A few weeks back our colleague Theodora Negrea sat down -asynchronously- with Luis Suarez to talk distributed work, tips for skeptical leaders and his learnings from over 20+ years of experience working in a distributed way.
The outcomes of that chat you can read in our latest blog post, the very first one of an upcoming series on ‘Pioneers of Remote’, where we aim to translate personal experiences of professionals with a record of remote-first & distributed work into tangible lessons for leadership, teams, and employees.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and what your journey has been with distributed work. I happen to know you have quite some ‘history’ with, at the time, revolutionary work practices 😊
A: My name is Luis Suarez. I have been working in the space of KM, Collaboration, Learning, Online Communities and Social Networking for Business for over 24 years. I started working distributedly back in 2001, while I was living in The Netherlands, working at IBM, and in 2004 I moved to Gran Canaria.
I continued working for IBM for another 10 years, then decided to go solo (i.e. freelancing) and for the last 5 years, I have been working for Panagenda in the space of data analytics for collaborative environments. Nowadays, I essentially help customers make better sense of the data their employees produce when they are collaborating across the board using social, digital tools with their peers, customers, and business partners.
I suppose one of those revolutionary work practices you mentioned above, Theo, was as well the one about ditching corporate email back in early 2008, while already working distributedly in between three continents. Something that, nearly 14 years later, I still practice daily to this day 😅👍🏻
Q: Technology has come a long way since you started your journey. Specifically, the variety of tools and apps that facilitate working from anywhere — many people probably can’t imagine working from home without the likes of Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Slack, for instance. Are there any stand-out lessons from those early, relatively tech-free years that are proving invaluable today?
A: Yes, there are quite a few!
It’s going to be almost impossible to cover them all, but as a starting point, a much heavier reliance on voice-driven interactions. The obsession we nowadays have with doing everything through video is just literally killing us!
Back in the day, those of us who were working away from the office, were relying far more on audio conference calls or regular phone calls. And we still got the job done! It’s amazing what you can achieve by conversing with people through our phones, the number of cues and social gestures you can learn from one’s voice without putting an additional cognitive strain in our brains by forcing one video call/ meeting after another.
Another important lesson from those early days that reflects into today’s extraordinary times is that working from anywhere will always be much more effective than working while at the office. And for a single reason: documenting one’s work!
The fact that millions of us, distributed knowledge (Web) workers, have been working for years in this (now) brave new-normal pretty much confirms it can be done. Not only have we kept our jobs, but we have thrived in them! Why, you may be wondering, right? Well, we not only have kept our jobs, but we have also continued to grow our personal careers through them.
So those people who keep saying you can only advance in your personal career while at the office, I am afraid we have got news for you. We are the living example it can be done and quite successfully!
Finally, another incredibly relevant lesson from those early days that’s worthwhile mentioning is perhaps the reaffirmation of the need for a new set of skills to adapt to these new conditions of working away from the office.
The ability to master the art of facilitating conversations, mastering both the written and spoken word, being more creative and resourceful, being more caring and empathic for others, becoming a better listener, taking more responsibility and accountability (=ownership) for the work we do through the social, digital tools at our disposal, embracing a lifelong learning mindset, etc. have been fundamental all along to understand how the nature of work has changed forever. Back then, and to this day.
Oooh, and notice how in the skills I have just mentioned above I didn’t mention a single one related to technology. Using different tools is important, don’t take me wrong, we all know that, but they are just enablers. The other set of skills will perhaps be much more relevant and on target of what needs to be done.
Q: The last 15+ year has been revolutionary to say the least. What would be your main observations about the shifts that have happened in the world of work? If we look beyond small start-ups and companies that have been at least remote-friendly prior to the pandemic, do you think we’re seeing a permanent shift towards a new way of working?
A: There have been, indeed, a few things I have learned over the course of the last few months that I know have managed to change the nature of work forever. I keep saying that the genie is out of the bottle already and it’s going to be incredibly difficult to put it back in! Here are some observations to confirm we won’t be able to go back to whatever we had before the pandemic:
Working from home/ anywhere really, is no longer a dirty word. And by that, I mean that working away from the office is no longer an exception one has got to fight for. The social pressure of thinking that when you are working from home you are slacking off is a thing the past! Not anymore! Why? Because now all of us have skin in the game. We have all worked from home in some form or shape over the last few months and we all now know what it is like when people tell us ‘I am working from home today’. This kind of awareness has changed the game completely! Even if vast majority of knowledge workers return to the office eventually.
We’ve made several mistakes when shifting gears towards a distributed workforce, but perhaps the most poignant one has been the one where we have tried to reproduce online exactly everything we used to do at the office, and we made it worse as a result! Now, more than ever, Web meetings, email, private messaging, etc., in short, synchronous work, is just killing us all. Literally! We need to put a stop to it and find a better integration with asynchronous work.
It’s also been rather interesting to see how much we typically pretty much ignore from our recent past in terms of how work happens. Time and time again we keep reading employees miss the office, seeing their colleagues, hanging out at the water cooler (or coffee corner!), having lunches together, bumping into each other in the corridors, the gossip, the chit-chats, etc. All in all, as an opportunity to invest in their social capital, i.e. building further along with their personal business relationships. Yet, for the last 1.5+ years, we have been having within organisations Enterprise Social Networking platforms that pretty much became *THE* virtual water cooler. Yet, no one seems to know those ESNs have been there all along to support that kind of social networking and relationship building. And how they have become an essential collaboration tool to support asynchronous work.
Whether we are witnessing a permanent shift or not towards distributed work, I guess it will eventually depend on whether we are ready to let the past go and move on into the near future. So far, from what I am observing, we are not. We keep using narratives from the past to try to justify the future and we are making ourselves a disservice when we continue talking about remote work, hybrid workplace, back to work, romanticising the daily commute, work/ life balance, etc. etc. We need to get better at this if we would want distributed work to stick around post-pandemic and build better, much more effective, narratives: distributed work, asynchronous, digital-first, work/ life integration, etc.
Q: It’s no secret that a significant proportion of leadership across industries remains sceptical about distributed teams post-pandemic and are taking steps to bring people ‘back to work’. What would you say to them to encourage them to consider the importance of adopting new practices within their companies?
A: Pretty much along the lines of what I have mentioned above, (senior) leaders need to understand the game has changed forever. They are no longer at the centre within organisations. They need to become servant leaders to their employees to help accommodate the shift towards distributed work. They need to listen better (AND ACT!) to their employees’ needs & wants and understand without them they won’t be going too far for much longer.
Both trust and motivation are very powerful motivators to effect change.
The office has transformed forever. So, if before they wanted to “walk the floor” to see what their employees were doing, not they would need to keep walking that floor, but instead of a physical one, i.e. the office, it’s a digital one, more diverse, inclusive, accessible, wirearchical, democratic.
They need to finally come to terms with the fact that work has shifted towards social networks and online communities of practice as new operating models and, as such, they would need to adapt accordingly in an environment where they are no longer in control and where they, too, can thrive earning the merit of the conversations they have with their employees.
Eventually, they need to exert less hierarchy, more wirearchy as in ‘a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology’.
The beautiful thing about this transformation process is that while some may have missed the opportunity to adapt accordingly throughout this pandemic, they can still start today, so that they are ready and better prepared for the next pandemic or global catastrophic emergency that may be coming through, i.e. climate change.
Q: Many companies are opting to go for hybrid models going forward, as they’re trying to balance out ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ and striving for the best of both worlds. What do you think will be crucial for success in this massive change process?
A: Understanding that the hybrid workplace is nothing new, really. This is what I meant earlier on with some of the narratives we’ve been using so far. The harsh truth is that we have always been working in hybrid workplaces.
The moment an employee requests to work from home (to attend whatever other personal errands, for instance), that’s the moment you became a hybrid workplace.
Any organisation that has got sellers and/or consultants working at a customer site, or while on the road, or from home preparing the day for those customer meetings, or at their favourite café while waiting for that important customer meeting, has had a hybrid workplace from day one. So, understanding there is nothing new with this whole hybrid workplace narrative is key.
What we need to do now is to focus on SCALE. And continue working on redesigning the workplace with a clearly defined mindset: digital-first!
The whole concept of the hybrid workplace is just an interim process to figure out how we would want to work from here onwards where digital tools are the new virtual HQ; leaving behind the physical office for only those specific work items, use cases, or conversations where we feel social, digital tools won’t cut it. But, for the rest, again, practise actively digital-first!
Allow me perhaps to share an example of what I mean. Imagine you have an upcoming meeting at the office. All folks gathered around a single table in the meeting room, yet one or two other colleagues working from home for the day. The digital-first approach would be that everyone will attend the meeting online, whether at home or at the office, and carry on the work and the conversations online vs. face to face. The impact will be huge both from a personal & team perspective, but also from a company-wide point of view. It’s one of those examples that help identify that shift of designing work to be digital-first vs. whatever else.
The shift of measuring productivity and effectiveness is not by our mere presence, but the results and outcomes we deliver through documenting and narrating our work.
Q: If you were to only give one piece of advice to companies currently navigating the still fuzzy waters of remote, hybrid, and distributed work, what would that be?
A: I would start with one of the toughest, yet most rewarding, initiatives and convert it into more of a new business opportunity vs. seeing it as a challenge. Listen to your employees. Learn about their end-user needs & wants, hang out more often with them through Enterprise Social Networking platforms to understand what’s in their mind, become an active part of their social networks and online communities and learn to understand how they can become both your eyes and ears around everything that’s going around in the organisation. As Dave Snowden once wrote, inspire your employees to become a giant network of human sensors across the organisation to help you understand and anticipate new business opportunities. Earn the merit of their attention, their involvement and overall engagement by actively being involved in two-way conversations across the board.
Don’t just hang out with your close teams but expand your reach and access to all those free flows of knowledge that happen amid conversations in different social networks and communities through various social, digital tools.
We all are our social networks, so how we cultivate, nurture and sustain them openly through social, digital tools is how we will eventually make the shift towards an effective distributed knowledge (Web) workforce.
One conversation at a time, we will all end up working distributedly. We already are, that’s what this pandemic has shown us all. We just need to sustain the momentum for the next 2 to 3 years. At long last, the genie is out of the bottle!
This is the very first one of an upcoming series on ‘Pioneers of Remote’, where we aim to translate personal experiences of professionals with a record of remote-first & distributed work into tangible lessons for leadership, teams and employees. If you are interested in this series, follow us for more!