An employee works remotely from her home with help from LifeSpeak's expert tips.

How to Make Remote Working a Success: Q&A With Lisette Sutherland

By Lisette Sutherland, Director of Collaboration Superpowers June 11, 2021

HOW DID YOU BECOME AN EXPERT IN REMOTE WORKING?

I am not, at all, an “expert” in remote working. I struggle with many of the same things that everyone else does (communication, work-life balance, alignment, etc). I am, however, very enthusiastic about remote working. Personally, I love the freedom it offers. The simple desire to work from home was what started it all. And then I just started talking to people, collecting tips, and experimenting with technology. Which is what I am still doing today.

I don’t believe that there is one way to do remote working well. It’s a matter of finding what works for you and your team. And ideally, enjoying the process. My role in it all is to help people and companies discover new ways of being “present” at work and to create a roadmap to successful remote working.

WHAT DO YOU THINK HAS CHANGED ABOUT REMOTE WORKING NOW VS BEFORE THE PANDEMIC?

Many skeptics saw that when necessary, it was actually possible to work together anywhere. And, at the same time, many people confirmed that they prefer working with others at the office (and, of course, everything in between).

I think for almost everyone, it has been a rough and stress-filled ride. Working at home during a pandemic is not normal or easy, even for seasoned remote workers. We are all experiencing a period of extreme adaptation with a lot of background stress. I was surprised to see how quickly companies were evolving their focus from “how do we work remotely” to “how do we keep ourselves and our teams from burning out”. It confirms that “how do we keep a work-life balance?” is  far more of an important question for companies than “how do we make sure people are actually working?”

IN THE BOOK, YOU TALK ABOUT NEEDING A TOOLSET, SKILLSET, AND MINDSET TO MAKE REMOTE WORKING SUCCESSFUL. HOW EXACTLY CAN MANAGERS MAKE THIS WORK EFFECTIVELY FOR THEIR TEAMS NOW THAT THIS IS LIKELY GOING TO BE THE NEW NORM FOR MOST COMPANIES?

The answer to this question is basically my entire book. But if I were to succinctly summarize, those tips are:

  1. Agree on how to work together – When we work together in the same place, we can see what people are doing. We tend to have an understanding of each other’s behavior because we can easily observe people and make inferences. When we go remote, we have to make our behaviors more explicit so that there is less room for confusion.
  2. Make it easy to talk to each other – Get the right infrastructure in place. At a bare minimum, everyone should have access to reliable communication technology (internet, phone, webcam, headset, video conferencing tool) and secure access to the files they’re working on. At the office, set up conference rooms to accommodate hybrid meetings.
  3. Focus on well-being – In order to maintain our best work, we need to keep a watchful eye on our energy levels. That means stopping and relaxing every once in a while. Information Systems engineer Andrea Zabala recommends doing the things you always wished you could do when you were working in an office, like having lunch on your patio, going for a walk, even just stepping outside for five minutes of fresh air.

Remember the GOING REMOTE IS A JOURNEY. You won’t get it right on the first try. It’s a series of trials and errors. And the road might be bumpy, but the payoff is a thriving, successful company with happy workers.

WHAT DO YOU THINK THE BIGGEST MISTAKES MANAGERS MAKE WORKING REMOTELY?

It’s hard to say. The people that contact me are all leaders who are looking for help creating a smooth remote working experience for their teams. But I hear horror stories from people about hours-long meetings without breaks, unnecessarily strict rules about when and how much to work, and the installation of monitoring programs to record productivity.

Working remote is a different medium: like the difference between radio and television. Both broadcast information, but in very different ways.  You can’t take the same things you do in the office and apply it to your remote workforce. Some things just don’t translate well.

My advice to leaders is to get yourself trained on how to lead remotely. And it’s a good idea to offer training for the team too. It’s not rocket science, but it’s wise to educate yourself on the latest best practices and technologies that have been developed over the last 5 years. I think people will be surprised by how far we’ve come.

ASIDE FROM THE SHORT COMMUTE AND BEING ABLE TO WEAR YOUR PAJAMAS, HOW IS REMOTE WORKING BENEFICIAL TO IN-OFFICE WORKING?

For years I’ve been telling companies “regardless of whether you want to allow for remote working, you want to have the systems and processes in place in case something happens – like bad weather, sick kids, or just a terrible commute. Your company will only be stronger for it.” I never imagined a global pandemic, but here we are. And being “remote first” has all of a sudden become imperative for company survival.

Many offices will not be able to open and operate at full capacity for a long time. At the same time, some people don’t want to go back to the office, even when it’s safe to do so.

I’ve always promoted the idea that people should be able to work where they are most productive. And I think it’s in both the individual and the company’s interest to find a way that accommodates people being able to choose what is best for themselves and the company. Sometimes that means everyone is in the same place. And sometimes people are global. The future of work is choice. And the pandemic has simply made it necessary to accommodate for that.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE/HATE ABOUT REMOTE WORKING YOURSELF?

Like I mentioned above, I love the freedom remote work offers. I specifically love working from my home office. I have fast internet and a very comfortable setup with multiple monitors, a standing desk, and a nice set of speakers so I can listen to music. I have neighbor cats that come to visit.

I love going running in the middle of the day to refresh my brain. I love going for walks in the nearby forest and listening to podcasts. And on and on.

What I struggle with, like many, is work-life balance. Especially because I am running my own company doing something I love to do. I often overbook myself because I get excited about things. I have to actively work at having a rich, “off-camera” social life – which has become challenging to do during the pandemic. I’ve hired coaches to help me keep focused and on track with my goals.

We’re living in the middle of a global pandemic and these are difficult times. What is making you really happy/feeling optimistic right now?

It makes me happy to see all the experimentation that people are doing – and the creativity. It’s clear that the current technology makes it possible to connect with others at a distance. And it’s also clear how much we value and cherish being together in the same room with other people. I had no idea how much I was taking that for granted.

ANY TIPS FOR HIRING REMOTELY?

I have all kinds of tips here: https://www.collaborationsuperpowers.com/61-hire-the-best-for-your-remote-team/ – feel free to use anything that would speak to your audience. It includes a “cheat sheet” on what to look for when interviewing a remote worker

HOW CAN YOU OVERCOME THINGS LIKE ZOOM FATIGUE IN A TEAM WHEN THERE ISN’T MUCH CHOICE BUT TO HAVE VIDEO-CONFERENCE MEETINGS?

One of the keys to this new remote medium is being more conscientious about how we use our time. An easy place to start is to shorten our online meetings and take a break before the next thing starts. If a meeting is longer than 45 minutes, take a 5-10 minute break in the middle.

The next step is to evaluate if we really need that meeting to begin with – or can the conversation be done asynchronously? For example: If it’s a status update, perhaps it can be posted in a Slack channel or in a tool like iDoneThis.com? For presentations, consider recording a video and sending it for participants to watch before the meeting starts. Instead of brainstorming together on a call, consider posting ideas to an online whiteboard before the call to give everyone a chance to think on their own time. I advocate for reducing the number of meetings you need and improving the meetings you have.

On top of having less meetings, getting better at asynchronous communication means less interruptions and more control over our workday. This plays a major role in improving our work-life balance.

LISETTE SUTHERLAND, Director of Collaboration Superpowers, Author, Lisette Sutherland is the director of Collaboration Superpowers, a company that helps people work together from anywhere through online and in-person workshops. She also produces a weekly podcast featuring interviews with remote working experts highlighting the challenges and successes of working with virtual teams. Lisette is the author of the book, Work Together Anywhere: A Handbook on Working Remotely — Successfully — for Individuals, Teams, and Managers as well as the office manager for the 100 percent remote company Happy Melly, a global professional happiness association dedicated to helping people be happier at work.

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