In this episode, we will hear from David Evans, Training Specialist with the Department of Defense, and consultant with Urban Plates. In this series, we’ll dive deep into the fascinating world of remote work and discover the strategies, challenges, and successes of remote professionals from various industries and backgrounds. Get inspired from insights, anecdotes, and practical advice from experts in their field who are endeavoring to master the art of working remote.
Remote Origins, Communication, Work-Life Balance
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci Frees): Hello and welcome to today’s episode in our “How do you remote? series” where we discuss all things related to remote work from guests representing a variety of fields.
Joining me today is David Evans who is a Training Specialist with the Department of Defense. In this role he is an LMS administrator, content creator, data wrangler. He also a consultant with Urban Plates on the West Coast where he serves as the Learning and Development Manager. If you asked him about his approach to remote work, people would call David a Remote Aficionado. Welcome to the show!
David: Thank you I appreciate you having me.
Traci: So tell us how you remote.
David: I’ll just start from 10 years ago whenever this first started. I was working for Utah State University’s Distance Education Department, and at that time our dean actually became Vice Provost and eventually Vice President, so there was a huge push at the university level to really spread out amongst Utah to get that distance education out there, so I started tiptoeing into I guess what you would call remote work on site.
I was working distantly with various instructors and students all over Utah from down in Moab at the Four Corners area where Navajo Landing area is, all the way to the east there’s the Ouray Reservation towards Colorado. We were really spread out all over the state to deliver distance education. Previously it had all been delivered via snail mail, so we were behind the curve. This was around 2013 to 2014 when everything was still delivered with booklets – all correspondence. There was email, but we didn’t have a learning management system to deliver education remotely to other remote folks. Again this is kind of backwards – it’s not me working remote with on-site folks, like I am now, this was more I was on site I’m figuring out how to deliver education content knowledge all over Utah.
David: We did a lot of what’s called IVC – interactive video conferencing, so it was live lectures, We would have to find sites where we could deliver that. Students would come into a classroom setting, and they would watch these live lectures. Then it evolved from into more blended learning, where lectures were pre-recorded and everything was delivered online through Canvas – our learning management system.
We produced the media for the instruction that we needed. We organized all the classroom technology that needed to be used to be able to deliver that content, o it was a lot of trial and error to see what really worked best. It honestly a mix of everything that worked best. We just had to get really targeted on how we delivered that content. It was really interesting from that perspective – from the other side of things – being on site to delivering to remote folks and working with those remote folks.
We would do a lot of traveling too. We’d get into the fleet vehicles that our department had and we would drive five hours out to Blanding or Moab. Or we’d go out to places like Vernal where there’s oil fields and dinosaur bones. There was not much else out there, so what I found really cool about that was that remote work took me traveling. I did miss being with my family during that time quite a bit. However, being able to go out and see the pride of students face-to-face enjoy that these folks had as they’re graduating.
Normally those opportunities wouldn’t be available today unless they did the snail mail thing or they had little community colleges and things like, but those weren’t full degree programs. Utah State University is an agricultural college, that I worked at, and had business schools and other focuses. It’s a land-grant university, so it was really useful for rural areas. It was really interesting and really fulfilling to go to the graduations of folks like in in the Navajo Nation where they would come dressed in their all their you know regalia and things like and they would come celebrate. We would have these graduations out there that were in like these little high school gyms that, but it was just overflowing with people who were so grateful to have that education delivered to them and be able to take advantage of those same opportunities.
That’s where I really started getting my feet wet and my hands dirty with remote
Learning, and then it really has just stepped up. From there, I got hired at University of California in Irvine, where you and I met, and where I worked with you full remote. It was sort of the same – we worked on-site. I had an office, we had conference rooms, I was still able to see people, but all the instructors and all the students that we worked with were all off-site. We weren’t dealing with any in classroom instruction anymore. We’re also having to figure out how to work with all these subject matter experts who mostly were not used to being instructors.
One thing that was really interesting with that in working with subject matter experts and instructors, who were fully remote, was trying to adjust to not having those physical social cues. Especially when most of them weren’t using cameras on their computer. It’s mostly just talking over the phone, having a conference phone conference. People just don’t turn on the cameras, people just don’t want to be seen.
It’s hard to work with people like that when you’re used to taking those social cues from their body language, from their facial expressions and those sorts of things to all of a sudden trying to gauge what this inflection in your voice means or try to interpret maybe what the silence means.
Traci: I think that’s a really important point about the social cues in communication. What would you use in what you saw on video, what would you do with those cues? How would you use that to compensate or adapt the conversation? What would you do with that?
David: When you could see them, and if like you put out an idea and somebody just kind of gives you that look like, “Are you serious?” Sometimes you get that. You can
work with that, okay, maybe they don’t like that idea. But sometimes, remotely especially, if you don’t see their face maybe they’re just silent because they’re thinking about it and they agree with you, or maybe they’re silent because they just want to get off the phone. Whatever it is, you don’t want to seem unprepared or not confident and guess what maybe they’re feeling. You know you don’t want to assume what they’re thinking. But when you’re face to face you can pull those cues. Or even over camera, you can see my smile, you can see me gesturing with my hands so you can gauge the engagement that we have with this conversation. Not being able to see the person and only being able to hear their voice it’s so much harder to be able to gauge their engagement.
Another thing I dealt with, and I’m sure you have too, is when you’re working with multiple instructors who disagree with each other and you’re kind of the mediator and all of a sudden you’re the mediator and whatever drama that they’re coming up with. Maybe they have a disagreement in how they’re going to deliver the course, how difficult the course should be, those sorts of things. Now, all of a sudden, you’re having to be a mediator, and you’re not seeing any of those social cues. All you’re hearing is the discontent of people’s voices. Those sorts of things, it makes it difficult navigating social context of situations and trying to guide those situations to make them have the best outcome. I think it takes a lot more getting to know the person that you’re working with whenever you’re working remotely, especially if you don’t see.
So after working with UCI, I moved down to the University of California in San Diego and I started working remotely with federal agencies and creating programs from UCSD and working with these federal agencies who also had a lot of high standards that we had to meet. But working remotely, a lot of that was typically through email.
Traci: So you don’t even get to interpret tone of voice, you have to interpret the tone of an email which is the hardest thing ever.
David: Exactly, and we all know how dangerous it is to get a text message from somebody and sometime you think, “Well, what did they mean by this?” You don’t want to assume the meaning because oftentimes there won’t be those connotations of anger or whatever it is when it looks like it. There’s a lot of clarification, there’s a lot of smiley faces entered into the email, exclamation points, you know those sorts of things. Where it’s almost like, and for lack of better terms – you almost kind of have to dumb down your professionalism. At some points that makes it a little bit more personal. I don’t want to say dumb down but you almost have to lower the professionalism standards, I guess that you would have, so that you could kind of build up those personal relations.
Traci: To humanize it, for those things that’s missing the elements of the non-verbals and the cues that are missing.
David: That’s exactly it. I try to make the big thank you’s, and I appreciate your time, and all those things to kind of make it so that it’s not sterile and it doesn’t come across the wrong way, especially when you need something from somebody and you want to be you know brief and to the point. Some folks take that different ways, and they might assume how you were coming across. It’s important to be clear in your communication in those instances when you’re working remotely with email or text messages to be clear not just in your message but how you feel.
Traci: In any of these situations, have you ever preempted the email so that they can interpret it correctly?
David: To kind of prime the pump a little bit, yeah. I certainly have done that before. “Hey this is coming across…” or even pre-warning them if a co-worker is going to send them an email, certainly have done that, if somebody new is coming into the conversation here.
Everybody has different personalities, some people are like, “/i want to hear what everybody has to say, let’s all work as a team to figure this out.” Then you’ve got the folks who are like, “Just tell me what you need to tell me, get it off your chest, and move on. I don’t want the fluff with it.”
So again, with the written communication when working remotely, some people like that fluff – let’s get to know each other a little bit, sometimes you get questions asking about your weekend, so you go with it. And other people, are so busy or they have that type of personality where they just want to hear the facts and they want to hear what you’re going to do about it and move on.
Traci: Based on your observations of the communication styles between the face-to-face with video camera, versus voice, versus email so those different channels…What do you think the standards of communication are going to look like say in the next year or two with remote as a factor? The human element, we can’t lose that, we have to have that in some way or maybe we have new types of ways to classify communication style for remotes. We understand that’s a like a no-nonsense like we have those in the past from the face-to-face work environments, but what is that going to look like in the future? Speak to any of that that inspires you.
David: Yeah, absolutely. Things are changing and technology is permeating throughout our entire lives period. And whether it’s elementary age or adults, we’re all starting to have to figure this out. Especially after Colvin, when it’s turbo charged. How we’re working remotely with each other, the speed at which companies are accepting remote work is the norm, the speed at which we’re having to adopt technology to be able to work remotely, so we’re starting to figure out those communication differences on a wider scale. I think more and more people are kind of starting to figure that out a little bit. Currently I work with folks who none of them get on a camera, so we have all of our meetings and I put my avatar picture up there so you can at least see my smiling headshot.
Traci: Oh they don’t even have the picture.
David: They don’t have anything, so I don’t even know what some of my co-workers look like. Not that you need to know what co-workers look like, but I think that’s just kind of become the accepted norm; whereas, previously you go into a meeting and say, “Hey do you mind turning on cameras, please.” Or you get that pre-warning that we have a meeting coming up and you are expected to be on camera. I don’t get that much anymore, especially in the line of work I am in. We’re spread out throughout the entire country different in time zones.
The teammates that I work with now, we get into the meetings a little bit early and we spend some to getting to know each other. “How was your weekend?” “What did you do?” Getting to know each other a little bit. Then once the time comes from the meeting it’s all down to business, so you still kind of have to carve out a little bit of time even though if you don’t see each other to get to know each other especially if you are on an ongoing team working with each other. Spend some of that time figuring out the ticks and quirks of some of your team members – the things that they like, figure out how you can connect with them. Because now you can’t smile with them, obviously you can’t do all those sorts of things that you’re doing face-to-face or even on camera. So now you’re getting to know the people, you’re putting forth a bit more effort getting to know your teammates on that personal level and building those personal connections. Not that you have to be buddy-buddy and fly out and see each other, but it’s always important to build those connections – as superficial as it may be but still on a personal level.
And I’m very guarded with my family, I’m not one of those people that even when I was at my office I didn’t hang up pictures of my family and things like that, and it’s not because I’m a curmudgeon or don’t like my family, I just kind of keep my personal life and professional life a little bit separate. There’s still those superficial things that you can still talk about and build those connections.
Then you adjust to professional topics such as milestones, what we are working on, what the issues are that we’re encountering, and then you keep it simple. That way you know you’re not stuck on the phone for two hours with a bunch of unnecessary fluff in your meeting. That can happen honestly so much in face-to-face meetings or you get off topic. I know you’ve been in those meetings where it’s just like an hour into the meeting you feel like you haven’t really talked about much because you’re going in circles, you’re getting so sidetracked…
Traci: So you just want to disconnect, mute your mic, and just work do your work.
David: Exactly, or get on your phone or whatever it is. So those communication styles,
at least on my team, we’ve compartmentalized them but we’ve also made it so that there’s time for both without making it so we’re not wasting people’s time. We spend time connecting with each other before the call and that’s all voluntary, there’s no peer pressure to join in on those conversations, that’s all happened organically. We all jump on 10 minutes early, not everybody, but most people who want to catch up with each other and spend that fluff time and get it out of the way, and then once it comes time to the actual meeting and everybody’s joining them get to the point.
Traci: That’s really a great strategy. You mentioned something about connecting with people, and the different safe topics and various things that you don’t want to share too much but you want to share enough that there is that rapport that you build. Tell me about topics you have found to be a really good way to connect with people.
David: Oh man there’s some easy ones out there like ice cream. Well most people love ice cream, so just as it as icebreakers there’s always those icebreaker questions, “What’s your favorite type of ice cream?” One thing that I use to connect with people often is I’ve lived all over the country and I’ve lived all over the world. You’re from Alabama right.
Traci: We connected over! I remember because (when we worked together) I was the only one not in California at that time.
David: Yeah, so I lived in Georgia, and that’s in the South, so culturally I understand how you are and where you’re from. We could talk about the humidity is the worst or the cicadas, It’s May, so it’s probably right there in between the cool and getting hot times.
Connecting with people based on their region is good. If you traveled there before or you want to know more about it, ask those prodding questions.
Traci: Have you found people are responsive when you prod them about their region?
David: Oh, people as a rule people love to talk about themselves, so it’s not disingenuous when I’m asking people. I really want to know. At UCI, I worked with someone who was from India.
I don’t know anything about you, I’ve never been there, I know the geography a little bit, you know the basic stuff about India but it’s a huge country full of different cultures, cities are different. So just saying, “Hey, where are you from in India?” And they’ll say, and of course I don’t know where they’re talking about. Maybe I’ll pull it up and look at it after the conversation. Or say, “Oh, tell me what it’s like.” “What is it you miss about India,” because they’re here in the states. “What are some of the similarities?”
You can go on and on, there’s a million different questions to ask people builds rapport with them. You could also just keep it simple. One of the people that I work went camping over the weekend to the Smoky Mountains, and same thing. It’s like, “Oh man, I lived over that direction I never got a chance to get up there. I would love to get out there.” And they start talking about the mountains. They’re not even talking about themselves, they’re just talking about what the mountains look like. Those are the types of things you can do to build rapport, and you don’t even have to be on those topics for very long it’s just showing interest in who they are and what they do. Usually that’s reciprocated.
You know we humans, in general, are very gregarious creatures. I try to live like this, I try to teach my kids to live like this: How you approach people is typically how they’re going to respond. If you approach somebody sort of angry they’re going to get defensive, but if you approach them nicely and open, then they’re probably going to be a little bit more collaborative. Same thing with the people that we work with, the first time that we’re working with people we come across friendly and confident and interested in them and genuine they’ll respond with that, not always, there’s always exceptions to that rule. That’s kind of one of the benefits I think of working face-to-face, you can iron out those situations a lot easier.
When you’re in person, because I don’t know what the equivalent is now, it certainly is a little bit more prevalent…but you know you got those people in traffic or you got those people on a telephone who act differently than they would face to face. I used to call them telephone tough guys or thee the traffic tough guys that if they were standing next to you would not be acting the way that they are if they weren’t hidden behind you know in their car or behind the telephone. I think that comes out a little bit more in remote work where you’d have to deal with people who maybe act a little bit differently than they would face-to-face and maybe they’re a little bit more confrontational because there’s that that virtual distance or that physical distance, that safety where they don’t have to worry about any repercussions or anything like that.
Traci: You talked about working with people in different time zones, how do you overcome that?
David: Now that I’m with the Department of Defense we have people that are global, so they could be in Italy, Africa, Korea, Japan, all over the place. My team is all on the east coast and I’m on the west coast, so there’s a three hour time difference there. I’m getting emails at five o’clock in the morning already, and I know you’ve dealt with this being where you’re at and having to work with folks in California. With that time difference you’ve got to set those boundaries and expectations, and they’ve got to respect those boundaries and expectations.
That’s not to say that you can’t be flexible because you have to, but they’ve got to know that I’m not answering emails at six o’clock in the morning. So if they need something they’re going have to wait until seven o’clock my time, which is ten o’clock their time, and they’ve already been working for a couple of hours. They’re getting antsy waiting on responses. The team that I work on now they’re very good at knowing that I’m not around.
Traci: So they know when you do get on there’s going to be a response, so the trust level is at the level of, “Hey, I got it. Once you send it to me, I will respond.”
David: Yeah that’s a really good point – building up that trust level that their confidence in you is high, knowing it is going to be addressed.
One of the benefits of having people that are working globally or across the United States is you’ve got all those times covered. We’ve got people working in Hawaii and it’s easier for me to work with those folks because my time zone is closer. I think that’s like a three hour difference or two hours something like that versus like a six hour difference where with the folks on the East Coast.
We’ve cover more of the gamut because we are working globally, so that actually benefits us to have folks working remotely in all these different time zones. There have been meetings where I’ve had to attend and it’s literally six o’clock in the morning. These are large, all hands on deck types of meetings.
Traci: So just periodic, not like impromptu meetings, you know about them.
David: Exactly, but I’m setting my alarm.
Traci: Do you work an early day on those days and get off earlier?
David: Yeah, I just adjust my time.
One Pitfall and something that’s a little bit dangerous about working remotely, for me, is I will work more. Some of those days where I do wake up early and get going, and I’m an early bird, I’ll still I might still work till five o’clock just because I’ll get going and going you get on a roll there’s no, “Hey, I need to beat traffic so I need to be done and get going now” or “I need to get home for dinner so I should probably get going now”…You know, those sorts of cues. It’s so easy to get caught up in your work, when you’re working remotely, especially from your own house.
Traci: People I know that work from home have those types of days because we find that our work is purposeful and we have that buy-in. Do you think remote lends itself more to that motivation to be productive and to really want to do a great job, and really immerse ourselves in the work more than going into the building because we don’t have all those extra times devoted to commuting, to getting ready, or all of those things?
David: Yeah, commuting takes a toll, it burns you out. I’ve had those jobs where I commuted 1 hour and 20 minutes one way, through snow through canyons. It really takes a toll on your work. Sitting in traffic is not healthy for you mentally you know it drains you physically it’s not good for you um so having to do all of that on top of working it certainly drains you throughout the day. I’m the type of person where, when I’m in an office, I don’t take a lot of breaks. I won’t stand up very often, I won’t go walk around, I might go grab something to eat. but I’ll probably just eat at my desk maybe I’ll go eat out with some co-workers but that’s the extent of my getting up and and giving myself a break. By the end of those eight hours in my office some days my brain is just fried, then you have the commute on top of that afterwards, so you get home and sometimes it’s 6 30 at night getting ready to go to bed at nine o’clock, so all of a sudden your day is gone and you start over again. Then your day is gone, and then you start over again, and you kind of lose a lot of productivity just because of the toll that commuting and not taking those breaks and not being responsible in the office with the way that you take your breaks.
It really takes a toll on your day-after-day week after week month-after-month. It really burns you out. I know this from personal experience. But being at home I wake up, I take my dog out, get a little bit of exercise, I come back and check emails. Just to kind of get my head in the game of what’s going to go on that day, maybe what issues have bubbled up in the morning that I wasn’t aware of. Now I go make coffee, then I’ll come back to my computer and respond to the stuff that I can respond to right away, and then I’ll go stand up, I’ll go make myself some breakfast real quick. This morning I had an egg sandwich and I don’t do that at the office. I might bring a cup of soup or something I could microwave because I don’t like to spend money on going out to eat, especially every single day, there’s no way. I might bring a salad or something. It’s a good way to lose weight I guess, but I’m not taking those breaks to take care of my body like I should (at the office), but at home you have those opportunities.
Sometimes I’ll go sit outside and work, for my lunch time I’ll go take a 20 minute nap on the couch, and I’m so refreshed after that I’m not groggy. I don’t take long naps or anything like that but in the office that would just not even be possible. There’s no way. So come three four o’clock in the afternoon and my co-workers knew this, I would not be productive in a meeting because my brain was just tapped out after the entire day. Working remotely, I can keep refreshing myself in different ways whether it’s taking the dog out, whether it’s making coffee, or going out for a walk just by myself to go get some fresh air real quick. All those things you could do in the office, but it’s so easy just to get stuck in the rut when you’re in an office setting, around other people of having meetings all day long or not getting up from your desk because you’re just in the zone staring at a computer.
There’s so many more opportunities, when you’re working at home, to refresh and rejuvenate yourself. The way that we work is as long as you’re getting your work done, you’re responsive, you’re in the meetings you’re supposed to be in, and not being micromanaged. Not many people work very well being micromanaged, at least in our industry. I know that there are companies out there who are certainly trying to track the time at every minute of what people are doing in their productivity. That’s not helpful. You’re not treating somebody like an adult. People like to have that respect ,even just from a privacy standpoint. People are always going to find a way around these technologies. People are always going to figure out a way to kind of skirt the system. I understand where these businesses are coming from, especially the private sector where time is money. They want to make sure that whatever they’re investing in their employees they’re getting a good investment out, and they’re getting productivity out of. I get that, but most people that are able to work from home because they’re using these systems, that you can already kind of track the time on it anyways, in my experience.
The companies I work for have access to my emails, so they can see when I’m sending emails. When I’m in a learning management system and I’m making changes there are time stamps, so there are ways to still track productivity from a quantitative standpoint without invading the privacy and time of a worker. Being micromanaged, especially at the level that we’re at, it seems counterproductive because there’s ways around it. And it seems like I’m not treated with respect, I’m not trusted, I’m just another cog in the wheel. Maybe it works maybe it doesn’t, I wouldn’t want to work for a place like that especially from the experiences I’ve had at places that do that.
Traci: That’s what remote’s about, because if you have that person that you trust that is working remote how much more will their motivation be to do the right thing because you expect that of them. Having those expectations…
David: Yeah exactly, if you put that trust in people to do the right thing, and they’re constantly doing it, and you’re acknowledging that they’re doing the right thing. Suddenly I trust the business that I work for more. It goes both ways. You’re going to be dedicated to that company, you’re not going to be inclined to leave.
From a leadership standpoint, because I have I’ve hired folks that work remotely for me, you certainly have to set those expectations of producing quality materials. I know there’s distractions because I know from experience, but I know there’s distractions from cell phones to Facebook to YouTube to whatever it is the television that you’ve got on. Maybe you want to watch Office Space in the background, whatever it is, there’s going to be a myriad of distractions. Setting those expectations is certainly important from a leadership and institutional standpoint to make sure that you are getting that productivity, Because it does go both ways. You know you can’t just be an aloof remote worker. You’ve got to build that trust and make it so that they can be confident. I like to do that as quick as possible, just because I don’t want anybody to question me, question my abilities, question the quality of work, question how I’m spending my time.
Setting those expectations, like “Look I’m giving you this time to do it, I’m giving you the space to do it, and I’m giving you the trust to do it. You’ve got to do it, and if you don’t then I’m going to have those conversations with my superiors on finding a new somebody that I can trust. Oftentimes I’ll have to keep setting those expectations, you know let’s all work together, you’ve got to submit work that’s acceptable. um and so there certainly is that on the other side of the leadership standpoint where setting those expectations is important, without invading their privacy.
Traci: What are some words of advice that you would like to pass on?
David: Use this time take advantage of it, when you’re working remote, to find that work-life balance. Because we’ve talked a lot about the commuting the office space. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the good and the bad of working remote. My advice is certainly to find that work-life balance, or take advantage of that work-life balance. I’ll give you an example of what I do. I have kids, so I’m able to take advantage of either being able to go pick them up from school, drop them off at school, go to the sporting events, that normally I would have missed being in an office setting.
At the same time, not overworking yourself at home. It’s so easy to do, especially if you’re ambitious, especially if you got a lot of extra work to do, specially if you think that the work that you’re doing is just going to b be quick. There’s always going to be work to do, so use your time wisely when you’re working remotely. Be smart, not just about the work that you submit, and the work that you do for the company that you work for, but be smart about your own life. That’s certainly something I’m trying to work at – fitting exercising, fitting time with family in, now that I’ve got more time and less commuting. It’s just to strike that balance.
Traci: That great advice and a great note to end on. I’d like to thank you again, David, for joining us today. Thank you to our listeners for tuning in to WorkForceRemote.org’s Podcast where our goal is to help you to continue to go remote and work on.