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How to Work Together Anywhere with Lisette Sutherland

Lisette Sutherland is a remote work advocate extraordinaire and the driving force behind Collaboration Superpowers. Lisette’s superpower is the ability to give multiple options to tackle the most grievous of remote work challenges, and she has compiled them all on her excellent book – “Work Together Anywhere.”

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Lisette Sutherland

Luis Magalhaes: Greetings, ladies and gentlemen. This is the DistantJob podcast, and I am your host, Luis Magalhaes.

Luis Magalhaes: This is going to be a very short introduction, because I’m changing the way the show introduction goes. I will use this bit merely for simple housekeeping whenever needed, and today is one of those cases.

Luis Magalhaes: So, here are the changes: no more canned advertisement about DistantJob, I will be doing it live. I will be explaining live, when I with a guest, what DistantJob does. And so, it will hopefully be different every time, a little bit different every time. You will see me stumble through it, so I hope you enjoy that.

Luis Magalhaes: So, today we have Lisette Sutherland on the podcast. Lisette Sutherland from Collaboration Superpowers is going to be talking about her book. And we had a few minor technical difficulties with Zoom. I had to resort to my backup recording, which means that the podcast wasn’t recorded on two separate audio tracks, so there’s a bit of me and Lisette talking over each other at times.

Luis Magalhaes: I’ve cleaned up most of it, but I ask for your patience. The sound quality today is not to the standard that you’re used to. Again, it was a fluke, and the next episode should go absolutely fine. Thank you for your patience. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Lisette Sutherland.

Luis Magalhaes: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the DistantJob podcast. My name is Luis, I’m the head of marketing of DistantJob and your host, as usual. Today with me I have Lisette Sutherland from Collaboration Superpowers. So, Lisette is a remote work advocate, and she’s a specialist based in the Netherlands. She has conducted extensive research, interviewed hundreds of people, practiced and experimented for years with helping remote workers and remote teams. And she spreads it around through Collaboration Superpowers across a variety of media. Books, which we’re going to touch on today, especially on the book. But, also Work Together Anywhere workshops, weekly podcasts, a bimonthly newsletter, et cetera, et cetera. You have a lot going on Lisette.

Lisette: Yeah, when you say it like that, I think, “Oh man, that’s a lot.”

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah. Okay. So today we’re going to have the pleasure of having a conversation with Lisette, but first let me talk about DistantJob.

Luis Magalhaes: What does DistantJob do exactly? If you want to start with remote work, if you feel that your company can benefit from remote work, and we’ll get into all the reasons that your company can later on in this podcast, but … let’s say that you’re a small company, you have a lot to think about. You need to get your MVPs, you have already a lot on your plate, or maybe you’re already a big company, you have a lot of processes and you feel that you need to mess a lot with them if you’re going to start hiring remotely. Well, DistantJob takes that from your hands. It takes that trouble from you. We handle the whole process from you, we’ll work with you to build your hiring strategies, something that I’m going to talk with Lisette later on about the value. We find the perfect fit for your company, for your team for your culture. We handle payment in a chart and even if you want to give them some perks as you do to your other employees we handle that as well.

Luis Magalhaes: Basically we are the full package remote hiring and HR. And the people work for you but we take care of them in all the ways so you don’t need to worry about how to take care of people that aren’t based in your location. So you got all the advantages of remote hiring but none of the hassle. Lisette, thank you so much for being here. I’ve read your book Work Together Anywhere, which makes this conversation a lot harder because it feels like whatever question I might ask of you, you can just go RTFM.

Lisette: I’ll be like it’s on page 73 and …

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah, so, this is a great guide, and I guess this begs the question, how is your interaction with people? Doesn’t this book essentially get you out of a job?

Lisette: You would think so, except for I’m getting more speaking gigs and workshop requests than ever, so actually, the book is having exactly the effect that I would hope that it would have, in that people want to … Which is strange, people want me to come to their location and speak at their location or give workshops in their location rather than online. So I really push back for the workshops speaking, I really love to do only because I’m an extrovert. I love meeting people, I love going to new places. I especially love eating new food, and drinking new drinks, so I love that.

Lisette: But for workshops, I highly recommend people do workshops online, because if you want to learn how to work remotely, then the best way to do that is remotely. For the companies whom I can’t convince, I do a hybrid workshop. I come there for half a day in person, and then we do two online sessions together, so they get a little bit of both. I convince them to go online.

Luis Magalhaes: That’s nice. That’s a great approach. By the way, have you ever been to Portugal? If not, I need to set you up with a gastronomic tour, because if you’re into food this is a good country for that.

Lisette: Okay, sign me up, I’m in.

Luis Magalhaes: But yeah, so, it really is very strange that some people want to learn how to do remote work and they ask for you to be on location to do that. Why do you think that is?

Lisette: It’s a couple of reasons. One is, people are really used to having others come to their location. They’re used to doing workshops in person and presentations in person. And then the other is, the flip side of that is people don’t think that online workshops can be good. Because really what they’re expecting is a webinar. They’re basically, they’re thinking that they’re going to be watching a series of videos and taking small exams afterwards and that’s just not how I personally like to do workshops. I feel like my expertise is one thing but there is a huge amount of expertise in the group, every group that joins a workshop. Everybody has some sort of experience working remotely, and has something to bring to the table. My workshops are designed to be extremely interactive, and are a way to share knowledge with others.

Lisette: I guide the conversation and I give a bunch of tips that I’ve gotten from the interviews, but it is interactive in that we do breakout rooms, we do exercises, and people are talking amongst themselves. And then after the workshop, you get to join a Slack group where you can talk to a whole bunch of other people that have also done it so that you can share your experiments. That is the best part because people can say, “Hey, I found a new tool,” or, “I tried this thing and it totally didn’t work for my team.”

Luis Magalhaes: There’s a cohort element of it?

Lisette: Yeah, and I think that that … It’s fun to do these on-demand videos and I do them myself, too, for learning certain things. Just when I thought about what I wanted and how wanted to teach and facilitate, interactive for me was the best way to go. Not the most scalable way to go, of course, but the best way to go. And I do now have a whole group of facilitators who also give the Work Together Anywhere Workshops, so it is, in fact, scalable. It’s just not scalable with me.

Luis Magalhaes: In the future you’ll be able to make an AI copy of yourself and just …

Lisette: Exactly.

Luis Magalhaes: … have your computer slaves working away.

Lisette: Sounds awesome.

Luis Magalhaes: In the background, in the background.

Luis Magalhaes: Going on to the book, the book is very interestingly organized because you have sections specifically for people to be the best remote worker or employee that they can. Then you have sections for teams, for managers, for all to build the teams. The chapters are segmented by the goal of the people reading the book, which I found very nice. And just due to time constraints, we’re going to focus essentially on the chapters about managing and leadership because this is a podcast about managing and leadership and building teams, after all.

Luis Magalhaes: A concept that you’ve given, that you talk about in the book early on, is about productivity versus [presenti-ism 00:08:34], which I assume means making it more important to see that someone is productive than to see that someone is actually at their work station, working. I wanted to start by asking you if you could give me some examples of how to measure the productivity. What are your favorite ways to measuring productivity?

Lisette: Yeah, I’m not a big fan. One, I’m not a big fan of tracking people and tracking how they manage their own time. I track myself, I use Toggl, I track all the hours of the day and everything that I do, but that’s just for my own, like I want to know where my time goes. But if a boss were tracking me, then I feel like there’s an inherent lack of trust that is being shown. And also, I feel like we should be rewarded for good work. We should be rewarded for good work, not how much time you spent on that work.

Lisette: A couple of years ago there was this whole article about a guy who had built a bot to do his work, and the bot was able to do his work in like, one hour. And he just spent the rest of the day hanging out at his desk playing video games or something.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah.

Lisette: And I thought, “Wow, if I was the manager of that guy, I would be hiring him to automate as much as possible.” I mean, if he can automate his eight-hour job into one hour, and sit around the rest of the day, I would just think that guy needs to be promoted instead of fired. You have to use his talents for good and not evil. I feel like, if somebody can get something done in one hour rather than eight, then that’s great. What we should do is be setting expectations for what is the work that we need to get done.

Lisette: I’m a big fan of the agile framework, because that’s what I know. That’s what I’ve … I won’t say grown up in, but that’s my surroundings. I work with a lot of agile coaches, a lot of agile teams, so I’m used to that. I just think that the framework is really genius, because it measures productivity and people can’t get too far off track. Because, what does it matter if you’re in the office 40 hours a week? What really matters is what gets done. The measure of productivity, I just feel like it’s not very motivating to say, “Hey, we’re gonna measure you by the time you spend between nine and five pm.”

Luis Magalhaes: See, the main question I have with that, is that when you start looking at people as a different kind of number, which is like task completed or KPIs or something like that, I think it’s very easy to slide into micromanaging them.

Lisette: Totally.

Luis Magalhaes: Feeling like, people act, this person, and produced seven units of productivity today, and John only produced three. How do you prevent sliding into that? Just starting to see people as numbers? What is the most holistic way that you’ve encountered of measuring productivity?

Lisette: For me, it’s that the team sets the expectations for what the team is gonna get done during the week. I really like the sprint planning, for example. You get together as a team and you decide, “Okay, here is the feature we’re gonna build this week.” And then everybody goes off and works on their aspect of that feature, their aspect of what’s being built.

Lisette: I agree, the whole idea of, if you’re doing customer support, okay, John did 25 customer support tickets and Anne only did three, what’s going on? Every system that can be gamed will be gamed. I feel like if you want to get together and be productive as a team, you can decide as a team, and then have the team monitor each other. If you’re the super lazy guy on the team, and everybody else is productive, you’re gonna get called out pretty quickly by your teammates for doing that. Measuring systems like that, it gets tricky, just because everyone’s gonna game the system. There’s always somebody that does.

Lisette: If you decide as a team something, there’s a trust-building component to that. That should be integrated and highlighted, I feel. I don’t have the magic answer. The one thing I’ve learned from the book, really the one thing, if there’s anything I’ve learned from the book is that, what works for one team doesn’t always work for another team. And that tools are really specific to personality, and each team has its own personality.

Lisette: Also, the other thing with the agile way of working is that, I hear a lot from people that it feels like you’re getting on a treadmill that just never stops. And, in reality, productivity goes up and down. I have some weeks where I just rock it and other weeks where I’m just like totally useless. It’s not because I’m lazy, it’s because that’s how productivity works in people. We’re not machines. We need rest and downtime.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah, I’ve talked with Victoria from Brazilian company [inaudible 00:13:22], and they actually felt that trouble very keenly, and what they did to fight it was, each sprint was its own Trello board, and once the sprint was over, they just threw the Trello board completely in the trash and started the new one, just to get some closure. Because, definitely some people feel that treadmill effect when it comes to sprints, that it’s just a never-ending sequence of tasks.

Lisette: Yeah. Yeah, and I think that as a team you need to take into account that some weeks are gonna be more productive than others, and people go through hard times in their lives and that needs to be taken accounted for. But if everything is transparent to the team, then there is a level of trust that’s built and nobody’s gonna try to game that system. Because that, when you break trust, that’s a system that is very hard to rebuild. That’s where the focus should be I feel.

Luis Magalhaes: Got it. Since we are talking about productivity and we’re [inaudible 00:14:19] into trust, there was a part in the book where you said that when people are working remotely, productivity usually increases, except when there are policies in place that destroy productivity. Tell me about the day that you realized that. Do you recall if there was a specific instance where you figured out that this could be a lot more productive but there are these policies in place that are just blocking it?

Lisette: I’d have to go to the specific page of the book. I haven’t read it since it came out, so I haven’t read myself … I mean, you can’t imagine, after five years of working I was like, “Oh, my god, I cannot read this book again.”

Luis Magalhaes: Okay, I’m sorry, the purpose is not to hold you to account to every word, every word [crosstalk 00:15:05].

Lisette: No, I’ve got a good example in my head, actually. I think I’ve got a good example in my head, which is, for example, I have a friend of mine here in the Netherlands who has to hire someone to take his daughter to school in the morning, because the office where he works requires him to be there at a certain time and that time is before school starts.

Lisette: To me, policies like that get totally in the way of productivity because there is no reason for him that he needs to be there at eight am, except for that the boss wants everybody there at eight am. That, to me, is an unproductive policy that just has no place in the modern world anymore. And you think of the loyalty that my friend must have toward that company. If he can find a job that allows him to take his kids to school in the morning, he’s gonna jump 100%, as soon as he finds it.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah, and it shouldn’t be such a big deal, right? We’re not even talking about him working less hours, we’re just talking, getting in an hour later and getting off an hour later, as well.

Lisette: Yeah. And I feel like he’s not asking for much, and he’s asking for something that’s really important to him, which is his family and taking his daughters to school in the morning. Those kind of policies I find are really anti-productive and they’re everywhere. There’s many companies, where, if you’re not in the office, then you’re sort of out of sight, out of mind. And I feel like it’s an old-school mentality.

Lisette: On the other side of that, a lot of people will say, “Oh, I’m working from home today,” with the intention that they’re gonna be at home and completely out of touch with everybody at the office. I also feel like those days are sort of a thing of the past. Given the communication tools that we have there’s no reason to necessarily be out of touch. It’s one thing if you’re saying, “Hey, I need a day to myself where I can think, and I don’t want to be interrupted by any meetings or anything.” That’s one thing, but if you’re just saying, “Hey, I want to work from home, well, then there’s no reason that you need to be out of touch with the office.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah. It’s easy enough to keep in touch, and actually I think that what ends up happening in many cases is that people are so connected that they get out of the office and they get home and they bring the work with them anyway.

Lisette: Oh, yeah. To me, that is the main problem. Leadership or managers always feel like that people are gonna be lazy, and in fact the opposite is true. It’s been proven to be true. People want to work from other places because they’re more productive. And the higher thing that people need to think about is that it’s hard to turn off, and people suffer from burnout far more than laziness.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah. Even if you’re a bit lazy, there’s also a self preservation thing going on. There was a quote in your book, which I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was … You were interviewing something and he said something along the lines of, “Well, you know, of course they are productive because they don’t want to get fired.” Most people have the understanding that they need to actually produce.

Lisette: For sure for sure.

Luis Magalhaes: But anyway, since we were talking about keeping in touch, there’s another kind of keeping in touch that you talk about in the book, bonding and team building. And I’ve read a lot of articles about it over the years. I’ve been managing remote teams for a while now, as well, and I’m very interested in that. What it feels to me is that a lot of what is advised, like scheduling social activities, scheduling team drinks, et cetera, team parties, it sounds a bit like we’re working for our robot overlords and our robot overlords tell us, “Now is mandatory happiness time. Go and be happy and talk to each other and socialize.”

Luis Magalhaes: Whenever I’ve tried to do it, whenever people have tried to do it, something rang a bit hollow with that. And maybe it’s just my personality. I’m the kind of guy that I like working with people. I like the people I work with, but when I’m outside of my work time, as much as I like the people that I work with, if I’m with them after work, I can’t really leave work behind. My mind is still somewhat tethered to that work mentality because I [inaudible 00:19:37] work with that person. I guess this is a multi-part question, but how do you feel about that? Don’t you get some opposition to that concept, that it just feels a bit faked?

Lisette: I hear that from people a lot, and what I tell people is, one, experiment with lots of different things. Again, what works for one team isn’t gonna work for another. Yeah, your virtual coffees on one team might be totally awkward and stilted and everybody’s like, “I got work to do. What are we doing here talking about coffee?” But there’s a number of things that you can do. Like, for instance, there’s a number of teams who will show up to their meetings five to 10 minutes early, just to build in the personal time into meetings. Whoever wants to, there’s no requirement, and I think that’s a really important point, whoever wants to can show up five to 10 minutes early to hear about how was your weekend? What’s going on in your life? How did that thing with your kids go? And then the meeting, for those who just want to attend the meeting, the meeting can start on time and end on time. That’s one way of building a natural personal time into a day with colleagues if you wanna chitchat.

Lisette: And others ways to do it, where you don’t have to do it necessarily in meetings, are Slack channels. Everybody and their dog is using Slack. If you’re not using Slack, you’re using Stride or some alternative, so it is not tool-specific. But, just have a getting to know you channel or a book club channel, or share pictures of your pets channel, or a movie channel, or something. Every team should have this hanging out getting to know you channel where you can ask random questions. People love that. It also makes the workplace little bit more human.

Lisette: At Happy Melly, that’s the company where I’m the remote office manager, we have a random channel, and people like to just put random things in there. Like, “Hey, I’m at an airport and I’m seeing this weird thing.” Or, “Hey, here’s my cat who just walked in.”

Luis Magalhaes: In our case we use Basecamp.

Lisette: Ah.

Luis Magalhaes: The best thing about Basecamp is also the worst thing about Basecamp, which is that it’s not intrusive at all. Things like that, we do have the Basecamp Firechat, but unless you specifically remember to go there, to see if something’s up, it’s very hard to find out if something’s up.

Lisette: Indeed.

Luis Magalhaes: It’s like the opposite of Slack. Slack is completely in your face, too much in your face, for our taste. But Basecamp basically errs on the wrong side of that.

Lisette: Yeah, and just, like I said, what works for one team won’t work for another. Or virtual lunches, there’s teams that do virtual lunches, where whoever’s around on Wednesday at whatever time joins for a virtual lunch and you just hang out and have lunch together. The Happy Melly team had a virtual dance party. We’ve had several virtual dance parties where we actually, somebody deejays and the rest of us get up and boogie.

Lisette: I would just say experiment, experiment, but don’t ignore the team-building component. Whatever method it is that works for your team, do that, and then keep experimenting. Some things will fall flat but everybody appreciates the effort, because team building’s an important component.

Lisette: I’ve gotta say, I did interview one guy who thought team building was a complete waste of time and didn’t have it at all on his team. He’s never spoken to anybody on his team. They do everything through a ticketing chat system, and nobody talks to each other. They don’t have meetings, they do everything through a tool. So it is also possible to have a high functioning team that doesn’t even talk to each other, or even know each other. That is also possible. You just have to figure out where you fall on the spectrum.

Luis Magalhaes: Yeah, well, absolutely, but just from hearing you talk about it, it sounds a bit wrong. I don’t know what the guy’s experience is, but the feeling that I get and maybe the intuition is completely wrong, is that the moment that someone has a reason to jump ship, they’ll jump ship.

Lisette: Yeah, I think the way he keeps people on his team is he pays them a lot.

Luis Magalhaes: Okay.

Lisette: So that seems-

Luis Magalhaes: There’s always someone with more money. That’s just a reality.