Minimizing the stress of the transition falls on leaders themselves. They need to put time and effort into planning and managing the transition — again, a deliberate approach is required. In my book Remote Work, we interviewed Adam Miller, founder of Cornerstone OnDemand. He and his leadership team were just getting ready to integrate 1000 new employees from an acquisition when COVID hit.
As a part of our series about the things you need to successfully work remotely, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Dyer, founder and CEO of PeopleG2, a US-based leader in the background check industry since 2001. Chris has published two books, The Power of Company Culture: How any business can build a culture that improves productivity, performance and profits (2018) and Remote Work: Redesign processes, practices and strategies to engage a remote workforce (2021), the latter with co-author Kim Shepherd. In addition, Chris produces and hosts the podcast Talent Talk.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I’m a serial entrepreneur and a strong competitor. Earlier in my life I was both a competitive swimmer and water polo player, and went on to coach both sports at the high school level. I founded PeopleG2 in 2001 and, in response to the mortgage crisis and recession, took the company 100% virtual in 2009.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My wife Jody and I have adopted three children from Russia, which involved many flights back and forth between that country and the U.S. On our final flight from Los Angeles International Airport, we took off as usual. But the plane hadn’t gone far before the plane started moving erratically. The passengers started to grow concerned and I noticed liquid spewing from one of the wings.
After circling Southern California for about an hour, the pilot finally came on over the speaker and spoke for a few minutes in Russian, the first language of most passengers. In a moment the pilot switched to English and said simply, “We go back to Los Angeles.” At this point all the passengers were alarmed and upset, and as they spoke together a sub-conversation grew. “We’re dumping fuel in ocean, no? Bad for fish!” I realized that they didn’t know where else to put their energy. However, indignation started to grow.
So, I stood up and tried to explain, “The captain has to dump the fuel.” Several people expressed concern for the fish again. “It’s for safety,” I explained. “If we try to land with full tanks of fuel, we could die.” It went silent for a minute. Then an older woman stood up. She fit the stereotype of a Babushka, a Russian grandmother from the old country. I nodded at her, inviting her to speak.
“To hell with fish,” she said simply, and sat down. We landed safely and eventually got to Russia, but it was an interesting exercise in group dynamics.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started PeopleG2, I partnered with a couple of my brothers. BIG mistake. We argued all the time. It wasn’t particularly funny at the time, but in retrospect we laugh about it. I learned a couple of lessons. First, hire for talent and not blood. Second, diversity is important. Here we were, three white males, trying to run a company. We all had the same family background and many shared experiences. I realized that we would get much more innovation if we brought on people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and experience.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?
Help employees develop habits of balance. This is true in an on-site model but may be even more applicable in a remote situation. Coach employees to set boundaries, such as using a home office that is free of distractions. They also need boundaries around work hours — at first many of my employees put in long hours from home. They should establish new signposts and structures (calendar alerts, for example) to help themselves be mindful of a healthy, well-rounded life.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits and opportunities of working remotely?
- Employees love the flexibility. While some must be available during certain hours, many can work when it is convenient, such as after children have gone to bed or dropped off at childcare.
- Leaders love the flexibility, such as closing the virtual office door in order to focus on working ON the business instead of IN the business. They are able to think and plan at a more strategic level with fewer interruptions.
- Both employees and employers save money. Employees spend less on commuting and work clothes, and businesses can cut infrastructure costs, such as office leasing and furniture.
- Autonomy and empowerment are essential in a remote model, and good for both employer and employee. If employees are truly empowered, leaders can delegate more and have greater peace of mind regarding the work being done. Employees have more control over their time and work habits, and also feel greater engagement from being empowered and trusted.
- The reduction in commuting minimizes the environmental impact. During the pandemic in Los Angeles, known for lots of both traffic and smog, the air quality improved significantly, then got worse as people returned to work.
Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding working remotely?
1. Leaders and employees must change their way of thinking. It’s not enough to send everyone home with a laptop.
2. Many leaders fear they can’t manage what they can’t see. Remote requires new ways to manage performance.
3. The remote model requires different processes, tools and technologies than a sticks-and-bricks model.
4. If your employees are dispersed across many time zones, coordinating meetings is a challenge.
5. Making the actual transition can be stressful; once you’re remote, stress is lower, but the change itself can be a challenge.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? Can you give a story or example for each?
1. To change ways of thinking, everyone needs to accept that working remotely is different, requiring adaptations in work habits, processes and systems. The key is to take a deliberate approach to identifying and executing the adaptations. When PeopleG2 first went remote, it soon became apparent that we had a serious bottleneck: me. It wasn’t really clear in the office, but once I saw my email inbox pile up with requests, I realized that everyone was coming to me to make just about every decision. Adapting included understanding which decisions could be made by whom, and ensuring those people knew how to make those decisions. Then we created process workflows to facilitate the decision-making process and ensure nothing fell through the cracks.
2. To manage remote employees effectively, use performance metrics. Instead of focusing on work habits, focus on whether employees are hitting goals and targets. At PeopleG2 we adopted a Scrum approach to support managing to metrics. The team needs to establish goals and expectations, and in weekly virtual Scrums, or stand-up meetings, everyone reports on their progress to those expectations. Scrum also teaches that the meeting is a safe place for an employee to say they are dealing with challenges, and so leaders can ensure they get the support they need.
3. A lot of people think that a first step in going remote is setting up the technology, but I disagree. The best sequence to follow is people, process, tools and technology. Bring in technology last. Instead, start by considering your people. Who are they? What can they do? What can’t they do? What do they need to succeed? That leads to processes, which should leverage your people’s talents. Rather than being a burdensome checklist, processes should be a smooth flow that makes sense. Next up come the tools that people need in order to keep the process flowing. Tools can be many things, from a laptop to access to industry databases. With people, processes and tools in place, you can lock it all down with the technology.
4. Asynchronous communication, a fancy term for interacting across time zones, is manageable with a little thought. Platforms like Loom offer the opportunity to leave a message for the next shift via video, enhancing the personal connection. I have employees on the East Coast, while I live in California. Once a week I get up a little early to have touch-base calls. If your team has regular meetings with colleagues in Europe or Asia, someone is always going to be inconvenienced. Rotate the meeting times so that it isn’t the same person or group every time.
5. Minimizing the stress of the transition falls on leaders themselves. They need to put time and effort into planning and managing the transition — again, a deliberate approach is required. In my book Remote Work, we interviewed Adam Miller, founder of Cornerstone OnDemand. He and his leadership team were just getting ready to integrate 1000 new employees from an acquisition when COVID hit.
In solving that double whammy, he and his team found they needed fun, engaging onboarding events (virtual, of course) and also a personalized approach to supporting different employees. For example, to households with children, they provided access to childcare resources. Multigenerational households got resources like wi-fi hotspots and furniture.
Do you have any suggestions specifically for people who work at home? What are a few ways to be most productive when you work at home?
Create a specific home office space — not the couch or kitchen table — where interruptions will be minimal, and where you only do work. That way you can get into the work mindset when you “go to work,” and get away when you leave the office space.
Strike the right balance between discipline and breaks. For example, set a timer for 45 minutes and, during that time, work hard on your project or task. When it rings, set it again for 15 minutes and use that time to step away from the work and recharge. Make a sandwich. Step outside and water plants. Then come back and start the cycle again.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic? Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
The single most important suggestion is, as I said above, to be deliberate about planning and executing the change. Yes, it’s hard because you also have to take care of regular business, following the advice outlined above will help you and your team avoid the obstacles we discussed. Another important suggestion is to ensure you have a strong, upbeat culture that encourages collaboration and promotes employee engagement. Take time to recognize victories and successes, sharing them with the whole team.
What do you suggest can be done to create an empowering work culture and team culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
Three proven motivators that promote empowerment at autonomy, mastery and purpose. These are things that humans naturally want, so when you provide them, you empower and engage people. Autonomy doesn’t mean free rein to do anything. It means giving an employee a license to work independently, in the way that works best for them, and make certain decisions on their own. Supporting people in mastering skills also promotes a strong culture. This may include paying for continuing education or professional certification, conference attendance, internal training resources and more. Promoting mastery leads to employees who are more motivated, have better skills and are more productive. Purpose is essential to us all. You need a clear mission and vision for your company, and every employee should be able to tell you how their job is linked directly to the mission and vision.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In fact, co-author Kim Shepherd and I are promoting the Remote Work Movement, where everyone can share their experiences, ask questions and find inspiration. Sign up at https://chrisdyer.com/remotework, to get access to great ideas and share your own.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
That would be from Nelson Mandela, whom I respect and admire for his stoic approach to overcoming adversity. By stoic I mean he was influenced by famous Greek stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism teaches us that what happens in life is neither good nor bad — it just is. You have to play the hand you’re dealt. Although you may respond emotionally to what happens, your response should be based on reason, not emotion. Mandela had much to say that demonstrated his embrace of Stoicism, but one that stands out for me is, “One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.”
After facing persecution, imprisonment and tragedy, Mandela did not give in to self-pity or despair. Instead, he learned to turn those hurts into strengths, changing himself in order to lead major change recognized and celebrated around the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.