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Virtual Teams and Cultural Diversity with Francis Norman

Francis Norman is the general manager of innovation and strategy at National Energy Resources Australia. He is also the director at Ulfire, where he offers consulting services to projects and organizations in the specialty area of virtual teams, planning, and management.

He has done a Ph. D. research into project virtual teams communication and has a 30-year background in engineering, working in that industry worldwide.

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Luis:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the Distant Job Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote Teams. I am your host Luis. As usual, I have a fantastic guest for you. This is Francis Norman. Francis is the general manager of innovation and strategy at National Energy Resources Australia and the director at Ulfire, where he also acts as the principal consultant. He has done Ph.D research into project virtual teams communications, and has a 30 year background in engineering, having worked in that industry all across the globe. He is the host of the Virtual Team Dynamics podcast at Ulfire. Francis, welcome to the show.

Francis Norman:

Thank you, thanks for the invitation.

Luis:

It’s my pleasure. 2020 is the year of many bad things, but at least one good thing is that it’s the year of remote work. Good for me at any rate. Some people are less than happy about it, but I guess we can talk about that later. After my introduction, I would love if you could tell our listeners a bit more about what you do and yourself.

Francis Norman:

Absolutely, yes, I’ll try and keep it reasonably brief. As you said in the intro, I’ve got a couple of different roles, my normal day job is, as you say, General Manager innovation strategy with NERA. NERA is an industry growth center here. We work with the energy resources sector on trying to find new technologies, helping with productivity, helping with all sorts of industry challenges that we have in a large diverse country like Australia. That’s the job that I spend most of my day time in.

Francis Norman:

I guess the role that I’ve got and the thing that’s most relevant for a conversation like this is I suppose… What would you call it? My hobby business, my little sort of side passion, which is the Ulfire organization and the virtual teams side of that. Why I got into this sort of stuff, why I got interested in virtual teams? Engineering these days… Look, I’m in my mid 50s now. When I started out in engineering, virtual teams… Sorry, engineering was done in one location.

Francis Norman:

You had lots and lots of people in one building, they worked on a project. Some of those people then went away to build the project. Then it was finished you went on to the next project. No one could work at distance. The technology just wasn’t there to support it. It just wasn’t part of what we did. 20 odd years ago, businesses started to try the idea of sharing work, moving work around. The technology still wasn’t there. Couldn’t share drawings, couldn’t move documents, really hard to run things like 3D models across networks. Servers weren’t up to the job.

Francis Norman:

That was from the technology side. What happened then in that intervening period between then and about 10 years ago, the technology caught up, but the people didn’t. What we had then was we could share work around the world, we could move drawings, we could move written work, we could move software all over the world. What we couldn’t… What we hadn’t yet managed to do was change the policies and practices in the ways that the organizations worked to maintain the relationships and to get the best value from the people who were working in these big projects.

Francis Norman:

We ended up with essentially lots of islands of people working on the same job. You’ll have few hundred people in one place, few hundred people in another place moving work around but really not working together. Just working on the same tasks but working remotely. I got really frustrated with this situation myself 10 years ago. Where I was working at the time, I looked around and thought there’s got to be somebody that knows how to do… There’s got to be someone who spent some time looking at why Teams won’t talk to each other or when they talk to each other it’s not pleasant. It’s all accusatory, it’s you did that wrong? You did this wrong. You were late. No you were late. You stop. You’re working on these sorts of things.

Francis Norman:

No one had really looked at it that I could find. I’m not going to say no one had but I couldn’t find anything in that space that really related to it. For good or for bad, foolishly or appropriately, I thought, well, okay, let’s have a look at this, and spend the next eight or nine years researching it which was what my Ph.D… I was fortunate to have my graduation in February here, just before the whole world went into lockdown, and everyone suddenly became really, really remote in the way they worked.

Francis Norman:

It’s been a 10 year journey through all of that. About five years into it, I decided I wanted to really be able to share some of the findings I was getting, some of the insights, some of the knowledge that was coming out of it, which was why I established Ulfire more as a way to share the information and to share the findings than anywhere actually being a let’s say a for profit business. It’s there… There’s a lot of different material on there. I use it more just to share news. For instance, the last podcast I did was with Sharon. That one went out a couple of days ago. Sharon, your boss I’m guessing or your colleague or whatever the relationship is.

Luis:

No, he’s the president of Distant Job. Yeah.

Francis Norman:

Yeah. That was absolutely awesome to have a conversation with someone like that, who’s lived and worked in that space for such a long time. That’s what I try and do with that. Here we are now in COVID. Who would have thought. Dear old me.

Luis:

Yeah, helpful that some of us have been working on this stuff for a while, right? Though a lot of experts suddenly popped up all over the place once this hit for sure.

Francis Norman:

Yes.

Luis:

There are a couple of treads that I want to poke at on what you said. Well poke, maybe not pull is a more appropriate term. But in any case, you spoke about what I usually call siloing. It’s not my term, I picked up from some agile books. From some books on remote agile. The idea that you have people working remotely on a single project, but they really are working in their own little bubble, and then at the other end, all of them are delivering something to a manager or a project lead or something like that, that then mushes it all together into something that’s somewhat more or less coherent.

Luis:

That doesn’t tend to deliver great results. Even if it does deliver great results, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of ground for improvement, because everyone is working independently. Basically on Lego blocks, that then someone that has to assemble. While the Lego blocks individually could be getting better as the people gain experience, they’re not necessarily connecting with each other any better. In this journey that you’ve been in, this research that you’ve been doing, have you found any reliable way to bring the people in silos together into something more resembling a team that’s distributed?

Francis Norman:

The common thread that came through and it’s never going to come as a surprise to someone who works in this space and has spent time in this space but to those who are new to it, it sometimes can be. The biggest common thread is people have to learn to trust each other. They have to learn to respect each other and they have to learn to trust each other in the same way as they would if they were working in the same space. But that’s difficult with people that you’ve never met.

Francis Norman:

One of the bits of material I found through my research is different ways that we build our trust. But in a tactical environment where a lot of the people that you work with come from, the same as where I come from, that trust is really done through delivering on time, delivering to expectations, no surprises, the usual sorts of things. It’s very hard to share that when you only talk to somebody once a week on what is now called a Zoom call, or video conference, or over the telephone. It’s very hard to get on that call and say, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to be late.” Or oh by the way, this is happening or that’s happening when you’ve only got a couple of minutes and you’ve only got a little chance to get those sorts of things through.

Francis Norman:

In the big project engineering space, what’s happened in these… Certainly in… I mean, it’s a weird thing to say, in the traditional virtual team space. In the virtual teams, pre COVID, where organizations would have the big set piece video conference once a week or once a fortnight, it wasn’t fast enough, it wasn’t responsive enough to build that trust and build that relationship as you would if you’re working in the same space.

Francis Norman:

So, absolutely, people have to have… They have to trust, they have to have a good, solid working relationship with the people at the opposite end. They have to be open to sharing with one another and they have to have a huge amount of respect for each other’s capabilities. We haven’t yet… I don’t think industry, certainly not the industry that I was doing my research in as of when I collected my data. The industry hadn’t yet got to that point where that respect for what’s seen as a low cost thing or… They use the politically correct term. if you like, of a high value design center, which essentially means they’re cheap.

Luis:

Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it right away. I actually have never heard that.

Francis Norman:

Yeah. So the language they use is it’s a high value center, which means they’re cheap. But what happens is the people who are the non cheap if you like, end of the project. Now, if you were to turn the language the other way around, they would be the low value part of the project. But we’ll put that aside. We’ll park that terminology for a while.

Luis:

That’s where I want to be by the way. I want to be the low value part of the project.

Francis Norman:

Low value. You’ve got this relationship which is it’s asymmetrical. You’ve got all the power held in one office and you’ve got the cheap labor in another office. The cheap labor is treated as cheap labor. They send work there and then they get all cranky when it comes back and there’s a spelling mistake on it. But it’s been to somewhere where the language of the project, which is typically English or whatever the core language of the deliverables of the project are. That might be the second or third or fourth language of the people working in the other country.

Francis Norman:

The standards that they work to could be completely alien to them, they may have no idea what they’re being asked to do, other than to do particular bits of technical work. They are always going to struggle when they’re treated as cheap labor. When they are expected to deliver to the same sorts of standards as someone who’s been working in the native environment of the project for their entire careers. We need to recognize that. We need to recognize that these people have strong technical skills, otherwise they wouldn’t have their jobs.

Francis Norman:

But they’re… I’ll use some language here which is a little bit pejorative, but their productivity may be lower than the more expensive office, which means sometimes their actual cost per unit of output can almost be on par. But we need to treat them properly, we need to respect them for the skills that they’ve got. Once we get that point, then we start to get a bit more of an equity in there, the trust will grow and people will be happier to work and to collaborate with one another. That was probably the biggest thing that came out of my findings, and my ponderings on all of this lot as well.

Francis Norman:

There’s a lot more detail in the… Awful lot more detail in my thesis. An awful lot of detail that I’ve dug through along the way. But if I had to pick one key thing out of this, that would be it.

Luis:

Yeah, so that’s an interesting thing. I’ve toyed with this idea somewhat myself and I want to get your feedback on it. There’s definitely a sense in which the English speaking countries, let’s say, Anglo Saxon culture rules the tech world, or at least the tech world that is visible to the west. You’ve written before. I believe it, was maybe I’m getting this wrong, but I believe you wrote a piece for LinkedIn in 2015 that covered this where you talked about more individualistic cultures such as traditionally Western cultures have traditionally been versus the ones in Asian countries, where people have a more collective mindset. You tied that with language.

Luis:

That’s something that I was… Previously before working in this circles, I worked a lot in the video game industry and specifically in journalism. That’s something that I noticed a lot. That a lot of articles that were written in the press, even though the press was consumed by the whole world, the English Express is the de facto standard. It didn’t really speak for the experiences of countries like Portugal or Brazil, or even several European countries. I noticed that disconnect very early on that we were somehow importing… Together with the language we were somehow importing the culture of Great Britain and the United States, and to some extent, Australia, but not so much, but that culture didn’t really match with our reality.

Luis:

In video games, it was usually really due to economic factors, social economic factors being widely divergent between the countries. All this came back to me when I was reading your article and obviously there are some social economical considerations when it comes to the West versus the East at least when it comes with technology work. But there’s something to be said about the communal versus individualist perspective and how that affects work. I am wondering if you could speak a bit more about that. I mean, what is the difference in managing Teams? What things do you need to look out for to make sure that you actually are able to tap into the really good technical expertise that some people in Asian countries have? Obviously not be with them just for the value, but actually for what they can bring to the table, right?

Francis Norman:

Yep. I’ve been fortunate enough. I was fortunate enough during the early part of my career to get to work in some of the countries that you mentioned there. I spent six months working in Brazil back in the late 1980s. I spent four years working in Korea in the late 80s, early 90s. I saw with my own eyes exactly what you’re describing there. The culture is very different. The people are different the people see the world differently. The people integrate and work together differently. They are collectivists. They like to be together, they like to be recognized for the work they do as a group rather than Look at me anti awesome, forget about all my colleagues. Which is very, very much the English speaking world.

Francis Norman:

If you traced its ancestry back I guess it would be the UK first sending people out to colonize the US, Australia, various other places in the world where English has become the dominant language and imported a culture along with it. Unfortunately, a lot of business and a lot of companies are dominated by that culture. That culture has become sort of almost the default defacto culture in organizations. Even though that culture may not work at all in that nation. People read books, they read business journals from the UK and business journals from the US. I don’t know if there are any but probably business articles correspondence from Australia as well. It’s all structured on individualist cultures.

Luis:

Yeah, sometimes even more so. I know a lot of frustrated Portuguese entrepreneurs that they have good ideas and they’re hard working people, but they just can’t seem to get their entrepreneurship going and when I look more deeply into it is because all they read are books from the US and to a lesser extent from UK. Obviously Portugal is still the West. It’s still the Western world. It’s an European country, but you can’t expect the same playbook to work in a culture that’s so different from the American culture.

Luis:

I would assume that you probably have to a lesser extent that in Australia, I’m pretty sure that entrepreneurship in Australia is not the same as entrepreneurship in the US.

Francis Norman:

Not at all. No. We were probably closer. I would say that the model here is probably closer than it would be in somewhere like Portugal, but it is different. It is different. The people here see the world through a different lens to the people from the US. It influences behavior, it influences expectations. It leads to people thinking, well, the only way I’m going to be successful is if I go to the US, which is where all the materials is. Come over here, this is where everything happens.

Francis Norman:

But things don’t translate like that. If you’re trying, I guess to go back to your original question, if you’re trying to run a team of people where they are from all over the world, or even from just two different countries with substantially significantly different cultures, like Australia Portugal or Australia Brazil or Australia up into Asia somewhere, you’ve got to understand both cultures, you’ve got to understand how the people in each of those cultures see the world. But not as a collective.

Francis Norman:

You’ve got to understand the individuals. I refer quite a lot to some of the work that’s being done. Some of the work like and people like that, who did a lot of benchmarking, if you like in terms of this is generically how a Japanese person sees the world. This is generically how a Chinese person or Brazilian person or American person sees the world. But we’re all individuals, we have stems in our characteristics that come from the culture that we grew up in. But we all evolve as individuals, we all see the world differently.

Francis Norman:

We need to find ways… Good managers, good organizations, good communicators will find ways to satisfy the expectations of people from all sorts of different cultures and backgrounds in terms of how they work with them, how they motivate them, how they reward them, how they recognize them for what they’re doing. How they give them the opportunities to develop in the directions that they want to do. Again, it’s in my own technical space in the engineering world. Lots and lots of engineers will spend lots of time learning the technical stuff. Then they think, but everyone’s the same. They refer to it as soft skills and Lordy Lord, do I hate that expression.

Francis Norman:

They are learning how to work with the firmware inside between someone’s ears and behind their eyes is one of the hardest possible things you can possibly do. You can learn a mathematical formula, you can learn how to program and code in a particular language. You can learn all that kind of stuff. It’s repeatable but every human you meet is different. Every person is different. Every person has their own good, bad, weird and wonderful idiosyncrasies that you need to be able to understand and work with. It’s hard enough when they all come from the same culture and the same place as you do.

Francis Norman:

When they are from all over the world, it’s more challenging. But I would also say when you get it right, it is so much fun. It is so enjoyable to spend time with people from different cultures and different views of the world because everyone enriches everyone else’s lives. It’s such a good place to work and such a good opportunity.

Luis:

Oh yeah, for sure. It definitely is. To your point, I was actually curious about how you felt about that because someone coming with such a huge engineering background, you write a remarkable amount of content regarding the non engineering side of things. You might not like calling it soft skills. We can call it human engineering or whatever you prefer. But yeah, I thought that was unusual in your body of work.

Luis:

The big question and I’m not putting you on the spot here, I don’t expect you to solve this problem on air, just to tell me what you’ve thought about it. Obviously we can’t just rely on playing it by ear right?

Francis Norman:

No.

Luis:

Individuality obviously matters, but what do you think is lacking from… Let’s just take the assumption that most of remote management… You could say management in general, but let’s focus on remote management. Let’s work under the assumption that most of the remote management is based on a US centric approach, on US centric philosophy. How do we decentralize this? How do we adapt it to let’s say to European culture, to Asian culture? I think those are the two major ones.

Francis Norman:

How long have we got? Lordy. What I would dearly love to happen would be for businesses and industries in all these different countries to identify and develop their own codes of practice and their own ways of working that reflect their own way of life and their own views of the world. To do it, it’s almost like the men in black. The neuralyzer or whatever they call it. Flash the light thing. Flash the light, forget about all the stuff that you’ve read because some of it will work and some of it won’t work. Start from fresh. Start from a nice clean set of rule.

Francis Norman:

Now, that ain’t going to happen. There’s no way that’s going to happen. So an alternate way there would be for the people who are educating and training the managers in these different nations in different countries, to make sure that as part of their educational process, they are made aware that what they’re being taught is not necessarily entirely culturally applicable to the country that they’re in. That doing an individual performance appraisal, which is something that came out of the pure individualist, Anglo Saxon, UK, US way of running your business where everybody has to be assessed on their own.

Francis Norman:

You cannot do that in a highly collectivist culture and expect to get the same kinds of results. You can’t walk up to somebody in a collectivist organization and say I want you to do this and I don’t care about any of your colleagues because you’re the one that I want. Yes, you can do it that way but you will still get the best results or often get the best results if you ask them as a group to do it. If you ask people as a collective, as their colleagues to work together.

Francis Norman:

Similarly, when you’re recognizing them for what they’ve done when they do things as well. If you have a problem with the work that they’ve done, give the whole team the feedback. Make sure that all these sorts of things are done in ways that work in the culture in which you’re working. Now, one of the big challenges then, of course, is for managers of these really big projects, they often don’t have that sort of skill set built in. They then try and use… The whole world’s a nail to someone who’s only got a hammer. So they use the same management approach wherever they are. In some cultures that will work, and in some cultures it will still work even though the culture will be different.

Luis:

Yeah.

Francis Norman:

But that’s not good enough. What we really we hope… What we need maybe is to look at models whereby you have regional managers who have responsibility for what happens within their location. Who have the skills and the knowledge and the trust and the expertise to control that group. If that silo if you like, to go back to the term you used earlier, which is a very appropriate term for a lot of these organizations. To give those people the trust and the responsibility to run their piece of the project or their piece of the work in a way that they need to win the culture in the location that they’re in.

Francis Norman:

We haven’t in the past done that very often. Typically, it’s you do it our way or you don’t do it at all. You do it the head office way and the head office procedures are written… This was something that occurred to me a while ago, that even things like HR procedures and so forth are culturally biased. The HR procedures in a big organization are written to reflect the culture of the person or the group that wrote the procedure. They may not… Even things like that may not work.

Francis Norman:

Everything has to be reviewed to make sure that it will work across multiple cultures, or you’ve got to have multiple iterations of it, multiple versions of it, but that somehow fit together to deliver the outcomes that the organization needs.

Luis:

Yeah. This is in some sense a design problem. How do you think we can solve that design problem? By this I say, let me give the example of tools. Our tools are made for the Western culture way of doing things. For example, when I go on software that I use on a daily basis, let’s say Trello or Basecamp, they’re made to assign that task to that person. Sure, you can include several persons and several people in a single task but there’s still just one checkbox.

Luis:

Just the way the user interface is constructed is towards a specific culture. I guess it can be broken down in two questions. Number one, how do we spread this message more widely so that people are aware of these design limitations? Second, what are the first steps to designing towards solving the problem?

Francis Norman:

I don’t have the depth of knowledge of the tools that you’re describing, but I can visualize that for other things as well. The people designing the tools, again, ideal world, Utopia. The people designing these tools should make sure that they design things which can work across multiple cultures. They should offer a click box or something that sort of says, which country are you in? It shouldn’t just change the language. It shouldn’t just change the timezone that comes up,

Francis Norman:

If you click a box to say I’m working in Portugal, and you’re working with someone else who’s working in the US and someone else is working in, I don’t know, Japan, and you each tick a box and one of you gets it in Japanese language and gets it on Tokyo time. One of you gets it in Portuguese and gets it on Central European Time. One of you gets it in the US and gets it in English. It should do more than that. There should be features in there. Should be features in these sorts of tools to allow people to manage those interfaces and those interactions in a way that genuinely reflect the expectations and the ways the organization’s work.

Francis Norman:

But we’re not able to do that. The tools become more and more ubiquitous. We’re all having to change ourselves to work with the tools which is not really the way most tools… If you go back pre software, you found a screwdriver that felt right in your hand or a hammer that felt right in your hand you didn’t took your hand off, put a different hand on to pick the tool that you are going to use.

Francis Norman:

We’ve sort of been forced into this by the tools that have come along and we’ve been forced into it by the procedures, and forced into it by just the ways that organizations function, and the material that we read, and what we’re taught and where people look to. Everyone… That’s not fair. Lots and lots of people that I see on LinkedIn, for instance. They’re all really proud. I’ve just finished such and such a HR course or a management course at Harvard or Stanford or whatever. I say, really? You’re not from anywhere near there. your culture does not work at all with that. Why on earth would you choose to go there rather than go to a Baccalaureate in France or whatever there… I am not familiar enough with the names of the different institutions, but why not go to somewhere with a good reputation that reflects your culture?

Francis Norman:

Fundamentally, you go into those other countries, into their universities and they’re not teaching local culturally sensitive stuff. They’re teaching stuff that comes out of Harvard and Stanford anyway and saying, oh, this is the way you should do it. It’s…

Luis:

Yeah, that’s sad.

Francis Norman:

It’s very sad.

Luis:

But it’s also… I mean, I think that drives to a deeper problem that a lot of people are going to those institutions not necessarily for the learning but for the certification. That’s the problem. I find that… I’ve taken a few marketing courses, and I still find that I learned more from books or even from podcasts, than necessarily from courses. The coursework ends up being more advantages for you in your CV. I think that remote work doesn’t suffer from the same remote… Courses on remote work and remote managing, because they’re so new, they don’t suffer from that stigma yet fortunately. They are actually designed to teach you and not certify you.

Francis Norman:

Yes.

Luis:

But that said, I still think that they are mostly based on a predominantly Western and specifically US centric culture.

Francis Norman:

Yes. It doesn’t help does it?

Luis:

No.

Francis Norman:

Unless you want to work in that culture, or you live and work in that culture already. It really doesn’t help.

Luis:

Yeah. Exactly. Part of what we talked about that DistantJob is that what we help businesses do is really globalize their workforce. We help them find the best and the brightest from all over the world. But obviously, when you’re working at the top level, when you are part of the top 1%, or 5% of your specialty, you’re also usually pro enough to be able to fit the culture of the place that you’re working. You can usually do that, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be working at full capacity.

Luis:

If we try to come up with a more holistic way of managing work across frontiers, that’s probably going to resolve. I say, probably, but I fail to see a future where doing that doesn’t result in actually getting better work done.

Francis Norman:

I would agree. Yep. I would definitely agree there. Yep.

Luis:

All right. What we say we move into some more general, I used to call them rapid fire questions. The questions are rapid fire, but the answers don’t need to be. You feel free to answer them at the length that you want to them.

Francis Norman:

Short questioned long answer.

Luis:

Yeah. Let’s talk a bit about your remote work setup. What are the browser tabs? The apps that you have open as soon as you start your day?

Francis Norman:

Oh, yeah. So my day job, the organization I work-

Luis:

Either or.

Francis Norman:

No. It’s a good example. It’s a small team. There are 12 of us. We’ve got… Australia is a big country. I’ve got one colleague based in Brisbane who is four and a half thousand kilometers away. I’ve got one colleague who’s based in South Australia in Adelaide who’s 2000 kilometers away, and the other 10 of my colleagues are based in Perth, but on a normal day, there might be two or three of us in one office and others working from home and others working from wherever.

Francis Norman:

The things that open up when I turn my computer on, all three of the relatively common video conferencing tools these days. All three of them open up.

Luis:

All three.

Francis Norman:

WebEx, Teams and Zoom, and I’ll get to why that happens in a minute. The other one that opens up is outlook. We as an organization don’t use any of the other communications tools. We don’t use Slack and what have you. It just doesn’t suit the pace and the nature of the business that we have. But why all three video tools? We internally use Zoom, and some of the companies that we work with use Zoom.

Francis Norman:

Some of the companies we work with, don’t use or can’t use or won’t use Zoom. They’ve either got Teams and or they’ve got WebEx. I’ll have days where… Honestly some days that this last few months in particular, where I would go… I’d have an hour on a Zoom meeting, then an hour on a Team’s meeting, then half an hour on a WebEx meeting, then back to a Zoom meeting back to a WebEx meeting. I’d said to someone the other day, if nothing else I’d really wish they would all put their buttons in the same places. The user interface is-

Luis:

Exactly.

Francis Norman:

When you’re… They’re intuitive but you’ve got to work. Your brain still have to say, okay, which button which way am I… Which platform I’m I in? What do I do to mute, What do I do to unmute?

Luis:

Well, at least it’s Teams instead of Skype. I mean, why would anyone submit themselves to Skype in this day and age?

Francis Norman:

I think Skype’s dead isn’t it?

Luis:

Well some people still insist in using it, but I do think that… Obviously Microsoft is putting all their weight behind Teams instead.

Francis Norman:

Yes.

Luis:

Which is probably for the best. I mean, I haven’t used Teams in a while but I read about the improvements that they’re making and they seem pretty cool. What is your favorite if you don’t mind me asking? I mean, you can probably guess mine.

Francis Norman:

My favorite in terms of usability for video chatting, would be Zoom. Teams has come a long way in the last three months. It’s really improved a lot. I think my personal way of working if you like, works better with Zoom and I like some of the features that you can control in Zoom. If you’ve got a large group you can toggle between seeing, I don’t know, 48 faces or something on a matrix which is just overwhelming from a retinal perspective. It just burns your eyeballs out. At least you can see all those people and you can toggle that right back down to just having one face which is how I’m running it now for you and I.

Francis Norman:

Team’s doesn’t give you that flexibility. You just get what you get. You can’t… I have not worked out a way where you can control the view that you get. However many people are on there you just get what you get. WebEx for me, I don’t think has done a particularly good job of keeping pace with other technologies.

Luis:

No.

Francis Norman:

I find it just slow and painful to get in. But I understand why.

Luis:

It’s the enterprise solution, right? It’s the enterprises.

Francis Norman:

That’s right. Yes. If you as the IT manager have signed off on a huge investment in WebEx, you’re not going to throw it in the bin for essentially a $20 a month subscription piece of software like Zoom.

Luis:

Exactly. It’s tough, but that’s the way it is.

Francis Norman:

It is. Yes.

Luis:

Okay, so if you had $100, I don’t know what the Australian dollar buys you right now. So maybe let’s inflate it a bit. Don’t take it as a strict number but if you have around $100 to spend with each person working for you, what would you give them? The rules are you can’t just give them the money and you need to buy the same thing for everyone. You can’t ask them what they would like.

Francis Norman:

Something to help with the book or something just from a social perspective?

Luis:

Well, either or.

Francis Norman:

Either or.

Luis:

The idea is we’re talking… Most of this podcast has been in the spirit of building a better team.

Francis Norman:

Building about a team. Okay. I’ll maybe give you two answers to that one. One from a work perspective.

Luis:

Sure.

Francis Norman:

If it was from a work perspective what I would spend that hundred dollars and whatever currency you want to put it in, let’s say 100 US dollars because it’s relatively transferable. You get the Australian dollar at the moment is worth about point six of a euro. We’re not… I’d spend that money on an external video camera for them to use with their computers because one of my big frustrations, one of my big bugbears on a lot of video conferences is a lot of the laptops, particularly a lot of… Even a couple of year old laptop, the camera not so good. You get really poor quality imagery.

Francis Norman:

Because the image is poor, it’s hard to see faces. It’s hard to get that sense of who’s on the call. That’s what I would spend if it was from a work side of things. If it was from a…

Luis:

That’s something by the way that usually if someone is getting a laptop for remote work, I usually recommend Apple. Just because… I know it’s usually more expensive but I have been consistently impressed with the quality of the camera and even the microphone. It’s always better to have an external microphone but the one that actually comes with the Apple laptops is pretty good at doing

Francis Norman:

It’s pretty good.

Luis:

Yeah.

Francis Norman:

Some of the old things like surface pros and what have you, the cameras in those, not so good.

Luis:

Before you go on to the second answer, just to clarify, is there any specific camera you would recommend?

Francis Norman:

Yeah, you wouldn’t get it for $100 but the one that I like, the one I bought and use for myself is a Logitech Brio.

Luis:

How is that spelled?

Francis Norman:

B-R-I-O.

Luis:

Okay.

Francis Norman:

That’s a really good quality. It’s USB C, it’s HD quality video with nice built in microphone. Gives excellent video quality. It’s not what we’re using today. This is the… The camera we’ve got on here it’s just the camera built into the top of by Apple computer.

Luis:

Pretty good.

Francis Norman:

It’s good enough for something that’s going to be audio. But when I’m at work, I have the Brio camera which I’ve actually gotten a little bag on the desk next to me here. Really, really good. Superb image quality.

Luis:

Nice.

Francis Norman:

Yet easy. Just plug straight in. At a social, at a non work side, right now what I would spend that hundred dollars on would be probably a voucher to go out for dinner.

Luis:

Oh nice.

Francis Norman:

I think one of the things that we have missed-

Luis:

Is it safe though?

Francis Norman:

It is safe here, yes, Unless you’re in Melbourne. At the moment Melbourne has got some problems. Here in Perth we’ve been very, very fortunate and our state government has done a very good job of controlling the COVID situation here. I would probably look to give people some kind of a voucher for a reasonable restaurant where they could go with their wife or their husband or their partner and just get away from work and enjoy themselves for a little while because right now a lot of people are spending a lot of time sitting at their desks working at home or in the office and they’re not getting the chance to get out and socialize. That to me is as important as the work side of things.

Luis:

I agree. I absolutely agree. I mean, even me, I’m basically [inaudible 00:42:55]. As long as I have my cats and my PlayStation I can just live in my place, be quarantined in my place at infinity. But even me, I’m feeling that my performance is not the same as before the COVID situation started. I don’t know about Australia, but definitely in Portugal, 100 bucks will buy you a nice dinner at a nice place. Right?

Francis Norman:

Yeah. It’s not going to be the best three star Michelin restaurant but it will be a nice dinner in a nice place where you can relax and enjoy yourself for a few hours. Get yourself away from your desk. Spend some time with the loved ones in your life.

Luis:

Absolutely. All right. So as for yourself, what purchase has made your work life easier or more productive in the past year?

Francis Norman:

More productive.

Luis:

Easier, healthier, more… Has improved your work life.

Francis Norman:

Has improved my work life. From a straight out work life thing, for me personally, it’s probably going to have been… It’s something really silly. I’ve got a light on my desk.

Luis:

Oh, nice.

Francis Norman:

I’ve got a… What is it? It’s a light that sitting here. It’s mounted, just I’m pointing if you can. It’s mounted just above the camera on my computer. So when I’m having conversations with people, particularly… What are we? 20 past 10 at night, when it’s middle of winter, which is where we are now. With that light turned out I’m just a gray shadow in the dark.

Luis:

Yeah, that’s not great. That’s that’s not very good for building empathy.

Francis Norman:

No, it’s not. I bought one of these little lights. It’s incredibly bright, it runs off USB. It’s a little battery. I feel that through having that, it really helps it make easier for people to see me and to relate to me. Now the people on the other end might say, Jeez, you’re ugly. Can you turn that light out? They can always turn the camera off or just not look at me. But at least it lets you see the face on the other end. So that would probably be the thing… Whether it’s purely in a productivity sense, I’m not sure. But I think from a connections, relation sense. If you can hear people, you can see people, you can relate to people. It’s the best we’ve been able to do for a little while, is to be able to see people by video.

Luis:

Oh, that’s absolutely true. Let’s talk a bit about books. What book or books have you gifted the most? Or if you don’t give books, have influenced you the most?

Francis Norman:

Probably the two books I’ve gifted the most over the years would be a book that I read as a child called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Was written by a guy called GS Bach or something like that. It was all about individual freedom and all this sort of stuff. It’s a book you don’t even see. I don’t even know if you see it in print anymore.

Luis:

It rings a bell. It definitely rings a bell. I’ve heard of this book before.

Francis Norman:

Yeah. It goes back to the 60s or 70s, the same as I do. It’s been around a long time. Man’s Search for Meaning, was a book that really made a big difference for me. Viktor Frankl, this is a guy who was interred in the concentration camps, but a phenomenally smart psychiatrist. Did some really good stuff looking at what you should try and get from life. Meaning was essentially the theme that he was very much a believer in, that you should spend your life trying to find meaning for what you do. I think that resonated enormously with me. I came to it quite late. I was well into my 40s before I read it, but I bought a bunch of copies for it for other people along the way.

Francis Norman:

Really interesting, great little book. Hard story to read in parts given the background but what that gentleman managed to learn from his life was just phenomenal. So yes. Those would be the two books.

Luis:

I’ve also found that Man’s Search For Meaning is a really good… Does a really good job of giving you a nice slap in the face when you think that your life is not going well. When you’re lamenting your lack of luck in life and you think that nothing is going your way. That’s a good reality check in.

Francis Norman:

It sure is. Oh, my Wi-Fi isn’t good enough today.

Luis:

Exactly.

Francis Norman:

Sit down. Have a read of this book.

Luis:

Oh, pain.

Francis Norman:

Yes.

Luis:

Yes in deed. All right. Final question. The set up for this one is a bit longer, so please bear with me. But let’s say that you are hosting a dinner and you’re inviting people from tech companies from all over the world. People… Not just anyone but people in positions of leadership and culture making. Hiring managers, executives, CEOs, presidents, et cetera. The twist here is that the dinner is going to happen in this Chinese restaurant and there’s going to be a round table about remote work and the future of work. You as the host get to pick the message that goes inside the Chinese fortune cookie. What message is it?

Francis Norman:

Oh, man, that’s a great question. I wish I’d known that one was coming about a week ago I’d spent some time thinking about an answer for you.

Luis:

Well it’s not… If you know it’s coming it’s not really the same.

Francis Norman:

Yeah, it’s not the same. You don’t get the same kind of reaction if it comes at you all of a sudden.

Luis:

Exactly. I apologize for springing it on you.

Francis Norman:

No. In terms of exact wording, I’m not really sure what I would have something where you would write in a little piece of paper that goes in a fortune cookie, but it’d been something along the lines of where I think most of our conversation has been today which is just that whatever they do, they must recognize that we are all individuals. Whatever they develop in their wonderful little worlds of technology bubbles, building our future for us, should be done in such a way that accommodates the individual and does it in a sensitive and appropriate way for them. Now, as I say that, that would need a lot of fortune cookies to fit something like that in there. Given enough time and a big piece of paper I could do that.

Luis:

Just a very big one.

Francis Norman:

One very big fortune cookie to be shared by the table.

Luis:

There you go.

Francis Norman:

But yes, that will be the theme if you like. Thematically that’s what I would put in that.

Luis:

All right. Well, Francis, thank you so much. It was a pleasure. Now, let’s come to the part of the show where I ask you to tell people who want to continue the conversation with you, or learn more about Ulfire, where can they go? Where can they reach you? Where can they continue the conversation?

Francis Norman:

Ulfire which is my… As I say, my little portal on my thoughts around virtual teams. It’s an Australian domain so it’s www.Ulfire U-L-F-I-R-E .com.au. You’ll find all my contact details on there, or you’ll get me on Twitter at @FrancisNorman. You’ll find me on LinkedIn with my ugly mug smiling back at you from my LinkedIn profile and again that’s under my name of Francis Norman.

Francis Norman:

One thing I will leave you with, Luis, is the name of my company. Ulfire. A lot of people have asked me sort of where did the name come from? Why did you choose that? Does it mean something? No, it doesn’t.

Luis:

Okay.

Francis Norman:

When I was trying to come up with a name, what I wanted was something short, easy to pronounce, nonspecific that could move around as and when. There’s a book that was written called Journey to Arcturus in the 1920s. It’s a sort of a Jewel Verne story. There are two fictitious colors of the sky in this book. One of the colors in the book is ulfire.

Luis:

Nice.

Francis Norman:

I came across this by doing a Wikipedia search for colors, and then looking to see which colors weren’t registered. Right at the bottom of the table was this little thing in asterisk said fictitious colors and ulfire and whatever the other one was. I registered the name, and then I went and read the book. The story in the book is some travelers who go to another planet, and they travel around and they meet people from all these different cultures and different ways of life and so forth. Different planets, people of different shapes, different colors, different physiology, the whole thing, and they’re trying to communicate and interface with these people. It was just… When I read it, I thought it’s creepy.

Luis:

Nice.

Francis Norman:

Because without knowing it, without intention or anything, there’s this tenuous link between my passion of virtual teams and this book which is written with these people traveling off into space and meeting strange… I wouldn’t call them people, strange life forms and understanding, working with them and trying to communicate with them. It just felt really appropriate in there. So there you go. That’s a completely meaningless story.

Luis:

No, it’s nice. I honestly thought it was something along the lines of Dungeons and Dragons reference. I guess I wasn’t too far off.

Francis Norman:

You’re not too far of.

Luis:

I was in fictional land. Anyway, thank you for letting us know. Lovely story.

Francis Norman:

Yes.

Luis:

Okay. So, ladies and gentlemen, this was Francis Norman for NERA and the director at Ulfire. Check him out. I will have the links in the show notes. This was Luis with the Distant Job Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. See you next week.

Francis Norman:

Thank you.

Luis:

And so we close another episode of the Distant Job Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please, you can help us out by sharing it on social media. That would be great. It’s how we reach more listeners and the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me, and I hope they’re a joy for you who listen to as well.

Luis:

You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast gets to more listeners. Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to DistantJob.com/blog/podcasts. Click on your favorite episode, any episode really and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up. Whenever we get the transcripts of the episodes up, so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form.

Luis:

Of course, if you need to find a great employee, for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration and not just look to hire locally. Not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent. To help you with that, again, DistantJob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who you need, and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate 40% faster than the industry standard. With that, I bid you adieu. See you next week on the next episode of Distant Job Podcast.

 

More ways to listen:

Working with distributed teams requires skills such as empathy and a deep understanding of how people in different countries think and act.

In this podcast episode, Francis Norman shares the main lessons he learned from his Ph. D. research regarding virtual teams. He highlights that all remote leaders and managers need to implement management styles that embrace other cultures, not just their culture. He also reveals the main challenges that virtual teams constantly face when working together and how to overcome them.

'' The biggest common thread is people have to learn to trust each other. They have to learn to respect each other, and they have to learn to trust each other in the same way as they would if they were working in the same space.'' Click To Tweet

 

Highlights:

  • His findings regarding remote work and team collaboration in organizations
  • How can remote teams work together collaboratively
  • The importance of accepting cultural differences in virtual teams
  • How the U.S. culture strongly influences management styles
  • Tips to build your own type of management based on your company’s beliefs and the people you work with

 

Book Recommendation:

 

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