PODCAST S2/E8: Interview with Lisette Sutherland, Collaboration Superpowers

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In today’s podcast episode, Alex talks to Lisette Sutherland of Collaboration Superpowers, a company that helps teams work effectively remotely. This is clearly highly topical in this day and age!

They cover such wide-ranging subjects as how to best set up your home office, and what the work environment of the future will look like.

Included in this podcast:

  • Introducing Collaboration Superpowers (0:58)
  • Discussing home working environments (4:05)
  • Remote working workshops (8:18)
  • Living life in “2D” (12:20)
  • Themes in collaborative working (14:41)
  • The future of virtual work (19:40)
  • Team agreements for remote workers (26:19)

Supplementary Links and Information

Full Transcription

We have edited some repeat words and unclear passages to enhance readability.

ALEX: Welcome to the HomeWorkingClub podcast. I’m Alex. And today I have a special guest, Lisette Sutherland from Collaboration Superpowers. Lisette, how are you?

LISETTE: It’s good. You know, we’re all surviving 2020… the year of the plague.

ALEX: Absolutely.

LISETTE: Yeah. I’m grateful to be working and healthy this year. I think you can’t ask for more than that.

ALEX: You know what? It would be great if we actually had that in the normal course of things… just that little bit of gratitude for working and being healthy.

LISETTE: Yeah. Yeah. I’m trying to focus on gratitude these days just to keep sane in this weird world.

ALEX: Yes. Well, let’s see if we can bring some sanity to our listeners today.

So a little bit about Collaboration Superpowers… I’ll let you talk about it because, quite frankly, you know more about it than I do.

I’m slightly nervous because you have an absolutely excellent podcast that I’ve been listening to, so I feel a little bit like an amateur interviewing a professional today.

Collaboration Superpowers helps people and companies work together successfully, as you say. Tell us a little bit more about it. What led you to set it up?

LISETTE: Oh, man. I mean, it was pure survival mode in terms of setting it up.

In general, what happened was I was hired for a company… like 15 maybe even 20 years ago now, if I have to do the math… but my job at that company at the time was to research all of the online project management tools available on the market… because I was working for one of the competitors of all these online project management tools.

So I started going into like, “Oh, how do these tools operate?”, “How are people using them?”… and then I started discovering that actually, people were doing amazing things remotely using these online tools. And so I started just getting really interested in, “Ha, if you took location out of the equation, what could we do together?”

I just started going down the rabbit hole of, “Oh, my God, you know, we could cure cancer, we could do global warming, we could… you know, COVID…”

At the time it wasn’t like COVID vaccines or anything…

ALEX: That would have been impressive if you had…

LISETTE: The Oracle… Yeah, that would have been great.

My mind kind of blew when I realized that, oh my God, if you get the right people working together, regardless of location, you can do amazing things together.

So I just started researching companies that were doing it and slowly went into… going from the tool, going to, “Who are these companies and what are the techniques that they’re using?” And it was mostly, in the beginning, just out of curiosity.

And then I had to make money. So I just started figuring out, like, “How can I take what I’m curious about?” “How can I take this into the world and make a living off of it?” Because I was just so excited.

ALEX: I mean, it’s amazing, isn’t it, when you think about it.

Everybody nowadays is obviously so familiar with different ways of online working and probably 2020 was the first time a lot of people used Zoom or Teams or anything. Whereas actually discovering all of these things before that… it must have just opened a massive world.

LISETTE: Oh, yeah. Especially because I was working in a physical office and hating it at the time. And so, you know, for me it was also an escape from what I was calling “the day prison”.

So, you know, it’s like, “Oh, I had to show up at nine o’clock and I had to leave at five.” But I mean, anybody that knows me knows I’m not a morning person. That’s not when I’m at my best. I’m actually an evening person, and for me, working anywhere between 3 PM and 10 PM, that’s like my prime time.

So I’ve had to shift now that I have a husband and I’m not allowed to just work whatever hours… I’ve had to shift that a bit. But still, the initial impetus was I wanted to escape the office myself because I was just personally hating it. And then I was also really inspired by what teams were doing.

ALEX: Fantastic So I’m now going to, on that basis, steal one of your questions from your podcast and ask you to describe how you work from home. What’s your set up like working from home?

LISETTE: Just in the last year I’ve moved into a big house. So I actually have the attic of the house that I live in now.

I’ve got a huge… what you can’t see (I don’t know if you show the video anywhere) because I’ve got a screen behind me… just for lighting reasons mostly, not that I need to hide anything… but I’ve painted my walls dark blue and dark green because I really like dark walls and stuff.

My husband says, “You’re not allowed to touch any wall in the house except your office.” And so I really went for it… like blue glitter paint on the ceiling. It’s very distracting for people that call in on video calls so I just put up the screen behind me so nobody has to see it.

I’ve got a pretty substantial set up. I mean, I have three monitors. I have a really good set of speakers because I’m into music. I really like ambient music so you need to have really good speakers to get all the little sounds in there. I have an electric sit/stand desk because I think it’s really important to stand a lot during the day.

I’ve got my Bose QC 35 headset. I love them! It was a gift for my sister and they’re just amazing. So, you know, it takes out the noise for me and it takes out the noise for you.

Then one of my favourite things is my button [presses button and voice says, “That was easy!”]. My “That was easy!” button because…

ALEX: Excellent.

LISETTE: You know, I’m a solopreneur and so I have an endless list of tasks. And sometimes they just feel really hard. And so when I finish a task I push my “That was easy!” button and for some reason it lets off some sort of endorphin that just works for me.

ALEX: I love that!

LISETTE: When I finish the task… “That was easy!”… And it feels like, “Oh, it wasn’t so hard after all.” You know, it kind of motivates you to go on for the next task. It seems really silly but I actually have this button on my desk all the time now.

ALEX: I absolutely love that. That’s brilliant.

I think it’s really interesting… we touch on that quite a bit, actually. I suppose there are a lot of people who are getting used to working from home or working remotely for the first time and there is that point of motivation. If you’re used to being around lots of people during the day, how do you self motivate, if that’s not something that you naturally do?

And I love little cheats.

LISETTE: Yeah, and everybody has to find what works for them.

I mean, it would have never occurred to me… this button. I was working with an academic life coach… we did virtual co-working for years, she was in California and I’m in the Netherlands… and she had one of these buttons. So we just started using it. And then when we stopped working together, I was like, “I want my… I want a button.”

So yeah, I encourage people to figure out… like, “it really works for me.”

ALEX: You know, I’ve worked in a few sort of sales environments where they have a bell that they ring when somebody makes a sale and that kind of thing and it feels a little bit cheesy at first but after a while the desire to go and ring that bell and the effect it has on the office is impressive.

LISETTE: Yeah, yeah. It’s really these little things, you know… being productive in a home office.

I also have a pretty good lighting system set up and professional microphones… but I thought my QCs would be good for this. I’ve got like a whole thing because when it gets dark in here, especially with the dark blue walls, it’s really dark. And I do most of my interactions online on video. So lighting actually tends to be really important.

ALEX: I think that’s a really good point, actually. Especially with the nights drawing in, as they are for us at the moment in northern Europe. You can find yourself sort of hunched over the keyboard like a Victorian scribe working in the dark via candlelight, you know, without realizing it.

LISETTE: Yeah, it’s not good for the eyes.

ALEX: So, I suppose we’ve already gone into this in terms of tips for working from home… and I think we’ve had a couple of people on the HomeWorkingClub Facebook group talk about, “How do you set up for the first time?”… That thing… to share these little things.

I suppose if you’re used to working in an office and working around other people, you can see what people do, you can have a look at what other people are doing. But that sharing of things around is really, really useful.

With that motivation… with Collaboration Superpowers presumably you work a lot with companies working with people within the same company. But do you do any work around working outside of companies and connecting people differently like that?

LISETTE: Yeah, so the main way that Collaboration Superpowers… or sort of the business model is that we sell workshops to people to help them work better remotely.

So there are public workshops. That’s for just individuals who are curious and want to just join a different group. And then there are team workshops… so that’s for individual teams. The workshops are similar but different in that circumstance.

Like for a team you might focus more on, “Okay, how are you going to work together given that you have all these individual preferences?” And for individual workshops, the focus is more on, “What do you need to be productive?” You know, “What do you need, your own self, to be productive?”

And that is a surprisingly hard question to answer. And so one of the exercises we do is we have people draw with colours and markers and everything… “What does your ideal workspace look like?” And I say, “You know, go crazy. This is your time to… You know, maybe you want to work on the Starship Enterprise or something… Go for it in this exercise, you get to do that.”

People really map out and it’s interesting how different everybody’s workspaces are. The different needs that people have.

One example I can give is that I really like working on my own… like this whole loneliness/isolation thing that affects most remote workers, I don’t have it. I can relate to it. I understand that it’s out there, but I don’t have it.

My husband, on the other hand, has to be around people. He just is really suffering in COVID times because he can’t be with any of his office mates. He hates working from home. So he’s like sitting alone in his office, just really suffering. But, knowing that he needs to be around people, when COVID ends he can design his workspace so that he is around more people.

So, if you’re at home and you’re not really sure: Go easy on yourself.

It’s not as easy as it sounds too set up a productive workspace. Because if you haven’t done it before, it takes some time to figure out what you need.

ALEX: Yes. Those of us who have been working remotely for a while before COVID hit…and obviously your business is called Collaboration Superpowers… but I’ve been through this process of setting up a space to work at home… and to a certain extent, having the freelancer’s bag which has always got all of the stuff I need so I can go from one office to another (when that was the case)… but it’s been a process of years for getting used to that.

Being able to go from zero to a functional home-working set up in a case of weeks has got to be really difficult.

LISETTE: Yeah, and many of us did it in COVID.

I went to some friends’ houses and we would have tea outside, but I would look in at their workspaces. You know, at one point one of my friends… highly competent, super-smart woman… she set up in a corner with a really super teeny tiny desk, not even a proper chair… like just an old garden chair. I was saying to her, “You’ve got to get a proper setup. At least get a proper chair, if anything else.”

What I tell people now is, “If you’re feeling like you’re camped out somewhere, get yourself some proper equipment (if you have the luxury, of course, of spending). But at least get yourself a proper chair because we’re spending a lot of time in our chairs these days. So really, a proper chair! And I highly recommend the standing desk.

ALEX: That’s interesting. Yeah, I’ve heard stories, early on in lockdown, of people sort of almost getting deep vein thrombosis from sitting at… not an ergonomically designed office chair. And, of course, you don’t have that impetus to get up and go make a coffee or something that you would do in an office. Or go and chat to someone. Or go and sit in a meeting room. Everything’s happening from that position!

So, if you’re spending a lot of time in one place, you have got to make sure that you’re comfortable and it’s healthy, I suppose.

LISETTE: Yeah, and one of the things that I’ll add in here is, as remote workers, the thing that people are starting to realize is that we’re spending way too much time in 2D. Because, you know, we’re in our online meetings and using Zoom or whatever tool your using. And then, in between meetings, we’re checking email or going on social media. And then after we get off work, we’re doing Netflix and YouTube.

One of the things that people are experiencing is burnout or a lowering of wellbeing in general. And it’s because we’re spending so much time in 2D. Well, one of the reasons is we’re spending too much time in 2D.

So, what I’m encouraging people to do now is just… beyond having a comfortable workspace… move during the day. Take breaks. Even if it’s just doing chores, that’s great. As long as there’s movement. Like, run up and down the stairs. Like, throw your neighbour’s cat out… like I had to do before we started recording.

You know, whatever we need to do… but actually move the body. And if you can get outside without a screen, that’s even better. I mean, outside… it’s better than anything.

ALEX: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I suppose that we’ve had… with lockdown restrictions, particularly when it’s particularly harsh… that you’ve got an hour a day to go out and get some exercise. And I think a lot of people found an hour a day was actually an increase in the amount of exercise they were taking.

LISETTE: Right. But now it’s critical! Like now that we’re at home and in front of our screens, it’s really critical for people’s mental well being.

ALEX: Yeah.

LISETTE: Just even stand on your balcony, you know?

ALEX: Yeah. I think there is that thing. Obviously, with HomeWorkingClub, we’ve been thinking about people who have taken the conscious decision to work remotely, and setting up and perhaps having had time to do it.

But I think a lot of people have found themselves, as you say, in the corner of a room in a small apartment somewhere. Where they’re kind of, you know… they’re not really set up for it. They have not taken the long period of time… and one of the things we always say is if you’re looking to change your working style, take the time, set it up, work out what’s involved.

But, you know, actually rushing into that… you’ve got to do that on the job almost, haven’t you now?

LISETTE: Well, now, yeah. Everybody was sort of forced to do it overnight whether we have the setups at home or not.

I mean, I have the luxury of having my own room in the attic. I mean, that’s a luxury! But I see a lot of people’s homes where they’ve taken over their kids’ rooms during the day so that they have a proper office space to work. And then at night, it goes back to being the kid’s room. But yeah, there’s a lot of camping going on out there.

I look forward to COVID being over so we have a choice again to work where we want.

ALEX: So going away from sort of the workspace side of things… looking at bringing teams together, working collaboratively across the virtual space… What are the main themes that you’ve seen, probably outside of COVID, in terms of how you work effectively remotely? What has developed in that area over the years?

LISETTE: Well, I would say, in general, people are setting up their own virtual office spaces just using chat systems and video cameras. That’s the very most basic model. And it works. It works pretty well, depending on the type of work you have to do.

The thing I would add to that is, I think that one of the things people should get really good at when we’re remote is virtual whiteboarding. Learning how to whiteboard so that we can ideate together and so that we can visualize our ideas. Because if you’re talking amongst various cultures, or many different countries, your words and text… it’s not enough to describe ideas and concepts.

You really have to draw… like we would on the whiteboard… You know, you want to draw something out, show somebody how it goes. And so virtual whiteboards are starting… you know, they’re really becoming more and more popular. But a lot of people still aren’t using them because I think maybe we don’t recognize the power of pictures.

But if you’ve played Pictionary before, you know that you can get, “How did you get banana from those three lines?” Somehow even just simple scribbles can say a lot about it.

One of the exercises we do in the workshop is I ask people to bring a picture of their favourite vacation spot. Because it’s one thing just to describe it, but it’s another thing to see a picture of it while someone is describing it. It’s totally different.

So I think that virtual whiteboarding really adds to the collaborative spirit of an office. And there are great ones out there: Miro (I’m not sure how to say it), Mural, Google Jamboards… those are the cool kids on the block.

But you can get fancy with them. I mean, there’s one called Nureva which projects a whiteboard onto your wall and then you can put sticky notes and videos (whatever you want) like a normal whiteboard… except the video parts, like the electronics part. But then that virtual whiteboard is accessible from any device. So there’s like… you know, you can get really sophisticated.

ALEX: I love that! I’m a big Sharpies and large pieces of paper kind of guy. When I started working with Ben he was completely paperless office and unfortunately, I’ve infected him with the multi-coloured Sharpies and bits of paper now.

But you know, that visual thing. I’m going to have a look at a few of those, actually. I love the idea of projecting a virtual whiteboard onto the wall. That sounds great.

LISETTE: It’s really an awesome technology.

Another thing, though, that I have told people is it’s good to mix physical and virtual. So, I have a facilitator and when he teaches in workshops, he’ll draw things out on his flipchart behind him. And then they’ll also do exercises on the virtual board. And it just accesses different parts of the brain.

So while I would say, you know, Ben is all virtual, it’s good to just mix up the mediums because there are pros and cons to every medium and we want to have different pros and cons.

ALEX: Yeah. I suppose that’s the thing, isn’t it? You can’t immediately get rid of the stuff that you’re comfortable with, that you’ve been comfortable with for years, just because you’re moving to a virtual environment. That kind of thing.

Quite often, I will have something written down on an email or something. But I also write it down in pen, because that, to me, is the way that I read it in a way that it sticks in my mind. You know, just the act of writing something down helps to fix it in.

So I think we can’t get rid of the real world entirely. Thank goodness!

LISETTE: No, and we shouldn’t. You know, my planner… there are tons of to-do lists and stuff, but I still use the old Full Focus paper planner from Michael Hyatt and sticky notes on my wall.

If I have to collaborate with others I use a virtual tool because then we both need to have access. But if it’s just for myself, I really prefer… I’m really touchy with things. I want to touch it, and stick things on my wall, and rearrange, and… that’s just how my mind works.

ALEX: Yeah. Post-it notes on the wall… that’s basically what the inside of my brain looks like.

So, looking at the way things are… and we’ve talked about, obviously, the COVID unpleasantness that we’re all currently going through… which I suppose, in one sense, because it’s a global pandemic, at least it’s something everybody sort of understands now. We’re all going through the same thing.

But you’ve obviously been involved in the world of remote working for a long time and you’ve seen the trends change over that period… probably saw the way the world was moving quite a long time ago.

Do you think that the coronavirus has changed the way things are going to go? Where do you see things moving in the next 5 to 10 years, in terms of the world of virtual work?

LISETTE: This question is so hard.

ALEX: Very long question, sorry.

LISETTE: Well, no. But if you had asked me, like a year ago, “Where do you see things going?” I would have never seen this coming, for sure.

The way I see things going now… I mean, clearly, COVID has accelerated the remote working movement out of necessity. I mean, companies, right now, if they don’t get remote working right, they’re not going to survive. It’s imperative for a company’s survival to be able to do some of our communications online.

There will always be jobs that can’t be done remotely, like nurses… Thank you! You know, thank the world for the people willing to be nurses and endure what they have to see on a day-to-day basis, and especially during a pandemic.

Teachers can go online and offline. But you know, there are all kinds of things that can’t be done online.

I think that the future of work is choice.

When I do my surveys all over the world, about 80% of people want to work in a hybrid way. Where they’re at the office some days and they’re working somewhere else other days. And then 10% want to be back at the office 100% of the time. And then another 10% want to work remote the entire time.

That’s generally the split and it’s across the world. I’ve done, I don’t know, about 50 of these polls now. So that’s where I see the world going.

Individually, we want the freedom to choose when and where we’re most productive. But companies also get a choice on how remote they want to be.

You know, there’s a whole scale that Buffer came up with… or the Remote Maturity model that Matt Mullenweg has come up with… and you go from level one, which is everybody’s working together in the same office, all the way to like level five, where there are people all over the world and you have digital nomads. There are moving parts also.

Companies also need to decide where on that scale do you want and need to be for yourselves, and then you can start to design policies to accommodate that.

But for me, the future of work is clearly choice, because when lockdowns get lifted, there’s a huge number of people that will not want to go back to the office 100% of the time. And I think that businesses, if they want to retain the best and the brightest, are going to have to accommodate for that flexibility.

ALEX: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s brilliant. I shall try and give Ben some homework on putting some links to a couple of things that you mentioned there but… you never know.

I do like to provide Ben with homework from these podcasts when I’m doing interviews.

LISETTE: Sorry, Ben.

ALEX: I think that’s really useful because obviously you spend a lot of time speaking to people in different working situations around the world.

I think sometimes there are people who have found themselves in that situation… and actually there are sometimes people who make the decision that they want to work remotely and suddenly everybody else is now doing it… and it’s kind of like “Well, actually, I quite like the idea of having a bit more freedom.”

LISETTE: Well, yeah. I mean, our lives are sort of set up that way now… that we need the freedom. You know, with kids and schedules and daycare.

First of all, I have no idea how parents do it. Overall. In any way. In general, just being parents. But, you know, navigating work and school and kids and all of this… I really feel like it’s been so restrictive on people for a variety of reasons.

I used to work for this company not that long ago, actually… I mean, maybe it was 10 years ago… Okay, not that long. That ages me a bit… It happens, we all age… so 10 years ago, and I had to be at the office at nine. And I wasn’t allowed to leave until… it was like 9 to 6 or something we had to be there. But the grocery stores all closed at 6:30, at the time, in the little village where I was living and they didn’t open before work started.

So I had to hire an assistant to help me with grocery shopping because on the weekends I was somewhere else and I literally couldn’t get to the stores on time. And I just thought, “What is the purpose of being locked in this building from 9 to 6?”

ALEX: Yeah.

LISETTE: Why can’t I go buy groceries? How do other people do it? These kinds of things.

ALEX: I think that’s brilliant.

I think, hopefully, one positive that’s going to come out of the wider… a lot of people we speak to are like, “This is the direction that work was heading in any way.” But I think we probably just had a bit of a fast forward, as it were, over this last year.

But you’re absolutely right. Those traditions that have grown up around working, that presenteeism culture, that being there all the time thing… I think a lot of people have suddenly realized there wasn’t really any need to make sure everybody was sat in the same room for 8 or 9 hours a day. They can be all over the world.

We talk about asynchronous working and all these kind of things… I think it’s going to take some time for people to get their heads around it. But I think it’s definitely moving that way now, isn’t it?

LISETTE: Yeah, clearly. And remote work was definitely accelerated by that. And I would say, in the past, managers were always afraid that people would be lazy working at home. You know, if you can’t see them, “Ah, they’re going to just watch Netflix and hang out on the couch.”

What we’ve seen in COVID is that the opposite is true. People are overworking far more than they are underworking. And burnout is much more of an issue than absenteeism or laziness has ever been. So, yeah, that old argument doesn’t hold true. And I think everybody just saw the proof during COVID.

ALEX: Yeah. That’s absolutely fascinating.

Talking about that and, as well, some of those tips you were talking about of making sure that you have a comfortable space (we say this a lot)… but actually, as you said, that comfortable space isn’t necessarily what everybody else’s comfortable space is.

I love this idea of not getting rid of the physical work tools completely. And actually, if you’re comfortable with pens and a flipchart, you can still have that on the screen… I think that’s brilliant!

And get up and have a walk around. I think sometimes we all need to be reminded to do that as well.

And I love the idea of your vision that the world of work is going to be about choice.

I think that’s quite a positive thing to end on. That we, hopefully, will all have the choice in the future of where and how we want to work.

LISETTE: Yeah, I think everybody wants freedom.

ALEX: Is there anything else that you would like to add? Anything that you would say in terms of people who are perhaps just starting out working from home? Although pretty much everyone is now. Or anything that you think you’ve found really handy?

LISETTE: Well, one thing I would say is I’m noticing that around 50% to 70% of all companies don’t have this in place. So, if you’re actually working with a team and a company… I would really encourage people to put in team agreements.

Sit down with your team and talk about how you’re going to work together. So, like, what are the expected response times? Are there core hours that you need to be online together? What are the tools that you use to communicate for the different situations?

You know, because some people are phone people. Some people are email people. Some people like instant messaging. And you really just need to align around how you’re going to use your tools.

So we all kind of just started working and everybody just said like, “Okay, go.” And we all went. But you would never do that with a sports team… or like an orchestra. You would never be like, “All right, just go.”

I would say, even if you’ve been working with a team for a while, it’s always good to take a step back and just list out what information do you need to share and where is it stored. Security protocols. How are you going to communicate? And then how do you know what other people are doing? And do you need to know?

Just outlining sort of those three general buckets will help take away a lot of the basic misunderstandings and resentments that can come up on teams when they’re working together.

So that’s the only thing I would end with: put a team agreement in place for the people that you’re working with.

ALEX: That’s brilliant. I love that. And I think, you know, again quite often we do tend to ignore the human behavioural aspect with all of the online tools available and everything. I think that’s a really good point.

LISETTE: Yeah, and we like to think that we behave like robots, but it’s far from it. Tools are great because it automates and it sort of just does the “if this, then this” kind of thing. But humans are completely irrational and unpredictable! So, unless you’re working with a bunch of robots, I’d put a team agreement in place.

ALEX: Excellent stuff. Well, Lisette, thank you very much. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you so much for your time.

LISETTE: Thank you for having me.

ALEX: You can check out Collaboration Superpowers and have a look at what Lisette does and maybe look at some of the workshops. I heartily recommend listening to her much more professional and less rambling podcast.

LISETTE: I wouldn’t say that!

ALEX: Do please, like, subscribe and share the podcast if you’ve enjoyed it. It does help people to find it. And, obviously, if you’d like to get in touch, we are always happy to hear from you.

In this case, Ben is very happy to hear from you. I’m just the voice. I don’t do any other hard work behind the scenes.

LISETTE: Too humble.

ALEX: Lisette, thank you so much and best of luck for the future.

LISETTE: Thank you.

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