Expert Interview: Laurel Farrer

April 07 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Laurel Farrer discuss remote working. Laurel Farrer

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Laurel Farrer.

Laurel is the founder of the Distribute Consulting and the Remote Work Association. Laurel starts, strengthens and leverages virtual workforces. Her thought leadership on the topic of remote work is sought after around the globe for collaboration 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 also shares her expertise as a Forbes contributor, subject matter expert for business education curriculum, and advisor on virtual software products.

Laurel I’m so excited for our conversation today.

Laurel Farrer: Thank you, me too. Thank you for having me.

Mari Ryan: You and I have had a number of conversations over time about remote work and there has been much written about what employees today are looking for in their jobs and flexibility is always been one of those things, and that flexibility topic comes up a lot in the form of remote working. Working from home, as we often refer to it, has taking on a new meaning in the last few weeks in the spring of 2020, and it’s no longer a nice benefit or a perk. Today, for most of us, it’s a way of life and most of us are working from home and it looks like we will be for a while.

Many employers have been launched into this remote workforce without much planning or even much forethought, and there’s no doubt that it hasn’t always gone well for some employers and this approach isn’t necessarily how employers would have wanted to undertake moving their workforce to a working from home situation.

What is the impact, from your perspective, of this sudden change?

Laurel Farrer: There are so many impacts; personally, professionally, economically, this is a real time of adjustment for all of us. I think it’s very critical that we all stay as grounded as possible and remember that never in the history of time has the KISS principle been more relevant and more necessary, which is keep it simple, stupid. We have to just simplify because everything is in transition, everything is in question. We’re not just moving from Point A to Point B. We’re moving from Point A to Point B to Point C to Point D on a daily basis and we don’t even know what Point Z looks like. We really just need to simplify and stay unified as a team.

That doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. I’m getting so many questions about what tools should I be using and what software should I be adopting. It’s like, no. No, no, no. Take it way back from there. Just have a centralized communication channel as a team, the one that you’re already using, or revert back to email if you need to. Just somewhere where all know you can stay in touch throughout the day and just lock that in so that you can maintain unity. As you maintain unity, that will allow you the luxury and ability to be adoptable and be flexible as we continue to navigate uncharted territory.

Mari Ryan: That’s really important. What can employers do to ensure that they’re providing a good experience for their employees who are now all remote workers?

Laurel Farrer: I think it’s critical to communicate. I don’t want to be redundant, but that’s really what it boils down to is communicate, communicate, communicate. Remember that in virtual workplaces, the name of the game is self-management, which how remote work is possible. We allow these remote workers to be more autonomous than ever before because that’s what gives them schedule and location flexibility.

In an ideal world, obviously we provide you training and infrastructure support before making this transition. Right now we don’t have that luxury. Again, we need to simply and say, how do you do this? At a basic level, how do you support remote workers? You empower them. You trust them, you encourage them, and you allow them to control and hold and manage their own results while you as a manager play a more supportive role. How can I help you? Is there anything that you need today? How are doing today? How are you feeling? Just nurturing them and providing what I call this incubator or petri dish mentality, which is you create this ideal environment in which they produce their own results. That’s what we need to simplify into right now is that our workers manage their results, but the managers support the workers in doing so.

Mari Ryan: It seems so simple, but I know that it’s not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations just in my neighborhood, and specifically they seem to come from young people who talk about … you know, I get the eye roll every time I hear them talk about what’s going on in their calls and their experiences now with the workplace and moving to this virtual setting. My sense is culture doesn’t always support that. An organization hasn’t always had the kind of culture where there is high trust and where managers don’t micro-manage. It seems like it might be, if anything, a difficult challenge for some managers. Any thoughts on that?

Laurel Farrer: Absolutely, in fact it’s almost counter-intuitive if you have a management style that previously has been very sensory-based, such as I can see you working, I can hear phones ringing, I can see people in the conference room. That sense of proximity and accessibility is critical to our security as managers. So, yes, all of a sudden when you take away all of that sensory supervision and you’re asked to trust, it’s a terrifying gap to fill. It’s completely valid and again, this is why we ideally want to have a lot of transition and support during the change management process. Right now as we jump into this in the deep end, it’s going to feel quite foreign and quite a shock at first, but this is the key to sustainability.

Again, we don’t need to over complicate it with new work clothes, new processes, just on a day-to-day basis managers can shift their mindset to being more supportive instead of more hands-on because that’s the counter-intuitive approach. When we have that sensory mentality then it very quickly and easily translates into micromanagement or an invasion of privacy. What are you doing right now? Are you working right now? Have you accomplished these deliverables yet? It very quickly becomes controlling, much more controlling than you would be in the office because you don’t have this trust and you don’t have any visibility in which to report productivity. You become obsessed with it as a manager and it quickly turns a corner into micromanagement.

Mari Ryan: Yes, and negative for sure. In some of our previous conversations, you’ve talked about this idea that is a change of mindset. I’d like you to comment on this a little bit more here that work is not a physical place as much as it is a set of tools and processes. Can you talk a little bit about that because I think this mindset idea is what we are living right now. So, how can we help people understand this mindset?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, in fact this actually refers back to your question about culture. We think, oh, how in the world are we going to translate our culture? Our culture is where we hang out in the break room and celebrate birthdays together. There’s no way that we could ever digitalize that. You have to shift your mindset into thinking what is culture and where does culture come from? If you are worried about remote worker isolation or your culture not translating to a virtual environment, is your entire culture really based on proximity? Is it based on everybody being in the same room? I can tell you from personal experience, as well as interviewing thousands of remote workers, that it is possible to be sitting next to somebody five feet away and still feel incredibly lonely and incredibly disconnected from a culture.

We need to shift our thought about how to develop culture and how to develop these rituals and workflows that facilitate culture and that strengthen culture into digital experiences, and shift them from the channels. We’re not going to be doing them in person, but we’re still going to be doing them human to human. We’re just going to be using different channels in which to facilitate those processes. It’s shifting this mentality and these ideas of instead of getting together in the breakroom, how can we get together in the Zoom room? Instead of leaving a gift on their desk, how can we mail a gift to them? They are small and simple changes, but it forces us to step back and think what is our culture about and if culture is about making sure that our workforce is feeling valued and appreciated and individually recognized, do they do that now, or are we telling ourselves that they do because we throw parties for them in the breakroom?

Everything about remote work is about coming into this with intention and not just translating what has been happening in a physical office and translating that into a virtual experience, but taking a step back and using this as a spring cleaning of our entire people operations and saying, is there a better way to do this?

Just meetings, for example. We get together and we talk, but is there a more efficient way to do this? If we are all going to meet together in a Zoom room, maybe we send the agenda prior to, people report on slack, and then we are able to shorter meeting for higher productivity. Everything about this transition to remote is about taking a step back and saying, is there a better way and that includes our culture, our management style and our rituals and workflows.

Mari Ryan: That’s all fabulous and I think that’s one of the silver linings, perhaps, that we’re experiencing here is people are suddenly realizing, why are we having these meetings, and it’s not as efficient as it could be and we don’t have agendas, or they’re having some new disciplines that are coming from this. So, great silver lining.

Laurel Farrer: It is.

Mari Ryan: One of the elements of the wellbeing model that we use, or two of the elements of the wellbeing model that we use are based on connection and community. It seems like in this time of crisis those are two things that we need even more of. I’m curious, what suggestions do you have for employers on how to ensure that they are staying connected with their employees and creating that sense of community. What are some of those kinds of things that we can be doing?

Laurel Farrer: At the sake of being redundant I will come back to communication. In a virtual world, we are what we type and we are what we say. We don’t have the benefit of nonverbal communication or even environmental cues or contextual cues to support and provide this unspoken foundation to our relationships. We have to over articulate. We have to over communicate. It forces us to be, to adopt this much more transparent and empathetic communication style that we may have felt very uncomfortable with in an office. We were trained very subconsciously in an office environment to sit down and shut up and get to work. This is not about distracting your coworkers. Just get to work.

Here, in a virtual business world because we’re much more efficient in other processes and we don’t have the natural distractions, we actually have to create space for human- to-human connection, for culture-building activities, and things like that. As a manager, to really support our teams it’s a matter of creating space for those conversations to be happening. Again, doing those daily check-ins. How are you doing? What are you struggling with? Allowing them to have space for their personal lives because right now everybody’s lives are one big blur of work and life and family and everything. It is not segmented at all.

Creating some safety for people to ask questions or to be interrupted by a child, or a dog, or something, or to take a break in the middle of the day and say, hey look, we’re all feeling stressed and anxious. If you need to take a break in the middle of the day and go for a walk, please do it. It’s really just treating humans as humans and communicating that. Not just feeling that or thinking it, but communicating that to your team and posting encouragement to do so, and setting the example yourself as a leader and saying, hey, I was having a really bad day today. I was feeling super burned-out and really stressed. My kids are being loud and I just thought, man, this couldn’t work. So I went for a walk and I feel better. How are you guys coping with this? Just really facilitating that unification.

Mari Ryan: Those are great examples. Thank you for sharing those. I think this whole idea of we’re all a little vulnerable in this and being able to be human, be more caring, more compassion, more empathy, are all of the things that we are going to need right now to be able to get through this.

Laurel Farrer: Perfect. That’s exactly what we all need to remember is that we are all in this together and we are all going to get through this together, but we have to be together. We have to be connected with communication and with empathy.

Mari Ryan: That’s great. I’m curious, from your perspective of where we are sitting here right now, what you would think the long-term impact is going to be for remote working? Will people realize that remote working has improved their well-being and their quality of life? They don’t miss that commute and they don’t miss the harried lifestyle that they lived before. They may not want to head back to the workplace quite so quickly. I’m just curious, how do you think this is going to flow in the future?

Laurel Farrer: I’m so glad you phrased it this way because I’ve been getting the questions so much of is this the new normal? And I’m like, no, this is not the new normal. Heaven forbid! Heaven help us if it is the new normal, but it is not. It’s completely unrealistic to think, oh, okay, on this point forward every single company is now going to be fully distributed. That’s ridiculous as well. It’s a pendulum swing where we need to balance somewhere in the middle and what that looks like from my perspective is that never can it go back to what it was before. Everybody working in offices, 9 to 5, the majority of the workforce and specifically, the managers and leadership of co-located companies thinking, no, this isn’t an option for us, or that wouldn’t be possible for us. That was the primary barrier to adoption in the past and that’s irrelevant now. Not only have we seen that it’s theoretically possible, but we’ve done it, we’ve conducted these trials and we’ve seen what has gone well and what hasn’t gone well. We can never go back to that point. There is no such thing is going back to what was normal because we are forever changed.

It’s also not possible to go fully distributed in the entire world overnight. Where lies is somewhere in the middle. I see that remote work is just now just work. Flexibility is now and will forever be an option. There’s always going to be a Plan B somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind. It’s going to be up to each individual leader and company to decide no longer if this is possible, but how and when this is possible. How are we going to use this? How often are we going to leverage remote work? In what quantity are we going to leverage remote work? I say leverage because it really is a strategy.

There are immense business savings to be had here. Employee retention and economic sustainability -- there are massive benefits. That’s what I think business leaders can and should be thinking from this point forward is what does this look like in the future? How were we going to adopt and apply the lessons that we learned as a distributed team? Things like asynchronous communication, and empathetic communication and things like that, like we came together as a team and we got through some hard stuff. How can we continue to apply that to our office environment? What is our contingency plan going to look like in the future so that it runs more smoothly? It’s not going to go back, but it’s also not going to go to the other extreme. It will go somewhere in the middle of … We are a changed people and our workplaces have changed and we’re going to start to understand and leverage remote work in a new and innovative way

Mari Ryan: So well said, as always, Laurel. Thank you.

Laurel Farrer: Thank you.

Mari Ryan: If our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing, where can they find you?

Laurel Farrer: I’m easy to find on social media. I’m the only Laurel Farrer, which I’m sure you’ll link in the show notes. Linked in and Twitter are the best places to find me. You can also get in touch with both of my organizations. For the consulting side it’s Distribute Consulting. If you are a remote work advocate and you’d like to connect with other advocates and help spread the message on how to work remotely effectively, then you can join the Remote Work Association, which is just roundtable events of fellow advocates and leaders.

Mari Ryan: Fabulous. Thank you again so much for being here today to discuss this important and timely topic.

Laurel Farrer: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, employee experience, employee wellness, worksite well-being, employee well-being, remote workforce, employee enagement, remote working, work from home

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.