346: Laurel Farrer—How Can You Build A Remote Workforce That Really Works?

Hear how to align your workforce for maximum productivity

Back in April 2020 before we fully knew what a global disruption the pandemic was going to be, I interviewed Laurel Farrer who talked about how to build a remote workforce that works. What great timing, then and now, which is why I decided to share this podcast with you again. Businesses have moved from managing hands to managing minds, empowering their workforces so they can work anywhere, anytime, as long as they get the work done. For smart companies, this has led to new management processes to ensure employees are well-informed about their obligations. For not-so-smart companies, remote work is seen as a “perk,” with accountability not something they are keeping an eye on and then they wonder why productivity is lagging. Remote work is now commonplace, so we should all learn from Laurel’s models that work! Enjoy.

These are fast-changing times. Beyond just keeping up, we need to look ahead

Whether you are a global corporation or a local business trying to attract and retain the best talent, remote work is here to stay. The old ways are gone, so you need to educate yourself about how to manage that workforce so you and your business can thrive. Laurel Farrer tells us how.

As Founder of Distribute Consulting and the Remote Work Association, Laurel starts, strengthens and leverages virtual workforces. As a global thought leader on the topic of remote work, she collaborates with the world’s top companies and governments to eliminate virtual worker discrimination, prevent policy retraction, increase remote job accessibility, train distributed leaders, and design economic initiatives. Additionally, she is a Forbes contributor, a subject matter expert for business education curricula, and a virtual software product advisory. Laurel’s clients include Logitech, HubSpot, Microsoft and the U.S. government, among others. You can contact her on LinkedIn, Twitter or her website.

For more about getting the most of your workforce, here’s a great start:

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon and it’s always so exciting to have you join us for one of our podcasts where we bring to you people who are going to help you see, feel and think in new ways so you can sustain your growth in these fast- changing times.

I have with me today, Laurel Farrer. Laurel is a founder of Distribute Consulting and the Remote Work Association. Now, why is Laurel here to talk to you? Because I’m fascinated with the decentralization of the workforce, with the fact that a third of our workforce are in the freelance nation. I’ve even met perma-lancers. And I’ve met companies that have formed that are helping those who are working independently try and do better in their lives.

It’s sort of an interesting time because work is changing, and the corporations aren’t quite sure where those workers should be and how they should be doing the work to be done. So Laurel is going to help you better understand what’s going on in our workplace. And while there’s a lot of folks who are writing books about the nature of work and the future of work, actually, it’s happening now. So it’s important to really understand what is happening now. And if you are a remote worker, what does that mean for you and for the company you’re working for.

Laurel starts, strengthens, and leverages virtual workforces on just what we want to talk about as a global thought leader on the topic of remote work. She collaborates with the world’s top companies and governments to eliminate things like virtual work discrimination, prevent policy retraction and increase remote job accessibility. From an anthropological perspective, what we’re finding with our clients who allow their employees to remotely work is a lack of a community, of a culture, and they’re not quite sure what is shared and what is not. What’s idiosyncratic? Interesting times.

But back to Laurel. She trains distributed leaders and designs economic initiatives. She also shares her expertise as a Forbes contributor, is a subject matter expert for business education curriculums, and a virtual software product advisory. Some of her clients include Microsoft, HubSpot, (and we are HubSpot partners, so I’m glad she’s helping them because some of the most proficient groups at HubSpot are remote workers), Logitech and, and lots of government. So Laurel, thank you for joining me today.

Laurel Farrer: Thank you for having me. I’m excited for this conversation.

Andi Simon: Well I am as well because this is a big area and I don’t find that many people who have expertise in it. So this is terrific. Share with our listeners about yourself so they can have a better understanding of how your own journey has taken you here.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I come from operations management myself. So I took my own team remote 13 years ago. And I was able to see immense benefits and talent, attraction and productivity costs, and real estate savings. And I was able to help other businesses along the way, obviously who had a lot of questions about it. And so I helped on the side of my operations management job for about a decade.

And then, when I was in the CEO role of a fully distributed company, about 500 people, that’s where I started seeing things go wrong. And I was a new hire. And I came into this extremely toxic culture and I said, Wow, this is the first time that I’ve realized that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do remote work. This was also in the era of IBM and Yahoo retracting their policies. And so at that time, that’s when I said, We’ve got to get some research compiled on this. We’ve got to identify what the patterns of success are so that as people come into remote work, we don’t have this risk factor of, you might be IBM, but you might be envisioned. We want to make sure that they know what the path is to make this legal and sustainable right from the beginning and remove those risk factors.

Andi Simon: Now there are two sides, or maybe three to this. One is the expectations of the corporation. The other is the behavior of people who used to come to work every day and had habits and we know humans are habit driven. And now they are remote and what are the new habits and who helps design them? Because if you wake up every morning, and you have to think about what do I do today, we’re most inefficient. And then you have all what we’ve learned about the brain expectation leads to reality. So what’s the expectation? So let’s start, what are you finding in the corporations? What are their expectations? What are they trying to achieve by decentralizing their workforce?

Laurel Farrer: I’m glad that we’re starting there because that’s usually what’s going wrong. As companies are going remote organically, what’s happening is that they’re not taking the correct steps in order to implement this properly. So they’re just allowing somebody to work off site and on a 1:1 agreement. So a worker kind of says, “You know, my spouse is being relocated” or “I’m having back surgery” and they say, “Yeah, that’s fine, go ahead and work off site.” And there’s nothing that’s happening infrastructurally in order to support that change which now means that we are managing virtual employees with physical management strategies. And those are so different that they are slightly incompatible enough that it creates a problem.

So the very first thing that every single manager needs to do is to create a remote work policy, whether this be companywide, or be just an individual agreement. This policy is not only a legal document, but it also clarifies and unifies those expectations between manager and employee so the expectations are clear and can be fulfilled on both ends. Because that’s primarily what’s happening in the wrong way is that the manager has one expectation about availability or responsiveness, and then the worker has other expectations, and then it just all goes downhill from there. So a policy puts everybody on the same page about communication expectations, performance, tracking, duration, qualifications, all of those things so that it’s legal and sustainable.

Andi Simon: Well, I’ve worked in large companies. I was an executive and I was always fascinated at how fast people ignored policy and created their own solutions to everything. Now you have a remote workforce, and everyone may be making up their own policies that they thought were on the paper that were given. So the other side of this is, how do you get employees to understand the expectations and the kind of work expectations that are coming from them? That’s the other side of this whole wonderful model here.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly. And that’s exactly why at Distribute Consulting we have a four step process. The first is to analyze exactly where the problems are happening because that’s another missed communication. Most people think, “Oh, let’s just throw some leadership training at it and it’ll be fine,” but that’s really not the correct assumption. And there’s a lot of different places where it could be happening. But the problem with remote work is that you don’t know what you don’t know. And so until the problem shows up, you really don’t know that it’s coming. And so that’s what consultancy can help you identify as those things that you don’t know.

So we start with analysis, then we go to resources, like creating those policies or handbooks or communication channels, whatever is going to be the structural part of solving the problem. And then the third is that, just like you said, leadership training and workforce training, so that everybody understands and is equipped with the hard and soft skills that they need in order to make this change. and really solve problems that you don’t know what you don’t know. It puts everybody on the same page.

Andi Simon: Now, my HubSpot example: a woman who we work with there had the best performance of all of the groups there and her team is all remote. And so she was bragging appropriately because when you can get it to work, it’s really quite remarkable. As you are working with companies, are there things you can share about what works well, and what doesn’t? Is it personal, is it every day? Can you explain some of the things that could be easily explained to people over a podcast that could help them do it as well?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, well, I think it’s important to start with the fact that there’s a big debate in the business world, which is better for productivity: is it great leadership, or is it flexibility and benefits like flexibility? And so we’ve gone back and forth, back and forth. And finally, thank goodness, Gallup did a big study that said, alright, let’s research this and let’s see who is the true winner.

We found that it’s both leadership and flexibility, individually will each promote productivity. However, when you combine the two in the right amount, that’s when you see the optimized performance. And so I think it’s really critical to clarify to every manager listening that capitalizing on the benefits of flexibility is not as simple as just allowing flexibility. And there’s a difference between allowing it and really leveraging it in your workforce. So yes, allow flexibility, but then also be willing to step up as a leader to adjust your management strategies. And usually what those boil down to are trust, culture and communication.

So trust is a shift in management from a high sensory, very supervisory workflow, as we do in the office. If I can say, “I can hear the phones ringing,” it’s a productive day, right? So we shift away from that and we move more towards the results-based tracking methods. So we are less focused on activity, more focused on accomplishment, and that’s more of a trust than work flow production. So that’s step one.

Culture is also very important. A lot of managers struggle with this: how do I scale my culture? How do I have culture in a virtual environment, and that’s really just camaraderie, treating people like people. You’re letting them know that you’re still accessible and creating experiences and engagement in a virtual workplace instead of a physical workplace. And then also communication. Adjusting your communication style to be more transparent. We don’t have nonverbal communication to help as much as remote workers. So it’s important that we use verbal communication more strongly.

Andi Simon: It’s interesting because those really are not that different from what happens in the workplace.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly. That’s the biggest secret of remote work is that remote work, it’s still just work practices that we’ve been hearing about for so long. We think all these distributed companies think, “Oh, we’ve got to reinvent the wheel, we’ve got to do it a new, exciting way.” And it’s like, No.

Andi Simon: You can easily manage by walking around. I agree with that. But there are other ways. So some of the things that we’ve seen work well, as we urge our clients, we’ve been working with all kinds of firms that have remote workers, either all the time or some of the time. And we like morning huddles, you know, and with Zoom, you can get 10 folks on the same thing so they can see each other because that helps. And we also like to have key issue sessions so that if they’re having an issue, they can share them and get insights from each other. So there are some little things to add to your book. You need to remember they’re people and quite frankly, they really do want to do well.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly. And this is why it’s been able to happen since the 70s. Like, we didn’t have Slack and we didn’t have Skype and we didn’t have tools and software back at that time. And so that’s exactly how we managed telecommuting back in the 70s and 80s. It was a very simplified process, something as simple as an email thread and a weekly standup and that covered that.

So it’s evolved and we now have great tools and even terminology and methodologies to help us and make this work even better. However, it’s also important that tools are just tools, right? A paintbrush is a tool, but it’s going to produce very different results based on how you’re trained to use it. And so that’s exactly what we help people with. And don’t get too hyper focused on the terminology of the systems, just make sure that you stay engaged with your team.

Andi Simon: It’s interesting, I was on a plane, I fly a lot. And I was on a plane with a gentleman from Accenture, who was telling me how he has to manage communication to 220,000 remote workers to sustain a corporate culture and make sure the values are articulated well. And it’s multimedia because some read and some watch and some hear and some have to experience. But it’s full time, all the time. As I said, it’s exactly the same when you have 10 employees. It’s easy for them to go in different directions. In some ways, it’s easy with 200,000 of them because you have a bit of a bell shaped curve. With 10 when you have that curve, it’s hard to figure out who the good guys are. But it’s also a reflection of humans, and nomads are fascinating.

I did a podcast with Anthony Willoughby, who has a nomadic business. And he takes people to live with nomads in Mongolia and elsewhere and watch how they build trust, communicate and keep them vital and vibrant, and in a very remote area without any technology. And it’s very interesting, because it’s human. It’s really just another way some companies are beginning to retract and bring their employees back. Can you talk a little bit about why that’s happening?

Laurel Farrer: Yes. Most of the time, they’re not collecting the data that they need to be collecting. Again, we’re thinking that this is a perk as a benefit, or as a convenience for workers. We’re not thinking of it as a corporate strategy which it actually is. The average savings for, especially at the enterprise level, is $11,000 per part time remote worker so we can save up to $20,000 per full time worker on savings like productivity costs and real estate and equipment, talent, acquisition, retention, all of those things really contribute to that savings.

So when we shift our mindset and we start thinking about this as a strategy and a tool to be leveraged, then it really becomes something more worth investing in as corporate managers, and so that’s when we can say, “Let’s do what it takes to make this work” as opposed to just bailing and saying, “Everybody come back in the office, it wasn’t worth it.”

Because actually what happens when we do those retractions is, it actually hurts the company even more. Morale goes down, retention goes down, turnover rate goes up. And because people don’t feel trusted, they don’t feel valued, they don’t feel heard and understood as an employee and so it really sabotages employee experience. So yeah, we want to make sure that they are equipped with what they need in order to critically, problem solve and make this flexibility much more manageable and sustainable.

Andi Simon: Now, a word from our sponsors: Simon Associate Management Consultants, Simon Associates, is us. And we love to help you see, feel and think in new ways to help you and your business grow. We specialize in applying the tools and methods of anthropology. But, we’re also entrepreneurs and business builders, and we’d like to share our experience and expertise with you. So if you’re stalled, or stuck, or starting up, give us a buzz and let’s see if we can help you as well.

You can learn all about us at Simonassociates.net and read my books, learn about them at Andisimon.com. There’s a free chapter you can download and a toolkit you’ll find very helpful. We’re on Amazon, and you can buy them as books and ebooks or even audibles that I recorded myself. We look forward to hearing from you at Simonassociates.net, and info@Simonassociates.net goes right to us. Now back to our podcast.

You know, I’m teaching a Leadership Academy and actually developed one for clients in different industries. But some of the recurring themes are interesting regardless of where they work. One is accountability. And I find that seems to be missing in action as a recurring theme, where people are sort of accountable, but not really. Someday isn’t a good day. They don’t really know how to say to somebody, “I really do need it by now.”

You know this is a communication but also an accountability piece. And I don’t quite know if it’s a recurring theme. I can’t tell whether the population that goes remote understands that they’re still accountable, not just to their timeframe, but to someone else’s as well. And I can’t walk in and knock and say, “When is that going to be done?”

So accountability is a big one. And the other thing is, we don’t usually teach people about visualization. And we know that when we are changing, our mind fights it and hates it. But if we can visualize this together, it becomes a very different picture of what it’s like. So to your point, they think of it as a perk, as a part of a strategy and those are very different visualizations.

Laurel Farrer: And that’s exactly why these infrastructures are so different and so important, because that’s exactly how we stay aligned. I can’t see what you’re doing, so without proper reporting, I’m never ever going to be able to hold you accountable as a manager. And so therefore, that’s why we have those standards. That’s why we rely much more heavily on project management systems than traditional teams.

Same thing with visualization, that’s how we unify this as the birth of the startup. We need to align every single day because we are working separately. So that’s how we align our vision, plan accordingly and stay accountable every single work cycle, whether that be a day or a week. So yes, this is it. These are problems that with a well-structured virtual team, we don’t deal with nearly as much as traditional teams.

Andi Simon: From the perspective of the employee, let’s assume that this is viewed oh, maybe a little as a perk or a little as a way we are going to do business. How can you advise them, two or three things that they should focus on to make sure that they can keep that flexibility? This is not just the remote work, but the empowerment, and trust me, these are values that people are saying, “I trust you. And I don’t have to see you every day, I’m going to empower you be accountable for some, make sure you do this to the employees so they can continue to do that.”

Laurel Farrer: Yes, my number one advice to every new remote worker, especially if they’re in a hybrid team, and there’s some people on site and they’re working off site, is just to communicate, communicate, communicate. My tagline is that in remote work, overcommunication. It’s just communication, because nobody can see what you’re doing so you have to tell them everything that you’re doing. This is how you stay accountable. This is how you stay visible. This is everything. Our words are everything in remote work.

And so yes, the more that they can communicate. This is what I worked on today: “I have a question, or “I need a little assistance on this.” That’s how they stay engaged in the team, is just to stay communicative. And at first that feels a little awkward, a little vulnerable. You feel very needy, especially coming from a physical environment where you’re self-consciously taught to just put your head down and get to work and shut up. So coming out of that environment into a virtual work environment can be an adjustment. But that’s really how we think engaged is, especially on hybrid teams is just to stay visible with our communication.

Andi Simon: I think the other part of that is, your manager needs to look at the data so that they now become far more data focused than they might have been in the past. And they need to have conversations about the data, because they can’t talk about how you didn’t come in on time.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly, yep. That and that circles back to the results-based tracking and those policies. We have everything recorded. We have it written down so that we can refer to it. And that keeps us accountable and really helps this process go more smoothly, as opposed to putting us back in that risk and danger zone of unfulfilled or misaligned expectations.

Andi Simon: One last question, and then we’ll begin to wrap up. How is the review process, the HR review performance review process, modified to reflect this as well?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, absolutely. That’s not as much of a change because like I said, remote work is still work. So you know, I’m always surprised when people ask me questions like, “Well, do you still interview candidates? And do you provide performance reviews?” and I’m like, they’re still employees, they’re still human beings. So yes, most of the workflows are staying exactly the same, all the way from recruiting to retirement. Everything’s staying the same. However, we are just updating and transitioning and translating, if you will, a few of our experiences, so that people feel more engaged in that we’re screening and nurturing the right skill set.

In a virtual environment, there’s a higher dependency on soft skills like communication, empathy, trust, proactivity, etc. and so we need to be able to, #1, look for those in the recruiting process, but then also screen for them during hiring and nurture them during employment.

Andi Simon: It’s so much fun talking to you. I had a colleague who had a remote recruiting firm all across the country. And they wanted to see each other more often. So on Thursday nights, they had Movie Night. And they all went from their homes, or wherever they were, whatever time it was, they all pulled up. And they decided what movie they wanted to watch. And they used a Zoom or Skype in order to watch it together, and popcorn, and react with each other. And you know, it was great fun, and it was less about the movie than an excuse to get together. And she said they did it all themselves. So it was just easy and fun to do.

Laurel Farrer: I’m always surprised when people really complain and are terrified of this remote work isolation because they think I’m never going to talk to my colleagues again. And it’s like, well, first step, yes, that’s where communication comes in. So again, overcommunicate, stay engaged, be proactive about that. But then also, “I wish I had the correct rituals, the correct infrastructure in place. I am completely unaware that I am not sitting next to somebody in a cubicle. I feel so much more engaged with my team and connected with my clients and my colleagues than I ever did previously in an office. I think I was more isolated in my office than I was here in this virtual space.” So yeah, it’s all about how we design those strategies now.

Andi Simon: And as we’re wrapping up, two or three things you want our listeners to remember because I do think this is happening in so many different ways in so many different companies, large and small. Even as a consultant, I’ve had clients in India and Mexico and all over the world, and they don’t need to know where I’m located. They just need to know I’m available. And I actually did work in Hanoi with clients in the States. And we just timed it right. So it’s not hard to do, we just have to do it. A couple of things you don’t want them to forget.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, well first, definitely get that policy in place. Again, even if it’s not a legal document, just get communication and expectations aligned that will prevent a lot of risk in this adoption. And then also get some training. Even if you are currently a remote worker or have a mobile workforce, you can benefit a lot from hopefully identifying those things that you don’t know yet. And you can really strengthen this work model and help unify your team that happens to be distributed. So policies and training would be my two pieces of advice.

Andi Simon: And if they’d like to reach you, and they need you to lend a hand to what they’re doing, where can they get ahold of you?

Laurel Farrer: Of course, distributeconsulting.com is the best place to find me. But then, in addition to that, of course, we’re all on social media. So Twitter and LinkedIn are the best places to look for me there, and I’m the only Laurel Farrer so it’s pretty easy to find me.

Andi Simon: What a great name. Convenient. I laugh because my husband’s name is Andy also. And we’ve done that for a long time. Trust me, it’s been interesting. So I’ve had Laurel Farrer here today to talk about distributed and remote workers, but more about a changing workplace and how to make it happen so that it’s good for both the company and for the employees and for your customers and it doesn’t make it hard. It’s really not that different than working inside someplace. It just requires you to think carefully, overdetermine success and overcommunicate, which isn’t a bad thing to do, even in your own workplace. It’s very interesting.

With open space, the idea is to get more time to see each other. Although I will tell you, I had a client and their young staff were texting each other while they were sitting in adjoining cubicles. Welcome to the new world they’ve grown up in. And they texted instead of talked. But I do think it’s a time where we must remember humans like to talk. And they often will make up stories if you don’t tell them the one you want them to know. So they’re very clever and creative.

For those of you who came today, I can’t thank you enough. And we’ll keep pushing this out so you can share it with others in your own company because I have a hunch that these ideas are as important to you as an employee or as a manager or a CEO of a company. And the times, they are changing. Our job is to help you change, see, feel and think in new ways is our mantra. Our job is to take observation and turn it into innovation.

You could read more in my books, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights and Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business. They’re on Amazon. And I’m working on my next one and I can’t wait to share it with you. If you want to reach us, it’s info@Andisimon.com. And they all come straight to us. It’s a pleasure. Have a great day and enjoy yours. Thank you.