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TEDx Kaunas, 19 November 2017

 

Remote workers aren’t trying to escape doing work. We’re trying to escape the Day Prison.
We want to use technology to make better use of our time. We want to spend more time on things that matter to us and less time stuck in traffic.


Special thanks to

Jonathan Talbott of Talbott International Presentations for the great coaching and tips.

Sam Mednick for watching so many versions and giving me great feedback.

Robin Mednick (Sam’s mom) for helping me find my voice.

TEDxKaunas team for the great feedback, the warm hospitality, and for making me feel like a queen! ox


Original transcript

I love remote working. This obsession started back in 2006. I lived in California and belonged to this social group that was interested in the future, technology, and staying healthy. One person in the group was particularly interesting to me because he was trying to solve a strange problem… he didn’t want to die.

Now, there are many people out there who are working on ways to live forever. Some practice calorie restriction to live longer. Some research freezing the body to be brought back to life later. But the problem for my friend was that none of these groups were talking with each other and sharing what they were learning in their experiments.

So he built an online project management tool that would allow these groups from all over the world to collaborate online and solve this problem of not dying. These online project management tools are pretty common now, but they weren’t back in 2006. And when my friend asked me to join his company, I didn’t hesitate. I loved the cause. I loved the tool, and I loved the team. For me, it was a dream job.

Three years later, that tool changed my life. I was working at home, when I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. It was the saxophone player from my all time favorite band. I had met the band years before and told them that if they ever needed anything, they should contact me. But I never expected that they would actually call. It turns out, they needed someone to go on tour with them and sell merchandise. I tried to act all cool as I explained that I first needed to talk to my boss and arrange a few things – but inside, I was jumping up and down and screaming WOOO HOOOO!

The next morning, I went into the office and sheepishly approached my friend – now my boss – with my dilemna. On the one hand, I was working my dream job and I didn’t want to give that up. But on the other hand, it was my favorite band and there was no way I was going to miss out on going on tour with them. Luckily for me, he said “I built this tool so people can work together from anywhere. Here’s a mobile router. Make sure you get your work done and have a great time.”

So during the day, while we were driving long hours to get to the next show, I used the mobile router to connect with and work with my team online. And at night, I sold CDs and t-shirts and I met tons of fellow fans…. It was one of the best times of my life. And a true aha! experience. That I could actually work from anywhere – even a van.

We used to have to go to a specific place in order to do our work. And there are, indeed, a lot of reasons why central offices are good! For one, everybody is at the same place at the same time. There is an undeniable efficiency to that. It’s also easier for teams to form relationships and bond with each other. We can share a whiteboard to brainstorm. We can celebrate milestones and birthdays together. We can randomly bump into each other in the elevator.

For ages people have been working from 9-to-5. But mobile devices, centralized data, and all kinds of apps and software are helping us stay connected to each other no matter where we are. And this ability to access information from anywhere is opening up all kinds of new possibilities.

Not everyone is using the opportunity to run off with their favorite bands – or travel the world – as many managers might be fearing right now.

Most people just want a little more flexibility in their schedule. In fact, the research shows that most people prefer to work a hybrid schedule of a few days in the office and a few days at home. And the reasons? Productivity! What’s funny is that managers often don’t allow remote working because they’re afraid the work won’t get done – and one of the top reasons people want flexibility is to work where they are most productive!

Remote workers aren’t trying to escape doing work. We’re trying to escape The Day Prison. We want to use technology to make better use of our time. We want to spend more time on things that matter to us and less time stuck in traffic. But it’s not just about freedom for employees. Companies have a lot to gain too.

For centuries, employers have hired the most qualified workers who just happened to be in a particular location. That didn’t necessarily mean that the team was populated by “the best and the brightest” — just the folks who were nearby, or willing to relocate.

So, not only can employers hire the best people from anywhere, they can lower their costs at the same time. A software developer in San Francisco costs significantly more than a developer in Vietnam and that is something that companies can’t ignore.

But more than that, flexibility is good for keeping people around.

In a recent study, 60% of the people said would resign for a similar job if they could work from home. A third said they’d be willing to take a paycut.

One of my friends has to hire someone to take his daughter to school because his employer requires him to be at the office before school starts – even though there’s no reason for him to be at the office that early. You can imagine how loyal he feels to that company.

So if you’re worried about holding on to your existing staff… offer flexibility.

For the past few years, I’ve been interviewing people on my podcast about how they’re bridging distance on their teams — everyone from managers, software developers to HR directors to neuroscientists. I’ve been collecting their best practices and tips for how to make working remotely not just workable, but undeniably productive. And I want to give you a few basic tips – and show off some really cool tools.

To start with – and this is going to sound really basic, but it’s actually a bigger problem than you might think – everyone on the team needs to have a rocking fast internet connection. People think that they want to be in the same place. But what they really want is fast communication – just like talking to the person next to you. And the cornerstone of fast communication is a solid, stable, speedy internet connection. This is the baseline.

For an extra great team connection, buy a headset and minimize your background noise. That barking dog or coffee shop sounds are fun at first, but they quickly get in the way of a productive conversation.

When we work together in the same place, we can see and hear each other. That helps us stay up to date by proximity. But when we’re virtual, the way we know what each other are doing is by “working out loud”. It’s the online version of working in an office together.

Instead of walking by people’s cubicles and seeing what they are doing, remote teams use tools to show what we’re working on throughout the day. Most teams use group instant messaging to “talk” to each other all day.

One of the simplest and most powerful tools that remote teams have at their disposal is the webcam! I know, I know… many people don’t like turning their cameras on. But being able to see each other is too powerful a connection to ignore. Using video is an easy way to increase that sense of team, get to know each other, and really… just have better conversations.

One team at Spotify works together using Google Hangouts. They have a Hangout open at all times and everyone connects via video with the microphones on mute. This is just like working in the same room together. They can see each other, and when someone has a question, they simply un-mute themselves and ask.

My remote colleague Gretchen and I do just the opposite. We turn the video off but keep the sound on. It feels like she’s in the cubicle next to me. we’re working “side-by-side”.

The Happy Melly team even had a virtual dance party.

And then there are virtual offices. And it’s exactly what it sounds like… an office you go to … online. When you log in, you see a floor plan and avatars that represent your fellow logged-in colleagues. You can move yourself from room to room, but you can only hear and talk to those who are in the same room with you— just like at an office. Just being able to see where everyone is on the virtual floor plan makes colleagues feel more accessible and gives the team a surprising sense of togetherness. You no longer need to schedule a time to talk to someone—just <knock on their virtual door>.

If you thought that virtual offices sounded far out, let me introduce you to telepresence.

This small robot <show the Kubi live> allows you to beam in (like with Skype) to any tablet device and move yourself from side-to-side and up and down. The simple movement has some powerful effects. For one, the person beaming in can control where they are looking. So if you’re sitting at the table with others, you can see and follow whoever is talking at the table, or look at the whiteboard. From the perspective of those who are at the table “in the flesh”, the movement gives the remote participant a more human presence in the room – and opens up a whole new form of office humor.

Other telepresence robots are bigger… and driveable! And it’s way easier than you might think. You simply beam in, and drive yourself around using the arrow keys of your keyboard.
Half of the employees at the Suitable Technology office beam into work. And if you’ve ever wondered how you great people in a robot – since you can’t shake hands. You fist bump!

It’s clear that technology has opened up the option for people to work from anywhere or just have more flexibility in their schedules. And what personally inspires me about remote working is that now, more than ever before, we get to choose work that is meaningful to us while living the lifestyles we want.

I mean, I got to keep the job I loved and go on tour with my favorite band. My friend Sam is pursuing war journalism in South Sudan while doing marketing for a remote company. And I want this for everyone.

Many governments have put visas and work permits in place to restrict the ability for people to work in a particular location. But in the age of borderless technology, those restrictions are quickly becoming outdated.

Let me give you another example from one of my favorite interviews. A couple of years ago, SpaceX announced an open competition to design a Hyperloop pod. The hyperloop is a super fast transportation system that can squeeze a 7 hour journey into 30 minutes.
Someone on the online platform, reddit, suggested creating a “reddit team” and joining the competition. With a group of over 400 remote working volunteers from all over the world, they made it as finalists in the competition.

We no longer have to ask permission from anyone to solve important problems. We can take the solutions into our own hands… from everywhere.

Maybe you want flexibility in your schedule so you can avoid the commute or walk your kids to school. Maybe your company needs to expand but can’t find the people locally. And maybe you want to build a hyperloop pod or help “cure” aging.

With the current technology, it is absolutely possible to work online as if you are in the office together. And it’s getting better and easier every day.

It’s now up to us to learn how to optimize the technology. I want to make it easier for people to work on the things they are most passionate about, and for companies to hire people who love what they do versus people who are just doing their jobs – because I think that it’s this kind of collaboration that gives us superpowers.

Lisette Sutherland