Expert Spotlight: Barbie Brewer

Tips on WFH from Barbie Brewer, remote work expert

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After building her career at IBM, Cisco and Netflix, Barbie Brewer (@BarbieJBrewer) embraced the world of remote work when she joined GitLab, an all-remote company with over 1,000 team members in over 50 countries. Barbie is now the Chief People Officer of LoveToKnow Media, a remote company with employees in seven countries. She also founded TNT (Talent in Tech) Consulting, where she aims to help companies with build dynamic remote teams.

Can you share a little bit about your background and how you became a “remote expert?”

I have worked on distributed teams my entire career, dating back to Exodus and Cisco. It was after I was diagnosed with a rare tumor and put on chemotherapy, however, that I really began to have an interest in working remotely. I started my consulting company thinking that would be my only option. When GitLab reached out to me about its Chief Culture Officer role, it felt like a great opportunity to learn more about remote work and still feel like I could contribute to a company.

How did your experience at GitLab — an entirely remote company — shift your thinking about remote work, and what challenges/opportunities did you encounter as the organization’s Chief Culture Officer?

Working at GitLab taught me how effective the work environment can be with remote teams. It also proved that strong employee connections can be built digitally. When working remotely, you not only “meet” your co-workers, but also their kids, pets or favorite house plant.

Another opportunity with remote work is that you get access to talent all over the world versus the talent only in your own backyard. Brilliance and skills exist across the globe, but opportunity does not. Companies with the ability to foster remote teams bring the opportunity directly to the talent.

There are some challenges, however. Time zones, cultural and language differences, to name a few, need to be considered. Diversity is a strength and a challenge of remote teams from different geographies. When working across cultures, it is important to define your company culture, set the rules for respecting all people and educate each other on the respective cultures “around the table.”

Finally, the need to find a way to work asynchronously is also important and a challenge for many organizations. With employees in varying time zones, employers may have to lean more on documentation and collaboration tools like Google Suite, Slack and Trello that lend to a more productive work environment.

If you had to synthesize, what are companies who have just drastically shifted their working models doing well, and what could they be doing better as it relates to leading a newly remote workforce?

This is a very hard time to start remote working. Even those of us who are experts at remote work are facing additional challenges with homeschooling and lack of social engagements. Normally, a strength of remote teams is the ability to be very active with your local community.

Companies moving to remote work out of necessity need to view this as a new way to do business, not a temporary problem. Thoughtfully think through how to be productive and effective. Don’t change the things that were working in the office. Continue to have your team meetings. Continue to leave time for social discourse.

Some companies are over engineering their approach to working from home. Remember that your employees are at home, so don’t be critical of interruptions from children, pets or deliveries; rather, look at it as an opportunity to get to know your teammates even better.

We’ve been hearing many concerns over the loss of “water cooler talk” or the casual, spontaneous chats among co-workers who can often be sources of inspiration. Any tips for replicating these moments remotely?

I recommend having weekly or daily “social” calls. At LoveToKnow, we call these meetings “Coffee and Cab” since some of us are waking up to our morning cup of coffee and some of us settling down with a nice glass of wine. Encourage the use of video and sharing pictures. It can be helpful to have a topical area to discuss, for example, games and entertainment, kids and pets, cooking, hobbies, etc. You can set up similar slack channels and encourage employees to set up video calls with those with whom you share similar interests. The beauty is that you can get to know people based on interests instead of what department they sit in at the company.

What predictions do you have about the future of work in a post-COVID-19 world? Do you think there will be any lasting impacts?

I sincerely hope that the resulting impact is more companies embracing remote work in the future. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening yet. Companies who were thrust into this have done so without the preparation and social environments that makes remote work successful and rewarding. Workers who have been sent home to work are doing so with more distractions and anxiety than usual.

However, I am seeing many companies trying to master remote work, and it gives me hope that they will want to continue to develop their skills in this area after the crisis. There is so much to be gained from giving employees the freedom to work from anywhere, if you are willing to “do it right.”

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