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A 2020 remote work retrospective with Stefan Palios (pt2)

Luke Szyrmer December 29, 2020 45

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Big picture discussion about remote work and impact across industries, labor markets, and on outsourcing

About Stefan Palios

Stefan is a writer and entrepreneur passionate about the future of work. He started writing through his thesis research at Yale University and since then has interviewed over 250 entrepreneurs and produced over 1,000 pieces of content for B2B startups, venture capitalists, and tech media outlets as a freelance writer. He’s also the author of The 50 Laws of Freelancing and publisher of Remotely Inclined. 


The rise of remote work seems to correlate with the rise of wanting employees, wanting team members who can actually collaborate and bring more humanity into the work.

You are listening to the online remotely podcast, the show dedicated to helping lead distributor teams under difficult circumstances. I’m the host Luke Show and I’ve participated in a run distributed teams for almost a decade. As a practitioner, I’m speaking with experts on leadership, strategic alignment and work to help you navigate the issues start facing after you get. Today on the show, we are speaking with Stefan Palios, this is part two of the conversation and we go really big picture today, jumping all over the place, talking about.

Impacts of the pandemic across industries talking about. What it’s meant for people who were traditionally not involved in in the labor market because they were excluded, for example, due to disability. We also talked to just about global job markets, how things have changed since the beginning of the year. It’s definitely worth a listen. And as a retrospective for what actually has happened during this year. And in addition to that, I would like to announce that a line remotely the book is launching on January 4th on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback formats.

And you can grab it, grab the Kindle one for free on fourth and fifth in your friendly local Amazon store. And if you’re wondering how it’s different, then the podcast so far, I think you will notice some of the quotes being used in the book. However, I do try to tie it all together into one overarching narrative around how to really get the most out of being in a remote environment. So not just how to survive with your team, but to really get to the point where everyone’s motivated, engaged, they know what’s going on and they’re really able to contribute as much as they can.

So head on over to Amazon on January 4th and grab your copy. And now for the show.

This is so interesting about the hour long meetings.

I didn’t know about that. One thing that I saw again in more of a corporate environment is that when when people started booking this is pre pandemic, when people started changing hour long meetings to half an hour meeting because they felt snappier. Yeah, what ended up meeting is you just doubled the amount of meetings per day or the meeting. So in terms of combating zoon fatigue, it there are multiple, multiple potential directions it can go. But the interesting thing, too, because that’s another example of why aren’t you solving the problem differently?

So, for example, instead of saying, oh, we don’t need an hour meeting, we need a half hour meeting, what did you actually do to make that half hour more productive? Did you send an agenda ahead of time? Did you give everyone a day to prepare so that they can be optimal? Did you ask people to contribute their ideas ahead of time so that in the meeting you’re not brainstorming, you’re instead discussing ideas. So it’s these little process changes that could seriously actually save you time as opposed to the more surface level of we want to meet less.

So we’re going to meet less. OK, but have you actually addressed any of the problems that caused you to meet more in the first place?

Yeah, absolutely. How have throughout throughout the year how now that we have the benefit of the perspective. It’s December. It is December of the same year, even though it feels like a decade later. But how have things panned out relative to how you thought? You already mentioned your opinion piece in February. What were the major learnings or surprises? Yeah, so definitely that I initially in February thought that covid was going to be horrendous for remote work.

I’d say that I hit some of the mark, but not all of it. There were definitely some negative elements that we’ve already talked about, definitely some positives, particularly around people just liking remote work and being more open to it. I think the biggest win there was I interviewed multiple people who said, look, I really didn’t believe remote work was going to work at all. Being forced to try it made me see that it could I may still not be the biggest fan.

I may not continue at long term permanently, but a plus that was good. The other thing I wrote another opinion piece, I think it was in May, and it was called Remote Work Can Heal America. And this was, of course, in anticipation of the US election, which we’re now seeing the results of now. I don’t know how much you get blasted in Europe, but in Canada we get twenty four, seven American news. I’m often more more educated about American politics than Canadian by any sources.

It’s a lot. So for any folks not in Canada, you have to realize the Canadian media really likes talking about the US election in May. I wrote about this method or rather belief, not method that remote work can heal is the word I used. Some of the very fundamental divisions in the United States are rather the causes of some of those divisions. So I don’t think that remote work is suddenly going to make someone very far on the right spectrum and someone very far in the left spectrum, best friends.

I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen and that’s not what I intend to say. But instead, if we think of some of the problems that occurred in the United States, the wealth fleeing to major cities on the coasts, the middle of the country being left behind in a lot of development and not being given the resources that other people were given and then blamed for not making the same progress. Similarly, on the coasts, we have exploding enterprise, but it’s accruing to a very specific.

A group of people, it’s accruing to the people who can afford to either live lavishly in large cities or at least are in positions in life to suffer through some of the crappier elements of living in large cities. And when I thought about what remote work can do, it’s OK. It’s the single mom doesn’t have to worry about taking the only job available down the street because she needs to be able to run home at a moment’s notice. She can work remotely and support her children or just a single parent, not even single mom, someone who is a caregiver doesn’t have to choose between earning some income and giving someone care, because if they’re able to work remotely, even in a part time job, they’re able to bring in income while still popping out at a moment’s notice to give care.

If someone has a physical disability, whether they have limited mobility, they never have to question if they’re going to be able to get into the office building. I remember talking to a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair and she said bluntly, and when I would apply for jobs, I had to think about whether I’d even be able to get into the building. And as often as the companies are now trying to focus on inclusion, there are some literal physical barriers that someone with mobility issues may not be able to overcome.

And that is incredibly unfair, that someone with a physical disability doesn’t get access to the same job as I do because they can’t get in the building. It has absolutely nothing to do with their qualifications, remote work and address that. It also gives people the option to either stay in their town because they can work via the Internet or leave. If someone feels very trapped in their area, they have more geographic mobility when they have a remote job. So all of these fundamental elements and then the downstream effects of that, where old libraries can be reimagined as coworking spaces so that someone who can’t afford to have a large home with a private home office still has a space to get productive work done.

All of these things, I theorized that this could really be helpful.

And then two things slapped me right in the face and I realized that I just hadn’t seen the whole story. And one was the more research that I did on Internet penetration throughout the United States as an example, because I was talking about the US, the more I realized it’s bluntly bad in a lot of areas. So here I am pontificating from downtown Toronto with my high speed Internet saying that, oh, all you have to do is get a remote job and you’ve got people who are living in not even rural areas of the United States, just smaller towns that don’t have access to high quality Internet.

So how can they access these solutions? The other part that I learned was this underbelly of how remote work for for quite some time has been used more or less as a way to take advantage of people where a lot of multi level marketing firms and and more shady enterprises leverage this notion of entrepreneurship and leading a remote company of one. You are your own boss. You can work wherever you want to take advantage of people. So again, here I am saying, oh, just get a remote job.

No problem. Remote work is going to solve everything. And these people are experiencing remote work very differently than I ever did. I experienced it as a step into freedom because I could launch a business, because I could work whatever I want. They may have experienced it as being preyed upon and being taken advantage of and being sold a dream that was not correct. And so even if I am coming in with what I feel is a more legitimate version of remote work, that you’re working for a reputable company or actually running your own business instead of being a subcontractor making the equivalent of two dollars an hour, which is one story that came out in Politico, I believe it was a great long form on this one company that’s been taking advantage of thousands of people under the guise of remote work.

That was a big learning for me personally as someone who talks about remote work a lot. But then also was an interesting thing that I think came more to light as the whole world became aware of remote work. Suddenly you had a big light shining on these organizations that leveraged the brand of remote work and leveraged this notion of freedom and entrepreneurship to really take advantage of people. So that lesson was huge for me as an individual, but I also think revealed better, bigger truth about what remote work can actually do, but what needs to be done first.

And the thing that needs to be done first is people need to feel that remote work is not just going to take advantage of them again if that’s what’s happened to them or happen to a family member. So that was probably the second biggest learning for me. That was a very American centric learning, but was fascinating because in Canada as well, just a few weeks ago, the prime minister. Announced a universal broadband fund, the government is investing a few billion over the next few years to get up to one hundred percent broadband penetration in Canada, which for such a large, desperately populated country is an enormous undertaking and both in both campaigns during the election, the US election.

Both candidates said that broadband was part of their platform. So it was an interesting thing to see if they had plans to implement it, what funding was behind it, et cetera, et cetera. So it sounds like politicians are becoming more aware of these challenges, which was also the third learning that the pandemic made pretty clear that a lot of freelancers and remote workers, even when they were full time employees, were often falling through the cracks. Because if you look at our tax system in Canada as an example, it became very difficult for companies to categorize expenses, to support remote employees, where if it was in an office and it was very clean, it’s like this is the professional space.

It became very easy to just expense that our tax laws allow for that. Many countries do as well. But as soon as that employee went remote, the question became, well, am I just furnishing their home? And if so, can I deduct can I only deduct some of that? Should the employee be paying for that in the same way that you’re not allowed to expense clothes? For instance, as a human, we wear clothes in society.

So therefore, just because I bought a nice shirt for work doesn’t mean I can expense it as an entrepreneur. Those little nuances became a big problem. And then the same thing has been happening to freelancers for a while, but came to light during the pandemic. And so I think what it showed across the board, because I recall I was in France when the pandemic actually exploded and I heard a lot of President Macron’s announcements. This is what we’re going to do for small businesses.

This is what we’re going to do for freelancers. This is what we’re going to do for you. Similar conversations were happening in the United States. Similar programs got announced in Canada, Denmark, Sweden, all these other countries. And one of my first thoughts was, wait, why didn’t these programs exist anyway? Because all of these governments bragged about how they support their citizens. So, of course, I’m not expecting that every country was going to have the in Canada, we have the Serb, which was just payments out if you lost your job.

But I was very surprised to hear these things announced as net new programs to support specific people who were basically left out of all support systems. And it’s a contributing member to society. You are as an employee, nothing’s changed except your work location. Why are the laws so different? As a freelancer, you’re an entrepreneur paying taxes just like any other entrepreneur. Why are the laws so different? So that was the third learning for me was that these broad based programs have a lot of gaps.

And so I’m happy that in many countries policymakers are aware of that. I’d say Canada has done an OK job. Of course, we have opportunities to improve and other countries around the world have different programs of different varying efficacy. So those are my three learnings. One, covid was good and bad for remote work, too. We can’t talk about the potential of remote work without talking about Internet access and without talking about how the notion of remote has been used to take advantage of people in the past.

And we can’t talk about the future of work more broadly without realizing that we have to fundamentally reassign our policies, whether their protection policies, work policies, deduction policies, tax policy, whatever it is, we have to reorient them to how the world is actually operating.

If we want that world to operate successfully in the context of the the world order we currently have in the democracies and constitutional monarchies and whatever other government systems we operate with, I think one thing that I I’ve been looking for, but not finding quite so much is information about what people can work remotely. How this is affecting them there, especially for remote work, is very easy. Any time your job can be done on a computer, the most accurate way, I think of defining what is possible.

But there’s whole sectors of the economy where that’s not the case. I mean, if you’re if you’re a lumberjack, then I guess you can go out on your own and do things. But have you follow that at all or not really that. Yeah. Yeah.

Because I want to say to for the record, when I talk about remote work and how amazing I think it is, I also recognize that not every job can be done remotely and arguably not every job should be done remotely. So I love the definition of you can be remote if you can do your job on a computer. But I would also add that doesn’t mean you have to. It doesn’t mean that I feel you should, because the example you put of a lumberjack is valid.

That person’s life is. Based on working in a location, and I want to make sure that in the remote conversation, I am never implying that is a lower form of work, that is lower quality, that it deserves to be paid less, that it produces less value in some way. I view remote as a tool, I think. It is incredibly valuable and has value elements in all work. So, for example, one company that is based in Canada is called ICI and it is a Web based secure video and messaging app for fieldworkers.

So people who fix your factory, your TV tower, your plumbers, your contractors, whatever it is, all these folks whose jobs rely on location, however, it is helping to digitize and make remote the tedious and annoying elements of their jobs. So with I see what you see, a plumber can get on a video with you and you can show them the backed-up toilet and they can say, OK, I know exactly what tools I need for this.

I know what job this is going to be. We’re good to go. It’s going to cost you good. Yes. OK, I’m going to come over and fix your toilet now, as opposed to a previous system where many times field workers would have to show up just to assess a job and then say, oh, crap, I need this tool, I don’t have it. It’s back at the shop. I’m going to reschedule you for next Tuesday.

I’m going to come with the right tools, then I’ll fix it. And I’m going to charge you double because I had to show up twice. And so when you think about the remote side of things, adding this one little remote element that was custom built for how they work, because it’s easy to use, it’s secure. So you’re not using Facebook Messenger to talk about your plumbing problems and it helps in multiple different ways.

So for the customer, in a covid time, they minimize people coming into their home, which is great from a safety perspective, but also just from a comfort perspective. You don’t necessarily want random strangers traipsing through your house more than once, but it also helps on the business side, they can assess the jobs right the first time using this video element, they can sometimes even help you fix it yourself. Maybe it’s just a matter of loosening the the bolts or something, if that’s something you’re capable of doing so that they don’t even have to worry about coming out and billing you for something that’s a two minute job.

They can also assess clients more quickly and they can sit in their truck or at home taking 10 calls, as opposed to driving 20 minutes each way for each of those 10 home visits. So they actually are running a more efficient business with a lower cost base. So when I think about those folks that whose core value is not remote, I have incredible respect for them, particularly in a time of a public health crisis where they have to do so many extra precautions to keep themselves safe, to do their work safely, to keep their customers safe.

But I would also say, let’s see if there are opportunities to make a couple elements remote and some really conscious entrepreneurs like the folks that I see what you are thinking of those solutions.

So my hope is that the the entrepreneurs who love remote think about it that way as much as they think about your whole company should be remote still on the theme of work, but maybe zooming out a little bit, if you track at all how global labour markets have been affected over the last year.

And in particular, what I mean is things like the whole offshoring aspect or how was that looked from what you’ve seen. So I will preface this. I am not an economist. And then also the numbers that I have seen around unemployment versus job growth, I don’t fully understand how to analyze them because I know that so much of that is inevitably temporary due to the pandemic or at least caused directly by the pandemic, as opposed to caused by shifts to remote.

But one story that I found very interesting was my interview with Sharon Kaufmann, who runs a recruiting agency called Decent Job, and he was talking about his first couple of businesses because Distin job is not his first. And he talked about how in the early days it was all about outsourcing and it was all about just make a function, send it to somebody else. They’ll deal with it. It’s all contractors. I pay my invoice and we’re good to go.

And he talked about how he had seen a rapid shift in the other direction. So the rise of remote work seemed to correlate with the rise of wanting employees, wanting team members who can actually collaborate and bring more humanity into the work. So instead of outsourcing every function which outsourcing may still happen, a lot of remote companies, in particular the ones that have chosen to go all remote in his experience with his clients, are leaning more toward wanting employees, wanting team members, because when you are remote, you need to think more consciously about every element of your business.

So instead of outsourcing one, because you it’s a cheap labor market and you have everything else in the head office and everyone’s in your office tower, it’s now this idea of we’re all distributed.

We should. I’ll be members of the team because we all need to contribute everything we have, the other part that he brought up that was very interesting is that the rise of outsourcing became so popular that the salary differentials or cost differentials are closing. So hiring a customer service rep in Kansas or rural Saskatchewan is almost the same price as hiring in Manila, which became a huge hub for outsourced customer service. So the economic argument is also waning at scale. There’s definitely still some opportunity, but as bluntly, the rise of a bit more nationalism comes in.

We saw very heavily in the United States. We see there are definitely elements of it in Canada as well. With UK, with Brexit is certainly a bit of a nationalist event. We’re seeing more and more people demanding to talk to people who understand their local context, that it’s not just about did the product work its did the product work? In my context, I want to talk to someone who understands that. And that’s also correlating with another interesting thing that all the traditionally outsourced jobs, customer service call centres not and those are pretty much the big two are not only being semi automated with chat bots who can answer some of the basic questions, but then are also Ursulines.

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

But they’re also now being seen as potential revenue centres. They’re being considered as, OK, how can you take a bad experience and turn it into someone raving about us on Twitter or someone actually buying more and being happy about it as opposed to being mad about it or someone selling to an ongoing maintenance contract instead of a one time fix. So as those elements get the basics automated and then require a more strategic mind, that kind of fits in to what Sharon was talking about in our interview around people wanting employees, because there’s so many more opportunities.

And as more and more consumers expect to interact with one brand, not the call centre versus the store versus the website versus the chat versus whatever, we need to have more consistent and cohesive teams because otherwise we get back to that reality that I know I’ve experienced before. Where would you go into a store and you say, oh, I saw this online, I want to get it? And they’re like, yeah, you have to order that online.

We don’t carry it in the store, but. But it’s the company. Why can’t you just solve my problem? More and more consumers say that. And what’s that Futurama meme? Shut up and take my money. I’ve actually had to ask companies to take my money before because I need what they’re offering, but they’re making it very difficult. And that, I think, is a remnant of all this outsourcing. So as we think more about remote work, we’ll see employees all around the world.

There are companies that employ people all around the world like automatic, the makers of WordPress. But I think we’re I tend to agree with Sharon’s assessment that I think we’re going to see a bigger push toward more employees, because at the end of the day, you can hire really fantastic people locally that’ll save you money in terms of your administrative costs. And you can focus on building your business and making every element a really awesome customer touch point.

Yeah, it’s really interesting how that all comes together. I think the especially the the team aspect, I think in larger companies, I think that’s getting that to work. Then also turning that into a good brand experience that is consistent. I think that’s kind of part of the challenge. So what are you thinking in terms of what’s coming next year?

Yeah, I wrote about this a little bit ago, my predictions for the next decade. But I do think I will caveat by saying a lot of this is going to depend on vaccine rollouts and efficacy and the amount of people actually opting into getting a vaccine. So. What I’m thinking is going to happen, what I’m seeing out in the world is hybrid, remote work is absolutely going to become, I believe, the full norm just in general will become the norm.

And I’m seeing that apply in a lot of different ways. So you have companies like Shopify that kind of a few months ago just announced, like we’re pretty much location independent. What the phrase they use is digital by default as opposed to office centric. So that’s fine. Let’s say that continues as is. And you’re going to have some companies like Shopify that it really doesn’t matter. They’re going to have fantastic offices, but you don’t need to be there.

They’re instead going to set up their work expectations based on available hours and mandatory meetings, et cetera, et cetera. Then you have companies that really value their office culture, whether the employees have stated that or whether the company has invested a lot into their offices and they like the recipe. Netflix was a popular example of this. The CEO kind of said, I don’t really like remote work. It really doesn’t work with our ethos. And the media portrayed that as the Netflix CEO says remote work is crap or something like that.

But what I more understood from that context was, look, Netflix has invested a lot of money into its formula, its culture formula, its compensation formula, its management formula that’s working for them. Netflix is a wildly successful company. I fully understand why a CEO would not want that to be messed with. And I think we’ll see more and more of those companies that say, yeah, the flexibility is all well and good, but I’ve invested in a formula that works and I want to continue it with those companies.

I see just a bit more flexibility coming in. So maybe they’ll adopt this idea of core hours that you only have to actually be in the office for a smaller number of hours per day or maybe a smaller number of days per week, or that will just be a bigger understand thing that you can plug in while on vacation, maybe extend your vacation by two or three days and plug in remotely to give a little bit more work life balance, those types of features.

I think those two elements, which is just under the umbrella of hybrid, are going to become the norm, even if a vaccine is fully rolled out. And let’s say we are able to get to that quote unquote back to normal, I still think remote is going to become the norm as more people just want flexibility. The other thing that comes to mind for me is there will absolutely be more ground swell demand for Internet access. The conversation that I brought up a little bit ago, where it’s starting to happen, I think there’s going to be a lot more pressure on people to actually get things done, because if you don’t have Internet access, that limits freedom.

And it’s very interesting.

People have a surprising tolerance when other people’s freedoms are limited, but get real mad when their freedoms are limited.

So I think as soon as some people start to try to take advantage of remote work and work while visiting family in their small town or work while traveling on a road trip and plugging in, tethering through their phone, whatever someone’s personality is, when more of that starts to happen, it will blow wide open. How bad Internet access really is outside of major hubs and that pressure will increase seriously. So those are my two big ones for twenty twenty one.

I do think that we’re also rather I hope that we will also respect work that isn’t done remotely. I tried to disassociate with a couple of folks in the remote work ecosystem who were pretty vocal about more or less saying if you don’t like remote work, you’re stupid. And I really don’t appreciate that take. I think it’s wildly disrespectful to people who do work that can’t be remote, as we talked about, or who just straight up don’t like it that much.

It’s OK to not like it in the same way that I was really upset when I would tell my office managers how much, frankly, I would love more flexibility and they would mock me and say the office is the way to be collaborative and productive. And if you don’t like it, that’s your problem. I don’t want to return that. It’s bad energy. I don’t think it makes any sense. I’d much rather have an opportunity for people to work how it works best for them because that is ultimately going to be way better for people.

The one last thing is I do think we are going to see some more some shifts from from a geography perspective. I don’t think that we’re going to see this enormous exodus from cities that’s going to destroy cities. I still believe in the value of cities, but instead, I think we’re going to see a move of people who felt they had to live in the city but didn’t like it, are probably going to leave. But then people who felt that they could never access the city might come.

So I don’t we might end up seeing a better distribution of of people. So it’s not so tiny towns and enormous cities. However, even with this remote work utopia, with perfect Internet access, there are people who love cities for. What they offer in other ways, so I think we’re just going to see more of those people coming into the city when they have the chance and not just angry people leaving the city.

Where is the best place for people to get in touch with you or find out more about Twitter? Definitely the best place at Stephanopoulos City, AMPAS playoffs. Everything is there. My personal website, remotely inclined blueprint Exaro Say. Right, thanks to them, of course. Thanks for having me. That was a great conversation with Stefan, and I think he really nailed a number of the major changes that have happened this year. And also I think it gave a good perspective to a little bit more objective about what is going on and how that might affect us in the future.

Beyond that. Happy New Year, everyone. And remember to jump on Amazon to grab your copy of a line remotely on January 4th and 5th. It’ll be totally free. The Kindle version and a paperback version will also be available. See you next week. We’ve got a show lined up around. Self care again, but in the context of goal setting for the year since, that is an important part of remote working in addition to covering other topics.

See them? Thanks for listening to this episode of the Aligner Remotely podcast, if you enjoy the show, please leave a review on iTunes, Google podcast or wherever you get your podcast.

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