The Challenges, Opportunities, and Risks of a Remote First Workplace w/Jason Morwick

The Challenges, Opportunities, and Risks of a Remote First Workplace w/Jason Morwick

Matt is joined on this, our first episode, by Jason Morwick - Head of Remote at Cactus Communications.

In the episode we cover:

[+] Jason's thoughts on the challenges and opportunities that a Remote first world brings

[+] The risks of leaders being remote tolerant rather than fully embracing remote working

[+] The importance of trust

[+] Leading remote teams across continents

[+] How to navigate some of the potential pitfalls of hybrid working

Connect with Jason on LinkedIn

Jason’s book “Remote Leadership: Successfully Leading Work-From-Anywhere and Hybrid Teams Paperback” on Amazon

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Voiceover (00:03):

Welcome to Leading Remotely, helping remote first leaders navigate, survive, and thrive in this new world of work. Let's make remote work.

Matt Hayman (00:28):

Hi and welcome to leading remotely. Thanks so much for making the time to listen to the show. I'm your host, Matt Hayman, and I'm thrilled to be joined on this our first episode by Jason Morwick head of remote at cactus communications. In this episode, we cover Jason's thoughts on the challenges and opportunities that a remote first world brings the risks of leaders being remote tolerant, rather than fully embracing remote, working the importance of trust, leading remote teams across continents, and how to navigate some of the potential pitfalls of hybrid working. I hope you enjoyed the show. Let's get into it. Jason. Morwick welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Jason Morwick (01:10):

Great. Thank you for having me.

Matt Hayman (01:12):

It's a real privilege to to speak to you today. Really excited about the conversation. Lots I want to talk about, but before we get into all of that, let's just do a quick quick introduction, your head of remote cactus communications co-author of the book, remote leadership. Can you just give us a bit of background a little bit more about who you are and where you're based?

Jason Morwick (01:30):

Sure. I am based out of Orlando, Florida, and I've been remote working since about 2006. Back then I made the transition like a lot of people did during the pandemic. And I went from working in an office five days a week to working full-time remote. And I went through all the same challenges that most people had at the beginning of the pandemic when they made the same transition and through my experiences over the years, that led me into writing and consulting for organizations to help them make that shift from the office too remote. And then when the pandemic happened Cactus Communications, like some companies out there that were forward thinking opened up a position for head of remote, and I quickly jumped on that opportunity.

Matt Hayman (02:16):

What does that role actually entail?

Jason Morwick (02:18):

In a nutshell, what I'm trying to do is help the company make that move from being very office centric, which they were prior to the pandemic to being a more remote company. And that means changing the culture, the behaviors moving from synchronous to asynchronous. It also involves looking at new technology and tools that are out there to see what's gonna work best and enable employees to work their best wherever they are located.

Matt Hayman (02:43):

Fantastic. It might make sense for a bit of context to just understand a bit more about cactus as a company, what the company does. I think that might be useful for people to understand. Yes. And, and certainly we'll get onto some of the, perhaps some of the challenges remote. I think knowing a bit more context would be helpful there.

Jason Morwick (02:59):

Yes, Cactus Communications is based out of Mumbai India. It's a 20 year old company and its focus is to help scientists, researchers, and academics get their science published and known throughout the world. Out of 1200 employees in the company about 85% are based somewhere in India. We have people scattered all over the country, but we do also have offices in China, Japan, Korea, the United States, the UK and Denmark. So we find kind of small pockets of people throughout the world. However, we find that our employees are now opening up because they can work literally from anywhere. And they're starting to relocate a little bit. So we're starting to see a, a bit of a shift in employees, truly working from anywhere.

Matt Hayman (03:45):

Okay. So if we think about the remote work environment in, in the round at a high level, what do you see as some of the most significant challenges and opportunities when it comes to remote first working for companies?

Jason Morwick (03:58):

I think the challenge just like it is for cactus is that if you were office based prior to the pandemic, and now you wanna make this move, it's really a, a mind shift. It's a culture shift. You know, you have to change your behaviors and do things differently. I think the mistake that a lot of people and organizations make is that they try to replicate exactly what they did in the office when they're working virtually. And that doesn't always work so well. And then they conclude that, oh, okay, well, remote working just isn't working, but the reality is it can be done a lot better if you think about processes and how you did things before how you can do those differently. Now that you're remote.

Matt Hayman (04:39):

So in terms of at a company level, we spoke beforehand just before we hit recorder out. And a phrase that you brought up, which I really liked about being remote tolerant organizations, being remote tolerant. Can you just elaborate a bit more on that term and, and also why you think companies might be falling into the trap of becoming remote tolerant?

Jason Morwick (04:57):

Well, I think what the pandemic proved in this two year experiment of working remotely is that most employees want more flexibility. Maybe they don't wanna work remotely a hundred percent of the time, but they definitely want the option to at least occasionally work remote. So companies in order to attract talent, you know, in this current war for talent that we have going on, they're, they're labeling themselves as remote companies or hybrid companies. And it can be a little bit misleading because remote really is a spectrum. On one end, you have companies that are fully remote. They have no company offices and truly people are working anywhere across the globe. And then you have companies which I call remote tolerant. Those are companies like apple and Google and those companies that say that they're remote or hybrid, but really what they mean is they want people to live around a company location so that they can call 'em into the office. Anytime they want. Maybe they'll let you work a day or two during the week from home, but predominantly you're gonna be office based, but in order to attract that to that talent, there's labeling themselves as remote.

Matt Hayman (06:08):

So when we think about the jobs market and how companies present to the jobs market as being remote, how much variability do you think there is in the way companies use that phrase remote?

Jason Morwick (06:20):

Yeah, I think it's very varied. I, I think it runs the full gamut from you can work one day a week from home, but we expect you to be in commuting distance to the office, to we don't care where you live. You never have to go into a company, office location, et cetera. So at cactus, when we say we're remote first, we, we really mean you can live anywhere in your home country where we hired you from we will not change the compensation structure based upon where you live, whether it's in a big city or an expensive area to a more rural, less expensive area, your compensation stays flat and you can move about as you would like now, if you wanna move beyond those country borders, that's where it gets a little bit trickier, right? Because then we have to deal with potential employment laws and new countries, visa requirements, et cetera. We don't rule it out. We will let employees do that on a case by case basis, but it does require us to do our due diligence to make sure that we're setting the employee up for success.

Matt Hayman (07:20):

So if we just think about the book for a second, just, just thinking about the contents of the book, which is a great read, I, I highly recommend it very, very practical book as well, full of, of sound advice and, and and practical suggestions, which I thought were, were fantastic. In fact, one of, one of the quotes that stands out for me was this, there was a quote in there about effective leaders are aware of the power of disclosure. And so I wanted to just talk a little bit about trust and communication, which I know are two really central central parts of the book. Could you just talk a little bit about why those aspects in particular are so important now as people were working remotely?

Jason Morwick (07:55):

You know, I, I think it's been proven over the years and there's some empirical research that backs this up, that remote teams tend to be a lot more task focused. We tend to lose the social aspects of what it is to work with one another within a team. And that's not necessarily a good thing because even though we may become more efficient in the short term, if you lose those bonds between team members, if the cohesion goes down, then the level of trust goes down and then ultimately team performance goes down. So it's in the best interest of the organization to have team members that are closely bonded to one another. It's no surprise that I think Gallup in their employee engagement survey, one of their questions actually is, do you have a best friend at work? And I know when I used to receive that survey, I thought, oh, that's kind of ridiculous. Who cares? But when you look behind the research, it really shows that people that are connected with one another will perform better and will stay with the organization longer. So it becomes a challenge for leaders then to say, in a remote environment, how do we recreate that feeling where people may be hundreds or thousands of miles apart, but they still feel connected to one another. They still feel like they're part of really a team of friends or at least close colleagues that they can rely on.

Matt Hayman (09:19):

And what are some of the things that they can do? What can, what are some of the practical steps that leaders can take to really foster that, that communication and that trust?

Jason Morwick (09:26):

You know, there are some very, very simple things that leaders can do. For example, in a virtual meeting, the tendency always is, you know, you get onto a call. You put yourself on mute, you turn your video off. You wait for the meeting organizer to arrive. As soon as they come on board and kick off the meeting, it's right into the task at hand and okay, let's get started. Let's not waste any time. Let's just focus on the task. What leaders can do is actually hold a minute or two at the beginning of the meeting, let people talk about non-work related things. Let people socialize a bit because that's what would happen in an office setting, right? If you were in an office, you were going into a meeting room or a conference room. If you were the first to arrive, as people would funnel in behind you, what would you do?

Jason Morwick (10:13):

You would greet them. You would talk to them about the weather, their commute, whatever it is everything, but work until the meeting actually starts. Well, you can do the same thing in a remote setting as well. It just has to be a little bit more intentional. So you reserve that time for people to kind of talk and get to know one another. If people don't know each other, then you focus some time on introducing people, getting them to know other people within the team, et cetera. Now, just because we're remote, that doesn't mean we don't actually meet face to face. In fact, at cactus, we just went through this effort because people hadn't seen each other in over two, two and a half years because of the pandemic, we just spent the effort so that leaders could actually meet with their direct teams. And in some cases, people were hired during the pandemic and had never met their boss before face to face. So we spent the effort, we actually had people travel into company locations and, and get some face time. And I think that helps you don't need to do that very often once or twice a year, maybe enough. It depends on the organization and the, and the organizational culture, but having that FaceTime is actually Val valuable at times as well. So you can spend the time doing team building exercises and just getting people to know one another.

Matt Hayman (11:30):

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Matt Hayman (12:04):

I guess, follow on question then. What, what would be some of the signals or markers that would indicate to you that, that, that trust and communication is, is off that there's something not quite right? What, what would be some of the clues and also what could, what could be done to improve those? Maybe

Jason Morwick (12:19):

Some of the clues would be if people stop engaging when with one another we had an incident in our organization where people stop turning their video on, and we are a very video on culture, and I know some organizations are different, but we really promote and encourage the use of video when we're meeting with each other. And we had an instance where there was a team meeting and people stopped turning their videos on and it was a couple of individuals because they were so mad at each other. They didn't even wanna see the other person. They didn't want the person to see them. So, you know, it's little subtle things like that, that leaders need to have their antenna up to be on, you know, watch out for those small signals, but you'll see people engaging, less asking questions, less contributing, less they may be even a little bit more direct and blunt and text and email conversations and that sort of thing.

Jason Morwick (13:11):

So it's those little things that you may notice as a leader that may cause you just to take small actions, such as reaching out to someone and say, Hey, Matt, you know, I noticed lately you know, you, haven't been asking as many questions as you're used to, is everything okay? Is there anything I can do, you know, and trying to get the person to open up. If you are a leader where you have created this, this environment, call it psychological safety, as they say, where people feel okay to open up without any sort of reprisal, then they will be forthcoming and they will start to share bits of information. And then you can start thinking about what actions you may need to take.

Matt Hayman (13:50):

Okay. So, so if we move just towards the, kind of the culture element of this, I think one of the things that's really, really interesting about cactus is that you've got 1200 people, as you say, located in, in multiple offices, in different continents. And I really wanted to sort of unpack that a little bit around how you manage and how the organization addresses cross-cultural challenges or discrepancies or differences, how, because in an organization, I mean, that, that would happen even if you worked in the, in the same group of people who lived in the same town, but, but now that it was almost amplified over, over continents. So talk to me a little bit about how you, how you consciously sort of address that within cactus.

Jason Morwick (14:29):

Well, one of the biggest challenges is just managing across time zones, right? Cause as you said, we have people on several different continents they're scattered across. I forget how many time zones we have for me, based on the east coast of the United States, most of the people I talk to are in India, which is nine and a half hours ahead of me. So just managing, you know, what the expectations are around availability when you're gonna work. That has to be made clear when you're working with a mixed team of people across the world. I think when you're talking about cultures, it adds a new layer of complexity on top of that, because you have some cultures, the us Europe, for example, that are much more direct than say some cultures over in Asia, which are more accommodating. So sometimes we have this friction where people will do little things like set up meetings that are after hours for certain people, but their culture is such that they'll accept the meeting.

Jason Morwick (15:27):

They won't be happy about it. And they won't tell you necessarily to your face that they're unhappy about it, but they'll accept it. And that will create some friction in the long run because now you have people that are just not understanding one another about how they like to work. So we spent some time training people about how to work with others in different cultures. We also try to create some guidelines and some ground rules about when it's appropriate to do certain things like schedule meetings late in the evening or early in the morning, and try to create some boundaries because we have found that if we don't do that from an organization perspective, because of the different cultures that we have working together within the company, people will try to make it work, even though it be too painful for them in the long run. So we try to step in and, and provide that intervention. When necessary,

Matt Hayman (16:16):

You mentioned earlier in the podcast about effectively transplanting, old ways of working or replicating the office in, in an online world and, and maybe being a bit more intentional. Could you speak to that a bit about that intentionality about creating a, a workplace which is custom built for the online space

Jason Morwick (16:34):

Anytime when someone is telling you, well, this can't be done because we're remote. That is a good chance to kind of step in and say, well, can we do it differently? Because we're remote because we have people scattered in different time zones and it becomes too hard to meet in real time. Can we do it asynchronously and will it be more efficient if we do it asynchronously right now, I don't have to wait for calendars to clear and, you know, get everybody on the same day or same time. Cuz when I used to work in an office, even with people co-located all in the same time zone, all in the same office building, just trying to schedule a meeting, sometimes you would have to push things out a week or two, just so that the calendars could all align. But if you say, you know what, scrap that that's too E inefficient, let's work asynchronously in somehow we'll use a shared document.

Jason Morwick (17:24):

We'll post that on Microsoft teams. Everybody will contribute by a certain deadline and we'll work a process like that. We could get that done even prior to when we would be able to schedule a meeting in real time. So it actually becomes faster and better. Another example would be around brainstorming people, get frustrated and say, you know what? It's just not the same. I can't get into a conference room in front of a dry erase board, a whiteboard and actually draw stuff down. And when they try to replicate that exactly online, it doesn't work. And then they conclude, well, it's just easier to do a brainstorming session in person. But if you think about some of the tools that are out there right now we've played around with Miro and some other tools. And if you look at the capability of those tools, you can do a lot more than what you could with just a simple, dry erase board. And everybody doesn't need to be there at the same time. They can contribute at different times when it's convenient for them. And then you end up with ultimately the same result, but the process is different to get there.

Matt Hayman (18:24):

What would you say is some of the key challenges that employers face right now, as we enter this completely new phase of working?

Jason Morwick (18:33):

I think a lot of organizations have moved to more of a hybrid model, right? Where they're gonna do some days in office, some days working remotely for those organizations that have the capability where people can actually commute into say an office location, you have to be intentional about what are you using those in-person days as I call 'em, what are you using those in-person days for? And I've had people tell me that, you know, when I do show up in the office, say it's one day a week, I find that I'm not really getting any work done. In fact, what I'm doing is I'm meeting people that I haven't seen in a while. I'm building relationships, I'm using that time to meet with new people on the team that I haven't met in person before. So it's really being very conscious of using that time wisely of saying, you know, what, if I'm gonna be face to face with people, what do I really wanna do? I don't wanna just jump into a simple task that I could do while I'm remote. I'm gonna use that time for something that, that I find it more difficult for me personally to do while I'm virtual.

Matt Hayman (19:36):

Excellent. So yeah, it's about having, it's been intentional in how you use that time. It's a, it's a rare resource. Brilliant. Jason, thank you so much for your time. I've really enjoyed this conversation. I think it's been super helpful. Great to get some of your insights into some of these topics. Where can people go to find out a little bit more about you and the work that you do

Jason Morwick (19:53):

The easiest way is to find me on LinkedIn? I think I'm the only Jason Morwick out there on LinkedIn, at least for the moment. So you can connect with me there.

Matt Hayman (20:05):

Fantastic. Thanks for your time and speak to you soon.

Voiceover (20:11):

Thanks for listening to leading remotely for show notes, resources, or to discover how you can make remote work for your team. Head over to https://www.wonder.Me/