David Burkus is a speaker, business thought-leader, professor, and best-selling author. His TedX talk, “Why You Should Know How Much your Coworkers Get Paid” has been viewed over 2 million times. He teaches courses on organizational behavior, creativity and innovation, and strategic leadership at Oral Roberts University where is an associate professor. He writes regularly for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Psychology Today. I recently interviewed David about his new book, Leading from Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams.
Nir Eyal: Why did you write this book?
David Burkus: To some extent, all of my work thus far has been focused on using psychology to help individuals and teams do their best work. And the past year has put up some big roadblocks for most people to do that best work. One of the big ones has been the forced work-from-home experiment millions of people have been living (and working) through. At the same time, this shift in the way we’re working, and collaborating isn’t new…just the scale of it is. Remote teams have been around for a long time. At the same time, a new reality has set in that, whenever it’s safe to bring everyone back to the office, we’re not all going to come back.
At least not all of us, and not all of the time.
The future of work is working from anywhere, and so leaders need to develop the skills to lead from anywhere.
And that’s the real goal of the book. To distill the best research on virtual or remote teams and the habits and behaviors of companies that have been remote for a long time and offer something to the millions of newly-remote leaders—because even when the pandemic is “over” they’ll likely still have a significant number of remote teammates.
NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?
DB: Before the pandemic, we mostly assumed that remote work meant a lighter workload. We would joke that “work from home” was synonymous with “not working.” There was even a well-documented stigma against many employees (particularly women) who requested workplace flexibility as being less committed employees. (Nir’s note: see NYT article)
But the truth is, in almost every study conducted, remote workers work harder than office-based ones. They tend to start their work day when others start their commute and keep working until others would just be arriving back at home. They are also more likely to respond on nights and weekends. In fact, the biggest struggle for most remote employees is working too much and burning out quickly.
NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others
DB: In line with the above, the biggest challenge for remote workers is working too hard and not drawing boundaries between their work life and real life. That doesn’t mean you should go back to working only Monday through Friday from 9 to 5. But it does mean recognizing that the rhythm of office life created some useful boundaries. And that maybe you need to build new boundaries between the two modes of working and not working.
These boundaries also help with the opposite challenge as well, keeping distractions at bay. When your work hours are sufficiently defined, and you’re in the proper state of mind to focus on work, it’s a lot harder to get distracted. Not impossible, but those outside distractors have to climb a much higher wall.
NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?
DB: I actually tried a little different tactic this time than while writing all of my other books, and partly because I wrote the entire book in about three months. I met up virtually with two writer friends of mine every weekday morning for a “work sprint.” We signed onto Zoom at 11 AM, talked about what we were working on, and then got to work by 11:05—leaving the cameras on but muting our microphones. It was like having an accountability partner in the room. And then about 30-45 minutes later (over time we could focus for longer) we’d take a break and chat for a few more minutes before diving in for a second sprint.
The combination of structured, focused time and scheduled breaks made it easier to stay focused. And, because I wrote this book while my kids were also home from school, the idea that Dad had a “can’t miss” conference call every morning made it easier to break away from the rest of the house.
NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?
DB: I actually found that one of the ways I could build better boundaries and stay focused was with more devices in my life, not less. I know. It sounds crazy; let me explain. I have two main devices: a smartphone and a tablet. But what’s on those two devices is very different. The smartphone is the work device, with email, Dropbox, and “professional” social media like my LinkedIn and Twitter. The tablet only has my private Facebook account and media apps like Netflix and Kindle. At the end of a work day, I walk to the charging station we have in our house and switch from my work device to my life device. (Though I hate referring to any piece of tech as my “life device.”) I could always walk back through the house and grab my smartphone to get lost in my email after work…but that little bit of friction makes it a lot less likely that I do.
NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading this book?
DB: Before the pandemic, many people had to build the rest of their life around the working hours (and location) demanded by their organization. You put work at the center of your calendar and squeezed life into the margins. Now, many people have built a much more enjoyable life by rebuilding their calendar from scratch based on their real priorities. It was difficult, for sure, but now a lot of people are finding it was worthwhile.
If you haven’t yet, now is the time. And if you have, and you lead a team, now is the time to understand how everyone on your team is building their best life…so you can help them. If you do, then everyone on the team will be able to do their best work.
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