Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Rise of the Remote Worker

Source: Pixabay (CCO License)

More than 1.7 million paid employees — those not self-employed — worked from home in 2008 at least once a week, up almost 23 per cent from the 1.4 million in 2000, according to the Statistics Canada report on the subject in 2010.

In Canada, Telus found that teleworking increased employee productivity by about 20 per cent after a 2006 pilot project where 170 employees worked at home. Besides increased productivity and morale, it also saved 114 tonnes of greenhouse gases and almost 14,000 hours of time in traffic.

On the south of the border, in US, the stats as per highlight that:
  • Regular work-at-home, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 103% since 2005.
  • 3.7 million employees (2.8% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time.
  • The employee population as a whole grew by 1.9% from 2013 to 2014, while employees who telecommuter population grew 5.6%.
Dell and Intel collaborated to produce the Future Workforce Study in 2016 that shows interesting trends about the future of workforce in America. For example, "The traditional workplace doesn’t have the same value for Millennials as for older generations of American workers. Increasingly, Millennials are looking to non-office environments for productivity. 3 in 10 Millennials say they do their best work outside of the office – whether at home, in public or outside."

I am not surprised when I review these stats. I am a full-time, paid employee and I am one of the 1.7 million in Canada that work from home for several days a week. After having worked in a 9-5 office environment for 10 years, I have been working remotely for over 7 years now.  I can't say that I work remotely all the time because I do go out for all my client meetings, corporate planning and other leadership meetings and to conduct stakeholder workshops and other facilitated sessions. But typically, I work from home at least 3 days a week. As someone who has experienced the benefits of working remotely, I can easily say that there are some critical skills and practices required to work remotely that help make it a sustainable and viable option for both the employee and the employer. The other day, at the end of a fabulous #PKMChat, I was reminded of this very fact.

Besides access to good technology including high-speed internet and collaborative tools that enable virtual project teams to work together, working remotely needs a fine mix of skills and work practices. In my experience, here are some of the things that make remote working work for me and my employer:

1) Communication - In the absence of daily face-to-face meetings, I rely on receiving and providing clear, concise and timely communication. Working remotely needs more protocols and processes around communication because I can't get up and walk to a co-worker's desk or a team member and speak to them when I feel the need. Also, there are no non-verbal cues to fall back on so communication requires more sensitivity. Since most communication is via email, phone, skype, etc., it has to be planned ahead and is usually more thoughtful and precise.

2) Trust - I trust my team to do their job as does my company trust me to do mine. Once we have a firm plan, each of us is free to plan our work and we report back as required. I don't like to micro manage and don't appreciate it for myself either. But developing trust takes time. So, I always start with a leap of faith and my default disposition is to trust everyone I work with. This has held me well. When you trust people and show them that you trust them, they do become more responsible and feel more accountable.

3) Discipline - This is a big one and perhaps the area where most new remote workers struggle. When you are working from home, there is no one to give you a task list and no one to police you. All work needs time management but remote work needs it even more especially if you want to make the leap from efficiency to effectiveness. Priorities can change when you are working from home and those are the times you have to figure out what's urgent versus what's important. It is critical to stay organized and continue to do meaningful work and be disciplined about it.

I have a schedule and I start and end work usually at the same time each day. I have built a level of predictability for all my work days for myself and for people I work with. On days, when I take advantage of the flexibility of working from home, I always let my project teams know in advance and add more hours to my work later that day or over the weekend. A big part of my work discipline is also the ability to keep a check on myself and self evaluate. In the absence of immediate feedback, I play the part of a reviewer and a critique of my daily accomplishments. People who work with me know how much I love work plans and tracking planned versus actual :)

Finally, having a dedicated work space with a well-equipped desk and a comfortable chair (not my couch), a big monitor desktop (not my laptop) and easy access to a printer and scanner makes my home office space always ready for work and helps me stay on track.

4) Motivation - I love working independently and creating my own work schedule. I can work with ambiguity and minimum direction and take responsibility for the outcomes. But I also really enjoy collaborating with teams all around the world and feeding off that creative energy. Working remotely needs an extra doze of self motivation and perhaps self inspiration too! Sometimes, working by myself in my home office tires me and I get that dreaded feeling of boredom all over me. Those are the days when I go to my company office (my boss is always open and very welcoming of me dropping by). I also enjoy working from public libraries and co-working spaces to get away from the routine and keep myself motivated. I would add that participating in a daily routine of exercise (I love my daily walks) also helps me stay happy and motivated. I get the opportunity to physically smile and have some polite, early morning conversations with fellow walkers :)

5) Problem-solving - Working remotely as a part of a virtual team calls for good technology skills and an ability to solve problems independently. Things go wrong, as they usually do, and I have myself to rely on. In the absence of an IT department or a colleague I can walk up to, I take on all required roles and solve daily issues. I also help troubleshoot the issues for my virtual team members. If I am unable to solve things on my own, I often pose my problems online into technology discussion forums and twitter especially when it is to do with technology that I am not as familiar with. The community always has a solution I can try! As a remote worker, I have to rely on my critical thinking skills and my resourcefulness to solve any challenges that may come my way.

6) Family - This is a very underrated aspect but clearly something that makes it or breaks it. The support of my family makes a big difference to maintaining my work discipline and a remote working lifestyle. Working from home comes with distractions but I plan as much as I can to avoid these distractions. Sticking to a schedule, keeping my home office away from the living area and keeping the door closed solves most of the distraction issues easily. I also mark my workdays and meetings and other 'no disturb' time blocks in a physical calendar and keep the calendar in an area where my family can view it. My family knows that when I am working, it is strictly work time. So, they stay away from my work space and wait for me to finish work and step out. And I really appreciate and value that respect for my work.

Obviously, it is not all rosy all the time. Just like a 9-5 job, working remotely has its own peeves mostly around not being able to talk face-to-face with other people and engage in deep long conversations or just hang around for a fun chat.

7) The human connect - Because I don't meet people as often, I try harder to participate in online chats, seminars, webinars and discussions to ensure I receive my daily doze of conversations and constructive stimuli to keep my brain going. I am involved with professional organizations that keep me engaged with my area of work and give me opportunities to participate in conferences, training and other face-to-face events. I am also an active volunteer in my community and keep myself involved with an immigrant settlement organization. As a volunteer workplace mentor, I get to meet people from various walks of life and this helps me get my energy back on days when working by myself really gets to me. Because I strive hard to have meaningful conversations, I end up with quality relationships that allow me to add value and in turn provide tremendous value and the much needed human connection.

Remote work is not for everyone. It does take a certain bent of mind and a specific way of working. But anyone can be successful at remote work if they are able to follow good work practices and stay motivated, committed and disciplined.

If you are a remote worker and have been able to successfully work from home, what skills and practices would you add to this list? How do you make remote work work for you?

Friday, October 28, 2016

The 'What Ifs' of Learning and Education

Recently, my 13-year old represented her school in a public speaking contest. The title of her speech was to begin with 'what if'; two simple words that caused her to stay up a few nights. In trying to identify the right topic for her speech, she explored many what ifs. After much deliberation, she chose a topic that was meaningful for her and where students her age could make a difference. 

Her speech triggered some what ifs in my own head. I started to think about the possible what ifs in the world of learning and education.

  • What if all learning is customized and individuals can select how and at what pace they want to learn?
  • What if all learning is personalized and individuals can select what and when they want to learn?
  • What if learning and education is focused on real-world application where individuals learn to create meaningful artifacts and develop learning networks rather than acquire knowledge?
  • What if learning and education is fueled by teachers who can quickly access learning data, track progress and design flexible learning paths?
  • What if learning and education is surrounded by mentors and coaches who are available at the touch of a button and provide specific feedback at the moment of need?
  • What if learning and education is supported by tools and technologies but all these tools and technologies are invisible and deeply embedded? 
  • What if the purpose of learning and education is to demonstrate credentials not degrees?
  • What if learning and education is democratic where anyone can be a learner and anyone can be a teacher?
  • What if learning and education is not about mastering a skill or knowledge area but more about a continuous journey? 

If you are looking to explore some more what if questions around the trends and shifts in technology, do check out this site

If you are more pensive and are looking to explore questions that can make the biggest difference in your life, this is what you should read.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

My Top 10 Learning Tools (2016)

It has been 10 years since Jane Hart ( been publishing the annual Top 100 Tools for Learning as nominated by more than 1,500 learning professionals around the world! 

For the 10th Anniversary, we will be able to see not just the Top 100 but the Top 200! Also, the tools will be categorized based on their context of use including Education, Workplace Learning and Personal and Professional Learning. Jane defines a Learning Tool as any software or online tool or service that can be used for your own personal learning or for teaching or training. The results will be out on 03 Oct. (Voting closes on 23 September.)

I submitted my vote via the form available on Jane's website. But I also wanted to use this blog post to share my submission with my peers and friends in the L and D community and reflect some more about this activity. 

Here are my Top 10 Learning Tools for 2016 (in no particular order):
  1. Google - My window to the world. I ask and it provides
  2. Tweetdeck - My access to my PLN; groups, lists and chats and a community who offers me fuel for thought 
  3. Blogger - My stage for reflection and continuous learning
  4. WhatsApp - My lifeline to stay connected with my friends and family around the world. I live, I learn
  5. Ted Talks - The tool that triggers out-of-the-box thinking and gives me access to diverse views, thoughts and ideas from people around the world
  6. Instagram - My tool of choice when I have no words but can use photographs to build connections
  7. Podcast App (Apple) - I listen when when I want to read less and imagine more. It is my walking partner and helps me connect dots where I didn't think was possible
  8. Skype - My tool of choice for conversations and collaborations
  9. LinkedIn - My tool for discovering people who share common interests and a platform for me to highlight my skills and expertise
  10. Facebook - My go to tool to catch news, views and fun stuff on a daily basis  

This annual exercise becomes a lot more interesting when I get a chance to read more about how my peers are using these and other tools for learning. It is also a way for me to reflect back on whether my list has changed from last year and what tools I am using more and why. 

There are other new tools that I try each year and some old ones that I continue to use but didn't make it to my Top 10. Some of the new tools that I have tried this year include Degreed, Pocket and Coursera App on my iPhone (as opposed to Coursera website). I am still exploring how best to leverage them for personal and professional learning. Some of the old tools that I continue to use are MS Office, Dropbox, Wikipedia, Mail App and Slideshare.

Of course, the Top 10 is only one way of looking at tools and technologies and it is always more in the 'how' rather than the 'what'. So, this activity also helps me reflect some more about the hows and whys of using one tool over the other and why some tools are more useful and valuable for me. 

Taking a step back and looking at this list, I realize now that it leans more towards the social aspect of learning - tools to connect, collaborate, share, learn and reflect. I think it is very indicative and telling of how I'd like to shape my personal and professional development in 2016.