Prior to the pandemic, working from home simply wasn’t an option for many traditional ‘corporate’ workers, let alone something they had to do.
Though the sudden transition from office working to WFH shocked and overwhelmed many workers and organizations, Sacha Connor, the CEO and founder of Virtual Work Insider may have arguably been the most prepared person we’ve met.
As one of the first employees to test a remote work model at Clorox in 2010, Sacha had a decade of experience to draw from as many companies struggled to transition to remote working models during COVID.
We recently spoke with Sacha to understand how her company helps organizations achieve location inclusion and equip organizations of all types and sizes to meet the requirements of a post-COVID work world.
First, a bit about Sacha
Prior to starting her company, Virtual Work Insider, Sacha spent six years working at Clorox in California, and eight years working for Clorox from the East Coast.
Her ‘remote work journey’ started when her kids were young — out of a basic desire to make sure they could grow up close to their extended family who were based in the Philly area. Living in California didn’t exactly make that easy, so they spent lots of time traveling back and forth across the country.
After racking up lots of airline miles, she started to consider other options. She knew she wanted to stay at Clorox, but she also wanted to make it easier for her kids to see their extended family and grow up with their cousins.
Sacha loved her job at Clorox, and didn’t want to leave but she also loved her family, and wanted to make sure she was doing what was best for them.
Sacha decided to broach the idea of remote work — working from Philly would allow her to keep the job she loved, and spend more time with her family.
Note: her responses below have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rosie: We’re impressed that you were so ahead of the ‘WFH’ / remote work transition — how did it feel to get approval to do this this 10+ years before COVID happened?
Sacha: Back in 2010, I moved from SF to the Philly area, and at that point, I had been working for the company for about six years. I became this ‘experiment.’
When they said I could move, it came with two major caveats, he first was: ‘You’ll never get promoted because director level and above positions need to be here at HQ’ and the second was:‘You’ll never get to work on certain businesses because those businesses are so important you need to be here at HQ.’
At this point, I had gotten the green light to move, and in my head was saying, ‘Ok, just get me back to Philly, and then I’ll show you.’
But when I set out on this journey to work differently, it uncovered a lot, in terms of how we weren’t yet set up in our mindsets, our behaviors, and even our technology to be able to work effectively across distance.
So once you made it back to Philly, how did it feel to be one of the first (if not the only) employees working in a remote role like this?
Sacha: It was a privilege to be able to be this ‘experiment and pioneer’ at this six billion dollar company—in a role like I had—which was leading large new production innovation teams.
I took on the responsibility to ‘do a good job.’ very seriously. I knew that if I wasn’t able to do my job really well from 3,000 miles away, they weren’t going to let other people have the flexibility I had—-so I felt an incredible amount of pressure to do this well.
When I went remote, I was excited that the company was open to this experimentation. Another colleague, Kyra, actually also went remote at the same time. So we had each other to lean on and learn from. Every week, something new was coming up. We would ask each other—how are we going to do that without being in headquarters?
If you think about the kind of work we were doing at Clorox, I was working in a very tangible, tactile role. This wasn’t working on technology, this was developing new PHYSICAL products – new liquids in a bottle, packaging formats, graphic design etc.
This also involved working with ad agencies who were used to coming in and presenting boards in person, and now no longer knew how to get the same kind of work done with a decision maker who wasn’t there [physically].
A lot of what I was learning how to do was also actually relevant for most of the company. While the [Clorox] headquarters was in Oakland CA, their technical center was a 30-40 minute drive away—so that too was a virtual relationship.
I saw that even the things I was struggling to do from 3,000 miles away were happening between the team that was only 30 minutes away from the rest of the team.
It’s interesting to think about the variety of ways ‘remote work’ exists, even if it’s two offices that are only 30 minutes away (like at Clorox). After working in your remote role for eight years, you decided to try something different. How did your ‘experiment’ at Clorox inform what you’re doing today in your current role as CEO/Founder of Virtual Work Insider?
Sacha: I also noticed both from my own experiences and hearing from other colleagues, industry contacts, and companies, that something called ‘Distance Bias’ (the brain’s natural tendency to put more importance on the things that are closer to us) was often coming into play.
Having experienced this first hand, I wanted to help other ‘traditional’ organizations navigate a smooth transition to an effective and inclusive hybrid model of work.
When I first ventured out on my own, I was predominantly working with large institutions with long histories (Clorox is over 100 years old). Many of my early clients were 50-90 year-old-companies where remote work didn’t exist at all.
Many of these organizations have their headquarters in a single central location, with satellite offices spread out across the country, which means that the offices and people who weren’t based at HQ were getting left behind.
To address distance bias at an organizational level, my focus was helping these large organizations figure out not just the technical and logistical challenges, but more importantly, helping teach them the skills to make sure those employees in the non HQ offices still felt included and engaged.
Rosie Note: To learn more about Distance Bias, Sacha recommends checking out the Neuroleadership Institute’s SEEDS Unconscious Bias Model
Before the pandemic, what other challenges did you see organizations struggling with as you expanded Virtual Work Insider?
Sacha: One of the things I initially found frustrating (even before COVID) is when companies would ask me to teach just the remote employees how to work better.
I would say no, we need the whole team TOGETHER (not just the remote team members). The in-office team members and the remote team members need to know how to work together across the distance.
Another one of the areas under DE&I that I’ve been talking about for awhile is this concept of location inclusion. How can we make sure that we are valuing everyone — regardless of where they live or work?
For such a long time, most companies thought about their headquarters as the center of gravity. That’s where all of the information, key leaders, and stakeholders were located.
I felt this very personally when I went to work fully remote for Clorox. My remote work transition required a lot of behavior and process change. How was I going to make sure I was still able to influence from 3,000 miles away?
People in the location minority (which could be a satellite office, or somebody working fully remote) were trying like crazy to feel included and the responsibility to be included fell on their shoulders.
Incorporating remote work as an option is a great opportunity to create location diversity and get the best talent from anywhere. Instead of having to recruit within a certain mile radius from a building and only the people that are already in that location or are willing to move to that location—it opens up your talent pool so much more widely.
Jumping ahead to present day, COVID obviously had a major impact on your company and the organizations you work with. Tell us more about that experience.
Sacha: The biggest change was that we went from helping companies who were working between office sites (with a minority of remote employees) – and helping them work better across that distance, to working with companies that had to quickly transition to 100% remote because of COVID.
Due to the pandemic everyone was now instantly part of a FROG [fully remote organization]. Some FROGs had existed before (mostly SaaS companies, tech companies, smaller/founded companies), so they had skills, tools, processes and mindsets in place to support this.
But what happened to the other companies, is that they jumped into being a FROG, but didn’t have any of the scaffolding – because remote work as a standard of their workforce strategy was not yet fully embraced.
What was happening was what I expected to happen. These companies have a highly collaborative, highly synchronous culture and fell back on the two things they knew how to do— set up meetings, and send emails.
That’s where you got this crazy amount of meeting fatigue, communication overload— because they didn’t have the scaffolding in place to help them know how to communicate and work together across distances differently.
Over the last 2 years, at first it was: How do I help you in this rapid remote situation by giving you just the foundations on how to set expectations with your team? What are the communications norms that will help you with this situation?
Now it’s evolved since most of the companies we work with have created a hybrid workforce strategy as they start reopening offices.
Hybrid is going to be harder, but the transition to hybrid is a great opportunity for people to re-look at their people processes and ways of working to see where the distance bias is baked in that they didn’t realize.
Now that you’ve helped so many companies transition to fully remote work, have your thoughts on various working scenarios (fully remote, hybrid, fully in-office etc.) changed at all from when you initially founded your company to now?
Sacha: It’s not all amazing, and doesn’t come without downsides in terms of having to be able to work across distance. That is HARD, no matter what model a company uses.
When working with organizations, I don’t come in as a remote work advocate. I’m not coming in and saying everyone should go fully remote. No — every company needs to decide what’s the best workforce strategy for their situation based on the industry they’re in, their company mission, their company values, what their employees need, and the type of work that they do.
I’m a location inclusion advocate. So I come in and my team helps you move from where you are and to where you want to be through teaching the skills to lead, communicate, collaborate and build culture across distance.
So what now? Could you share any watch-outs for organizations as they continue their transitions to hybrid?
Sacha: Over the last 2 years, for the most part, these teams have been meeting fully remotely. Everybody has had their own little square on screen and they have equal access to the mute and unmute buttons, equal access to the chat function.
As offices reopen, some teams are going to head back into hybrid meetings—where some people are co-located in an office together, and some people are still remote.
I’ve led or participated in more than 10,000 hours of hybrid meetings. And I know from having been in the location minority for all of them, how hard it can be to feel included in those discussions.
Those meetings can have a special level of distance bias unless you have a really well trained facilitator who knows how to make those meetings really inclusive.
We teach techniques on how to enable more effective and inclusive meetings. For example, consider doing a digital-first meeting – everyone still calls in from their own workspace or device, even if there is a group that could be co-located [in the office].
When offices reopen, this distance bias is going to rear its ugly head. This is where having a location-inclusive mindset is going to become really, really important.
Now is the time. Now is the call to action. Take a look at location inclusion. What can you do to create an even playing field across locations? What can you do to mitigate distance bias?
Finally, what’s your advice to companies still navigating uncertainty that exists as a result of the pandemic?
Sacha: Somebody needs to have the accountability/responsibility to think about the employee experience from all angles – from in person to fully remote. The experience for those coming in and out—you have to look at the whole ecosystem.
Several tech companies are hiring for ‘heads of remote.’ While it’s great that companies are embracing a remote culture, the emphasis is a little off—you don’t want to have your eye on just the remote team members or the in-office team members, you need to look at all employees, how they’re interacting.Companies should consider creating a Head of Hybrid role.
This is not a one and done type process. I think companies are going to get into trouble if they think their office re-opening date is the end of what they need to plan for. It’s actually the beginning of working in a new hybrid style and they need to provide systematic support for behavior and mindset changes and upskilling in order to do this.
This idea of working in a virtual team isn’t new. People were doing it before COVID (maybe not especially well) — but this has created these lightbulb moments of wow, we need to know how to work across distance, whether that’s from office to office or fully remote or with a hybrid employee that’s coming in and out of the office.