9 min read
Remote First: An Institute Leveling the Playing Field
February 28, 2023
Here at OnceHub, we believe firmly that remote work is a superior approach to working and collaborating and we're always thrilled when we find other establishments that echo these sentiments.
The Remote First Institute is an incredible organization that wants to empower employee autonomy and promote the values and benefits of remote work adoption and the positive impact it has on people and the entities they work for.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Valentina Thörner of the RFI and pick her brain about her thoughts on working remotely and some misconceptions about the practice.
If you're looking for work-from-home opportunities, please head to our careers page to browse our open positions.
The idea of working remotely vs the reality is vastly different. Working remotely is not for everyone. What are the key personality traits to be successful in a remote environment?
I don’t think that it comes down to personality traits, but rather to skill sets that the individual person has acquired over time. Having these skill sets really helps - not having them means that they’ll have to invest energy into developing them.
On the flip side of the equation is the remote employer. Your individual skill sets need to match your employers preferences. For example, if you are a gregarious person who thrives on talking to people, an employer that solves a lot of things through video calls is probably a better fit than a place where communication happens in writing - unless you find a way to compensate for your need of real-time social connection, e.g. through volunteering at a local ONG in your free time.
That means, self-awareness is probably the one trait that you can’t really ignore (and even self-awareness tends to improve with time and practice).
Everything else depends on what type of remote work you are looking for. A highly independent person is better suited to a company that grants a lot of autonomy to their workers. Someone who is more anxious about whether they are doing the right thing might be better served with a more hands-on leadership approach.
That said, having a sound personal productivity system (which from the outside looks like “being organized”) and being good at communicating both challenges and success, those are certainly helpful. At the end of the day, the most important factor for remote success or not of an individual employee is whether their personality matches the prevalent leadership style within the company.
Often remote work stretches across various jurisdictions and time zones. Any advice on how to structure one’s day so that you don’t end up “living from work” vs “working from home”?
Technology can be a great facilitator - and also your biggest detractor. Many of the apps we use are optimized for 'addictability'. Companies are investing (literally) millions of dollars into making their apps as “sticky” as possible, keeping you “engaged” as long as possible. This is true for social networking apps, and also for your work messaging apps.
That means “trying harder” to log off on time is pitching your brain against a team of scientists - those odds are definitely not in your favor. Instead, define your own boundaries and then use technology to enforce those boundaries. Some examples that I’ve seen working in the past:
- Use different WIFI networks for work and play. Blog your work apps on the play WIFI and your social networks on your work WIFI.
- Add a timed switch to your router’s power outlet to interrupt your internet connection for 30 min at the end of your workday. This allows you to mentally switch out of work. Of course, this also works to self-enforce internet free lunch breaks.
- Sign up for outside-your-home activities in the middle of the day or at the end of the day. Those force you to be done by a certain time.
In a nutshell: don’t rely on willpower alone. Design a system that supports the things you want to do and adds friction around the things you want to avoid.
There is tremendous value in the ‘coffee/water cooler’ quick conversations that take place in a physical work environment. Where you happen to bump into a colleague and are able to quickly touch base. Whether it is regarding something personal (building relationships) or something work related. Any advice on how to create spaces for interaction?
Bumping into colleagues around the watercooler does happen in the office. It also happens that you always bump into the same three people who happen to also take the coffee at 11am. Remote work is actually more diverse in this regard, as you can create spaces that do not depend on synchronizing specific physical needs.
You can create interest-based conversation channels, instead. Encourage people to get to know others who also hang out in #cooking #bouldering #boardgames #parenting or #plantparents. You can rely on conversations happening there organically, or you can use a tool like Donut to pair up people (who already have that one thing in common) and encourage them to have a conversation.
You can also host non-work related workshops, organize a monthly talent show for people to talk about something they are passionate about, or facilitate an online photo challenge for people to share a different view of their city every week. By now there are SO many great ideas out there - and you need someone in the company to own that. It won’t just happen by accident.
Malcolm Gladwell recently voiced his distaste for remote work and it sparked major debate across industries. What are your thoughts on him saying remote work reduces your professional life to staying in bed all day in your pajamas?
If I don’t have client calls, is it really that horrible if I decide to do my data analysis in my pajamas from my bed? Gladwell is clearly optimizing for in-person meetings with other people just like him - so he needs to be out and about in a smart suit. Many people are not in his situation though. They can optimize for their comfort, for their health needs, for their family life.
And that’s one of the biggest problems that we’ve been seeing in this discussion around RTO and remote work: the disconnect between leaders and employees is staggering. Execs complain about too many zoom meetings. Employees suffer from loneliness because even their direct manager can’t be bothered to set up a regular one-on-one. Execs want to get back to their office to be productive, employees dread the open-floor design where they can’t shut out the noise. Realities are different, and it’s unfortunate that people like Gladwell aren’t aware about the level of privilege they are operating on.
There was an article in the South African Business Journal that suggests 8 out of 10 remote workers are victims of overemployment - what are your thoughts on this (potential) misnomer?
Overemployment refers to someone having more than one full-time job. The term is misleading insofar that it covers completely different realities. There are people who have more than one full time job, because that one full time job simply does not pay their bills. They don’t have a choice, and often the stress of working that many hours also means that they won’t be able to leave the situation. In this case you can indeed talk about victims of overemployment - the problem isn’t the person, the problem is that the jobs they have access to do not pay a living wage.
Then there are people who have a full time job and invest their free time into a so-called side hustle. The goal may be to one day switch to doing their side hustle full time. They may want to get additional experience that they can get in their full time job. Or they simply have fun doing the thing on the side, and why not make some money while you are at it. Obviously, these people are not victims, unless their full-time employer feels threatened over their side activities.
As a society, I believe overemployment as a survival strategy is something that we still need to solve, while having a side hustle can actually increase both morale and access to new ideas for both employers and employees.
There has been much discussion in recent months of the burgeoning concept of the 15 minute city, whereby excessive travel and emissions are reduced en masse by making everything (relatively) available within a 15-minute radius of one’s residence. Do you think this idea will take flight and would you say that the massive push towards remote work enables this to be successfully realized?
The concept is great - and if it can be a 15 min bike radius (instead of a car ride distance), that would be even better. Many smaller cities (at least in Europe) already offer that, and it strengthens community ties as you run into the same people everywhere and it’s easier to organize things within the community. As a parent, the biggest deterrent to this idea is work. Where there is a school, there are supermarkets, pharmacies, playgrounds. But if the parents have to commute an hour to work and back, they aren’t there to be part of that community creation.
And that means that if you want a diverse workforce (instead of hiring within that 15 min radius only), a proper remote setup is probably the best solution.
Research trends are overwhelmingly positive with regards to productivity and overall satisfaction in remote working environments. Barring all of the known benefits, what would you say is the absolute best thing about working from anywhere?
For me personally it’s the ability to be where I am irreplaceable. During the school year I am with my kids in Spain. We can live in a small city with everything nearby, because I don’t depend on having to commute into a big city every single day. During the summer we migrate to Germany to spend time with the German part of the family, while I work from there. During Easter we explore yet another part of the world, without worrying if I have enough PTO days to cover those expeditions.
It’s this flexibility that makes all the difference, especially for families and those who take care of more people than just themselves. Remote work, in this regard, levels the playing field - and that’s exactly what we need.
If you'd like to connect with Valentina or Iwo from the RFI, please reach out so via LinkedIn and see how you can improve your remote operations and employee satisfaction today.