What Makes a Successful Remote Worker? Interview with Roberta Sawatzky

There may not be a magic formula for succeeding as a remote worker, but there are certain competencies that can increase your chances of success.


Roberta Sawatzky is a business consultant who guides her clients and readers through career development, change, and transition, with an added focus on remote work. In addition to her role as a consultant, Roberta is a Business Professor in the Okanagan School of Business in Kelowna, BC, Canada

I first met Roberta in a Slack channel devoted to discussions around distributed teams. When I found out that she had just completed some research around remote worker competencies, I knew I had to interview her for the blog. You can get a copy of her full report HERE.

Why did you decide to research remote worker competencies?

I care deeply about helping people realize their greatest potential, specifically in their working environment. Having worked in the areas of management and human resources in a variety of sectors (for profit, not-for-profit, academia, public sector), I saw the importance of supporting, developing, and providing valuable feedback to my team members.

I was also involved with an organization who provided notification services to employees being terminated. It never ceased to amaze me how many employees were surprised at receiving their notice, and reported having had very limited, if any, professional development offered, or feedback on their performance. When I considered how common this was in collocated organizations, when employees and employers were face to face on a daily basis, it caused me to wonder how much more epidemic the lack of support would be in a context where personal interaction and physical presence was rare.

Thus began the research to first seek out what was necessary for success as a remote worker, what feedback looked like, and what support was desired…all from the perspective of the remote worker.

Are there remote-worker specific competencies?

I would suggest that there are some common competencies between remote and collocated workers, however, the level of proficiency necessary in each competency is higher for remote that collocated.

Were you looking at things that would help remote workers do a good job, things that would help them to be happy in their job, or a little bit of both?

The simple answer is yes. Competencies by definition are the knowledge, skills and abilities a person should possess in order to successfully perform their job. If we can identify what those competencies are, and build a recruitment and selection process around them…right down to the interview questions, the likelihood of both job success and job satisfaction is greatly increased.

Was there anything that surprised you about what you discovered?

I’m not sure that I was as much surprised as overwhelmed by the honesty and passion with which the research respondents shared their opinions, joys, and challenges. These are a group of hard working, dedicated people who are totally committed to doing their best.

Probably what saddened me the most were the number of people who reported total lack of support from their managers or supervisors (to be sure, over the course of the research I met, and hear about some amazing managers that others could learn a great deal from). While some are simply negligent, I would suggest the majority simply don’t know how to manage in the remote world. What works in a face to face setting doesn’t necessarily translate into a virtual setting.

Is there any quality that guarantees success as a remote worker?

Guarantees? I would not go that far. However, possessing the competencies revealed in the research certainly will raise the likelihood of success. The one competency that was reported by 100% of respondents was communication. That includes all forms of communication as in verbal, written, and non-verbal, as well as the ability to discern the most appropriate channel for the needed communication, and taking the responsibility to make sure the message you have ‘sent’ has been received as intended. If it wasn’t, then make it right.

Do you think people can learn these competencies if they don’t have them now?

Absolutely. Some people may naturally possess higher levels of certain competencies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to develop them. Those who are not so strong can grow as well. That being said. I am a strong believer in knowing and operating from your strengths. We all have them, and we need each other to bring out the best of those strengths.

Remote work is not for everyone. Many factors come in to play, not the least of which is the simple desire that some people have to surround themselves with co-workers…and there is nothing wrong with that. Individuals considering remote work should do a serious self-evaluation. Ask themselves, ask those who know them well (and will be honest with them), ask supervisors…anyone that they trust, to provide feedback on how they would rate their ability in each of the top competencies revealed in the research. Ask for examples, for specifics. Use that input to determine a fit for remote work. It’s also important to keep in mind that some people have no choice but to work remote…I do believe that with the right support, they will survive, and even thrive.

The competencies that were identified in the research are as follows…listed in order of importance as reported by 250 remote workers.

  1. Communication
  2. Self-directed/motivated
  3. Trustworthy
  4. Disciplined
  5. Taking initiative/curious
  6. Adaptable/flexible
  7. High self-efficacy

A big thank you to Roberta for sharing her research and findings. Don’t forget to download the full report. If you would like to see what else Roberta is working on, you can follow her blog at www.ProbeandPonder.com. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and on her website.

How They Do It: Interview with Molly Hutt


Molly Hutt is part Maker, part historian, part entrepreneur, part environmentalist thrifter, and all nerd. She lives in Philadelphia with her pets: an infinite number of Tribbles

The term “remote worker” encompasses a lot of people doing many different things. We’re employees, freelancers, entrepreneurs, or a combination of all three. In today’s post, we’re going behind the scenes with Molly Hutt, owner of Molly Bee Studio and the Tribble Orphanarium to see remote work in action.

Molly, you’re a serial entrepreneur. Can you tell us about the different businesses you’ve run, both now and in the past?

It all started when I was a kid. I was pumping out craft items faster than my parents could find places to display them, so I started selling hand-stamped stationery door to door in my neighborhood. I was also a very serious purveyor of fine lemonade (none of that powdered nonsense).

I started my first real business in high school, dyeing yarn and selling it on Etsy. My shop was, embarrassingly, called Nerdclub2000, after the name of my Mathletes team. You can still see all my sales here—but be warned, it’s as dorky as it sounds. Things really blew up when I was mentioned on a knitting podcast with 60,000 listeners, but then I went off to college and discovered socializing, so that ended.

Currently I’m running an Etsy business called Adopt A Tribble (a.k.a. Terra Prime Tribble Orphanarium), where I make Star Trek fan stuff. This mostly consists of Tribbles from Star Trek the Original Series in the form of throw pillows and Christmas ornaments, but I’m also working on Tribble keychains and “Proudly Go” stickers. I’ve also been messing around with greeting cards and have some really goofy Valentine’s Day cards in the works. Every now and then I do a custom cosplay outfit for a fan.

Since I lost my day job, I’ve been preparing to launch a second brand, Molly Bee Studio, for my art and design work. I’m still figuring out exactly what the brand will look like, but for the moment I’m making hand-painted mugs and etched glassware from upcycled thrift store finds. I’ll probably add some stationery and printables, but the whole thing is still in its beginning stages.

What does your day to do look like? When do you work, and when do you turn off work?

I’m really bad at work/life balance. While I was working full-time at a non-profit, I’d often put in 35-hour weeks at the office and then another 20-40 hours at home making Tribbles. It was all production and advertising without any time to be creative. I’m probably working about as much now, but I hardly notice it because the creative parts don’t feel like work (and because I get to watch the Great British Bake Off while I’m filling orders).

My daily schedule varies, but I’m a major night owl, so I typically start work around 10 or 11am and spend a few hours filling orders, taking care of customer service, working on social media stuff, etc. I stop sometime between 4 and 6pm for dinner, social plans, etc., and then I pick up again around 9 or 10pm, which is when creative time starts. Lately I’ve been spending most of that time painting, learning Illustrator, and brainstorming potential new products.

How did you come up with the idea of making Tribbles?

My partner, Brent, is a musical theatre writer and a major Trekkie. We actually met because he was writing a Star Trek musical, so for his birthday/housewarming in April, I decided I wanted to make some Trekkie throw pillows for his couch. I figured that Tribbles are basically tiny pillows already, so I just ran with it.

At his housewarming/birthday party, a bunch of his friends noticed the Tribbles and, after giving them a thorough squish and cuddle, suggested that I make and sell them.

When it comes to crafts, Molly is a poly math

How do you keep your costs down?

Whenever possible, I use upcycled materials. Some of the stuffing in the Tribbles is made of fabric scraps from my studio and raw cotton insulation that I get from a neighbor. I get most of my mugs and glassware from Philly AIDS Thrift and all kinds of awesome supplies from Resource Exchange. Both are non-profits supporting great causes and keeping usable material out of landfills. The cost savings is just a perk!

Whenever possible, I buy my faux fur from local shops. I live right next to Philly’s Fabric Row (which is exactly what it sounds like), so I’ve had the opportunity to build relationships with the staff and owners. It’s always a pleasure to buy from people who have become my friends.

How do you primarily reach your audience?

I mainly reach my audience through Instagram. I’m on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, too, but those haven’t blown up in quite the same way. Instagram really lends itself to handmade businesses, since they’re often really visual. I’m also starting to look into craft fairs (for Molly Bee) and nerd conventions (for Adopt a Tribble) because I’d love to meet more of my customers face-to-face. This is partially because I’d like to get to know them and partially because people have a very hard time resisting Tribbles when they have a chance to give them a squish 😉

If you could give a new entrepreneur one piece of advice, what would it be?

Excellent customer service is free. When you’re selling online, it’s easy to think of your customers as disembodied dollar signs, but it’s rewarding both personally and professionally to remember that they’re real live people.

I wasn’t expecting to build an entire social network around my Tribbles, but I get so much more from my followers than just sales; they were there to support me when I lost my job and when I was slowed down by migraines. They’re always excited to share in my personal and professional victories. Go the extra mile! Your customers will be thrilled, and you might even make some new friends in the process.

A big thank you to Molly for taking the time to chat with us. You can follow Molly here: Twitter and Instagram:@adoptatribble and @mollybeestudio
Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/mollybeestudioshop Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TribbleOrphanarium/ and https://www.facebook.com/mollybeestudio/