In this episode, we will visit with Dr. Thomas Wilson, who served as Director of Online Learning with Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Wilson is what some would call a Remote Comedian.
We will touch on topics including workplace culture, productivity, work-life balance, communication, building trust with Trust Beans, micromanagement for creatives, leading a team of introverts vs. extroverts, forced fun and work culture, how training can help, and much more! Listen in as Dr. Wilson shares his experiences in his unique, delightful way.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): Hello and welcome to 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 Dr. Thomas Wilson, who served as the Director of Online Learning at Azusa Pacific University. He has extensive experience working remote and Dr. Wilson is what some would call a Remote Comedian
Dr. Wilson: Well, I think I’m funny, but I don’t know if others do. Traci it’s a pleasure to be here.
WorkForceRemote.org: With your experience in the online learning realm are there any similarities between remote work and online learning?
Dr. Wilson: As someone who’s involved in online education, I’ve been involved with trying to get people to do things from a distance, been doing that for over a dozen years. And it’s been a challenge in the past because there was this bias that you can’t learn at a distance, you have to be in a physical classroom where you can nod off as a professor yammers on and on and on and on. They felt that was the only model for learning.
As time has gone on people have realized that a lot can be done at a distance, and it can be done effectively. So what we went through with online learning,15 years ago and even longer, and the workplace has gone through that same transition where they didn’t think anybody could get any work done if they weren’t under the roof . Then this thing called covid happened and they realized that, “Oh yeah, I guess we can.” As an online educator, I just kind of saw history repeating itself. People were realizing what they could do. Yes, there’s potential and I do see progress.
The concern I have with online learning, as well as remote work, is that there are a lot of people doing things that can be called remote work, but it’s not necessarily good. And if anyone who’s an advocate for the customer knows that remote work can have some issues, if people don’t take time to study on what they should do or take classes. There is training available. In fact, Traci you offer training, which I would recommend people take -just because I can get a microphone to work in a zoom room doesn’t mean I’m doing it right, and just because I can work from home in my pajamas instead of driving into the office doesn’t mean I’m providing the best customer service.
A lot of people get hung up on the technology and they don’t realize that we’re still dealing with humans, and so we need to prepare our managers, we need to prepare our workers, who then can turn around and service those customers. So, I see it not as a problem of hardware and software, it’s more of a problem of flesh and blood.
WorkForceRemote.org: What is something that you wish more decision makers knew about remote work?
Dr. Wilson: Well, I’ll take it from the management side. From the management side, it’s a different…I don’t know that I can’t really say it’s a different management style, but the environment is not conducive to certain management styles. Because some people, you know when they’re face to face they like to micromanage, and if that’s how you manage that’s going to be difficult online. You’re going to drive people nuts, I mean, if you’re trying to micromanage remotely. I know in your courses you provide strategies for helping managers make that transition to remote; because, with remote employees it takes both. You’ve got to have equipped managers, but you also have a have to have equipped employees. But as far as the managers, they need to be able to know what works and what doesn’t work and then set expectations.
Unfortunately, most managers have just been thrown into remote. They don’t know what works and what doesn’t work, they have no policies, and everybody’s just out there kind of winging it. That’s very unfair to the employee; because, it’s not fair, well it’s impossible to hold people accountable to standards that don’t exist. It’s not fair, how do I know how I’m being evaluated? I think there’s a big void, people are just out there kind of winging it, and I’m an educator so I look at the research.
There’s research that tells us how the brain works, there’s research that tells us how people respond and how our brains respond with technology at a distance, and courses like yours take that research and synthesize it into checklists that managers can use to set goals, and then hold employees accountable to those goals. So, I think on the management side, that’s the huge void that nobody has equipped those managers. Nobody has really looked at the unique requirements of remote. They’ve taken the old factory model and tried to stuff it into remote, and they can limp along with that but it’s not going to sustain us in the long run. We need to have new thinking for this new workplace.
WorkForceRemote.org: What do you think is important in the field of remote right now?
Dr. Wilson: I think the key is you need to understand that in the 21st century, which is almost a quarter over now, work is not a place, work is not a place, once you understand that, and if you’ll embrace that, it affects how you lead. I have a team of remote employees, and I’m a different leader than I was when I was younger and just started. I was very prescriptive when I was younger, right, that like laying out every step, and this has to be done this way and everything. As I got more experienced I realized, “You know what, I’m hiring adults I need to treat them like adults. I just need to give them the what.” This is what I want done, how they do it is up to them. I got away from trying to micromanage, so it was an easy transition to remote for myself because I had already gotten rid of the micromanagement. It creeps back every once in a while, but for the most part I think the key is just treating people like adults, knowing that they have a life that is beyond work, that remote will allow them to have that work-life balance, and just tell them, “I need this.”
This works for me. It won’t work for some types of jobs, I understand that. If somebody’s at a call center they need to answer that call when it comes in, so I understand that, but for many what are called knowledge workers it’s project based. For my team, they need to be available during some general office hours because we’re in different states. But it’s not real rigid, but they have to do the work. I tell them, “If you need to go to your child’s recital in the morning, that’s fine. As long as the work gets done.”
WorkForceRemote.org: I like how you said instead of micromanaging you say, “These are the goals, these are the tasks, you’re an adult, how would you get there” and let them surprise you with their ingenuity. General George S. Patton said, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with the results.”
Dr. Wilson: That’s key, because especially in our business, my team creates online courses and so there’s an element of creativity to that. Creative people, and I’m one of those, we just shut down if people try to micromanage us. If you have creative people working for you and you’re trying to micromanage them you’re going to crush them and they’re going to leave. But, if you give them room to be adults and to do what they’re supposed to do, then you’re going to get better results. I know that many employers wonder about remote work, “How do I know my employees are working if they’re working at a distance and I can’t monitor them?” How do I know they’re working well?” It depends on the type of work, if it’s project based
I don’t see my employees every day, but guess what, if they don’t deliver the projects I have a real good idea that they’re not doing their work. If your employees are not producing then you know they’re not doing the work.
WorkForceRemote.org: What about new workers coming into the workforce, maybe they’ve just graduated, they’ve never been in an office, they don’t understand that work ethic that many of us were trained on, you know this is what you do you you’re from eight to five, and you stay busy during the day, and you stay productive, and you stay available, and you stay in a very professional environment that you can control, but if you don’t have that experience to base it on you’re walking into this new workplace that’s remote, and it could be work from home work from anywhere. What advice would you give leaders that are onboarding those new hires with no experiences? How can they prepare them for that remote environment?
Dr. Wilson: They need to have professional training. That really vicious circle that we have here is that with covid, people were thrown into remote. Now we still have people in remote, but no one was trained on how to manage people remotely, and remote workers were not trained. Now they were taught how to make a microphone work and things like that but a big challenge. Whether you’re brand new to the workforce or whether you’ve been with the workforce a lot, is procrastination. When you are not in the building, the temptation to procrastinate is a big monster, if you don’t know how to tame it. I’ve seen your training, Traci, and you have modules just on procrastination strategies designed for remote work.
So it’s those types of things, instead of throwing new employees just out there to sink or swim and kind of guess how to do it, run them through professional training, from people who have done the research, and take these user-friendly, self-paced courses that do more than just teach how to make a microphone work or how to run a zoom session.
It’s the personal challenge, “How can I have self-discipline at home and meet my deadlines?” That’s one side of it. The other side of it, and I see more of this than I see the other fortunately, I have a great team so I see more on this other side where people tend to overwork.
They can’t separate work from home life, and they never unplug, and they’re always online, and they don’t extract themselves from their work. Here’s another paradigm shift for employers: back in the day it’s work first, your family doesn’t matter, and your personal life doesn’t matter. It’s a new ball game now, you try to hire and tell someone that they have to come into the office every day – now some jobs require it – but some people will tell you, “Nope, not going to do it.” We need to adjust, and part of that is helping people not procrastinate. We want them to work, but then also showing them that you really do care about their health and that remote allows them to take care of themselves.
As a boss, I know my employees are going to be more productive if they are not stressed out, if they have flexibility, if they’re treated like adults. But if they’re stressed out, they don’t know how to set boundaries, then they’re not in it for the long haul, they’re going to burn out.
That’s one of my jobs is to make sure that there’s a balance and just kind of monitor that – not micromanage it – but just ask people how they’re doing and then if they have too much on their plate take some things off their plate. I’ll tell you it’s a lot more fun doing this, where you’re just helping everybody win as opposed to me commuting into an office and going around trying to catch people not working.
It’s just a new way of work, but it doesn’t happen automatically. It’s not some magic thing that falls from the sky, you got to go through training you need. I just emphasize this, of course, I’m an educator so I know the value of telling people what needs to be done, giving them the tools to do what needs to be done, then measuring how well they do that, then giving them feedback on how they can improve.
It’s a relatively simple formula that nobody’s following with remote work. Everybody’s just out there kind of winging it. I think the companies that are going to rise above, especially in the customer service area, will be those who take training seriously.
I don’t think everybody realizes that remote requires a different type of training. You can’t take the old system and force it into this new system; because it just doesn’t make sense.
WorkForceRemote.org: Training is about the conceptualization of the abstract whether, it’s engaging with others, communicating with others, or just time management, having those concepts and those specific things such as trust beans. I don’t know if you want to go into that, but I know that’s a concept that you have shared about trusting your remote workers and your remote workers trusting their boss. That the boss is not out to get them, so that could be a concept that could be enculturated in that organizational culture. “Hey, I lost trust beans today, or “I gained some trust beans today.” Having those concepts that you create together and those shared meanings that form together can really help, and that can come through training.
Dr. Wilson: Yes, well let me just address a trust beans. I envision trust as, think of us as all having an empty candy jar, okay, so when I go to work I’ve got an empty candy jar. Throughout the day I am trying to accumulate trust beans. When people do things that build trust, they’re depositing trust beans.
They’re like jelly beans, right, they’re putting these trust jelly beans into my empty trust jar, and so if I have a good relationship with someone, and it takes a while to develop. Over time I’ll have a full account for a certain person, so if that person does something that disappoints me or offends me, if I have a lot of trust beans it might spill maybe three or five beans out of there. But if I have 25 beans in the jar I still have enough reserve that, “Okay, that person offended me, but I still trust them I’m a little hurt, but I’ll get over it because
I have some trust beans.” If you’re a boss who doesn’t have any trust beans accumulated with any of your employees, even if you have good intentions, if they don’t trust you then anything you do, if its interpreted as negative or apathetic now they’re running a deficit with their trust. So that’s just a visualization that I have, I just think of these jelly beans as my behavior, my interactions. Am I giving people jelly beans or am I taking them away? If you think of it that way as remote employees and remote employers we need to really work hard at building trust.
Because, and I hate to lapse into research here but it’s what I do, there’s something called the theory of transactional distance and it’s an educational theory that applies to remote as well. That is where if you and I are in a room together we can interact at a certain level with certain volume and things like that, but if I need to talk to you and you’re three thousand miles away, well, we need to change the way we communicate.
It can’t just be the way it was, and so it’s the same with trust, if I’m with someone every day and I’m living with them, you might say, it might be easier to build trust. But if they’re out of sight and if they’re at a distance, I need to work extra hard. And we can’t just hope it happens. And this is where the training comes in. Training can give you strategies for building trust in the workplace. This is one of the knocks you hear on remote work, it’s probably one of the biggest ones, is the lack of culture. “Well, I’m afraid if everybody’s not forced to go to this party at the main branch how are we going to have company culture?” Well, granted, if not everybody’s there eating cake it can be tougher, but it’s not impossible.
You just need to change your strategy. So you have a choice as a supervisor: Am I going to just try to think of some stuff on my own and mail cake to people in eight states, or am I going to change those strategies and do things that work for remote that remote people appreciate. Because a lot of things that are done in face-to-face they’re not necessarily best practices, they’re just traditions that we do. Sorry, a lot of things we do are a waste of time.
That’s one thing with remote workers, they have a filter it’s like, “Ah, why do we have to have a meeting?” You’ve seen the shirt, right, another meeting that could have been an email. It’s just a different type of thinking. But trust can be built, but instead of just trying to wing it your best bet is to take training on how to build trust in a remote workplace. If you can do that then you’re taking care of culture, then you’re taking care of productivity, then you’re helping with work-life balance, and so it really all starts with trust.
WorkForceRemote.org: Some workers are really eager to engage with the culture of the team building type of training and some may be like, “I don’t really want another meeting, I just want to work.” So engaging in work versus the culture and does everyone need to do the same thing and have the same level engagement with work versus culture?
Dr. Wilson: I think really if you look at job types: different types of jobs attract different types of personalities. For myself, I hire instructional designers. We can have a foot in both worlds, we’re okay with working with people if it’s part of the job. A lot of the people I’ve hired over the years are introverts, and they would rather just work. I’m one of those, I would rather work than go to a company party. “Just please let me work!” Also, working remotely doesn’t bother us, that’s our type of work, so most of us align with that.
There are other people, though, that their jobs are people oriented and they go crazy if they’re not at somebody’s desk chatting about something every hour. They go nuts and so remote may not work for them. Rather than trying to make remote the chatty thing that face-to-face is, I think you just have to look at your people.
For my group, if I were to come up with some artificial fun – I don’t know that it would go over too well, but if I were an extrovert,t and liked chatting a lot, and I had a whole team of people like that, I think it would be an organic thing where they would all want that and we would make that happen. Here’s the problem: my team, for the most part, we want to be just left alone. If you’re trying to build culture, consider the humans that you’re dealing with. People aren’t all the same, right, some people like socializing and some people don’t. For my group, we like informal socializing, we didn’t really care for mandatory fun – like the three-legged race type stuff.
In remote, though, if you understand that it’s like, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to have this activity, and it’s optional.” Because, then if it’s optional you are building team, you’re respecting the people who don’t want to participate, and you’re respecting the people who do. But forcing one group to do what the other group wants – now we all have to give and take I mean we can’t all have a hundred percent of everything we want – but the with the shift to remote, I call it Introverts Revenge, that now extroverts are getting a taste of what it was like when extroverts can’t go to the birthday party and they’re miserable. They’re getting a taste of what we (introverts) all felt when we had to go to the birthday party. I have nothing against birthday parties, but you get the idea, right, that like the forced fun.
The great thing about remote is, and it can even be this way and face-to-face or on-site it goes back to management, you just have to know your people. Instead of just saying, “Well for a hundred years we’ve had this party this way and everybody’s going to do it.” How about if we have a put on a 21st century mindset and think, “You know what I think these people would appreciate if they are on-site: let’s cut them loose, let them beat traffic get home, and maybe they can have a hot meal at home.” That’s probably going to build more trust beans, get more trust than forcing them to hang out and do something they don’t want to do. But there’s a balance, like I say it’s not black and white, there are gray areas. We need to be open, we can’t just look to the past for answers because in remote the past doesn’t exist.
WorkForceRemote.org: Coming up with creative ways to re-imagine the team building, the cultural activities, and to create a sense of belonging for all of your workers – whether they’re hybrid or on-site or remote – maybe there’s a different way to imagine the team building and the celebration and reward events, coming up with new ways to think about it from different perspectives I think is key.
I appreciate your willingness to share all of your experiences and insights with us today, but before we wrap up is there anything you’d like to share with our listeners such as words of advice for others who are working remote or leading remote teams in the education or other industries?
Dr. Wilson: Quit trying to figure it out on your own. I know Traci’s organization, they have training that can help you. And the great thing about managers, right, once they go through the training, and they know how to equip their employees, then they’re doing it right from the beginning, they can replicate that over and over.
There’s help out there, you don’t have to just live with subpar quality. I think with remote a lot of people think, “Well, it’s remote, it just inherently not as good.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Remote can actually be better than face-to-face. There are a lot of advantages to remote, but people aren’t bothering to go through training to figure out how to optimize the remote. They’re just kind of limping along through remote, but they’re not maximizing its effect or its potential.
WorkForceRemote.org: We appreciate you joining us today because of all of the thoughtful things that you’ve shared from a leadership perspective, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in to WorkForceRemote.org’s podcast where our goal is to help you continue to go remote and work on.