The Future of Work Is Remote: Why Mental Health and Communication Are Key to Keep Teams Happy and Engaged | Laïla Von Alvensleben

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Laïla von Alvensleben, remote work coach and head of culture & collaboration at MURAL, discusses the importance of visual communication and mental health to ensure remote team success.

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Ceci [00:00:17] Hi, everyone and thank you for tuning in to the Allwork.Space Future of Work Podcast. Remember, you can also tune in on Allwork.Space, Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn Radio and Podbean. My name is Ceci Amador and with me here today is Laila von Alvensleben, who is the head of culture and collaboration at MURAL, where she manages a distributed team of 130 people across multiple continents and time zones. She’s a champion for the remote first approach to collaboration, empowering MURAL’s rapidly growing team to successfully work from anywhere. Laila, welcome. 

Laila [00:00:58] Hi, Ceci. Thank you so much for having me today. 

Ceci [00:01:02] Our pleasure. Just to let our listeners know what we’re going to be talking about today, we’ll be focusing on remote work, some of the benefits, some of the challenges, which I’m sure you’re very familiar with. So before we dive into our remote work, could you tell us a little bit about MURAL and what you guys do and how it helps empower remote teams? 

Laila [00:01:24] Sure. MURA is a digital whiteboard for those who don’t know what that could look like: just imagine a physical whiteboard but on your screen where everybody can collaborate at the same time or different times adding virtual sticky notes or drawing or images. So it’s a tool that helps people collaborate visually no matter where they are. And essentially, you know, we’re really helping a lot of remote teams work together. But it’s not just meant for remote teams. 

Ceci [00:01:53] So remote teams and collaboration; it can be hard in my experience, particularly when new team members jump on board. So I want to talk to you a little bit about some of the main challenges associated with remote teams, managing them and how tools like MURAL can help collaboration, productivity levels and kind of just bring everyone together, even though everyone’s spread over around the world. 

Laila [00:02:20] Yeah, I think, you know, we tend to think about remote teams as teams that essentially are using tools, let’s say from email and video conference tools like Skype or Zoom. We tend to think of them as just using like a few tools or many tools to communicate a lot. But we don’t think about communication as being something very visual as well. So in that sense, what I’ve realized even before I joined the company is that it’s such an important aspect of working together, to have that visual connection so that we can all be on the same page. And, you know, once  you’re elevating the way that you collaborate in that way, it makes everything much easier, whether you’re a manager or not. It’s just a completely different way of working. 

Ceci [00:03:15] I agree entirely that the visual element of communication is really important, particularly in remote settings. So, for example, for me, I’ve kind of become a fanatic of using emojis and gifs. Not necessarily on a whiteboard like MURAL, but because I feel like sometimes, even if you’re saying no in a really nice way, like, hey, have you checked this out? 

No. 

It’s just very short and I don’t know. So I’m usually like, no, smiley face or no, but I’ll check it out. So it becomes very much important to and to add that element, because I feel it kind of makes the tone easier for others to understand and can prevent a lot of misunderstandings and communication issues. 

Laila [00:04:04] Yeah, absolutely. And I think that there’s a lot of these kinds of soft skills that one has to learn when they do start working with a distributed team, regardless of whether you’re a freelancer or a contractor or a full time employee. These are things that are very different than when we’re co-located in the same office. And of course, you know, people are using emojis in everyday communication, even if it’s, you know, using WhatsApp with your family. But when it comes to a work setting, especially when you don’t see your colleagues so often or at all, you want to also show a bit of your personality. You want that to shine through. And being visual is just one of the many ways that you can do it. 

Ceci [00:04:45] I completely agree. 

And then one of the things that I know that you’re a champion on is mental health in regards to remote workers. 

Laila [00:04:57] Yeah, I think I mean, I take mental health very, very seriously on a personal level as well. You know, and I think having experienced moments of isolation and loneliness myself, I get what it’s like to to be so detached from everyone. So some of the other problems that remote work can can cause to other people who aren’t, you know, used to working remotely, but even if you’re used to it, you kind of have to learn how to deal with things like increased levels of anxiety, maybe even have a short attention span because you’re dealing with so many digital inputs all the time coming at you from all all sides were there it’s your phone, or your  computer screen. 

So it’s hard to deal with all that. Also, it’s hard to know how to communicate to the rest of your team how you’re feeling, because when you step into an office and you’re feeling a bit under the weather, people will be able to tell. And when you’re not, that’s where the hard part comes in. So I have worked with creating, for example: now you have a lot more of these Bots. But a few years ago, when I was working before MURAL, I created a Bot with my team that was basically.. Sorry – a Bot is – for those who are listening and may not be familiar with it, it’s like a robot in Slack, Slack the communication application. And it’s basically an automated character avatar asking you, you know, how you’re doing maybe on a scale of 1 to 5 or you can, you know, put a smiley face or an angry face or a sad face. And that was really important for us, for our team and even at MURAL to use to really get a sense of how people are feeling. When you can’t see them every day. 

Ceci [00:06:45] I’m definitely taking note of that, because, I agree that sometimes it’s impossible for those you work with remotely to know whether you’re feeling down or angry or frustrated and I don’t know. Sometimes I wake up and I’m just like, blah, you know, like I don’t feel like working. I don’t feel like doing anything in particular. And I know personally it took me a while to get used to working remotely after switching from an office environment. 

And then my enemy is Netflix. I work from home because I’m more of a home kind of gal to work rather than the coffee shop or a coworking space. And if I sit down on the couch throughout the day, it’s granted that I’m going to end up on Netflix for some reason. Like I know I have a lot to do. I’m very stressed and very anxious. And then it’s so overwhelming that the only thing that works is just like, oh, I’ll just watch an episode of Friends. 

And I found blogs very useful, like understanding that I work better at 5:00 a.m. than I do at 11:00 a.m. And I think that’s part of the process that I’ve gone through. But if I had known at least that it’s okay for me to work at those hours and not feel guilty about it, it might have been easier for me to get used to that because I used to spend the entire day from 6:00 a.m. up until like 10 p.m. connected to the computer. So I felt like I was procrastinating a lot, so I felt like I needed to make up for that time. 

And by now, I know that if I’m dealing with a lot of stress from things I have to do, I need to wake up at 5:00 a.m. And by 10:00 a.m., I’ll probably be done with half of the stuff that I had to do. 

But what are some other strategies that people can leverage in and implement to kind of keep their mental health in check while working from home, isolated and dealing with this kind of guilt that comes from, I don’t know, maybe taking a longer lunch break or going to the gym at, 10a.m. versus 6 p.m. when the workday is technically over. 

Laila [00:08:54] Something about what you said. I think if there’s nothing wrong with watching Netflix, if there’s a little bit of self-discipline, I would say if that helps you take your mind off of things. But I think that there’s a lot of other benefits that remote work brings to people’s. First of all, you know, having a schedule that is flexible. Usually when somebody works in a distributed team, you do have some flexibility so you can go to the gym. When it’s not a peak hour and basically have it almost all to yourself, but within the team. 

So in the online environment of your team, there’s a lot of strategies that can be put into play. So, for example, at MURAL we use check-ins. You know, I’ve worked across a customer experience team to the people operations team to the product team. And I’ve seen people use check-ins to really gage how everyone is doing. And checking can be something as simple as how are you feeling today? What are you going to work on and do you have any blockers? And if you do have any blockers, even if you’re tired, you can say that. And then people will be aware of your state of mind that day and they’ll also be able to support you and maybe unblock you on some of the projects that you feel overwhelmed by. We’re also using feedback sessions with a team. So I really believe that by being vulnerable and transparent in how we feel and how well we consider each other, I don’t call them weaknesses, but maybe some blind spots that people have. We can build trust across a team, which in turn will lead to better team collaboration. 

So, for example, last week I did a feedback session with the People Operations team and we started out by defining the guidelines of what good feedback looks like and what is ineffective feedback. And that kind of sets the tone for the team saying, okay, this is what we’re doing today and these are my previous experiences of good and bad feedback. And then we move on to a kind of reflection session where people take some time. I set out some questions, very simple ones so they can give feedback to each other and all these all these kinds of methods. I would say it is also a great way to have that human connection with your team. And you don’t necessarily have to leave your computer to stop working. But you can also do things with your teams that are not necessarily project related so that you can bond and build that trust over time. 

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Ceci [00:11:22] Great. Thank you. And you’re talking about feedback. And I think it’s great how you’re establishing kind of like guidelines of what works and what doesn’t. Because I know at least over the past few years, there’s been this trend of kind of criticizing yearly performance reviews where people were not getting enough feedback or feedback that they didn’t know how to internalize it and implement. And so one of the other things regarding feedback that I know you’ve talked about in the past is the importance of one on one meetings, check-ins, either for feedback or just to kind of see where people are and how people are doing. What are some suggestions of how often this should be and some topics that should be addressed individually during one on one check-ins. 

Laila [00:12:17] Yeah. So based on my research, also other distributed teams, I think MURAL kind of follows the same best practice, which is to have a weekly one on one with your manager. This can be 30 minutes long or an hour long. I really think it depends on also how big your team is and how many people are reporting to you as a manager. But I think a weekly one on one to discuss, you know, how you’re getting on with your projects, how you’re feeling at the company, where you see yourself going in your career, what kind of initiatives you like to see at the company. What you’d like to see from leadership. These are all the kinds of topics that you can bring up in a one on one. And it doesn’t have to be a performance review every time. We do have performance reviews at MURAL and self-assessments and those tend to be quarterly, but then weekly one on ones are a little bit more casual in that sense. 

Ceci [00:13:13] Perfect. I want to touch on remote work and the future of work. Do you see more people working remotely in the future of work? Do you think the remote workforce will be made up more of full time employees? Do you think it’ll be more balanced between contractors and freelancers? How do you see remote work playing out in the future? 

Laila [00:13:36] Well, I think if you’d have asked me a month ago, I would have replied differently. But this is such a relevant time and it’s unfortunate that it takes a global pandemic to create an understanding of what remote work can look like. That being said, you know, I think today as I speak, I’m in a country where I’m locked down, basically, and I can’t travel. And I believe that’s the case for many people right now and many people are forced to work from home. So at this point in time, I would say I mean, I was already convinced that remote work was going to be extremely relevant in the future and it’s going to be crucial because it’s really the only way that businesses can continue to thrive right now. 

And so we’ve seen a huge, unprecedented demand for anything that is related to remote work in the past weeks. And then regarding whether, you know, there’s going to be a workforce that has made up more of freelancers or part time employees, I think a lot of people have been talking about the trend of the gig economy and how we’ll have more and more people doing jobs on demand for short periods of time. I think that’s going to continue growing as well. And it’ll be interesting to see how this crisis is going to influence that. Although right now I think that the focus is more on how can anybody anywhere be able to collaborate virtually with their teams and with their customers. 

Ceci [00:15:12] It’s unfortunate the situation that brought on remote work so massively right now. But I think a lot of businesses that we’re a little bit more reluctant to try it out, will see that remote working is an effective tool and it can be amazing for all those involved. And then since you touched on the outbreak, the pandemic, I want to touch back again on mental health. 

Laila: Yes. 

Ceci:I know during times like these, even if people are working remotely, even if they’re used to working remotely, it can be hard to remain focused on the tasks at hand. I mean, I personally find myself checking the news every 15 minutes, which is something I usually never do. And so then and I feel this kind of like anxiousness all over, like there’s tension all over. And so I think that it’s important, again, for organizations to tell employees, to remind them that their mental health is important as well, and that they need to keep it in check and take the necessary breaks. They need to kind of deal with situations like this and in other situations, anything that might be affecting them personally, which, of course, affects people professionally and in their performance. 

Laila [00:16:30] No, that’s absolutely true, and I think I think a couple of things, I think the media has a huge responsibility also in not creating this this sense of panic, because I’m also checking the news all the time and I see how different media channels share the news in different ways. And then some do it in a way that creates less fear than others.

 But then coming to companies and mental health, one thing I really admired from the CEO at MURAL is that he’s so he’s been posting these almost daily video calls in our team Slack and he always starts out with reminding us to be healthy, reminding us to to get what we need to be comfortable at home, whether that’s food, whether that’s something else to eat, healthy, to take the time to maybe meditate or stretch or do yoga and find find some way to feel good. And I really appreciate that. You know, he brings us to the forefront, because if we are going to have people who are not feeling well, this is going to be worse for them and for the rest of the company. 

And also, you know, for I’m not a parent myself, though, for all the parents out there, we’re starting a bit of a learning experiment at Muro. We’re going to try and provide some homeschooling for all the children who are staying with parents, because we can… I can only try to imagine what it’s like to be a parent at home with kids at home with you. And although a lot of schools are providing learning experiences, we’re going to try to use our own tool with the help of external instructors and tutors to provide different hours of learning to children of different ages. And we’ll see how that works out. But I think that’s also going to give us incredible support to the people who are stressed out at home. 

Ceci [00:18:25] I think that’s an amazing initiative. And I’m not a parent myself either, but I can definitely imagine how hard remote working for parents with kids at home is, especially when kids can’t go out to kind of, you know, just like letting some energy out can be very complicated. So I think that’s an amazing, amazing initiative. And I wanted to ask you if you have anything else that you’d like to add. 

Laila [00:18:52] Yeah. Well, you know, there’s mental health internally. But I think regarding the virus, we’re also providing a lot of support for not just our customers, but just anybody who’s out there working from home. So we’ve got a couple of things. We started introducing a 90 days free trial for anybody who’s signing up to use MURAL for the first time. We also created a series of webinars called Suddenly Remote. This is really for teams who need to learn how to collaborate remotely, really fast. We continue to offer MURAL for free for any educational organization or for consultants. 

We have a MURAL consultant network where consultants can get MURAL for free and then use it with their clients or try to promote events and resources that our partners are creating. We have a remote work resources page and we’ve also put together a remote work resiliency plan. So anybody who wants to distribute this kind of knowledge to the rest of their team and help improve the remote work culture can do so. So it’s we who take the situation very seriously and we’re not we’re not trying to impose anything on anyone. I think there’s a lot of people out there. You know, I go on LinkedIn and Twitter every day now, and my whole feed is about people providing support for remote work. And I’m very glad that MURAL is doing the same. 

Ceci [00:20:17] Awesome. Thank you so much. 

Just to recap what we talked about, basically remote work is definitely a part of the future of work, particularly now through the circumstances. It seems like remote work is now as opposed to in the future, and the importance of providing regular feedback to remote employees. The importance of visual collaboration kind of like to help bring people together and to ensure that there’s no misunderstandings and to just to keep ideas rolling. And then mental health; at the end of the day, whether you work remotely, whether you work in the office, it’s important. It’s what keeps us sane. And in order for us to do our best, we need to mentally feel at our best. So thank you again, Laila, for joining us. 

[00:21:09] Thank you, Ceci. It’s been really great to share all of this with you about remote work. And I hope that more and more people will understand that remote work actually works. 

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