to do about it if I am? That could be a coaching conversation. So, we need to think differently about how we’re working. As leaders we need to have all that in our mind, not just is stuff getting done. Because if we keep it on a strictly transactional basis, some people work fine like that.
JEFF: Yeah. But there could be a certain amount of isolation and, kind of loneliness. When you’re simply working on your tasks and don’t have an idea of the context of those tasks within the project or within the company (14:36) you also don’t have an idea of your context [laughing] within the company. It can be isolating. Ultimately, sometimes feel productive, but it can lead to burnout.
WAYNE: It can, and here’s something that most managers don’t think about. The turnover rate for remote workers is actually higher. I have a friend who was a headhunter and she licked her chops when she found out that people work from home, because if I work for you and I have to schlep into the office every day and I know everybody and there’s a whole social component, and my day is built around my commute and setting up childcare and all that stuff, to change jobs is a really big deal. (15:30) If I work at home the only barrier to changing jobs is, I need to remember a new password. So, if work is purely transactional, as long as everything is fine, I’m getting paid fairly, my boss doesn’t aggravate me, the work is okay, I’m doing a good job, that’s fine. But it doesn’t take much [laughing] to make me start seeking greener pastures. Whereas, if I care about the company I work for and I have a good relationship with my manager and I like the people on my team, etc. etc., I’m not going to be interested in going anywhere else. So, when we talk about employee engagement and all that good stuff, it’s easy to say well nothing’s on fire, there are no problems, so everything is fine.
JEFF: Right. [laughing] There’s so much to unravel here. It’s really interesting. All of those things that people usually take into consideration when switching jobs – what’s the commute going to be like? Where do I park? How much will that cost me? Where will I eat lunch? All those kinds of things are just out the window. I know exactly how all of those things are from remote job to another remote job. It just becomes the job itself. (17:02)
I’d like to think that these, sort of inherent frictions of remote work, isolation, loneliness, giving people a context within the company, helping them to feel managed and what’s expected of them, and all that kind of stuff, the default setting on all of those things is not. [laughing] Is for people to just feel isolated and not connected to the company at all. But because we’ve got these sort of ankle weights as managers of remote teams, we need to make an extra effort. It’s sort of clear that there’s some friction around this, and we need to put some proactive focus on making these things better. I’d like to think that for companies that make an effort in that direction, you can solve these things so that you can have big wins. My company, for example, has had nominally zero percent attrition rate [laughing] over the past 13 years, and I think it’s because we put a lot of focus into those kinds of things.
WAYNE: Here’s the thing, and we talk about this in Long-Distance Leaders, kind of a first principle. We talk about all the rules. Rule number one is, think leadership first, location second, because there have always been remote teams since time in memorial. Julius Caesar did perfectly well thousands of miles from Rome. It’s actually when he went back to home office that things got ugly. So, we’ve always been able to do it if you’re thinking about the things that make teams work. (18:58)
People are passionate about their work, they’re engaged, they feel supported. All the stuff that makes teams work. The challenge is that we are working on a smaller data set. So, if Wayne is struggling, how do you know that? Or, if Wayne is getting ticked off, the only clue might be that he’s not talking on meetings as much as he used to.
JEFF: You’re not getting those visual cues that you would get in an office. Wayne’s walking around with his shoulders slumped down. He’s showing up late.
WAYNE: Yeah. If I walk past the cube farm and I see Jeff banging his desk on his monitor, it’s very natural for me to say, “is something wrong?” [laughing] We can address that. If Wayne has always been a good worker and I don’t really have to micromanage him and I haven’t heard from him for a while, I don’t worry about that.
JEFF: I find a lot of that comes down to culture, and sort of creating a company culture where it’s accepted and expected, for people to speak up about those dark places, the sort of difficulties that a lot of work culture is oriented towards, sort of, success oriented, a little bit more type A oriented.
WAYNE: Yes, you actually hit it right on. The end of that is, your workstyle, your work type is going to impact this a great deal and it’s not like only one workstyle can be successful working remotely. There’s this notion that working remotely is an introverts paradise.
JEFF: Right. But the truth is, if you’re truly an introvert it’ll actually be really difficult because you won’t be communicating well enough to squeeze that communication through the pipes.
WAYNE: (20:53) The problem is the communication technology allows us to do great things if we’re mindful and we use it well. It also allows us to play to our weakness. I’ll give you an example. Manager needs to have a difficult conversation with Jeff. Jeff has been not doing a particularly great job with something, and I know that I should, if we were in the office, I’d pull him into my office and have a Chat, I know I should have this conversation with him, but Jeff’s kind of a pain in my neck, and I’ve had a long day, so I’ll just send an email. Or, I’ll leave him a voicemail after hours. Because it allows me to not have to do the really hard things, and still say I handled it.
And that’s the thing. If I’m having a coaching conversation, and this is really hard for managers, if I’m coaching my people in the office, there’s a certain set of behaviors. I take them somewhere quiet we have a little Chat before we get started, “how’s your coffee? Okay, good. Here we go.” When we work remotely, first of all there’s very little of that phatic conversation. The first words out of the managers mouth is always “I don’t want to waste your time.” Let’s make the best use of our time, let’s get right down to business. So, there isn’t that “how are the kids?” “How did the Raiders do last week?” None of that stuff. It’s more transactional and less personal.
It very often happens that, since I’m going to be on the phone, because I don’t like webcams and we don’t use webcams at our company, so I’m going to be on the phone, let me do this while I’m sitting in the airport waiting for a flight or while I’m driving between somewhere else. So, what’s actually happening is, yes, you’re having a one-hour coaching conversation with both of those employees, but the quality of that conversation is very different. This is actually a big thing where a lot of managers that have been thrown in the deep end, their thing is, “well I have to treat everybody the same whether they’re in the office or not.” The fact is you don’t. What you have to do is treat everybody equally. You may need to work differently. I’ll give you a really silly example. I don’t like people particularly, but I do really well with small doses of frequent communication.
JEFF: [laughing] Fair enough. Okay.
WAYNE: Right. So, when Kevin Eikenberry, who’s my boss, I live on the other side of the country in a different time zone, I have found what works really well is, every morning I get up and the first thing I do is, I send him a Slack message, say, “Good morning. How’s it going? Anything I need to know? Four mornings out of five, he says, “nope, carry on,” or “what are you working on today? Okay. Fine. Good.” It takes 30 seconds and we’re done. I’ve had the communication I need to keep me on track. If there’s something I need to know there’s an opportunity to get it, I can check my assumptions about what I should be working on, and I need that.
There are people on Kevin’s team that he talks, and by talk, I mean communicate within some form, once a week, and they’re fine with that. If I go two or three days without checking in and making sure that I’m working on the right things, I get really neurotic and crazy.
JEFF: (24:37.3) You’re also saying that four out of five days he says, “nope, everything’s fine,” but that means one day a week there’s, “oh, thank you for reminding me. I do have something I need to let you know.” We oftentimes assume that all communication is proactive. If someone has something to communicate then they will do it. But oftentimes it’s reactive. It needs to be drawn out of them, and so it’s good to check in.
WAYNE: You know what it’s like. There’s a 9:30 meeting in the conference room, so people start walking into the conference room, and you see Alice come in and go, “oh, Alice, I owe you that thing, let me send it to you as soon as I get back to my desk.” There’s all that stuff that goes on. The word that you use is really important, and we’re using it more and more around here, which is that idea of proactivity, which is buried in a whole bunch of stuff. Proactivity sounds like if something needs doing you do it, which is, kind of an assumed behavior with grownups. What proactivity also means is my teammate I see is struggling something. Am I stepping up to answer that question? Or, this email thread is going on forever and it’s not going anywhere, am I comfortable saying, “hey, this is nonsense. Let’s call a meeting and talk about this.” Or, “I think I’m doing the right thing, but I’m not scheduled to talk to my boss till next Tuesday, so I’m just going to keep working on this and hope I’m doing it right.”
JEFF: That’s where I think a lot of this comes down to culture. Because that fear really depends on how your company handles, what communication looks like within the company. Do people get trounced on when they show some vulnerability? Or is it the kind of place where you can say, “hey, I’m a perfectly experienced person who’s qualified for my job, and yet I am very confused about what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”
WAYNE: I’m imaging people listening to this, and I know because I used to do this. Whenever the word culture comes up, people roll their eyes and say, “here comes the HR thing.” But the fact of the matter is that for most of us on a day to day level, culture is simply the word for ‘this is how we do it here’. The thing is you either mindfully, intentionally create the culture that you want to have, or one will form organically.
JEFF: [laughing] Or it will happen to you. Like a tumor.
WAYNE: (27:36) Right. You make decisions about this is how we do things here. One of the hardest things to do for a manager, people think that creating a culture from whole cloth is hard. No, the real challenge is you’ve now been put in charge of this team, or you were put in charge and things were going fine and now it isn’t, and now we need to course correct.
JEFF: Lots of times managers come into a company and they’re trying to pattern match on the larger company culture, oftentimes [laughing] misunderstanding what’s happening. We sort of veer towards this more protected default, particularly in corporate environments. But I do think if you’re running a team, you can create a culture for that team, even within the larger company that might have a different culture.
WAYNE: Absolutely. That’s where it starts. You can’t say, “boy this company is really shame and blame, and we ought to do something about that.” [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] No.
WAYNE: [laughing] Right. That’s not going to happen. But what you can say is, “I know what’s going on out there and with this team for this group of people, let’s work on that.”
JEFF: And maybe lead by example. If you believe, and I believe, you can be more productive by getting rid of that shame and blame culture, show it. [laughing] Wayne’s got this great team. Look how productive and happy they seem to be. He’s got zero turnover and how can we replicate that within the larger company, is a better message than knocking on the CEO’s door and saying, “hey, I’m Wayne. I just got hired here. [laughing] I want to tell you some things I have on my mind”.
WAYNE: It’s really interesting when you’re talking about trying to change team culture, because one of the things we were talking about, stealth telework, one of the things that happens is the team is working really well. Now we are either hiring you remote people or we’re letting people be remote, and so now we have this charming thing called a hybrid team, where some people are in the office a majority of time and some people are working remotely. And for the first six months or year, it works great because everybody was part of the original team. “I know Bob, and so I know Bob is a really good worker, so I don’t worry about the fact that he’s remote because it’s Bob.”
JEFF: Right. “Cause we had lunch together for the first three months that he was here.”
WAYNE: “We have history and so I don’t worry about it.” But, as you bring new people in as Bob is no longer there every day for a year or so, and we don’t really know what’s happening in Bob’s life, in his head, in his world, in his work, you start to see fractures. And, that hybrid team is really kind of a hot bed, and it’s first often the first sign, that you’ve got a culture problem.
WAYNE: (30:59.2) Because you start getting a lot of us and them. The remote people feel like second class citizens. They dial into meetings and can’t get a word in edgewise, and the people in the room are dominating the meeting.
JEFF: And there’s joke’s like, “are you even wearing pants, Bob?” Things like that.
JAMES; Yeah. Like I’m sitting here all day in my AC/DC T-shirt and my bunny slippers and not doing anything. And by the way, the people in the home office are getting all the delegation assignments. They are getting promoted.
JEFF: Yeah, but they have the commute, so they deserve more, because they have to sit in traffic.
WAYNE: And we have to wear big boy clothes every day.
JEFF: It’s just not an even playing field anymore. It’s not fair.
WAYNE: What happens is that you get these resentments, and sometimes managers exacerbate that unintentionally. (32:01.2) Here’s a really simple thing that managers do all the time. I’ve got employee A who’s part of the in-house team and I’ve got employee B, and employee B does a great job on something. And, like a good manager, I reward that, I recognize it, I make sure the person who works remotely knows that I appreciate the great job they did. And, you know who else on the team heard that? Nobody.
WAYNE: So, even though person A and person B both did a great job, person A got told that in front of God and everybody, and everybody knows what a good job person A did, but person B is out in the provinces somewhere and we don’t really know what they’re doing. The manager knows what a good job they’re doing, but the rest of the team doesn’t get that information.
JEFF: I think remote work is a really interesting experimental study. We’ve kind of got it under glass here, and you’re starting to kind of pull apart, what is communication? How does communication work? There is synchronous communication and asynchronous communication, but there’s public communication and private communication, and with all of these things, there’s sort of these, shades of gray in between. We are so used to this happening in this innate, primal primate kind of way that you don’t think about it, you’re just like, “well, Bob works at home. I talk to Bob on Skype, so I’m going to tell Bob on Skype how great a job he did.” And it seems like extra formal, or some sort of contortion to try and find a format for that communication that can give Bob the recognition of his peers. But, it’s really, really important.
WAYNE: (33:58.9) Communication has two levels, and the challenge with technology is that technology handles one level really well. Part of communication is data transfer. Thee is a message that I am sending from me to you. You can do that in an email, IM, carrier pigeon, whatever you want to use. Technology allows you to do that data transfer, extremely efficiently. The other part of communication is the context, the understanding, the inference, and that will never be anywhere other than in the heads of the people communicating with each other. So, if I don’t take into account the emotional, empathetic context of the message, just engaging in data transfer creates all kinds of problems. If you have ever sent an email and then spent three days apologizing for it, you’ve seen this in action.
JEFF: [laughing] Yeah.
WAYNE: Right. “All I was doing was telling you….” “I wasn’t judging you…”
JEFF: “I want to get all of my arguments in one email and I’m sorry that I inadvertently took your head off.”
WAYNE: Or, “I’m sorry I freaked you out,” or “that you didn’t get the tone of the email,” because you can’t see that I kind of chuckled when I wrote that. So, if we’re going to use technology, and we have no choice is we work remotely, it’s literally our lifeline, we still need to have the mindset of a great communicator, a true leadership mindset when we’re thinking about that. You can’t separate one from the other. How’s that for a lecture?
JEFF: I love it. You’ve got a captive and responsive audience here. This is great. (36:03.7) I’m curious to revisit our manager in the waiting lounge at the airport. One of the things you said about that was this idea of starting meetings with “let’s get down to business,” and then also just the whole concept of the distracted manager over the phone. We’re outlining that as what’s not good. Those are probably not great behaviors. What do you recommend as the good behavior for those kinds of things?
WAYNE: Again, it goes back to first principles. As a leader, what should you be doing? I use this argument with meetings all the time. People say, “well, you know Skype meetings aren’t as good as being in person.” I go, “okay.” So, what would happen in person?
JEFF: Right. And here again you need to dissect it. You need to take it all apart. The things that you hardly notice in person, of sitting down and making eye contact, and maybe somebody making light of something, or a joke, or talking about the weather and how are the kids. You hardly notice that. That’s not the meeting. The meeting doesn’t start until we say the meeting starts. But it is the meeting. Right?
WAYNE: Right. So, what you just did is, you can break that out. My argument, and this is true of phone calls of meetings, of whatever, is, what does a good one look like? And given the constraints that you’re working under, how do we make that as close to that optimum experience as we can? So, when people say, “oh, well, I like to use a show of hands,” you know on WebEx there’s a button that says, “raise hand”. “Well, I like to use a lot of flipcharts and stuff,” there’s a whiteboard in every meeting tool that there is. We make jokes. Are you encouraging people to use Chat or are you telling them not to use it because it’s a distraction? Because there’s great stuff happens in Chat. People ask questions. We bust each other’s chops. We make little jokes. It’s so funny because people go, “oh, that’s unprofessional.” It’s what we do in meetings. It’s how we get to know each other.
When Skype for Business came out, I was outraged because I’m old and I’m a dinosaur, and I was outraged that there were like 50 emoticons in the Chat section of Skype for Business. I was like, what is this nonsense, darn kids with their rock and roll. What I realized very quickly because I do it, is, people were using those emoticons to make jokes, tease each other, react to something that was said, because they’re desperate for that kind of connection and for the same humor and social bonding that they get in the live meeting. I encourage that silliness now. If somebody gets way out of control in Chat you send them a note and say knock it off. It never happens. I would rather people are using emoticons and teasing each other in the Chat and doing all that good stuff because I know they’re engaged. They’re engaging with each other. It’s the same thing with that call. One of the things we teach at Remote Leadership institute (he says, name dropping).
JEFF: Was that the Remote Leadership Institute?
WAYNE: I believe I said Remote Leadership Institute. Yes, I did. Anyway, one of the things that we teach is this concept of using the right tool for the right job. We use the concept of richness versus scope. Are you familiar with this?
JEFF: I may be under, sort of a different terminology.
WAYNE: (40:03) It’s one of those blinding flashes of the obvious that a consultant came up with and I went, “holy cow, that’s what I’ve been trying to say”. What it basically means, is, all communication is a balance of richness. Richness is you and I having a cup of coffee, one on one. I could read your body language, your tone of voice, your facial expressions. It’s informal so if you have a question you can just ask it, it’s not a big deal. It’s wonderful and it’s completely impractical.
WAYNE: [laughing] Right. If you get more than one or two people involved in the conversation the richness drops, the dynamic changes, and of course it doesn’t account for things like this does. Email has great scope. A thousand people can get the same message at the same time, in the same way. But we know that there are messages you send my email and there are messages you send in person. All the other tools at our disposal, synchronous, asynchronous, web meetings, webcams, all that good stuff, fits somewhere on that spectrum of richness versus scope. So, we need to think about, given the communication task at hand, what is the right tool to use. And we’ll go back to coaching conversations. Yeah, I can schedule a coaching conversation on my cellphone in between sales calls. I can do that. Is that the right way to handle that particular thing?
JEFF: Right. Because those should be the rich calls. Those should be the deep calls where you’re digging in and you shouldn’t be distracted.
WAYNE: (41:45) And, you’re looking for feedback and you want to look the other person in the eye. Well, if you can’t get person to person, what’s the next best thing. Well are we using our webcams on those coaching calls? “Oh no, we don’t use webcams in our culture.” Well, congratulations. You’ve now tied one hand behind your back, so the people in the office are inherently getting a richer, better coaching experience than the people who are remote.
WAYNE: So, one of the things that I really encourage people strongly to do is, look at how your team communicates and make some conscious agreed upon decisions about, for certain communication tasks, how are we going to do it? The one thing that I would say to everybody is, if you’re not using your webcam at least 50% of the time internally, you’re probably missing an opportunity.
JEFF: (42.54) Certainly if you’ve got a hybrid team or a hybrid work environment, yeah. You want to give the remote people as much fidelity as possible. The environments I’ve seen where more audio only kind of stuff can work is when everyone is audio only.
WAYNE: Where there’s a level playing field. It’s funny, I was teaching a class on virtual meetings the other day. Very high-level IT people. We were talking about hybrid meetings and the challenges of having the people in the room dominating, and he went, “why would we take people who are in the office and make them all use Skype instead of meeting in the office?”
JEFF: [laughing] I could talk for about a day about that.
WAYNE: I did the good facilitator thing and said, “what do you think the advantage is?” There’s a bunch of them. First of all, we don’t have to fight for conference space. Second of all, everybody’s at their desk. Third of all, everybody in the meeting is communicating in the same way. Everybody can see everybody because they have access to webcams, and they encourage them to use their webcams.
JEFF: Everyone could see the emojis. [laughing]
WAYNE: Everybody could see the emojis and engage equally in the conversation. There’s a bunch of reasons, and it’s not like every meeting has to go that way, because let’s face it, donuts in the meeting is a thing.
JEFF: Ruining remote work. [laughing]
WAYNE: You might want to think about certain meetings if you’re really brainstorming and collaborating and you want equal input from everybody, how about everybody’s using the same tool as richly as possible? We’re not talking about a conference call; we’re talking about a web meeting where we’re using a whiteboard and we’re sharing our cameras with each other and engaging in both synchronous and asynchronous communication. It’s not as good as having every member of the team in a meeting together, but it’s pretty darn close.
JEFF: Yeah. Again, I want to visit another thing you mentioned earlier which was, that remote employees oftentimes work too much. Talk to me about that. I’ve certainly seen that, but what are your thoughts about why that happens? (45:33) How that happens? If that’s a good thing or a bad thing, and sort of the parts that oftentimes managers aren’t thinking about around that?
WAYNE: I think some of it happens for the right reasons and some of it happens for the wrong reasons. The right reasons are that people are conscientious and they actually do care about their work. If they get an email on their phone at a non-work hour and somebody has a question, their Pavlovian response is to be a good teammate and respond. It’s just kind of a thing. I want to help. I want to be responsive. I want to be seen as a proactive worker. So, some of it is that. If you’re working across time zones that tends to happen. So that’s a good thing. The other thing is because we have flexibility as remote workers, if I decide I want to go to the gym in the middle of the day for an hour, I’ll just log out and I’ll do an extra hour later on. We’ve got some flexible time. So, as long as that’s what’s happening, if you look at the cumulative time people are working and it’s a reasonable amount of time, I don’t care if somebody’s an email at 11:00, as long as their job description doesn’t require them to be there eight consecutive hours, 9 to 5. That’s the good stuff.
The bad stuff is my boss isn’t here, so I need to show them that I’m working. (47:20) I need to show how hard I’m working. I need to be responsive. I’m maybe not getting as much done during the day as I should and so I’m burning the midnight oil, and so there might be productivity barriers that I’m encountering, but I don’t want my boss to know that.
JEFF: Right. They make jokes that I’m not wearing any pants, so I’m going to show them that I’m super productive.
WAYNE: I’ll show them. Yeah. Exactly right. So, there are good reasons and bad reasons, but if the only evidence you get is somebody’s answering emails at seven in the morning and ten o’clock at night, you don’t know if that’s good or bad. That’s just a thig. That’s behavior. Why are they answering email at seven in the morning and ten at night?
I remember when I was living in California, my boss in California moved to New York, and for awhile we were having this kind of strange contest about who could send the email at the weirdest time of day. [laughing] I’d send an email at two in the morning because I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and do whatever, and he goes, “ha ha-ha, you sent it at two,” and then I’d get one at four, whatever. It took the two of us saying, you know this is nonsense right. This is not healthy. It’s not productive. It’s not good for us. [laughing] It’s like a lot of stuff, and we actually had to do a mutual intervention with each other and say, “this behavior is not okay. We need to get better about compartmentalizing our work.”
JEFF: Yeah, absolutely.
WAYNE: (49:10) Did I leave any other breadcrumbs in this conversation? [laughing]
JEFF: They are all very interesting threads and I keep writing that I want to talk more about that. [laughing] Are there things that managers can do, obviously keep an eye out for emails sent at two o’clock in the morning and it’s not a matter of jumping on and saying, “hey, don’t send emails at two o’clock in the morning.” It’s just, “hey, I want you to know that you do not need to [laughing] send emails at two o’clock in the morning. We don’t expect that of you. You don’t need to feel like we have that culture where you have to do that.”
WAYNE: And, I’m willing to say that that’s probably not an email that you should send. That is the kind of thing, where instead of saying quit sending emails at 10 p.m., the question is, “so you’re sending a lot of emails at night. What’s going on?” Let them tell you. “Well, you know, I had to go to my kids play this afternoon and so I put in a couple extra hours after she went to bed.” Okay. That’s cool. If you got the type of job where you have that flexibility, that’s one of the great joys of working from home. Knock yourself out. If, on the other hand its, “well, you know, I’m trying to be responsive.” Now, it’s time to talk about boundaries.
JEFF: (50:40) I would think some managers would have some nervousness and hesitation about asking some of those kinds of questions, because you start to get into some personal, potentially invasive kind of things, where the answer could be, “I’m going through a divorce.” Even just, “my kids had a play and I was going to make up the time later.” It’s like what’s the line between what’s work. Are managers managing peoples work lives or do they need to pay attention to people’s personal lives, the whole thing. It’s been my experience that it is more of a whole thing kind of thing and you need to allow people to be people and acknowledge that.
WAYNE: Let’s plug in where you just said that. If they were coming into the office every day and they looked like hell and they were dragging and there were a lot of personal, angry phone calls, wouldn’t you ask what was going on?
WAYNE: You might not even have to ask because they would be going crazy and you’d hear about it and it’s relevant information. If there’s something going on that’s impacting somebody’s performance, or there’s something about their performance that’s impacting their personal life. If sending emails at ten at night or one in the morning is creating problems with the spouse, that’s relevant information. I think if you ignore personal stuff, you’re in trouble.
You know when you teach or you coach people you often learn as much as you teach, right? I remember working with a company in Silicon Valley and they had a rather unique problem. They all these brilliant world class coders and whatever and they couldn’t get anybody to take management positions. Everybody just loved being a coder, and I said to them, “why? You took the job and then you left and went back to the bench.” I said, “why would you not want the prestige and the money and the status,” and all that good stuff, and he said, “because code does what you tell it to do the first time and you don’t have to ask how the kids are.”
JEFF: So, maybe it’s something you look for in a manager. Someone who is empathetic, kind of holistically interested in that way. The Peter principle is this idea that people get promoted because they’re good at the thing that they were hired for, into a management position they weren’t necessarily hired for and aren’t necessarily good at, and as you’re saying, might not even be interested in doing.
WAYNE: Well, here’s the thing, and this goes back to management 101, which is again, if you think about leadership, the remote part kind of falls into place, which is the people who are really, really good at a job are not necessarily the ones who can teach it, coach it and be good leaders. If my job consists of writing code for hours and hours at a time with somebody sliding food to me under the door, and not paying attention to any other human being, and that’s what makes me great, and now you’re going to make me the boss of the coders, where I never get to touch a keyboard and my entire job is dealing with other people, that is probably not going to be a good fit.
JEFF: Yeah. (54:51) Just because you’re good at the thing that you would be managing the people doing, [laughing].
WAYNE: And it doesn’t mean that they can’t be good at it. it doesn’t mean that those skills can’t be taught and improved and built upon, but what you can’t do is take that subject matter expert and say, “congratulations, you’re the boss, and by the way you’ve got five people here and four out in the world and go ahead make it work. Let me know how that works for you.” Which is what’s happening to a lot of people, which is why organizations like yours, and mine frankly, exist. Right? [laughing] Our job is to help organizations recognize what the dynamics are so that they can help their people be successful. And, if they need a little extra help, there are resources out there to do it. But the fact that they need help doing that is a fairly recent realization. The move to telework, again, it’s always existed, but really started with the invention of email and really took off 10 years ago with the invention of the smart phone. It’s picking up pace and working ever since. The problem is, we all know, and especially the bigger companies, is, they have policies, and they have procedures, and they have things, and so, HR policy for example, hasn’t caught up with the way that we work. A lot of organizations are struggling. One of the reasons they’re losing their remote workers is that the remote workers are being excluded from the promotion career path. If you choose to work from home, you have chosen lifestyle over your career.
JEFF: Right. And just to make sure that we’re clearly saying this that should not be the assumption.
WAYNE: Unless you’ve given it careful consideration. There are, for example, consulting groups that do a lot of in person brainstorming and that in person, in the room tension and dynamic is an important part of who they are. Okay. If that’s your decision that that is how you want your company to be, and you want to build that, cool.
JEFF: Yeah, I guess so. I mean we see people who sort of semi-retire and move up into the hills in Vermont and telework a little bit, and they are not as connected and not as achieving, perhaps. That’s okay. And I don’t mean to exclude that from what I call remote work. (57:51)
WAYNE: You know when Boeing allowed telework at a high level? When they hired a CEO, who didn’t live in Seattle and said, “I’m not leaving Chicago.”
JEFF: [laughing] Yeah. They said something like 85% of decisions about where corporate headquarters are going to be built have to do with where the CEO lives. It’s usually within five miles of the CEO. [laughing]
WAYNE: “I’m not moving to Seattle we have to make this telework thing work”. Then all of a sudden, the skies opened, and the angels sang and there was telework. IBM had a real problem with one of their consulting groups, and this made all the papers, it was a big deal. The headline was IBM Stopping Telework and Making Everybody Go Back into the Office. It was partly true. They did have this small consulting group performance drop. Their answer was, “that’s it. We all need to be back together.” Okay. Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe the answer also was “we could’ve prepared these people for the challenges.” We could’ve offered them the tools to do the job right and we could’ve held them accountable for their participation and their contributions. Yeah, could’ve done that too.
JEFF: Yeah, right. Just restructure management practices and culture to some extent.
WAYNE: But that requires thinking about, what is this thing that we’re doing. If there’s a company that spends more time gazing at it’s own navel than IBM, I don’t know what it is, and I say that with love. This is what they do for other people. But, when we’re so busy running and every morning we’re just trying to g et the work done, the notion of let’s stop, let’s examine the way we’re working, let’s offer new skill building for these new skills that people are going to have to have, that’s where we are now in leadership development.
Remote work is no longer something that we need to start planning for. It is here. We need to build the skills into our leadership development seamlessly so that we’re thinking about leadership first and location second. But when location becomes an issue, we know how to make that adjustment.
JEFF: So, this is a very subjective question, but (1:00:39) do you feel like we’ve hit the tipping point for remote work? It’s hard to know what that tipping point is exactly. But I know there are a lot of managers out there who are feeling like, “I don’t know if we’re there yet,” or particularly large enterprise companies where there’s these from on high statements of “that’s not what we do.” Talk to me about the trends you’re seeing and what your thoughts are around that.
WAYNE: It’s here. It may never be the majority. It’s funny, Barber the other day was asking me what I did for a living, and I told him, and he said, “well, that’s nice, doesn’t work for me. People can’t send me their heads that I can send back.” There’s always whatever that percentage is, and it’s going to vary company by company and industry by industry. But there is now the 100th monkey has set up their home office and I think we have, in fact, reached a tipping point where a considerable percentage of the thought leadership in your company will be working from home. What are you going to do about it?
JEFF: My prediction [laughing] is, it’s sort of this fits and starts of change anytime. So, we’ve got a lot of people who are talking about this, a lot of people like you and me, who basically figured it out. It’s like, here’s what you need to do. However, I think that there’s a lot of legacy systems and processes and people who are kind of [laughing] afraid of change, that will as we’re saying setup hybrid teams, head into these tragic waters and crash. It will fail. Like IBM, they will pull back and then, we’re still moving forward, this is progress, it’s still [laughing] happening. We still have the tools. This is what people still want, those companies who frankly screwed it up will need to step back and rethink and talk to people like you and me to understand it better and not just step into it thinking, “we can do this, because we do everything.”
WAYNE: I’m a big history geek. I believe this is nothing new. (1:03:19) Things are constantly changing and there’s a spectrum -- some people are ahead of the curve, some people are right on the curve, some people will never get with the program. What we’re experiencing with this has always happened. I’ll never forget there’s a quote from a guy named Claudia Sextus, something. He was the last Roman general in England. He was the guy in charge of the Roman settlement in England. He famously wrote back to Rome saying, “I am no longer entertaining ideas for new weapons. Everything that needs to be invented has been invented, and we just need to keep those darn Scots out of our territory.”
Nothing has changed. Stuff changes and sometimes it feels overwhelming and it’s like, “that’s it. We’re not going to do this.” Well, you know what? It’s going to happen. Email came whether people were ready for it or not. I could’ve given you 10 reasons why email should’ve been kept contained and in it’s cage. But it wasn’t and it wasn’t going to be. Suddenly we have email. It fundamentally changed the way we work. Okay, now we’ve got to deal with it. So, to say, “that’s it. We’re not going to use email anymore because,” no, don’t be an idiot, of course you’re going to use email. You just got to get smarter about how you’re going to do it. And that’s always been the case. There’s always been people who worked remotely, and we had to find a way to make it work.
What we have to do is when it all gets too crazy, we need to stop and say, “what is the right thing to do in terms of the outcome we’re looking for?” “What do I already know” is the right way to handle this, and then given the circumstances we’re under how do we get as close to that ideal situation as we can? People that can do that is making it work.
JEFF: (1:05:34) Yeah. I think the best that we can do is to continue to lead by example and show as I hope to do on this podcast, in each episode, to show what works, and not keep that a mystery from the people that might want to change what they do.
Wayne, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. It’s so much stuff, I feel like we could just keep talking and talking. If people want to follow-up with you to find out more about you or ask you questions and follow-up with anything on this podcast, where should they get in touch with you?
WAYNE: (1:06:18.5) I am not hard to find. The obvious thing, obviously is, our website is www.remoteleadershipinstitute.com. Shockingly my email is, firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s LinkedIn. There’s all kinds of good stuff. I am not hard to find, and I am delighted to talk to anybody who wants to dig down into any of this further. And, of course, “The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership” is out in the world and anybody with an Amazon account or whatever can find it easily enough.
JEFF: Yeah, you could find it on Amazon. The book is called, “The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.” It’s available on Amazon Kindle Audiobook. If you’ve got an Audiobook, that’s great.
WAYNE: It’s everywhere.
JEFF: You got an audio CD of the book. That’s great. [laughing]
WAYNE: Barnes and Noble chapters, Waterstones, whatever country you’re in, it’s coming out in three languages this year. Get the book.
JEFF: There you go. Well, thanks Wayne. I really appreciate it. Take care.