Redefining Leadership in a Remote Environment, With Neil Miller

Neil Miller is the host of The Digital Workplace podcast. He has interviewed over 200 leaders about what it will take to thrive in the digital age. For over five years, he’s managed remote teams for Kissflow, the number one digital workplace software, and he helps companies find ways to upgrade the way they lead, collaborate, measure productivity and build culture.

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Neil Miller

Luis:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to another episode of the DistantJob Podcast. I am your host, Luis, in this podcast that’s all about building and leading awesome remote teams.

Luis:

My guest today is Neil Miller. Neil is the host of The Digital Workplace podcast. He has interviewed over 200 leaders about what it will take to thrive in the digital age. For over five years, he’s managed remote teams for Kissflow, the number one digital workplace software, and he helps companies find ways to upgrade the way they lead, collaborate, measure productivity and build culture. Neil, welcome to the podcast.

Neil Miller:

Luis, it’s great to be with you.

Luis:

It’s awesome. We have similar interests, so it’s great to connect and it’s great to have you on to talk. Tell me about how this remote work, this Neil Miller in remote work thing come to be. When did you shift to remote work? How has it impacted your career?

Neil Miller:

I would not say I sought it out. I probably started off like most people looking in traditional jobs, but I really started my career while living in India, which is a little bit unique, I’d say, and in the process learned how to do some freelance work. I was doing some content marketing work over there. And then my family, we decided to move back to my home which is in Indiana in the United States. But I still liked the work I was doing for some companies there so I was like, “Well, can we make this work?” I think that’s how a lot of people pre-pandemic maybe got into remote work, or a lot of companies that had maybe one or two remote employees was they really liked somebody but they were moving. Can we keep working with them?

Neil Miller:

That was my situation. That was 2016. I would travel a decent amount, probably once a quarter, to come back and check in with people and make sure everything was going fine. But yeah, that was the start of it.

Luis:

How has that influenced your career going forward? You have a podcast about remote work, The Digital Workplace podcast. Clearly, this became a priority for you at some point along the way. Tell me the story of how that happened.

Neil Miller:

When we talk about The Digital Workplace, I would say remote work is a part of that. Digital Workplace, for us we say, “This is how we rebuilt work for the digital age.” We got so many great tools, so many options now. We don’t have to just make work a little bit better than it used to be. We can make it awesome and we can make it everything we always wanted it to be and really just take a step back and think about that. And definitely, being remote is a big part of that, being able to live someplace where you want or closer to family or just anything that enables you to still do the work you love just from a different location.

Neil Miller:

I think for us, making that into a property like The Digital Workplace, getting to interview lots of great people and folks to get their input on it, it was a slow process of first just saying, “Hey, what do people want to improve about work?” We actually first called the show WorkMinus. For the first 50 episodes, that was the name of it. Every guest had work minus something that would come through.

Luis:

That’s a great title

Neil Miller:

It was great. I was honestly really sad whenever we decided to shift to call it The Digital Workplace.

Luis:

WorkMinus doesn’t really roll off the tongue, right?

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

This used to be called StaffITRight. But everyone just called it the DistantJob Podcast, so I’m like, “Okay, I guess that’s what it’s called.”

Neil Miller:

It’s always going to be close to my heart, but still. Digital Workplace just became the next phase of that to say, “Okay, how can we actually take this idea of rebuilding work based on what we have?”

Luis:

I really love that concept of reimagining work because I think that work is something that we settled on a way to work in the Industrial Age, right?

Neil Miller:

Yes, yes.

Luis:

And then we never talked about it again. It’s like, “Oh, this is how it is. This is how we do stuff now.” No one ever talked about it again. When I started with remote work, I got a glimpse that… I was heavily into online gaming in my youth.

Neil Miller:

Cool.

Luis:

I’m not as much because I have grown-up responsibilities, sadly. When I started doing remote work, I was coming from a very demanding workplace, many, many hours, over 12 hours inside the building. It was very demanding. When I started with remote work, I got a glimpse that maybe work could be something that felt as good as an MMO, as a massive multiplayer online… I got that glimpse. Work cannot only be fun, but it can be something that lets you connect with people from all around the world and collaborate with people from all around the world in a way that’s amusing, entertaining, engaging and satisfactory to every one involved. That’s where I come from.

Luis:

Talk to me a bit about this reimagining of work. Apart from the obvious sense that we’re not connected physically, we’re not disconnected, we’re connected virtually, what is the paradigm shift here, in your opinion? What is the more deeper sense that this is different from regular in-office work?

Neil Miller:

I think you hit it on the head when you talked about industrial work. We got that age in our minds and we never questioned it again. I think that’s a great insight on your part because that’s really where we are. We’re trying to keep iterating and improve on that model that was given to us. It’s not really the best place to start from. One, because it assumes-

Luis:

When you had to make shoes, when you had to be in a US assembly line, it worked pretty well, right?

Neil Miller:

Sure. We got to the place where we are as a society because of all that we did. Whether or not you think that’s great or you think that’s terrible, it’s true. We’ve always benefited from it.

Neil Miller:

But there’s definitely parts of it, like just the assumption you need managers because people are either too stupid to know what to do or they’re going to steal from you and not work when they’re supposed to be doing or they’re going to take things, and so there’s this whole authoritarian kind of mindset built into that. There’s also the unlimited growth idea, which is you’re just going to keep growing and growing and growing until never, or until forever. We’re always going to be in a state of needing more, wanting more, pushing for more.

Neil Miller:

For me, honestly it’s strange, but the first time I broke out of this thinking a little bit was hearing about… I think it’s called the Star Trek economy, which looks at Star Trek: The Next Generation of they’re out in space because on earth, they were done with money. They had kind of reached a maturity point of saying, “Hey, we got everything we need. Let’s go explore space because that’s the next cool thing we want to do. We don’t need to all be all like trying to find a way to get around.” Obviously, we’re not there and we’re not going to get there next year or in five years or in 10 years, but I think it’s worth it to say hey, that seems like a nice world where we have enough, we know what we’re doing and yeah. Anything I can do to push us in that direction, I like that.

Luis:

Well, the billionaires are already going to space.

Neil Miller:

That’s true. They’re already there. They’re showing us.

Luis:

That’s an interesting concept. I’m not the biggest Star Wars nerd. Actually, my friend, Sharon, the president of DistantJob, is the much bigger. He sometimes alludes to exactly the same things, so I should connect you two because that definitely informs his world view more than mine. But yeah, I mostly see it, and see if this makes sense to you, I see it almost as a… You worked in India, right?

Neil Miller:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Luis:

Certainly, you met several people in India, incredibly talented people in India, as I have in Portugal and other countries that are not US or the UK or part of the G7, let’s say.

Neil Miller:

Sure.

Luis:

Incredibly talented people that were really going to waste in their respective markets. They had the potential to so much more and yet, unless they did the non-trivial thing of immigrating to a G7 country, which despite bureaucratically it’s not easy to do but it’s manageable, but people might just not want to leave their families and friends behind for a job. They have to choose between developing their careers or leaving the place where they love and there’s their family. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we removed that problem?” What if we dissociated the country where you’re born to your career prospects? What if I could have a friend from India have a fantastic career as a CTO in a North American company?

Luis:

And then I found out that this has all kinds of interesting domino effects. Because he was CTO in a small Indian area, he started hiring some more people from India. This is happening in Barbados quite recently. Barbados is fighting the loss of tourism and the loss that the loss of tourism cost in the economy by catering to remote workers. Dollars from G7 countries are going into other countries that don’t have such richness coming from IT or other kinds of white collar jobs.

Luis:

Suddenly, it feels to me we’re slowly shifting to a more equal society where wealth and career opportunities are better distributed. A big part of it is if we get rid of the idea that the fact that the company was incorporated in a country means that they only need to be part of that country’s economy and they only need to hire in that country. Does this make sense to you?

Neil Miller:

I mean, it makes sense to me. I feel like there are some significant hurdles that are going to be in the way, significant roadblocks, taxation, immigration, different salary bands that are going to make it hard.

Neil Miller:

I want to come back to what we said before. Instead of saying, “Okay, how can I slowly get to a little bit better than where I am?” I’m willing to accept yeah, that is a better future where, like you said, just because somebody’s born in a country that maybe wasn’t as developed as another one doesn’t mean that they should be permanently in a place where they don’t want to be. They’re able to get out of that.

Neil Miller:

Now, there’s one element of that that I… I guess I see two visions of this. One is as a company, if I’m hiring, I just want to hire the best talent. I don’t care where they are. Get out there. Build something awesome. That’s a cool thing. But I also really respect the people who take a regional approach, perhaps.

Neil Miller:

You talked about Kissflow. I worked closely with their CEO, Suresh Sambandam. His vision is to say… He’s from this Southeastern part of India and this state, the city he comes from, he’s very passionate about. Rather than saying, “I’m just going to hire the best people everywhere,” he says, “All right, I really want to uplift this whole region.” He’s not exclusive, like he only hires from that area, but he really wants people to be there. And he wants people to be distributed throughout the state so that it’s not just you have to come to the big city and continue to clog up resources there, but can spread a lot of the wealth that they’re gaining as a company across the state and really create more opportunities around there. I like both viewpoints of how to do remote work.

Luis:

Even in the case that you describe in Kissflow, I don’t think that’s different. It’s just at a different scale, right?

Neil Miller:

True, true.

Luis:

It’s still spreading wealth and jobs around. It’s just not around the whole world. It’s around a certain area, and it still works. In the short term, it’s probably a more reasonable goal.

Luis:

I mean in Portugal, for example, where I’m from, we have a huge rural exodus to the big cities, mainly to Lisbon and a bit to Porto. That’s mostly because where the tech hubs and startup hubs in our country are. If we can use remote work to fight that, then we’re going to see, again, an enrichment of more cities in inner Portugal or even, as is my case, cities along the coast where it really does matter for the local economy that people come to live in these towns that have jobs that are not necessarily related to the local industry. That’s a really important piece for smaller communities, that not everyone who comes to a coastal town like me is only coming for the surfing and then they go away. And when they’re not surfing, they’re not spending any part of their paycheck here. It’s much better for the community if they have their mortgage here, if they buy their groceries here, et cetera.

Luis:

That makes for a healthier overall country in any country. This could be applied to America. There is lots of states where people have been moving to states where there is bigger opportunities.

Neil Miller:

Yeah. And honestly, Luis, this is one of the challenge I think we’re going to be in the middle of because both things are great, this whole global society where people can just work from whatever place they want, but also we need to pay attention to regional and smaller and rural places and see how we can uplift them. Sometimes, that means focusing on that area and making sure that they maybe have advantages. Otherwise you might say, “Okay, if everything’s big and global, then whoever already has all the cash right now is going to just hire up all the talent and that’s going to be done with all the other smaller businesses that are trying to get out.”

Neil Miller:

It’s difficult. I wouldn’t want to be the one to try to orchestrate it and make it happen.

Luis:

Exactly.

Neil Miller:

But I’m cheering for it. I hope it happens.

Luis:

As I said in a previous podcast, economy is hard. Right?

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

Maybe it’s tangentially related to that. You talked about the expectation of infinite growth. Would you care to elaborate a bit on that? What do you mean by that? How does that impact remote work?

Neil Miller:

For me, it’s just a question of stepping back and saying, “Hey, what are we trying to do here?” I’m not against growth. I think a lot of companies, that is what they need to do. Even to someone who’s really trying to make an impact in a certain area, 10 jobs is not going to make the impact you want to do. You need to have 500 in order to be able to do something even on a small scale. That needs to be there, but when it comes down to why are we doing what we’re doing, if the main reason is just because we got to make more money than we did last year, that’s a pretty empty reason to keep going, to keep consuming resources and to keep pushing forward with that.

Neil Miller:

I would love to see us really just get to a more reasonable expectation about what it is we’re trying to do. If there’s more growth to be had, if you’re in a market that’s just growing and there’s more market share to grab, that’s cool. Go for it. Also, it’s okay to be in a place to say, “We like where the company is right now. It’s at a good place. We’re happy with things. We can take the foot off the gas pedal for a little while and just enjoy it.”

Neil Miller:

The problem with that model is I think a lot of owners and CEOs would love to do that, actually, but because maybe they’re wrapped up in some VC funding or because they’re wrapped up in some other system, they feel like they can’t. It’s like that train left a long time ago and there’s only one direction. That is up and to the right, and they got to keep going.

Luis:

Well, in some cases, it’s actually illegal. Not everywhere, this is not universal, but in some places there are laws that states that you have fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to maximize profit. If you don’t do it, you’re actually doing something that’s illegal. There’s a whole system in some places built around that.

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

Right?

Neil Miller:

And you understand the thinking behind that.

Luis:

Yeah.

Neil Miller:

It’s also pretty easy to see, “Okay, this law seems to be protecting those who are already wealthy and already have a lot of money to invest to ensure that they get wealthier.” I mean, the whole system, I think, could use a relook and a rebuild. I doubt that’s going to happen. But the more that individuals can take that stance, that are leading, to take more control over the pace of growth and know what they want to do and the actual goal is like, “Hey, the reason I want to get to this place is so that we have this number of jobs or this level of impact in society,” then that’s what we’re going for.

Luis:

You talked about leadership just now. You said that one of the things that needed to be reimagined was the concept of manager authority.

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

I take from that that you are a fan of flat horizontal organizations. Am I misrepresenting that?

Neil Miller:

I don’t know, because I feel like a lot of companies that say they’re flat and horizontal are faking it to a large extent. It sounds nice to put on your website. It sounds nice to tell people, “We’re flat,” but in the end, one person’s still holding all the cards and brings it all in and decides, “Okay, I’m going to flex here and make sure that people can see that.” Those things go on subconsciously.

Neil Miller:

So yeah, I’m not a fan of command and control for the most models that exist out there. I mean, I love experimenting and learning about decentralized teams, ones that actually don’t have managers at all. I know that’s a big jump to make for a lot of people to look at. I’m not necessarily convinced that trying to go flat organization is step one and then you come to this next one.

Neil Miller:

It’s a big topic. I’m not claiming to be an expert in it, but it’s something I’m very curious about.

Luis:

In a remote work context, I think that this is an interesting dynamic to talk about because again, back to my MMO days, well I do remember that it was an interesting situation because it was a game. You don’t really gain anything from it apart from the enjoyment of doing stuff. You think that it would be an environment that would be primed for a flat management style but actually, people gravitated toward leaders.

Luis:

Having a leader in your party, in your team, would make the game better, more enjoyable. Often, it was less enjoyable for the leaders. They were true leaders because for them, the game was feeling a bit like work but for everyone else, it was better.

Luis:

I’m wondering. I sense that’s a little bit of what I feel in relationship to remote work. I think that remote work is more than perhaps normal work. It benefits more from the kind of servant-leadership attitude that we’ve read about in some books.

Neil Miller:

I think a better model going forward is that remote workers, they need to be treated like adults and they need to act like adults in the sense that look, you’re a highly talented individual. You come with a certain skillset. I’m going to trust you that you’re going to do your work. I’m not going to be monitoring you with software to check in and make sure you’re doing things. I’m going to trust you that you’re an adult. I’m going to treat you like that. But I’m also going to expect that you’re going to act like that and you’re going to take responsibility. If you need to learn something you don’t know how to do, that you’re either going to learn it or ask for funds to do that or do something to pull it off.

Neil Miller:

I think on both sides, leaders themselves need to be willing to give over more control, and people in those positions need to be willing to take more of it and take more responsibility. I like both directions, I guess, to move in from. That’s just one way.

Neil Miller:

I think leaders in the future, if you’re definition of being a leader is telling people what to do, that kind of leader is not really welcome for me in the future of work that needs to happen. But leaders who are saying, “Hey, we’re going…” Almost like a gaming situation. If you’re somebody who can lead others into an unknown space that you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have enough trust and responsibility that you can give some guidance to people in those unknown places, then man, that’s going to be an incredible leadership quality to have.

Luis:

Again, going with the game metaphor, the leaders were at their best when they were acting in a strategical manner, when they were outlining priorities and helping people establish goals and then letting the people sort out the tactics. Let’s say if I’m in World of Warcraft playing a rogue, it’s interesting for me to have the leader of the team say that “Okay, when this happens, I need you to handle this situation. That’s going to happen over there so that these people can be doing something else.” And then what the tags I use, what potions I use, what equipment I take to that situation is up to me.

Luis:

To me, that’s the ideal. That seems to be the ideal model, not ideal in the sense that that’s what brings, necessarily, the biggest gains, though it could very well be, but ideal in the sense that it’s the most enjoyable for everyone involved because it lets the person doing the work feel engaged and in control and with a degree of autonomy and responsibility. And it avoids the leader from burning out from micromanaging.

Neil Miller:

I think there’s a lot of ways we can make leadership better. Any of these are going to be great.

Neil Miller:

I love that metaphor of a strategy leader in a game or any kind of situation like that. As long as we can move towards that way and not just “Luis, here’s you list of tasks to get done. When you get done with number one, come back and see me because I got another one for you next.” That, we got to get rid of that.

Luis:

Yeah, that’s not so great. When I was preparing for this conversation and I was going through some of your materials, I have to admit that I did not listen to all 200-plus of your shows. That’s quite a bit of commitment. But I found a concept that you have in your work. That’s the five levels of the digital workplace.

Luis:

Now, you have a fair amount of material about this, so I don’t expect you to lay it out all of it here. I’ll include the links in the show notes so that people can then peruse it at their leisure. But I felt that it was interesting enough that I should ask you about it, just to give use the crash course for dummies.

Neil Miller:

Sure. Well, it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve ever since. I have to say, I didn’t come up with it. Just to put that out there.

Neil Miller:

I was listening to a podcast with Matt Mullenweg, whose the CEO of Automattic. He was talking with Sam Harris. He was talking about these five levels of distributed work. It’s very similar to what I put out there, but I try to take that concept and apply it to a broader view of what digital work can be like in lots of different ways.

Neil Miller:

Just a quick rundown. Level one is just when you’re fully… Everything is office centric. Everything has got to go through there. We’re talking about the physical office. Everything from leadership to productivity is all measured by what’s happening in the office. It’s the final source of truth for everything.

Neil Miller:

Level two is when… This is where most companies were in March of 2020, because you had to make this transition. You had to replicate everything that was physical, find the digital equivalent and just do that.

Neil Miller:

That’s when everyone had to go home. All of your meetings became Zoom meetings. All of your chats that you had became Slack channel chats that went on. We’re just trying to find the exact replica of what used to be there.

Neil Miller:

That’s really the lowest level of digital transformation, so to speak, of just trying to find those equivalents. That’s where things get really messy. No one likes being there because it’s not the same. You’re going to miss being in one, and you’re not going to see the real advantages beyond that. That’s level two.

Neil Miller:

Level three is where you start to see some of those first advantages of being like, “Wow, it’s actually nice to not have to commute all the time,” or “It’s nice to have some quiet time when I can just focus on my work and get things dones and focus on those types of things.” You start to see “Wow, there’s actually things I can do maybe in a digital meeting that I couldn’t do in a physical one.” We can do closed caption. If someone’s a non-native speaker, they can see what’s going on there. You start to see some of those things.

Neil Miller:

The level four is really where you try to say, “Okay, let’s start over from the beginning. What does a meeting look like if you really try to embrace these new values of [inaudible 00:26:27] a really high value of time and attention, a high value on being human focused and being human centric and what’s good for humans here, on a value on being intentional and giving that authority back over to people?” If you relook at that and say, “Let’s design what a meeting would look like if we valued all of those things.”

Neil Miller:

It’s really fun to do that. It’s kind of scary at first, but then when you realize you can take away all those assumptions and build it back in, it’s really exciting to do. That’s where I try to push companies towards, that level four that’s there.

Neil Miller:

And then level five just means you’ve established some boundaries and some stability. Level five is all about experimenting. What can we try next? What have we not done yet that might be fun that we can do and report back to other people? Those are the companies I love to interact with, on that four and five level.

Luis:

Level five is when people do stuff like unlimited holiday policy, work whenever, wherever, et cetera, et cetera. That full salary transparency is another big one that I’m seeing more and more, which is quite uncommon still but interesting. So yeah, those are some examples of some interesting experiments that happen at level five. Looking forward to seeing more of that.

Luis:

Realistically, in my view the level two to three is… Once you’re on level four, the road to level five is visible, even if it requires work. But when you’re on level two, it seems that the path to three can seem like an insurmountable wall.

Neil Miller:

Yes.

Luis:

Do you have any stories about that, about people that face that and how they were able to scale the wall?

Neil Miller:

Yeah. I would say that is the most difficult transition to make from… Because we often try to use that metaphor of a plane that’s there. At level one, the plane is just on the ground, just rolling around, taking people from one to another. Level two is when the plane is just off the ground and just circling around the landing pad or whatnot and it’s there. It’s looking for a place to land. It’s trying to get back to where it was before. That level three is when it decides, “Well, we don’t have to go down. We could go up and see how far we can go.”

Neil Miller:

That is such a difficult transition to make because so many companies… Like you said, if I said, “Hey, let’s go to unlimited PTO,” some people out there would be like, “Okay, yeah I can see how that would be a benefit and how we can implement that.” Other people are saying, “What in the world are you talking about? That’s the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard,” because if you’re still in that office mindset of “I get my two weeks and that’s it. That’s what the authorities have given to me, so that’s what I’m going to take”, it’s just so hard to break that.

Neil Miller:

I mean, you’re asking for examples of companies that do that. Obviously, the pandemic thrust things on people that they weren’t ready for. Of all the pillars of work that we talk about, I think the one that everyone was scared of was productivity. Are people still going to get their work done if they’re going to work remotely? We got that answer in about two weeks, which was yes, it’s fine.

Luis:

A surprisingly low number of companies went bankrupt because of people not working.

Neil Miller:

Yeah. It was like, “Oh, okay. That wasn’t quite as bad as we thought it was.” Now, we still got issues around productivity or how we measure productivity. We still got issues around how we’re building culture and things like that. But just that one-

Luis:

During a pandemic with lots of bad things happening around us, it’s hard for people to be fully productive, right?

Neil Miller:

Yeah. But the fact that we did it is kind of like jumping out of the plane and realizing, “Oh, I didn’t die immediately. It was okay. It still worked.”

Luis:

Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Imagine if we were doing it under ideal situations with no pandemics going around.

Neil Miller:

But again, who would’ve done it in ideal situations? Because ideal situations meant it’s working. Why do we need to try-

Luis:

Exactly.

Neil Miller:

… this remote thing? I don’t want to shake the boat. Everything’s going fine. No one’s complaining. Now, you have to so sometimes, you got to be put in those situations where you do it and it… It’s difficult to convince somebody to do it if they don’t want to.

Luis:

Tell me if you agree with this but sometimes, it’s interesting to go in drips. By that, I’m meaning that we don’t have an unlimited paid time off thing in our company. We’ve talked about it in the [inaudible 00:31:06], but there’s been no consensus around it. So I started doing something that felt like it was in that direction, for example.

Luis:

We have paid time off, obviously. We have paid time off. It’s in the contract. I told my people, “Look, this is what you have. Now, if you feel you need some extra time, whenever you feel you would like to do something with your friends or you feel like you need a break or something, just come to me and let’s talk about it.” And you know what? What I found out is that I’ve never had to say no, because people actually enjoy their work and they won’t just say, “Okay, now I’m never working again. I’m just going to ask for time over and over and over.”

Neil Miller:

Yeah, absolutely. I think-

Luis:

It’s again, like you said, as adults, you actually find out that when you let people at ease, asking for what they need, they tend to be very reasonable with their needs.

Neil Miller:

It’s true. It’s true. And honestly, I interviewed a guy about the idea of unlimited PTO. They’re one of those companies that were growing at the time, maybe a hundred people or so, and they had implemented this idea of unlimited PTO. They said, “Okay, this is great. We’re so forward thinking. We’re so progressive in what we’re doing.” But then all their people were experiencing burnout and were really struggling. They’re like, “What’s going on?”

Neil Miller:

One thing they had done, too, was they had stopped tracking PTO because like, “If it’s unlimited, why do we need to track it?” So then they did start tracking it and realized nobody was taking any time off because they just had this culture that was like, “Okay, we’re doing stuff. Everyone’s dependent on each other.”

Neil Miller:

When you’re not actually thinking about it, you’re not really planning that time off. It’s like, “Here’s your two gold bars to spend. Spend them as you want,” versus “There’s no gold. Just do whatever you want.” It was difficult for people to make that transition.

Neil Miller:

They actually are experimenting, kind of that level five stage of what’s it like to have mandatory time off and say, “Here’s the season in the fall,” for those of us in temperate climates, “You got to take a week off. Pick it. You can do it whenever you want in here as long as you coordinate with your team.” They would also say, again for those of us in northern hemisphere I guess, “Christmastime, towards the end of the year, everybody’s taking the same week off. We’re all going to be shut down for that last week out of the year, and then you can mix and match around the rest of the time.” I mean, it’s an interesting concept, just figure out what’s the difference between mandatory time off, synchronized time off, unlimited time off. There’s all sorts of things around it.

Luis:

The greater point is that regardless whether it’s time off or something else, people are actually very respectful, right?

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

People are very considerate of their teams, of the place they work, assuming that the place they work for treats them well. I think this is an important piece of the new workplace. It needs to be a bit more voluntary and less authoritative, less “This is how we do things here and this is what you get and this is what you’re supposed to do” and more like “Here’s what want to achieve. Now, what’s the best way that you feel you can contribute to that? What are the best times? What are the best kinds of work that you can do?” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Neil Miller:

I’m like you, where I’m a little bit pleasantly surprised, I guess, at how reasonable people are when they’re given those choices and those decisions. I mean, there’s always a few examples of people who are like, “Oh, they don’t show up for two years and they’re still pulling money.” I mean, you don’t hear those stories. It just doesn’t happen.

Luis:

Yeah.

Neil Miller:

People are genuinely reasonable. You ask them, “Hey, what do you need? We’ll get you what you need and we’re all at the same goal.” Then when you start to create that kind of animosity-

Luis:

If that situation happens and you’re a manager, you don’t have to feel bad. You don’t have to feel like you’re a liar if you go to them and have a conversation and say, “Hey, I noticed you haven’t shown up for work in three years. Now we do have an unlimited time off policy, but this might be somewhat disrespectful for the rest of the people that are working hard at the company.” Right?

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

You’re not a bad person for calling out people that abuse your policy’s generosity.

Neil Miller:

Yeah, yeah. I think it’s worth it to note, though, that if you are willing to be one of these out-in-space, level five companies, you’re going to get burned sometimes.

Luis:

Yeah, I agree.

Neil Miller:

You’re going to try some stuff that does not work. I love the new Netflix book that came out recently, the No Rules Rules. There’s some good honest examples in there of some of their examples of like when they got rid of the expense reporting. They said, “All right, just spend money in the best interest of the company.” They found that yeah, 95% of people were very reasonable in what hotels they chose and what things they went out and did. There’s still going to be 5% of people that are going to probably take advantage of that, fly first class when they don’t need to and stuff like that.

Neil Miller:

I think the CEO, Reed Hastings, when he wrote that, he put it well. He’s like, “That’s worth it for me. The advantage that those 95% get by not having to feel like somebody’s over their shoulder looking at everything, I’m willing to pay for those few people who take advantage of it.”

Luis:

I’m going to use my home office budget to buy a small island. This is where I feel I can do my best work.

Neil Miller:

Yeah, absolutely.

Luis:

Talk to me about the environment you do your best work. I’d like to ask you, so we can start winding down with some more standard questions. What does your working environment as a person that leads a remote career, remote life, what does your ideal working environment look like? What does your stack, the apps that you use on a daily basis, what does a day in the work life of Neil look like?

Neil Miller:

I’m at home. I have a separate room in my house. So far, our children have not taken over this room yet so it’s still mine for the time being. But it is a guest room, so I will admit there’s a bed here for when my parents come and visit. That’s there.

Neil Miller:

But I have a desk. I have a standing attachment I put up there so I can go up and down. That was a nice addition during the COVID time. I think I picked that one up. And then external monitors to broaden that out and not being looking at a small laptop screen all the time. A nicer webcam I found to be nice to have so it’s not just like staring at a grainy image all the time, too. So in terms of hardware, that’s what I like to rely on. I would say I probably worked for the first three years in pretty minimal setup with just a laptop, no external mouse, no external anything. I survived it, but I’d definitely not call it thriving.

Neil Miller:

And honestly, all the equipment I have combined, I would say less than 400 dollars. 400, 500 dollars or so I probably spent over the course of two years to get this together. It’s very reasonable, I would say, for what’s there.

Neil Miller:

And then in terms of software, I have to have a task management tool that I use, which for me is just a spreadsheet. I have one that just auto sorts so I can throw stuff in. That keeps me organized.

Neil Miller:

I actually have one where I’ll prioritize things throughout the day. It’s like, “All right, these five tasks, I got to do.” And then I always have trouble picking which of those five to do. I know they’re all high importance, so I have some random number generator that tells me, “Hey, do number three.” I’ve taken that cognitive load off, so that’s nice.

Luis:

You’re a hardcore spreadsheet user.

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

Minimalist task manager, but hardcore spreadsheet user.

Neil Miller:

Yeah, yeah.

Luis:

One day, I need to take an afternoon to learn how to make those fun things with Google Sheets. I assume it’s Google Sheets that –

Neil Miller:

Yeah. When you’re making a spreadsheet, you realize you’re making an app. All apps were originally spreadsheets. We do OKRs, Objectives Key Results. There’s a lot of cool software out there to capture these OKRs but man, I just use a spreadsheet because I was able to figure out how to do that well and figure that. That’s essential to me.

Neil Miller:

For a lot of our process workflow management and project management, I do use Kissflow. That’s been nice to have, to have tools that are able to create workflows, to create interesting project boards that are there. I use Airtable a lot, actually, for a lot of my database management and putting things in different places and having different views on that. So yeah, I would say those are essential.

Neil Miller:

I mean email, I try to restrict email to just external folks. That’s still obviously the best way to get in touch with people. But yeah, those are the tools I like using the most.

Luis:

Same. Talking about the team. If you could have, let’s say, 100 bucks to give one thing to everyone in the team and you can’t give gift cards or any money equivalent, you need to get the same thing to everyone, what would you give them?

Neil Miller:

I don’t know. I feel like there’s always one app that somebody really loves using that nobody else wants to use and it’s not worth it to get for the entire team. So maybe a subscription to one luxury app that somebody can say they can have that. I would definitely say I would want to make sure everyone had a good web camera, so maybe spending that and just say… Because for a hundred bucks, you can get a decent one.

Luis:

Yeah. And 100 bucks, it’s not that strict. You can go over a little bit. I just wanted to anchor it to a real number, right?

Neil Miller:

Yeah. I don’t know. There’s a lot of different things that I would do, or maybe just a hundred bucks in some DoorDash or food delivery service, food so that you can say, “Hey, all this week, don’t worry about lunch,” or something like that. I don’t know. Lots of things to do.

Luis:

Nice. All right. Before we started recording, we talked a bit about books. Now, I usually like to ask, maybe those will be the same books we talked about, maybe not, but what books do you usually gift to people? Or if you don’t gift books, which books do you recommend?

Luis:

I love giving books. I buy some of my favorite books multiple times and just have them around to give them out. I’ve known a couple of people who did that, but I realized it’s a bit of an odd practice. I don’t expect you to be doing the same thing, but I assume you’ve given some books.

Neil Miller:

Here’s my process. I come across a book, or somebody recommends it. First, I go to my library. God, I love my library. I go and try to check it out there and read it there. If I like it, then I’ll buy it. And I don’t buy it to read it, because I’ve already read it. I buy it so that I can either see it on my shelf and be reminded of that concept or I can give it to somebody else [inaudible 00:42:16]. There’s two are three books that I have multiple copies of that I’m just ready at any moment to give to somebody. That’s great. In terms of work books-

Luis:

What books are those?

Neil Miller:

My spirit book is called How to Survive in Your Native Land by James Herndon. It’s this old book. It’s not that old. It’s like in the 1970s, which I’m realizing is older for young kids now. I used to say 1970s like it wasn’t so long ago, but it’s like that’s long. That’s more than 40 years, man. Anyway. That’s about education. But again, it’s kind of a rethinking type book.

Neil Miller:

When it comes to work, I really do like No Rules Rules. I thought that was very essential to understanding a new way to come about things. I go turned on to Maverick by Ricardo Semler recently. This book was written in the early ’90s about guy in Brazil who just had a very unique way of looking at companies. Stuff that we talk about like, “Oh, this is the future of work,” he was doing it back in the ’90s. Really, really interesting to read his story and to come about things.

Neil Miller:

I’m still a fan of the Basecamp guys, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and the work they’ve put out. It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work I thought was really good. I know that they’ve been dealing with their own things right now in terms of some of the political stuff that they’re trying to navigate their way through but in general, I still respect the work they put into that. So yeah, those are some of my favorites.

Luis:

Great. That’s a great selection. I haven’t heard of Maverick. I’m going to need to pick it up. Thank you-

Neil Miller:

If we were in the same room, I would give you the book, even though I gave it to somebody else so I don’t have it right now.

Luis:

Well, thank you.

Neil Miller:

I’ll buy it and send it to you.

Luis:

Thank you for the recommendation. Okay, so final question. This one has a slightly longer setup, so please bear with me.

Neil Miller:

Okay.

Luis:

Let’s say that it’s good times to be all having big dinners together again. Let’s imagine that hypothetically. You are hosting a dinner where there’s going to be a roundtable about remote work and the future of work. Now, in attendance are going to be the decision-makers from tech companies from all around the world. The twist is that the dinner is happening at a Chinese restaurant. As the host, you get to decide the message that goes inside the fortune cookie.

Neil Miller:

Gotcha.

Luis:

What is your fortune cookie message?

Neil Miller:

I don’t know. I wish I was really witty and had something funny to say just to put a smile on people’s face. Because in the end, especially if you’re talking about that kind of industry leaders, that place isn’t going somewhere. Again, it’s a train that is not going to stop anytime soon. I would have some kind of an encouragement just like be human or hug a human or something like that. Go find somebody that needs -.

Neil Miller:

I follow Christ in my own life. That time that He told a rich young ruler, “Go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor,” I would like somebody to challenge me with that, and I would like to challenge somebody else with that and to see how they respond to that and be like, “Look, this is what it means to see us all as a common people and to be able to care for each other and to do that. We need somebody that can be a little bit more radical like that and can call for those things.” I’m not calling for an end to capitalism or anything like that, but just that personal charge to be like, “It’s not just about you.” What would happen if you were to take this to the extreme? I might do something like that.

Luis:

That’s interesting. I have to say, when Jesus goes up to you and says that, it’s quite more impactful than when a fortune cookie tells you to.

Neil Miller:

I would still be challenged by a fortune cookie but yes, you’re right. Jesus would be much more.

Luis:

Exactly, exactly. The impact is different, right?

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

But I get the general idea, and you’re right. Especially when you have a lot of power, it’s important to have your assumptions challenged.

Neil Miller:

Yeah, and I think that’s the spirit of that story to me, is somebody who felt like they got it all right, “I’m a moral person. I’m a good person. I’m doing everything right. What else do I have to do?” Okay, sell everything you got. Get rid of it. “Uh, no. What’s the other option?”

Luis:

But that’s the concept of sacrifice. If you sacrifice something that’s easily sacrificable, well that wasn’t that much of a sacrifice, now was it?

Neil Miller:

Yeah.

Luis:

Right.

Neil Miller:

But it’s relative all the way down. If Mark Zuckerberg gives away a million dollars, that sounds like a lot.

Luis:

Yeah.

Neil Miller:

It’s not that much for him. It’s just whatever.

Luis:

No, not for him.

Neil Miller:

But if I give away a thousand dollars, other people will be like, “Whoa, that’s a lot.” I can do without a thousand dollars. It’s not a big deal. It’s like even in my own life, to push myself to that limit is good.

Luis:

Yeah, exactly. Makes a lot of sense. I loved having you on, man. Thank you so much for taking the invitation and for coming on the podcast.

Luis:

Now, it is time to let our listeners how they can reach out to you, how they can continue the conversation. What are you up to and how can they find more about it?

Neil Miller:

Well, the best place is thedigitalworkplace.com. When you’re there, up in the top right we have a new quiz, which is like an assessment to help you figure out what level you’re in, in terms of your own digital workplace. It’s a fun thing we developed. It’s just a self-assessment. It takes about five minutes to do.

Luis:

I love quizzes.

Neil Miller:

Yeah, yeah. It’s fun. It’s one of those things like, “Oh, I wonder where I am.” You can do it. Have your friends take it. Have your colleagues take it. Just give me feedback on it. I’m just [email protected] LinkedIn, Twitter, you can find me pretty easily.

Luis:

We’ll have all of that in the show notes, so you can just go and click to your heart’s content. Neil, again, it was a pleasure having you. Thank you so much for coming.

Neil Miller:

Thank you, Luis.

Luis:

All right, ladies and gentleman, and thank you for listening. This was Luis in the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading an awesome remote team. My guest was Neil Miller from The Digital Workplace. See you next week.

Luis:

And so we close another episode of the DistantJob 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. 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. I hope they’re a joy for you to listen to as well. You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or you podcast syndication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners.

Luis:

Now, another thing you might want to do is go to distantjob.com/blog/podcast. Click on your favorite episode, any episode really, and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode up so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form.

Luis:

And, 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.

Luis:

With that, I bid you adieu. See you next week on the next episode of the DistantJob Podcast.

More ways to listen:

Management is a fundamental aspect of the workplace environment. Managers oversee and supervise that work gets done, but is the role truly necessary? Can managers become leaders instead?

During this podcast episode, Neil shares why management and leadership need to be redefined in a remote environment. He shares that one of the keys for successful remote leadership is trusting your employees and giving over more control.  Likewise, people in those positions also need to be willing to assume those responsibilities.

Highlights:

  • The impact that the expectation of infinite growth has on remote work
  • How hiring remotely is not only about hiring internationally
  • Understanding your ‘’why’’ when creating business expectations
  • Why the concept of management should change in a remote environment
  • Insights about leadership in a remote environment

 

Book Recommendations:

 

Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE so you won’t miss all of the other interesting episodes that we have coming up every Monday!