Sara Sutton, CEO and founder of FlexJobs, discusses the path she took to embracing remote work in her career.
Remote working has stepped firmly into the spotlight this year. For Sara Sutton, however, it has been an integral part of her working life for some time.
More than a decade ago, after struggling to find flexible working options, she founded FlexJobs, a service for remote and flexible job opportunities. I spoke to Sutton about her own experiences in this area and why businesses of the future will need to focus more on “having the best talent, regardless of geography”.
‘For companies to succeed with remote work over the long term, they’ll need to make the key shift from antiquated managerial practices’
– SARA SUTTON
You have been advocating for remote work for a long time. Is it strange that this way of working has now been put under the spotlight?
In many ways, the groundwork laid by many remote work advocates, not just myself, over the last 10 to 15 years is one of the big reasons remote work is working so well. We are deeply humbled to see the landscape changing and to be in a position to help people in need right now.
We’re in the midst of the world’s largest work-from-home experiment, and it’s been done under duress and on an aggressive timeline. But, by and large, it’s working.
Why are you an advocate for remote working?
Back in 2006, I found myself laid off and eight months pregnant with my first child. Going on interviews in my third trimester went about as you might expect – not well.
No matter how qualified I was, all that mattered was that I was pregnant. In some ways, I understood. But it was the first time I really felt my career limitations as a woman. I started looking for flexible job options and quickly realised that it wasn’t easy to find high-quality, professional jobs that offered options like remote work and flexible scheduling.
I knew there were millions of people, men and women, looking for these same types of jobs, and I saw that there was a huge opportunity to create a quality service to help people who want or need work flexibility to find legitimate, professional jobs. In 2007, I founded FlexJobs as that resource.
Do you think remote working is something that suits everyone?
Not necessarily. Most remote workers who do well share a combination of these traits: proactive and effective communication skills, both verbally and in writing; self-discipline and the ability to focus; organisational and time-management skills; the ability to troubleshoot minor computer or technical issues; and previous experience working remotely.
On the flipside, these traits may signal that someone is not a good candidate for remote work: a lack of organisational skills; poor time management; a dislike of being physically alone for much of the day; and people without great communication skills.
For people finding it hard to adjust to working remotely right now, what advice would you give them?
Try and mimic your experience in the office as much as you can. Get showered and dressed, carve out a dedicated workspace free of distractions, establish a schedule, eat healthy, set boundaries with others in the house, take breaks like you would in the office, get clear expectations from your manager about deliverables, and communicate.
Check your attitude first. Are you mentally prepared that you are headed into a workday, even though you’re at home? The right mindset is more than half the battle. Developing a personal mantra can be a great way to get into a focused work mode when it’s time to work.
Even something as simple as saying to yourself, ‘it’s time to work’, when you’re about to slip into work mode can help you shift your mind into the right frame. Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible so that you can truly focus.
Do you see remote working becoming a more prominent part of working life moving forwards?
As the pandemic gets under control globally, I do think remote work will play a larger role in business continuity and emergency preparedness in the future, as well as in the normal daily business operations of companies. I think the landscape of remote work will be changed when this is all said and done.
Unlike previously, when remote work was still viewed as a perk or a casual employee benefit, remote work will be seen as a proactive strategy for companies to maintain business continuity for circumstances like bad weather, natural disasters or future outbreaks, and they’ll have the infrastructure and practices in place.
And some companies will integrate remote work into their business models after seeing how well it can work, not just to keep people safe but also in terms of productivity, cost savings, employee loyalty, environmental impact and many other benefits.
What steps should companies take now to make that possible?
Before the pandemic, in too many companies, there was still a big reliance on 20th-century management practices where people needed to be in their seats in an office for managers to feel confident they were working.
Unfortunately, that type of face-time management is far from guaranteeing productivity, but there is still a fear of letting go from the sense of control that it falsely gives many leaders and managers.
Moving forward, for companies to succeed with remote work over the long term, they’ll need to make the key shift from antiquated managerial practices to ones that focus on effective processes, results-oriented outcomes and having the best talent, regardless of geography. Organisations that are going to be successful in the future will have to understand this part of the workforce dynamic.