Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of remote work or just beginning to navigate this new terrain, join us for an enlightening discussion that promises to reshape your perspective on leading and managing in the digital age.
In this episode, we will visit with Jen Ferrara, Director of Learning Design for the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. We explore the often misunderstood realm of remote work, focusing on its unique challenges and opportunities for leadership and management. Our discussion unravels common misconceptions and emphasizes the importance of a growth mindset in navigating the remote work environment. Jen offers practical ideas related to team building, psychological safety, collaborative culture, adapting leadership styles, and encouraging team learning and innovation.
This episode goes beyond addressing the common pitfalls of remote work, as Jenn shares her journey toward understanding its immense potential for transformative leadership and management.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): Hello, and welcome to today’s episode in our How do you remote? Series where we will discuss all things related to remote work from guests representing a variety of fields. Joining me today is Jen Ferrara, the Director of learning design with Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. Welcome, Jen!
Jen Ferrara: Hi Traci. Thanks for having me.
Traci: I’d like to find out what your remote identifier would be…if people refer to you as a remote blank, what do you think that would be?
Jen: I am a Remote Advocate with a Growth Mindset…
Traci: Oh I love it! That’s beautiful.
Jen: …and the reason I say that is because I feel like I’ve kind of gone from two different extremes in my remote experience and work environments, where I’m understanding now, specifically where I am, that remote is not necessarily adopted or understood. I think remote is misunderstood at some places, specifically around leading in a remote environment and understanding how to manage personnel in that environment. I would say that I’m an advocate of remote with a growth mindset because I think we have a lot to grow in across industries concerning how we manage personnel and talent in a remote environment.
Traci: Do you think there would be more opportunities in your field, you’re in the education field, if you had the freedom to be able to just hire people remote, hybrid, or on-site and your HR department approved any type of modality? What would that do for your ability to build your team?
Jen: I think I would be able to build it faster and definitely have more qualified candidates. When I’m building a team I’m thinking about building a high- performing team of individuals, but when you’re limited by location or I guess work environment, it’s difficult to recruit the right staff when you eliminate that option then you also lose out on some really strong candidates.
Traci: What do you think the hesitancy is from some organizations? A few years ago, we all went remote, we were getting really good at it, and then there was this transition and push to go back on site, some organizations faster than others. What do you think that push back is? They’re not advocating for remote with professional development training, with ability to hire team and outfit them as remote, hybrid, or on-site, what’s the reason?
Jen: It could be a couple of things. I think one is a lack of understanding of how to build a team and a community of practice around a group of individuals who some are face-to-face and some are remote. One of the growing pains I’m going through that right now, as a leader, is we can’t all be remote on the same day or else our office is empty right in a face-to-face environment. So I have some folks who are remote on Thursday and Friday, and some who are remote on Monday and Tuesdays, and we’re all in the office on Wednesday, and it just makes it difficult sometimes to collaborate when you’re like, ‘Okay, I need to figure out how to bring this person in on Zoom with the rest of us who are face to face, and oh, the owl is being used in another room.
Traci: Oh, so not every room is equipped, so limited resources in technology.
Jen: Yes, I also think there’s not always an understanding, and it depends on an individual, a leader’s experience or background, and perhaps even how long they’ve been in the field. People just have a preference between face-to-face and remote and not understanding exactly whether or not they can trust individuals in a remote environment.
I think trust is a huge thing where I am. We really value being face-to-face with faculty and, um, at least that’s the tagline. But the interesting thing is a lot of faculty who work with us choose to work with us over Zoom, right, because they’re commuting or they’re at home for part of the day and then they’re on campus.
Traci: Oh, okay.
Jen: So it’s a very flexible type of schedule for faculty, but for staff, it’s a bit more restrictive and rigid. Okay, as far as the requirements for being on campus.
Traci: That’s interesting. Now, have you ever had faculty on campus, but still, and you’re on campus, that still want to use Zoom instead of going across campus to meet face-to-face?
Jen: Yes, and I will say part of that is, as you mentioned, resources and technology. So sometimes we’ll go to a faculty’s office, and there is no technology, or they don’t have a monitor up on their wall that you can connect your computer to and show them what you’re working on, or the course map, or review materials together. So how do you do that? Do you turn your computer toward them? So I think it’s some of that, like they’re just not equipped, or there are small offices, and there’s not even like a table to meet at, or you know, so it’s limited.
I think space, but also resources that allow for a really effective meeting, when you are face-to-face. Sometimes it’s just easier to jump on Zoom and work with them from your office, and then they work with you from theirs, um, so that you can be sharing documents, stuff like that.
Traci: Sharing screen, that’s the best feature in the world!
Jen: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, I do think there’s misconceptions though about remote. I think there’s some misconceptions about like how productive people can be when working remote, and I quite honestly feel like I can get so much done because I’m like managing some things at home, and then I’m super productive, just like drilled into what I’m working on in my workstation at home. And I know that that’s how my team works as well, and so I choose to trust them that as long as they’re meeting their timelines.
Traci: Someone who says “yes, let’s have remote,” but they don’t understand what that means, they don’t understand how to maybe measure productivity in that remote environment. What do you think are some best or worst practices with staying connected?
Jen: Well, let me share like a lesson learned.
Traci: Those are always so fun.
Jen: Yeah, I think one is not everybody wants to work remote. If they don’t want to work remote, make sure they have a space on site for them to work. I have somebody who knows he’s not productive at home because he has kids running around, and he wants a space to go every day for the work hours, so that he can plug in and just focus.
I also think from my experience, is how important it is to trust, respect, and support your team through remote, like never assume, the worst, but assume positive intent, and assume if they’re not as productive, that there must be something behind it, and lend support before throwing accusations, or before assuming the worst, that they, are perhaps not, you know, that they’re taking a day off instead of working, right.
Traci: Wow, that’s interesting, yeah.
Jen: Trusting that they’re, that they are responsible adults, and that they want to put their best foot forward, and they want to perform in the work environment.
Jen: I jotted down some ideas for how to be successful leading a team, that is my situation, it’s partially remote. I think leveraging Zoom or Teams as a tool to create remote connectedness on the team. Implementing a project management tool, and create a policy outlining communication practices for projects.
A few ideas I have, and I’ve implemented, are push notifications that trigger weekly project updates, and most project management tools now you can set that as an automation, ensuring that your staff understand the escalation protocol and escalating delayed projects after one week of delay, instead of waiting too long. Also, set up dashboards in the project management tool to alleviate the need to hunt and pec for project progress. I’ve got dashboards for myself, but I’ve also encouraged my team to do the same, and have helped them create the right type of dashboard so that they’re always notified and aware of what timelines are for different projects, and so that they can prioritize for themselves.
Traci: I know your strength has always been, since I’ve known you, project management. You know how to keep the plates spinning and getting everyone together. So, with that, what did you have to do to train your team on using project management tools, so in your mind, it’s just basic, it’s project management. You have to do all these things like you’re talking about the dashboards and push notifications. What are some challenges that you went through training your team to walk in step using that type of tool?
Jen: I’ve been working with this team for almost two years now, and they are really collaborative. In our unique situation, we’re just barely onboarding with Wrike right now, so we’re still going through the growing pains of learning Wrike. As you recall, when you and I worked together, we used Wrike. They’ve totally changed their interface, and it doesn’t look the same. I’m getting ready to have a meeting with my team to kind of just talk about some protocol around it, and I need to create a guide. If we’re onboarding a bunch of new instructional designers, I need to have all of them on the same page on how we’re using Wrike effectively. Yeah, so get back to me on that.
Traci: Okay, okay.
Jen: Some of the other things I thought about when leading a team, partially remote is ensuring that staff have what they need to be successful on their remote days. So, of course, we provide university-owned technology for their at-home workspace, and I check in with them to make sure they have what they need, that they’ve got all the connecting ports and whatever.
Traci: What does your team use in the remote work environment?
Jen: We use laptops, for they are disconnecting often to go meet with faculty. At home, we’ve provided them with two monitors plus, a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and then a camera as well, so that they can effectively meet with people from home. I talked to my staff about what they actually need at home, and then we make sure to order what they need. Another thing is creating a culture where a tool like teams is used to communicate when not in person. So intentionally developing channels that foster sharing, communication, innovation, and all of that kind of stuff that I think is helpful.
I’m working on building that out right now because we’re growing from a team of eight of us right now, and in the next six to eight months, we’re supposed to triple in size. So we will be an office of, uh, work, the office is called the um, teaching and learning innovation team office, something like that. We’re still trying to flush out all of that out, but it effectively, within that office, we will have three different teams: a learning design team, a learning media team, and a learning delivery team.
And the learning delivery team helps with what we are calling virtual learning studios, where the faculty member goes into the studio, and they are doing a weekly um, 90-minute Zoom, a synchronous class session with their online students from a studio with which is fully equipped with a whiteboard and an Infinity board and some different technologies, so that they can effectively teach. And so the instructional designers are helping them plan all of that. There will be three teams, and in two years, we’ll build out a full office suite that has um, everything we need to function as an innovation team.
Traci: So faculty, if they were teaching an online course where they had synchronous meetings, so that would mean that you would have all these different meeting rooms for faculty to go in and lead their course. For the students, it’s a better experience because it’s an actual studio, it’s not just them with their cat running through on the background, or kids or whatever.
Jen: Exactly, and we’re actually we’re requiring them to use those studios, and so the learning delivery team is there supporting them, they help them get set up, they are managing the breakout rooms and helping support all of that background stuff, which is kind of cool. We’ve got two big screens, so that you can effectively fit about 90-99 students on two screens. So we are innovating in that space.
Traci: That’s a really great idea, especially to enhance the quality of online education. Because we haven’t seen that in many universities. Usually it’s, “Let’s just get faculty online and in the LMS to record their grades.” And you guys are ahead!
Jen: Yeah, so another approach I think is scheduling periodic one-on-one meetings with your staff when in a remote environment. So, depending on the nature of the work, it might be helpful to meet daily at the beginning of the day to share out project status and daily goals, and like what’s going to be delivered in that day, just depending on the, um, the team culture, or rather, I guess, more like the team, um, objective and what they’re working on currently. I meet with my team monthly for one-on-ones because I see them face to face, but as we grow, we might need to be more frequently remote, and that will require more one-on-ones.
I also have a couple of team members that I think would benefit from more frequent one-on-ones just to kind of guide their work and help them prioritize and things like that.
Traci: So, you’re talking about the culture, building the culture of teams with sharing and innovation, so with that, talking about that leadership strategy., what types of innovation are you seeing in meetings, like the team meeting, if you have some people on site, some remote? What are you finding as a leader you have to do to facilitate that? Do you have to come in prepared, like with some table topics or some questions to break the ice? What advice would you give them to bring that culture of the team together when you’re having people meet on site, hybrid, or remote? Like, what would that look like?
Jen: Yeah, I think there needs to be an agenda that is forward-facing, so the notes, the agenda that I post, as well as the notes that are kept, are in a space where they can all access it. I think it’s also important to, in advance of the meeting, shoot out materials that you need them to review, read, or whatever, so that we could have a meaningful discussion about certain things. So, I think the preparation requires you to think ahead about what kind of a meeting you want to have. If it’s just delivering information, like updates and stuff, that’s one thing, but if you want your team to be fully engaged, then I think you need to put some preparation into it.
It’s kind of hard to do breakout rooms when you have half of the staff in person and half at home, um, but that is a possibility too, where I think it’s important to be intentional about where you hold those meetings so that you could do some breakout opportunities to have meaningful discussions, um, so those are a few ideas. I think I’m still kind of learning how to do that right.
Traci: These are good suggestions, especially about meaningful discussions and having the material ahead of time versus just updates where they don’t need to solve problems or fully engage. So, do you find that it’s important to stick to business, or is it important to do the team building where they get to know different levels of their personality, like ice breakers or things like that? Or does your team not like that? Are they more focused on ‘Let’s just get to work, I don’t really need to know my colleague’s dog’s name’? Because some people are more in tune to the soft skills and the fun, emotional building versus let’s just stick to business. There’s kind of a line I’ve seen, and some people like to cross it, some people like to keep it separate. What is your strategy?
Jen: I actually think you need to have a balance of both. My team, we pride ourselves as being very collaborative. I have modeled for them that they need to be a community of practice amongst themselves, so they have collab meetings once a week where they come together to tackle design challenges and things like that, and I’m not part of those meetings.
Right now, it’s interesting that you ask that question because I’m in the midst of thinking differently about our weekly meetings. So, we have a weekly team meeting that’s 90 minutes on Monday mornings, and then we also have what we call a standup meeting at the end of the day, it’s at 3:00, and that includes other leadership. It’s kind of the bigger group to kind of just provide updates, and that’s a faster meeting, it’s not as long, and it’s just like quick updates or leadership trickling down decisions or different information that we need to actually do our work.
Today, in a discussion with a couple of teammates, I’m now moving in the direction of thinking, okay, we need to do more team building, which we’re really good about going to lunch together and things like that to build relationships that way. But when you do have people who are remote, it’s difficult to schedule that, so you have to be more creative. So, I’m feeling now that our weekly meeting on Monday mornings really needs to be more team building and making decisions together about what we want our team to look like and function, and build trust and all of those types of things, right. Because it’s easy, as time goes by, it’s easy to make assumptions about what your teammates are doing because you’re doing very independent work with faculty.
It’s easy to fall into a space where you’re not as connected with your team, and so I, I’m feeling like I need to transition those team weekly team meetings into less of announcements, like you know, trickling down decisions, because we can, I can share all of that in teams, right. I can be like, this week’s update, and just share that in teams, but then make progress on some of the more important things like what do we believe quality looks like for our team and what do we believe accountability looks like on our team, and trust, and building out some of those things.
I am particularly interested in doing that before we bring on another four instructional designers because we really need to solidify what that culture looks like, and we already have a collaborative culture in place, but there are some things that are happening right now, just because of the pace of work and the expectations and stuff like that, that I’m noticing some issues that we need to address, and it could be resolved by team building through our weekly meetings.
Traci: That’s really important that you said you’re adjusting what you had originally established, and I think being agile is basically the leader’s responsibility for measuring the barometer of the team’s health and where they are. Being willing to change their approach based on, like you said, new team members coming in, workload, levels of frustration because all that stuff is ever-changing, instead of saying, ‘This is how we’re doing it; we’re not changing it.’ That’s a really refreshing approach that you’re taking.
Jen: Agility is key, right, in leadership and on teams when you’re seeing a lot of change. I am a big proponent of process improvement and how frequently you actually look at your processes, your workflow, your culture, and then making shifts to make sure that the culture is solid and strong, and your vision and your mission align with what you’re actually doing. And that there is psychological safety on your team, and that I’m modeling that and fostering it instead of just plowing forward with all of the, you know, the to-do list that I have.
Traci: That’s so key, especially some of the meetings you talked about where it was the team meetings, the one-on-ones, and meetings with other leaders involved, so that your people can feel as though they’re on the radar, that they’re heard, they’re understood, and that they matter because there’s different audiences they’re going to be involved with. Because sometimes that is an issue with remote, you feel like you’re just out there, you’re working in a cave, no one really knows that you exist or that you matter. You’re just doing this to-do list and that personability that doesn’t really come into play, you just feel disconnected. It sounds like you’re doing everything you can to make everyone feel connected everyone they’re part of something.
Jen: Yeah, it’s definitely a balancing act. I think it would be perhaps more difficult, particularly given our boundaries with remote work. It would be difficult if we had one person who was fully remote, or a couple of people who are fully remote, because then you really have to be a little bit more intentional, because you’re not getting any of the face-to-face, right? It’s all virtual.
One way to do that is, we’ve actually implemented here at Mays, I have nothing to do with it, but I actually think it’s been really great for the staff, is it’s something called AwardCo, and it’s a platform where you can acknowledge people on the team that you’ve worked with and just kind of give kudos. Yeah, it’s really kind of cool. But I think you can create something like that in Teams too. You can create that in different internal platforms where you are celebrating successes and acknowledging people for the good work that they do.
I think maintaining positive morale is key, is really really important. And I’ve mentioned psychological safety too, because I’ve been in environments where I did not feel psychologically safe, and that is a highly stressful place to be.
Traci: That could include you don’t feel safe to voice your opinion, to you don’t feel safe to make a decision.
Jen: I learned, and maybe this is my new mantra, is that you cannot innovate unless your team feels psychologically safe and has a culture of collaboration. You absolutely cannot innovate, because if you feel unsafe in your work environment, you feel unsafe to fail, and innovation requires you to take risks, and sometimes that means failure. And you need to have supportive leadership that allows you to actually fail and be okay with it, and recognize that failure means progress. Failure doesn’t mean, you know, a lack of success, failure means progress
Traci: Because it’s often not failure because you’re not trying. You’re trying something different, you’re trying to find something that maybe they haven’t thought of before. And okay, that didn’t work, but maybe an element worked, and then you have this other element that you bring together, and now you have a success. But you would have never come up with that if you weren’t afraid to fail.
Jen: And that goes for no matter what environment you’re in, whether it’s a fully remote environment, a hybrid, like, you need to really work, be intentional, and work at what that looks like to create psychological safety no matter where your folks are, and a culture of collaboration to even to make progress and to grow.
Traci: And to give kudos to the person who is willing to be the one that failed, the one that hit the wall, and it was like, but you gave us this idea to give, and say, ‘Hey, if it wasn’t for that action, that courageous, heroic act, we would not have been on this path, we would have not have pivoted to more successful and efficient operations.
Jen: Yeah, yeah, and as an extension of something we were talking about earlier, you can also be innovating together. So recently, I’ve implemented what we’re calling them Team Innovation Meetings, and they’re monthly, and it’s a half day where we all go to lunch together, but that could look different in a remote space too, where maybe you brown bag lunch, and you’re on Zoom together, and then the rest of the afternoon we’re innovating on a topic, or we are um, flushing out a topic or a matter together.
Currently, what we’re working on is developing a data strategy for the work that we do, like what data points are we collecting, do we need to create a dashboard for it, how often do we report on it, how often do we analyze the data, etc.
And so we’re taking a couple of different afternoons to work on, okay, what’s the immediate need for data collection, and let’s create those surveys, create those, yeah surveys, for lack of a better term, and then what’s our next step to rounding out our data strategy, and identifying progress towards improving that strategy along the way too.
I think creating opportunities to innovate is really important. We have been kind of setting up our shop over the past five months, and we’re going to hit the ground hard in January, building out 18 different courses across the team, which is why I’m growing right now, and we’ll need to have that, we, we’ll need to carve out that space, like no, this time is sacred, so that we can innovate together and collaborate, and um, and so again, I think it requires some intentionality about preparing for meetings like that, specifically if you do have people who are remote, and what that looks like, how you do some pre-work in advance and ask your team to do some pre-work.
For our data strategy, two of my team created the agenda for all of it they identified some LinkedIn learning modules that we all reviewed before coming to the meeting so that we were ready and well equipped and informed to have meaningful discussion questions around data. It’s really thinking intentionally about how best to prepare for an opportunity to innovate together and to learn together.
Traci: Instead of having to take the meeting time to operationally define this is what this is, you have the same knowledge base you come to it with a very similar frame of reference so you can actually discuss those things. So, let me ask you this so if there’s a say there’s a leader listening and they’re like, ‘I want to start the team Innovation meetings that’s a great idea!’ From your experience, is having those meetings with the team is it a clear-cut process that at the end of the four hours you have your answers or is it messy?
Jen: It depends on the topic, okay, so sometimes it’s messy, particularly if you’re just kind of kicking off the topic. You might be a little bit all over, but I do think if you want those blocks of time to be meaningful and intentional, then there you need to do some planning in advance. And it doesn’t always need to be me either.
A big part of my leadership style is managing up and allowing team members to have an opportunity to lead a discussion, to lead in innovation, to, you know, have those opportunities so that they can grow personally. For instance, this data strategy is completely led by two of my team members who are interested in learning more about data and data analytics, and have been doing their own learning on it, and now they’re bringing it to the team so that we can all learn together.
As a team, I think you identify those areas where you want to try to and then delegate to team members appropriately to have those discussions, so that it becomes like a team growing. Like, it shouldn’t be me just doing all the teaching, right? And quite honestly, I have my strengths too, and my areas are my gaps, where some of my teammates are stronger in certain areas than I am, and I’m not afraid to admit that. And I think that’s okay, like we all learn together.
Traci: That takes a really strong leader to be able to admit that you don’t know everything, and having the confidence to raise up people that may know more things about other topics and elements, so that you can all be a stronger team. That is key to good leadership; otherwise, you’re just going to hit that ceiling of whatever the leader’s ceiling is.
Jen: Leverage the skills of those on your team. I’m still learning how to do that effectively and transparently, right, because everyone has weaknesses, but people aren’t always comfortable sharing what those weaknesses are. But it should be a safe space to say, ‘You know what, that’s not my strength, so I’m going to come to you as my teammate for feedback, for advice, for support.’
Traci: And that can take a while to build that trust, which you had mentioned originally, because a lot of people have come from those psychologically unsafe team environments where you are not supposed to reveal that, and there’s so much competition that you forget how to collaborate, and you just, it’s a skill, and once you exercise it, you get better and better at it.
Those are some excellent strategies, Jen, that you have shared with us. Thank you so much for sharing all of these different insights from your experiences and what you’re working in now. And before we wrap up, is there anything you’d like to share with our listeners, such as words of advice for others who are working in the field of education or other industries, or are leading in those fields?
Jen: Based on some of what we discussed earlier about misunderstandings about remote work, I think it would behoove a leader to really dig into their own perception of remote and do some learning about remote work and how to lead effectively through it. It really is the present and future of our work environment, and so it will only benefit you and your staff if you learn how to effectively manage it. Understand, that people really do want to work remote, or at least have the flexibility to do that at least part of their workday. A lot of work is independent work, and you want focused time to be able to do that. But when there’s such a rigid stance on remote, it creates barriers for individuals. It doesn’t benefit your staff to be so rigid around remote when this is really our environment now.
The other thing I would say is really need to shift your mindset and focus on outcomes and not on tasks when it comes to remote. So we often think like, ‘Well, I can’t, I don’t see them on Teams right now. What? They must not be working. They must be taking a vacation. They must have gone out of town early and not told me.’ So, I think instead of focusing on the tasks and whether or not somebody is actually in the green on Teams from 8 to 5, focus on the outcomes. Only step in if someone is not meeting their timelines. Then you have to step in and say, ‘Okay, what’s going on? Do we need to put some boundaries around this? Do we need to prioritize your time? How can I support you? What do you need from me?’ But does it really matter if someone only works six and a half hours a day, as long as they meet their timelines? You know, I mean, we all need breaks throughout the day, we all need um mental health moments, and that should be okay, and we don’t need to be tracking that.
The other thing is, is leading with kindness and fostering an environment that is truly psychologically safe. That’s kind of my seriously one of my soap boxes right now, is this, this is not a skill that all people possess, but it’s something that should really be focused on is how to lead with kindness, how to assume positive intent, and foster a culture where you trust your staff, and they know it, and they know that you trust their skills and their professional expertise to actually accomplish something with limited supervision.
Traci: You just summed up leadership 101 for all leaders everywhere. That is brilliant. If everyone could do those things, just as the baseline, we would be somewhere different than where we are in the workforce.
Jen: I think you’re so right.
Traci: That was really good, and I think that’s a great place to end on. We’re definitely going to invite you back because there’s so much else to talk about; we’ve just barely scratched the surface. So thank you again, thank you so much, Jen, for joining us.
Jen: Thank you, Traci, it’s been a pleasure.
Traci: Yes, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in to WorkForceRemote.org’s podcast, where our goal is to help you continue to go remote and work on.
Traci: Okay, we did it, yay! That was fun.
Jen: That was fun.
Traci: Alright, I’ll stop recording, boop.