Sarah Aviram, Fortune 500 HR expert and author of Remotivation, joins the show this week to share her story of working remotely around the world and her advice on how companies and remote employees can get more from the new way of working.
Tell us a little about your background.
Sarah: My career has been in HR and talent development, leadership roles at several Fortune 500 companies like Avon, PepsiCo. Some other, smaller, high-growth tech companies as well. I’ve focused on helping people find their motivation, find fulfillment in their work, and perform at their best. I’d love to share more about it.
In 2019, you lived and worked from 12 countries in 12 months. How was that experience?
Sarah: The experience was incredible. At the end of 2018, I was a director of talent development for a division of IAC. Our CEO asked me, “How do we become competitive for talent versus other companies in our space?”
And one of the many trends that I looked at was remote work. This is way pre-pandemic, remote working was a growing trend, more and more individuals wanting to work remotely and more companies like Remote setting themselves up as virtual or fully distributed teams. So long story short, I pitched to him the idea of me being a guinea pig and understanding what are the challenges and opportunities that remote workers face. Perhaps I could get experience traveling the world and looking at what those opportunities and challenges are, and if it was successful or not successful, we would have some on-the-ground research to bring back to our company to figure out, is this an opportunity or perk we would offer to our employees? Which is now what is happening.
I was in one country every month. So, Lima, Peru; Santiago, Chile; Medellín, Colombia; Mexico City, Mexico. Then we went to Asia, to Hanoi, Vietnam; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Kyoto, Japan; to Europe, in Croatia; Valencia, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; and then ended in Cape Town, South Africa. It was incredible. And I was lucky that I was traveling with a cohort of other remote professionals. We worked in co-working spaces, and I was really exposed to all different types of remote workers, both employees and organizations, as well as freelancers and small business owners.
What did you notice in terms of the optimal setup to make remote work?
Sarah: Community is really important for a lot of people, especially when you're on your own traveling remotely. So I think people feeling like, although I'm on my own, I have other people that I can brainstorm ideas with or connect with. A lot of people really enjoyed being able to work in coworking spaces in different places.
I noticed that was above anything else as a remote worker, Wi-Fi is obviously the most important thing. So anywhere that has a strong connection is ideal. We had certain instances when we were in Cape Town, South Africa, in the summer where it gets really hot and the city has to shut down power for a couple hours in different parts of the city. So we had to make sure we knew what the schedule was. We were at a place where there'd be a generator and things like that. We got lucky that we were in these great coworking spaces that helped to make sure we had Wi-Fi and that we could get our work done.
You have had a great career in HR leadership. What made you decide to start your own business and write your book?
Sarah: While I was experiencing this, working remotely from 12 different countries, I noticed something really interesting. A lot of remote workers thought that having the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere would make them feel happier and motivated in jobs that they may not have necessarily that much. But then they found themselves working on the beach in Bali and still feeling like something's missing.
I took what I knew from my HR experience, which was that the more connected our reasons for working are, to the work itself, the more we're going to feel motivated, inspired, and engage and perform at our best. Our environment of course plays a role in our happiness, but at the end of the day, if you don't love your job in Baltimore, it doesn't mean you're gonna suddenly love doing it in Bali.
It's important for people now that tens of thousands of companies like Spotify and Twitter and Facebook are announcing, you can work from anywhere where you do your most focused and creative thinking. It’s important that people understand that, first, get these fundamentals right. What is it you enjoy about your job? How can you make an impact? What skills do you want to develop and grow? I just don't want people to have this misconception that just because they can work from anywhere they're going to be happier.
How did the timing of all this line up with the pandemic?
Sarah: When I came back to the states after traveling, suddenly it was Covid. The whole world was remote. I came back March 1, 2020, which actually was the planned return date. It wasn’t cut short.
What made me pivot is I felt like there's thousands of people that I can help now understand how to be productive and engaged in their work, regardless of where they're working from. And I helped my company transition a bit into this new way of working, but I really wanted to help thousands of people. I had just finished writing my book, Remotivation. And I felt like, wow, this is an opportunity to really help everyone understand a bit more about what I just experienced and for my background in HR.
Tell us more about the concept that fueled Remotivation.
Sarah: I did lots of focus groups, surveys, and research with different remote workers in my travels. And I figured out that there was this common theme in those that were most motivated and happy in their work.
It was these common steps that they were able to take. The first one is they were able to minimize obstacles related to their money, identity, and routines. The second one was optimizing opportunities for growth and impact. And the third was realizing the joy and the benefits of enjoying your work. And so this was this theme. Just to give a couple examples, some people who said, “Well, I'm doing this job because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to pay next month's rent.”
Or the opposite. We're talking about this money motivator. “I get paid so much that I don’t know how I could do something else, like how could I make the same amount of money, even if I’m now happy?” Once we minimize some of the obstacles related to our relationship to money, our relationship to our identity, meaning who I think I should be versus what I actually want to be or how I want the world to view me. I saw that the ones that were happiest were taking these steps and were the most fulfilled in their work regardless of where they were located.
You mentioned the importance of community for remote workers. What should remote leaders do to help their teams feel connected?
Sarah: It's going to be especially important as many organizations move into this hybrid model of working where they're going to have some employees come back to the office. Employers are really having to respond to what their employees want, because now how are they competing for talent? It's no longer about the perks in the office. It's about giving employees that freedom and flexibility. So it's important to keep that community strong.
During Covid, we're on one playing field, we're all virtual. But now it's going to be different with some people in the office. So it's important to keep that community. Of course there's lots of team building things that can be done, but most importantly, it's digging into some of the things we talked about, keeping them motivated and inspired and engaged in their work.
What kind of work do they enjoy doing? Are you checking in with them on opportunities that they might want to develop? The skills that they're interested in? Are you helping them understand the impact that they can have in the organization? And I think the more connected they feel to their organization, the mission, the values of the company, the more they're going to feel part of a community, not just a lonely coworker on their own. It's actually getting back to some of these fundamental basics of how to keep people connected to the overall mission of the organization.
How can employees who want to continue working remotely have that conversation with their managers?
Sarah: When I had to do that same thing a couple of years ago, very few people were doing it compared to now. I had to bring the data, the facts, the trends, to show how productive I'm able to be working remotely. Now people have a year's worth of information to show how effective they were and how it's contributing to their performance and engagement with the company. People need to start there.
Are you making sure that you're not just wanting to stay or leave because the company says yes or no, you can work remotely? You have to make sure you're thinking about, how do I want to develop in my career, and do I have more of a chance of doing that in a company that knows me, that knows my performance, that knows my work ethic. Is it worth it for me to say, even though I necessarily can't be remote, is that important to you?
What I often see is people don't start where they are. They think like, “Oh, I'm kind of burned out from the pandemic and I need to change. I'm just going to switch companies in order to do that.” Sometimes that might be the answer, but very often, we can find amazing opportunities in our current organization if we are having honest conversations.
The truth is that many companies are offering that opportunity to work remotely. It's not going to be as difficult as it was in the past to find those other opportunities. Organizations know this, which is why some of them are trying to be as flexible as possible. But the truth is if your company is not offering it, it's very probable that you could find another one that will.
Where can people find you to learn more?
Sarah: Definitely check out the book, Remotivation. The feedback I’m getting is that it’s helping people create their own version of success. I think at the end of the day, that is the core message. What’s going to make you happy and motivated in your life and in your work, and you just happen to be a remote worker. For organizations, my business is doing corporate workshops and speaking engagements for larger organizations, helping empower your employees to feel connected to their work, more engaged, more inspired.