In this episode, we will chat with Valerie Polunas, who is a Freelance Conflict Management Training Designer, Facilitator, and Coach. With her extensive experience with remote work, Valerie could be described as a Remote Jedi! Join us in our How Do You Remote series, as we dive deep into the fascinating world of remote work and discover the strategies, lessons learned, and successes of remote professionals. Get inspired from insights, anecdotes, and practical advice from experts in their field who are endeavoring to master the art of working remote.
Making Remote Work: Success with Boundaries, Balance, and Intentional Communication
Traci Frees (WorkForeRemote.org): Hello and welcome to today’s episode in our How do you remote? series where we discuss all things related to remote work from guests representing a variety of fields. Joining me today is Valerie Polunas – working in training, design, and delivery. She’s a designer, facilitator, and has a background in conflict management. She started working with K-12 and then worked her way up into undergrad and grad students and then adults in the corporate world in professional development. She’s been working remote and hybrids since the early 2000s before remote was cool. She has extensive experience working remote. Valerie is what some would call a Remote Jedi because she is one with the idea of remote. Welcome to the show, Valerie!
Valerie Polunas: Thanks, Traci. I’m laughing because I don’t think I’ve ever been cool, so thanks for giving me that.
Traci: Absolutely! We’ll dive right into our discussion – tell us how you remote.
Valerie: I’ve been doing it for a really long time. I used to work with clients overseas. We would run programs for students overseas and I had to go travel over there to do exploratory visits, work with vendors, and figure out what we were going to do with the students. Then I would take the students over myself. Work didn’t stop back in the United States, just because I was abroad, so I was very used to you know using at the time of blackberry and finding, however you could, hook up in a hotel room to work remote.
It was definitely more difficult than it is now. There’s just a lot more tools and a lot more accessibility than there used to be. I was used to doing that pretty regularly, and with the time zone shift. I got into it a little bit more formally around 2017, because I was doing a lot of external work with corporate clients. A lot of them were overseas, in other parts of the United States, or even other parts of Southern California where I was living at the time. For me that commute could get pretty crazy if I was having to go out even for just a 30 minute meeting, so a lot of times we either did meetings remote. I would use the opportunity to work from home because my home happened to be closer to these client locations than where I was working. I was fortunate enough to have a department head that was really supportive of that, because he just understood the commute was crazy.
For me and for other folks on the team who are parents, it just helped, with all the logistics of getting to and from every day. That kind of happened really ad hoc, like any time I had a meeting or a situation where that was going to work really well with my schedule. Then obviously the pandemic changed things, but fortunately, because we were already doing that in particular in our department it was really easy to make the transition – we already had the tools the tech tools in place and we’re comfortable and familiar with things like Zoom when everybody else was still learning what all the buttons are for.
It was old hat for me so I’ve really had a good experience with it. To me it’s second nature and again because I worked overseas I’ve worked remote with people in a lot of different time zones my entire career, it doesn’t phase me at all – this idea of working with a team that’s 100% remote because that’s how a lot of folks did it way before the pandemic, and still do in some very large companies that I’ve worked with.
Traci: Tell me about what role you think leadership plays in the success of being able to work remote.
Valerie: I think the biggest thing about leadership is having trust in your team – building that together. We all have that level of trust with one another. My department knew if I was going to be working remotely that day I was going to get work done. I wasn’t going to the beach, and I had plenty of opportunity to do that in Southern California. We had a good trusting relationship.
It goes both ways, it’s not just from the leader on down, but that was the foundation for it. Then understanding our different styles, what worked best for us, and making sure we had the tools in place to be able to do it effectively. Because if you don’t then you’re not going to get much accomplished in your day.
I think that was huge in setting clear expectations about what I would be doing with my time, what projects I’d be working on, where I anticipated getting to in terms of some kind of milestone, so they could trust me and could be held accountable for getting the work done.
I think it’s really important for leaders to be able to set clear expectations and they have to make sure that they’re making things that are implicit explicit. They may have a lot of assumptions in their head about, “Does she know what I’m looking for her to do when she’s remote working on this project” and it’s just really critical to have good communication, to know one another, and build a personal relationship. That plays into all the stuff I do with Conflict Management. I
Think, in general, with any interpersonal relationship, if the trust is there, if you have a good way to communicate with one another, and you understand that you’re just different and you’re going to have different ways of doing things, then it’s going to go smoothly for you whether you’re in person together or doing this remotely.
Traci: I like how you mentioned the expectations and the assumptions, tell me about what leaders need to do to communicate those assumptions or those expectations. Let’s say that you were coaching an organization and they are wanting to go remote – what advice would you give those leaders and even policy makers on how to set that up?
Valerie: There’s so many things I’m thinking of, so many things, as you mentioned that, but I think from a very basic standpoint, like I said, building trust – that’s foundational if you had new employees, if you have people who’ve been around a while, or people moved over to your department because there’s shifts and changes. It’s getting to know them as individuals, finding out about them personally, and just asking a lot of questions.
I work with folks, as a volunteer, from different ends of the political spectrum coming together and having conversations about what’s going on in the nation these days. That’s not an easy conversation to facilitate. What we talk about with everyone is this idea of being curious and asking questions. Asking questions – not to build your case or your position – but just to get to know that person. It’s really about where do they get their work style or values or how am I going to figure out what motivates them. And then tying all of that in when you start to say, “Okay, you want to work remotely let’s talk about your why, and how can we help facilitate that.” Because for some people it might just be they need a little bit more flexibility with their time and their day – like I do as a parent. It might be because it’s an accessibility issue for them that can’t work if they’re not remote.
There’s a lot of different reasons, and as I mentioned, having that conversation about work style and communication style is important. Because some people are going to just want chunks of time to work really hard on a project, get it done, and then they can have their meetings, then they can answer all those different things that happen throughout the day. Other people are just generally going to want to be more responsive or in a role where they need to be. Unless you have the conversations, unless you ask the questions, and just really truly actively listen to somebody, you’re not going to find those things out. You’re just going to go with what you think they’re doing.
I saw this a lot in the pandemic, and I think it’s why there’s a lot of workplaces now experiencing a lot of conflict. It’s not just people bringing politics into the workplace, it’s because we get a lot of ideas in our head and they’re usually negative about other people – it’s just natural. Everybody has biases especially with the stress of the pandemic. I think that was just amplified for folks, and so there was just this crumbling of trust between people. And, yes, coming back face-to-face can really help with that, but you don’t necessarily have to do that.
You just have to know how to test your own assumptions and make sure that you’re finding out, “Why did I not get a response from that team’s message as quickly as I wanted?” Then, as we talked about, I think when you communicate expectations it’s laying out. “This is the
goal I have, these are the different milestones for it, what I expect along the way so we have benchmarks.” Even giving deadlines, but asking that direct report, “Is this feasible? Because you know your role, you know where you sit, you know what other things you’re working on, let’s talk about that.” And building that out together, and it’s also giving an example of what you don’t want and an ideal of what you’re looking for; because, I think a lot of people will just give some good parameters but if you don’t give an example – especially to a newer employee who’s just entering the workplace. If you don’t have an example of what you really want, they might do great and get it right off the bat but they might not – and that you can avoid a little bit of that if you’re really clear up front.
This works honestly in person too. I think everything that I’m talking about right now should not be restricted to remote work. I think it’s partly why we see a lot of the conflicts that happen because if these things were in place in person the remote piece would go a lot smoother.
Traci: I love how you said that the baseline is to approach it from: people want to do a good job and they’re not there trying to goof off. Because those are the two different paradigms of, “I’m going to catch them doing something wrong” versus “I’m going to ding them on it.” It’s like I’m about to get you versus they want to do a great job, they want feedback, they want to excel, they’re going to work really hard. You’re not just assuming that they’re slacking off, so you’re asking the right questions.
Valerie: It’s a mind shift and it’s a mindset to have of thinking more positively about somebody. I think that comes with some of this other work I’m doing kind of more in the political realm that I have to walk into it with an attitude of: this person is meeting me here because they want to talk, they want to learn, they want to dialogue. They don’t want to just give me their latest rhetoric. I think that it’s important that people think about that. They maybe just shift that mentality to this idea that someone wants to do a good job. Those communication principles of actively listening, asking questions, and testing assumptions work across the board.
Traci: Conflict management (face-to-face versus remote), how would you coach or train organizations to get people to connect and to ask those questions? What would that look like?
Valerie: I think a lot of these things are fundamentally the same. There is a little bit of just, it’s hard to put my finger on it, but I guess an energy that physically, if you’re together, you’re going to feel that or experience that. Unlike how you would on a video conference. If it’s one-on-one it’s a little different than if it’s a group, so if I were moderating a conversation like that on a video conference, in some ways it’s a little easier to stop things or de-escalate things. I have a lot of tools at my at my fingertips to do that, I could straight up mute somebody if I want to, it’s just a little easier to interrupt and interject here too. Whereas in person sometimes we feel a little bit more timid, a little bit more polite, so there are differences.
I guess but the fundamentals are there. You still have the same “I statements” instead of “finger pointing” and saying “you” and saying the words like “always” or “never” – those are going to be the same whether we’re talking this way or in person.
And listening matters. I think listening is a little bit harder on a video conference, as well, just because most people have a lot of other things on their screen when any of this is going on, and so that’s what I would encourage folks, if you’re going to have any kind of difficult conversation through a virtual means, that you eliminate every single distraction – every single one – you know email, no messaging, none of it. Because it’s hard enough to do that in-person.
If I were going to talk with someone – whether it’s in the workplace or somewhere else – and have a difficult conversation, I am thinking about my physical space, I’m thinking about if it’s a place that person feels comfortable in, if it’s a place that’s going to be quiet enough for us to have a conversation, if it’s isolated enough that we feel like we can have a tough conversation and not be overheard by other people. Obviously, you don’t have to worry about those pieces but if you have other distractions or if you’re catching them at a bad time for them on here that can be just as bad. So it’s really thinking through whether I’m going to be talking to them at the end of a string of three hours of Zoom meetings, probably not the best to be doing. Be thoughtful about that as well. There are a lot of little nuances like that, but I do think that the fundamentals are pretty similar it’s just being mindful that you have to work a little bit harder with tone of voice, being on camera, being a bit more expressive, so someone gets a better idea of what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling.
Traci: Overemphasizing, gestures, and facial expressions, and have cameras on.
Valerie: Yes, that’s huge. I tell people, when I’m facilitating, that I respect if you have to handle a kids situation or you’re trying to cram in lunch and you don’t want me to see you chewing, I get that stuff. However, if we’re having a really meaningful conversation and we’re trying to talk about a difficult topic, the camera is just so helpful to me and so helpful to everyone else in the room. I think though if you come with that most people are willing. I try extra to focus on that person on camera and try to read them as much as I can and they’re non-verbals when I’m in this environment as well.
Traci: What role, say in the next couple of years, do you think communication training would play with the workforce and with the new generations coming in and even the people who’ve been there for a while?
Valerie: I think with communications training it’s everything. I think this is a long time coming. I think these things should have already been taken more seriously and implemented more broadly than they have been in most organizations and by most leaders. It’s just absolutely essential.
You have to help people learn how to look at their own day, and when they have their times they can focus when is a better time for them to meet, and teach them how to set boundaries. I actually gave some of our leadership in my old organization a lesson or two in that early in the pandemic because I blocked whole sections of my calendar off for project time that’s sacred.
I’m not saying I won’t schedule a client call or talk to a student during that time but you guys can make your meetings in a different part of the day unless you’re absolutely struggling. I need this time to be sacred. I think especially for younger folks coming into the workforce who probably think, “Oh gosh, I have to be 100 percent accessible all the time” – it’s not necessarily true if you are clear about your boundaries. If you were at least a little flexible enough that you’re willing to bend a little bit, like I’m I was willing to bend for students or for clients a little bit more than co-workers unless it was an emergency.
When I set those boundaries, and I communicated it to everybody, and I gave my reason why, they supported it and they adapted. It was the same with working with folks abroad, and this is going to be more and more the reality. More people are working for companies that are have employees or products offered in other parts of the world, so they’ll be working with customers or vendors in these other parts.
It’s just letting them know –this is my core time that I work since we are in different time zones, if you get something to me at this time this is when I’ll get back to you. That’s what I was doing in the early two thousands. We weren’t going to get on a call at midnight my time or their time. It’s that flexibility. I don’t think you can operate without these things in place, and I think it’s going to be boundary setting and working with folks to understand their own styles and their own timings that work for them and how they need to work with other people on the team.
There’s a lot of just self-assessments and training opportunities out there to learn a little bit more about yourself and being self-aware and how to create these skills for empathy for other people. I think there’s just a lot of a need and because the workplace has been lacking it, but also because society’s kind of forgotten how to do it, and since we spend so much time in the workplace what better place to help people with those skills.
Traci: I like that that’s really good. You mentioned work style. We have a lot of training that organizations use to look at personality styles like using the Myers-Briggs or all those different top five big personality style inventories you can take. What do you think, and I’m just throwing this out there, I know you’re not prepared for this. What do you think having inventories for remote workers could look like? Could that be different than just the personality styles that we’ve had for workforce training in the past? Because those models were built on the typical office workforce. Do you think that would be something that could be developed in the future? Do you think we’ll see that?
Valerie: I think that’d be interesting to see if those assessments hold up, right, in this environment and what would be a newer version. It’s good as a starting point. It’s kind of like you using Wikipedia if you’re going to research as the starting point – that’s a good starting point, and I think those assessments are the same way. It gives you an idea of where you are, where someone else is, but what I have seen with these in a lot of workplaces is people stop there and then they kind of pigeonhole each other and say, “Oh well, that’s just how that person communicates” when they don’t realize that they might communicate that way, for that circumstance, with that issue, or with that other person. It’s not always static.
Traci: Especially because there’s no rules about human behavior, it’s just tendencies.
Valerie: Yes, we change. I know some people think people never change. There’s some default things about me that are probably always going to be this way, but there are things that have happened in my life and happen in other people’s lives and do adjust a bit of how we view the world, and how we approach it, so what you might have tested on a couple years ago may not be as true for you now.
There were a couple of these types of assessments that I took that actually are designed to help you understand who you are in a specific role even; because, when I took this one test I took it when I used to work out in the field with high school students, doing 80 hour a week programs, that were really high stress, and my outcomes on those personality assessments were totally different than when I moved into the office and was just writing curriculum – much different on leadership style under stress than I would have in the other position. I think people don’t consider that and some of these assessments don’t account for that.
I would love to see something that does consider this disruption in this shift and what it’s done. I think what people really need to do is to use that as a jumping off point, but really just understand that, when it comes to assigning work to people and communicating to them, what you expect of them communicating. When those expectations aren’t being met you know having a having a tough conversation with that other person.
You need to sort of know this is what might happen when I go to have this conversation with them, and these are the things I need to prepare for. It’s not always going to turn out that way and you’ve got to be ready to just think on your feet and work with the person in the moment, and again, it goes back to being curious, and asking questions, and just listening. In this culture, anyway, we don’t do enough of it, and it trips us up all the time.
Traci: That is absolutely a great point. So we’ll have to watch out for the Polunas Personality Inventory (PPI) coming in the next few years.
Valerie: Sure, hey why not.
Traci: What do you think is important in collaborating in a remote environment that you’ve recognized that there’s training needs?
Valerie: I probably have a couple of different things. The one I’ll start with is around collaboration and innovation. I know that’s the thing that people point to is saying, “This is why we have to go back to the office.” Every time I hear that one I think, just personally, it bothers me. Because I don’t think that’s true. I think creative people will come up with something, no matter where you put them, in fact if you put them in tougher circumstances they’re probably going to be even more creative. They’re going to think their way out of it.
I have had a lot of great experiences during the pandemic where we had our idea sessions, just like we would in person, and we gave ourselves time and space to do it -to have the conversations and let it go where it was going to go and have these ideas.
I think what was missing, and maybe why folks were saying, “we have to go back” is that everyone was so over scheduled and so over taxed with virtual meetings that there was no space, there was no time to just sit and ideate with somebody else. I personally, and this goes back to the boundary conversation, tried as much as I could to set Fridays aside as a time where I’d be planning ahead for my next week.
That would be my day, to think about the big picture and what could we be doing, what are we having a problem with, or what are our clients’ issues that we’re not addressing that we could be. He dedicated the time, and the space, and that was usually a day where I told folks, “If you want to meet any time this day I’m fine, because I’m going to want to throw out ideas to you. I think that the thing is just giving people that time and space, and if were good about making meetings meaningful.
This is probably another one of my like soapboxes but meetings that I scheduled were working meetings. We did stuff together. I did not schedule it just for the sake of talking, because my time was precious, and so was theirs. I led a project team that was cross-departmental in our division, and I knew everyone was super busy. I was being given like four hours of their time per week, so I had to be precious with it. We worked when we met, and they took that and they carried that into their subcommittee meetings as well.
They knew that they were going to be working meetings, it wasn’t just going to be, “well we worked on this this week.” I mean updates are great, but updates should be short. If you’re smarter about why you’re meeting, who is included, because not everybody needs to be in there and sometimes you’re missing the people you actually need it to be part of the decision making.
Having an agenda out up front a few days ahead and letting people know what you need them to bring to it, when you do that work up front and let people know. When you do that they can say to you, “Maybe I don’t need to be at this one (meeting) because you’re focusing on X and I have nothing to do with that. It gave everyone the expectations that I have to be ready, I have to bring stuff so we can work together. That meant that I freed up time for myself and for other people to be thoughtful and be innovative and have the random, “Hey, I’m just gonna (instant message) you right now because I had an idea” or “I can’t stop thinking about it and I want to talk it through.”
That was a different sort of situation altogether where if I was with that person or people we knew okay if I was calling out of the blue like I got an idea then that’s more free-flowing and that’s different. This comes from my education background. If these different tools or techniques or methods that will help capture information in a way that it pushes conversation and it pushes engagement and contribution. It’s not just having an agenda out there right, it’s being thoughtful.
I suppose that’s the advantage, that someone in my background has of, “okay, I’m going to be deliberate about our time,” because the teacher only has so many hours with their students every day. They’ve got to have impact in that time, and they have to give those students the ability to try it out and fail in front of them and get you know correction and feedback. Any way that I could structure a meeting where that kind of thing is going to happen I did, in the pandemic and even now.
I think a lot of folks need to feel like they have meaning and purpose. I don’t think it’s a restricted just to gen Z, I applaud them for being very focused on finding work with purpose and meaning, but I think a lot of people now after experiencing what they experience they’re like, “If I’m going to be devoting my time during the day I want this to matter, regardless of who the company is, I want it to matter. I need to know that I matter when I do it.”
I think that’s something else to the conversation to leaders that we can talk about it a lot. I heard that thrown around, I heard feedback, I heard accountability, I heard engagement, just like you so many times, but it’s just genuinely making them feel like they matter and that could be as small as being like, “Hey, I know that it’s your kid’s birthday today, do you want some extra time at the end of your day that you can spend more time with them?” Or it could be anything but they have to feel like they matter and giving them things to do that they want to do is going to help with that. It goes back to that conversation of getting to know them, building trust, and finding out what it is that motivates them and makes them tick.
Traci: That’s on target. We are redefining what work means – this is amazing.
Valerie: I hope people are listening. Truly we’re not saying anything that I haven’t heard loud and clear from people, whether they’re individual contributors, managers, or clients of mine. If you’re struggling to figure this out, this is what it is.
I always think through what’s my goal or my goals for this meeting or this event or this activity. What does the outcome look like when that hour is up? What does this group need? That drives everything first and foremost, but then a base what the topics are going to be off of those goals. When I was a project leader I had specific questions, not just a general, “What’s your status update?” Because people could tell me all sorts of things if I kept it that broad, but if I knew that we had a milestone coming up, that we needed to have the sort of mapping or layout.
For example, for a web page development project I figured out most of my questions were going to be geared towards that: “What have you plotted out so far?” “Where’s the obstacles for that?” “Who do you need to bring in as a stakeholder to consult on it?” “Who’s going to do the next phase of this?” There’s so many have you thought about type questions I would ask. Because if they weren’t sure it gave us an opportunity, in the meeting, as a collective, to talk through it. Keep in mind, I had folks in this project that they might be coming from Business Services or HR or Contracts or the Academic Teams – not necessarily IT – but we’re working on a web page. So if they didn’t have the expertise it was really like, “Okay, let’s collect everybody together because somebody in here has dealt with that, or knows who to talk to, who can get you what you need without having to go through 10 different people. If you don’t have that plotted out you kind of just go real loose. I don’t know that we would get through to all those things before that timing’s up.
Traci: I think having that skill, as a leader, to have that fine line of I’m going to ask everyone their input and I’m going to keep it on track, but I’m not going to block creativity. I know some people would just want a certain answer, “I want this outcome.” Well then, don’t ask me, do don’t waste our time.
Valerie: Yeah, that’s an important point to clarify that when I when I say I’m organized and detailed it’s not, “Well, this is the outcome I want for this project so who cares if you five on it do or don’t.” In the case of that website project, it’s looking back at: what did we have in the charter, what it what did our stakeholders agree to, what are the parameters that we’re sticking to, the bigger overarching goals. Because, again, not everybody whether you’re on some mixed project team or in your normal position, not everyone is thinking big picture all the time and that can really derail things.
A lot of times people might be doing great work but the outcome has no alignment with a business objective or something that the organization is trying to do strategically. I don’t want to say it wasn’t worth doing, but there are so many competing priorities and these days when there may be limited resources, whether it’s people or other, you have to be really careful that what you’re doing is deliberate. I think a lot of people think, “Oh, it’s just a one-hour meeting, no big deal if it goes no where.” But it does though.
Traci: If that’s how someone is thinking of it consider making that an email. If it’s a training say, “This is a training, this is how we need to do this. I’m going to show you. Are there any questions?” And what we are talking about is really that creative project where we’re coming up with solutions that haven’t been thought of yet, that’s the difference . You’ve got to define the purpose of the meeting.
Valerie: Yes and I think in doing that process sometimes I have been like, yeah this isn’t a meeting, I think I do just need to like email or I can shorten it because I don’t actually need a full hour. Or I’m going to book an hour we might not need it, but this way we have that buffer to be creative. I know that other people’s style is to just wing it, but I would encourage those folks to be a little bit more deliberate.
I mean, even myself, I’m very task oriented and I’ve known this since my early 20s because I had these assessments. I had the luxury of taking the personality assessments very early in my career. I will put a bullet point in my agenda to thank people of certain people for specific things or give positive feedback and it probably seems ludicrous to someone who’s super people oriented, but I genuinely want to be better at it.
For me, if I’m task oriented, if I make it one of those things, I will do it and then I’m still going to be genuine and very people-oriented when I say it. But it’s just little things like that that if you know you need to improve on something as a leader or you need to absolutely need to get a certain point across, you’ve got to plan for it a little bit.
Traci: Because anything can happen in that meeting. Maybe you walk away from the meeting and you’re like, “Oh, I forgot that, that was wrong, and that could have made the whole difference in someone’s life.
Valerie: Yes, and I’ve talked about this with folks, when volunteering in the political realm, that we would talk about whether or not we should just let there be free-flowing conversation. What I told them was, “Look, I structure it enough because there are a lot of variables that we have control over. What I don’t have control over is what’s going to come out in conversation, and I need everything else to be good so that I can react to what’s coming and be more on the fly, and be more spontaneous with that with my questioning, with the way I move things forward.” Having that structure – even if it’s a loose structure – having something makes the unexpected go a lot better. You’re more you’re able to be present and listen more actively when all of that other stuff’s taken care of.
Traci: Those are some excellent strategies. Before we wrap up, what advice would you give our listeners about working remote.
Valerie: It’s doable. If you want it badly enough, you will put the time and the effort in to communicate well with others and to hold yourself accountable. I think the biggest thing is, probably for job Seekers out there, that make the case to people. If that’s what you want and that organization is not typically doing it make the case and if it means you do have to work a hybrid or face-to-face for a little bit to prove something to somebody – that’s fine, but make that case.
There’s a lot of things we talked about today that would help you and support you. Do a lot of those things like figure out that balance and those boundaries. Be outcomes driven with your work; because, if you are creating things that fit the business strategy, and the objectives, if you’re doing that regularly, you’ll earn that trust and you’ll be able to do that wherever and whenever.
I speak from experience on that. I was fortunate enough that when I moved, originally, I was able to keep my job that had gone back to a hybrid model. I was able to move across the country and be 100% remote because I earned it, because I demonstrated that, and I did all the things we talked about.
Just make that case, do the work, be outcomes driven, be a good communicator, and just be thoughtful, and give people grace on the other end because it’s just going to make your job so much easier.
Traci: That is a great note to end on. Thank you again for joining us, Valerie. 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.