Expert Interview: Stefanie Heiter

February 05 2019 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Stefanie Heiter explore the topic of managing a remote workforce.

Stefanie is the founder and partner of Bridging Distance and has helped pioneer the field of dispersed teaming and leadership since 1997. Stefanie is among the nation’s leading thinkers and consultants on the human side of virtual work.


Stefanie Heiter Interview

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

Stefanie is the founder and partner of Bridging Distance and has helped pioneer the field of dispersed teaming and leadership since 1997. Stefanie is among the nation’s leading thinkers and consultants on the human side of virtual work. She is authored numerous published articles in the area of virtual leadership, teams, and communication, and created six training workshops. Stefanie has earned a Masters of Science in Organization and Management from Antioch University, where her thesis focused on trust and communications in virtual teams, and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Clark University.

When not consulting or conducting research, Stefanie enjoys hiking, photography, canoeing, and biking. Stefanie, welcome. I am so excited to have you here today.

Stefanie Heiter: Thanks, Mari, I’m so excited to be here as well. I’m very excited to be able to share some information and hopefully help the audience to experience better remote work.

Mari Ryan: Fabulous. Let’s dig into our topic of remote working. In the digital world where we live, businesses are increasingly dealing with the challenges of managing a distributed work team, and employers are moving toward policies that allow for more flexible work. That’s not just the hours people work, that can be from where they work. I’m curious, what is the motivation for businesses to offer flexible work policies that include remote working?

Stefanie Heiter: It is multi-fold. I would say, however, the primary one right now is the ability to attract and retain incoming talent. It is looking at a new generation, not just millennials who are looking for more flexible work arrangements, work-life integration, opportunities to be able to contribute in different ways, but we have the emerging Gen-Z, which consists of digital natives who can’t understand or fathom a world where they are not connected to devices. The ability for them to say I have to come into a brick and mortar building or space doesn’t make any sense because they are used to, have been raised and weaned on technology as a way of connecting.

That’s one, and I think that is the primary one that people talk about. I think some of it is also access to resources when you need them. If you think about companies, large and small organizations wanting to be more agile, which is a big thing right now, agile has moved beyond capital “A” in terms of software development, with a small “a” around agility. Doing the access resources as you need them, when you need them, becomes critical for success and innovation, with competition, small companies, large companies, that becomes really important.

I think a couple of smaller factors as well that we still see, one is the idea of not just work-life integration, but being able to balance and take care of things. Not just for the younger folks, but folks as seasoned as I am around wanting to have more than just work and looking at how to do all of that. It’s not quite a work-life balance question anymore, it’s a work-life integration.

Mari Ryan: That certainly speaks to the desire for well-being that so many employees want and this is just one element of that well-being.

Stefanie Heiter: That’s right, that’s one-hundred percent right, and the ability to then say I’m going to work from home allows me that flexibility, it allows me to focus and be productive at my peak hours and my peak time and not be distracted. Here in New England, we recently had a snowstorm, and yes, it was on the weekend, but I think so many times where pending snow has had a profound effect on productivity for a few hours because people are worried about their children getting home, or are they going to be able to get home, trying to finish up a meeting, and so that flexibility, even in short pockets as opposed to a larger segment, becomes critical for people to have longer term and shorter term pockets of productivity. That’s really what it is about; it’s about getting results.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. It’s all about the results. You’re doing a lot of research in this area. I’m curious, what are the trends and what is your research revealing about remote working?

Stefanie Heiter: There are a number of trends, the majority of them say that remote work will only increase in 2019 and beyond. In particular, as in 2020, many Gen-Zs are going to be entering the workforce, and that is going to drive the demand for remote work and flexibility. Some of the trends we are seeing are that companies have a higher expectation for digital skills and technological competence. It used to be that there was some tolerance around some people who were like, wait, I’ve got to get this video thing down, I have to figure out how do I access my email from my device, run my tablet. Now, one of the things we are seeing is that companies have an expectation of technological competence from the beginning, and not just for entry level, but as companies move and migrate towards that.

That’s one; I think some of the other trends we are seeing is being able to manage the company expectations for those skills, so being able to articulate what the expectations are, so they can be productive, and that means what we’re seeing on our end is an increase in the kinds of training and resources that companies are providing for their employees. It is an increase in a kind of consumable, learning that you can do when you want to, so online training, but also still instructor-led training that people can have those interactions so they can foster that.

A couple of other trends; I think that we’re seeing more and more smaller companies are more quickly and easily moving towards remote work and embracing that. We also see pockets of larger companies, regardless of what their remote work policy is, we see small pockets within those companies still embracing remote work and allowing people to have flexibility.

Those are a couple of them. Another one is this idea of having remote workers instead of working five days a week, or the entire time in a home office or remotely, they are coming back into the workplace, so maybe one day a week, or one week a month, or a week in the quarter, depending on how far they are having to travel. It’s a bit like the back-sourcing that took place years ago with outsourcing, and then people brought back some of the jobs on-shore. It’s this idea of people being able to create those in person relationships that help with communication and the ability to get things done.

Mari Ryan: That’s great. Good trends. It’s interesting, one of the trends that I’m hearing more about is the reverse of this. Organizations that were early adopters on remote working and sending their workforce home, if you will, are now reversing those policies and bringing people back in-house. Why do you think that is?

Stefanie Heiter: For a couple of reasons. I think, primarily, what larger companies are finding is that people’s ability to collaborate and have those kind of productive relationships that they have in person are lacking when people are working remotely. Most of the reasons that we come across are stemming from that lack of interpersonal or human connection that’s missing. We see that they have great tools, they have Office 365, or they have Drive, or they use Slack, et cetera. All kinds of technological solutions, but there are still people who have to be motivated to engage with each other via those technologies in order to make it work.       

One of the things we know, and our research continues to say, is that technology dehumanizes a relationship. So, instead of being “Mari,” you are “Mari-at-something.” You are a digital soul to me. It is important to have ways in which you can rehumanize those relationships. I’m working with Mari, and it’s great fun, and we’ve got some great interactions; therefore that motivation intrinsically has me more motivated to do the things that you need to do in order to be successful. It creates that deeper sense of camaraderie and belonging and human connection that is missing.

That becomes really important, and I think that we see that companies are wanting that connection for people, and feeling like what is missing is that human connection, so therefore, what is lost is not just productivity, but agility and innovation, and the ability to connect and brainstorm and have some of that. In a lot of ways that [ indecipherable - 0:11:15.8] so that as needed, just in time interaction that says a hallway conversation, or some of the other ones. That’s what we’re hearing as reasons for people to come together, but I would still say you can create those kinds of relationships using technology as long as it’s done well. That’s what we’re hearing around reasons to go the other way.

Mari Ryan: Pull people back in. It’s very interesting because connection is a core part of well-being, and those relationships we have and the sense of belonging. How can we foster that sense of belonging in the workplace when teams are working remotely?

Stefanie Heiter: I live and die by the principle that it’s all about trust, and you have to create trusting relationships. Starting with those basic aspects of trust building that we usually do in in-person environments and used to be such a core piece of doing business, but has gone away. We talk about two kinds of trust, and this comes back to an earlier reference, my master’s thesis on trust in virtual global teams, and what I found in that research that continues to resonate today is that there are two kinds of trust we are thinking about. The first is what we call relational trust, and that’s trust that’s built on what we have in common. It’s trust that is built on our common experiences of each other. As females, as people living in the northeast of the U.S., as bright women – all those different things are the experiences that we have reinforced and amplified the trust that we have for each other. That is easy to do consciously and unconsciously in an in-person environment.

The other kind of trust is called transactional trust. Transactional trust is trust that develops based on the way that we execute all our tasks and the expectations that others have of us to perform. That means are we delivering our tasks on time, as expected, with the quality as expected, to the right people, and asking for what we need in order to do that. That also has to do with are we replying to emails, are we participating in conference calls? Are we able from a transactional task execute perspectives add value to the overall mission, team, or organization?

That happens most often first in virtual environments. In a distributed team in remote work, we tend to judge people first by the way in which they complete their commitments, and by the way they communicate with us in the sense that they are being responsible and responsive with that. From that we can then move towards adding in the relational trust pieces, like doing virtual team-building sessions, in ways that people can get to know each other.

For example, in our team, we always open our meetings, we use video, and we open our meetings with a check-in question. It might be, how much snow did you have? What temperature was it outside? What’s your favorite dish? Questions that just get people to know each other – favorite color, vacation spot. I have a whole list of 50 different things that you can do. That helps us get to know each other and goes back to re-humanizing our relationships so that we’re motivated to work together. That becomes a core piece of what we’re doing around that trust building, and it’s something that we talk about, making the informal formal. How do you take all of the culture and the things that are in the air in an in-person environment that people just know, formalize them so that those interactions can be founded on the same kinds of things. That’s one piece that we begin to do with that.

A couple of other ones is really understanding how people come across. We have this idea of what we call electronic body language. Going back to some of the research that we’ve done, electronic body language is the assumptions that you make about others and that they make about you based on what we call your digital footprints, your digital presence. So, how do you show up for people electronically? Do you respond on time? Now we have so many places where we show up. Even in a corporate setting, you have your LinkedIn page, you’re going to show up on Skype for business, you’re going to have this photo and that photo, so, are your presence aligned, is your in-person reputation and presence the same is your digital one? Because we want to make sure we are breeding some consistency across how we show up, but also how we perform.

What happens, in our research we have found that people will tend to read negativity into people’s inconsistent digital habits, as well as things that they can’t understand. If they can’t understand a communication, or they don’t understand a person, they tend to be negative. That’s the transactional and relational trust building needs to coincide with that.

Mari Ryan: Very interesting. I see some of this with one of my clients. I’m on their internal systems because I have a long-term relationship with them, and I noticed when I started getting online that Skype is one of the online tools that they use and I put my photo in, did all that little stuff, and I noticed how many people didn’t have their photos, even just as a way of being present and showing that they are engaging on this platform. It’s very clear to me that this move to more remote working kinds of things is something that is very new for this organization. They are used to the in-person, face-to-face types of situations. Even little things like not putting your photo on can be a message.

Stefanie Heiter: Yes, and what’s interesting is that we find that people who are the ones that are remote workers, or who are the ones who are outside the hub or wherever the central workplace is, are much more compelled to have a solid digital presence and to work harder on those relationships because they have to find that information.

Mari Ryan: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. That leads me to a question about what are some of the challenges of creating and managing remote and virtual teams?

Stefanie Heiter: I would say that the biggest one … we have this concept called the distance lens, and it looks at four types of distances that teams and organizations need to overcome in order to be successful. The first is called interpersonal distance, and that is distance created in terms of differences in who we are as people. That is gender, culture, these aspects to it that come into play.

The second is organizational distance, which is distance and differences in function, so, marketing versus HR versus finance, or even vendors that we are working with, and we look at another trend that has somewhat to do with remote work as this idea of outsourcing and having flexible and agile organizations by outsourcing pieces of it so that you could bring in those resources as you need. That creates an organizational distance that has to be overcome in order for those teams to work well together.

The third is physical distance. That’s what we think about when we think about remote work, or virtual, we think about the fact that we’re working from different floors in the same building, or different buildings on the same campus, different regions, different countries. That’s what we think about, but that’s only one aspect to it, because there is a fourth one called technological distance. That’s distance that’s created as a result all of how what technology we choose to use, what modality we want, and then, how we use it. That also has an impact on competence and credibility, because different people in different cultures have a preferred technology, introverts, extroverts, different styles like one over the other, different capabilities have an impact too, going back to electronic body language.

One of the things we want to think about is how do you develop that trust? You have to look at the kinds of distances to overcome and then make a conscious plan to do that. When you think about virtual teambuilding you need to take the time up front to say let’s slow down or speed up. Take time to make time. We have seen, again and again, and research shows this, that teams that take time up front to get to know each other, to create shared processes in terms of how they are going to communicate, how they are going to make decisions, who has input into that decision, who has the expertise, becomes really important around creating a foundation and a platform.

Going back, Mari, to your work on wellness, much of what we do and advocate is that we need to take a wellness rather than triage approach to virtual work. Unfortunately, it’s taking a really long time, particularly for larger organizations to understand that if you can upfront do teambuilding and create some consistency you can exponentially get things done faster. People don’t have to suffer digitally, in a way, and you can take that wellness approach and you are not having to fix things that are broken, fix relationships, going back to those technologies, fixing a lack of trust. You can do that from the beginning.

It also takes into account another huge aspect, particularly of remote work, and that’s the idea of digital loneliness. It’s the idea of isolation. So, if I am working every day from a home office and several people are at a hub together, I might feel isolated because I don’t have access to that. A challenge that we face, and I think will have to be addressed, is that remote work, the ability to work from home, has to be positioned not as a benefit just to the person working remotely, but to the team and the organization. If not, if Mari gets to work from home, then she should reach out to me rather than waiting for me to say oh, I think Mari needs to know this, or she needs to be included, let’s see if we can get her on quickly and do just a quick ad hoc meeting, or instant meeting as they are called on different technologies. Then the onus for the team is that we all own this, but until we can articulate as a team or as a group the value of allowing somebody to work remotely means that they can contribute at 125%. That means there’s a have and there’s a have not and unconsciously they may be less motivated to have you be included in some of the things that we desperately need your expertise and your voice in, which you also need to be included.

That aspect in terms of overcoming that is the sense of creating a business case, a team case for the ability for people to work well everywhere.

Mari Ryan: That’s great. Thank you for addressing those challenges and what it takes to manage a team in this way. It’s so very important, and I think you’re right, so many organizations are not taking the time to do the planning and thinking through some of these approaches. Stefanie, if our audience wants to learn a little bit more about you and the work that you are doing and your research, where can they find that information?

Stefanie Heiter: Much of it is on our website. It is On there, we have research opportunities, we are always looking for people to participate. I think digital loneliness looks like that is going to be our 2019 research subject. If people are interested in being a part of that, electronic focus groups, assessments, different pieces, would love to have those voices contribute to heart of this critical mobile conversation.

Mari Ryan: Interesting. Thank you for making that offer, and thank you so much for being here today. I find this conversation really interesting and I know our audience will as well. Stefanie, thanks so much for being here.

Stefanie Heiter: Absolutely, my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Mari.

[End of audio]

Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, wellness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, hr, telecommuting, multigenerational workforce, inclusion, company culture, employee well-being, human resources, corporate wellness, remote workforce

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.