Owl Labs (OL): How did you get to where you are in your career today?
Tammy Bjelland (TB): I started my professional career in academia and was planning to become a Spanish professor. I moved back to the U.S. from Spain in 2011 and landed my first remote job in ed tech. I loved working remotely, being part of a product development team, and contributing from a distance.
I also loved the process of developing a learning experience — I did learning experience design consulting and worked with various ed tech and corporate training startups. Then, in 2017, I founded Workplaceless.
OL: Was there a particular experience or conversation you had that inspired the founding of Workplaceless?
TB: My experiences as a remote worker were fantastic. I loved working with teams all over the country, and the world, and being able to collaborate on complex projects while working from home. I was inspired by seeing the potential and end result of remote work.
However, as a remote worker, I was also struggling with my own professional career. I started working remotely in 2011 and knew I never wanted to work in a traditional office, on a traditional 9-to-5 schedule. I struggled to find professional opportunities that were remote-only or supported remote work. At organizations I worked for, there weren't professional development resources for remote team members to understand what opportunities existed internally, and that was one experience that inspired Workplaceless.
The other source of inspiration was on the hiring side. I served on hiring committees, and it was challenging to identify potential candidates who would contribute and be successful in a remote environment, especially if they didn't have previous remote work experience. That meant we were eliminating a large talent pool automatically, which made me think this could be true for other companies that are hiring remote positions, too.
Many companies hiring for remote positions prefer candidates with previous remote work experience, but that shrinks the talent pool and eliminates people who have previously been excluded by the digital economy (e.g., people returning to the workforce.) Let's say a caregiver is returning to the workforce and seeking a remote job because they live in a rural community and there are limited economic opportunities. If they consistently get feedback that they need remote work experience before they can get a remote job, remote work isn't accessible to as many people as we want it to be.
Workplaceless was created because I saw a need for two things:
- Professional development resources for remote individuals
- Tools for companies to adequately prepare workers for remote work
Many companies hiring for remote positions prefer candidates with previous remote work experience, but that shrinks the talent pool and eliminates people who have previously been excluded by the digital economy (e.g., people returning to the workforce.)
OL: What are some of the specific initiatives and programs you offer at Workplaceless?
TB: Our mission is to help remote workers, managers, and companies succeed in location-free and flexible work environments. We don't just want people to be able to work remotely, we want them to thrive — and we want the companies they work for to thrive too. We're aiming to positively impact both the supply (the number of roles) and the demand (the number or qualified candidates) of remote work opportunities around the world.
We offer comprehensive training to any player within that space. We offer training for remote workers, our Workplaceless® Remote Work Certification Program, and a leadership program called "Leadplaceless." We also have a train-the-trainer program called "Trainplaceless," and a program for change managers who are looking to convert their business to a remote model, called "Goplaceless," which guides them through the process of converting to remote work and creating a remote work policy.
Our programs are built using a competency-based framework that identifies the skills needed to succeed across all phases of a remote career, whether you're starting out as an individual contributor or leading a remote team in a remote company. This means our trainings are beneficial at both the individual level as well as rolled out across teams and company wide. Those self-paced programs are available now, and we have other programs in development. For our company clients, we offer live facilitated sessions to discuss specific needs of their business and reinforce the teachings, which helps to drive engagement and completion of the programs.
We receive many recommendations about what courses we should create, and we have workshops on other topics. For instance, we had a suggestion about how to prepare for a virtual interview. A hiring manager wanted to be able to send all their potential candidates to this particular course to make sure they understood how to set up their remote work environment before getting on a virtual interview. To test out suggested content, we develop workshops before developing a full-fledged online course.
Plus, we offer learning and development consulting services for remote and hybrid teams and we noticed many remote and hybrid teams don't have people performing the L&D function specifically. Some positions perform L&D functions, like managers or coaches, but smaller companies rarely have specific roles dedicated to the L&D function, which is critically important for remote workers.
OL: What are the types of organizations and teams you typically work with?
TB: We work with fully or partially distributed teams, so remote or hybrid teams,or even teams who are just starting to explore the shift to a remote model. Our programs are industry agnostic — we don't focus on any one particular sector, since almost every sector can benefit from and implement remote work to some degree.
An example of this is the success we’ve found in government contracting. Within the U.S. — specifically in the DC-metro area, where the unemployment rate is very low and the competition for top talent is extremely high — it's beneficial for government contracting agencies to explore remote work so they can tap into talent across the country, as opposed to only having access to those who live in the D.C. metro area, so that's an interesting industry that we're seeing success in. Our customers are primarily U.S.-based companies, however, we currently have channel partners and initiatives using our programs in Ireland and Australia as well.
OL: Are there any specific challenges that you find come up most often, like meetings, 1:1s, or some of the L&D and HR aspects you mentioned?
TB: The biggest challenge teams need help with is general alignment. Whether it's the alignment of culture, mission, expectations, skills, communication practices, or operations, in remote work, it's all too easy for the right hand to not know what the left hand is doing because those two hands might be across the world from each other. That alignment requires foundational training and takes constant, ongoing and intentional work.
With every new addition and initiative, teams need to take the proper steps to ensure they're consistently aligned and have an L&D strategy and program that's thoughtfully implemented. It's about aligning people's skills to operational needs, and aligning culture so everyone is on the same page with their shared mission and values.
Our mission is to help remote workers, managers, and companies succeed in location-free and flexible work environments. We don't just want people to be able to work remotely, we want them to thrive — and we want the companies they work for to thrive too.
OL: What are some of the challenges that people face when they go remote? What are some of the challenges teams end up encountering along with alignment?
TB: Primarily, it's about culture. Teams and individual team members are often surprised about how intentional everything has to be. When teams that have traditionally been co-located convert to remote, they realize many of their practices, rituals, and habits need to be discussed and need to have a remote-compatible equivalent. For example, organic conversations (e.g., me talking to my officemate about what they did yesterday) need to have a remote-compatible equivalent.
Everything has to be intentional. Intentionality and creating new habits around those rituals are critical. People are surprised at how much work it takes because creating new habits does take a lot of work.
When you're remote, you can go days without reaching out to a team member to ask how they are and only focus on the transactional nature of work. Whereas, if I came into an office, there's no way I wouldn't say hello to everyone. That would be considered rude, and I'd feel uncomfortable doing that. But in a remote environment, it's very easy to forget how to do that.
OL: Do you have suggestions for remote workers to improve their visibility within a hybrid organization?
TB: Improving your visibility is a key factor in success as a remote worker and in developing your remote career. There are a few things that an individual can do to improve their visibility. First and foremost, it involves reaching out and making sure you maintain those open lines of communication. That old adage is true: when you're out of sight, you can be out of mind.
Remote workers have to constantly remind their colleagues, supervisors, and peers outside of their organization of their presence. They need to be comfortable sharing their own successes and what they're doing. That can be a real challenge for individuals who aren't used to talking about themselves or talking about how they contributed to a shared mission or project.
But for remote team members to truly be successful, the visibility challenge can't just sit as the sole responsibility of the individual. Companies need to take action and implement processes to break down barriers to career and performance visibility, and have clear steps for remote professional development. That's part of the message we're trying to convey through our company programs.
OL: Tell me about your team. Do you work from an office or are you all remote?
TB: We're a relatively new team. We launched our flagship program last September, and back then it was primarily just me and our content director working together. Since then, we've grown to nine team members, fully placeless. Our 100% distributed team lives in six different states and two countries besides the U.S. The four department heads met together for the first time in June, and we're exploring the different ways we can have an offsite retreat for the entire team. All of that is a fun challenge as a growing team!
When teams that have traditionally been co-located convert to remote, they realize many of their practices, rituals, and habits need to be discussed and need to have a remote-compatible equivalent. For example, organic conversations (e.g., me talking to my officemate about what they did yesterday) need to have a remote-compatible equivalent.
OL: How can you build and share experiences with people you don't work together with? Not necessarily the meetings and working together, but everyday celebrations, like birthdays and work anniversaries.
TB: The first step I recommend is to come together as a team to establish that alignment and to talk about what that looks like. All those events, collaborations, and celebrations happen because we're people and we enjoy each other's presence. We want to acknowledge each other as individuals and contributors.
Hybrid teams need to think about all of those things, no matter how small, and figure out what that looks like to include every member of the team, no matter where they work. What do birthday celebrations look like within a remote team? When somebody gets promoted, what does that celebration look like across distance? Be intentional and think about all the potential celebrations your team is likely to put in place. It's important to figure out what that will look like so everyone feels like they're part of that celebration.
OL: What are some of the tools or products you find yourself recommending for remote and hybrid teams to work together successfully?
TB: That's a hard one because every single team has their own baggage and expectations when it comes to tools. I typically recommend categories of tools and then work from there to recommend specific ones. In our courses, for instance, we make some tool recommendations within certain categories (e.g., video collaboration and document sharing tools.) Teams need to talk about why they need a tool — a tool's function is more important than the individual tool itself.
Identify what you need and what you're trying to improve. Are you trying to ensure all conversations and decisions are captured and available for everyone in perpetuity? Once you have those answers, it’s easier to figure out which tools will offer you the greatest benefit.
The tools we use internally include Zoom, Whereby, and Remo for different webinars and meetings. We use Slack and Google Drive for collaborating on content. Some tools help hybrid teams, like the Meeting Owl, to provide remote workers a live, face-to-face experience that people typically have.
OL: What advice do you have for company managers or team leaders who are starting to work with remote workers? What do they need to be on the lookout for that they wouldn't if their direct reports were in the office?
TB: The first thing managers should be on the lookout for is isolation — it's a real danger in remote work. It's important to include all remote workers and be intentional in maintaining that alignment. It's easy for remote workers to feel left out and it can go beyond that to feelings of real isolation. In your management practices, make sure you account for all of your workers. Reach out to them, make sure you have a personal connection, and see if they're maintaining personal connections with their team members where appropriate and relevant.
Secondly, managers should consider their own metrics for success and what they deem to be a successful workday and work product. It's about considering any biases they might have about what it means to be a successful individual contributor. Many managers do have a bias towards co-located team members because they can visually see them in their chairs working, as opposed to having some remote workers who are not next to them. Managers should look inward to see if they have any of those biases. Then, they can come up with strategies they might need to combat those biases.
It's important to include all remote workers and be intentional in maintaining that alignment. It's easy for remote workers to feel left out and it can go beyond that to feelings of real isolation. In your management practices, make sure you account for all of your workers.
OL: What's a myth you hear about remote work that you don't like and wish would go away?
TB: The biggest myth I'd like to dispel is that meaning and value can only be experienced face-to-face. You hear that it's not the same when you work virtually, or you don't get to know somebody as well when you're only working with them virtually. I don't believe that that's true. I've developed wonderful and meaningful relationships with people I’ve worked with at a distance — some of those relationships have grown into real valuable friendships, and some of those people I've never met in person! I don't agree with the idea that those relationships and connections don't have the same value as somebody that I met at a local networking event here.
OL: What do you love most about working remotely?
TB: I love being able to control my environment and surround myself with my things, animals, and everything else that makes me comfortable so that I'm at my best. I don't just mean my most productive self, but also my most energetic and positive self. Then, I can bring the best version of myself to work, to my team, and to our customers.