The future of distributed teams with Tammy Bjelland
Lorraine Charles, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Na’amal passes the mic to chat with Tammy Bjelland, Founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a training company that works to improve remote and hybrid team effectiveness. In this episode they talk how Workplaceless began and how the future of distributed teams looks.
Lorraine: Hi, I’m Lorraine Charles, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Na’amal, and you’re tuned in to Pass the Mic by the Rosie Report podcast. In each episode, the guest from last week, me, talks to another rebel for good, a changemaker who bravely opted out of traditional employment, and tuned their life’s work toward a mission that is also changing the paradigm of work.
Last week, I spoke to Kiana Pirouz about the future of remote work, inclusion for refugees. And this week, I’m so excited to chat with Tammy Bjelland, Co-Founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a training company that works to provide remote and hybrid teams effectiveness. Now, I just want to add that, Tammy and I actually know each other because our two organizations are partners. Workplaceless provides the certification for the refugees of my program to be certified remote work learners. So, Tammy, how would you describe the work that you do?
Tammy: Yeah, so Workplaceless helps companies and individuals improve remote work outcomes by preparing them to succeed in remote and hybrid work environments. And we do that by providing comprehensive training programs that really focus on the differences between a co-located work culture and a hybrid or remote work culture.
Lorraine: Well, I think I’ve known you for about two years and I’m not sure how long Workplaceless has been in existence, but what made you decide that this was the way to go? What did you see that no one else could see around the remote workspace?
Tammy: Yeah, so I actually started Workplaceless just a year before we met, Lorraine. So, I started Workplaceless in 2017. Well, I started Workplaceless because I knew that there was a gap in the availability of professional development resources for individuals who work in remote and hybrid teams because I was a remote worker, and I had always worked in either remote or hybrid teams since 2011. And so, I knew that there were no resources out there because I looked because my background is in education and I’m always learning. I’m always trying to find learning resources and I’m constantly looking at opportunities to grow. And so, I did research on it and couldn’t find anything that was going to help me achieve the goals in my career, and conversely, also, the people that I knew in my network that I recognized also needed those resources.
So, I started it in 2017. We launched the Workplaceless remote work certification program in 2018, which is how you and I got connected because that program upskills individuals to be prepared to work in a remote environment. And the first version was really designed for those who were newer to remote work. We’ve since refreshed that program completely given the current situation and how everyone, not everyone, but many, many more people have remote work experience now. So, we’ve updated the content to still be applicable to those who are new to remote work, but adding much more content and much more context around what is likely the situation that an individual contributor is going to find themselves in right now. So, that was what I saw before 2017, and that was why I started Workplaceless.
Lorraine: And do you think there was a defining moment, like one particular instance that made you think, this is the way to go? This is the way the world is going to move. What was your aha moment?
Tammy: My aha moment was probably even back in 2011, when I was moving from Spain back to the United States and I was looking for jobs and I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to live yet. So, when you’re moving back to the States, there’s 50 of them. I could have moved anywhere I wanted, but I wanted a job first. I wanted that security before I chose a new place to live. And so, the only option to do that was to find a remote position. And so, I limited my search to remote positions and back in 2011, that was a really big limitation compared to now, much fewer opportunities in remote and hybrid work back then. And so, I got my first fully remote job for an ed tech company based in Utah, but many of the individual contributors that work there were remote.
And so, I had my first experience in a hybrid team and I loved it. I loved the flexibility. I loved being able to design my schedule. I also loved the town that I had ended up choosing. I ended up moving to Winchester, Virginia, which is a small city about an hour and a half West of D.C. And I loved it and I knew that I wanted to stay in Winchester. And I also knew that, that meant that if I wanted to gain additional career opportunities, my options were limited because this is a small community, if I wanted to stick to a co-located position. And so, I loved working remotely, loved my position, and that was my aha moment. I was like, why would I ever go into an office when I can contribute, I can be part of a team, I can feel connected, but also have this flexibility and freedom. And so, that was my aha moment.
Lorraine: Yeah. It’s interesting because I also have an education background. I taught in schools, I lectured at university and I’ve done lots of education consultancies. And for me, my first remote experience was in academia as a lecturer at a university, doing research with people in different countries. And I thought, oh my God, this is amazing. Why doesn’t everyone work with people in different countries? So it’s interesting that education often is the sort of spark, for a lot of us to conceptualize that remote work is possible.
Tammy: Yeah. Well, I often say that academia prepared me for remote work very well because so much of academic work is done on your own. It’s deep work. You have to think really deeply. You have to spend time writing. You’re often collaborating and communicating with people who aren’t right next to you. And also just the solitude. So, one of the challenges that can happen in remote work is feeling disconnected or feeling isolated. And again, I was well-prepared for that coming from academia. And so, I do think that a lot of education roles are perfectly suited to remote.
Lorraine: Yeah. Yeah, I completely agree. And I feel my academic background has really prepared me for this life because it’s a very different life to going into an office. So, tell me, what’s the mission that you see for Workplaceless? What’s your big mission for the future and where do you want to go?
Tammy: So, our mission is to have a positive impact on both the supply and demand of sustainable remote work opportunities. And so, when I talk about that, I talk about the supply. So, I want to improve the outcomes and the skill level of individuals who are applying to remote jobs. I also want Workplaceless to improve the outcomes for those who are taking on those remote employees, because it’s not enough for an individual to be skilled in remote work. That company that takes on that employee or that contractor, they need to have all of the tools and resources to be able to support that person’s success. And that’s where Workplaceless programs come in. We improve the outcomes for the individual contributors, but also for the company at large, because we help managers successfully manage remote employees and we help individual contributors grow in their careers and we help executives and change agents understand what’s needed to go remote.
Lorraine: So, the companies that come to you, are there companies that are looking to take on a remote team or companies which are already remote, that want some more training and development? Who are your biggest audience?
Tammy: So, both. So, we have companies that are currently operating remote or hybrid and they want to optimize what they already have, or they’ve found issues with performance productivity or engagement, and they want to solve for those issues. And then, we also have companies that come to us that are seeking to expand or extend a remote work policy. They might be brand new to remote, or they might have offered remote or work from home options on a sporadic basis previously.
Lorraine: So, speaking of the type of companies, let’s talk about 2020. 2020, the year that changed our lives. I think this is the one event that has transcended everyone. How has that impacted you, and your work, and your team?
Tammy: So, it has been a whirlwind of a year. So, yes we are, of course, in a really good position right now. We’ve had a lot of interest in our services. We are very fortunate to be able to serve those companies that need us, and we are excited about the future of work. And we’ve always been excited about the future of remote work, it’s just that 2020 has accelerated the adoption of remote work in an unprecedented way. And in terms of change and Workplaceless, we really worked hard in March to develop resources that were specific to the situation that companies were finding themselves in at that time. So, we have developed a suite of products that are meant to improve outcomes in remote and hybrid teams, but we did not discuss the other issues that team members were encountering during the pandemic, and they’re still encountering it, having to manage family members at home, virtual school, et cetera.
So, because of that, because we knew that we needed materials that would speak to this specific situation that people were finding themselves in, we had to develop brand new resources. So, we developed a course called Unexpected Remote Work, and that is aimed at individual contributors and managers who need to adapt to a remote work culture very quickly. And we also developed an emergency remote work checklist to provide teams with a framework for remote work success because in March, everybody was coming to us asking, “What do we do? What do we focus on first?” And so, we had to create materials to help with that. Then, fast forward to probably the end of this summer, and now more and more companies are realizing that they want to employ remote work as a long-term strategy, not just a short-term band aid for dealing with the Coronavirus. So, now we’re working with companies that are really focused on developing the processes, developing the capabilities that will ensure success in the long term.
Lorraine: I know you’re a big proponent of diversity and inclusion. So, how have companies been talking to you about this? What’s been your role in promoting this? I know you’re very interested in this topic. Tell me a bit about this.
Tammy: Yeah. Yeah so, I’m super passionate about it as you know. We’ve had some conversations about it. So, I’m going to try to limit all of my thoughts about it to… So, one of the beautiful things about remote work is that it has the potential to offer economic opportunities to individuals that have previously been excluded from the digital economy, in theory. In practice, however, there are so many other barriers that are still keeping more diverse or underrepresented people from accessing those jobs and keeping those jobs and also developing meaningful careers. And so, some of the things that we’re doing… We’ve been hosting monthly networking sessions for years now, but we’ve dedicated sessions specifically to barriers, to access remote work opportunities. We are partnering with organizations such as Na’amal to bridge the gap between what is available in terms of remote work and being able to actually access and succeed in those jobs.
So, we continue to host conversations and keep learning about what those barriers to access are. We actually have an ongoing survey specifically for black and other people of color as well, in the U.S. So, we were specifically, for that survey, were looking at barriers to entry within the U.S. because depending on where you are, the barriers are going to be somewhat different. So, that’s one of the ongoing ways that we are trying to figure out how we can best support increasing inclusion and diversity in remote work because one of the problems is that we just don’t know what are some of those barriers. And also, how to communicate the solutions to the barriers for those who need it. So, it’s an ongoing initiative and we are lucky to be partnering with organizations that are also on the ground and reaching people who need to be reached. And so, we really value the partnership with you, Lorraine, because we truly believe in the amazing power or potential that remote work can have to changing somebody’s economic prospects. But you know more than I do about what some of those exact barriers are for refugees.
Lorraine: Yes, amen. Do you think employers are more open to hiring diverse talents now, now that they realize that remote work has produced a democratization of employment? Are they actually open to it or are they just paying lip service to the whole DNI label and the Black Lives Matter? Are they really interested in doing it?
Tammy: I think you can find examples of both. I do think that, especially this year, especially with the urgency of the conversations around Black Lives Matter, around Diversity Equity Inclusion, there is a sense of urgency. People are feeling more empowered to have these conversations and drive change, and it’s been interesting to see and hear from experts in the field that individual contributors are often some of those people who are driving that conversation. And so, again, Lorraine, I think you can find examples of both, people paying lip service, but also people living into that commitment to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion. But I do think the tide is changing. I absolutely do.
And what is, I hate to say a silver lining, but what is a positive outcome of all of these discussions is that now, we’re seeing more resources being shared. We’re seeing more examples of how change has been driven in individual companies and other companies can take note of that, can use those as models and especially for companies of different sizes. We’re a small, tiny company. We work with a DEI consultant to help us, but there’s only so much we can do because we’re a small company, but now, there are additional resources that can help us determine what are good next steps for us as a small team. And I feel like that was limited previously. And so, that is one of the things that I’m seeing. I do think that more and more companies are going to be more committed to DEI efforts in the future.
Lorraine: Good. Yeah, good. Well, maybe I can help you find a refugee to hire soon.
Tammy: Yes. Yeah. And anyone listening, too, for sure. Yeah. And I wanted to mention that and I might turn the tables on you a little bit, because I wanted to ask you a question.
Lorraine: Yes, that’s okay.
Tammy: I do feel within a given country, there are still barriers to entry to remote roles, but then when you expand it to internationally, then you have additional complications like hiring outside your country, for small firms needing to set up entities outside their own countries. What are some of the things that you’re seeing, that are being developed to help solve for some of those complications?
Lorraine: Well, I guess a company like Oyster, set its mandate to solve that problem, to help companies that don’t have entities in different countries hire and contract someone from a different country. But also, and this is another model which I’ve seen used by other companies, that people globally are hired as contractors where they work full time. So they’re effectively a freelancer or self-employed in the location in which they live and they organize their own social security and tax, but they work full time for the employer, wherever they’re located. Those are the two models that I’ve seen, but also reading about the world of work and what’s predicted. The prediction is a lot of people won’t work for one company. They’ll have two jobs at two different companies, sort of two part-time jobs per se, or even do a bits of work for different companies.
So I feel that model, it’s not the gig economy. It’s for me, it’s just diversifying your prospects and in a way, addressing all your interests because often, and certainly that’s the case for me, one project or one company doesn’t satisfy all my needs. So I feel that the people are moving toward that, but there still needs to be a change. And in fact, a nut for us to crack, which we’re working on actively with MIT ReACT and Paper Airplanes, our two partners, is how do we find a way to actually link companies that want to hire refugees to refugees? That’s the nut we have to crack. We have some good models to look out for what’s happening in the corporate sector, but obviously with refugees, there are extra vulnerabilities, which aren’t present in other populations. So, things are changing. People are coming up with ideas, we just need people to start innovating and to start moving the needle. And then I feel we’ll really have a global movement toward making this happen.
Tammy: Yeah. Cool.
Lorraine: Yeah. So, I’ve got one final question for you because I think I have to end asking you a question.
Lorraine: So, what do you think? No, let’s have our crystal ball. What’s the future of work? What’s the future of remote work, more specifically?
Tammy: So, the future of remote work is here. So I will say that remote work is here. It’s here to stay. I don’t see a future where every single company is fully remote. I see, similar to what you were just talking about, a future of flexibility, where team members and companies can choose where they want to work because work is not a place. Work is a thing that you do. And so, in an ideal future, that world allows that flexibility, allows individuals to be empowered to make choices on where they work and how they work, and in that ideal future, individuals have the mindset, infrastructure, and capabilities to succeed, and everyone around them has the same, so that people, they’re empowered, but also they are supported.
Lorraine: Yeah. I love that, work is not a place, it’s a thing you do. So many of us have to shift our mindset even with what’s happening now. We really have to shift our mindset towards that. So, I love it. Thank you so much, Tammy, for talking about your journey. Where can people find you online and find your work?
Tammy: Sure. They can find Workplaceless at workplaceless.com and they can find me at Tammy Bjelland, T-A-M-M-Y B-J-E-L-L-A-N-D on Twitter and also on LinkedIn.
Lorraine: Yeah. Brilliant. So, that’s it for this week’s episode of Pass the Mic by the Rosie Report. Tune in next week when Tammy talks to Jenny Oh, founder of Wander, another amazing organization. Until then, subscribe to the Rosie Report podcast on Spotify and Anchor, and be sure to check out more stories on building a future for everyone by everyone, at therosiereport.com.