In this episode, we will hear from Dr. Sonya Kopp, Vice Provost of Institutional Effectiveness, Planning, and Compliance with Columbia Southern University. Throughout 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 Work: Connecting, Culture, & Productivity
Traci Frees (Founder of WorkForceRemote.org) Hello and welcome to today’s episode of how do you remote where we are discussing all things related to remote work from guests representing a variety of fields. Joining me today Dr Sonya Kopp from Columbia Southern University. She is the vice Provost of institutional Effectiveness planning and Compliance. Welcome!
Sonya: Hi, Traci!
Traci: It’s great to have you today.
Sonya: Well thanks, I’m happy to be here.
Traci: Tell us about your experience with remote and what you’re doing now with it?
Sonya: Everybody was kind of transitioned to full remote with the pandemic, so what we had in our favor at Columbia Southern was that we already work with distance education all our faculty is remote a lot of our staff work remotely as well – so the adjustment I guess was maybe less painful than other companies because we had the opportunity to already we were using some form of remote or virtual rooms to have meetings. Folks who weren’t on site so we already had that ability to work remote occasionally. I could work at home but moving full-time remote was a challenge. I think it was a challenge for everybody to move into that new that new world.
Traci: Tell me about the types of team that you work with now are you is your team fully remote do you have some hybrid employees like what does that look like?
Sonya: We actually work we work a hybrid system – for people who are director level and above work three days a week in the office: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and then your remote two days: Wednesday and Friday. I have one team member that is remote completely remote and he comes into the office maybe one day every couple of weeks just to touch base, and then I have three team members who work more or less the same schedule that I do three days in and two days at home.
Traci: Collaborating with teams like that what are some things you have to consider to make sure everyone’s on the same page? Are there challenges associated with that? Are there lessons learned?
Sonya: I prefer to have my meeting still with my team members in person so for the three that are in the office I meet with them on Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday so that because I like face to face. I like to see them. I do prefer that kind of closer interaction the other the individual who is remote I mean it’s fine, he and I are have worked together for any number of years and so we we are comfortable with each other anyway. When we schedule a team meeting it really can be for us it can be everybody’s at home like we have one this afternoon that had to get rescheduled for Monday normally the one individual is at home and is remote and then four of us are in the room together but today we’ll all be on which which works fine. Some people are face to face at times some people are remote.
Traci: If you’re having a certain type of celebration or if there’s a big event how do you keep them connected with that culture?
Sonya: We’re actually going through that right now at CSU. CSU has always had this identity of a family atmosphere and lots of employee events and we’re going to have Spring Fling on Friday. There is an adjustment in our culture of what that means and what that looks like. Because everybody’s so used to having 300 people on the lawn for this event and now it looks like there’s going to be maybe a hundred people on site and then they have some remote activity, some virtual activities, I think they’re having like a painting activity there’s going to be a gaming session where you can be at home or in the room to do some gaming things. That’s not for me, I don’t do video games. They’ll have the typical activities volleyball, cornhole, so things like that on site.
With our small team the one individual who is remote is actually close enough that he can drive in for when we have when we celebrations. When a team member has an anniversary he can come in when we have meetings that we really want all the involvement he can drive in. We’re working through that right now it’s still a bit of a challenge.
Traci: That seems to be a trend in the field where the organizations are trying to they have their culture right and that’s really important part of their of their structure but then how do you communicate that in the remote environment? How do you make get them involved in that and how do you get buy-in. What do you do to solve that that issue?
Sonya: That’s one of the things that’s being talked about right now. Do we adjust our culture? It is something that we really have to think about as a culture. Because everybody doesn’t want that kind of involvement and if my benefit is working remotely maybe that’s enough. Maybe that if you’re on site and you’re doing all these things and you’re here to participate in these, great! But if you’re remote here’s something else for you.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be the same thing because everybody doesn’t want the same thing out of that work. Some people come to work they want to work and then they’re done, and other people love that interaction, they love chatting it up, they want to go out for drinks afterward, and other people are like, “I’ve spent 40 hours with you already this week, I don’t want to spend any more time.”
Traci: That’s a really good point. It’s the mix of – if they buy into the work model and the culture of how you treat people and the value system. Versus do they buy into the culture of socialization and that element. There seems to be trends in the remote world in those directions. What do you do with that? Does everyone have to be bought into the culture right or just to work?
Sonya: Yeah, even if you had everybody on site, everybody’s not going to participate. There are some people who are just going to take the day off because that’s not their scene, or they’re going to stay inside and work. Is there really a difference?
Traci: Then that important component, you invite people to join in but do you force them? Where’s the line to that? Especially in that remote environment, especially if they’re ticking off all the performance metrics at their job. So is culture a performance metric or is it just work.
Sonya: I think it’s an overall question of what do we mean. People have different definitions but what do we mean in our company for culture. What does that mean? Is it, like you said, the way you treat people, is it flexibility, or is it these events. I often said when I first started working at CSU people were like, “oh it’s a family culture” and I’m like, “my family doesn’t act like this.” My family is loud, and we argue, and we disagree, and sometimes I like to be around them and other times I don’t.
Traci: Which is a true family culture.
Sonya: Absolutely, so what does that mean when you define your culture – what are you actually looking for?
Traci: That’s a really good point you bring up. So how would you discover from remote workers or people who are hybrid or fully remote about what culture means to them? Are there initiatives you guys have been brainstorming about of how to find out and define that. Is it going to be from a leadership perspective, are there surveys or anything, or is there a way that you can take feedback from the employees, what does that look like?
Sonya: One of the things that that we’re doing is our new director of HR, she’s been with us I guess about a year. She has taken an initiative to develop a culture and engagement committee. It includes remote workers, remote faculty, as well as folks who actually come on site so that they’re involved in the planning of anything we’re doing. Like how can we get you involved? Do you want to be involved? That kind of thing. I think it’s a matter of just of comfort level of that person. It’s a conversation. In the hiring process right or during the onboarding it’s all of those things and it’s a continuous thing. You evolve and you change as your own personal life is going. Like sometimes you really want to be around people and sometimes you really don’t.
Traci: You’re right, especially with what the whole world has gone through in the past few years. A student actually said in a discussion about society, “I don’t know why everyone is ticked off, but everyone seems right on the edge of aggravation.” I mean remote can be good being removed from situations so you can maintain that professionalism.
I think that’s really important about the culture fit, how important is culture, and does it look different in a remote environment. Is it a dynamic thing that is flexible? For your team, on a smaller scale, what do you do to communicate that culture or to at least bring them your remote people in so they feel they’re a part of something, so they’re not just out in a silo? What do you do specifically, or what do other people do in departments in your organization?
Sonya: One of the things that that we do just in our small team, is the five of us are in a text group. We have a group text. “Hey, I’m gonna be late.” Even the person that’s remote, “Hey, I’m gonna have to sign off for an hour. I’ve got a meeting,” or something like that. We have a chat and instant messaging feature, so we also have a team message group.
Traci: So you have video conferencing, chat features…
Sonya: It does voicemail, it a phone, all of our extensions are routed.
Traci: A communication superstore.
Sonya: It’s pretty amazing, it’s pretty cool. We keep we keep connected like that, but also because he is within driving distance anytime we’re going to have something if we’re just going to go to lunch, like uh the group of us that’s in the office, we’ll just let him know, “hey, do you want to meet us or do you want to come in for half a day do lunch and then head back home.” That seems to have worked for us.
Traci: that’s really important – having what works for your team because every team is going to be different. and I’m glad you brought up the size. With your department how many how many people are you talking about ?
Sonya: Me and four other people are there.
Traci: When I’ve talked to other organizations they have they’ve asked, “What is everyone else doing?” You have some really good ideas that could help other people. It’s like, “Oh I never thought of a text chain.”
Sonya: Yeah we have that. Because it’s you know there are gif memes flying throughout the day. Or this morning, I recently had uh shoulder surgery so I had to zip out to PT this morning. Then another one of the employees also had PT and she’s like, “I’m back.” So of course there was like woohoo memes. Because if you’re in the office that’s a funny thing if you’re in the office and you had to run out a lot of times or you go on break for lunch, like you would generally not tell anybody as we’re all working remote today. We do keep each other hey if you get on tonight on there here’s where I am, here’s what I’m doing. I think that’s good.
Traci: That’s key that communication and what it looks like remote. It is different than the on-site. The taken-for-grantedness of, “hey I’m on my keyboard working.” When you’re in the department you just look and see they’re not at their desk. That’s a really key aspect of working remote – the availability and signaling your availability.
Sonya: I found when we first started working remotely that when you’re in the office, when you’re on that walk down to get water or go to the bathroom you’re gonna probably stop see somebody, chat for a few minutes, you pop in somebody’s office to say hi, and you take the stairs just to get extra steps, you don’t really think about how much time you spend doing those things. But when we first went remote I was like, “Oh, I can’t go put dishes in the dishwasher, I gotta keep working. I can’t do three loads of laundry.” And the more comfort level you get with it, you really start to weigh like what is what. When I’m at my desk and working remotely I’m focused, and I’m really getting a lot done. So you must begin to equate that with that was the amount of time I spent talking in the office, so it’s not a big deal. I think everybody had to overcome that.
Traci: That’s the first thing when you first go about you feel like you have to be on the whole time and overworking. Of course you you’re getting a lot more done but it it’s not sustainable. The sustainability of remote in the effort produced and how long your attention span is and how long you need to focus. I know some ergonomic studies say every 50 minutes you should get up and have a stretch break and go do something sometimes it’s more or less for different people. I’ve sat here before where I’m in pain, and it’s like, “They need to know I’m working.” Calm down.
Traci: Tell me about your thoughts on remote monitoring equipment. What do you think that’s going to do to the field of remote? For instance, there are different software that can be installed on a computer to monitor to make sure you’re working at a certain time or tracking this or having a camera on. Do you think that’s necessary in the field of remote, from your experience?
Sonya: I don’t. We have we have found with most and, and I do say most – there’s always going to be one or two people no different than if they were in the office – they’re going to take advantage of that opportunity. Most people want to do a good job that’s what I think and that’s how I that’s how I look at my team. You have a job to do, well are you doing I don’t supervise anyone who’s an hourly employee, so I do understand that there’s a difference.
Traci: We’re talking salaried employees as staff, project-based?
Sonya: There’s no help desk situation. There are like ongoing responsibilities that they have to keep up with but a lot of project based work. Are you getting it done? I just had a conversation yesterday and this person is in the office three days a week. “Hey, you told me that you would have this to me by this date. Where is it? Whether you’re here or not, and I get it that you’re still working on it, but I do need an update. If it’s not going to be to me by this date when is it going to be here everyone’s to hold up is there something I can help you with.” I don’t think that’s any different than being in person.
Traci: So communicating those expectations. You could be in the building and still not working. I mean we’ve seen that in the past. Having those clear expectations, having the milestones where you’re meeting project deadlines and tasks as a performance metric for their efficiency and their effectiveness remote. I think I think you’re right I think and that’s what we’re looking at studies right now: Are those tools necessary. Is that going to be the future of the remote?
Sonya: We have a weekly team meeting, so I meet with all five all five of us meet once a week for an hour and then every other week I have individual meetings. They’re scheduled for 30 minutes but they usually go for an hour. I like to do that because I want to know they’re pushing up against something that’s not letting them get their job done ,or if there’s something I can help with, or just talking about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and those are super helpful. I did all of that when we were on site with the team that I managed, it’s just doing it in a different way in some cases but still doing it.
Traci: What do you think those team meetings, whether they’re all together individual, what do you think that does for your staff’s motivation level? What types of things do you guys talk about in these meetings: is it related to remote, is it related to just the job?
Sonya: Usually our all-team meeting is we go person by person to talk about what we’re working on. I want that for this team because I want it to be a more cross-trained group because everybody has very individualized responsibilities in this team. Who knows. You may be out without planning. I want everybody to know where you are and what you’re working on so that we need to pick up that slack for you we can do that. If you’re out with your sick parent the last thing you want to do is to be answering questions about where to find this file or what step you were on with this? Can you email me this? I don’t want to ask that and I don’t want them to feel responsible to respond to that. That’s what we do primarily in our team meeting: What are you working on? What is it that anyone on the team can do to help you? Is there information you need from one or the other? Let’s talk through how we can best solve this.
Traci: So you guys talk about how to collaborate on a project and emergency preparedness, so if something happens – at all times you are ready. I think that’s a really great strategy.
Sonya: When I’m off I don’t want to do that and I don’t want my team to feel like they have to do that. Anything that is active that you’re actively working on that are documents that anyone could ask for outside of this group, we need to know where they are make it make sense. Put it in that public and shared drive. So again if they ask for that piece of information, somebody asked me for it, I can just go and grab it without bothering you.
Traci: That sounds sustainable.
Sonya: I feel like people will work to what you expect of them for the most part and that’s what I want to do. I’m super-direct and very open, so I’m going to tell you I don’t think this works or I don’t like the way this is going. I’m not going to tell you how to fix it, but let’s work on this together. You can tell me, “I don’t like the way you’re saying that.” Because I know I can be very direct and everybody doesn’t respond well to that.
Traci: You bring up an interesting point of these are director level, educated, seasoned – none of these are entry level – so having that type of Team Dynamic would change the face of what remote would look like with expectations. Speak to that.
Sonya: Absolutely, I can’t speak to how other departments who have hourly employees – that’s a different to different ball game for them and what their expectations are. But the Provost treats her team the same way like if you need to be remote. If you text and say, “Hey this is going on and I need to work remote today.” Perfect even on the days that we’re supposed to be in the office. I am more or less like that with my team because again they know what they can do and what they can’t do.
Traci: How does trust come into this?
Sonya: Oh it’s definitely a trust factor, and I’m going to trust until I have a reason not to. I think that’s where a lot of managers and companies differ.
Traci: In this how do you remote series we’re interviewing people from all various fields, all different levels, just to see what that looks like. We can see kind of like a cross-section of what would remote look like from coast to coast and what’s working for other people and what can you glean to work from your team. I really like the point you made about knowing the human side – I’m not just eight hours of work I have a whole other life over. I think that is key and you’re right I think we have missed out on that aspect over the last decades of work. We just we saw the person as one-dimensional. It was like we only see you as who you bring to work and there’s so much more.
Sonya: We’ve all heard stories or had situations where somebody walks through the background, I have a hound dog he’s a big black hound dog and he is super vocal, so randomly on any sort of meeting when my microphone is open he barks. If anybody drives in front of our house or if he’s hears a leaf blower he let’s everyone know.
Traci: That’s just the humanness of work. I think the brilliance of that is things that peek through that we relate to. It’s like, “Oh yeah, you’ve got a dog too. I didn’t know that.” Now I have something to relate to you with.
Sonya: One of my favorite things about being remote is the fact that right now I’m in exercise pants and an oversized t-shirt/an oversized sweater. My preference is to always be dressed like this. When I get dressed to go to work I’m just like, “Oh, not again!” We used to get dressed to go to work, now every everybody’s in this business casual mode. You remember, when we first started at CSU, I wore a dress and heels every day even though no one saw me except colleagues. That has definitely changed. I love that.
I’m not a super formal person. I have to be really organized at work and I’m not that way at home, so you know yeah sometimes I go and just sit on the couch and put my laptop on my lap because I’m more comfortable. If I’m not going to be going from screen to screen or I don’t have any meetings and I just need to write something that’s where I want to be.
Traci: That’s a really interesting point – a standard that we have is you set your remote environment in a way that inspires you, and so there’s different means of inspiration. If you are working on a complex task you need multiple screens and you’re sitting down you’re all focused, but if you just need to create something or write something you’re going to go to a different environment with the laptop.
Remote as defined by you and your organization: Is it working from home? Is there an expectation that you should be at home in your home office or is it work from anywhere remote?
Sonya: I believe the expectation is that you’re at home. Part of it being because we are looking at student data and privacy issues. If you’re on a public Wi-Fi that you that at minimum you’re not going into the database and doing things like that. I think that the expectation is that you are at home and more or less in a somewhat structured environment. You’re not always working cross-legged on the couch in your pajamas or laying in your bed you know that kind of stuff, but every organization has a different level of formality.
Traci: That’s interesting that there is some expectation to that. Well, we have looked at some strategies of how you handle your team remote, the expectations you set, and even challenges that your organization is trying to define what is culture and how do we what does that transfer into in the remote environment, and how important is that. I really appreciate you sharing your insights today but as we wrap up the last thing we’ll look at is words of advice. For the listeners do you have any words of advice your words of wisdom and insight of working remote?
Sonya: I think for a leader, that trust level like having that trust like if it’s someone you hired if
they’re on your team you need to figure that stuff out early on. Is it someone I can trust? Is it someone I can’t? If they’re not someone you can trust to do their job then why are they still there? That is number one that’s whether they are on site or remote – it doesn’t matter.
Communication is always top of mind I am a direct communicator. I say the thing, and I’m not going to go around it 47 times. I like people to talk that way to me. I don’t want fluff, I just want you to say what it is. I also know everybody else doesn’t communicate that way, so what do you need what’s going to be your reaction when I tell you that thing super directly. I need to be prepared for that. Are you going to be offended? Are you going to be sad? What’s that going to be, so setting those expectations and then just open communication if it’s not going to work. If you’ve got something going on don’t try to hide it. Just tell me, “I’m not going to make it.” “I’m not going to be online.” “I can’t be on screen today.” Whatever the situation is, just being open about it.
Traci: Those two points right there could be two separate podcasts, so I hope you would consider coming back and we can delve into that. I think that’s a really good note to end on today, so I appreciate you joining us Sonya and thank you to our listeners for tuning in to WorkForceRemote.org Podcast where our goal is to help you continue to go remote and work on.