Communicating to Thrive with Laurel Farrer

Laurel is a remote work strategist and advocate who works with companies to strengthen communication and develop long-distance management strategies. She has written about remote work for several publications and education platforms and has advised US governments, business conferences, and industry leaders on the topic of remote work.

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Laurel Farrer

Luis Magalhaes: Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the StaffITright podcast, a podcast by DistantJob where I, your host, Luis, interview people who build and manage incredible remote teams, and my guest today is Laurel Farrer. And apologies in advance if I’m going to butcher your name anymore Laurel. I’m sorry, it’s not that easy for me. But anyway, Laurel is an advisor who specializes in what’s exactly the subject matter of this podcast so I was thrilled to have her as a guest. She has consulted with businesses, with industry-leading conferences and even with some US government. So let’s start off with listening to what Laurel has to say about the magic of letting people be responsible for their own work and productivity.

Laurel Farrer: And allowing that intrinsic motivation that is a result of the worker defining those KPIs for themself, I think that is what I have witnessed be the most successful and the most magical when it comes to tracking results.

Luis Magalhaes: What led Laurel to this, to push remote work, to dedicate her career to helping people make remote work, well, work? It’s because she believes this is how you help people thrive.

Laurel Farrer: People are going to be productive in different environments. Period. We are all different people. We all have different interests. We all have different learning styles. We all have different tastes and different things motivate us and that’s part of what makes us incredible individuals, is that we’re all different. So how are we expected to perform if all of these different amazing unique people are put into the exact same office environment that, to be frank, is usually pretty sterile and boring?

Luis Magalhaes: She also goes into great detail about explaining how to stop being a boss, start being a leader and that the path to that is through transparency and clear communication.

Laurel Farrer: The team members need to see the line of authority. They need to see assignments. They need to see permissions and in a virtual environment that means that everything has to be articulated, communicated, shared, recorded multiple times.

Luis Magalhaes: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Laurel Farrer.

Luis Magalhaes: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, this is Luis with the StaffITRight podcast, a podcast by DistantJob. As always, we are here to talk about how to build and manage remote teams who win. Today my guest is Laurel Farrer. So, Laurel.

Laurel Farrer: Hello.

Luis Magalhaes: Pleased to meet you.

Laurel Farrer: It’s nice to meet you, too. I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

Luis Magalhaes: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me, to talk to the StaffITRight podcast. You’ve done a lot of work advising people how to build and manage remote teams, which is exactly the purpose of this podcast. Tell me a bit about how did you come into … Tell me a bit more about yourself, about your work and how did you come into the remote work thing.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I have been a remote worker for almost 11 years now, which is I feel like ancient in the remote work world. And how I came to do that is I have a background in office management and operations and I was the new operations manager of an event planning agency in Colorado, in the United States. We were growing from the phase of the founder of the agency being just an entrepreneur and then scaling to be an actual team and agency of staff of planners.

Laurel Farrer: As such, she could no longer work from her home and we needed an office space, but it was right in that stage of scaling that we didn’t quite have the revenue yet to support the expense of an office space, but we would in the upcoming season. So I, being a young eager office manager was anxious to prove how valuable I was and how smart I was and so I said, “What if we kept our expenses low for the next few months until we have the steady revenue stream and we all continue working from home? You’ve been able to do it for the past couple of years. Why don’t we all try doing that just for the next few months and just see how it goes. We can get together for coffee once a week and have a meeting and then we can all just work independently.”

Laurel Farrer: And so we did and as you can probably guess, an office was never acquired. We just stayed virtual with each other and it was great.

Luis Magalhaes: May I ask what age were you? How old were you at that time?

Laurel Farrer: I was very young at that point. I was only 20 at that point.

Luis Magalhaes: Okay. This question has a reason. It’s just not me being randomly interested. I promise I’ll go somewhere with this because 20 years old, that’s still a very ego-driven age and I’m surprised because I would think that the position of someone in that age would be, well, I want to prove myself as a manager so I really need an office. I really need to be there for the people to see me, for me to be able to see the people, for everyone to basically understand how great I am and how good I am at managing things. But you really choose the other path, the path of shadows like a ninja, and I was wondering what was the internal monologue? What was the conversation in your head that you managed to justify that that was the right step for yourself and for the company?

Laurel Farrer: That’s a really interesting question. I’ve never thought about it from that perspective. I’m a very, very proactive person. I really enjoy my work. My work is much more, I think important, than myself in my internal perspective. At that moment I was probably much more interested in proving my value as an employee as opposed to creating a lifestyle for myself. But at the same time I had just come from a strong corporate environment and I had been commuting for years and I had been working from home for a few months at that point and I really liked just being home.

Laurel Farrer: I thought, “Man, this is, yeah, I can continue working from home.” I think it was just me figuring out on my own what everybody else is figuring out now, well, why commute to an office to be on a computer and be really stressed about the overhead cost that I’m supposed to be managing and controlling when I could just save all that money for the business, save the time for myself, be able to work more and be more comfortable at home. I think for me at the time it just seemed like a no-brainer.

Luis Magalhaes: Didn’t you ever feel that you were forgoing some control as a manager?

Laurel Farrer: No, I really liked it. I’m very introverted person. So I really like having control over my relationships with people, meaning I know exactly how much I do and I don’t see them. So for me, in terms of managing the staff of planners at that time, it was really great. I got to see them once a week and have a really great, engaging, in-person conversation that was very, very meaningful, very productive. But then the rest of the time it was results-based and that’s my language as a manager.

Laurel Farrer: So I was able to just email them about exactly what I needed and our communication was really, really strong using only virtual tools. This is now over a decade later and I’m still in touch with most of those people. We definitely did not sacrifice anything in terms of culture or communication.

Luis Magalhaes: Okay. I want to come back to you in a bit, but you’ve mentioned something that is very interesting to me, which is that it was results-based and you used the results tracking to make sure that you were managing properly. Did I get that right?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah.

Luis Magalhaes: This is something that a lot of people come to me worrying about, which is they have a hard time figuring out how to track the results, how to have a good idea about how productive the remote employees are being. What I usually say is that truly depends on the kind of work because you won’t track the productivity of a marketing team, which is my area of expertise, in the same way that you’re going to track the productivity of a software development. I’ve also managed entire remote teams of writers and editorial team and that’s a completely different ball game. So what do you usually do when it comes to tracking results, obviously based on the kinds of teams that you’ve worked with?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah. I think exactly like you said, just to supplement the path that you’re already on is what I find is that it all boils down to the KPIs, how we define success? How we define productivity for a specific role? If you are relying on traditional methods of measuring productivity, that usually defaults to, can I see somebody working? Do I see them coming in early to the office? Do I see them talking in meetings? Can I see that? But if we just shift that mindset and change and update how we track and measure productivity and how we define productivity, then it allows us to measure it in different ways.

Laurel Farrer: I think that what that comes down to is having very, very careful conversations on a regular basis about the key performance indicators and the objectives and key results of each roll individually and saying, “Okay, what is going to prove to me that you are working on a daily basis? What is going to prove to me that you are progressing in your role? What is going to prove to me that you are really invested in the mission and the progress and the vision of the company in general?”

Laurel Farrer: And having those conversations so openly and allowing that intrinsic motivation that is a result of the worker defining those KPIs for themself, I think that is what I have witnessed be the most successful and the most magical when it comes to tracking results, because they understand exactly what results are going to communicate that to you as a manager and they invest a lot of time and energy in making those come to fruition.

Luis Magalhaes: Okay. Let’s go a bit deeper. What does the conversation like that sound like? Can you give me like a specific example from the past three months where you’ve had that, and of course, change the names to protect the innocent.

Laurel Farrer: Yes, of course. I find that the most convenient time to have this conversation is during onboarding. So let’s say Jim. I’m going to hire a graphic designer named Jim. And Jim is a virtual employee and so during onboarding he’s aware of the job description and he is aware of the projects that we’re going to be working on, but he and I need to have a very careful conversation, just like I said about, “All right, this is a virtual roll. I’m not going to be able to see you working. So I need you to articulate to me productivity. What does it mean? What are your goals for this role? How often are you going to be working? When are you going to be accessible?”

Laurel Farrer: We need to articulate and communicate all of those details that are pretty organic in an office environment. They don’t need to be talked about because they’re assumed. The doors open at 8:00, they close at 5:00. You will be here during those times and you will be accessible during all of those times, but in a virtual environment, that’s not the case. So we need to have that conversation. We talk about all of the details and then we say, that’s the job of every manager, is how will I know that you’re working. So I allow the worker to articulate that for themselves and set those KPIs and OKRs for themselves and say, “Okay, this is what I want to do with this role.”

Laurel Farrer: This graphic designer really wants to strengthen the brand identity of the company and so he proposes some benchmarks of how he’s going to make that happen, “I will provide a vision board by this date and I will do some research by this date,” and blah, blah, blah. So he proposes all of that and I, as a manager, am there to confirm that his proposals are in line with the vision and the operational processes of the rest of the company so I can help steer him in the right direction.

Laurel Farrer: But then in terms of KPI, on a very micro level he says, “This is what I commit to do as an employee. I will be accessible during these hours. At the end of every week I will have produced a, b and c. This is how I will report. If I’m doing research obviously, I can’t prove that I’m doing research. So this is my proposal for how I will prove to do research. I will submit a research report every week based on the findings that I do.” Or whatever, but each role has the opportunity to articulate that for themselves, of this is how I prove that I’m working, because you can’t see it. So what other methods of measurement are we going to use in order to measure?

Luis Magalhaes: Okay, that’s very interesting and enlightening. Thank you. This brings me to mind an article that I read written by you. And again, I said this before we were recording, but I’m actually impressed by how prolific you are in writing. It takes a lot to put all these ideas into words. I mean, I’ve done it before so I know it does so thank you for that. But anyway, so I was reading an article where you were giving some pointers on how to create a good stand-up culture, following the Scrum agile method and how it works differently for different teams. Basically differentiating between tactical and the strategical.

Luis Magalhaes: So you did advise people to dissect work into smaller portions that are more compatible with reporting. Can you give us an example of what’s a good way, again in the last three months or six months maybe because it’s a more technical discussion, what is a good example of that being done? How do you grab the strategic and turn it into the tactical that people can report daily on their stand-ups?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, that is actually what got me into remote work, consulting and advocacy in the first place. For a quick second I’ll take a tangent back to my story. So I was the operations manager of that small agency. Over the next decade my career grew and I found myself in the position of being the COO of a national event planning and coordination agency and I was responsible for about 500 remote coordinators throughout the United States.

Luis Magalhaes: That’s a lot.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, it was a really great opportunity. It was a really great team, but I was the COO. So I was responsible for people operations, creating this healthy culture and engaging all of these workers throughout the country of whom I had never met. So I was feeling a lot of pressure, but on the back end, in the executive team of that agency it was extremely toxic environment. It was so unhealthy. People that were quitting or getting fired were having to go to therapy because it was just, there was something so wrong.

Laurel Farrer: And after that job, I found myself, and during that job as I was looking and observing and talking to other executives of distributed companies, I found myself wondering like is this possible? Is it possible to have a successful virtual environment, because this was so bad. So thinking about that and comparing it to so many other cultures that were very, very successful and very healthy, this is what it boiled down to, was this stand-up because in this culture the stand-up was it was about results only.

Laurel Farrer: So there was no rooms for small talk. There was no empathy in the culture. There was nothing, no level of support. The stand-up was not an opportunity for you to connect with your team, to ask for help, to report on successes, to celebrate together. It was nothing like that. It was results only. You were to come in and in one to two minutes say, “This is what I’m working on.” Or, “This is what I have worked on. This is what I am working on and these are the results that I have. Period.”

Luis Magalhaes: And no one else was listening. They were just waiting for their turn.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s the danger of remote work, is because we are results-based, we do need to shift our mindset, like we talked about before, to be from sensory criteria to results criteria of that’s how we measure productivity are based on our results. It puts us into this danger zone of treating our employees and team members as just results producers. So we get too focused on their output and their results and not on them as human beings. And that was the problem with this culture, is that it was just about output and I was burned out because again, when you’re only focused on output and not on the people, I was working 18, 20 hour days and never seeing my family and it was horrendous.

Laurel Farrer: But then to come into other cultures and of virtual teams, to this stand-up, I found that I loved stand-ups because it was an opportunity to connect with my team and to reduce that isolation of both social isolation and informational isolation. I found myself looking forward to those meetings every day instead of literally getting nauseous before every call, like it was before because I was so nervous and I was just going to get reamed for what I hadn’t produced and it was awful.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah. I know the feeling.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, exactly. I think we’ve all had a bad experience. So I think it’s very, very important that as we shift to this results-based work model, that we really focus on the fact that there are people producing the results and we treat them as such, we incorporate a lot of empathy and communication and humanize processes into our operations to make sure that this virtual environment doesn’t feel sterile and digital-only. We just happen to collaborate via technology, but our relationships are not technological-based.

Luis Magalhaes: But on the other hand, I’ve been in situations where the absolute opposite happens, which is just what I call the poke culture, which is everyone is always constantly poking everyone else and no one can be able to concentrate for any deep work? So how would you find the balance there?

Laurel Farrer: Yes, and again, I think this comes down to communication and culture to say, you have to articulate that, you have to communicate that that is a priority in your culture. So, communicating in your rituals every week to say, “Okay, when is your deep space this time that you’re going to turn off all of your notifications?” Or helping new hires understand … Having a mentor relationship with somebody that can speak to them very, very openly and help point out contradictions to the culture. And so if they’re nudging too much, there’s somebody that can say, “Okay, remember, in this culture we try not to nudge too much so that people can have uninterrupted work time. Is this something that you can’t solve yourself? Have you tried to solve this problem on your own before you’ve come to me?”

Laurel Farrer: Just helping them walk through the process of what does information filtering look like before you start nudging other people, because some cultures do have a very, very highly interactive environment. There’s notifications and ping going on all over the place and they love it, others are silence and they love that. So it’s a matter of articulating and matching with the culture that you thrive best in. But then it’s also a matter of being a wise and responsible self-manager and saying, “Hey everyone, I am getting distracted too much. I’m going to turn off my notifications for the next four hours. If you need me, I’ll be back then or if you if there’s something absolutely urgent, go ahead and text me.” Or whatever.

Laurel Farrer: Somebody talking to you is just as much in your control as it is in theirs. So I think remote work requires a lot more autonomy, independence and consequentially, self-discipline and self-management, self-awareness, than it does in other environments.

Luis Magalhaes: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And that’s a very good point again. Thank you for making it. We’ve touched a bit on it, but I’m really interested in because I’ve also read your writing about flat structures versus structures with some hierarchy before. I tend to be more in the camp of hierarchy just because in my past I’ve seen companies and businesses and even nonprofits with hierarchies accomplish a lot more than flat structures. Not to say that I don’t believe that companies with flat structures don’t work, but I do think that there is a way to be a leader without being a boss, if this makes sense. So taking it from here from there, what would be your approach to being a leader without being a boss?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, absolutely. I found especially unique to remote work that leadership is so much about empowerment. We cannot expect somebody to be autonomous and independent if they don’t have control over their role, over their decisions and over their productivity. So I think that that is a big differentiating factor and something that a lot of new to remote managers struggle with, is letting go of the reins and allowing as much empowerment as possible because that’s what fuels intrinsic motivation and that intrinsic motivation is crucial to independent productivity, unsupervised productivity. So I think the keys to leadership, and again leadership, it’s not necessarily about flat model versus hierarchical. I mean, I prefer to have a hierarchical model, but that’s just personal preference.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah, I absolutely.

Laurel Farrer: I like structure. I like very clear reporting models. However, that’s personal preference and there’s a lot of companies that had made the flat model work really, really well. So essentially I think leadership is just about awareness of your employees and creating this … I mean, forgive the visual here, but I think it’s like a Petri dish. We’re trying to create this perfect environment in which for them to do whatever they’re going to do. So we’re not necessarily controlling the growth of this bacteria that’s in Petri dish.

Luis Magalhaes: I was a surgeon. You can’t beat me.

Laurel Farrer: Oh, so we’re good.

Luis Magalhaes: [crosstalk 00:25:25] bloody metaphors.

Laurel Farrer: Filters down man. We’re just going whole-hog. Yeah, so I think that that’s my goal as a leader, is to just create an environment in which they are safe, they have what they need to have in order to succeed and then the rest is up to them. So especially in operations I am continually trying to provide them with access to information, making sure that they have all the tools, the equipment, the resources that they need in order for them to manage their role themselves. And also being aware of them. If I am expecting them to be so zeroed in on their productivity and on their tasks, I need to be watching out for them.

Laurel Farrer: And so again, that’s part of the environment of, “Hey, have you taken off enough time this year and you seem to be working a lot of hours I think you need to take a break.” And giving them positive reinforcement, “You did a great job on this. I’d love to see more of that.” I’m really just encouraging them, leading them, being on the lookout for promotions and new opportunities, “Hey, there’s a new software. I’d love to see you get certified in that software because I think it’s a great complement to your current skills.” Or whatever, just kind of looking out for them in general and creating that Petri dish that will really encourage them and their career to become whatever they want it to.

Luis Magalhaes: Okay. Here’s a specific situation because I very much enjoy working in specific examples because that’s where-

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, I love it. I was just thinking that. Most podcasts are like, this is who I am. This is what I do, but your questions are so specific. I love it.

Luis Magalhaes: Thank you. Well, I have some experience, but anyway, again, one of my experience in the past was that I had a very talented woman working under me. She delivered impeccable work, very pleased. So after I believe a year I decided to give her her own big important project, something that was very important, marketing initiative for the company obviously. She had seen me organize and lead projects before several times, so she knew how to do it and I went through her and I specifically told her that the challenge here will be to negotiate with the other team members their roles in your project because you can’t do a project all by yourself.

Luis Magalhaes: And I found that the challenge that I had a lot of trouble getting her to overcome was the assigning of tasks to other members of the team. And I think that’s still because she was stuck in a bit of the hierarchical thing where well, Luis can tell people what they should be doing, but they’re my equals so I shouldn’t be able to. So I could see that she was working hard on the project, but I could see that by the trajectory that we wouldn’t be able to meet to keep the KPIs there simply because she wasn’t being able to negotiate.

Luis Magalhaes: And I used the word negotiate because I think that’s what you do when you’re flat. You don’t boss, but you lead and part of leadership is negotiation. But ultimately I could not gather … The project was delayed and I eventually had to take over it and I was disappointed with that, but I like to think that it was my flaw. So what could I have done better?

Laurel Farrer: This is an incredible case study and what it comes back to, I think, is communication. One of my tag lines is that in remote work over-communication is just communication and then we have to articulate and say so much more than we are used to in an office environment. In this circumstance, I think what I observe and who knows what the actual case was, but just based on your explanation, what I observe is that she didn’t feel like she had permission to have authority over her peers, which is completely fair. Nobody wants to be the bad guy and the boss and telling other people what to do.

Laurel Farrer: So I think that something that could have helped her is to create the opportunity for her to have authority over her peers by saying, “Hey team, this team member is going to spearhead this project. I have asked her to delegate certain responsibilities to all of you and so make sure that you show her all of the support and be asking her what you can do to contribute to the success of this project. We’re all excited for you,” this team leader, “we’re all excited for you. We support you. Just let us know how we can help.”

Laurel Farrer: So that technically they understand that the authority, the permission is still coming from you and this is a growth opportunity for her. So that’s part one that I would do, is just articulate that she’s doing this under instruction. She’s not just being a jerk and starting to be bossy to other people.

Luis Magalhaes: Before we go to part two, I think that the over-communication is just communication part is the key there because I did … The words that you just said, I specified them in the project brief that was visible to the whole team, but I guess I should have taken the other step, the extra step and actually vocalize it during the meeting, not just making it available on paper.

Laurel Farrer: Yes. Yeah, and that is huge. In virtual teams transparency is enormous. Anything that can be discussed publicly should be discussed publicly so that everybody is on the same page. In an office environment you might have the opportunity to see that meeting happening between you and so I as a team member could probably assume oh, she’s been given this assignment and therefore, if she asks for something about this project I can assume that it’s from Luis, but if I don’t see that conversation happening publicly on Slack, then I don’t know that it happened. And so therefore, when she starts giving me assignments, my automatic reaction is, excuse me, who do you think you are?

Laurel Farrer: The team members need to see the line of authority, they need to see assignments, they need to see permissions and in a virtual environment that means that everything has to be articulated, communicated, shared, recorded multiple times. So again, on part two of that kind of relates to the same thing that maybe could have been done to resolve this situation is to nobody wants to be the jerk boss. They don’t want to be delegating to other people because they don’t want to seem like they’re better than anybody else or they don’t want people to perceive that they are acting like they are superior in any way.

Laurel Farrer: So I would make sure that it was that you articulate that the playing field is equal. So creating a culture in which assignments are delegated and leadership, micro leadership opportunities like this are offered on a consistent basis. So, person number one, she’s spearheading this project, but person number four is spearheading this project so you can expect delegation assignments from him, and then over here person number seven is going to be in charge of another project down the line. So making sure that everybody has equal opportunities to micro leadership and so that they can just understand that receiving delegation from other people is just part of the package. It’s going to happen on a regular basis. Sometimes they’re going to be delegated to and then sometimes they’re going to be the delegator.

Luis Magalhaes: Well, even simultaneously, that’s what I like doing today whenever the people on my teams are experienced enough. The conversation that I have is actually something of the kind, “Look, everyone is the leader on their own project, but no one is going to be able to do their own project on their own. So you all need to negotiate. And sure, you can refuse help from someone on their on the project that they’re leading but then don’t expect them to come running to help you when you need.”

Laurel Farrer: Yes. Exactly. Yeah. It’s important to be there as for each other as a team, but then also to encourage that autonomy too. It’s a tricky balance.

Luis Magalhaes: It is. It is. Speaking about balance, this is a bit of a curve ball, but you know that you had a passion for interior design. Did you ever act on that passion professionally or was it just a hobby? And then, how did you channel that passion into your current work and remotely?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, you have done your research. This is fantastic. So yes, I was an interior designer. I went to school for interior design. It was great as I was doing it professionally and I did it quite well. I participated in a lot of creative homes and worked for some prestigious firms and loved it, absolutely loved my career, but as I was working for a certain firm we were changing locations and because of that everybody was kind of pitching in to just kind of support the business during the transition and consequently, I fell into the office management side of it.

Laurel Farrer: And that kind of put me on the trajectory to be operations management, which is where I have been since then. So I did love it. When I was a designer I found myself falling a little bit flat. As much as I loved the artistic side of it I really got into the craft because I loved the psychology of interior design and I loved the power of interior design and the power that it has over people, that I can literally make you hungry by putting you in a specific environment, and I thought that was just absolutely fascinating.

Laurel Farrer: As I got into design and I started practicing, the psychology of it was mostly lost in the opportunities that I had. It was just a lot accessorizing and putting a rug down and hanging a picture on the wall and I thought, “I want to have more impact on people’s lives. I want to empower people more using the tools.” And so that’s one of my favorite things about what I do now, is that I have that opportunity to have impact and to make changes in people’s lives and I love that it comes full circle to my design background because people are going to be productive in different environments. Period.

Laurel Farrer: We are all different people. We all have different interests. We all have different learning styles. We all have different tastes and different things motivate us and that’s part of what makes us incredible individuals is that we’re all different. So, how are we expected to perform if all of these different amazing unique people are put into the exact same office environment that, to be frank, is usually pretty sterile and boring.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah, it is.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, like it’s … Anyway, whatever. I think that’s something that I love personally about being a remote worker, is that I can very carefully control my environment to be my most productive, which is going to become something completely different in somebody else. Somebody else might really thrive on social interaction, that’s very stimulating for them it and helps trigger creativity and spontaneity and innovation for them. So they go to a co-working space and they interact a lot and they just hear the buzz of people talking and they love that and they produce their best results in that environment.

Laurel Farrer: Whereas I, I really need absolute quiet. Even if I have music playing in the background, that’s too much noise for me. I need total quiet and serenity and no interruptions. So I love being able to be at home, in a space that I have complete control over, the color scheme and lighting and everything, and then I can create the environment to be my perfect scenario. Anyway, I just love that as remote workers we can tap into that psychology of interior design and create this environment that really fuels our unique productivity style.

Luis Magalhaes: This brings ME to another question that I thought just now. I wonder like for $100 or less what, what is the purchase that has given you your biggest remote work productivity boost?

Laurel Farrer: That’s a great question. I would say this is actually something that I want to get that I don’t have yet, but I would say there are these … And I wish I knew the name of it. Maybe we can link up to it afterward, after I find it, but some type of lap desk or a desk converter that can help your laptop be at different lengths and different angles which allows you to move around a lot. Right now, I’m pretty limited in like I work on the couch or at the desk, but I’m pretty limited other than that.

Laurel Farrer: So I would love the opportunity to be able to take my laptop to multiple places and be able to adjust the height and I can be standing over here, or I can be sitting over here, lounging over here or, anyway, just some type of like standing desk or mobile lift for my laptop to open up the opportunities to work from even more places in my home.

Luis Magalhaes: Are you a pet owner?

Laurel Farrer: Yes, I am.

Luis Magalhaes: Oh, I’m just surprised that you can work on the couch. How does that work?

Laurel Farrer: Like you said, I do a lot of writing and a lot of deep thinking and so for me that’s really nice to be comfortable and in this like very deep … I don’t know, deep zen state of just writing and unleashing my thoughts when I’m on the couch. I don’t know.

Luis Magalhaes: It’s just that in experience, what happens when you sit on the couch to work, does your pet sit on you?

Laurel Farrer: Oh, no, no, definitely. My dog weighs probably 125 pounds.

Luis Magalhaes: Oh, that would be fun.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, he would like to sit by me, but he’s not allowed to. Yeah, he’s always within a few feet of me and he’s always at my feet and he lays down and that’s our work day.

Luis Magalhaes: All right. So speaking for more of a virtual office. Virtual office, I guess. I guess you don’t do interior virtual office design, but you could. I guess the way you design your virtual office is by designing the experience using tools and selecting tools. So what would you say is the most underrated and underused to for remote workers?

Laurel Farrer: In terms of individual or for a team?

Luis Magalhaes: I like to think that the teams are made out of individuals, but hey, give me both.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, so let’s see. For a team, it’s not underutilized, but I would say the absolute crucial tool for all virtual teams is a collaboration tool like Slack or something like that, or Zoom, but being able to … Well, I’m going to take away my recommendation for Zoom. It’s fantastic. I use it eight hours every day. However, Slack, I think, solves so many problems of communication that are hard to adjust to when you’re converting to remote. It gets you in the habit of recording everything. It gets you in the habit of collaborating together, kind of knowing when people are online versus offline. It just kind of helps build the habits of remote work-

Luis Magalhaes: Everyone uses Slack, though.

Laurel Farrer: … and still allows you to. What was that?

Luis Magalhaes: Everyone uses Slack, though.

Laurel Farrer: I know. That’s why I said it, it’s not underutilized, but it definitely … If you’re going to learn one tool as a remote worker, it’s got to be Slack. For an individual, for me as a remote worker, something that I think is underutilized are video messages. I love using Zoom and Crowdcast. I feel like it humanizes processes so much and allows us to kind of almost get the experience of, “Hey, come over here to my desk. I want to show you something,” but in a virtual environment.

Laurel Farrer: I use Crowdcast all the time. It allows people to understand me and my personality and my thought processes so much more. So anytime I send a proposal, especially like a big idea in which I need people to be on the same page with me. We’re on the same wavelength. You understand me, I understand you, I always include Crowdcast or a video message so that they are understanding. I just have more of an opportunity to articulate where this idea came from and how it benefits them and they can hear all of my … My nonverbal, my nonverbal … Whatever I’m trying to say. They can hear that I’m excited or angry or disappointed or whatever. They get all of that language assistance.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah, well, I completely agree. It’s a different … And again, we were talking before we started recording. I actually always record this with video and the show is audio, no one ever sees the video, but I think it’s important just to have the conversation using video because it’s just in a much more natural, pleasing conversation.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly. It’s humanized.

Luis Magalhaes: I had a friend that worked on a call center and she was very good. She was among like the top 1% performers in the call center and she always says that the thing they say that’s cliché, that you should always talk with the smile on the phone because the other person might not see you, but they know that you’re smiling. Well, I say, why not remove the guesswork altogether?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, I love that. It’s true.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah, it’s true. I want to go a bit back because you were talking about onboarding at the beginning, near the beginning of our conversation. And the questions that you would ask someone that you were onboarding. But you’ve also written before about hiring people that are fits for remote work. When you’re doing that, when you’re hiring, give me a few examples of questions that you may ask to immediately separate the wheat from the chaff, to immediately understand what is the question that when answered to your satisfaction tells you, “This person is a superstar.”

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, definitely. Well the very, very first question that I always ask is, “Tell me why you’re interested in this job.” Because most people are going to be applying to a remote job just because it’s remote. They actually are not qualified for the job or they’re not personally invested in the mission of your company and I as a manager, I need to make sure that somebody is going to be giving this position their best regardless of where it’s hosted, regardless of geographic location, or if they’re in an office or out of an office, they care about the job. So that’s the very, very first question.

Laurel Farrer: And it helps me reduce the candidate pool by probably 80 or 90% because most people when I say that, they say, “It’s remote and I want to travel and I want to do this and I want to do this and it’s going to allow me to do so much because I will work remotely.” And I’m like, “That’s true. That’s absolutely true. And I am the biggest advocate of remote work of anybody, but that’s not why you’re applying to the job. I want to know that you care about this job, that you care about my company and that you have a personal connection to the mission and the OKRs of this role.”

Laurel Farrer: So that’s what I always start with. And then I also, after that I move on to some culture screening questions and try to just have a casual conversation about like, “Hey, what books are you reading?” Or, “Where’s the last place you traveled to?” Or whatever, the question doesn’t matter and not necessarily their response either, but just the ability to have a conversation with them. Are we on the same page? Do we communicate easily? Do we click? Do their interests and language style … Not their regional language, but how they talk, what they prioritize, is that a match for the company that I’m hiring for?

Laurel Farrer: Because at the end of the day, you’ve got to have a lot of just organic compatibility in a virtual team because so much conversation and communication is limited that the what you do have, it’s gotta count. You guys have got to be on the same page. You’ve got to be able to just empathize with each other really easily or anticipate each other’s needs more easily than just a random team of people that was brought together and searching for mission of company and the vision of the role that helps with that.

Luis Magalhaes: Absolutely. That’s a good answer and good interview questions. Thank you. When I talk to people about remote work, sometimes they have the solution that remote work is about eliminating overhead and I usually counter that with saying, “No, not really. Remote work has overhead. It’s just a different kind of overhead because you need to work more on culture, you need to work more on communication, you need to work more on … For remote teams to produce exceptionally, you need to work with them to give them the tools that you ordinarily wouldn’t need them, wouldn’t … You need to do stuff, invest in stuff that you ordinarily would not need to invest if you were in an office.”

Luis Magalhaes: So now the question that people often raised and that I would like to ask you, considering that remote work requires effort, it’s just a different kind of effort, what is your litmus test for deciding if remote work is being a net positive in a company that it’s being implemented?

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, yeah. This is a big part of what I do now as a consultant, is to help people convert rolls to be remote, and that is the very, very first step that we always talk about and that we always discuss as we are starting the transition process of, let’s talk about this like. Is this compatible for you and for the role and for your company? Because you can work from anywhere and it can be just as successful and unsuccessful as if they were working right here.

Laurel Farrer: In terms of how to test that and how to evaluate that, number one, there has to be trust and communication in the team. Period. If I come into a consulting contract and I see that the management is very controlling or very demeaning, that culture doesn’t really exist and that the team just takes assignments and then they regurgitate it, it’s not going to be compatible unless the management and the collaboration between … Or the relationship of the manager-worker relationship, if that’s not updated and strengthened and made healthy, it will not work. Trust and communication is absolutely number one.

Laurel Farrer: Number two is, are there tools and processes ready and compatible? If it’s a culture and an environment where they’re having a lot of hallway meetings or people are excluded from conversations or nobody really knows what goes on behind closed doors or whatever, that’s not gonna work either. There needs to be a precedence of transparency, communication, again communication, but transparency, open workflows and processes, accessible resources. And part of that can be learned, that’s why I come in, is to help make sure that all of those resources are standardized, but that’s a big thing too.

Luis Magalhaes: So sorry about that Laurel.

Laurel Farrer: It’s okay. I love it. I’m watching your cat.

Luis Magalhaes: If you’re wondering why Laurel that just kind of shook a bit at the end there, it’s just because I have a very playful cat behind. That’s one of the joys of remote work.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly. It prevents isolation.

Luis Magalhaes: Exactly. It prevents isolation and without poking. Well, she pokes me a fair bit. Yeah. She pokes me a fair bit. But yeah. So you mentioned that that is something that you do and that brings me to the question. What interesting thing are you working on?

Laurel Farrer: So much. In the past year my career has taken a turn that I’m just so excited about. I still do a lot of consulting work. I’m helping companies transition to create or convert virtual roles, which I love, but there is a new advocacy side of my career that I feel so passionate about and I have opportunities to work with governments and nonprofit organizations to help capitalize on the benefits of remote work to really create sociological impact.

Laurel Farrer: One of the programs or a couple of the programs that I’ve designed, excuse me, are using virtual jobs to take employment opportunities to people that otherwise are isolated. So very rural demographics or very high impact areas from natural disasters or refugee camps or military families that have to move around a lot and can’t commit to a stable on-site physician. Things like that. And then also talking about remote work in general. This is a new work model in general.

Laurel Farrer: I mean, we’ve had telecommuting since the ’80s and so it’s not in its infancy, but it’s gaining a lot of traction and people are just kind of firing randomly and like, oh good, I’m gonna go remote. So I’m just not going to go into the office tomorrow and I’m just going to open up my laptop and I’ll be a remote worker. And it’s just not that simple. We have to come into it with intention and education about how to do it correctly. So, I’m trying to advocate all of the education.

Laurel Farrer: I’m trying to scale the knowledge that I have by writing a lot of curriculum for training companies and working with organizations, workforce organizations, like the Society Of Human Resource Management and OSHA, and organizations like that to make sure that remote workers are taken care of. We’re watching out for the long-term health and sustainability of remote workers just as we are for on-site workers. So a whole lot of things and just about the impact of remote work in general and it’s very humbling and inspiring to be a part of.

Luis Magalhaes: That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. And it’s funny and very cool that that’s absolutely the same reason why I quit my career as a surgeon and started working with remote, because … Well, because of two things essentially. First, I dealt with a lot of people with physical disabilities that were super smart, intelligent people, but could not work properly in an office, even if the offices were handicap friendly, that there are still so many barriers there in remote work demolishes that.

Luis Magalhaes: But more than that, I’m a Portuguese native and although I’m bilingual just due to my life experience I see that my homeland is basically becoming a vacation resort for Europe and especially a retirement resort. So what happens is essentially is that everyone that’s well-paid in Europe goes to live in Portugal and then the people in Portugal, Portugal gets more expensive, but the people aren’t earning more. So Portugal gets too expensive for the Portuguese. And part of the solution of that is to find more economically viable job and instead of shifting the population into immigration, just getting them jobs in other countries while they’re still their country.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly. It reduce the urban-rural divide and it helps increase job accessibility and employee empowerment. It equalizes the workforce. When we’re measured on our results suddenly it doesn’t matter how well we get along with the boss or what race or sexual orientation we are. There’s just so many deeper impact and ripple effects of remote work that I’m honored to advocate.

Luis Magalhaes: Okay. It’s been almost an hour and I want to be respectful of your time. Just one final question because everyone gets this question so I can’t let you wiggle out of it.

Laurel Farrer: No problem.

Luis Magalhaes: Do you enjoy fortune cookies, Chinese fortune cookie?

Laurel Farrer: Oh, that’s so funny. I love fortune cookies.

Luis Magalhaes: Okay, so here’s the setup. So here’s the setup.

Laurel Farrer: Okay.

Luis Magalhaes: You are the host at the massive dinner at the Chinese restaurant. So you get to decide what is written in the fortune cookies and you know that at the dinner attending will be the CTOs and CEOs of all the important Silicon Valley companies and they’re there to discuss remote work. So what is going to be the message that you’re writing on the fortune cookie?

Laurel Farrer: Oh my goodness. That is so tricky. That’s so hard. And I’m not great at thinking what it might be. Like I said, I’m a very proactive person and I think that that is a crucial skill for remote workers. I think my fortune would be something along the lines of like the future is what you make it or something like that. If you want change to happen in your company, if you want results in your company, if you want better employee loyalty and more control over your overhead costs, let’s make it happen. You are holding those results in your hands, so let’s just take the-

Luis Magalhaes: Oh, I like. I like it there in your hands because it just cracked open the cookie.

Laurel Farrer: Exactly.

Luis Magalhaes: Well done. That’s very good. That’s very good. So before you go, please let people know where they can find you, how they can talk to you.

Laurel Farrer: Yes, because I work with so many different clients and I’m kind of all over the world in terms of the companies that I advise, the best way to get ahold of me and the constant way to get a hold of me as my website, which is LaurelFarrer.com. And the spelling is it’s a little complicated. L-A-U-R-E-L.

Luis Magalhaes: Links will be really on the show notes.

Laurel Farrer: Yeah, it’ll be linked. Yeah, but yeah, LaurelFarrer.com is the best way to contact me. I’m also on Twitter and Linkedin.

Luis Magalhaes: All right.

Laurel Farrer: And there’s only one of me. So it’s easy to find me once you spell it right.

Luis Magalhaes: Thank you very much for your time, Laurel. It was a pleasure talking to you. See you around.

Laurel Farrer: Thank you so much Luis. I appreciate it.

Luis Magalhaes: And thank you so much to you, the listeners, for supporting this podcast, for continuing to support this podcast with your reviews on iTunes and by sharing it on social networks. Please continue to do that. It means the world to us. As for the best way to get in touch with Laurel, just go to her website, it’s her name.com, LaurelFarrer.com. I know I’m butchering it, but you will be able to find the link in the show notes. So that’s it. Remember, if you have a team or if you have a business and you need to staff it right, head over to DistantJob.com and talk to us.

More ways to listen:

In this episode of the StaffITRight podcast, we talk to Laurel Farrer. We cover a wide range of topics during our conversation, including good stand-ups and bad stand-ups, how to be a leader instead of a boss, how to figure out if the remote approach is working for your business and specific conversation scripts that you can use to make clear to your remote employees what are your expectations of their work.

As always, if you enjoy the podcast, we humbly ask that you leave a review on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice – and if you could share it, that would be even better!

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