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Learning and Leading Remote with Tammy Bjelland

Today’s guest is Tammy Bjelland, the founder and president of Learning in Bloom, a learning solutions company that specializes in instructional design and a task-based approach to talent and expertise development. She is also the founder of Workplaceless, where she provides resources to individuals who want to advance their careers while working remotely, and to organizations that want to build and grow productive, engaged distributed workforces.

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Tammy Bjelland

Luis Magalhaes:    Hello, ladies and gentlemen. This is Luis from DistantJob. I am the Director of Marketing of DistantJob, and this is the DistantJob Podcast, where we talk to people about how to build and lead remote teams who win. And my guest today is Tammy, Tammy Bjelland. Did I say that right, Tammy?

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah, you did.

Luis Magalhaes:    Good. Well, it’s a first. I am usually terrible at saying my guests’ names. But anyway, so Tammy is a published author. She published a book about how to learn online. In fact, the book, I believe it’s called exactly that, How to Learn Online. She is a TEDx speaker, she also is in the process of writing a novel and a nonfiction book. Am I right?

Tammy Bjelland:    Well, oh, there’s always writing projects. Yeah, there’s always projects to be done.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. On top of this, on top of this, she is the Founder and CEO of Workplaceless, that provides training for remote professionals and teams. She is the owner of Learning in Bloom, a learning experience design company, and also Language in Bloom that offers a foreign language curriculum and consults for the Council on International Educational Exchange. So, you have a lot going on, Tammy.

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah, a lot going on. And really, those three companies, it’s really the same company, just approaching instructional design and e-learning from different perspectives and for different audiences. So, still always a teacher, an educator, and instructional designer at heart. And my superpower, as I like to call it, is seeing a learning experience in every single situation. So, that’s where all of those learning companies come from.

Luis Magalhaes:    Well, my superpower, I’m not sure what it is, but it definitely is not saying foreign names. So, I will stick to Tammy for the rest of the interview if you do not mind. [crosstalk 00:02:14]

Tammy Bjelland:    Please, please.

Luis Magalhaes:    And we’re going to talk about learning, because I do want this podcast to be mostly about learning. But you know, as this is the DistantJob Podcast, I would like to tell all our listeners what DistantJob is all about. Now, DistantJob works with companies that want to go remote or have gone remote but don’t have their recruitment department set up to look for international talent. So, what we do is we talk with the companies that we work with to come up with a hiring plan together, and then we search for their ideal candidate. DistantJob handles everything from setting up interviews to paperwork to payments and HR, leaving you to do what you do best, working with your new teammate or employee to achieve your company’s goals, your business goals. So, it’s as simple as that. We facilitate you getting the best international talent possible.

Luis Magalhaes:    And that’s it, that’s about DistantJob. Now, a big part of leading remote teams to success is learning how to do it. Everyone, I mean, there are more and more resources. This podcast tries to be a resource about that, there is lots of learning tools. But how to use them to learn effectively is something that Tammy is the expert on. So, I kind of went into this interview thinking about what I would want to ask someone who is an expert in online education. So, I’m going to go back to that huge list of things that you do or that you have done and that you are doing. As someone that gets absolutely freaked out once my to do list has more than four items on it, I have to say that you have so much going on. How do you keep the pulse on everything and everyone as a remote leader?

Tammy Bjelland:    Well, I will say that it’s a constant learning process, and in order to have, you know, my finger on the pulse of what is going on with other people, I also need to learn how those people are keeping their people on the pulse of what they need to be doing. So, it’s a constant juggling act of determining what my priorities are and what other people’s priorities are, and communicating where those need to intersect and where we need to rebalance. And then in terms of more logistical, granular things that I do to keep on track, I have a couple of productivity things that I use. I have a spreadsheet that I track all of my tasks and time, and the time I have left in the day.

Luis Magalhaes:    Wow.

Tammy Bjelland:    And I do prioritize. So, I have been journaling. I didn’t used to be a journaler, but lately I’ve been journaling fairly regularly. And in the morning, I wake up, and I talk … I talk. I write about what I did the day before.

Luis Magalhaes:    Talking to yourself, it’s good.

Tammy Bjelland:    It is talking to myself, and it’s recording those conversations. But I write down the things that happened the day before, and then I write down what my priorities need to be for that day. And I frame it in a way that at the end of the day, what would I feel awesome about having achieved? And it’s usually not the things that I would probably do first in the morning, which are, you know, the low hanging fruit. I’m gonna respond to this email, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that, just check off a bunch of things on my to do list.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    Those are never the things that at the end of the day you’re like, “Yeah, I’ve really accomplished something.” Right?

Luis Magalhaes:    Absolutely.

Tammy Bjelland:    It’s the really big, hard tasks that you know that you need to be spending a considerable chunk of your time and also attention on. And you need to be reminded of what those priorities are, and Luis, I have to say that probably having a to do list of just four things is probably how we should all be doing it, so kudos to you for [crosstalk 00:06:17].

Luis Magalhaes:    Oh, I’m not nearly as successful at that. I am just freaked out all the time because I have more than four things there. I wish I could make that a regular habit, though, but I do see your point about the email and stuff. Actually, something that has done me a world of good, that I’ve been doing for like one month now, is I found out that in the iPhone, you can just block apps, specific apps during specific hours. And just up until lunch time, I just block the email. I just block Facebook, Twitter, any kind of … even Basecamp at times. And you know, I can just do work, which is refreshing. So, I can definitely see that. So, how often do you manage to get those goals that you set for yourself in the morning? Because I can tell you in my specific case, it’s not very often at all, sadly.

Tammy Bjelland:    All right, well, so we’re nearing the end of the work day here in the U.S., right? So, I’m gonna just take a look at what I wrote down this morning and I’ll let you know.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay.

Tammy Bjelland:    So, I try to keep my list of priorities, big things that I need to get done, to three or four. Because otherwise, it’s like-

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    You need to re-figure out how you’re prioritizing things. So, this morning, I had seven things. So, already I’m not doing great with my system, but I’ve accomplished six.

Luis Magalhaes:    Great.

Tammy Bjelland:    Of those seven things.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah, congratulations. I’m jealous. I’m jealous of you.

Tammy Bjelland:    The day is not quite finished yet.

Luis Magalhaes:    No.

Tammy Bjelland:    Who knows what kind of inspiration I’ll have at the end of the day? But I’ve also been trying to cut the workday off at a consistent time. It’s one of my biggest weaknesses, because you know, I’m sure you’re familiar with this, too. But when you work from home and you like what you do …

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    It is really hard to just pull the plug because I get really excited about what I’m doing, and I also like to get a headstart on things that I know need to happen, and so I can just tend to keep going, keep going, keep going. But we have to stop somewhere.

Luis Magalhaes:    Is there any strategy that you’ve been trying to make that happen? Again, it’s something that I struggle a bit with. I mean, I consistently get off work like one to two hours after when I had planned to get off work.

Tammy Bjelland:    Yes. Well, currently the strategy is work at home with your husband, who is also your business partner who reminds you …

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay.

Tammy Bjelland:    To stop working. He’ll say, “I thought you were going to stop working at 6:00 today, and it’s 6:20.” And then it’s a reminder that I need to stop. So, I don’t know if that’s a replicable strategy for everybody.

Luis Magalhaes:    No.

Tammy Bjelland:    But currently that’s what I’m employing.

Luis Magalhaes:    Well, I guess I can train my cat, but [crosstalk 00:09:20].

Tammy Bjelland:    And I’m sure there are apps and things. You mentioned blocking certain apps, but I’m sure that there are things that probably shut down the internet or shut down your computer at a certain time.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    Or a few.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s kind of a mental block there, when it’s okay to control when you start, but you get more annoyed if you’re in the middle of something and it just stops, right?

Tammy Bjelland:    Oh yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    It’s definitely-

Tammy Bjelland:    I mean, clearly I haven’t researched what those are because …

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    I mean, the thought is horrifying.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    But I am actively trying to get better about that, but those are some things that …

Luis Magalhaes:    Right.

Tammy Bjelland:    I know, I see a definitely opportunity for growth, opportunity for improvement.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. So, I got a bit sidetracked there. Apologizes to the listeners, it is a bit late already, so cut me some slack here. But back to your origin story, your background was really in teaching language, right?

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    Teaching languages. So, what does that … because the written word is so important when managing remote teams, there’s all the matters of context and how to express yourself eloquently and all of that. What has your background in language taught you about communicating with remote teams?

Tammy Bjelland:    So, it’s taught me many things. So, my background in language informs what I do every day, and I think about it all the time, and every day. So, one of the things, you know, on a high level, is that remote work is so heavily skewed to favor English speakers. So, native English speakers, but also non-native English speakers who have mastered English and can communicate in English. There are so many more remote jobs that are available for people who speak English, so that’s one thing that I’m really aware of, and we’re working on developing resources for non-native English speakers for remote work at Workplaceless. Because that is an area that I see a lot of need for, for remote work to really become available for a wider audience. We need to provide additional tools and resources and support for people who are not native English speakers. So, that’s one thing.

Luis Magalhaes:    What would some of those be?

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah, well we have our Remote Work Dictionary that we are still working on compiling. So, the first version is out.

Luis Magalhaes:    Oh, is that out? Oh, I didn’t see that.

Tammy Bjelland:    Yep. It’s out, it’s available on our website. I can definitely send you the link.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah, yeah. I will include it in the show notes, please do. I missed that, I don’t know how.

Tammy Bjelland:    Oh, well I mean there’s lots of information out there coming from all directions, so …

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah, it’s easy to miss some things. So yeah, we released our dictionary, the first version, and we are actively seeking feedback on that because we’d like for the second version to be released alongside our Speak Placeless program, which comes out in May. And that program is an English language communication program for remote workers, and will actually also cover just additional communication issues within the realm of remote work. So, communicating channels and channel switching, intercultural communication, all those concepts that are really important when you work on a global distributed team.

Luis Magalhaes:    So, yeah, definitely, and definitely the language barrier is such that it’s really helpful to have something. Some kind of tips or some kind of document that you can use just to lessen misunderstandings. So, off the top of your head, do you remember a couple of examples of what’s included in that Remote Work Dictionary that people mind find helpful?

Tammy Bjelland:    Sure. Well, for one, just the distinctions of the words that we’re using. So, remote versus hybrid, what does distributive mean? And there’s actually varying interpretations of some of those words, which is another really interesting component of language there. And then for the next version, we’re definitely going to be adding more acronyms. So, things that we use all the time like EOB, you know … I can’t ever remember the letters of them. See, this is why I need it. But in case you missed it or in my opinion, acronyms for those phrases that are used all the time. But if you’re not familiar with it, you can be like, “What is this string of letters together, and why is it being used in this context?” So, acronyms, we’ll be definitely adding to those in the Remote Work Dictionary.

Tammy Bjelland:    And other terms include categories of tools that we use, so video conferencing is one that seems like it could be a basic term that people would use, but understanding it as a category of tool, and then Zoom is an example of that category of tool. That in itself can really help people understand what tools are serving what purpose because we throw around tool names sort of as a placeholder for what the tool actually does. And that can be really confusing, and that causes or contributes to a lot of that miscommunication and misuse of company channels because you sort of use one tool as a placeholder for the type of communication you want to have.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay, so that’s interesting, and I definitely want to go back to tools later. But …

Tammy Bjelland:    Okay.

Luis Magalhaes:    But first, since we are on this transition, I really want you to tell me about the day when you realized that offering training to remote professionals was really your next step. What was the day like when the switch went off in your head to change tracks to that?

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah, I can say that. So, I will say that the switch was not … it’s not that much of a switch where I made a total career change. Because I’m still doing the exact same thing that I’ve been doing for years, which is creating online learning experiences.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    It’s just the audience has a much bigger focus, or smaller focus, I should say. And the shift happened when I was working at a tech company, and it was a remote company, and I really loved working on that team. I loved my colleagues, I loved the mission, and I wanted more opportunities. I wanted growth opportunities, and I approached leadership about creating those opportunities or finding or getting access to those opportunities, and what would that look like? And what do I need to do in order to get access to those opportunities? And there were basically no resources, you know, it was a small startup so there was nothing really for me. And I’m sure you’ve heard stories, or maybe even experienced this yourself in really small companies and small startups that don’t have a very strong structure, and maybe they pride themselves on that. If they have a very flat structure, and they say, “Well, you can really invent your role.” And you’re like, “Okay, well that’s great.” But is it? Is it really that great? Because what kind of roles are actually needed, and what kind of tasks are actually needed?

Tammy Bjelland:    And I mean, it’s great to sort of invent the role that you are envisioning for yourself, but does it really align with the company objectives? And how can you make sure that what you’re planning and hoping for maintains alignment and actually does allow you to grow in the way that you do? And so I was really frustrated by the lack of resources, and also just the lack of structure in helping develop individuals in their career growth. Because I found a lot of information on how to get a remote job, and there are lots of resources out there about how to get a remote job. And I was more interested in after you get a remote job or even before that, but looking at remote as a career choice, and not just a lifestyle choice.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    You know, you can have a great career with lots of upward mobility in remote work, but I do believe that it takes a lot more work on the part of the individual employee and also on leadership for a host of reasons. But that was really the turning point for me, was as a remote worker working in ed tech, working in education, I wanted more challenges, I wanted more opportunities. And then there was really not any support for that, and I had worked in other remote teams as well, and the situation was similar. And I was like, “Well, if it’s true for me and true for this organization, it’s probably true for a lot of other organizations.” And then I set out to do research on what other organizations were doing, and it’s all very similar. I mean, there are some organizations that have certain career mobility programs in place, but a lot don’t.

Tammy Bjelland:    A lot of remote companies don’t have even an HR person, let alone a learning and development person or somebody to support individual career growth. So, that’s really where … boy, that was a long answer to that question. [crosstalk 00:19:39]

Luis Magalhaes:    So, you really just scratched your own itch.

Tammy Bjelland:    Oh, yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    You did pursue your passion for education, which is super nice, which is super nice. Because a lot of us, I mean, I view this podcast as a learning tool, and I think that a lot of what you see in the remote space are really learning tools. Whether it’s a blog post or it’s webinars or groups or whatever, it’s all learning tools. But they really come out of a need for learning, because we want to do this better and we want to change information on how to do this better, than from necessarily a passion for learning. Now, I personally believe that any individual who wants to be successful needs to have a passion for learning, but you have a passion for teaching.

Luis Magalhaes:    Since we’re talking about learning, while reading your learning book, I highlighted the part where you say that good online learners really monitor their own progress. And that reminded me about something that I talked about with one of my first guests here on the podcast, Joel Martin, he is a lead developer at [inaudible 00:20:45] in Microsoft. He told me that the good remote workers shouldn’t let their bosses wonder what they’re doing, they should be upfront about tracking what they’re doing and then showing it. So, I think that the good advice for online learners, monitor your progress, is actually very good advice for remote employees as well. And I would like to know … so, there are a lot of tools where the leaders can track the productivity, the managers can track productivity on stuff like Basecamp, Trello, Asana. But for the individual, you as an individual, Tammy, how do you track your progress?

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah. I track my progress, so I currently am using Asana and also exploring ClickUp a little bit, which is a new tool that I really enjoy because it has a goal setting functionality that I’m exploring a little bit more. And so I can’t give you results on that right now, because it’s a brand new tool that I’m exploring. But because I do know that tracking progress is one of those things that is important to success as a learner, as a team member, and also as a leader, I’m exploring ways to make that a little bit more transparent for myself and also for my team. So, that’s one way, and then another way is I do an internal blog post for my own purposes and then my team.

Luis Magalhaes:    Oh, cool.

Tammy Bjelland:    So, I … yeah. So, every week I just write what progress we made last week and what progress I made on things. And, you know, big decisions that we made and then what’s coming up on the calendar this week. You know, that format is constantly evolving, but I really wanted a way to make my own progress and my own priorities transparent to my team because one of the things that I’ve seen happen in so many teams is that you work on your goals and you have your priorities. And so infrequently do you all get together to really understand what other people’s priorities are that then when you’re trying to reach out to someone and you’re frustrated because they’re not responding back as quickly as you would like, it’s because they have different priorities.

Tammy Bjelland:    So, in doing that internal blog post, I’m really hoping to let everyone know that needs to know, well my priorities this week are pursuing a certain partnership and this sales call that we have scheduled up. And I’ve put my feedback on this particular course a little bit lower on the priority list, so I’m gonna get back to those instructional designers probably a little bit later in the week. So, I find it helpful for myself because it helps me clarify what those priorities are and really actually see what kind of progress I’ve made. And then I’m hoping that my team members also find it helpful because it helps them sort of figure out what I’m doing in a week. And then just the act itself of writing down what you’ve done either the day before or the week before, it does wonders for confidence, number one. Also motivation, because so often we focus on the to do list, so Luis, your four or five item list, however long it is.

Tammy Bjelland:    We focus on what we still have to do instead of what we accomplished, and I like to think that running list, and even going back and looking at that internal blog and looking at all the things we’ve done, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. We’ve come a long way.”

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. So, I definitely want to push on the part about communicating your priorities, because a lot of the tension that I find in the teams I’ve worked with is that people take it personally when you don’t necessarily treat the feedback that they need or the stuff that they ask you to do with the … when you don’t get back to them soon enough, people tend to treat it personally, like a personal slight, instead of taking that okay, this person is just busy with their other priorities.

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah, yeah. And that’s something I haven’t quite figured out yet, is who really owns that responsibility in communicating the priorities when you are delayed? Or, being more empathetic and understanding of other people’s priorities on the other end of it. So, I think that that’s, I can’t say that I’ve found that perfect balance at all because certainly I have encountered situations where my priorities are different from somebody else’s, and I find that frustrating.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    But especially in my team, where I know that a lot of their progress depends on me or depends on my decisions. And when that’s the case, I always want to make sure that somewhere they can take a look and see what this week’s priorities are for me so that they can sort of figure out where they might stand if they have a question. I always get back to my team members with questions, but yeah. That gives them a little bit more context.

Luis Magalhaes:    It’s a work in progress, right?

Tammy Bjelland:    Oh, sure.

Luis Magalhaes:    What do you find is a good measure of your progress, of your evolution as a leader? What are your leadership deliverables, as it were?

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah. So, I would say, I mean I really love using frameworks to guide some of that.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Tammy Bjelland:    And so our leadership program, Lead Placeless, has a framework for leadership on the fundamental skills that you need to be a remote leader, and I use that as a framework. So, we start out with culture, communication, performance management, conflict resolution, vision, change management, and then learning and development. And so in those seven modules or seven topics, there are different key concepts, key skills, and then we have certain deliverables within each of those modules as well. And so as a leader, I’m actually, I go through that process regularly to make sure that what I’m doing aligns with what our development team has identified as some of those core competencies. So, you start out with culture, then communication.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay.

Tammy Bjelland:    Performance management, conflict resolution, vision. What’s your vision for the future, and how can you communicate it? Then, change management and learning and development.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay.

Tammy Bjelland:    So, how can you coach and support your team members to grow in their careers? And of course, that’s a very specific nod to my own challenges, you know? With not having those resources available to me, so …

Luis Magalhaes:    So, are they set up like in a pyramid?

Tammy Bjelland:    It’s a cumulative set of skills. So, they do build on each other because really it comes down to culture, which, what’s your mission? What’s your company’s personality? What’s your company’s character? And all of those other skills and how you apply those other competencies, they all need to align with that mission and your company culture. And so that’s the compass, basically, for all of your other skills. And so that’s important not to skip that step, because you can’t jump right into vision if you don’t really understand what your starting point is or what your goals are.

Luis Magalhaes:    Fair enough. So, how do you measure yourself against that? When you’re doing, I suppose it could be a weekly or a monthly or a trimonthly review, but when you’re doing your review, how do you figure out if you held up to that standard, to that framework?

Tammy Bjelland:    Yeah. So, one is looking back at all of those things that I mentioned about my own work. So, the blog post that I put out, my interactions with my team members. We’re a very young team, and when it just stared out, it was basically just me and Laurel Farrer. And for a long time, it was the two of us on calls together hashing out all this content, and then eventually we brought on more people. And so it’s a constant learning process, but yeah, so once every month I’ve been looking at the proof of leadership, I guess. And my interactions with my team members, and how I’m interacting with them, and then all of the other ways that I’m tracking my own progress.

Tammy Bjelland:    And we have self-assessments, also, in the Lead Placeless program, and so periodically I go through that and I am constantly learning more things about myself through those self-assessments. And it’s a nice way to give me a little bit of structure to measuring my growth, like you said, and that is one of the guiding principles of all of the programs that we create. We want to help support and sustain continuous commitment to learning and growth, so it’s not just about taking one class or one workshop and then boom, you’re better.

Luis Magalhaes:    I want to dive deeper into that because obviously that’s your whole offering. And again, there’s a lot of free content, and there are a lot of resources out there. I built this podcast to be that, you know? For me specifically, I built it because I felt that I needed it, but then I also offer