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Taking Ownership as a Remote Leader by Maya Middlemiss

Maya Middlemiss is a freelance writer and journalist. She tells stories from the future about collaboration, work, tech, money, and social impact. She is also an author of two books, Out Of The Office: Making the Transition to Working from Home and Finding Your Edge: Establishing And Maintaining Boundaries When You Work From Home.

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Luis:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. My guest today is a repeat guest. I have the pleasure of welcoming back Maya Middlemiss. Maya is a freelance writer and journalist. She tells stories from the future about collaboration, work, tech, money, and social impact. She is also an author of two books, Out Of The Office: Making the Transition to Working from Home, and Finding Your Edge: Establishing And Maintaining Boundaries When You Work From Home.

Luis:

Additionally, I know Maya when I was interviewed at the 21st Century Work Life podcast at Virtual not Distant where she is an associate. Maya, thank you for coming here for the second time. It’s a pleasure having you. How have you been?

Maya Middlemiss:

Thanks very much for having me back. I’ve great, Luis. There’s been some strange times, but interesting times for remote work, right? Since we last spoke, a great deal of water has passed under the bridge. It’s great to be reconnecting.

Luis:

Yeah. Like we were saying before I pressed record, it’s like the last time we met, it was BC. A lot has changed.

Maya Middlemiss:

A different era.

Luis:

A different era, but we are here and we seem to so far have been doing good surviving the apocalypse. So yay us!

Maya Middlemiss:

One way or another.

Luis:

In fact, you’ve been especially good at surviving the apocalypse because you’ve been writing books, right?

Maya Middlemiss:

Well, yeah. I think more people needed help with this stuff, so I felt like my service room.

Luis:

Some people were like tearing each other’s heads off, running in Mad Max like battles across the highway. And you were writing books.

Maya Middlemiss:

I have Mad Max moments as well. Everybody’s had their little freak outs.

Luis:

First, you do the Mad Max thing, and then you write the books. That’s the usual accepted sequence. Obviously I want to give the disclaimer upfront that I usually say to my listeners, that what is said in this podcast in no means exempts you from going and getting the book if you find the topics interesting because they are complete pieces. We can only get ankle deep in all the subject matter that’s written in the books in this podcast. So I’m not even going to try to… Obviously I want Maya to talk about the books if she is kind enough to do so.

Luis:

I’ve given them a read. Just the fact that I have Maya here means that I think that the work is definitely worthwhile for my readers. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have invited her. You’ll find the links in the show notes to get them, but don’t think for a moment that you can listen to this podcast and then you have the cliff notes and you’re done. That’s not what books are about. That’s not how books should be approached. You have been warned. Again, Maya, it’s been a while. How has your life changed now that it’s BC?

Maya Middlemiss:

Well, yeah. It’s an interesting one actually, because obviously there are a lot of people who are new to working remotely, working from home over the past, whatever it is, now, 13, 14 months. But I’ve been doing it for a long time. At the beginning of 2020 was when I first started planning this… Well, it was going to be a book. It’s now a book series, but my intention when 2020 came along was that was my 20th anniversary of working from home, because I started at the turn of the millennium.

Maya Middlemiss:

I can date that quite accurately by the arrival of my millennium baby, who is now about 15 centimeters taller than me and very much come of age. But that’s how long I’ve been doing it.

Luis:

What do they feed them these days?

Maya Middlemiss:

Ah, I don’t know. She’s studying from home, while I’m working from home. It’s a very long time since I’ve worked in somebody else’s office. I was going to write the book about homeworking, right? Because I figured I had nothing else to learn about this phenomenon having done it for two decades. I had the book outline. I had the TED Talk pitch. I knew everything about working from home. And then, of course, the universe changed on us overnight. What people needed in terms of working from home changed as well.

Maya Middlemiss:

In particular, we had this emergence of this whole new demographic of people who were reluctant home workers. Before in those first two decades, it was all about something people chose, something people wanted, and often fought quite hard to get permission to do or to find a way to work remotely. Then suddenly, we had all these people who were just flung into it overnight frequently without the right support, the right equipment, and during the middle of a global health crisis on top of all of that.

Maya Middlemiss:

It got very quickly reprofiled. I decided what was needed was a series of short, much more actionable pieces of work that people could refer to quickly. And through that grew a whole community and website. I was already doing work with clients and content work with Virtual not Distant, as you mentioned. We’ve done a lot of work with remote teams and teams transitioning to remote back in the days when that was a thing, where you actually had a transition and it was a proper change management process.

Maya Middlemiss:

That was fun back then. What was needed now was something to help people as they got flung in the deep end and to just pick up and figure out what to do. I decided that where the gap was as I saw it was supporting the individuals in the middle of that. There are a lot of people like Pilar and lots of other experts doing work with managers to try and upskill them to support those people. But for those people, suddenly dropped in it mostly as employees, because the entrepreneurs had themselves.

Maya Middlemiss:

People who suddenly their job changed overnight, I wanted to advocate for them and empower them and give them some voice, some solutions. So that was where the book series came from.

Luis:

Where do you comes this disconnect? Disconnect has been pointed to… A couple of studies have pointed to disconnect. The Microsoft workplace something study and now more recently the GitLab study usually says the leadership is very okay with remote work. They feel like they’re thriving. They feel like everything is going peachy. They actually feel that productivity is going through the roof.

Luis:

And then when you go to the people working under them, to the workers, to the people, to the employees that were thrown into work from home, they’re like, “My life is a mess. I’m barely hanging in here.” Where do you think there’s such a disconnect between the managerial/leadership class, let’s say, and the actual people on the trenches?

Maya Middlemiss:

I think it’s a really important point. There’s a number of different things to unpack here. The first is that everybody’s working through a global health emergency, so that adds stress on top of everything. If you’re senior management, you’re likely feeling a bit more secure in your job and your future. Whereas if you’re somebody whose been sent to work from home or you’ve been furloughed, you might not be certain about your economic future. You might be worried about your kids, your partner, and so many other things.

Maya Middlemiss:

All of that background stress adds up and builds up. In terms of the work itself, often there are communication issues in the very broadest sense, like how we make the work visible, how do people know if they’re doing okay, because they don’t have that kind of visual ping back from other people looking around. Well, I seem to be at least about as busy as that person over there and that person over there. We leave at the same time. These are the kind of things…

Maya Middlemiss:

If you’ve had a performance review once a year and you felt the right kind of level of busy compared to other people, that was probably enough in a lot of knowledge work roles. But suddenly when you’re at home, you’re isolated from that. You don’t get that sense of what’s going on in the organization. That can lead to a lot of insecurity, particularly if the person managing you has never learned how to manage a distributed team, because they all got flung into it too.

Maya Middlemiss:

And a lot of managers were left questioning the validity of their own roles when they couldn’t manage by walking around. They couldn’t go and see what people were doing. Suddenly, they had to get you in Zoom calls all day and night. And when are you supposed to actually do the work? And then on top of that, you’ve got the boundary issues of, when am I supposed to start? When am I supposed to finish? Am I dividing my attention here because I’m actually trying to manage my kids’ home education at the same time as doing this work?

Maya Middlemiss:

Does that mean I should take twice as long over it? How am I going to be evaluated? How is my performance going to be measured? Where do I fit in to an organization full of people I can’t see anymore? There’s an awful lot of reasons for people to feel insecure and anxious when working at a distance.

Luis:

Yeah, yeah, for sure. How do you deal with that? I’m going to tell what I usually recommend to people. I actually recorded a video about this a couple of days ago. I usually tell people that if they put working from home, they should kind of try to put in their schedule the usual eight hour workday. Not because I believe in it. I can honestly say that I usually have six to four hours of productivity a day and I consider that a lot.

Luis:

But I just feel that if you don’t block that time in your calendar, you’re either not going to find time for work, or you’re not going to find time to get out of work. One of the things will dominate. What’s your approach there? Is what I’m saying… Does it make any sense?

Maya Middlemiss:

It might make sense for some people. I think everybody needs some guide rails, and time is an obvious way to measure our contributions. It’s the one that we tend to use when we’re all showing up at a shared building somewhere. It’s like people arrive around this time and leave around that time. That makes a very distinct boundary. It’s not the only way to measure, but it’s one that a lot of organizations default to, and it’s one that a lot of our employment law is based around. Contract is for 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, or whatever.

Maya Middlemiss:

A lot of the way we measure stuff has come out of that, even though we’re not working on production lines in factories anymore. We don’t all have to be there simultaneously. There are much more sophisticated ways of measuring performance and productivity.

Luis:

But you know this. I mean, you’ve written books. You know that if you don’t sit down to do the writing at a certain time, if you’re just, “Oh, I’ll do the writing whenever I feel rested and inspired,” no book is going to get written that way, right?

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah, right. I don’t know who was that quote that somebody said, “I only write when inspiration strikes. But luckily, it strikes every morning at 9:00.”

Luis:

Exactly.

Maya Middlemiss:

Or nothing will get done.

Luis:

I know this is not a problem that everyone has. A lot of people have the opposite problem, but I really try to find… Again, it’s the mentality that remote work and flexible work means that you can fit work around your life, right? That usually ends in disaster in my experience.

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah. I think the biggest challenge is self-awareness and knowing how or when you work and when you get stuff done. Because most of us particularly if we work for ourselves, we don’t have any external frame of reference. I have lots of clients and they’re journalists in the content marketing space. Those clients come with very hard deadlines. What I do is driven by other people’s, “This needs to be submitted. We need this for editing by this date. It’s worthless to us if you don’t have it, and we won’t be back either.”

Maya Middlemiss:

I try to keep that balance continually between satisfying all of those expectations and finding time to develop the Healthy Happy Homeworking stuff, which ranges from… That’s all writing, but it’s things, as long as books are as short as tweets and everything in between. I’m not sure to be doing that, but obviously that’s very much at the developmental stage and I still need to do the keep the lights on work for other people for a long time.

Luis:

Tell us a bit more about that. You’re basically developing your whole content for yourself, teaching people how to do this, but almost purely through writing, right? Usually when I see people doing this, they mix in consultation. They mix in speaking engagements and et cetera. Tell me about this strategy and how do you feel that you’re making a difference for the people that are consuming your writing?

Maya Middlemiss:

That’s interesting, because I do do some consulting work. I’m always happy to do that. I’ve recently launched a consulting product based around asynchronous messaging, because the one thing I didn’t want to do was give people more meetings or something. We’ve probably got enough of those. I’m also working on self-paced training courses, and the first one will hopefully launch at the end of this month, there I’ve said it in public, which will be about future proofing your career and finding the remote roles…

Luis:

But is this under your Healthy Happy Homeworking umbrella?

Maya Middlemiss:

Yes. This is all under Healthy Happy Homeworking.

Luis:

Okay. Because I was under the impression, and I maybe I got it wrong, that Healthy Happy Homeworking was your umbrella for all the writing and only your writing. But it’s nice that you’re getting extra stuff out there.

Maya Middlemiss:

I am trying to do that. I mean, I do a lot of writing, wearing all the hats like for publications and also anonymously as well. Selfishly, my main goal in wanting to develop Healthy Happy Homeworking and the way that I have was disconnect it from exchanging time for money, because I love the work I do, writing for other people. Particularly in the tech sector, I get to find out about so much exciting stuff and really dig into things that fascinate me. But I had a situation last year where my youngest daughter was in hospital for two weeks.

Maya Middlemiss:

It really hit me that, okay, I had worked for lovely clients who all said, “Yes, don’t worry about the deadline. You go.” But of course, I didn’t earn anything. It made me very clear that I needed to develop something that’s my own product, my own brand that will have some way for people to go on interacting with it where my foot is not on the gas, Which is why I wanted to do books, do training courses, something where I could put stuff down and pass it onto people to consume when it suits them and that will hopefully take on some…

Maya Middlemiss:

I don’t believe in passive income. It’s all bloody hard work this passive stuff. But what you have to do is disconnect it from immediately exchanging this is my time, cranking out this article for this deadline for that check to try and smooth it out a little bit more.

Luis:

Tell me a bit how the books fit into that overall strategy. Actually take me over… Because that’s what would be interesting to the listeners of this podcast, right? How can Healthy Happy Homeworking help them? Let’s say that I’m that person. Instead of having done this for 10 plus years, that I’ve actually just started doing this. I want stuff to happen, right? I want to make sure that I have some career progression as a remote worker. If I have someone working under me, I want to be sure I manage them properly remotely, et cetera.

Luis:

I want to create boundaries. All the challenges that come up with remote work, right? I guess, the first question is, what would be the entry point, right? Are the books a good entry point?

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah.

Luis:

You sent me Finding Your Edge, and it was actually very timely. Because when you sent me Finding Your Edge, I was taking two weeks off because I was completely burned out.

Maya Middlemiss:

Well, I hope those two weeks did you good, because it’s so important that we do respect those boundaries in ourselves. Sometimes we have to refine them. I mean, I think the reason I wanted to create a whole range of different types of content is that people consume content in different ways. Not everybody will read a book. Despite your wonderful words at the start of this recording, there are people who will listen to this and, you’re not going to believe this, they won’t go out and buy the book, because they’re not people who sit and read.

Maya Middlemiss:

They will prefer to listen to a podcast, or they might prefer to watch a video in a training course. We have a thriving Facebook community where people come along and chat, and they ask each other questions and help each other out. People access that kind of wisdom and support and learning in lots of different ways. I think if you want to be something that’s accessible to lots of people, you’ve got to create content in different formats. I’d like to do some video later in the year. Psyching myself up for that.

Maya Middlemiss:

Just try and get people a variety really. I like audio though because I really like the idea that people can consume and interact with something without sitting in front of a screen.

Luis:

I’ve been experimenting with video. Actually I’ve been doing one video a day. Weekdays only, not weekends. I’ve been doing one video a day and trying to get short things. I call it the coffee chat with Luis, and I try to get short things. Short like five to 10 minutes maximum. I’m trying to get that down, because I hate long videos. In the same way that some people will not read a book, I will not sit through an hour long video. It’s just – me. I try to do that. I like you to look at it and but it’s fun.

Luis:

I think you’ll enjoy it. You were talking to me about audio and I’m thinking, maybe you should do the audiobooks next, right?

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah, yeah, I would like to do the audiobooks. That’s certainly something I think I would like to do, because they are quite short books. I’ve got the podcasting set up here at home so I can do that without renting a studio or something hopefully. Mind you, I was podcasting with the lovely Pilar yesterday and I’ve just seen a note to the engineer saying she wants him to try and take the bird song off my recording. Maybe I haven’t got the best acoustic environment. Sorry. It’s spring time. There are birds tweeting outside.

Luis:

But it’s so lovely to have that… It’s not an excuse, but I usually say it’s part of the thing about work from home. We need to be a little more permissive into how we let life bleed into our work.

Maya Middlemiss:

Absolutely.

Luis:

I’ve had a couple of videos where I’m recording my video and my cat just does what cats do. The human is recording. Let me jump on top of his shoulder, and then back onto the desk. I’m like, hey, this is remote work. This is my cat. Sometimes cats jump onto our shoulders, right? Sorry about that, but I’m not recording a new video.

Maya Middlemiss:

Actually I think it’s lovely and I think it’s… Particularly for the tech journalism work that I do, often I’m talking to people, they might be quite busy, stressed start up founders. I finally got them on the phone for 10 minutes, and I really want them to say something that’s not in the press release and just give me a bit of their human side. They’re in a rush. They’ve spoken to lots of journalists. And then suddenly, their toddler comes in or their cat or something. It breaks the ice, and it shows a glimpse of their human side.

Maya Middlemiss:

We can connect over that, and it leads to a much more deep relationship over a much shorter time. I really like that, whether it’s a cat or a kid or just a glimpse of what somebody’s got on the wall behind them in their office. It’s much more of a glimpse into them as a human being, rather than whatever might be in their cubicle in an office.

Luis:

What I’d like people to understand…. And I saw this… I believe it was a Neil Gaiman interview. I adapted it somewhat to remote work where Neil says that in order to be a professional, you need to always deliver on time, deliver quality work, and be an absolute pleasure to talk with. He says this joke is that you need two out of three, right? If you get two, if you nail two, you can forego the other. Now, what I say is that even if you want to aim for three out of three, none of those means that you can’t have your cat or toddler show up while you’re working.

Maya Middlemiss:

Absolutely.

Luis:

That is unrelated to professionalism. Some people say, “Oh, Luis, your cat just jumped over your shoulder. That’s not professional.” I’m like, how is that in any way related to my professionalism?

Maya Middlemiss:

What did your profession involve? I thought it was interesting. Nationwide bank in the UK have recently announced a work from anywhere policy, and there was a lovely statement from them about the way that working from home had actually helped their advisors get closer to the people they were advising. Because when people used to come in and see them in show rooms, in the high street, it’s very sterile. It’s very divorced from reality in the lives that their customers are leading.

Maya Middlemiss:

Whereas these people have now all worked from home and their customers have seen glimpses of their kitchen or their spare bedroom or wherever they’re doing their thing. It’s made them closer. It’s made them give better customer service.

Luis:

Of course. On the other hand, don’t be a slob. Obviously, Don’t show up in your pajamas. Dress, right? Dress. Comb your hair.

Maya Middlemiss:

Absolutely.

Luis:

Look as presentable as you would expect another human being to be with you, right? That’s common courtesy, not even professionalism, right? I’m not advocating for people being slobs, but I’m advocating for people to relax a little.

Maya Middlemiss:

Be human.

Luis:

Exactly.

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah, absolutely. In the same way that you wouldn’t show up… If you’re embarrassed opening the door to the Amazon guy, then you probably need to dress up a little bit, clean up a little bit.

Luis:

Exactly. Exactly. Oh yeah, yeah. Well, anyway, what’s the feedback that you’ve been getting from this project?

Maya Middlemiss:

It’s been really interesting actually because I’m trying to talk to as many people as possible and really grow some community around the Facebook group. The Twitter is going really well. People are finding it valuable to connect with other people who are going through the same things that they’re going through in terms of home working, but not the people they work with. People are finding that connection that other people have the same issues with them.

Maya Middlemiss:

Some of the problems and challenges that I write about in the books are things they’ve encountered in their own work and assumed were unique to them, or unique to the place that they worked at, or unique to their awful manager or their difficult client or their terrible software or whatever. These are things that are so common, but the trouble is working from home is by its very nature quite isolating, and by its very nature communication has to be deliberate and intentional. People aren’t talking about this stuff at work if the stuff they’re not happy about.

Maya Middlemiss:

The feedback I’m getting is that there is a need for this kind of community and conversation to be taking place on a broader stage. It’s not about the organization. It’s got to be about the individual.

Luis:

Yeah. I mean, do you see a lot of people suffering from that isolation? Maybe I’m just blessed in the company that I work with or the position. I mean, I’m on a more managerial role, so I have lots of meetings all the time. Our meetings tend to be relaxed, so there’s banter, there’s shit, et cetera. Or maybe it’s me that I’m particularly introverted. But either way, I reach the end of the workday and I’m good with the amount of people in conversation that I’ve had. I feel that for the rest of the day my wife and my cats will be enough.

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah, okay. But as long as you get some good chat from your cat there, you’re sorted. But you know that about yourself. You see, I think self-awareness is the most important thing. It’s not where you are on the spectrum of introversion or extroversion. It’s about knowing what your needs are and making sure that they’re met, whether that’s in work or outside of it. I’m very introverted. If I have a day where I do lots of calls, I’m quite drained at the end of it.

Maya Middlemiss:

If I have a day or a week or a month where I’m head down writing, then I’ll want to have more social interactions outside of my office and my cat and actually maybe go and talk to some humans. Now, obviously a lot of people couldn’t do that during lockdown, so lots of people found out where the limits of their own tolerance for their own company or their immediately family actually was. For some people, that was a difficult thing to come up against the edge of. Some people found that they would rather be on their own socially than have yet another online thing.

Maya Middlemiss:

Even they got sick of the quizzes and the pasta nights or whatever social things people were trying to do because they just didn’t want that screen mediating that interaction anymore. We’re all different. But just knowing yourself, checking in with your feelings and responding to them, trying to find interesting new ways of fulfilling whatever it is you need. Sometimes just picking up the phone for a chat rather than being on a screen can make a big qualitative difference.

Luis:

I’ve been thinking a lot of it, right? I’ve been thinking a lot about screens and Zoom. And obviously again, that’s my experience and the experience of the people that I talk to. The pool of knowledge and experience is somewhat limited, but I just feel that… Let’s say what we’re doing right now. Obviously it would be more pleasant if we were sharing a couple of espressos outside, but it’s actually not bad, right? It’s actually not bad. We have video. We’re having fun. I’m enjoying the conversation.

Luis:

I hope you are too, et cetera. This is pretty fine. I can replicate this more or less with the people that I work with and that feels pretty fulfilling. Not perfect, but pretty fulfilling. I think that what’s been giving Zoom a bad rap over the past couple of years, and I’m interesting to see if you agree, it’s those meetings where there’s like six or seven people in the same Zoom room and the nature of Zoom is such that one head is talking and the other six heads are listening.

Luis:

That means that after the second talking head, you kind of tune out, and then it’s super draining and super inefficient. I actually think that the composition of the call, of the video call, is more important than whether it’s a video call or not, if this makes sense.

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah, no, I totally agree. I think most in-depth conversations certainly on a business front take place between two people. It’s where you get depth from. It’s where you get the word dialogue, that we listen and we talk in a fairly equal measure. And I agree that this is as good as it gets. We’re not in the same room, but we could be. Once we’ve got 5G in a couple of years, the latency would disappear completely.

Maya Middlemiss:

It’s still subtly there reminding us on a subconscious level that you’re not just through that sheet of glass over there, but you almost could be. We’re very close.

Luis:

Remember we talked about –

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah. I mean, these things will come. I think that the group experience will get better as well with extended reality. There are apps that are working more on presence and distance and approach, that you walk up to a conversation and join. All of those refinements will make the group experience better. But I think the main reason that people are so burned out from all these endless Zooms is they’re having too many of them.

Maya Middlemiss:

And they’re having it to talk about the work they’re doing and sort of making that visible in some other way and letting people actually get on and do it. You don’t need to have a meeting to talk about what you’ve done. That is just not good use of anybody’s time.

Luis:

Yeah, for sure. For sure. I’m going to experiment over the next years. Actually we have stand ups and I’m going to experiment with making them asynchronous, right? So that we can actually go on our weekly call, my team’s weekly call, and actually discuss interesting stuff, right? Instead of just saying, “Hey, here’s what I did last week. Here’s what I’m going to do this week. Here were my challenges,” now, don’t get me wrong, I believe immensely in the value of having someone state these things, but it doesn’t need to be live.

Maya Middlemiss:

No, it doesn’t, and it doesn’t mean everybody has to sit and listen and take turns and do that. You could share the actual status updates asynchronously. You could do the challenges bit on a live call. You could do that by a conversation of somebody else. You can have a conversation about what you learned this week from those challenges or something to make it a more rich experience that actually does something for the person, bringing the material to the meeting.

Maya Middlemiss:

Because if you just said, “This is what was good. This is what was bad,” then you don’t gain anything from that. Whereas if someone actually not interrogates you about it, but probes a little bit and makes you think about it and reflect on it in a different way, then that makes it beneficial for all the participants.

Luis:

Maya, I want to talk a bit about the end of the world, the apocalypse, right? We’re both survivors. We’re living through it, right? It seems that we’re getting through it. I’m wondering, I remember that back in the beginning of 2020, I was traveling back from Sweden and I was basically engaged in a lot of back and forth with the founders of DistantJob, the company that I work for, trying to do some predictions, right?

Luis:

Trying to see how long was this going to last, how it would affect our business, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, how much of the change of the changes would be temporary, and how much would be long lasting. Now I want to pick your brain about similar topics. What surprised you the most, both in what happened and what didn’t happen, after the first couple of months of COVID?

Maya Middlemiss:

That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know about surprise, but I think one of the most revealing things was the different state of readiness of different organizations to cope with something like this. This cut across industries, sectors. It cut across size, and it cut across location. It was just kind of that readiness or not to go remote overnight. It didn’t always relate to how far they were down thinking about the cultural aspects of doing it. A lot of it was technical. A lot of it was how cloud enabled are you.

Maya Middlemiss:

Does it matter where you’re accessing your digital resources and communications tools from? And I think that was the biggest surprise for a lot of organizations was finding out just what they depended upon and how much of that… If key aspects of it were tied to a physical thing, like a PBX and a headquarters building somewhere where they could go remote overnight for voice or something. It highlighted those issues for a lot of organizations. I think that was probably the biggest surprise for a lot of leaders in every industry.

Maya Middlemiss:

I hope that’s the thing that they’re working to fix now and build in for the future, because any organization that doesn’t get this right next time cannot just say, “Okay, whether we’re going to have future lockdowns or not, everybody is saying the vaccine’s going to fix everything,” but we don’t know. We don’t know about the next virus, so there should be no excuse if we have to do this again in a year or two. We really should be able to just take a laptop and go home.

Luis:

Yeah, yeah, for sure. Again, it’s a weird position to be in, because we’re always advocating for the advantages of remote work. It’s very hard for me to understand after having the majority of their workforce remote why companies would want to go back to the status quo. They should have gotten it by now that it’s not efficient or cost effective even. But I accept that some people really like working in the office. I can understand and accept that, right? I can understand that it’s different strokes for different folks.

Luis:

That’s fine. But still, I’m surprised that… I mean, I predicted that around 20% of people going remote would stay remote. I seem to have been more or less accurate. But considering how long this has lasted, I still wonder why aren’t more… In my mental model, I see a Gauss curve, right? A bell curve, a normal Gauss distribution, right? Where some people were super, super office addicts, another extreme actually didn’t like to work at the office at all, and then most people are somewhere along those extremes.

Luis:

Most of the people are in those extremes with preferences. Some leaning more towards, “I enjoy working at the office,” and then others leaning more towards, “I would like to work from home.” But this was completely irrelevant because everyone, mostly everyone, needed to work from the office. So their preferences were irrelevant. But now that it’s actually pretty obvious that most knowledge workers can indeed work from their home, it’s been happening. I’m wondering, what of the people that are in the 50% of the bell curve that favors remote work, what’s going to be…

Luis:

I mean, a lot of studies recently have suggested that those people will quit their works and find remote works. I think that quitting a job… Most people are going to be very careful about quitting their job over the last couple of years, so I don’t think that’s realistic. But what do you think is going to happen?

Maya Middlemiss:

I think we’ll see massive shake ups for sure, because a lot of people are really uncertain about what’s going to happen. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know what their employers are thinking, and they don’t know what it’s going to look like. We hear phrases like the new normality. Nobody knows what that is yet. Nobody knows what’s going to be best for them or their family. For a lot of people, they’ve had their first glimpse of a completely new way of living and working.

Maya Middlemiss:

People who are on the other side of that adoption curve who would never really have considered it, never wanted it, never chose it and got thrust into working from home, they’ve all survived if they’re still in their employer and they haven’t burned out or got fired or whatever, then they might be looking at a choice now. But some of them are starting to realize that what they experienced wasn’t remote work as we have been advocating for decades for it. Most people’s experience of it over the past 14 months was something completely different.

Maya Middlemiss:

That’s not what we meant at all, being stuck in your own home and not having any life outside of work and living with the pressure of that horrible emergency. That’s not what we meant. We’ve all been screaming that at the tops of our voices. People are starting to think, okay, well, what did I like about this? What might I want to keep? If this were permanent, what would I change? I wrote a nice little eBook about that actually, which people can get from the Healthy Happy Homeworking website. Plug, plug. Sorry about that.

Luis:

There you go. Plug as will.

Maya Middlemiss:

It’s to help people start thinking about what they want, because lots of people now are going to have to make a choice or a choice will be made for them. I really want people to start thinking about what would this look like if it were permanent, what it would look like if I were completely location independent, what would I change in my life? Would I still live where I live? What about other people in my household, in my community? What if they went back to work or back to school and I didn’t?

Maya Middlemiss:

All these different variables that impact on that decision that you’re going to have to make about where you live and work in the future. I think for a lot of people that will mean changes in their employer. Either their employer will change or shift because there are people now who are being told, “You will come back to the office three days a week, or we trust you a little bit to work from home and the rest of the time you have to come in and collaborate,” because what you’ve been doing for the past year apparently isn’t collaborating, even though you’ve managed to keep the enterprise afloat.

Luis:

No, no, no.

Maya Middlemiss:

Are we going to take that trust back from people who’ve actually achieved incredible things under excruciating circumstances, or are we going to let people make grown up decisions about what they want for their future? Some people have come through this incredibly scarred. They’ve lost people. They’ve had their worlds turned upside down, and they deserve to make choices based on what they want. I really hope that employers will respect that and give people that optionality, and then they’ll get incredible loyalty and return on that trust.

Luis:

One of the things that talked about and thought about over the past couple of months is about that matter of the physical presence, right? It’s clearly idiocy to think that collaboration can’t happen over the internet. I mean, what are video games then? What are online video games if not that, right? What are online creative projects if not that? We’ve had those forever since the internet exists. Thinking that doesn’t happen is lunacy. At the same time, I think that the thing that people aren’t preparing for is getting people to gather meaningfully.

Luis:

Because I can attest to the… Even a complete introvert. I mean, After doing the big five personality assessment, I know for a fact that I’m like 98% introvert. If there are 100 people in the room, I will be the third or second most introverted of those people. And still, my productivity and my commitment to my work just went through the roof after I met with my team physically for the first time. I think that most people aren’t thinking about that.

Luis:

They’re either thinking, “Okay, in order for collaboration to happen, we need to match people together in the same room three days a week,” or then they’re saying, “No, that’s just idiocy.” People can just be one in each corridor of the world. I would say yes, but. Yes, but I think that people really, really need… Companies really need to work hard and invest the money needed to get people together let’s say twice a week. Nothing crazy, but twice a week, at least… Twice a year, I mean, sorry.

Luis:

Twice a year, maybe once a year, right? Once every six months, that seems really good to me. What do you think? Am I wrong on this?

Maya Middlemiss:

No, I think that makes total sense. Actually that’s what people were doing before. The big international global companies, a lot in the tech sector like and GitLab, places like that, they’ve always had retreats for all hands. They’ve made those lavish and inclusive and got people’s families together. Made sure that they had budget to bring people from wherever they were in order to have that connection.

Maya Middlemiss:

And then I’m sure that you found once you had those meetings with your colleagues that it wasn’t just you were energized when you were there, but you took that away with you. It fueled what you were doing then on your own afterwards, because it just deepens that connection in a way that’s outside of the work. It’s about the relationship. I think those are incredibly valuable, and I really, really hope that people will find ways to make those accessible and safe and everything else for people to attend and really see the value in them.

Maya Middlemiss:

It’s not about being in the same building twice a week. It’s far more important that you’re in the same restaurant once a year, if you like.

Luis:

Yeah. It leaves a big afterglow in a way that Zoom calls don’t. I mean, I’m still a big defender Zoom calls, but I’m a big defender of Zoom calls more to actually keep connected with the people than to do any meaningful work, right? I think that work is what happens outside of Zoom calls.

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah, which is why you have to get that balance right.

Luis:

Exactly.

Maya Middlemiss:

You have to find ways of actually connecting around that work as well, rather than just going online to talk about it and to talk about what you’ve learned or whatever. It’s valuable, but you can connect through the work. All of the other richness of human relationships can take place when you have your once a year all hands on site or offsite go somewhere amazing.

Maya Middlemiss:

Rather than say this particular office is center of our organization, you should probably go somewhere that nobody has their HQ and somewhere that you’ve all never been to before, so it’s exciting and fun and make the most of that time. Do some work. Do some collaborative brain stormy stuff. The extroverts will love that. The rest of us will sit there and nod, but we’ll remember it. We’ll take that energy home with us, and it will inspire us to work on our own and to collaborate through addition means the rest of the time.

Luis:

Exactly. Well, ever since our last podcast, virtual reality in workplace didn’t caught up as I hope it was.

Maya Middlemiss:

It’s coming. It’s coming. There’s stuff out there. Honestly, the amount of funding now going into all of these collaborative tools and virtual presence and extended reality, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to break through. It’s really interesting to see. I think a lot of the technical development that we’ve seen over the last year has been quite subtle, but we’re having things like much better translation and live captioning. Tools like that have been rolling out quite incrementally, but they’re really transformative.

Maya Middlemiss:

We won’t see that happening with the visual stuff, like video and holograms and things like that, until we have 5G. We just don’t have the bandwidth for it. Our bandwidth on 4G and on fiber has been stretched to the absolute limit by the whole world doing video. People are already finding that going back to the office, they’re having to upgrade office systems because people are bringing their expectation for video back with them, that they’re going to do every call looking at people.

Maya Middlemiss:

IT director, “Oh my god, we haven’t got the capacity for this. We’ve got to upgrade.” They’re going to do that and the progress will… We shifted that expectation now. We expect to see each other when we’re at work on call. It doesn’t matter if we used to phone each other. Now we want to do video. That has changed. We’re now self-conscious about how we look and things like that, which is getting on with it. All of these things you don’t go back from. We’re not suddenly going to go back to talking to people on the phone.

Maya Middlemiss:

We’re not going to go back to faxing people or paging them or whatever we did. This is all progress.

Luis:

When hiring, I used to not discriminate, right? I wasn’t a racist. I wasn’t a genderist. I wasn’t an ageist, but I’ve definitely become an internist. I am going to discriminate you based on your internet connection for sure.

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah. Well, it’s about… We were saying about put a clean shirt on or whatever.

Luis:

Exactly.

Maya Middlemiss:

It’s how you show up in the world. This is the world now. If you’re recruiting for a job or pitching for a piece of work or something, you’ve got to show up with a decent bandwidth and lightning and a bit of audio hygiene and everything else so that you make that good experience for everybody involved.

Luis:

All right. Well, Maya, as you know, as we did last time, we usually end the podcast with some rapid fire questions, but you’ve already answered them once. I actually want to…

Maya Middlemiss:

You’ve got some different ones.

Luis:

Yeah. Well, I actually wanted to know anything new since our last call, which again was BC, are there any particular tools that caught your attention that you’ve invested in, that you think have been worth your while?

Maya Middlemiss:

What do I live and I die by? I tell you what has been… We were just talking about improvements in AI and things like that. Auto transcription has been life changing for me in interviewing.

Luis:

Interesting.

Maya Middlemiss:

I don’t know how journalists managed before that.

Luis:

Can you advise me on some? For example, I tried it for the podcast, but I find that is that unless someone like you speaks perfect, beautiful English, Native English that’s peachy, but someone like me, who speaks like this broken dialect of Portuglish, it’s more work to correct the auto transcript than its worth.

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah, it has its uses. I use it as a journalist to go back over calls and find the quotes that I want to listen to and transcribe accurately. It means I can skim through visually, “Oh yeah, that was when they were talking about that,” and I can very quickly zero in on it. To generate an actual transcript, it’s not there yet. It will be. Give it another year, I reckon. The tools are getting so much better. And actually it doesn’t do as well with British English as American English.

Maya Middlemiss:

You’ll find that you’ll get a much cleaner transcript from a nice kind of East Coast… Yeah, I know. I know. It used to our language first.

Luis:

Exactly. In 20 years, Americans will have invented English. That’s going to be what’s in the history books.

Maya Middlemiss:

We’ll call it Simplified English. No value judgment implied. It’s getting so much better. And actually Microsoft Word’s dictation tools are now so good. It’s like mind-blowingly good. This is the technology that’s coming. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use it as a writer. I can’t seem to dictate what… I write through my fingers. I can’t think out loud in that same way.

Maya Middlemiss:

But I think that’s been one of the most transforming things for me as somebody who came to journalism late from the technical side, rather than through J school and never learned shorthand. I think that that’s been incredibly useful thing. Rather than going back listening to a recording and trying to find the right bit that I want to pay particular attention to, I can just look at the transcript and say, “Oh, that’s when he said about the interesting thing,” and then play that bit back and get the quote that I want.

Luis:

Well, that’s interesting. I’m going to explore that for sure. Maya, thank you so much for being a repeat guest. Again, I will repeat what I said when we got in touch again on LinkedIn and say that you are welcome anytime. Whenever you feel like chatting about remote work and this kind of stuff for an hour, please ping me. The door is always open to you. Now, please tell our listeners where can they can continue the conversation with you? Where can they find out more about you and what you’re up to?

Maya Middlemiss:

Well, we’d love to see you over at healthyhappyhomeworking.com. That’s the username everywhere. I think we’re @hhhomeworking on Twitter because it was too long, but everything else we’ve got the full Healthy Happy. It’s not Happy Healthy. We decided to put health first. I can’t remember why, because they’re equally important. But one day I’ll buy that other domain. You can buy the books there directly from me. That’s the cheapest way to get the eBooks.

Maya Middlemiss:

You can buy them from that usual big bookstore online, especially if you want physical books, because I can’t compete with them to do that any other way. You will also find links there for all the social media. The Facebook community, you can search for Healthy Happy Homeworking, or you can find us via the website. You can sign up for the newsletter there, which is just a little short snippet every week with interesting links and thoughts and stuff that’s going on in my head and what we’re up to in the community.

Maya Middlemiss:

Come and join us. You don’t have to be a homeworker. If it’s just something that interests you, or that you want to find out more about, or that you’re aspiring towards, or you want to support other people doing it, just come and share your thoughts. Everybody’s really welcome.

Luis:

Nice. Thank you for that. Now that we’ve closed the remote work part of the program, I want to do a little bonus section. Because as you know, usually I stump people at the end of the podcast with a question about the fortune cookie, which you gave me a beautiful question last time. Now I’m going to take on a non-remote work related bonus question. Last time, you were the first person that properly explained blockchain to me in a way that I could understand. Thank you forever for that. Now the rage is NFTs. Do you know anything about that?

Maya Middlemiss:

Oh gosh, I wrote a feature article about NFTs last year, where I ended up interviewing my own kids, because they’re proper gen Z. It’s like, “Do you get this? Do you understand this?” Well, it’s blockchain, okay? It’s the same thing. It’s the idea of digital, but exclusive. Everything else digital, you can just copy it. The JPEG has no intrinsic value marginally because you can make a million copies of it. If I send you a copy, I still got it. You haven’t taken ownership of it in any meaningful way.

Maya Middlemiss:

NFTs are digital assets on the blockchain with a unique provenance. We would just have a way of proving that I transfer that asset to you. You now own it. I don’t anymore. And you can prove that electronically on a distributed ledger that anybody can check. That’s all it is. If people want to pay millions of dollars for it, then yeah, that’s a little bit of hype going on there. We’ll see.

Luis:

I have a stupid question, but I’m usually stupid on the air. I’m used to being stupid on air, so I’m very comfortable asking it. Let’s say that I buy an NFT comic strip. Let’s say a Garfield comic strip as an NFT. Is this possible?

Maya Middlemiss:

I think it would depend on licensing of whoever owns that physical asset in the real world. Who drew Garfield? I don’t know. But there are different kind of brands and things that are approaching this and finding ways to transfer that legal license digitally and then sell it in an exclusive way.

Luis:

Let’s say I buy a piece of art, a piece of visual art, as an NFT. I assume this is possible. I mean, that seems to be what I’ve read about it. And then I show it to you on my screen and you screenshot it. You screenshot it. You just copied it. How is it not copyable, right?

Maya Middlemiss:

You have the original. It’s the same as I could walk up to the Mona Lisa with my camera phone and say, “Yeah, I’ve got the Mona Lisa now. I’ve stolen it.” It doesn’t diminish the value of the original. This is how the argument works. I don’t get it. I mean, I can explain that you in a technical way. It still doesn’t make me want to spend money on it personally. But that’s where the value comes from.

Luis:

Because the Mona Lisa is canvas and it’s a 3D object, it’s a physical object, there it’s just kind of like the bits and bytes are organized in a different way in the thing that I have than the thing that you have, right?

Maya Middlemiss:

I could take an incredibly high resolution digital image of the Mona Lisa that would be indistinguishable in every way. I could even print it on a bit old canvas from da Vinci’s era, or I could get a very high grade forger to duplicate it, somebody who’s in prison for doing bank notes or whatever who’s really in the best of their game. And yet you would still say one is millions of times more valuable than the other because it’s the original. That’s the same argument that people apply to digital scarcity in the form of an NFT.

Maya Middlemiss:

Whether it means something to you personally or not, that’s why art is in the eye of the beholder. We all value things differently. Personally, I’ve not invested in any NFTs. Maybe I’m stupid. Maybe I’m missing something. I prefer to go after actual things that mean something to me. They don’t have to be physical. But for me, I don’t get it, whether it’s cryptocurrency or baseball cards. I’m not a collector of stuff. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I’m sure there’s a lot of probably hype around it. We’ll see what it looks like in a decade or two.

Luis:

Well, I’m really glad I got to ask you the bonus question, because I feel more enlightened now. And I think that after we stop recording, we should discuss how we can write a book together and sell it as an NFT and then retire.

Maya Middlemiss:

Yeah. Bring it on.

Luis:

Thank you so much for being here. It was an absolute pleasure having you again. It was an absolute pleasure having you listening in. Dear listeners, thank you so much for listening to the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. See you next week.

Luis:

And so we close another episode of the DistantJob Podcast. And if you enjoyed the episode, please, you can help us out by sharing it on social media. That would be great. It’s how we reach more listeners. And the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me and I hope they’re a joy for you listening too as well. You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice.

Luis:

Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners. Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to distantjob.com/blog/podcasts click on your favorite episode, any episode really, and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up 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. And to help you with that, again, distantjob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who we need and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate, 40% faster than the industry standard.

Luis:

And with that, I bid you adios. See you next week on the next episode of the DistantJob Podcast.

 

More ways to listen:

A good leader is a good leader whether they work in an onsite office or a virtual environment. However, how can leaders, especially those who recently started managing remote teams, perform their roles successfully when they aren’t in the same office as their employees?

Maya Middlemiss has been working remotely for 20 years, and she has learned the dos and don’ts of remote work.  During this podcast episode, she shares interesting insights, both for employees and leaders, about remote work. She also helps remote managers to take ownership in their roles by helping them understand that being a good leader is about trust, not control.

Managers questioned the validity of their roles when they couldn't manage by walking around. They couldn't see what people were doing. They had to get employees in Zoom calls all day! And when are they supposed to actually do the work? Click To Tweet

Highlights:

  • Insights about the disconnection between leaders & employees
  • How the leadership role changed through remote work
  • How to measure performance and productivity remotely
  • Why self-awareness is crucial when working from home
  • The benefits of meeting with your team physically once/twice a year

Book Recommendations:

 

Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE so you won’t miss all of the other interesting episodes that we have coming up in the next few weeks!