On Episode 2 of Remote Talks, Laurel Farrer, CEO and founder of Distribute Consulting, joins Remote CEO Job van der Voort to answer some of the toughest questions about working remotely.
Welcome to Remote Talks!
Remote Talks is a series of video interviews with the brightest minds in remote work and global employment, hosted by Remote CEO Job van der Voort. In the second episode, we welcome Distribute Consulting CEO and Founder Laurel Farrer. One of the most prominent experts in the remote work industry, Laurel joins Job this week to discuss quality versus quantity of remote job applicants, how to hire for specific roles in specific places, and the importance of intentional kindness for remote leaders.
To see Job’s full interview with Laurel, watch the video on this page or view the Remote Talks playlist on YouTube.
Remote Talks: Insights From Episode 2
When hiring for diversity, is it enough for companies to cast a global net, or should they be more proactive about sourcing diverse candidates?
Laurel: Naturally, there’s going to be a higher level of diversity just for the fact that you are not recruiting from the same 20-mile radius to your office. Because, geographic areas include a certain level of sameness...People live there because they like the same weather, they live in the same culture, they have exposure to the same news cycles, they share similar stories and bonding experiences that have happened in the area. There’s so much homogeneous experiences in a culture that unite them together, even though there is diversity within that local area.
Hiring from anywhere, that’s great for expanding our talent pool, but if we’re not really thinking deeply about who we’re trying to reach, not just quantity but quality of the candidates, then we’re missing out on an opportunity.
What should companies remotely do to build a stronger, more diverse pool of talent after they have already begun to hire in a wider area?
Laurel: Hiring from somewhere outside of your local city or county, you’re going to automatically increase diversity or perspective. But then, the next level, is when you start to do this with intention. And you start to say, “What perspectives do we want to bring to our team? What perspectives and experiences do we want to plug into our production cycles and operations? That’s where it really becomes not only a benefit, but a strategy for the growth and development of your company. It’s one of the most underutilized techniques of distributed companies.
What kind of increase in applications can companies expect by opening roles to remote candidates?
Laurel: Often when companies start to go remote, they start to see a massive spike in application rates, to an average of about 3,000% increase in applications. And that was prior to COVID.
But that’s only quantity, that’s not quality. So we try to help them identify who you’re trying to reach and hone into specific talent pools...It’s not just hiring from anywhere. It’s hiring from very specific places because you can hire from there instead of your local city.
Are there situations in which remote work can increase issues of discrimination instead of solving those problems?
Laurel: The entire conversation about DI is a very slippery slope...But especially in remote work. We’ve seen this massive explosion of people being discriminated against because they’re in their home, and they’re seeing their personal lives at a higher level. So there’s this amazingly delicate dichotomy in which we have this opportunity to increase diversity and inclusion and strengthen it to an unprecedented level, but at the same time, we also have the risk and danger of discriminating more in business than we ever have at the exact same time. There is a lot of very careful strategy, and innovation, and critical thinking that needs to go into this topic.
Is there a secret to successful remote onboarding?
Job: Specific to remote work, I think the secret is to make sure people get to talk to a lot of other people. I think the beauty of remote work is that the distance between everybody is the same. It’s one Slack message away.
What always helped me and the teams where I worked is to just talk with everybody. It’s so simple, but it really works. Have one-on-one calls with a large part of the team. Everybody, if you’re small. As the organization grows, with at least one person in every department to form connections throughout the organization. Do that for literally everybody in the company, independently of where they are, from leadership to individual contributors...That’s a really simple and powerful trick.
What is the best way to ensure people working across multiple cultures get along?
Job: As long as everybody in the organization is a nice person, is a kind person that can acknowledge that there are cultural differences...then that works extremely well. It’s one of the greatest enjoyments to learn from people around the world. To learn about their cultures, what they like and don’t like, what is weird, what is special. I love that. It always ends up talking about food.
I find it very easy to do this as long as everybody acknowledges the obvious. We are not all speaking the same language, and we don’t all have the same background. And that’s the best part of this.
Laurel: It helps you come together as a group. Often, when there is so much sameness...you get so caught up in trying to define what makes you different, you start to pull apart. You have so much in common, you have to create your identity by showing what’s different. However, when you have a team that’s so different, you start to pull together because you’re looking for what you have in common because that’s the rare element. It really builds culture, the more diverse you are.
What do you say to companies struggling with remote onboarding?
Laurel: [New hires] absolutely still need to have those experiences of meeting the executives, and meeting their team members, and observing meetings, and having mentorship calls. Completing paperwork and training. All of that still happens, it’s just happening in a different place and in a different channel. Which can be more effective, but like all things with remote, it’s got to come in with intention. You’ve got to have this very carefully designed program that facilitates these experiences.
It didn’t happen organically before, either. All the onboarding programs we’re used to now had to be carefully designed with intention. It was years of trial and error...That came from literally hundreds of years of evolutions of business and co-located work. Now, we’re just going through the same adaptation. How do we take all of the lessons we learned then and apply them to new channels?
How should companies tackle the communication struggles that can happen in the transition to remote work?
Laurel: People get caught up in that communication channel. So much of how we’re learning in a co-located environment is through observation. And that is a mode of communication, but in a distributed environment, you don’t have access to that channel. So, you have to go through a different channel. That’s why you see more handbooks and videos and resources like that. They’re just communicating the same things through different channels.
Job: The whole evolution of the office didn’t lead to very many places. The places where I’ve worked and the places that were in an office...were all the same. There was no process. You just dropped in, and if you don’t know something, you ask.
Now we’re being asked to think about what we’re doing, to think about how onboarding works. Yes, you have to think about it rather than just throwing someone in a room and telling them, “If you have any questions...ask Sandy from HR because she has all the answers.” That’s not how it works anymore. We actually have to think about things, because otherwise, people feel lost.
I don’t think the office was that great.
Considering company culture, how can companies continue to build togetherness while working remotely?
Laurel: There is nowhere to hide in company culture. You can’t fall behind the default of, well, we spend eight hours a day together, of course we’re a unified team. But then when everybody’s suddenly independent, it holds this mirror up to say, whoa. Are we actually unified? Do we care about each other? Do we see each other? Are we actually streamlined and dependent on each other as a team? Some companies saw good things when that mirror was held up, and some companies did not.
In distributed work environments, there’s no room to hide. If you say you have a culture of empathy, and trust, and connection, and communication, you have to do those things. It’s just like with our assignments and tests. This is a results-based work environment.That’s how we see productivity, and that’s how we see culture, too.
If we are actually implementing these values in our teams and facilitating effective communication and giving feedback with trust and empathy, you see that. You feel that. You engage with that on a daily basis as opposed to just having a poster on the wall.
Do leaders of HR departments need to think more about working globally, not just working remotely?
Laurel: There was a big wave in the early 90s when travel was suddenly affordable enough for globalization and international business to really come to fruition. There was a big wave of training where there would be this very formal experience where somebody would come into your corporate office and say, “You’re about to go on a business trip to Japan, so here are the customs that you need to know about.”
I absolutely think there is a space if not a need for that same thing to start happening now. We are trying to blend so many different cultures at the same time. There are little nuances that happen.
There’s a lot of different elements that need to be taken into consideration. That also comes back to that concept of geotargeting during your talent acquisition. Yes, find the best talent wherever it is, but make sure you are sensitive to the talent you are recruiting to identify culture match in the beginning and make sure that their community cultural expectations also match your company cultural expectations.
Will more companies create head of remote roles in leadership?
Laurel: In a lot of distributed companies, we see this need for a head of remote role. Someone who is thinking exclusively about this. I have a strong belief in the power of having a head of remote. I think it’s great. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.
Job: I think we have the head of remote today because HR departments just aren’t used to it. Because it is their job. It should be part of what HR is, and HR has to get comfortable with what remote work, because it is the new work. So study it and get used to it. If you’re the head of HR, you’re the head of remote.
There is more to it which is not set yet. With remote work and us working distributed, you have to start thinking explicitly and working explicitly on your company and your company’s culture and everything that comes with it. Where you do work, who does work, these things we are discussing. And those are things we haven’t done before.
In a sense, you’re almost assigning a product manager to the product of the company culture. There’s good reason to make that explicit and do that for that reason.
Laurel: Ideally, your head of HR should be a head of remote, but so should your CTO. So should your COO. So should your CEO. Everybody is going to be impacted by this change. So ideally, the executive team should not be offloading this to some scapegoat...It should be a temporary solution to help everybody with the change management and get into the habit of thinking about their entire team with a remote-first mindset. But then, eventually, the executive team is strong enough to do that on their own.