Block time to do that when you’re at your best — but don’t forget to give yourself grace to take personal time in the middle of the day when appropriate so you’re not just working constantly.
As a part of our series about the things you need to successfully work remotely, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wayne Turmel.
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute and author of 14 books, including The Long-Distance Leader, Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Marshall Goldsmith has called him, “one of the unique voices in Leadership.”
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 originally from Canada but have lived in the US for 30 years. I got a bit of a late start in my adult/business life because I spent 18 years as a professional standup comedian before joining the “real world.” For 26 years I’ve been obsessed with helping people communicate better at work and navigate the challenges of leadership, especially for middle managers. For the last 15 years I’ve been focused on the challenges of communicating, presenting and leading virtually, first with my own company and now as a co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I don’t know if it’s the most interesting, but it had a huge impact on me. Early on, I was teaching presentation skills at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena. Me. Teaching a bunch of literal Rocket Scientists. Imposter syndrome was running wild. Then I realized that what was natural and fun for me was torture for others. These were some of the smartest people in the world, but the idea of clearly communicating in a verbal presentation scared them silly. Not only were they embarrassed and stressed, but failing to learn this would hamper their careers. They recognized they needed help, and realized I possessed knowledge they didn’t. What became clear was that we all have gifts that others need if we’re willing to share them and step up to the plate and shouldn’t be shy about sharing them.
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?
I don’t know if it’s the funniest mistake, but I think everyone in the thought leadership space has gotten their nose bloodied by an audience that wouldn’t buy in.
You’d think a dream gig would be a week in Maui doing a series of ½ day workshops on leadership. You’d be wrong. Nothing I did was getting through. Finally, someone said, “Kid, have you ever worked somewhere you didn’t need to wear a tie? We’re government workers. In Maui. In Park Maintenance. We don’t even wear shoes unless the supervisor’s watching.”
The lesson here is that no matter how smart and earnest you are, or how valuable the information you’re imparting, if you don’t meet people where they are, they won’t buy in. Best training environment ever. Worst reviews of my life. I kept the evaluations in my top drawer for 5 years just to stop me from getting cocky.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?
Entrepreneurs and other leaders have a high tolerance for stress (that’s why we chose this gig.) It’s important to realize that everyone has a different level of energy and tolerance. I hear from a lot of managers that “everyone knows what to do.” Do they? Many employees aren’t comfortable setting boundaries that might seem natural (or unimportant) to us and are more prone to sacrificing work-life balance. Frequently check in with your employees without judging.
Maybe most important, they take their cues from the boss, so if you’re sending emails at 11 on a Sunday night, or Slack messages from your kid’s soccer game, guess what message your team is getting? I once told an employee, “Hey, I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t do.” She told me, “I know. We just haven’t found anything you’re not willing to do for this job. We need a life.” It left a mark, but I learned a lesson.
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?
The opportunities are pretty clear, and advocates of remote work aren’t shy about proclaiming the advantages of remote work. For one thing, the commute becomes pretty much non-existent. Not only do we save hours (up to a full workday a week) out of our lives, but the average family with both parents working from home can save over 4000 dollars a year in commuting, parking, wear and tear on vehicles, and childcare. That is real money to a lot of families.
When you work remotely, it’s possible to choose the work you do more intentionally, without being constrained by distance from the office. Changing jobs and even careers is much more up to you.
And when you are responsible for your schedule, you can work when your body and brain are at their best, not to mention balancing your work and personal life more effectively.
Notice I say “can.” A lot of people don’t.
Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding working remotely?
As always, the challenges change for each individual. What one person finds a challenge is someone else’s favorite thing about working away from the office, your mileage may vary.
I’d say the top 5 challenges (in no particular order) are:
- Finding the right balance of work and life that will fit your circumstances and your career. The alternatives are either burnout or a stalled career.
- Getting unstuck when you’re spinning your wheels. We all have days when we are busy but not productive, or just stare at our screen unable to find motivation. Getting stuck in our own heads is a problem when you don’t have people around you.
- Building rewarding, enjoyable relationships with our colleagues and customers when we aren’t in the same place. Most people get almost 2/3 of our social interaction in a given week through our work. When we work remotely, we have fewer rich communication opportunities with a smaller circle of people. The implications of this on our work, long-term career, and even mental health haven’t been properly measured yet, but I assure you it’s a bigger issue than we think, even for introverts who think they don’t need other humans.
- Collaborating and innovating at work. Many of us were already working from home on those occasions when we needed peace and quiet to get work done. Tasks get checked off just fine when we aren’t in the office. That work is great when we put our head down and plow forward. But are we bouncing ideas off each other? Are we building the kinds of cross-functional relationships we developed organically when we were all in the same building?
- Finding ways to leverage technology so everything isn’t a #%[email protected]%ing meeting. Over the last 30 years, technology has made remote work possible and even desirable. But it has created other challenges. How do you build relationships when 70% or more of your workplace communication takes place in writing like emails and chat messages? We used to work from home because we were left alone… now it’s web meetings from dawn to dusk, and Zoom fatigue is a very real thing. How we communicate today isn’t natural. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, we just need to be mindful of how we communicate and through choosing the right medium for the right message.
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?
Buckle up. This is going to take a while:
1. Finding work-life balance. Take time periodically to take stock of how you’re working. What’s working and what isn’t? Understand the span of control you actually possess. What are your employers’ expectations, as well as those in your personal life? What’s negotiable (in your control) and what isn’t? And finally, when all else fails, ask the Doctor Phil question: How’s that going for you? If it works, great. If it doesn’t find alternatives, and you don’t have to figure it all out by yourself.
2. Getting unstuck when you’re spinning your wheels. As a small-town Canadian boy, I’ve been stuck in the snow or mud and unable to get anywhere no matter how hard I press the gas. In fact, that can even make the situation worse. When feeling overwhelmed ask yourself 4 questions.
a) What am I focusing on right now?
b) What SHOULD I be working on and why aren’t I?
c) What about the way I work with others might be causing the problem?
d) What routines and habits do I have that can help or get in the way?
Once you identify the problem, getting out of it requires taking a break, changing the task to something else, or talking to a boss or colleague who can help get you back on track. It’s hard to do alone.
3. Building rewarding relationships. There is so much to be said here, but one of the most insidious problems on remote teams is that communication becomes transactional; we speak to the people we have to, choose not to interact with those we don’t (or don’t want to) and don’t have accidental or unplanned conversations that reap benefits. Ask yourself any time you have an interaction with someone: what’s my relationship with this person? What have I done to make that relationship better? Be proactive about taking the time for social interaction. Ask how the kids are. Bust their chops about their football team. And if you haven’t spoken to someone in a while, take the time to see how things are going for that person. Also, take the time to think about who in your organization you don’t know but should. This is particularly valuable cross-function and with those outside your immediate team.
4. Collaborating and innovating at work. It can be tempting when you aren’t in the office to just “keep your head down and do your work.” While this helps with task completion, it renders you invisible to your teammates, and lessens your perceived value to the work of the team. If you want to be involved in the exciting projects, or want your input taken into account, you have to proactively participate in the work of the team. Speak up on meetings. Contribute to asynchronous discussions, chats and Slack channels. Most importantly, let the team and your leader know you want to be involved, and get really good at offering peer-to-peer feedback so people learn to trust your competence and motives. Collaborate is an active verb. It doesn’t happen by accident.
5. Find ways to leverage technology for good rather than evil. Remote work depends on using technology, but it’s critical we choose the right tool for the right job. My wife was once fired by Instant Messenger. While it worked, I hope we can agree that wasn’t the right tool for that task. We need to be mindful about maintaining a balance of richness (how do we get all the verbal, non-verbal and contextual cues we get when we’re face to face) with scope (email gets around the world in seconds, but if you’ve ever spent three days apologizing for a note it took 30 seconds to write, you now it’s imperfect.) Being intentional about which tools get us what results can change the way you and your teammates work together. It may also mean you don’t get to use your favorite tool, and might have to (gasp) learn a new skill.
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?
There have been a lot of books and blogs written on the topic, but as someone who has worked from home for 15 years, and is a generally undisciplined person, I have found a couple of things that help.
The first, is to remember that when you are working, you are working at home, not at home working. That sounds like semantic goofiness, but it’s all about the mindset. When I’m home, my personal life is my own. When I’m working, I’m on the clock and treat my workspace like an office or other traditional workspace. The biggest component of this is to create a routine that mimics what worked in the “before time.” If you used to begin your day by showering, dressing, commuting, and starting work at a certain time, find a routine that is similar. You are training your brain that there’s a formal beginning to work time. It’s the same at the end of the day. Have some kind of routine or ritual that tells your brain, “you’re off duty now.” I found when I was still un-showered and in my pajamas at ten o’clock in the morning, I was never officially on the clock — or off it.
Second, listen to your body and try to coordinate your work accordingly. Some people are great in the morning and useless by the end of the day (that’s me.) I do my mental heavy lifting early in the day and the dull admin tasks in the afternoon when my focus isn’t what it should be. Maybe you do your best thinking at night. Block time to do that when you’re at your best — but don’t forget to give yourself grace to take personal time in the middle of the day when appropriate so you’re not just working constantly. The worst problem with working from home isn’t laziness or distraction. It’s not disconnecting and thus burning out.
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?
Anecdotal evidence shows that teams that worked together co-located before the pandemic and had good working relationships have mostly maintained them and stayed productive. That’s the good news. It’s also true that the longer we go, the more strain there is on those existing relationships and they have to be nurtured and reinforced. Stay in touch with each other. Don’t allow communication to be transactional. Take the time for the niceties. Ask how the kids are. Check-in and see how your teammates are handling the craziness. If you haven’t talked to someone for a while, pick up the phone and talk to them.. (You heard me. Phone. It transmits voice as well as texts.) If you’re in the early stages of a diaspora, it helps to have frequent, short communication. And, of course, webcams help but don’t expect them to do all the work or use them constantly.
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? It sounds trite to say that the things that have always been true about good teams still are. Doesn’t mean it’s not true. Culture is a ten-dollar HR word for “this is how we do things here.” When you work together, a lot of that culture-building takes place organically and unconsciously. Working remotely demands that you understand the kind of team you want to be, then constantly check-in to make sure that’s what’s happening. And you don’t get to decide what that is — your team needs to be part of that process. Compliance is not buy-in.
Take time for fun. Be transparent and share information beyond your team. What’s happening in the rest of the company? Help your people network with other departments and help them maintain the big picture, especially with how your work impacts customers. One of the most important things we do is have a “watercooler” Slack channel. It’s a place to share funny memes, cool articles, and news about the kids that doesn’t belong in other emails or communication.
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. 🙂
Be careful what you ask for. If I had the magic wand, I’d address the issue of people not being curious. It bothers me that I’ll die without learning everything — but it doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best shot. I think one of the biggest problems in the world is a lack of curiosity and an over-abundance of certainty. Eat food you’ve never tried and kind of weirds you out. Read nonfiction about topics you never thought you’d care about. Read fiction in categories you might not otherwise choose. If you don’t know something, you have the sum knowledge of humanity in the palm of your hand. Use your phone for more than cat videos.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As a bit of a Stoic, one of my guiding principles is “pain is inevitable, misery is optional.” A lot of people from Epictetus to the Buddha have believed that.
It’s relevant for a couple of important reasons. First, it isn’t what happens to you, but how you react and respond that determines the long-term success or failure of anything and its impact on you psychologically, physically, and socially. It’s taught me to expect the best, but plan for the worst, and both are equally likely to occur. I avoid the emotional rollercoaster that way, and believe me, I can be a wallower if I don’t stop myself.
Maybe most important, you deal with pain and avoid misery by examining what you can actually control. What can you do to make this thing suck a little bit less? What can you do to avoid this pain, or at least see a light at the end of the tunnel? What are the potential upsides of any problem? Get proactive.
And finally, it gives you perspective. This particular problem might be big, but will a complete breakdown solve anything, or just keep the misery going? We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we get to decide what it does to us.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our blog is at www.RemoteLeadershipInstitute.com along with a lot of free resources.
Our Twitter account is @LeadingRemotely.
My personal twitter account for non-work things is @Wturmel.
My Amazon author page which contains both my business books and my novels is
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success