Book Review: ‘The Remix’ by Lindsey Pollak

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Today’s post is a book review of ‘The Remix—How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace’ by Lindsey Pollak. 

This is a quarterly column where I talk about interesting books through the lens of remote work. I’m not paid for these reviews. I did inadvertently get this particular book as a review copy when I tried to pre-order it in Canada. You can see my previous review here.

I am a big fan of Pollak’s work. She’s a leading expert on the multigenerational workplace, and her newsletter is pithy and well researched. The book is no different. Let’s dive into some highlights.

Differences in World View

Chapter one covers the five generations present in today’s workplace—Boomers, Micro-generation Jones, Gen X, Micro-generation Xennials, and Millennials. Most of us have seen charts that try (and largely fail) to simplify these generations down to stereotypes. Pollak manages to place each generation in it’s historical context, while maintaining nuance. I loved the discussion of differing world views. She cites research from the Pew Research Center, which shows that “40 percent of Baby Boomers and 37 percent of Traditionalists believe…most people can be trusted.” Only 31 percent of Gen Xers and 19 percent of Millennials feel the same. 

So much of today’s work runs on social currency. It’s really helpful to know if you are starting at zero with people or not. Age isn’t destiny, but if you have a younger workforce, Pollak’s research suggests that you will likely have to spend more time building trust. 

This was certainly true when my company went remote. I took on a sizeable number of Millennial direct reports when we left our offices behind. Those folks didn’t know me and they didn’t automatically trust the emails coming out of headquarters. I spent a lot of time getting to know them as people before we could work well together. We ended up in a good place, but the collective company learning curve could have been shorter if we’d had this book in 2009.

As Pollack says, “generational characteristics provide clues—never promises—as to how certain people or actions might be better handled.” Armed with this information, you can avoid the pitfalls that come with assuming everyone shares your level of trust in authority.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m in the ‘Xenniel’—or ‘Oregon Trail’—generation. My basic world view is ‘trust but verify.’

The Remix is for Everyone

The balance of the book helps leaders navigate talent acquisition and retention, people management, training and development, and culture. These sections are geared toward decision-makers, but they’re also useful for anyone who wants to introduce new ways of working into their company. The section on remixing communication is worth the price of the book all by itself. If nothing else, it gives you studies and research you can quote when talking to management about revamping your communication system. 

This book isn’t focused on the remote worker, but many of the communication ‘remix’ ideas work well in our digital environment. I’m thinking of the concept COPE—create once, publish everywhere—in particular. It might seem weird for an employee in an office to send another employee in the same office a short video message instead of just popping over to talk. In the remote environment, a short, engaging video is a welcome change of pace. Pollak has a very detailed example of how to COPE for those of us that like to see an idea in action. 

Common Sense Is Not So Common

In my time as a manager of Millenials, I have:

  • Taught someone how to tie a tie
  • Discussed the pros and cons of accepting the out-of-state university offer
  • Dispensed (requested) marital advice
  • Explained how to call in sick
  • Given too many pep talks to remember.

As Pollak says, ‘common sense’ isn’t so common. Or rather, it’s dependent on your lived experience. 

Skills that previous generations learned at home now have to be learned on the job. It isn’t because Millennials are broken, either. It’s because technology keeps marching on. And you know what? It’s a privilege to  be the person that teaches someone a skill. We should all be on the lookout for ways to help our colleagues and direct reports fill a skills gap.

The training and development section of ‘The Remix’ gives some ideas for things you might need to teach your multi-generational workforce. Millennials may need to learn how to answer a phone properly. Baby Boomers may need help navigating Slack. Really, we all need to up skill in one way or another.

Overall, ‘The Remix’ by Lindsey Pollak is an empathetic, optimistic manifesto for people who want to lead successful companies with an inclusive, multi-generational workforce. If you read it, let me know what you think. 

How to Make Professional Connections When You Work Remotely and Don’t Have Colleagues

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

A little while ago I wrote an article to help remote workers network inside their places of employment. I stand by that advice (it’s what I do in my own work life) but that advice comes with a set of assumptions.

First, it assumes that you have coworkers. If you write, freelance or consult, you may only have clients. Second, I focus on connecting within your company. If you plan to work remotely for any length of time, it makes sense to connect to the greater remote community.

This article discusses resources to do just that. The remote community is large and growing. This is not an exhaustive list–these are the places I frequent because they fit my personality. We’ll also discuss some ways to find communities that fit your particular style.

Remote Communities I Think Are Great

These aren’t affiliate links. I’m not compensated in any way for mentioning these groups. I just like them a lot.

Workplaceless

Workplaceless offers training for remote workers, leaders, and companies. They also run a free monthly networking event. I found out about them in June. They’re well put together, last 60 minutes, and run in Zoom. The Workplaceless folks do a great job of organizing the event so strangers can get together and discuss a remote-centric topic without a lot of awkward silence.

June’s topic touched on the physical and mental health issues of remote workers. We spent 30-40 minutes talking about the topic in small groups of 4-6 people. Then we broke into different groups and had an informal networking session for roughly 20 minutes. In July we followed the same format. Only this time, we brainstormed solutions to the issues we discussed in June. The next event is in September and I am definitely going.

#RemoteChat

This is a discussion that Scott Dawson (@workingrem on Twitter) leads on Twitter on Wednesdays. I really enjoy these chats though you would never know it by how often I manage to answer the questions during the actual session. I’m usually the person who starts writing five minutes before the whole thing ends and forgets to add the #remotechat label to my answers half the time. It’s good fun though. I love reading everyone else’s comments. Someday I’ll get my act together and ask Scott to add me to the reminder list. He also wrote a book that just came out called ‘The Art of Working Remotely.’

Virtual Team Talk

Lisette Sutherland runs this Slack group. The link above leads you to a form where you can apply to join. Lisette describes this as a ‘friction-free’ community to discuss topics related to virtual teams. It’s a good place to find out what other folks are doing in the flexible work space. I’ve helped people with their research and they’ve helped me with mine. The group discussion cadence is pretty relaxed. If you hit a busy period and forget to check in for a week or two it doesn’t take long to get caught up again. We all need those drama-free zones. This one is mine.

Remote AfterWorks

I haven’t actually attended one of these yet, but Laurel Farrer described them to me and it’s my intent to attend one. It’s an in-person meet up of remote workers and thought leaders to discuss the future of location-flexible work. If you go to the link above you can see what the folks in San Francisco will be talking about. It all sounds terribly interesting. If you’re in the SF area, go and then tell me how you liked it.

Ways to Find Remote Work Communities

Everyone is different, and you might decide that the groups I’ve listed above aren’t for you. Each group has it’s own personality and you’ll know when you find your tribe. I thought it might be useful to describe how I found mine so you can find yours.

Cast Your Net Wide

There’s an expression that says ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I find most of my connections by leading with curiosity. Most of us have a preferred way to learn. I like to read things, so I spent a lot of time reading books and articles about remote work.

If you like to listen to learn, do a search for remote work podcasts. I took a look on my iPhone’s podcast app and on Spotify, and the search term ‘remote work’ gave me lots of results. My favorite is 21st Century Work Life, but you do you.

If you want to add face to face interactions into your remote work life, search for meet ups near you. You can use sites like meetup.com, or join a local coworking space. Many of them have mixers or happy hours for their members.

Engage Often

Once you find people whose work you like, find them on social media. And then start commenting on their posts. Those of us who create content and source articles would love to hear what you think of them. Speaking for myself, I love it when people share their thoughts if they’re phrased politely. Just remember to keep the comments relevant to the content. I wish it went without saying, but responding to someone’s work with ‘hey I think you’re cute and would love to get to know you better’ isn’t a compliment. It’s creepy. And ‘good job!’ is patronizing.

Instead, find a specific piece of the creative work that you liked, and tell the person why it resonated with you. If the work makes you think of something else that’s relevant, share that. If you learned something new, say so. If you have additional questions after reading/listening/ watching, ask them. If someone just won an award, congratulate them.

Social media gives you many ways to meet people and build professional connections if you’re a reasonable human being. The big name celebrities may never respond to your comments. Plenty of other folks will. The remote work community is full of smart, generous people. I feel very lucky to know some of them.

Making connections outside your office of one can seem intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. Take the time to engage in the remote work conversation. You will find your tribe. All it takes is a little curiosity mixed with persistence. And if you find a great place to meet other remote workers, let me know. I’d love to share in the fun.

Go With the Flow

Today’s post comes to you from a small town in the state of Washington. The picture above is the view from the back porch of the house where we’re staying, and I couldn’t ask for a more peaceful place to write. I have visions of sitting at the table outside, cup of chai at my elbow as I write in the cool of early morning. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a great dream. I might feel bad about sleeping in except that there are folks here who are awake by five am, and there is no way I’m getting up before then. This is a vacation, not a boot camp. 

The closest I’ve come to my own personal writer’s retreat is to step outside while everyone else is busy elsewhere. The solitude doesn’t last long. I’m sharing the house with nine other people. My family is here, my husband’s friend is here with his wife and kids, and we’re all benefitting from the generosity of the friend’s mom and dad, who own the house. As soon as one person moves to the deck outside, the rest of the crew inevitably follows. 

Unreasonable Expectations

There’s an article I want to share with you. It’s about how to network when you either don’t have colleagues (because you’re an entrepreneur or a freelancer) or you want to network outside of your company. There are some really great resources out there to connect with other like-minded remote workers. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to write that article another week. 

I started writing this post on the deck outside. It took about ten minutes for someone to notice that I was alone, and join me. I tried relocating to the back bedroom with the bad internet. That worked for a little while. Then my kids came back from their bike ride, and I had a series of visitors checking in to see if I was okay, and say hi, and ask for Gatorade, etc. 

At this point I have two choices. I can wedge a chair under the doorknob and refuse to talk to anyone who tries to interrupt me, or I can go with the flow. I haven’t seen this particular family in more than five years, so I’m going to go with the flow. Enjoy your week. I’ll be spending mine enjoying the company of lovely people, in a nice house by the lake. 

Drummer Boy

My son has a drum kit and lessons. I hope our neighbours keep speaking to us.

My son had no idea he was a drummer until last week. I knew. He hears music in everyday things. As a toddler he moved to the music that the wind made as it rattled through the autumn leaves. As a preschooler he boogied to the beat of the dishwasher.

I didn’t do anything about it because drums are really loud and our home is pretty small. He’s young and clearly had no idea he was missing something. But I knew. I knew and a part of me has been on the lookout for when I would have to do something about it.

The breaking point came in the Vancouver airport. There we were, waiting for our flight to California, munching on breakfast sandwiches from Tim’s and trying to stay awake, when the boy started grooving to a beat only he heard.

“Someone’s playing music,” he said, his eyes watching me, waiting to see if I could find the beat he heard.

It took a while. It was early and I was tired and the airport people were paging a long list of passengers who were about to miss their flight to Seattle. They had been paging the people off and on for half an hour and the kids and I heartily wished they would just give up and let the people miss their flight already.

Eventually I heard it. He was bopping to the beat that the printer made as it printed out boarding passes. I bopped along to the beat with him, as I always do, and he went back to playing Minecraft.

I thought, He has no idea. As far as my boy knew, everyone heard the music in ordinary things. And I suddenly couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the thought of keeping him from a piece of himself just because I didn’t want noise in the house. It took until middle school for me to figure out that not everyone could write stories. I wanted him to meet the other piece of himself now.

Taking it to the Street

You can find anything if you know enough people. A few of my neighbours recommended a good place for drum lessons, and I took the kids there without telling them where we were going. I only planned to sign the boy up for lessons, but I ended up coming home with a used drum kit too. In my defence it was a used kit that came in that morning, and I paid half of what it costs new.

So now we have this drum kit in the living room, because that’s the only place it fits. And my boy took his first drum lesson and his teacher says he’s incredible.

All I can say is that it’s awesome watching him with his drum. He’s inspirational. I’m learning guitar so we can form our own band. No one tells me I sound incredible. That’s okay. And we may be wearing noise cancelling headphones in our living room for the next fifteen years, but I don’t mind that either. The boy found his thing. I can’t wait to see where it takes him.

I Am Not Okay

Photo by Dương Nhân from Pexels

My son almost died when he was a baby. And I thought I was okay once we checked out of the hospital. It wasn’t until three months later, when some of the trauma from that experience lifted, that I realized I hadn’t been okay at all.

Denial. Not Just a River in Egypt

I went through that same pattern for about a year. The cloud of trauma would rise up a bit, and I would look back at the previous months and think ‘Why did I think I was okay then? Boy I’m glad I’m okay now,’ until I noticed the number of times I said that. At that point I started worrying that I wasn’t ever going to be okay again.

Panic drove me to therapy. I had small children to care for, a demanding job, and the fallout from the last recession to deal with. I didn’t have time for PTSD or whatever it was that was wrong with me. The plan was to go, talk to someone to take the edge off of things, and then carry on with my life.

That isn’t how therapy works. I know that, now. But at least I went. Up until that point my only real coping mechanisms were denial and knitting, and knitting can only get you so far.

You Can’t Heal if You Don’t Admit You’re Injured

The thing is, you can’t heal if you refuse to admit you’re injured. It’s hard to admit when I’m hurting. I am the super hero of my own life. But sometimes life punches you right in the jaw and you need to admit it hurts.

My company is going through a reorganization. A lot of good people are leaving, and it hurts.

Discomfort Isn’t An Emergency

Let’s talk about running. I promise it’s relevant. Running long distances hurts. Something inevitably chafes, my muscles scream, and sweat gets into my eyes.

Long distances also scrub away the things that don’t really matter–if I can go the distance, I gain a kind of clarity I can’t find any other way. But to get there, I spend the last few miles talking myself through the tired and the pain. I’m not talking about actual injury here. I’m talking about surface discomfort–blisters, fatigue, that sort of thing.

You know what? Discomfort isn’t an emergency. Strictly speaking, if I’m running at the edge of my capability, I’m not okay. But the shortest distance back to okay is to wade right through. Running is the least traumatic way I know of to learn to cope with pain.

Almost

There’s only one word in the sentence ‘my son almost died as a baby,’ that I am grateful for. That word is ‘almost.’ The experience gave me a set of coping skills I wish I could have learned by running instead. And that’s basically where I’m at right now with this reorganization. Coping. My colleagues will find great jobs. At some point this will stop hurting so much. I will put one foot after the other and I will keep going until I push on through.

Can You Call it a Vacation if You Still Have to Work?

Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.

Photo by bruce via Pexels.com

My only niece got married last Saturday. Good aunt that I am, packed up the kids on Wednesday and flew down to attend.

You might expect me to say that I’m glad that I can both vacation and work without missing a beat, thanks to the power of the remote workforce. The truth is that I try very hard to NOT work while I’m on vacation. Just because you CAN work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should. I generally keep work out of my vacations.

Sadly that wasn’t possible this time. My fellow analysts can’t cover all of the work I do. My boss generally oversees the bit that needs special handling while I’m out. Unfortunately he was scheduled to be in Banff (that’s in Canada) that week. Since he wasn’t sure about his WiFi situation and I was going to be staying in Silicon Valley, it made sense for me to cover my own tasks.

Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.

Communicate Your Work Hours

Distributed companies with healthy cultures celebrate remote worker flexibility. Still, people need to know when they can talk to you. Remote workers can’t see when colleagues get to work. We rely on other indicators–work hours listed in an email signature, the status button on instant messaging platforms, and good old fashioned memory. People won’t always remember the time zone you live in; they are more likely to remember the time of day when they usually get a response from you.

Manage Expectations

One of my colleagues regularly sends me instant messages at 11:50am. I’ve accidentally rewarded her for doing so by responding very quickly at that time. I go running at noon, and at 11:50 I’m anxious to clear things off my plate quickly so I can enjoy my run. I don’t know if she understands why I respond so quickly, but she obviously remembers that I do. Your colleagues hold similar information about you.

You need a strategy for handling work tasks while you’re on vacation. First, weed out any work that can wait until you get back. Your out of office message will do the heavy lifting here. I lead with some version of ‘I won’t be checking email or phone messages while I’m away’ so people won’t expect to hear from me until I return.

Second, use your email’s out of office message to empower people to get work done without you. My message lists specific people or groups to talk to for specific sorts of questions. I even share which key words to use in their subject line to get faster service.

Make Sure You’re Available to the Right People

If you have to do some work while on vacation, email the specific people involved with a different communication plan. I live on the West Coast but work East Coast hours. While I agreed to work on my vacation, I drew the line at starting work at 6:30am. In this particular case I committed to checking my email and finishing my work tasks by 9am Pacific.

Your email should be short but informative. Include your amended work hours, and the specific tasks you’ll be working on. Mention that all other work will either have to wait until your return, or go to your sub. My email went out 2 days before I left, and then again the night before I left. Does this sound excessive? It’s better to assume that your colleagues are too busy to keep track of your vacation time.

Break the News to Your Family or Friends

Give it to them straight. And do it before you leave on vacation. Photo by Rawpixel.com via Pexel.com

Even when you set great boundaries, it takes constant effort to get loved ones to respect them. There’s always that person who thinks your focus hours don’t apply to them. And if you work while on vacation, you can expect that your vacation mates will point out that you’re violating your own boundaries.

Are you tempted to sneak in some work when no one’s watching? Nobody wants an argument. But keeping your work schedule a secret generally makes matters worse. This is especially true if you regularly let work take over your life. If you told your loved ones that you would focus on them during vacation, and then try to work in secret, you can damage relationships.

Talking about you work schedule up front helps maintain your credibility. It also gives people a chance to weigh in. Your friends or family don’t want you to work on vacation. However, if you ask for (and use!) their preferences to plan your work hours, that can go a long way to help them deal with your reality.

I’m part of a large family. And I haven’t seen most of them for more than a year. When I come into town I usually spend every moment visiting and catching up. Since I couldn’t do that this time, I promised I would work only 2 hours each day, and that I would get it done by 9am.

Respect Those Hours

If you tell people you are going to be at work during a set time, make sure you’re there. And then make sure you sign off when you say you will. If you’ve been setting boundaries around your work and home life before your vacation, this should feel familiar to you.

Resist the ‘Just One More Email’ Excuse

Do you feel guilty ignoring work emails? Remember my colleague who sends me instant messages at 11:50. If you answer everyone’s emails while you’re on vacation, you’re rewarding that behavior. You can even justify it by saying that taking care of the problem now means an easier transition back into work later. Don’t do it.

You won’t develop a robust vacation coverage policy if you’re too available. Nobody likes waiting for answers. Nor do we like shifting our routines so we can catch our colleagues before they go on vacation. But you know what? We don’t always like waking up early in the morning to get to work on time, either. We do it because we have to.

Many of our greatest accomplishments as a species were solutions to problems. How can I eat that rabbit when it moves faster than me? Let’s invent the snare! How do I keep from starving during the winter? Let’s figure out how to preserve food!

Do you want a work culture that respects ‘off’ time? Then act as if off time is sacred. If we assume we can’t reach people on vacation, we will invent workarounds for this problem.

I remember when my niece was born. I remember when she used to call me Auntie Orange because I let her steal them out of my fruit bowl. It doesn’t seem possible that she’s a now a married adult. Thanks to the power of my boundaries, I was able to enjoy her moment and build memories that I can look back on for years to come.

Sometimes Your Inner Toddler Needs a Cookie

This was exactly my face last week. Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

I know it’s time to take a break when my inner toddler starts whining. Some people call this part of your mind the ‘lizard brain.’ But lizards don’t get petulant if they’re run too hard. They bite. Or break their tails and run away. Toddlers, on the other hand…I’m pretty sure toddlers invented petulance.

Anyway it’s been an exhausting two weeks. I love the flexibility that remote work gives me, but recently I’ve been getting up early and sacrificing all of my breathing space so I can do things for others.

There’s a lot of advice on what to do when you find yourself running on empty. People like Dr. Brene Brown encourage us to question ‘take the edge off’ culture, and work on correcting the root causes of our exhaustion instead of drinking margaritas (I’m paraphrasing here). Others quote the line from the airplane safety manual, and advise you to put your own oxygen mask on first.

This is great advice. It isn’t always applicable. Sometimes we live in dynamics that are draining but not broken. Raising kids can be like that. You can be up half the night with a feverish child, and still have to get up the next morning and feed the other kids and go to work.

In these types of situations, it absolutely pays to have some go-to tools to take the edge off. I call these cookies. They’re small, bite sized moments of pleasure that you can give to your inner toddler as a reward for wading through the hard bits. They key is to find cookies that are both delicious and good for you.

Things to Think About When Choosing Your Cookies

If You Like It, It’s a Cookie

It’s helpful to think of your back brain as a toddler because, like toddlers, it doesn’t want to wait for gratification. It also isn’t big on rationality. You can’t appease a cranky toddler with a piece of broccoli. It’s also not a good idea to give toddlers too much junk food, or they turn into toddlerzilla. The solution is to distract one with shiny things they can’t refuse.

I once went to an event with my 14 month old daughter. We were sitting behind a family with a boy who was about two, and the child was done with sitting still. He was crying and yelling, until I offered him (with his parents’ permission) a Ritz cracker. He literally went from saying “No! Nonononono” to “oh!”

Grownups aren’t much different when we’re tired and burned out. Make sure the cookies you choose are genuinely pleasurable to you.

Keep a Variety on Hand

Cookies! Photo from Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our inner toddlers are fickle beasts. What sounds fun and shiny one day may not be so exciting the next. Different situations also deplete us in different ways. If you’ve been stuck at your desk all day, you might need a cookie that gets you moving. If you’ve been out all day in the sun, it might be time for a reading or watching tv in bed session.

My go-to cookies are knitting and running. Every so often I’ll also lay in bed and read a book. This cookie is extra special, because I don’t often do it. I knit so much because I can do it while my children interrupt me approximately 400 times a minute. I haven’t mastered the art of reading while children are talking. If this isn’t possible please don’t tell me. A woman can dream.

Don’t Lie to Your Inner Toddler

This last point is just as important as choosing good cookies. If you say that you will read a trashy romance novel after you finish the task that’s burning you out, you better do it. If you don’t, the cookies stop working because your inner toddler knows you lie.

For this last bout of burnout, I had to deploy a variety of cookies. On Sunday I slept in, went for a run, knit, and went to see ‘Taming of the Shrew’ at a local theater. I also wrote the first chapter of an urban fantasy/alternative history novel that’s been kicking around in my brain rather obnoxiously asking to get out. None of this solved the crazy business I have to wade through–but it’s recharged my batteries so I can keep going until it’s done.

If you’re currently going through a hard patch–or you see one coming down the road–I hope this gives you some tools to help yourself cope. Just remember that when life feeds you lemons, throw them away and give your inner toddler a cookie.

We’ve Reached the Tipping Point for Remote Work

We might see a day when towns get into bidding wars for remote workers instead of a company’s HQ.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Canadians just aren’t work online people,” the twenty-something assured me, as he charged my credit card for my new phone. “I wish more people moved to Canada like you. You already have a job and you didn’t even take it from a Canadian.” 

I thanked the man for my cell phone and left without arguing with him. It was 2014, I was fresh off the plane from California, and I didn’t want my first action as a Canadian expat to be telling a random stranger why he was wrong.

And make no mistake, he was wrong. Remote work is a world wide trend that shows no signs of disappearing. In Canada, 47% of employees work outside of an office for at least half of the week. And according to International Workplace Group (IWG), over half of employees across the globe work outside of their main office at least 2.5 days per week. While the overall number of full time remote workers world-wide is relatively low — Owl Labs puts the number at 16% — it’s one of the fastest growing workforce segments in the US.

While we can probably discount the idea that everyone will be working remotely in the future, it’s pretty clear that remote work — in some form — is here to stay. 

The People Are Asking for It

“It turns out your friend is only MOSTLY dead.”

In the movie ‘The Princess Bride,’ Miracle Max asks the (mostly) dead Wesley “What’s so important? What do you have that’s worth living for?” Wesley had a strong reason for wanting to live. While today’s knowledge workers may not be motivated by true love, many of them have compelling reasons to pursue a flexible work schedule.

The survey from IWG found that “83% of global respondents report that the ability to work flexibly at least some of the time would act as clincher in case of indecision between two similar job offers.” Even people who don’t want to work from home 100% of the time benefit from a work from home policy. No one wants to use a vacation day to wait for the plumber to show up. Working from home means you don’t have to.

While work flexibility is a perk for some, for others, it’s a requirement. For a certain segment of the workforce, remote jobs mean the difference between working and unemployment. Some people have health conditions that they can only manage from home. Others must move every few years to follow a spouse. 

These folks are highly motivated to learn the necessary skills to work remotely and find employers who will accommodate their needs. Employers who are truly interested in diversity and inclusion should consider remote work as one way to further that goal. The technology already exists to let you transition to an ‘office optional’ approach. 

The Technology is Already Here

I was once at a party where another guest said, after learning that I work remotely, “We could never do that where I work. I can’t do my job online.” It’s absolutely valid for people to say that they don’t want to work from home. However, there’s only a subset of knowledge worker jobs that can’t be done remotely. 

Just ask 100% remote companies like Automattic, Buffer,and FlexJobs. Virtual Private Networks, video conferencing, and collaborative project management boards allow companies to conduct business no matter where employees sit. Everything from accounting to people management can be done online. 

In some cases, when people say ‘you can’t do that remotely,’ what they really mean is ‘I don’t know how to do that remotely.’ Many of us learned how to perform work in a traditional office. We developed skills that depended on seeing each other. ‘Going remote’ means relearning how to communicate, how to get what you need, and how to motivate people to do things. 

You might not want to relearn these skills. You may not have a choice. Knowledge work CAN be done online, and knowledge workers know it. Business leadership might keep certain tasks in a physical office, but there needs to be a well-thought-out rationale for doing so. ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’ isn’t enough. Not when workers can interview for a remote job without leaving home. And not when they may have other, more powerful reasons for doing so. 

Cities are Getting Expensive

I love the city by the bay, but I’ll only be a visitor for the foreseeable future. Photo by Zoe Pappas on Pexels.com

I left California in 2014 to move to Canada. I can’t afford to move back. Not if I want to give my children a good life. My hometown is so expensive that people making six figures are living in their cars. While the state needs to resolve the livability crisis, remote work can provide an escape hatch for employees who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to move. 

People are more productive when they aren’t worried about feeding their children or losing their homes. They’re happier when they can break free from long commutes and spend time building a life outside of work. For companies based in expensive areas, providing a remote work option is the ethical thing to do. Not everyone will choose remote work, but for those that do, it can dramatically improve their quality of life. 

This is true not just for employees, but also for rural geographies.

Revitalizing Rural Communities

People have been leaving the country to move to the city for hundreds of years. The rate of movement is on the rise, with the International Organization for Migration estimating that nearly 3 million people are moving to cities every week. This has left many rural areas without the needed population to keep their economies afloat. 

A few of these rural areas are attempting to reverse the tide. Towns inside and outside of the US will pay you to move in. Some are even specifically targeting remote workers. In January of 2019, the state of Vermont started accepting applications for the Remote Worker Grant Program. If you work for an out of state employer, Vermont would like to give you $10,000 over two years to move there. 

Governments aren’t the only entities trying to revitalize rural communities. There are a growing number of grassroots movements dedicated to bringing remote work to small towns and villages around the world. Grow Remote is just one of these community-based groups. Their mission is to help repopulate rural areas, to employ those already there, and to give remote workers a connection to the larger community. 

It’s a little too soon to tell if these initiatives will bring people back to rural communities. CNN reports that as of May 14, Vermont has approved 33 remote work grants and people are moving in. And rural communities aren’t the only ones trying to attract remote workers. Tulsa, Oklahoma has followed in Vermont’s footsteps and is also offering $10,000 if you move into the city for a year. 

Will people stay and put down roots? Only time will tell. If these programs help Tulsa and Vermont to grow their tax base, it’s likely more places will set up programs to attract remote workers. 

The man who sold me my cell phone had one thing right. More people should have the opportunity to move to a new place, secure in the knowledge that they have a way to support themselves when they get there. Fortunately, a tool with this much potential isn’t going anywhere. As more companies embrace a flexible work policy, people will have the opportunity to improve their quality of life while potentially revitalizing their communities for years to come. 

Are In Person Retreats Necessary for Remote Workers?

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to see the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams.

Photo by Rebrand Cities

I finally got around to unpacking my suitcase from my last business trip. The presents for the kids came out right away. The rest of the stuff sat in the suitcase for a week while I picked up the pieces of my work/home life and tried to catch up.

I’m convinced that Newton came up with his first law of motion (objects at rest tend to stay at rest) because he was procrastinating about unpacking his suitcase. The inertia on that suitcase was high, let me tell you. However, I managed to break out of it on Saturday after breakfast. In the quiet that comes from the gentle tedium of putting things away, I couldn’t help but wonder if my work retreat was really necessary.

I loved it, I enjoyed it, and as an employee I want to go every year, forever. But was it necessary? At Kaplan, I decide when it makes sense to run a class or cancel it. This isn’t a straightforward task with check boxes. Instead I use a framework to make decisions. Deciding to hold a company retreat is also complicated, and it makes sense to develop a framework for deciding when to hold an in person retreat and when to design a remote retreat. Here are some non financial factors to consider.

Is Your Company New to Remote?

In the Fall of 2010 Kaplan transformed from a company with full time staff working in centers into a company whose staff worked from home. While we were motivated to succeed, most of us lacked prior experience working remotely. We really needed the annual retreat we went to that summer. Over the course of 3 days we built relationships with our colleagues in the way we were used to. Those face to face meetings built goodwill. That goodwill carried us while we learned the skills we needed to succeed in our new working medium.

If your company recently went remote, or employs people new to remote work, consider bringing your people together. Your employees are likely hungry for face to face human interaction with their colleagues. Hosting an in person event is the relationship equivalent of feeding cheese to a starving person. It’s a stimulus rich experience and will leave your employees more satisfied with both the company and their colleagues. Veteran remote workers like retreats too, but just as babies need to eat more often, remote newbies need to meet more often.

Does Work Get Done Efficiently?

You can look at this question in multiple ways. Does information flow freely within and between departments? Are colleagues willing to lend a hand to meet company goals? Are people getting promoted from a variety of departments, or is it always the same half dozen players? How high is your employee churn rate?

It is nearly impossible to build an innovative, disruptive company if teams silo information. It’s hard to stay agile if the next generation of thought leaders feels invisible, because you’ll spend a significant amount of time training their replacements when they leave.

Use Retreats to Resolve Interpersonal Issues

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to audit the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams. It’s just as important to notice the teams that sit together and ignore everyone else as it is to notice which teams never sit together. If you already know that there’s a problem between certain departments or people, use the event as the first step in an intervention.

Some interpersonal problems can be resolved simply by making people spend time with each other. It’s hard to continue thinking that Joe from sales is an idiot, for example, if you have a conversation about his four step process for overcoming customer resistance.

Realistically, not all interpersonal issues will go away just because you bring colleagues together. You may, in fact, decide that Joe is still an idiot. But if people know they have to talk to each other face to face on a regular basis, it does tend to keep things more civil.

I’ve seen this affect both inside and outside of work. I live in a neighborhood where people attend the same community barques, where children go to the same schools, and where you are very likely to see your neighbor at the community laundromat. We have occasional blowups on the neighborhood Facebook group, but we don’t have internet trolls. It’s hard to behave too badly when you know you’ll have to deal with the person you’re yelling at later.

Use Retreats to Assess Your Future Leaders

If you think your company lacks a deep well of talent to draw from, spend time with your line staff. You may discover that you have plenty of talent–the problem is that your all-stars lack visibility.

There are a couple of ways to use an in-person event to assess your bench. You could hold a couple of round table discussions with people your management team label high-potential. If you can’t meet with everyone, you can also do this more organically by sitting with different groups of people during mealtime, and engaging in conversation.

Incidentally, most employees know they should say something intelligent to impress the boss. Not everyone can come up with something witty before the first coffee of the day. If you’re a leader and you choose to sit with people who are lower in the power structure than you, it’s your job to set the tone and put them at ease. You’ll get a more accurate impression of someone if you don’t spook them.

In-person retreats are a great way to get a feel for your remote employees, and to course correct where needed. That’s not to say that in-person retreats are only for companies that need an intervention. High-performing remote teams benefit from getting together. Incidental conversations at dinner can lead to an innovative product down the line. But if you’re on the fence about whether the benefits of a retreat are worth the expense, you might use the state of your interpersonal dynamics to make your decision.

How Much Time Do You Have to Rededicate People to the Company Mission?

Think of company retreats through the metaphor of food. Remote events are like fruits and vegetables. With planning and skill, you can turn them into tasty interludes that feed your employees’ need for human interaction. Like fruits and vegetables, you need a steady stream of them on a regular basis to keep the company juices flowing.

In-person events are like steak and cheese (or peanut butter for my vegan friends)–you need fewer steaks than carrots to hit your calories for the day. Was it a rough year? Are you pivoting? Did you empty the company well of goodwill? An in-person event can fill the well up again very quickly. If the prevailing company culture is competitive and demanding, then in-person retreats can be one way to keep things on the right side of the functional/dysfunctional line.

Does Everyone Need to Go?

I work for a large company. So large, that we stopped holding company-wide gatherings around 2014. Instead, different groups gather together on an as-needed basis. If you can’t swing an all-hands retreat, maybe certain departments should get together. If you’re worried about creating hard feelings, plan a separate remote program for the employees who don’t get to go. In some instances it may make sense to hold an annual meet up and rotate who meets up.

It didn’t take very long to unpack my suitcase from my business trip. I like to travel lightly (with plenty of room for presents for the kids). But I’ll feel the benefits of this work trip for months to come. While I am a veteran employee, I am new to this particular team. Meeting together with my new-to-me colleagues has already made my remote day to day duties easier and more pleasant.

Do remote employees need in person retreats? This one did. Yours may too. Keep this framework in mind as you decide whether the benefits are worth the expense. By thinking through your answers to these questions you can come up with a meeting cadence–in person and remote–that makes sense for your particular situation.

I Moved Web Hosts and it Had Unintended Consequences

Photo by Gratisography on Pexels

Recently I moved my blog ‘Living La Vida Remota’ to a new web host. When I did that, it accidentally stopped sending my posts to those of you who subscribed to this function. If you would like to keep getting these posts in your email, you’ll have to subscribe again. You can find the form on the right side of the blog.

Sorry about that folks! Thursday we’ll go back to talking about remote work. I just finished an article on whether company retreats are really necessary for remote workers, and some things to think about before deciding whether or not to host one.