In this episode, we will hear from David Frees, Senior Director of Online Learning and Digital Asset Management with Our Daily Bread University. Throughout this series, we’ll dive deep into the fascinating world of remote work and discover the strategies, challenges, and successes of remote professionals from various industries and backgrounds. Get inspired from insights, anecdotes, and practical advice from experts in their field who are endeavoring to master the art of working remote.
Remote Work: The Good, The Bad, The Potential
Traci Frees (Founder, WorkForceRemote.org): 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 David Frees, Senior Director of Online Learning and Digital Asset Management with Our Daily Bread University. He has been working remote for about three years. He leads a remote team of eight. He is also a self-proclaimed remote wizard, so welcome to the show David!
David: Good to be here thank you for having me.
Traci: Sure, so let’s dive right into our discussion about remote work culture opportunities pitfalls… so where would you like to start?
David: Well, I guess it’s always good to start with something positive – good
Traci: So the positive aspects of remote working, go!
David: Our team actually started the remote learning with the whole COVID global experience that everyone enjoyed there for about two years, and we were told we had about one week to vacate the premises but still needed to work so somehow find a way for this to continue.
Now, in our particular position that I hold as you as you mentioned, was with online learning and we do a lot of stuff with digital asset management and that’s more of a you know an online software provider.
The online learning really kind of lended itself to being remote because everything we have is online, so people take classes through their phone, their tablet, or through their computer. Our team had already really, in a sense without even knowing it, prepared themselves for remote working because we do come into an office, but we all have our own little cubicles we all do our own thing.
We were very much into using, for example, some communication devices: we text and things of that nature. Zoom was just a part of our life so we were already doing a lot of things that we didn’t know was going to actually help us out. We actually took our computers home. Almost all of us have laptops, and we didn’t really miss, I don’t even think we missed a day. We just started working at home. Some people got their stuff set up not knowing how long it’s going to be.
We were told two weeks, which turned it into two years, but you know people ended up actually with better setups than what they have at work. I mean they’ve got their laptop. For example, when I came home, I have a tower where I’ve got two monitors. It’s much better than anything I would have on my laptop at work in a cubicle. Plus being online learning, my role as kind of a middle management is not only managing working with the team and making sure everything kind of fits the goals, but it’s also doing production. I actually create courses as well as oversee the creation of courses.
I have kind of a home library where I can have access to all the information I need without being at work. I would just say, Well I gotta go home and look that up.” I’ve got to do work then but by being remote, it was one of the best worlds for me because our team would always be in touch. We were already ready to be in touch so there wasn’t really much of a learning curve there. But we had the resources that we needed to do what we need to do so it was a pretty easy transition have you stayed remote.
Traci: Do you go have to go back into the office, are you hybrid? Where are you at now?
David: Well, it’s been about four years I guess total, I always lose two years of my life with COVID, but I have to add two years to everything I talk about because I keep forgetting we… it didn’t seem like we stayed at home that long. About two years or maybe a year and a half ago they said “Okay we need to bring everyone back in the office.” We went hybrid where we were working two days a week and then we’d be away three days a week. Probably six months ago or so they said we’re gonna try three days in and two days out, so that’s worked somewhat. I don’t think most people actually do that.
As management they say they want you there a little bit more, so when I do go in, I don’t see any more people in than what I have seen. I think they’re trying to go back to a hybrid. They’re even looking in the future of let’s reevaluate it again and did we all come back in the office where there is no remote so there are discussions about that.
Traci: What do you think the feedback from employees would be to go from remote to hybrid to fully on site again?
David: Highly negative!
Traci: That seems to be the consensus across the nation.
David: Three days was met with negative, and as I said, most people aren’t doing it. So even if they say five days a week. I don’t know how that’s going to work out. I think there’ll be a lot of people that’ll be finding new jobs, new positions where they can work at home. It’s kind of like in life. You get a taste for… if you’ve never had ice cream, you don’t really miss it, but once you have ice cream and you love it, then all of a sudden it’s like well, “I do need that… I want that in my life.”
You get remote learning, it’s like this is a very peaceful way of working. However, it wasn’t peaceful for everyone. I actually had one lady on my team who said, “I need to come in.” She came in two days a week even during the pandemic because for one, she didn’t have internet access at her house. Most people do have internet access, but they’ve decided they didn’t want internet access. I said I understand that, so she came in. She also said, she has two little boys and that has been a challenge. I know for some people who are trying to work remotely … I mean for myself and my wife – my wife teaches at a university, but we don’t have kids at home so I come downstairs into the library and she stays upstairs in her office. We’ll see each other for lunch and then about 4:30 when we’re done but other than that we have the house to ourselves. We don’t have any interruptions, so it I think it kind of depends on your season of life.
Traci: That’s interesting, because that is something that a lot of workers in various fields are saying that if they have to come back in the office they’re just going to get another job. I like how you touched on the generational differences of working if having small kids versus the kids are out of the house, and the number of distractions.
Now on your team tell me about the generational differences. I know you mentioned to me previously that you have some generation Z-ers on your team. Are they for remote? Do they want to come into the office? What is that experience like since they graduated and haven’t experienced what an on-site workforce would be like?
David: I’m the only Gen X, so my generation provided all the good music for everybody the 80s. Everyone else pretty much is Millennial ranging from the top end of the millennial to the latest to the very bottom end. So we get some that had the participation trophies and we have some that didn’t have it.
Traci: You’ve got the Gen Y and the Gen Z-ers.
David: We have all that whole scan because Millennials kind of seem to… they get picked on most the time for everything but there’s such the big gap that it’s like you get an early Gen Z and a late. They could be two different people, but we also have as you said Generation Z – we have one of those and I don’t know. He would never come into the office. I mean his desire is to stay at home all the time, but I think most of them … the rest of the team it’s kind of 50/50.
I mean we have one who’s about 48. She would prefer to stay at home all the time too. So, I think it just now she’s single so she can stay at home, and there’s no interruptions. But it really kind of depends on you know again your season of life where you’re at. But I think overall most people are saying, especially with the price of gas, most are saying I would rather just be at home so it’s a long trip to come in a lot of gas and, but yeah it’s – I think most everyone regardless of the generation they would favor some favor some kind of hybrid or even being home exclusively
Traci: And it’s going to be interesting to see what the studies of remote work because this is a budding field of workplace dynamics. Are there personality styles that are more aligned with it? Is it generational? What are those factors that make you highly productive and love to be remote versus you know hybrid where you can be remote and go into the office as needed versus I want to be in the office all the time. So that’s going to be interesting to see how it develops?
David: I think I mean a lot of it comes down to your temperament, your personality – I mean where I work, we do a lot with the DISC do you have D-I-S-C and in those four will kind of determine your temperament.
Traci: Oh the person. Okay, yes.
David: The personality kind of temperament – I’m a C. I don’t even have a second letter I’m just a c, so it’s very analytical. I’m good if I can just go sit out in the woods and no one bothers me. I’m good down here by myself and I can do several hours I don’t have to have that but people that are more socially oriented, they have to have people around them, and that makes it very difficult for some people that working at a different job.
Plus it also depends on what your work is. I think as you’re talking about, I mean if you’re packing boxes it’s hard to do that at home. I mean so we had an entire group – that just sends out orders. Well, they had to come in because the product is there. Whereas if you are in a position where it’s more knowledge-based like marketing, or if it’s publishing, with editorial you can do that anywhere. And I think there were people that were wanting to do that even before the pandemic. They were saying, “Hey let me go to a coffee place. It’s relaxing it’s a nice atmosphere.”
I find that a lot of different offices look very septic, and they’re very institutional. I don’t know if they just sell that color gray to everyone at a cheap price or something, but it’s like why does it have to look so bad? And you walk in and you think, “This is depressing.” Nothing, people trying to decorate their offices or little cubicles with at least a light or some pictures, and I think businesses need to get a clue to say, “They obviously want to have more of a nice home feel.” Well, now you get that whenever you get home but you don’t get that when you’re at work.
I mean, I think our marketing department, the graphics department, I mean they have the best looking area because they decorate it, and they do things because they are more creative. Everyone else just kind of lives with it. But – it’s like everything in life. Life is kind of messy. There’s a lot of factors you have. You can’t just say it’s this or this. You have to kind of say all these factors are coming in and sometimes we don’t catch all those factors.
Traci: Right, until later. I mean hindsight of course, but yeah when we’re in it it’s hard to see. Now tell me about the effect that going remote with your team and in this position of hybrid. And so pretty much you guys still are supporting the remote environment, so what has that done to communicating the culture of your organization. While everyone’s in the field, if they’ve been able to maintain that or are there changes? Are there specific strategies you have to employ to make sure that they are adopting the culture and the ways of working that – the university that you work for would support?
David: Well there’s two different answers. Depends on whether you’re asking senior management or you’re asking the people on the ground. Okay, senior management is, “We need to contain the culture.” And it’s like, I don’t think you really understand the people. – You don’t really usually, you don’t flow down to the point where you understand the people that are actually doing the work. It’s the people like myself, middle management, that really know the people because you’re actually dealing with the people that are doing the actual work. And they’re actually involved, and I try to always keep myself in a production sense so everyone who’s on my team, I know what their job is, and I can actually do what they do.
There’s a reason, so if it’s editorial and if it’s creating not just content, I can create content if it’s going to be video production, I can do video production… student support all that stuff. And I do that a lot like even our systems analyst, I took classes in coding because I want to know well how do you do the coding. Because whenever I have someone who’s above me that says well we want to create an app, it’s like okay when do you want this? I want it next month. Well no it doesn’t work that way you know you don’t create a website in a month. You don’t create an app in a month. I think you get people that are in management – they get isolated and then they don’t really get to understand what it takes to do what they need to do.
But going back to your question of the – of the culture I think I mean the culture to me a lot of that comes in the people you hire. If you hire good people and you have people that you know are going to fit with a culture that you’re trying to create, they’re going to continue that because that’s just who they are. You hire people that are against that culture I mean of course they’re going to go against it. I found that in remote working, I mean we would have two Zoom meetings a week when we were fully remote. We would meet by Zoom, and we’d catch up with here’s what we’re doing in our projects. Here’s what we’re going. We never missed a goal. All of our goals that we had set – all those things were hit.
And we came back it – was like you know more of just, “Hey we saw each other last Tuesday on Zoom.” Now we’re in person. That’s great but it didn’t really – it wasn’t as needed. I think a lot of it depends on the team, and it depends on the leader of the team as to how you are contacting or promoting you know – a lot of the ethos of an organization. If you do that poorly, then you’re going to have people that are just saying hey I’m going out in different directions. But if you have a consistent contact with people, you treat people like adults, you hire people who are adults – I think it’s harder to go astray in those opportunities.
Traci: That’s really interesting you mentioned the maturity level of the person you hire and what that would mean to the success or failure of remote so has been remote versus hybrid has that affected productivity?
David: No not at all.
Traci: So it’s the same?
David: Yeah, we’re doing better.
Traci: You were doing better?
David: We’re doing better. I do better with remote. One thing, because I don’t have every five minutes someone coming to my office. “What about this?” I mean if it’s if it’s in an email then I can deal with it pretty easy. But you know if you’re at work people say well it’s good to have these you know these talks in the hall and other things. And yeah, I can see that, and that’s good, but I can also check someone and I can zoom them or do some stuff like that. Just as easy.
I like the hybrid because it does give me the opportunity to see some people and then in person and that’s good. I heard that there were some students, and this is like college students, who were saying we don’t know how to talk to people in person. And I find that you know remarkable – I wonder I don’t know how that is. It’s like you know you don’t forget how to ride a bike, and talking to someone is very similar. So I would say maybe you never had talked to people to begin with. I know my daughter, whenever she was a young teenager 15 years old, I walked in the living room and she had a friend and they were both on their phones. I said you’re right here in the living room why don’t y’all talk to you instead of texting other people. They said we’re texting each other. I said oh you’re you’re a foot away why would you text?
Traci: They were texting. Was it in a group or was it just each other?
David: No just each other. They’re sitting on the same couch, and you’re just texting each other. And a lot of people did that and – now I mean my kids were they were always kids that could talk to other people because they were around adults more. But they kind of seemed like they were they could adapt to both worlds. Okay if someone needs me to text, I can do that but I can also talk. But I don’t know if everyone had those skills growing up. That’s an issue, or maybe they just don’t want those skills.
Traci: That will be interesting to see how that surfaces in the remote workplace and especially if being on site is it going to put them in some type of anxiety type situation where if they were remote they would be completely comfortable with chats and IMs and video conferences and things like that versus right there.
David: I know of an individual that coming in, he will physically get sick because he has to drive in, and it’s the driving – it’s the coming in – it’s meeting people he knows, but for him that is a physiological reaction that he has to other people whereas if you could chat or email there’s no there’s no problems. It’s kind of like with the whole second life.com Virtual World online people were like, “Hey I have no problem talking to people and interacting and being the clown or being whatever it is. I can do whatever I want to do – no inhibitions because I’m going through an avatar.” But in person, you would never see them. They would never talk. I mean I wouldn,t know that they were there because they’d be so quiet.
Traci: So that brings up an interesting point do you think that working remote right now the norm is to have your cameras on in some organizations? I have spoken with some that they’re like well people can have them on or off. Do you think that people will be using avatars instead of using their normal faces to talk and interact? Would that be something that you think would happen? Do you think that would be the norm?
David: I think it could. I remember the one YouTube about the guy who was going before the judge and he was like a kitty cat or something he was being deposed and it was just it’s hilarious.
I guess it depends on the business because you know you’ve got some businesses that are pretty more old-fashioned so they don’t want… I mean even Zoom is a is a big leap for them. Part of it depends on the technology – the level of the people using it. I mean I’ve had people – I just ran a test where we did a pilot course, and we had we’re trying to introduce coaching to people that are taking courses. And we did this. It was a global. We had about 750 people from across the world, and we had we had coaches from across the world. We found out very quickly that depending on where you’re at, that will depend a lot on your technological Savvy. Some people’s internet would just go out. They would they couldn’t even meet, and it was like you had people trying to come in where’s my coach.
Well, the business the meeting didn’t start because their internet was down or their electricity was down. But a lot of them… just trying to get them signed on was almost impossible because they could not just sign in. If you say click or copy your email. Paste it here. Copy your password. Paste it here. They would say, “I keep clicking on my email and it goes to Google.” And I said, don’t click on it . Copy it. I don’t understand. I’ve said I don’t know how else to say. Yeah using avatars that … I guess it depends on the software whether a company I mean if depends on how a company defines professionalism.
Traci: Right, I mean now think about gaming, and I know we’ve played online games before in our past, and even in the present. The time we take to make that avatar look exactly the way we want it to.. imagine being able to take maybe your character and bringing them in and that’s who represents you.
David: I mean in Apple, people tend to spend a lot of time making their avatar look like themselves, and I I did the same thing. So it’s like, well I actually use that in other different areas even though I use an Android phone now, but I’ll still try to use my little icon that I had. I mean maybe in the future there’s –
I don’t know there was a book that came out called Ready Player One, and it was about the Oasis which was a virtual world. Everything was done in that context. And you know maybe there’s a day whenever there will be a virtual world where business takes place and people kind of do a lot of stuff there. But – I kind of hope not. I mean remote working is one thing, but I still like getting outside, and I still like actually seeing people you know. Having dinner with people, there’s something about that even gaming – I’m a big gamer so I’ve seen around a table throwing dice and stuff
Traci: Actual board games.
David: That’s important. Yeah, I mean I can do that online and I love that, but there still is there’s a place for it. Yeah I think the balance is important.
Traci: Okay, so let’s move to another topic related to engaging your Workforce about some remote fails. Some people are like why would why would you have to talk about that. People would know what to do. They know how to turn on their camera. They know how to look professional. Would you agree or disagree with that.
David: I could disagree with that. They don’t know how to hit the mute button that’s for one.
Traci: Okay give me an example of that. What’s happening. What’s the worst case scenario you’ve seen or experienced.
David: I’ve had one lady on a zoom call. Her picture was off, but she left her camera on her husband was making a smoothie it sounded like, and he had one of those loud things. And she was just screaming at him
Traci: Over her mic? So her camera was off?
David: The mic was on, and everyone could hear everything that was going on, and it lasted for like five minutes. And you had people texting please turn off your… mute yourself… take off your microphone. Now why the person who was in charge didn’t just sit up there and mute that person, but again, I think that comes back to technological savvy on people’s parts.
I mean in the group that I was doing we talked about the coaching. We were just doing globally. I had three groups and I always had one lady, at least in one group, where there was always a ticking tick tick tick. Now what is that? It was something. Either she was tapping something or doing something. But you know I said I have to have host’s privileges to do this. And I could just simply mute her and it went away. But I think when you don’t know how to use the software that can be a challenge.
But there’s so much. My wife talks about some of the things. She was teaching the classes online and she’d have kids. And they would have their cameras on, and they were in bed. And they would have the camera looking a bit as they’re on their pillow sleeping and there’s just and it’s like no one cares anymore. – She’ll have now at this point after COVID, she has them come into the class if they’ll make it. A lot of times it’s like, “I don’t even know why I need to be in class.” But if they do come to class, they will lay their head down and sleep the whole time because they just assume, “That’s what I need to do.”
It’s like when I was in college, I would never have done that or I’d have been told get out of this class and that’s my grade today. It’s like how dare you tell me anything because I’m paying for an education. No, sounds like you’re paying for a degree not an education – But they want the degree and there’s you know I can do whatever I want to do
If I typed in – Zoom fails, I think it was in YouTube and some of the things that you find that people do. It’s just, it can be distracting to other people. It can just be annoying so there’s a lot of things that happen within the context of a zoom call that people have recorded that they didn’t know was being even with their cameras on people walking around. You got people that are walking in the background that come out of a shower, and it’s like you know it’s just all kinds of stuff that that occur.
Traci: I had one guy, one time we had 30 people on. And he had his tablet because you could tell and it was down there on his lap. And he’s watching TV. So at the beginning of the class, I was like, “Hey make sure that you know your cameras are on. You’re interacting. You’re paying attention,” because that was the requirement. But he had it on and then he started picking his nose. I don’t know how else to say that politely. I thought, “Oh no, he’s itching his nose,” and it was like, “This is continuing on. I gotta stop this.” So I had to stop the lecture because there were 30 people on there. And then turned the camera off because he didn’t know. He thought it was off he had no idea. It was like oh no!
David: There’s a lot of issues that culture is moving much faster than the answers we have as to how we can deal with some of the social situations we find ourselves. Yeah, I mean before we ever went remote I had someone who came into our office. And they pulled me aside after it was over, and they said, “I noticed such and such is on their phone texting.” I said, “yes.” They said, “why?” I said, “Because that’s what this generation does.” They said, “We don’t need to have them on their phone.” I said, “First of all, that person has done everything that they’re required to do. They exceed the goals that they have.” I said, “If you need to check your Facebook or you need to make a text here and there, that is irrelevant “As long as we’re getting our work done, I have no problem with that.”
I said, “Now if it starts affecting productivity, then we just say, ‘Hey you’re on your phone too much. We’re not getting our work done.’” But if you can do both, I mean I said even if they want to watch a you know I have one – I’ve seen a person that would actually put their phone on the side they have their earphones in. They’re watching Lord of the Rings, and they’re doing their work while they’re working. I don’t have a problem with that. I said, If you want to listen to a book on tape. You want to watch it.” I said, “As long as you’re getting the work done.”
Traci: Now there’s an older generation that would say wrong. So, it’s like they need that stimulation, and it could be the generation. It could just be the person’s makeup. But they need that stimulation because you look at the news and a thousand things are happening. It’s not just someone talking so they need that to focus. And there’s been studies done that some people actually do perform better if they have external stimulation whereas others do not so the rules should be flexible.
David: And you have to be able to do I mean…There was a person I knew that was over an area of where I was working and – she would actually, when people came into the building, if she saw them in the hall, she would walk up to him and she would say, “Such and such needs to get to their office.” And she told them, “You have 30 seconds. When you come in, 30 seconds to get yourself together and then start working.” And you stayed there all day.
And my goal whenever I came in to a team, they said, “What are your rules?” And I said, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
They said, “what are your rules?”
I said, “Well, my rules would be that we need to get our job done because that’s what we’re hired to do.”
Well what about the rest of it?”
And I said, “Well the rest of it’s irrelevant. We’ll deal with issues as they come up.” I said but – to them I said, “I think every hour you need to take at least 10 minutes of every hour and go walk around and talk to someone. I said if you sit at your desk for eight hours a day, you’re not going to be productive after about the fourth hour.” But again it’s mentality that says everyone has to be at your desk working and no talking whatsoever, and it’s, I think, it’s bad management.
Traci: What it ends up being, it doesn’t customize it to the field. The talking could just disrupt, but as long as you’re aware of all those things, yeah it lends itself to freedom instead of restriction.
David: Education system – not all kids learn the same yes exactly the challenge with education is you’ve got 30 40 kids in a in a room… well probably 20 30 kids. And it’s very difficult for one teacher to do that. Whereas for me, with a team of eight, I can do that. But in the education, it’s like one size fits all. Right, well you’re going to lose some kids because there’s some kids that don’t learn the way other kids learn. And it’s a lot harder to implement than it is at work, but I guess if you come out of that mentality you bring that into a work. Mentality, as a leader, well now you’ve impinged that same thing on them and it doesn’t work well and at this point it’s not about kids it’s about you’re paying them salaries to accomplish a job that’s not really getting done. So as a manager it makes you look bad because you’re not getting the work done that needs to be done.
Traci: So you’re saying to rethink work. What does it mean to work as a manager? What does it mean for your team, for your field, to get the maximum productivity? And in some of those cases, what I’m hearing is less restriction is better.
David: Yeah, I mean in speaking, one of the golden rules is “Know your audience.” If you don’t know your audience, you’re probably not going to do a very good job at communicating. Same thing is true in in work. It’s “Know your employees,” Know what they need . Know what their skill sets are. Hire them for those skills, and set them loose. But give the guidance that you can. Say you’re on the DISC scale – more of a very high driving D, or you’re more of a C, an introverted type person, or you’re more of a person who likes to be around social – you’re very socially oriented. You have to kind of treat … it’s the same thing with raising kids. Every child is different, and you know what works for one kid may not work for another. You have general rules in a house, but there’s individuality to that. So, I think it’s about understanding what – knowing your employees, or at least taking the time to get to know them. It’s easy just to say it’s a blanket rule for everyone, but that’s a bad manager because they haven’t taken any initiative on themselves to say, Let me understand the people that I’m responsible for.”
Traci: That’s really a great strategy. To wrap up, I’d like you to give some words of advice and it can be related to anything remote from your experience from anything you’ve learned for others who are either working in your field as in online education or in other fields. What’s some great remote advice from the David Frees.
David: Oh, my goodness. Well, this would be irrelevant data then, if it’s from the David Frees. It’s understanding your team members. Understand who you are as a leader. I think some people have more of a lording over type of mentality, whereas I see myself as having a different function in the midst of a team. My function is to make sure we keep – we get the goals. My function’s to make sure everyone’s employed, make sure everyone gets what they need. I keep sometimes upper management and other people away from the team as a barrier to make sure they can do what they need to do.
So I think as a leader, when it comes whether it’s in the office or even out of the office, it’s about understanding your role but understanding who you’re working with, and then providing the tools for them to do the best that they can do. And a lot of it just comes down to having grace with other people, not saying, “This is how I work,” but having to say, “Let me step outside of my comfort zone. This individual is more of a social person, so I may have to contact that person more. Or I may have to do some other things because it’s better for them, and it ultimately is better for the team.”
A lot of it is it’s just common sense. It’s just looking at the world. I had a professor when I was in college – and this is years and years ago. He said, “If you want to be successful, you need to learn IPP,” and I never forgot. He stated it one time. I never forgot. He said IPP stands for interrelationships, patterns, and predictions. He said if you want to be successful you need to know the inner relationship between the things around you. And in the course of leadership, it’s your team patterns. What patterns are you see in this form. Where do you see the people working? What are they needing? And then you make predictions. What is the best way to help this person succeed? What is the best way to accomplish this particular goal? If you can do that, then you can create a team that is successful and is able to thrive regardless of whether they’re at work or whether they’re in remote or they’re half and half. And they can be able to accomplish the goals that they need.
Traci: That’s excellent advice, and I think that’s a great note to end on. I definitely want to have you back to talk about anything related to remote because you definitely have some words of wisdom there. So thank you again for joining us today, and we want to thank our listeners for tuning in to WorkforceRemote.org podcast where our goal is to help you continue to go remote and work on. Oh, and I do have a note here for you, just make sure you call Dad sometime this week.
David: I will do that.