How to Cope With Working Remotely – The Remote Lab

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself and what Remote Lab is, how come you started Remote Lab?

My name is Maria Svensson Wiklander. I'm born in the north of Sweden, or actually in the geographical middle of Sweden, but it's considered to be in the north. And I moved from here when I was 16. There was basically nothing to do here by then. And then I moved back because of lifestyle. And at the time, when I moved back, I was running a digital firm or a digital agency. And we were already in 2009, working remotely. So it was quite easy for us to basically make the decision that in order to be the best employer for our employees, we would also allow them to live the life that they chose to live, which also means being able to choose where to live and work from. So I ran that company for 10 years, and was as a CEO, and one of the founders sitting in a session, and I had my employees all over Sweden and also in the US from time to time, then we had our customers in Sweden and also abroad. And many of those sites have never ever met in a physical meeting. So it was very interesting. And we were kind of before or writing Sweden was not that common to work completely remote from. We were one of the companies that did that. And when we went out to our customers, we started to see that our internal communication were so much better than the customers that was sitting in the same office because even if you're sitting next to someone, you might not be able to know why they're absent this day, or why they're not present and what they're doing, if you don't have structured internal communication. So that was one of the insights that basically led us to develop more knowledge around load work, and also pretty much formulating the way that we worked and that we use internal communication and also built a company in order to be able to run fully remote. So we started doing, or I and some of my colleagues started doing consultancy, advisory things for other companies and leadership's and boards. And we also did a lot of writing and articles and interviews and stuff like that regarding remote work. And in 2017, we started, me and four other people, we started this co-working place in St. JOHN. And two years after that we sold off our digital firm, it's not the same people who run these organisations. But anyhow, when we found this co-working place, it became pretty clear to us that a lot of our customers and community members were actually remote workers, and that they had found a place for them to basically be able to have colleagues, but that were not working in the same company as they were. But we had a community and we did things together as well. So they weren't that lonely anymore. And about 60 to 70% of the community members that we had in our power that we have in our community or in our co-working hub, are remote workers. And we can also see that they have been in an unequal position when they have co workers in the same company that work from the same physical location. And they are basically the only one working remotely or one of you working remotely and they then miss out on information, they miss out on decision making, etc. So that's why we started to investigate this topic even further. So the concept of the Remote Lab we have been working on for the last two and a half years, and we launched the platform on August 24 2020. So long story!

Q: What advice would you give to a team considering going remote? And what’s the first thing that leaders and individual managers can do to help their employees get ready?

Well, before the pandemic, experts or frequently participating community members of the remote work community, they were jokingly said that if you want to make an business moat first, really quickly and do the transformation, you should set the leadership or the management outside the office for three months, because then they are starting to realise where the pain points are, and where it really hurts and where the organisation is struggling. So that's basically the thing that would be most relevant before the pandemic, but during the pandemic, that has actually happened, people have been starting to sit outside the office. So they have really seen the pain points. And I think that a lot of companies are today very subjective in their view of remote working, because they are not realising what the alternatives are. So they're pretty much happy about the way that they are working, they see that they have too many meetings, or too many meetings in a day. So that's basically what their main struggle is today. But in order to kind of dig deeper into that, they need to have more knowledge around alternatives. So basically, the tip that I would give is to get more knowledge, what are the alternatives? And what do the fully remote companies do to make it work really, really well today? What are their best practices? And how do they work? Because then you can basically benchmark your own organisation towards that, and see how you could develop in different ways.

Q: What should people who aren’t accustomed to remote work do to get psychologically ready for it?

Well, it's just basically the same thing. So read about what it really means to work remotely, and how people and companies do when they are working remotely. And also there are a lot of great remote recruitment sites, for instance, remote workers, but also others that you can get into and see other companies that are employing remote people and all over the world, and what possibilities that has. And also, when you are applying for a new position at a firm or a business, then ask about the remote policy and if it's possible to work remotely, because a lot of organisations are switching now. And it becomes less and less important to be in the same physical location. And more important, the knowledge and basically the person itself and what that can bring into the organisation.

Q: What challenges do businesses usually struggle with when it comes to remote working?

I would say that they fail to see that it's a more overall question that it affects basically everything in a company, everything from mission and how you set your goals and how you structure your organisation and how you do documentation etc. So they tend to see the things that aren't working, for instance meetings, and then they focus on how Okay, how can I get less meetings, when they should really look at the holistic perspective of the company and more like, dig into Okay, what do we need to change in the organisation in order to be more remote friendly and to kind of transform into a more remote first style of working more. So to say.

Q: What are the biggest benefits of being a remote worker and how can companies benefit from having remote workforces?

Well, I would say that the most important benefit for me is basically that I'm flexible. And I'm also allowed to design my life the way I want to design it. Basically I can choose where I want to live. And for me that means living near the mountains, living near nature. And in order to do so I need to be able to work remotely because I want to participate in the global and development as well. So I work from a global perspective and a lot with colleagues around the world, but then I live in a very local environment and close to nature. So flexibility, basically to choose, I would say it's the best benefit or the greatest benefit.

A lot of research shows that remote workers are happy. And they can be happier then if you are in the same cubicle and work nine to five basically in the same physical location. So having happier employees. And also, if you do it right, they will also stay longer at your company, which will then be less costly in order that you don't have to recruit new people all the time. And it's also a good way to get into better structure and more documentation of your company. So for a remote first startup, for instance, they need to have all the structure and documentation in place, which already from the beginning means that they can scale faster. So when they reach like 25-30 people, which is normally kind of a hassle for companies, when they grow from a small company to a medium sized company, it becomes kind of a hassle because you don't have the structure in place. They already have that so they can scale faster, and become more productive in a much faster way.

Q: How does working from home affect psychological health and what can employers do to make sure that people are staying focused, committed, and happy long term?

I think that, these days, during the pandemic, people tend to mix pandemics. What's specific with the pandemic with remote work, because a lot of people haven't worked remotely before. So they see that people are working from home, they are very isolated, which then affects their mental health because they are not participating in the community to the same extent that they would. But that's basically not what remote work is about. The pandemic has been, in one way, a really great way to test remote work on a big scale, but also quite the lao example, because it doesn't give the flexibility, you're still tied to working from home, which then means that you're socially isolated. So social isolation is not normally what you need to have when you are a remote worker, you can stay in a co-working space and you can, for instance, sit together with other people working remotely etc. So I would say that it is in the best of situations, it really improves the psychological, or the mental health. And because you are flexible, you are allowed to basically design things that you normally would be hassling with, or that you have a hassle with, for instance, bringing kids to their training or doing laundry or stuff like you normally might have a hard time putting together in a life puzzle. So it could be the best of both worlds. It will bring better mental health. But then during the pandemic, its social isolation has been quite a hazard for employees to struggle with. But that's more about the pandemic than it is about remote work. But also, a lot of research has shown that the productivity goes up when you are working remotely because you take less breaks, and you take more, for instance, tasks in an hour than you would normally do. And for that there are definitely ways to work with that, for instance, a lot of remote forest companies, they work with the Pomodoro technique, which means that you are working for 25 minutes or 45 minutes, and then you take a break. So basically designing in breaks as well. Also, the thing with the meetings to synchronise communication, which is the hustle for a lot of companies right now, switching over to more a synchronous communication would definitely allow people to be in their flow, which means that they are more productive in that flow and they are allowed to do the work that they're hired for instead of being on meetings all the time. So switching over to a synchronous work and also using techniques like Commodore but also putting a specific place in your home where you work so you can leave your work also. Most preferable place would be an unknown room, but if you don't have that place, choose a corner of your living room or something else and then you can leave that room and you don't have to go back there, then you can make a mental shift between your work life and your life life..

Q: How do you personally manage your work-life balance?

Um, well, I run pretty much a startup. So we've been working a lot late, late last year or the latest year. But since I have chosen to live where I do, I have a very close connection to nature and where I find my own energy. So I go skiing a lot in the mountains, we just live 45 minutes from the nearest ski gear, squeezed ski resort, and then I go out in the forest every day. And I really try to stay disconnected during the time when I don't work. So I don't mix up. Because it's very easy also to kind of work all the time and also in working in your head, like think about work all the time. But I try to really disconnect and then be out outside and doing training or skiing, or doing the things that I love.

Q: What helps you feel connected to others and counteract the potential loneliness of working remotely? You were talking about co-working spaces for instance?

Yeah, exactly. That's a good way to connect with others, to basically choose which people you want to hang out with during the day. And also a good way to get other aspects of your work. For instance, we have different industries sitting in the same space. And if you ask someone in the mining field, for instance, for advice regarding digital development, you will get completely different answers than if you ask a photographer. And so you can get different aspects from that. But in my company, I thought it was a really good question. So I had to think about what would make me feel connected with my coworkers. And I think that for us, it was a lot about humor. Which then, if I think back on the time, when I had my digital agency, for instance, we created slack bots, that if you roll coffee you would get a gift, saying something about coffee, it was really like nonsense, but it was quite fun. And a lot of different jokes and a lot of different gifts and emojis and stuff like that. So humor was a very crucial part of building our culture and feeling connected to each other. And that's also one of the things that I value most when I think back at that time. But nowadays, I'm also the head of a board, head of the board in a nonprofit organisation, an NGO, which also works remotely across Sweden. And we are doing Monday dances for instance. And so every week, we do a dance together remotely. And that is also a way for us to connect them to something that's really us, it's our thing, that's what we do. So things like that. And also, of course, trying out new things together and having think tanks where someone shares a new idea or new research that has come up or has dug deep into, really deep into some subject that is important for everyone. And share so that we can have a discussion around it, or just, for instance, creating new solutions to hypothetical issues or challenges that you can come up with, that's also a good way to connect. So those kinds of small things that really are specific for this group and specific for our company, that is the most valuable thing that I can think of when it comes to connecting with other people.

Q: Where do you see the recruitment industry going over the next 12 months, particularly in the remote working sector?

I think that it will change for a lot of teams. There was just a McKinsey report released saying that a lot of employees feel a lot of stress and anxiety around the issue that organisations haven't started to communicate their view or ambition on remote work yet, they're waiting to see what happens. But basically what companies need to do before everyone gets back to work again, is that they have to set their ambition, vision or their strategy for Okay, how are we supposed to work in our organisation because people will start asking about remote work more and more when they come back to work again, am I allowed to work from home? And during the pandemic, people have started to have new ways of living, and they have adapted to remote work to a great extent. Some people have already moved. So it's important for them to continue working remotely, of course. So I think that we will see that most organisations need to make a statement around how we view remote work, and I think that a hybrid solution will be the most common, of course, people working from home maybe three days a week and coming into the office the rest of the days. But it will also affect the way that we view the office, the way we see the office. Is it a matter of being social with each other? Or what's the function of the office going forward?

So it's a lot of work to do. And I think that when you have decided on the next moves in this, like you have decided, Okay, this is our strategy for now, even if it's going to change tomorrow, because of other things happening, it's important to kind of make that statement, that's the point when you're starting to realise how this really will be affecting the company and you will start digging deeper into Okay, what do we need to do, then, if we're going to allow our people to work three days from home, for instance, per week, how do we make sure that the hybrid setting is working and that this unequal situation doesn't happen where you have, like people being in the same physical conference room and other people joining on a remote setting? How can we connect them in an equal position and set them in the same room? So that's one way but then I think that the long term change will be much more drastic than that. There was an economist, she's a British minister, Elian economists. And she held a speech at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2018, where she talked about how we are now in the fifth Industrial Revolution. And if we can look back on the previous industrial revolutions, you've seen that first you have some kind of eruption period, and then a prosperity period, and then you come to a turning point. And that's where we are now, after the turning point, and after that, we will then experience a recession and after that the golden age, and you can see that pattern, every Industrial Revolution, and this golden age will be the sustainable Golden Age, hopefully. So it's very much connected to the way we look at the world and the climate crisis and everything like that. And with that golden age, a new set of lifestyles will also emerge. And we can see that starting and remote work is definitely part of that where we can choose where we want to work from and how we want to work. And if you look at the generation, and also the generation said, we also value much more flexibility, much more than we value for instance salary. So we're definitely taking a salary cut in order to be more flexible, which also says something about the upcoming generations that will be the majority of the labor market going forward. So I think that companies need to change. And if they don't change, they will probably have a hard time going forward. And so I think that new optimisations will come from this, it will also be much more focused on the shared economies. For instance, there is a very interesting company called bellicon, Sweden, which uses furniture as a service company. And they have really started to bloom out of this during the pandemic because people are working from home. So they need a set of equipment for their home office, desk and chair etc. So what they do is basically, they're a platform for furniture producers, so they ship their furniture through their platform to home offices all around the world. And then return it when they are not employed in that company anymore or such. So as I said, I think that a shared economy would be something that we see more of as well. So definitely a big shift, but in the upcoming 12 months, I still think that we're still in the norming phase. Like we're trying to make this a new norm and we don't really know how it will look like yet, but I think that we're moving towards more remote friendly companies and organisations.

Q: Do Remote Lab have any new projects going on that you would like to share?

Yeah, we definitely do. We have a remote strategist course, for instance, together with Hyper Island, which is super interesting. We have a lot of interest in that course. And we are doing one right now. And we're doing another one this upcoming autumn after the summer, and the Hyper Island is a large global course or an education company, they are really really good at facilitating and designing learning experiences. So it's a good partnership that we value a lot. And then we are constantly doing reports. And we are also doing, for instance, attitude scans within companies where we go to companies and see how mature they are in remote working. And then we are actually also opening our physical lab, which is kind of contradicting the way that we work. But in the womb, we're establishing a physical lab for remote work, where we will have different research projects, where we are working with different universities, and research institutes, institutes all over the world and in large research projects. And this will be kind of the foundation or the base where we do that. And also to get the technical companies that deliver a lot of hardware, and basically to figure out how we can best meet the new hybrid settings, or how can we make our working methods better and allow more remote work? And how can we do hybrid events and make that experience better? So that's something that we're doing now also. And we're launching that in the beginning of June. So it's very much in progress right now.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or bit of business wisdom?

Yes, I do. Actually, I tend to use one quote a lot. And that's from Richard Branson. It was back in 2013, when Michael Bloomberg went out to the press and stated that remote work will not be able to challenge the physical presence of an employee and Richard Branson's answer to that was basically in 30 year’s time as technology moves forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed. And I think that's more true now than ever. And that is not because I don't think that offices will, like, don't exist anymore after the pandemic, but I think that we will definitely evaluate the purpose of the office and see how we can utilise that more. And also, what is better, more best done remotely and what is best done in the physical presence of employees? So for instance, social connection between coworkers, it has not been valued as much before, but I think that we will see a different view on the social connection and how much or how important that is basically for the work, so that we use the physical room to do the right things. And then we use the remote room to do other things or the individual things. Basically.

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