About the Episode
The world has changed dramatically over the past few weeks, and many of us are adjusting to a new reality of working from home. Most people are under high stress and feeling uneasy as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues. If you’re navigating through the challenges of becoming a remote worker, we’re here to help. Listen now for tips on how to make the adjustment to working from home, from those who have worked remote for years.
Meet Our Guest
As the Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Formstack, Miranda Nicholson knows a thing or two about being productive when working from home. As part of a remote-first company, Miranda has helped interview, onboard, and support remote employees for more than seven years. She knows the benefits of working remotely, yet understands the challenges organizations face when transitioning to a remote workforce.
Chris Byers: Welcome to Ripple Effect, a podcast from Formstack revealing how simple decisions can have a lasting effect on others. I'm your host, Chris Byers. Today, we're doing something a little bit different.
The world has changed quite a bit around us over the past few weeks and many of us are adjusting to a new reality of working from home. And as you might know, Formstack's actually a very remote-first company. We have more than 60% of our team completely remote. Even if you were in an office on a given day, plenty of those team members do work remotely and so have made it a high priority for us.
Today's guest is Miranda Nicholson. Miranda is our Vice President of Human Resources. She's here to provide you some tips on how to make the adjustment to working remotely if it's your first time and share some insights into how to make that really effective.
Miranda, thanks for joining me today.
Miranda Nicholson: Thanks, Chris. Glad to be here.
Chris Byers: Wonderful. Well, we'll make this a little bit more of a conversation, maybe some more back and forth than we might normally have in this podcast. So the first one is really obviously Coronavirus has forced many companies to quickly adopt remote work. I know I've seen that where I live in Oklahoma. I'm sure you've seen that in Indiana. How can people who've never worked from home adjust to this sudden change?
Miranda Nicholson: I think the most important thing to keep in mind would be flexibility.Recognize that your days will look very different. So where you can create structure, but also be flexible in that structure. I know that sounds a bit like an oxymoron, but bear with me. What I mean by that is you have a dedicated workspace each day. You approach that workspace as if you're going into an office and recognize that that workspace may change every day based on what your day looks like or the things that you need to balance at home. If it's your kitchen table one day or you've got a you know, a dedicated space that's in the corner of a room at somewhere where you feel you can be very productive. I think that first and foremost is the most important.
Chris Byers: So one of the things that a lot of people are dealing with right now is actually having family home, kids, spouses, et cetera. What are some things people can do to adjust to that?
Miranda Nicholson: I would go back to the flexibility part, recognize that your children will likely be interrupting you. Your spouse will need a hand. You know, work looks different for everyone. So where you can create schedules at home or shared responsibilities, I think is super important. My own experience, I'm home with a nine year old and my husband is also working from home. And we are working separate schedules, if you will. So in the morning he'll take her. When I have a break, I take her for a while and we switch off and on. It gives each other a break from those parental responsibilities and some heads down focused time where we can dedicate that solely to work and our partner has that homefront under control.
Recognize that your days will look very different. Know where you can create structure, but also be flexible in that structure.
Chris Byers: Tell me more about how you went through the process. You've obviously made some quick decisions over the past couple of weeks. That actually sounds very flexible that you've made some quick decisions on how to adjust to having kids home, etcetera. Talk us through that process a little bit more. How do you think through that and get to that conclusion?
Miranda Nicholson: We experimented. I know that one of our culture values at Formstack is be agile and iterate. And I think we do that at home. You know, you recognize that every day looks different. For example, today I have back-to-back meetings. And so my husband is the primary caregiver today. You know, tomorrow I've blocked off my morning so that I can take care of our daughter. What we did was we recognized very early on that we had to acknowledge and be OK with the fact that our child and our home life was going to interrupt our day. And how could we build our day around that in a way that made sense for our family and also made us still feel productive at work and not pulled in too many different directions.
Chris Byers: I think that's great, one of the things that you alluded to there is really putting a system together that could work for a while, testing through it, but could work for a while. I think one of the perspectives that's helped me a little bit is really thinking about this as something that could last a little while. And in fact, with schools closing around the country, I think we're shown it's probably going to at least last a while, but we're not going to be back to a normal life, I'd say, for maybe a couple of months. And so how do you think a long term mindset actually helps make decisions for today and this week in working better remotely?
Miranda Nicholson: I think you've kind of answered that. I think it's hard to think long term. You have to think about what works right now. You have to think about what's in your span of control at this moment and work around those conditions, if you will. When I myself think more long term, it's difficult to know what will be experienced at that point in time. So it's hard to set up those systems. I think going back to that flexibility, when you recognize what's in front of you and what you can overcome or what you can work with in that moment, there is some peace of mind there that you don't get when sort of thinking in that longer term with variables that you can't control.
Chris Byers: I think what's interesting about this topic is our entire journey as a company into remote was not some journey where we said, let's go remote. That's a great idea. It was simply born out of a couple needs that we were trying to flex and be agile with. One was my own personal need where my wife had an opportunity to work back in Oklahoma, where we were from, even though we had an office in Indiana. And in addition to that, we had some team members who wanted to move out of state. And I think that third thing was we were challenged to find really good remote terra, not remote talent, just talent, especially around engineering back in 2012. And remote just kind of became a great solution for a lot of those problems. And so I think one of the beauties of maybe what we are experiencing today is it's forcing us all to do things we wouldn't normally do, but maybe we'll learn something kind of new and helpful on the way. I'm curious, just a week in, a week or two in, Miranda have you learned anything new that is a little unexpected?
Miranda Nicholson: Yes, I've learned that while I've always known that I'm extroverted, I have recognized that I need more social interaction, this sounds really bad but, outside of my family. And when I was going into an office, I was getting that social interaction with my coworkers and colleagues and people I would consider friends. I'll tell you, I have a couple days this week where I've scheduled virtual lunches with my team members. I've scheduled them with my friends and just, you know, sitting on a video chat and making time for that social interaction without an agenda, without, you know, any work to be done and just enjoying the virtual company of someone else.
I'm trying to think about that as a leader as well. I have several extroverts on my team and I know that, you know, they're at home with small children and they're struggling to find what their new normal is. And how can we provide some positive interactions with each other that aren't adding to the stress of what is already a very stressful environment and situation?
Chris Byers: So you alluded to something that I think we've actually seen a lot of Formstack where to create some of that in-person experience. We've tried to encourage people to do things that are more social. Can you share some examples of some of the things we've done? Maybe not just kind of because of this environment, but what we've done in the past, that Formstack has done to really encourage virtual social interaction?
Miranda Nicholson: Absolutely. So several years ago, when we saw the balance of remote edge out our local employees or home based employees, we decided to start something called Formstack Fun. And it was at first very informal. It was a way for all Formstackers to get together virtually and do some sort of fun activity. So in the past, we've done costume contests, we've done trivia, we've done video games, which is, you know, pretty easy in this day and age, Jackbox games. Each month we'd have a different Formstacker in charge of planning it. So they'd be the game hosts. They would organize the prizes and the rules of the game. Sometimes it would be using our own product. But the highest level objective was let's all get together, let's compete in something that's fun and lighthearted and have a chance to interact with each other and not do any work.
Chris Byers: Yeah, I love that. And I know I've gotten to participate in some of those things over time. And I've heard this week that a Zoom room or a Slack room kind of popped up around Mario Kart where people can get on and play Mario Kart together. And I think that often right now we're thinking about the global macro kind of virus and economy and all of these things. And yet to me, one of the bigger challenges we should be thinking about as leaders right now is the mental health of our teams, because they're all going through so much, both personally where they are reading headlines and the headlines are not encouraging. But on the other side, they are dealing with just a new work reality for a time. And so I think our ability to put some of those mental health, you know, positive mental health things in place can be really positive. Tell us more about some of the things that you've been thinking about implementing around mental health and really helping people excel or at least be well during this period of time.
Miranda Nicholson: So one thing that we do at Formstack, even regardless of current climate, is we do health checks with our employees. So anyone who's going through any sort of transition, be it a new role, a new team, they're new to Formstack in general. We're checking in on them at a regular cadence, finding out what's really working for them, what challenges they may be seeing, and what their relationships look like across the organization. We found that that's really helped with mental health across the org and able to diagnose things that may be blockers for our remote team members that are experiencing some sort of transition and something that we're really going to step up in this current climate to make sure that we understand what's going on around the organization as people face, you know, what we continue to call their new normal.
Another thing that we've recently rolled out is called Bravely. Bravely is a workplace coaching for critical conversations. It is a web based program where you are paired with a coach based on certain elements of who you are. It's all confidential. You go online, you enter in your availability, you enter some details about what it is you'd like to talk through. And an HR certified coach that is not affiliated with your organization will give that person a call and talk through whatever that is. They've set up some accountability metrics, well not metrics but things to follow up on during your next conversation. So if you're talking through things like I'm struggling with my work life balance right now, what should I do? They'll help you come up with a game plan. And the next time you talk to them, you're actually asked about how that when and what you did and what what was the outcome. So there's that accountability loop. But it's also a person who, there's no fear of the wrong person, or the right person, rather, learning about a situation before you're prepared to talk about it.
Chris Byers: You know, I think in my experience, mentors, coaches, counselors, have been just a wonderful addition to just my regular life, leading, growing, et cetera. And so in this time, I think it's even more valuable to say, you know, to have somebody to talk to and process what's going on in your world and around you. Because I think there's a lot to process.
Miranda, let's go back many years, 2013, 2014, when as an organization, it will be hard for both of us to remember, but we will try. When we were trying to go remote more and more over time, maybe talk a little bit about some things that we probably at this point totally forget that were actually fairly hard to do. You know, one thing that comes to mind for me was that we used to have a rule that when you're starting a video call, when you're starting a conference call, sometimes when you're trying to get a whole group or a whole company on it can be really challenging. People have technical problems. People have all kinds of frustrations. And for whatever reason, even though in theory it's just click a link, it just doesn't work for people. And I know we created a rule at one time where we said basically, if you're 10 minutes into when a call is supposed to start and it's not started, people are so full of frustration and angst. Just call it done, reset it, do it another time, because you don't want people going into those calls frustrated, just trying to get on the technology. But what are some things, Miranda, you can remember from the past where we really had to learn a new way of working.
Miranda Nicholson: The first thing that comes to mind for me is remote interviewing. When we made the switch to remote, we actually would fly people into the office to interview, which seems a little silly, looking back on it now, if we were hiring someone for a remote position. And so that switched to remote interviewing was fairly difficult. We had to come up with a pretty clear set of criteria on what would make a good remote employee versus not. And some things that we found to surface over, you know, six months, a year into it was communication. What what was their communication style? How did they present themselves on video? Were they communicative during steps of the interview process? So if you've sent them an email and asked for an action, did they follow that up? Were they able to articulate clear answers to questions? And we would create some interview questions to assess that, you know, what is your definition of over communication? How do you, when meeting to have a difficult conversation, how do you approach that, those types of things.
I would say another thing that came to mind is be aware that you are on video and the environment that you are presenting behind you. So what I mean by that is we have somebody who really liked to join calls wearing a cut off t-shirt and, you know, shoulders and all of that. And, you know, we've had people with really, really messy environments behind them and that's distracting for people on a call. So how can you set up your home environment so that it's not only productive for you, but it's productive for the person on the other end of a video call who is interacting with you. You know what is there eye drawn to? You want it to be focused on you, not what's going on in the background.
Chris Byers: Yeah, I think those examples are great. It reminds me of another one, which is we had to learn a lot more about written communication. When you're in an office, it is so easy to grab a few people, pull them into an office or go stand in the middle of a group. And just even if you're just talking to one person, other people overhear your conversation. And that actually turns out to be this positive rumor mill, let's say, and you just don't get that in a remote environment. And so we had to convert to a lot more written communication via things like having a wickie of sorts or a knowledge base. So we use a product called Confluence from Atlassian, where we store a lot of data. We actually may send more emails than some organizations, but it's out of a need that when you write something down, people have time to digest it. People can go back and review it again. It's the one medium of communication that creates the most consistency.
I get on a video call, I talk through something. Sometimes people capture that, but sometimes they're distracted. It happens and they're not listening. But then they don't get to hear it again. And so I think there are ways you can overcome that, like recording videos. But that written communication, I know was an early learning that you really need to over communicate in an organization that's working remotely for a time or forever.
So let's talk a little bit about maybe what are some dos and don'ts of working from home. You mentioned having a great environment and then the inverse that your kind of not so great environment can be very distracting at times. Tell us more about some dos and don'ts you have for how you work at home and maybe how you suggest working for other people.
Miranda Nicholson: I think first and foremost, a do is also a do not. And what I mean by that is you do want to think about all the ways that you communicate non-verbally with people you work around and be intentional about how you are communicating going forward. So things that, you know, you walk over to someone and ask them a question, you're going to now need to reach out to them on Slack and or whatever your messaging platform is. I think another thing to think about is don't work in a silo. Recognize that remote work, while your environment and the way you get things done is different, it's important to set up those alternate routines. And what I mean by that is if every day you start by reaching out to your team members and saying hello and that was done in an office, do that online, send an email, just say, hey, thinking about you guys. Good morning. Hope we all have a great day.
I would say give yourself permission to walk away from work for a few minutes. When you are working remotely, it's very easy to get into a routine where you look up and you realize you've not had anything to eat. You've not had anything to drink. And you know, you've gotten a lot done, but that's not sustainable long term. So baking in some breaks during the day to get up and move around and get sustenance is super important.
I would say one don't that I've seen from remote work is that you are completely siloed and unavailable and not recognizing that people around you need to hear from you. Not just to know that you're working and not in a micromanagement fashion, but more around, you know, do you have what you need to get your job done? Are you providing what others need to get their job done, be available, but set some boundaries. So, you know, if that's setting work hours or if that's communicating to your team that you're available during this time, in this time or setting up office hours on your calendar. I think that's really important for people to know when they can get ahold of you. And I think one of the things that may seem counterintuitive when you work remote is something that you, Chris, have sort of led by example with is, don't be afraid to pick up the phone. You know, in this day and age, most often people rely on text and things of that nature. So it's very easy to default to instant messaging or sending an email. And sometimes it's just better to have a phone call rather than defaulting to, oh, no, what's wrong when you see the phone ring. Recognize that somebody is trying to get a hold of you to work through something quicker so you both can get back to what you need to get done for the day.
Chris Byers: Yeah, I think one of the things you alluded to there is something, if you're a leader or a manager and really if you're just a coworker with somebody, this is going to happen. But as a leader and manager, one of the things you should realize is that if you've been in an in-person working environment for a long time, you don't realize how much you equate trusting someone to seeing them right in front of you. And so literally, they might be on Facebook, you don't know, but they're in your office, you see them there. So you're like, they're working. This is great. And then the moment you don't see them, all of a sudden you can have this kind of lack of trust of everybody around you. You don't know what they're doing. Are they watching Netflix or they doing something, you know, not working. And I think, Miranda, what you said is really important. Set some ground rules, I think. What are your expectations? How do I know you're kind of online and working and knowing what's going on? How often do I want you to communicate with me? We used to have a cultural value called communicate status. And frankly, it was the thing that most people, if somebody ended up having to leave the organization, that was the reason often why. They did not communicate status and let you know, here's what I'm doing today. And it doesn't have to be a you know, a here's my task list. And I just checked off a task. Just a very hey, here's what I'm working on. Here's where I need help. Because if you're not giving that kind of feedback to your team, to your manager, it can be very haunting, like what in the world's going on. And I think can create some some lack of trust and lack of understanding of what's going on.
Miranda Nicholson: Yeah. One thing I would say that my team does and not everybody, but I found that it works for some members of my team, is time boxing your calendar. It's a great passive way to communicate what you're focused on for the day, your team can look at your calendar and they very quickly can gather what your priorities are. And I treat my calendar like a time boxed task list. So if I have a lot of tactical things that I need to get done, I will block off certain days of my week and I will set my task list. And, you know, it feels really good to delete that item off my calendar once I get it done. But I would say, you know, a lot of my team members do find that helpful because they know when I'm available for questions as well. And they also know what I'm prioritizing so they can expect to know if they're going to hear from me about something that we may be working on together, just based on what I have outlined for the day.
Chris Byers: So one of the things that I think is happening in the world right now is, let's roll back to Pokemon Go released a couple of years ago. And I don't know if you remember it, but it felt like the world changed for a moment. You'd go out and there were just people everywhere at parks and it was just this shocking kind of change in the world. And yet, it only lasted a weekend or two weeks or something like that and then it kind of passed. You know, one of the things that's interesting about this is we're all going to be at this for a while, for a couple months at least, I think. And so and maybe even at times, we'll need to prepare for it in the future. Miranda, what are your predictions about how this change, kind of global change is going to create change in kind of remote working and how that plays out in the future?
Miranda Nicholson: Yeah, I think people, well leaders specifically, will realize remote work is not as scary and unproductive as they think it is. One of the biggest challenges that we've had over the years is managers who have not had any experience managing remote team members. There is, as you mentioned before, Chris, sort of a lack of trust or, you know, how am I going to know if they're getting their job done? And the good news there is we're all adults and we all know what it takes to get our jobs done. And as a leader and as a manager, you very quickly realize those people around you who may not be productive in remote environments, may not be getting their jobs done. I've found it's much easier to see that when you are remote versus when you're co-located in an office. As you mentioned, someone can be looking at Facebook and you perceive it to be work. But it's you know, it's not work at all.
And I think allowing people the freedom to determine where they're most productive, when they're most productive, you'll see that positive upswing in people getting their jobs done in the quality of work that they're producing. You know, and in a sales environment, it's really easier looking at quotas and you're looking at productivity of some of your sales reps. In those other roles that may be a little bit more gray area, what does the work output look like? What is the quality of the work when a person has time and freedom from distraction to get those really creative or really detail oriented jobs.
Just another topic kind of on this how will the world change? I actually think there are probably a lot of us right now who are learning some surprising things. What are some, and I don't want to speak positively about this kind of global virus that's hitting us all, that's not a positive thing and people are dealing with real health concerns. But as it does force us into a new way of work, what are some things that have been surprisingly just positive for you already that you've said wow, I didn't think that being kind of forced to not going into the office and be personally remotely working all the time was actually going to provide this. But it's kind of showing some positives.
Miranda Nicholson: Everyone is now on the same level. And what I mean by that is, in this world, everybody has a different set of circumstances, experiences, you know, their home makeup is different. But we're all on the same playing field right now. We all don't have the option to go on vacations. We don't have, you know, the luxury of taking a long, I mean, it seems like every day's a long weekend, but, you know, taking a long weekend and getting away for a little bit. We're all sort of working through the same challenges environmentally work wise. And I think the positive that I've seen out of that is people rallying together to share bright moments, happy things that they're experiencing, and people offering to lend a hand. I had a coworker earlier today, give me a resource of a person who can help with homeschooling for my daughter. And, you know, if we weren't in that same situation, I don't know that that would have happened organically. And I think that's been really great to see. I love the thing going around about calling your kids, your coworkers and your spouses as a roommate, so that you're, you know, avoiding fights and you can sort of brush off those tense moments off. I would say the other thing that I'm seeing that's really positive in my own experience is, you know, it's OK to admit that you're struggling a little bit. No one is perfect at this and no one is claiming to be. But how can we all rally together to help each other be more productive and be happier and get through this positively?
Chris Byers: You know, one of the things that we've all experienced in the past, before this environment changed, was having a dog bark or having a kid walk in our room. And it feels as a remote team member sometimes like this is really frustrating. You feel apologetic. And it's actually wonderful to be in an environment for a little while where we can say it's just normal. It's not a big deal and yep let your kids run through there. I know you're trying to keep sanity. And if they need to sit in the back of this call, that's not a big deal. And I think that's been a cool benefit to even maybe see more of people's reality than we normally allow because we often put on that. We're at the office. We're going to be professional. We want to keep out all of these distractions. And so I think that is a great positive. Well, Miranda, any parting thoughts you just would love to kind of give to someone who is diving into work, remote work right now, a company who's trying to learn how to work that way. Anything you want them to hear on the way out?
Miranda Nicholson: I think the biggest takeaway for moving to remote work is actually a theme of a recent communication we sent out to the organization and it's have grace and patience. We have nothing but time right now. You know, for better or worse, and where you can practice patience, provide patience, and exhibit patience, and where you can have grace. Grace for yourself is most important. Grace for other people. And grace for your neighbors. I think, you know, we'll all get through this together as cheesy and over used as that is. We are all in this together. And we can help each other work through this, we'll all be better for it in the end. And so my parting thought to summarize is, if anyone listening would like advice on how to work through remote working challenges that you're seeing in switching to remote personally. And, you know, being a parent and also having a full time job, I am more than happy to be a resource to you.
Chris Byers: Well, I love that. And thanks so much Miranda for leading our organization through your HR team and really helping instill and put some great culture into the organization and continue to grow it. If you're listening, Miranda and her team are a great resource and we'd love to be able to be a help in this time.
If you're navigating the new reality of working from home, here's some things to keep in mind to minimize some of the stress that may come up from this sudden change.
First, remember, you and your coworkers are facing the same challenges. You are taking this journey together. You're not alone in adjusting to this big change.
Second, communication is everything when working remotely. Be open, honest, and clear with your coworkers to make the transition easier. Over communicate to ensure your team feels confident and comfortable.
Lastly, put aside some time to make things fun. It's crucial to build strong relationships when you're working remotely. But it's even more important now that many of us are under high stress, feeling uneasy as this pandemic continues. Here are some findings to try: add a remote happy hour on the calendar or set up a virtual coffee chat with a coworker. Take some time to play a game over Zoom with your team. Any of these can make a great difference when the feelings of isolation and loneliness creep in.