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InfoQ Homepage Presentations Hybrid-Remote Done Right: Evaluate the Remote Employee Experience

Hybrid-Remote Done Right: Evaluate the Remote Employee Experience

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Summary

Kaleem Clarkson discusses what to consider before making a decision on the workplace flexibility policy, and how to assess the remote employee experience to help guide decisions.

Bio

Kaleem Clarkson is the chief operating officer of Blend Me, Inc a remote employee experience consultancy that helps startups and small businesses onboard, engage and retain their remote teams. With nearly 20 years of strategic operations and event planning experience, he helps leadership implement people operations solutions that increase productivity and engagement for stakeholders.

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Transcript

Clarkson: Where I started learning about remote work, started in 2012. I went to this conference presentation, DrupalCon, Denver. I'm a Drupal person. Matt Westgate is the cofounder and CEO of a company called Lullabot. They do big things. They build big websites: marthastewart.com, Sci-Fi channel. They even won an award in 2012 for the site they did for the Grammy. A real inspirational company and a leader in the space. I'm sitting and listening to a session and he's talking about these five myths. These myths about remote companies or virtual companies. A term that he talked about in there that I had never heard before, was the term fully distributed. He talked about all of these assumptions that most people make. This is 2012 now, nine years ago. One of them was like not a real company. You're a virtual company, so you must not be real. You've heard that one. You don't have an office you must not be real. Communication is inefficient. We can't communicate well, because we just need you right at our fingertips. Like, I want to be able to grab it real quick.

No teamwork. We can't be a team if we're not there together. We can't collaborate. We can't do these things. It's lonely if it's going to be remote. The best and last one is, there's no sustainable way to do it. This session was just really inspiring to me. It was really my introduction to remote work. I was just fascinated by his showing pictures of his employees, and where they're living all over the country. Then he's showing pictures of their retreat and how much fun they're having. How important those moments were, to him and their teammates, while they're getting together at their retreat.

The Remote Work Education Continues (2012 - 2013)

Just like most of us, you go to that conference, you get that jazz. You're jazzed up. I'm basically high off success. While back from DrupalCon, Denver back to Atlanta, and on the way back, I'm thinking, "Remote work. This is fascinating. I never really thought about it this way." I continue my remote work education. I started off with, "The Year Without Pants." Then I read the book, "Rework," and then, "Remote." Read those two books. I'm totally bombed out by the controversy from the Basecamp stuff that just happened recently. I am optimistic that Jason and DHH will learn from that experience. Regardless of how you feel about that, their books on remote work and culture, were really instrumental for me and for a lot of organizations moving forward. I still recommend those books. I appreciate everything that they have done in years past for these books, because it's significantly helpful. We're learning about these books, and we're learning about this stuff. My partner, she had actually graduated from University of Connecticut, with her master's degree in organizational development. Again, at that time, we're talking 2013. We weren't seeing a lot of positions of VP of people. We weren't seeing a lot of strategic HR positions. They weren't as popular as they are today.

Founded Blend Me, 2013

I basically tried to convince her that, why don't we start our own company? Let's start our company. We called it Blend Me, Inc. We're a company that helps remote companies with improving the remote employee experience. We're people operations professionals. We kept it as a side hustle, and we were super happy with that. We just kept moving on and consulting with companies here and there. We're very selective. That was the real beginning to where we started and how we got involved with the idea of a remote employee experience.

Hybrid-Remote Experiences, 2019

I want to talk about hybrid remote work in 2019. I'm going to do my best, Lost in Present. I'm going to tell two parallel stories. I ended up leaving higher education, and I end up getting a full time engineering job with Oomph, based out of Providence, doing Drupal work. It was great. It was awesome. They were a company that had a group of employees based out of Providence, and about another 15 employees that worked remotely around the country. This is 2019, before the pandemic. I am loving it. I'm fully remote. My partner's going to her office every day. My daughter's going to school. During the day, I was able to ride my mountain bike. I started losing some pounds. Started shedding a little weight. Gained that all back the past year. It was really cool. Because of the research that we had done, and because of the consulting we had done in the past, I knew I needed to get out there and meet people. I was going to meetups. You can see literally the cheesy, typical picture of remote work. That's me working at Rome, a co-working spot. I've really enjoyed going to these different places.

If you were going to ask me, Kaleem, would you recommend remote work to your colleagues? That would be a 100% yes. I was so all in. It was literally as advertised. Also, the organization was really well set up for doing remote work well. My colleague, Stephanie, who we absolutely love. She's a 21st century woman. She's our neighbor. We've known her, going on 12 years. She's independent. She doesn't need a partner. She's the VP of product of a software company that's doing very well. She's that type of person that gets up at 5 a.m., crushes the CrossFit class. She's ready to go at 7:00. On top of that, she's a really energetic person. I don't want to say she's bubbly. No, that's not really the right term. She's that type of person where you're in that Monday morning meeting on at 8 a.m., and you're still getting in that first cup of coffee, and you want to ease your day in. She just comes in ready to go. She's that type of person. The reality of the situation is that it's infectious. She's infectious. Her team really thrives off that energy. Their company is a hybrid company where they have trainers all over the country, but they also have a home base here in Atlanta. That's the type of person that she is. That was life before the pandemic.

March, 2020 - Location Independence

We move on to March of 2020, and the pandemic hits. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I'm not a doomsday prepper. Although I've watched "The X-Files" 100 times, so I love it. The reality of the situation was that there was a lot of stuff happening here in Atlanta. People stealing the toilet paper, fights over the toilet paper, the water. We actually made the decision to head out to Maine. We felt like it was time to maybe go to a different place and go spend some time with our in-laws for a little bit. As soon as they closed the schools, we ended up getting three one way tickets to Maine and enjoying some time. The reason I have this picture here is at that time, the globe, people in the U.S., especially, we all have this injection of location independent, this feeling of freedom. We were out of the birdcage. We were feeling it. Really, it felt liberating.

While I had worked remotely before, my partner still had to go into the office, my daughter still had to go to school. With the schools closed, and with most offices being remote, we had that opportunity to feel that freedom. I would say that we weren't the only ones, we're supported by the droves of people that were leaving San Francisco, leaving New York, leaving any big city, because their priorities shifted. People wanted to be safe, so they took that into consideration. Also, a lot of people made a decision to spend more time with their parents, maybe their elderly parents or their family. During that first month, it was like the honeymoon period. All the articles were talking about how great it was to be able to go for a walk and meet all these people. Everyone was just so happy. It was great. At that time, if you were going to ask, and I remember seeing the surveys, most people were like, "I never want to go back, this is the best thing that's ever happened."

April 2020 - Present Remote Work during the Pandemic

Fast forward about a month, two months, most people had to deal with homeschooling. For Stephanie, again, she's that energetic person. She's the person that comes in, gets her team motivated to plan the event here and to get her trainers to this spot. To think positive all the time, even when there's times down. She's that type of person. Her team thrived on that, where she rarely had any turnover. Most of the people in a company have been there for a very long time and a lot of that is attributed to her. As time progressed, her company, just like most companies, made the decision to go fully remote. They were hybrid before, and they had to go fully remote quickly. Her ability to create that environment that everyone loved and everyone was used to before, it was hard to deal with Zoom fatigue. I love talking to you now, but after we're done with this call, we're all going to hope we get a chance to relax. We started seeing the shift. As a single person, I feel like in this whole remote work view, we're not putting enough light on people who are single. She started feeling that sense of isolation and loneliness, and that challenge started becoming a problem. The walls started closing in on her, she said.

It was funny because we were literally just talking about this last week, chilling at the pool, and she was like, "I upped my membership at the car wash to unlimited so that I could go to the car wash every single day even if my car wasn't dirty." Another one, she really started walking in the community. We enjoyed each other's company and stuff like that, but she met a lot more people in the community because she was walking. Then, she would even go to Walgreens. For so many people when you're talking about homeschooling, and you're talking about these things, remote work from about April, May, June to present, it has a really different feel than it did in that great honeymoon period. Even for our family. We flew to Maine. We were in Maine from March until June. The challenges of dealing with homeschool were real. My partner, her role in her company was more of a managerial meeting centric type job. She was just on Zoom call after Zoom call, while trying to ensure that our little one was paying attention at homeschool. On top of that, I was having a tough time too. I was working on a large website at the time. Blue Cross Blue Shield was difficult. It was challenging. I struggled a lot.

Our experiences were different, including our daughter. She didn't have her friends to play with. She was on the screen, and then she would go outside and play by herself because she couldn't really play with any friends. Then on top of that, we were struggling because there were five of us sharing space. We were staying with our in-laws. The three of us plus our in-laws. Again, those experiences and those circumstances, they changed. If you were to ask me now, would I recommend remote work to everyone during that time? I would have said absolutely not. Fast forward to today where school is back in session, my opinion has basically changed a little bit.

1. Different Preferences and Circumstances for Every Person

Why are we talking about those things here? Two main points that we want to get across here as far as the remote employee experience. The reality of the situation is that I just described two different scenarios, prior to the pandemic, and during the pandemic we're still in now. Within that, every person has different preferences and different circumstances that are going to change how they feel. Implementing a remote work program without taking all of these things into consideration is a big challenge. Number one, different preferences and different circumstances for every person.

2. Evaluating Remote Work during a Pandemic May Not Be Accurate

Number two, assessing or evaluating remote work during a pandemic, may not be accurate. I talked about the honeymoon period. We had our honeymoon period in that first month. As organizations start requiring people to go back to the office, there's going to be a lot of people that are very happy to be back in the office. There's going to be a honeymoon period of returning. High fives, "I haven't seen you in a long time, Jim." There's going to be a lot of excitement to be back in the office. There's going to be people that are excited about that. How long is that honeymoon going to last? How long before the commute starts to wear you down again? How long is it before you can't go see your child's game, or you can't pick them up from school like you were doing before, or you can't take your pets for a walk? How long before that honeymoon period of seeing your people, seeing your friends in person is going to wear off?

What Is the Remote Employee Experience?

What is the remote employee experience? What are we talking about? There are a lot of new definitions for remote employee experience. I think Slack just came up with a new definition on the Future Forum. I believe they have a thing called the Remote Employee Experience Index. There's no right or wrong definition. We had to come up with something. You can't get away from Gallup. They're everywhere. During that time, we found their chart of what the employee experience was. As we were looking at it, we're like, that makes total sense. It looks great. That's that green chart on the bottom. As we're looking at it more, we're thinking, what's different about remote work, though? Is this the same thing for remote work? Yes, absolutely. There were two pillars that we identified, trust and responsibility. There it is. We came up with our little fancy acronym, The Remote Employee Experience, what we call TREE. Trust and responsibility are the roots. An employer must establish trust with their employees. That they're going to get the task done at a high level of engagement. It's assumed trust. It's not like trust is there and it's going to have to be assumed. Then at the same time, the employee must trust the employer that they're going to follow through on the things that they talked about. That they're going to follow through on what their missions says, and of what their mission and their culture is reflecting, and how they've written it.

Then you have responsibility. The employer must take on the responsibility for providing adequate and physical knowledge and resources to get the job done. That's the responsibility of the employer. Then the employee must take on the responsibility of getting the job done, and really asking questions, and asking for candid feedback when they need it. Then moving on, then you have to write the correct job descriptions. Then you have to onboard them correctly. You have to engage them. Then you have to work on their performance evaluations. Then you develop them for training. Then you got to have a good offboarding process. The remote employee experience is that complete employee life cycle, like a big circle. The life cycle is pretty much from the day that someone views your job advertisement to the day that they retire. That is the complete employee experience.

Self-Assessment - Individual Contributors

Self-assessment. Why as an individual contributor should you evaluate your own remote employee experience? Understanding your personal preferences and circumstances, it's going to help you maximize your productivity. If you know for example, that I'm more productive from 11:00 to 1:00, then maybe you should block that time out and get that done. On top of that, it also sets expectations. It sets the expectations with your team members. You can tell your team members, from 1:00 until 3:00, I'm going to go for a jog, or I'm going to take my dog for a walk at 1:00 every day. Then I'm going to go for a jog. Then maybe I'm going to do some yoga, so that you can take care of yourself, so that you can make sure that you're doing the things you need to do to stay healthy. These things are really important. We've all heard of all the books about self-reflection, and things like that, but being true to yourself and really understanding these things are really important for you as an individual to work on your work-life integration and self-care. We use work-life integration instead of work-life balance. We just believe you can't be two people, so we use work-life integration. If you're not carving out time for self-care, you just have not been paying attention in the past 12 months or so. It's really important for individuals to take that assessment.

Understanding Your Team Dynamics - Managers

Moving on to managers. Why should managers assess the remote employee experience? It helps you understand your team dynamics. You have a team. A team is a collection of individuals. You can try to manage. I think that's where a lot of people are having challenges. It's difficult to manage everyone the same. If you want to manage your team effectively, you have to take into consideration some of the individual preferences. This helps managers also set expectations for the team. Most importantly, it helps you build trust. We talked about the importance of trust. Because it's going to allow you to be more empathetic. It's going to allow you to gain more empathy for their situation. That's really important for managers as well.

Designing a Workplace Flexibility Policy - Data

Designing a workplace flexibility policy. This section here, I just find this really comical. You can see this article here. Workers expect employers to let them down for the future of remote work. You can see Goldman Sachs talking about remote work as an abomination. You can see Google, they had to backtrack on their remote work policy. For me, designing a workplace flexibility policy based on leadership's preferences, or based on maybe other factors such as real estate investments already, throwing out the empty phrase of, we're having a difficult time with our culture. It's really an empty statement. The reality is that leadership is projecting their personal preferences on the organization as a whole. You don't want to be backtracking. Google's fine. Any time a company comes out to the news and says, we have to backtrack.

Personally, I just don't feel like that that's a good look. All of those things could be avoided by you just going ahead and talking and assessing these types of things with your employees first. What are some ways that you could assess those? Obviously, surveys are good, because you have data that you can look at.

Things such as open forums are really great for people to ask questions to leadership in an open area where they can respond to everyone, because most people are going to have very similar questions.

A/B Test Remote Work Preferences - During and After the Pandemic

The other way that you can do this, you got to A/B test. We got to move to A/B testing. We were talking about whether you should assess the remote employee experience during the pandemic. Why would you want to maybe wait until after the pandemic? We've talked about how those attitudes and variables and circumstances changes what people want and what people need. Many people will feel differently after the pandemic, because your remote work preferences will change. Loneliness, isolation, communication, those issues can all be resolved when we can all safely get together again, in large and small groups. It's really important. In a perfect world, we would suggest that you assess the remote employee experience before the pandemic. If you're already doing that, that would have been great. Assess the remote employee experience during the pandemic, because you have to. I think that's an important point that I'm trying to make here is that, yes, you have to assess the remote employee experience no matter what. We're currently in a pandemic. If you can go ahead and assess it now, great. Before you go ahead and write that policy, try to wait until after the pandemic, after that honeymoon wears off, and see what it is that comes out of those results.

The idea behind this is everyone has different preferences. You shouldn't be assessing the remote employee experience during a pandemic.

Questions and Answers

Hogbin: You talk about measuring. One of the difficult things about measuring is that you always want the data starting from six months ago. What can people start recording today? What metric can people start thinking about or recording, even if they don't do it very well? Where can they start measuring to think about what an evaluation might look like 6 months from now, a year from now, 18 months down? What data will they want to have in the future that they could start collecting now?

Clarkson: We're obviously talking about hybrid remote work. I think some of the obvious ones would be, what are people's preferences for how many times they want to go into the office? Ask it now. Of course you have to evaluate it now because we don't have a choice. Measure how many times people want to go into the office now during a pandemic. What I meant to say was, do not write the policy or write the structure of how that's going to work until you get a chance to measure that same exact question. Ask the same exact question, with the same exact words, with the same options a month after the honeymoon. Because I feel like there's always a honeymoon period of each one. Everyone's going to be high five and being back in the office, but we all know as soon as you get stuck in that accident traffic, especially in Atlanta, that's all going to change.

Hogbin: Chris has already mentioned that he or she is very glad to not have the 3-hour commute time on the train. Definitely, there are some people who are still in the honeymoon period of not having to do that commute.

Do you have any recommendations for building mentoring into remote work?

Clarkson: Mentoring is difficult, because we're all on these Zoom calls all the time. I'm not quite sure how great people were doing with mentoring prior to the pandemic. I would say, especially for managers, just get on a consistent basis. I love it when companies schedule it on your first day with a repeating calendar invite. The first day, I got a year repeating calendar invite with my direct supervisor. I thought that that was really cool, because it's scheduled. It's real. I'm not going to say let's talk and then I don't hear from you months. If you've seen any remote work consultants or advocates talk about, everything is intentional. You have to be intentional in every aspect of everything.

Hogbin: There's a number of different questions that are along the theme of, how do you bring people in if they're remote, or what are some meeting strategies to engage teams that are half in the office, half at home, or half remote? Any strategies that you can share to engage people in a hybrid meeting?

Clarkson: Owl Labs is going to hate me for saying this, because I think Owl Labs little owl is the coolest thing ever invented. I don't know if any of you know what it is. It's this little owl you put in the middle of the table, and it automatically jumps to who's speaking on the Zoom camera. It's pretty neat. It's pretty cool. One-hundred percent, this is the piece of advice that we give to all of our clients all the time, you have to do all video. No matter what, in a hybrid situation, you're creating an A team and a B team. For me back in middle school, there was an A team, or in university. If you weren't quite good enough, they put you on the B team. It was still fun, though. You still got to play. The point is that everyone has to be on an equal playing field. Our advice is to put everyone on Zoom, or whatever video conferencing tool that you're using. It just makes everybody feel equal. I think the name of the game, when you do hybrid, is you have to act as if you are a fully distributed company, or an all remote company. You have to be remote first. People have heard that term. Remote first means you're acting as if you're working remotely.

Hogbin: We've got a few more questions around the specifics of what to measure. I think you gave one really good example on, do you really want to be in an office, yes or no? Then to ask that repeatedly.

Clarkson: It's really important to get the frequency so that you can adjust your policy and instructions based on how frequently people want to go on. Another one that I would say would be, we have our own assessment. At what times are you the most productive? Someone said I love waking up 20 minutes before I have a meeting, or 20 minutes before having to work. Different people adopt different times for different reasons. This whole Zoom and Slack fatigue, the reason why it's fatigue is because we're all trying to assume that we need to meet one after another. Hopefully, some of you saw Tammy's presentation on asynchronous versus synchronous. The idea here is that if you explain when I'm the most productive and set your guidelines, you're just setting yourself up for success. You're setting expectations. If I say I'm more productive from 8:00 to 11:00, then maybe you should email me from 8:00 to 11:00. If I'm not going to work from 11:00 to 1:00 because I want to go walk my dog or go for a run, I'm not going to respond. I think, what times you're the most productive is a really good one.

What are your biggest challenges while working remotely? That's a question I steal from Buffer. Buffer does a wonderful job on the state of remote work. They're great. I think understanding what people's challenges are while working remotely, is really important. What I've noticed in the state of remote work, which was fascinating, was before the pandemic, I believe loneliness was the number one challenge or biggest struggle. Then, I assumed during the pandemic, loneliness would be number one again, but it didn't. I think it changed to collaboration and communication. I think those are really important. You want to during the pandemic and a post-pandemic time, just for that reason. Things change. Circumstances change.

Hogbin: Where can people find you on the internet?

Clarkson: I'm Kaleem Clarkson everywhere, just Kaleem at Twitter.

 

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Recorded at:

Oct 30, 2021

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