Owl Labs (OL): How did you get to where you are in your career today, and what has led you to Collaboration Superpowers?
Lisette Sutherland (LS): That's a long and winding road! Fifteen years ago, I was working for a company that was building an online project management tool, which was advanced at the time because there weren't any on the market. Basecamp had recently come out and I was excited about the reason the tool was being built: the owner of the company didn't want to die. He thought if he could build this online project management tool, he could get longevity scientists from all over the world working together to solve the problem of aging. He felt that smart people were working on the solution, but the problem was they weren't working together or talking to each other.
This concept totally blew my mind at the time. Part of my job was to research other tools that were doing the same thing and it began to dawn on me how many things we could do if we could get the right people collaborating together, from anywhere in the world. We could cure cancer, we could solve global warming! What if location weren't such a big deal? Down the rabbit hole, I went!
Along the way, I was naturally very enthusiastic about the idea and I started talking to more and more people. I started to interview people by telling them I was writing a book. I had no plans to write a book, I only wanted to talk to people. But then people started asking about the book all the time. I thought, “Oh no, I have to write this book!”
I eventually ended up writing the book, and along the way, I met Jurgen Appelo from Management 3.0 who was doing workshops and I thought, “I could do workshops.” Somebody asked me to do a workshop and I had every excuse to start developing one. This all came from me pretending I was going to write a book and asking people for interviews because I was curious and I wanted to talk to them. Then it morphed into what it is today!
OL: You're pretty busy right now! Your book came out, you have a podcast, and you do your speaking engagements and workshops around the world. What are some of the specifics that Collaboration Superpowers is working on and how are you working with people to achieve your mission?
LS: The objective at Collaboration Superpowers is to help people work together from anywhere so they can solve big problems, like aging and global warming. The ultimate goal is to help people work together remotely, so we can live longer on earth, in a better way. Collaboration Superpowers has the “Work Together Anywhere Workshop: that people can take either online or as a hybrid, and that workshop is the bread and butter of the company.
I have licensed facilitators based all over the world who deliver the same workshop as I do and we're developing new workshops over time as we see what people need most. We also have over 200 podcast episodes where people can get the information for free, the book which consolidates that information, or the workshop if you want something more experiential.
Part of my job was to research other tools that were doing the same thing and it began to dawn on me how many things we could do if we could get the right people collaborating together, from anywhere in the world. We could cure cancer, we could solve global warming! What if location weren't such a big deal?
OL: I imagine you often get asked for advice from people who are implementing remote work or who are working remotely themselves. What do you find you're getting asked about most frequently?
LS: Two things come up all the time. How do you improve general communication on a remote team? Because it's painful and the tools and equipment people use are often terrible.
The other is team building. How do you create that sense of team and camaraderie when you're online? How do you bring people closer together emotionally?
OL: What are your tips for those two things?
LS: For communication, my tip is to focus on the infrastructure of your offices and the setups for remote colleagues. A lot of offices still use spider phones that sit in the middle of the conference room to include people. There's no video involved; there's just a microphone and the remote participant is like an annoying mosquito that keeps buzzing in every once in a while.
But, you can bring great infrastructure to your office inexpensively. The goal is to be like Star Trek where it's push to talk -- Picard to Riker -- you're anywhere on the ship and Riker responds. That should be what a remote team is like. It shouldn't be about scheduling time and setting up meetings or big conference rooms. It has to be much easier than that. The technology is not an issue anymore; if you have the bandwidth, then the world is your oyster.
In terms of team building, the biggest advice I have is to turn on the cameras. Turn on the webcam and see each other -- that creates empathy instantly. It's a lot easier to communicate and create bonds when you see each other. Online, on platforms like Twitter, we see terrible trolling because people can't see each other. Even when you're driving in your car, you can see people but you behave differently than you would when you're face-to-face with somebody. That's the same with working remotely and you can't leave it to chance. You can't leave it to serendipity and see what happens. You have to build it into your daily interactions from day one.
In terms of team building, the biggest advice I have is to turn on the cameras. Turn on the webcam and see each other -- that creates empathy instantly. It's a lot easier to communicate and create bonds when you see each other.
OL: Speaking of collaboration, how do you think it's being overlooked by companies that are implementing remote work?
LS: People confuse collaboration with communication. Communicating with someone doesn't mean you're collaborating; you're not working together on something. And this is an infrastructure problem. There are so many companies that don't even allow their employees to turn their webcams on. Sometimes it's for security reasons but there are all kinds of tools, blurring your backgrounds, for example, to help solve that. If you have the right tools and presence in place, collaboration comes naturally.
People want to work together. There's also a lot of confusion about the tools that are available on the market today -- people just don't know what to use. I have a tools page on my website and I get emails every day about new tools. They're being developed all the time but people don't know about them. And why would they? It's not their field of expertise; they have to do their jobs, they're not tool researchers.
OL: What's a chapter or part of your book that you think people would find most surprising?
LS: One of the things people would find most surprising is the number of worksheets and questionnaires and tangible things you can take from the book. You can tear the pages from the book and use them as checklists and guidelines and manuals.
The book is practical and implementable; I don't talk in abstracts. It's tangible and includes checklists like, "Are you ready to go remote?" With this checklist, you would go through one by one. Of course, not everything applies to everyone but maybe that's the thing people are most surprised by.
OL: I can’t wait to read it. What's one myth about remote work you'd like to dispel?
LS: That remote workers are lazy! Any time I ask why more companies aren't doing more remote work, without even hesitating, everyone says management. There's not even a breath between the question and the answer -- it's always some sort of management issue. Managers don't trust that people are going to do the work. And the opposite is true. Burnout is a far more prevalent problem than laziness.
Sure, you're always going to have your George Costanzas on the team. But you're going to have them in-person or remote; it doesn't matter. However, when you go remote it gets highlighted more because if you work remotely you have to show results to show that you're doing your work. If you have no results then you're quickly called out on any team. I'd say that's the biggest myth: the laziness myth. People are burning out left and right but there are no problems of laziness that I can see.
If you have the right tools and presence in place, collaboration comes naturally. People want to work together. There's also a lot of confusion about the tools that are available on the market today -- people just don't know what to use.
OL: What's a challenge that comes along with remote work that you don't see people talking about as much because they might not realize it?
LS: It's interesting and this goes back to the idea of collaboration. Given that people are always asking about communication and camaraderie, there are several tools that people hesitate to talk about because they're so far out. I'm talking about things like telepresence and robots that can drive around. Even hologram technology is becoming incredible! The first time I got into hologram technology was when I saw the video of Snoop Dogg and Tupac performing together at Coachella in 2012. Tupac performed as a hologram and Snoop Dogg was there in the flesh. It's totally amazing footage.
Then there are virtual offices that give people a presence from a remote location. These are things that people are not exploring and I don't understand why. Maybe because it's so new or it seems so far out or it's so different from the way they've worked before. The challenge of building a presence in the team is something people don't talk about a lot.
Another note on this is that working online is not the same as working in-person. People try to take in-person techniques and adapt them to online working but it doesn't transfer directly. It's a different skill set and a different way of working. People don't dive into that enough and you see it in the way they're using tools, like the old school conference rooms. I mean you roll your eyes and think, 'Come on, this is totally old school and an old style of working! This is not how people collaborate and communicate anymore.'
OL: What's missing when it comes to making remote work more ubiquitous around the world? Do we need better education from people like you? Do we need better tech? Do we need better leaders and management? Or does the market need more time to adjust?
LS: To me, it seems like bandwidth is missing in most places. If you have great Internet, the sky's the limit. When the Internet isn’t stable or super high speed, it limits the kinds of interactions you have or the types of work you can do. There are so many places around the world where it is not rock solid and it gets in the way.
Working online is not the same as working in-person. People try to take in-person techniques and adapt them to online working but it doesn't transfer directly. It's a different skill set and a different way of working.
OL: What are some of the tools and programs you recommend the most for remote and hybrid teams?
LS: I use the Meeting Owl in all my presentations and workshops because people struggle with hybrid meetings, where some folks are in-person and others are remote. If you're all remote it's one thing, and if you're all in-person, it's usually awesome. But when it's hybrid, you run into all kinds of problems.
I developed a five-course workshop with Judy Rees, an online facilitator, about online meetings. Technology to make people more present in the hybrid sense is definitely important. There are virtual offices like Sococo which is one of my favorites. I love telepresence technology. Like the Kubi by Revolve Robotics or the Beam Pro -- there's so much potential there. And then there’s hologram technology! If we can beam into a place and be lifelike and real size, with voice, that will be amazing for collaboration.
Once that's in place, people won't be flying as much and travel will be cut down because you can be there via hologram, robot, or virtual reality. That's the stuff I recommend most often. It's the weirdest stuff out there but that's where the market is headed.
For the basics, I recommend a good whiteboard tool and a good video conferencing tool. There are so many to choose from. Then after that, I usually recommend a group messaging system like Slack.
OL: What do you personally love most about working remotely?
LS: I love not having to leave my house -- I'm a total homebody. Many people complain about loneliness but I don't have that issue at all. I have video interactions all day with people,I have an avid social life outside of work, and I travel so much for presentations and workshops. Also, I lived in a very small apartment, around 180 square feet, for about 10 years and I recently bought a house that's a palace compared to where I used to live! So I love being at home. The freedom is great, but I love that I don't have to go anywhere if I don't want to.
OL: Do you have anything else you'd like to add?
LS: I believe in people training their employees on different remote skill sets. People shouldn't underestimate how different remote working can be. There are so many great things out there that are being developed, so take time to look into it.
Keep Reading: Read our interview featuring Weiting Liu, Founder and CEO of Arc, next.