In this episode, we will talk with Dr. Renee Courey, who is a respected historian, faculty member, seasoned remote professional in higher education. Dr. Courey is a what many would call a remote enthusiast, and offers some valuable insights about the experience of remote work. In this episode, we will focus on the remote work revolution and explore the complex topic of building organizational culture in the remote environment.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): Hello and welcome to today’s episode in our “How do you remote?” podcast series. Joining us today is Dr Renee Curry. She received her PhD from the University of California Berkeley with a focus on history and the history of science. She has led in the field of higher education for over 20 years and has been working from across the country for 12 years. Dr. Courey is what some would call a remote enthusiast. To get started can you share with our listeners about how you see the Remote Work Revolution.
Dr. Renee Courey: Well, I do see it as a revolution, as a historian. A revolution is a moment of great change but also dangers, and so I’m so glad that you’re doing this so that we can talk about the opportunities, and as remote workers, together, to think about the challenges and to advocate for ourselves.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): Oh having your historical perspective on the history of work is going to be very insightful. I’d like to hear more about the opportunities and dangers.
In terms of opportunity, there was a time when people mostly did work at home, whether it was on the farm or there were merchants, traders, people who worked by moving, but many people worked within their own homes. When the Industrial Revolution came not only were people going to small workshops within our communities, but all of a sudden we’re being pulled into these big institutions. You had to adapt ,as a human beings, your whole life, in some cases your family. You had to also try to protect yourself so that you could still have a life and that your life could be livable. I think that’s something we can all agree on, it’s been an issue, it’s been a challenge, we’ve also had some great successes, and some great failures.
I see this as a similar moment. I think a lot of people do, but I’m more of an Enthusiast about it; because, I like the idea of giving people the option to have their family and their home as more of a base so that their priorities and their interests can be reincorporated into their lives. They’re not spending two hours on the road that they could be spending talking with family, friends, reading, painting, whatever it is to have a fuller practice of the self than just work, and then taking care of whatever you have to take care of very quickly. I do see that possibility. I do see some dangers where we can become more involved, and let’s say I would say a more various life with our families, we can become more civically engaged in our own communities, have time to go to the school with our children, or advocate in front of city council for things that we want, and I think that’s something that we really need now at the same time making that transition.
It would be wrong to ignore that this has caused some problems, for example, in the big cities once covid came and everybody was working at home. What happened to those businesses downtown, like downtown San Francisco or downtown many places. Those people also built their lives in community with the workers who came in, and so I don’t want to gloss over that’s a hard hit, and for their families, and for all of us, so it’s a challenge that we have to work out at the same time. Though the idea of building up local communities just the way we have from local farm to table. Is there a way we can start to support people to build more businesses locally? And I’m thinking about the environmental impacts as well. So, I’m a fan in the sense that I think a movement back to the local is a great thing. It’s not parochial, it’s not isolated, because we’re engaging with each other from all over the world. We can do that more often.
I know teams who work really well across the world, leadership teams and otherwise, who have really understood how to innovate together and to have the voices heard. I know sometimes people worry, “Well, I’m not there, and if I’m not there then I really can’t negotiate, or I really can’t put my pulse on things, or I can be ghosted, for people just are not paying attention to me or misreading.” And again that’s another challenge, but I think that there are companies already who have you know have blown by that challenge and they’re already fine. think there are probably techniques that someone like you and your company can help those of us who are still in front of the challenge to use to overcome roadblocks. Yes, I think local is a great thing to do for our lives, for being able to have a fuller range of self, and give our energies to the people in our lives. I don’t think it’s a return to living in in sort of a small insulated way, because we have this fantastic tool. So, there’s all kinds of issues and ways that this moment is critical. I would like to know more about who’s doing what, talking about this, and what are the tools we can have as remote workers and leaders to think about a new way of being productive together. I’m a fan, because I think this is a good platform if we can navigate our way through these challenges.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): I love how you mentioned movement to local, to really preserve and enhance the self, but also adopting those new global perspectives because we’re interacting with people cross-culturally that we normally wouldn’t get to. I’m loving that! Tell us about your unique perspective and your training in academia as a historian.
Dr. Renee Courey: As a historian, whenever you’re able to bring forward the more complex picture it’s always a benefit to everyone. First of all, simply because if people will learn the more complex picture they might break the habit of oversimplifying, which we all seem to have now.
Almost every conversation is oversimplified ,almost everything you hear on the news is oversimplified, and so I love history you know for that for that reason. Seeing tha,t oh my gosh, all of this, and I think there are people doing that now – looking at all kinds of technologies that have developed recently, including the one we’re using, and looking at the ramifications of them. I’ve always been interested in that, I’m not sure why. I think I went into History of Science partly because there was sort of a debate at my college over money. It was in the early 80s when many colleges were struggling, especially small colleges, and there were decisions being made about the curriculum -and actually this decision was about a master’s English program – and I was a one of the student reps. I was there and it just bothered me that people were talking past each other, what was valuable and what was not valuable. I wasn’t an English major, I was a history major, but having taken the literature classes and poetry, I just thought that my mind was so sharpened by working with those people. I just loved that and I met other historians. I just loved their ethics.
I guess the commitment, no matter what your personal and political association is, but when you go to the data, you go to read or think about something, it’s an ethical commitment to allow yourself to see what’s there, and to develop a habit of loving complexity. These are the things that drew me into that and this debate was about which discipline was more valuable, would bring in more money, and should remain -that decision so many people have made and are still making.
Because of that I just learned about the two cultures, which was a thing then, you know that there’s a separate left brain, right brain, and all this stuff that we’ve come up with since then. I just thought this is ridiculous, people should be trained in both and literate in both and they should be able to see the value of both – the things that are not tangible have a value just as things that are tangible have a value. That drew me into the History of Science. I ended up loving teaching, and I also love reading. I love thinking about things, I love putting together materials for my students, lectures – although I don’t like lecturing – but I love putting the lecture together. Teaching was super satisfying for a long time, and so that’s what I did and what I ended up returning to.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): What would you tell someone, based on all of your experience seeing both on-site and remote, what would you tell someone to prepare for the job as a student coming into it for the first time.
Dr. Renee Courey: Well, I think what they need to do is do some research into the climate of the organization they’re working for. I think that there are some places which are very casual, and maybe don’t expect the same signs of “I’m working” as others – how you’re dressed, at least waist up, your demeanor, paying attention to figure out how much of your engagement is required in certain types of meetings. Some meetings are brainstorming meetings and depending where you are in the hierarchy it might be your job to present the meeting, but there are some meetings – and
I think it’s good to be aware of this early on – where it’s more informational or a demonstration of community from the top town. I think it’s really important for you to figure out which meetings are like that, and then to go ahead and be in that mode when you need to be. Make notes about ideas you have, it may not be the right place for you to bring them up, so make notes about it and then work with your smaller team on those kinds of notes. Wait for an opportunity – maybe to talk about those things. They used to call it the parking lot, so parking lot yourself, figure out the different kinds of meetings, and where you fit in each. I like change. I think that what companies need to do, and I think the ones that thrive do this, they need to have a bottom up channel, so that when people really are paying attention our attentive staff are engaged in the way that you want to have community, and the reactions that they have for you are somehow harvested – that there’s a way to contribute this, there’s a time when they can speak. I mean really talk about what the situation is and what could be better.
Now, I know that some people say, “Well, you don’t want to do that because it encourages your employees to have some hope, that their ideas might matter.” I’ve always thought that it’s better for leadership to be more transparent about that. If something can’t be implemented, explain. Explain this this suggestion was brought up, this is why it’s not going to work right now, and that’s why we have to focus on this. I think that for companies and leadership, the more they can share that, I mean I understand their limitations right they need to kind of protect their brand and their data and things like that, so not everything can be shared, but they can say, “Yeah, I can’t share that with you at this time, but I see where you’re going. It’s maybe something we can do later. We can’t right now, because we’re focused on another project but it’s important that you’re telling me.” And, of course, at times you know an employee wants their leadership to show, “Oh, that’s a good idea! You know, I hadn’t thought about that.”
I guess I have advice for people who are remote workers, but you know also advice for companies. I don’t think that all companies are at that point yet where they have figured out a mechanism because the teams can be more dispersed. If you’re going to work maybe you can find out what is the flow chart, what is the org chart, who are your people where you can have those kinds of discussions, and if they’re not happening make a suggestion that they happen with some regularity with at least a certain part of the team – not just for feedback – but for ideas, for both.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): In many organizations, I have seen where those ideas are sent up the chain, or whatever mechanism they say is in place, but they’re blocked from the decision makers that really need them, and they never hear them. I think you’re right, I think that would be such a avenue for change that really affects the customer or the client, because it’s the people that’s on the ground doing it. I really love that.
Dr. Renee Courey: It’s an important part of culture, that feeling of contributing. Most of us are fairly intelligent, many of us are well trained, so I think it that’s perhaps another challenge for those corporations and companies who have not yet completely embraced the online model, and who did not yet completely have that kind of channel. I think it’s something to work on, and as a worker, to gently suggest or you know to look for a place like that, because there are a lot of the most dynamic companies have leadership who want you to brainstorm with the understanding that you’re not in charge.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): To be acknowledged of the contributions you do make without fear of any kind of any negative impact.
Dr. Renee Courey: Exactly, but also the sense of being isolated because you are physically, so you don’t want that to be happening online.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): In career prep courses I’ve seen, across many universities, they’ll talk about things such as how to run a meeting, how to be in a meeting, but they don’t talk about the nuance of reading the meeting, knowing how to read the room of what kind of meeting it is – are their contributions now or is it something that it is top-down communication but not that open discussion. And some people may not understand that there are differences ,there are nuances to understand.
Dr. Renee Courey: I think so, yes. I might have been one of them.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): I think we’ve all been one, at one time or another. Because we didn’t know. Because sometimes you might be in an organization where they say, “Oh this is one of those meetings where we want everyone to contribute.” But, they really don’t. I seen multiple organizations that have done that. It’s a lot to understand.
Dr. Renee Courey: Don’t you think for a new person coming into a remote organization, it’s important for them to be warned to watch for that? It would be great to have a list of things to watch for. I mean it’s not that every expectation you have shall be satisfied; because, that’s unrealistic, and some people do come in that way. But also how long to wait, what patterns to look for, and then to strategize if you want to make a change. I think what is great about this moment is that we have a range of companies who are using online technologies and I think it’s a good moment for people maybe who don’t have a feedback mechanism to go ahead and put one in, and for workers to encourage that to happen by asking about it.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): An authentic feedback mechanism to know where the ideas go and what happens to them. That’s a really good idea!
Dr. Renee Courey: Well, unless you’re at meetings in a brick and mortar in place, and the experience for you is that you just sit there at every meeting. What it’s not like if you just go to these meetings and all you do is just sit there? What kind of culture does that create in a brick and mortar? So, if the same thing is happening online, as you’re trying to create culture, but basically everybody is passive. I just don’t see how the means match the goal.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): I’m seeing in multiple organizations that people have represented, not just in the podcast but others I’ve talked to, that is the hardest thing is to marry that culture they want – that perceived culture – with the actual experience of the organizational culture that employees have. What would a feedback mechanism look? What would something like that include?
Dr. Renee Courey: I don’t think it’s that difficult. I think it’s the expectation up top that there is this added necessity of leadership if you want to have a certain culture. I think a great way to do it would be to make sure there are, again, local cultures within your corporation or company where managers are trained to ask for the feedback and to be non-judgmental about the feedback.
I’ve known many managers who are really great at that, so my expectation is that people will find that. I think that there’s a roadblock between that level of the local manager and then having the opportunity to discuss some of the ideas that come through with the expectation that they will be seen above by someone. I don’t know if that means that becomes the part of the job of someone at a higher level, but I think if that position were visible and it was authentic that would go a long way in online workplaces to create that sense of community and the to take away the fear of speaking online, you know where you can be recorded and all these different things, but take away that fear of reprisal that really does shut down feedback that might be needed and innovation. It’s a balance.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): Not having that fear of sharing something that may be a different way than we’ve always done it. I can see it from the new person and even the experienced person, but there’s always a fear of sharing especially in the remote environment.
Dr. Renee Courey: The idea that it could be taken on and you can just be left isolated, out of the whole process, I do think you’re right Traci that’s a great insight, that that it is daunting.
So how do you get people to feel like being online is the same as being in the room with someone? You have those two employees, and you have the manager, and everyone wants to feel comfortable giving their perspectives and feedback. Well doesn’t it have something to do with how the manager is trained? You know that they’re managing people, as well, and they know how to set expectations, and they know how to be encouraging, but you know with as much transparency as possible, to be realistic and you just get used to that. I do think the more the employee can figure out what their organization is like ahead of time, maybe just asking/partnering with someone who’s more seasoned and asking them, “How do you think the company likes to receive information? Is it this or is it that? What are the mechanisms for ideas to go up?”
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): Very practical, and you mentioned something that’s key. Training for leaders, and this is across industries, I’m seeing this not just in education, I’m hearing it from various industries. That the employee, that contribution, that idea, is acknowledged. That remote key is you feel like you’re part of something. If you can contribute, because everybody wants to contribute something, so that they’re heard, and they’re understood, and then having that….. it’s gatekeeper skills! That’s what the leader or the manager, in the gatekeeper role – making sure everyone’s interacting. It’s the gatekeeper skill we’ve been missing, we solved the mystery of remote culture!
Dr. Renee Courey: I think it’s true. I think it has a lot to do with productivity. Now people are saying you have to come back to work and be in the office. Maybe, but maybe you just really didn’t have that kind of person, or a person trained, to create that environment online. Maybe that’s why you think engagement needs to be higher, maybe that’s why people seem to be in isolation, because intellectually they are isolated and it doesn’t need to be that way! Just because it’s online, that’s why I’m a Remote Enthusiast, I do think it’s important to have somebody to follow up with those managers on those things who is also trained and basically just has an appreciation for the creative work of people no matter what their position in the company.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): Let’s think about it “education” – okay, we’ve both been in education for over 10 years – multiplied by a couple of decades. We know education. When we started, the position and I hate to date myself, but the position of instructional designer was not a major, that was not a field, right? You were a teacher, you went into education, you learned the same principles. Then as technology changed it was like, “Well we’re not just face-to-face, but we’re going to have an online learning system – whether you do it partially in class, whether you’re a full online, or whatever, and that’s when that ID field started to come into focus. So the same thing with the gatekeeper role – that could be a position in organizations, a new term to make sure everyone’s involved, to make sure everyone feels connected, and as though they’re being heard. Maybe that is a new position in the remote environment that is needed in companies – that’s the missing key in all industries.
I know of a company that’s in Michigan, when I was interviewing someone, and they said, “They want us to come back in the building.” But the leader was saying, “We are more productive remote. I have the metrics to show it, but the other leadership who wants to micromanage us – they want us to be on-site, because their job is not needed anymore.” It was like, “Wow!” That’s in Michigan, and you’re in California, and I’m in Alabama, so Coast to Coast I’m hearing people say, “We are more productive remote, we have the metrics.” I love this, that same person said, “Maybe the micromanagers need to find another job! We don’t need them anymore, because we’re adults and we’re working.” It was brilliant! So maybe that the answer: a role to teach people how to connect and it goes back to communication. How to make sure everyone feels heard, and we bring those ideas in, because we are a distributed workforce now.
Dr. Renee Courey: I think so, and I think there were things that worked in a brick and mortar and for people on site that are great for building community and for having that talk in the hallway that managers say that they want people to come back. I think that there’s another way besides pulling people back to this central location, and all the gas, and everything, the time that that takes away from the ability to live a varied, and full, and civic minded life. I think you’re absolutely right, instead of doing that, why not really ask some questions, open-ended, honest about how much those kinds of things work for people online.
I think the answer is not very much, but that’s just anecdotal. I appreciate the efforts, but I think that unless there are people who are trained to be those Gatekeepers, that you mentioned, who whose job it is to meet and have those kinds of brainstorming sessions from the lower level all the way up. I think of course you want people to come back in, but as you said, why not try this other way. I’ve always thought that this would work.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): We’re creating remote work, we are creating what the standard is going to be.
Dr. Renee Courey: Let’s say straight out that in academia there are already academics who do this incredibly well, who manage people incredibly well – who are great at listening to your suggestions and really trying to figure out what to do with them. They’ve been trained in being receptive and to show their ideas in their writing, whatever it is, so they are trained that way. And it’s not a surprise to me that many of the people I’ve seen at that level are adept already, it’s just what they do. I think that the kernel of it is how do I facilitate a conversation that allows my employees to think critically and encourages them to do that, because not doing that encourages them to be critical about you in their thinking. There’ nowhere for that feedback to go.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): And that’s across the industries. That’s what we’re doing right now, we’re creating the idea to further the field of remote – that’s the whole purpose of the podcast. That could help fix the culture question that everyone has an issue with, everyone’s asking, “How do we get culture to be communicated with remotes? “How do we engage them?” Let’s have a role for that.
Dr. Renee Courey: I think you’re such an innovator. I think you’re right, if we’re building this new way of living, and working, and with AI, and everything else, I don’t think going backward is the right step. I think instead you’re right: there’s a certain position or type of training, and I’m not saying it’s being an academic for sure, but we know those skills are important.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): And those are skills which means they can be learned.
Dr. Renee Courey: Yes, they can be learned, yes and if the right infrastructure is in to take the fruits of whatever this manager has learned to do, and can do, then I think you have a healthy organization, and people don’t necessarily need to come into the office for there to be bonding, and a sense of being valued, of not being cast adrift out there away from the heart of everything.
What would such a position look like? What if we didn’t just have those things that allow socializing but those things that encourage critical thinking and dialogue?
Community, yes it comes from the social things but for remote people, no. The solution isn’t to force them to come in to have the social things, the solution may be to learn how to critically think together online because that is satisfying. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Who doesn’t like the opportunity to be positive and try to brainstorm how something can be done or maybe a new avenue for revenue. Who doesn’t like doing that! You know what I’m going to leave this podcast and start doing more research on the history of work.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): We’ll have you back and we’ll do a follow-up. We’ve identified that is a gap across industries and that’s the question, “How do I engage with my remote people?”
Dr. Renee Courey: I couldn’t agree with you more. You are a great advocate for this. I feel like you’ve said things that are the reasons why I say I’m an Enthusiast, yeah. I don’t see remote as a limiting platform. I just see that the institutions it’s embedded in a lot depends on how they use it, and the kinds of exchanges that they encourage, and a lot depends on employees learning the right questions to ask, and the right behaviors to have at different times.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): And we’re talking about employees who understand the basics. We’re talking about those who are fully engaged in work, and they’re like, “Yes, I want to contribute something, how do I do that?” Because for those who need that remedial attention – that should not make our policies. The majority want to work, the majority want to contribute.
Dr. Renee Courey: Yes, I think companies already know that you have to engage them -the ones who want to work, and you want to engage them in your culture and to be on your team. We all want to be a part of it, but it’s just a moment in time I think where not enough people are yet knowledgeable or have yet implemented the procedures that allow for this kind of authentic exchange to happen online. But it can, I mean it happens with my students all the time. So it can, yeah.
The same thing with workers in the department if you’ve hired right you’ve got those motivated fits in your department and that’s who we’re talking about. We can create what remote work is going to be. The new mindset, new way of working, what does that look like?
I think for many people, Traci, it’s going to be just what you said right that they do want more time and I’m thinking of the more time coming from not having to commute not having to buy pantyhose you know all of those things but that pressures that time seconds is gone but for other people and in some Industries I think that you know the constant work and the high level of work well that’s part and parcel of their industry and maybe it has to be that way, but I think that people can go in with the mentality of being able to pick which what suits them but we want all of those people to be able to contribute the feedback that they have in order to bind them to the company, instead of thinking about that place.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): That’s really good that’s really good! We’ve covered some things, we mined gold today! As we come to a close, what advice would you give maybe at the organization level, or at the leader, or the worker level, what advice would you give about remote work?
Dr. Renee Courey: I have a persistent message: instead of what are the social add-ons that may be used to work, what are the elements of work that people love? Ask the question, “What are the elements of work that people love?” “How do they want to be used?” “How do they want to be addressed?” And just consider whether your team might be more productive, even if you spend a little money, you know to have somebody listening to them, if you do that. Consider whether that will create the culture that you would have created through other means before. I guess that’s my, it’s not to the workers so much as to the management, give us a chance don’t walk backward yet.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): That’s it, don’t walk backwards yet, don’t go back on premise yet, don’t give up on remote. I love it! Well, that is a solid way to end this amazing, I would say, download from you. Thank you thank you thank you, Renee for joining us!
Dr. Renee Courey: Thank you for having me. I just love to be around when you come up with your ideas.
WorkForceRemote.org (Traci): Well, this is not the last we’re going to hear from you. We’re building something together. I appreciate your time. 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.