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Q&A on the Book Office Optional

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Key Takeaways

  • If you want to become a permanent, high-capability remote organization, you must develop an integrated approach across your people, operations and technology.
  • The foundation of a great remote culture is trust, which is easy to build once you realize that the real problem is employees who work too much – because they lose the boundary between work and home – not those who intentionally don’t work.
  • A critical skill for remote workers is learning how to build relationships virtually so they can enjoy the same deep, trusting relationship with a virtual co-worker that they would with an in-person co-worker.  
  • To fully integrate remote work into your organization, design and adopt operating procedures that include: structuring virtual calls so there’s time for relationship-building, implementing feedback mechanisms to keep a pulse on your remote workforce, and developing policies on when and how to mix physical office work with remote work.
  • The key to running a successful remote company is investing in a collaboration suite of tools that allows remote workers to seamlessly collaborate with anyone, anywhere in the world, using video conferencing, chat, shared workspaces and document sharing. 

The book Office Optional by Larry English describes how employees from Centric work virtually within a culture that contributes to the business’s success and employee happiness. The stories in this book provide insights into how working remotely looks, building relationships and trust in a virtual environment, managing remote teams, and recruiting and hiring people for remote working.

InfoQ readers can download an extract from Office Optional.

InfoQ interviewed Larry English about the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on remote working, building mutual trust between a company and its workers, and between individual workers, building a strong culture in a virtual company, training new leaders on culture, communication means and channels for distributed companies, dealing with remote working challenges, building virtual relationships, and how the culture at Centric has adapted over the years.

InfoQ: Why did you decide to write this book?

Larry English: When explaining our remote business model, people often found it hard to believe that we operated virtually AND had a great culture. I kept having to explain over and over how we did it. I looked around and it seemed like there was very little written about what we had accomplished, becoming a remote business WITH a great culture. So, I thought a “how-to” book would be helpful to share with others. 

After more than 20 years of trial and error, we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to running a virtual company and maintaining our culture. I even included in the book all of our embarrassing stories to save everyone some time on lessons learned. 

When we started, we saw this model as the future of work. Little did I know the pandemic would happen and that, suddenly, every business would want to know how to do this.  

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

English: This book is written for any business leader who is managing partial or totally remote teams and wants to understand how to build a strong culture. This book is also for anyone who wants to become a successful remote team member.

InfoQ: What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on remote working? What do you expect will remain after the virus is under control?

English: Over the last month I’ve spoken with hundreds of companies about remote work. Most are surprised by what they see: work is still getting done and productivity has increased. Most importantly, their employees are happier with the flexibility that working remotely provides. What has surprised me even more is that some of the oldest, most conservative companies have already made the decision to adopt remote work. Most see this as a business opportunity to reduce cost, hire the best talent anywhere and have a happier workforce. They plan to significantly reduce their real estate footprint and reconfigure offices to become collaborative workspaces. They want to put in place plans to maintain culture, sustain productivity, and stay connected when they are permanently operating as a remote company. 

Even after the pandemic is under control, businesses will need to have an integrated, permanent remote work strategy to attract the best workers. So many companies plan to adopt remote work that organizations will not have a choice.  With all of the big tech companies allowing remote work we are already seeing companies in the rest of the US losing out to these companies. If you want to attract and retain the best talent you will probably need to offer remote work as an option to them. 

InfoQ: How can we build mutual trust between a company and its workers, and between individual workers?

English: Trust is the foundation of a great remote culture. I’ve seen many companies make the mistake of not trusting their employees. We see companies that use software tools that monitor when an employee is working and have strict policies on when employees must work. This approach is unnecessary and harmful to a remote culture. To cultivate trust with your workforce, you want to demonstrate your trust in them to get their work done by creating policies that maximize employee flexibility and empowerment. And there is a proven ROI: trust leads to happier employees, which leads to better culture, which leads to happier customers, which leads to higher profits. 

Creating an atmosphere of trust between co-workers is equally important. It is particularly critical when building culture in a remote environment because virtual workers are unable to read all the visual cues that you get in face-to-face interactions. If they trust one another, they’ll give their colleagues the benefit of the doubt and have more patience to work through problems. 

At Centric, we’ve fostered trust between co-workers in a virtual environment by: 

  • Incorporating natural ways for employees to build deeper relationships. For example, we dedicate time at the beginning of our meetings to building relationships. 
  • Teaching everyone to assume good intent. If something doesn’t feel right, ask respectful questions to understand the other person’s perspective. Always start with the assumption that your co-worker is trying to do the right thing. 
  • Asking people to talk to each other one-on-one if they are having an issue, rather than going over their head to a supervisor or complaining to a co-worker. Yes, this is super hard to teach. People naturally want to avoid conflict. To help, we offer employees curriculum based on the book Crucial Conversations. This provides a roadmap for communicating when the stakes or emotions are high. 
  • Having a zero-tolerance policy for office politics. If we see it, we call it out and coach that person on how to create a positive environment. 

InfoQ: How can we build a strong culture in a virtual company?

English: Any company culture is transferable to a remote model but there are things you must do differently. In the book, I explain how to think through what your culture is today so you can then figure out how to layer in the virtual components. 

When you are virtual, you must be deliberate about:

  • Making sure team members connect and build personal relationships
  • Implementing great software collaboration tools that support culture-building
  • Changing how you operate to accommodate virtual work

Our culture is actually stronger virtually than most office cultures because we work harder to build deep relationships and effective teams. 

InfoQ: What aspects of culture can be taught, and what aspects cannot be taught?

English: Any company that wants a great culture must hire for both culture fit and skillset. Of course, this is only possible if you know what your culture is and have thought through what type of individuals succeed in your company. We have learned over time that there are some personality traits that employees must already have inherently baked into their DNA to fit in our culture. These traits take too long to teach, so we now screen for them. 

For example, if someone tends toward arrogance, it’s possible to coach them, but this behavior change takes forever, and the chance for success is low. As a consulting company, we advise clients, and clients really don’t like when someone is condescending. We screen for recruits who are humble, have a low-ego culture, and don’t like office politics.

Every company has different traits that are important and unique to their culture. Defining these and screening for them in the recruiting process is critical to creating a great culture. 

InfoQ: How do you train new leaders on culture?

English: When we hire a new leader to start a business group, we pair them with a senior executive who mentors them for their first two years on the job. One of the mentor’s key responsibilities is to provide guidance on executing and living our culture. They gently guide the new leader as they infuse our culture into the new business group. For example, both leaders will screen and interview all candidates for that business group and compare notes until the new leader is self-sufficient in selecting candidates who align with our values and culture.

There is a sea of leadership training programs out there to choose from. Wading through them feels a little like drowning. For example, the Korn Ferry Global Competency Framework lists 67 leadership competencies. The harsh truth is, if you care about your culture and want your leaders to support, nurture, and reinforce it, you may need to build your own program. 

That’s what we did. Our leadership development program teaches new leaders to lead the Centric way, showing them how to anchor their decision-making process to our core values. The program is a never-ending process rooted in continuous learning and improvement.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for communication means and channels for distributed companies?

English: Companies should invest in software tools that make it possible to seamlessly collaborate with anyone, anywhere in the world. A collaboration suite of tools makes it easier to work from home by allowing workers to communicate using video conferencing, chat, shared workspaces and document sharing. Benefits include a reduction in training and onboarding costs, fewer meetings, lower turnover, higher employee satisfaction, and increased productivity. We felt a positive impact immediately. At Centric, we also saw our productivity increase, and we became a more connected, cohesive organization.

InfoQ: What are the biggest remote working challenges? How can we deal with them?

English: The biggest mistake I’ve made leading a virtual company is skimping on software tools. The right software will make you more efficient and lead to happier employees as your organization seamlessly collaborates from anywhere in the world. 

Software improves your remote environment by: 

  • Training employees on your culture (they can see the history of how you interact and treat each other).
  • Creating virtual affinity groups that share a common interest to improve employees’ sense of belonging, such as veterans or runners.
  • Breaking down silos; employees are more effective when they know what’s going on across the company. 
  • Increasing trust and making you a more transparent organization. 
  • Building an intergenerational workforce; the right tool increases engagement because employees can interact in ways they are comfortable with. 

InfoQ: How can we build virtual relationships?

English: Building relationships virtually is one of the most critical skills a remote worker can learn. You can enjoy the same deep, trusting relationship with a virtual co-worker that you do with an in-person co-worker. 

Good virtual workers: 

  • Model Vulnerability. Vulnerability is the shortcut to trust. Teach employees and leaders to be vulnerable and not always make it about work. 
  • Bring Your Whole Self to Work. Share your personality, showcase who you are as a person, share your interests, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Take Time to Nurture Personal Relationships. Encourage employees to have a genuine interest in getting to know their teammates, to be curious, and to learn what matters to them.  
  • Know How to Resolve Conflict Virtually. Conflict is always hard to resolve, even when you can see a person’s visual cues. It’s even harder virtually. We use a training course based on the book Crucial Conversations to help employees become conflict resolution experts.  

InfoQ: How has the culture at Centric adapted over the years?

English: We’ve learned that culture-building never stops. Once you have established a solid culture, you’ll want to continue to nurture and grow it. Twenty years in, we keep innovating and adding new ideas and traditions to our culture. 

We treat our culture as seriously as we do our business strategy. Just like you would innovate on new business offerings, we do the same with our culture. We try out different ideas, see what is going to advance our culture, and then adopt what works. 

Here is an example: we heard through our feedback that employees were frustrated with our Paid Time Off policy. Building on the idea of trust, we developed a self-managed PTO policy, a unique approach that allows employees to decide how much PTO they take. Employees have loved it, and we adopted it as part of our broader culture idea of living a balanced life. It made our culture better. 

About the Book Author

Larry English is president and co-founder of Centric Consulting, a management consulting firm that guides you in the search for answers to complex digital, business, and technology problems. He and his like-minded pals founded Centric – a 1,000-plus person company located in 13 US cities and India – with a focus on changing how consulting was done by building a remote company with a mission to create a culture of employee and client happiness. To learn more about English and how to become an office optional company, visit LarryEnglish.net or connect with him on Twitter

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