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“...remote work is this common denominator that enables companies to be more diverse, more inclusive, to create equal opportunity for more people...”
CEO at remote-how
Iwo Szapar is the CEO of Remote-how, the world's leading marketplace with remote & hybrid work experts, and Co-founder of the Remote-First Institute. Since 2017, he has advised 600+ companies (including Walmart, ING Bank, and Microsoft) to help them optimize their distributed workforce. As a remote work expert, he co-created "Remote-how Academy," - the world's first certification program for remote teams, and co-hosts the annual Remote Future Summit. Iwo wrote the book "Remote Work Is The Way - a guide to making the most of our office-optional future," and was featured in Forbes, BBC, and Business Insider. Over the last five years, Iwo has worked remotely while living in 15 different countries. Iwo is a dog lover, amateur surfer, and DJ. While not working, he reads history books and follows international affairs. In 2022, Iwo co-founded the Remote-First Institute, a not-for-profit organization that is on a mission to promote the remote-first approach.
Iwo Szapar has been working remotely pretty much for his entire professional life - and has turned his passion for new work concepts into a career.
As the founder of Remote-How, he advises and trains thousands of companies on how to make remote and hybrid work work. And as the co-founder of the Remote-First Institute, he is actively working on setting global standards for remote work.
He has a fascinating conversation with our host Sandra about his journey to remote work, why he believes we need global standards and what he would say to Elon Musk to convince him to go remote. We also take a look at what is next and how far remote work could go in the future.
Iwo Szapar Website: https://www.iwoszapar.com/
Remote-How Website: https://remote-how.com/
Remote-First.Institute Website: https://remote-first.institute/
Iwo Szapar LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/iwoszapar/
Elon Musk to Workers: Spend 40 Hours in the Office, or Else (New York Times)
with Iwo Szapar, founder of Remote-How
Sandra Redlich 01:26
Thanks for joining me today. Where are you actually joining me from?
Iwo Szapar 01:31
Greetings from Warsaw in Poland.
Sandra Redlich 01:35
It looks like a pretty cool office space that you've got going on. I think I can see a little airplane on the wall behind you, is that right?
Iwo Szapar 01:41
Yes, yes, yes. Although that wasn't our initiative. When we were gone, when we lived in Vietnam and before in the US, the apartment was rented and the people who wererenting this decided to paint something on the wall. Although I love flying, I'm not sure this is exactly what I would do myself, but it's fine.
Sandra Redlich 02:07
Yeah, I thought that might be because it seems to me that you love traveling and you love being on the road and that's kind of what you were going for there.
Iwo Szapar 02:16
Yeah, that's true. So you see, there is a correlation.
Sandra Redlich 02:20
Yeah, well, that's exactly what we want to talk about today, how you combine working and traveling or just working really pretty much from anywhere. I think you have a pretty extensive remote work journey. Did you ever start off in an office job and just didn't like it? Or what's your background? And how did you get started on this journey?
Iwo Szapar 02:41
Yes. So in 2010, I had my first official work, which was an internship. And at the end of the initial onboarding, the owner of the agency told us that basically, he doesn't care where we work, we can work from the office, we can work from a coffee shop, we can work from home, we just have a project that needs to be done by the end of the internship. And that was it. So that was kind of like the first moment. Then, a year later, when I started my first startup, of course it failed. We've been working remotely. I had a co-founder that was like 100 miles from me. So that was the second encounter with remote. And then there was a longer one, when I started to work for a German company and I opened their office in Central Eastern Europe. I worked from co-working space. And then we had an office but actually it was very flexible because my boss was Swiss. And he was traveling all the time between Germany and Switzerland. So it was a remote relationship. For us in the office, it was pretty okay, if you were working remotely, you were also able to come to the office. And that was going on and off for a couple of years. And then when we moved to the US and the whole idea of Remote-How came to me, that was one of the dreams that I had that maybe it will be really cool if you can truly work from anywhere without being limited to number of days, etc. So yeah, in 2017 I started to think about how we can enable people to have the freedom of choice where and when they work. And a year later, we officially launched Remote-How and ever since, so since June 2018, when we had the first commercial project, the Remote Future Summit, fully remote working. Currently, we worked in the last four years from 17 different countries and lived for more than a month in 10 plus. So, yeah, we're preaching and we're doing what we're preaching around remote first.
Sandra Redlich 05:16
You've kind of taken a step further and decided to become an advocate for this way of working. Can you tell us a bit about what it is that you like so much about working remotely and the possibilities that come with it?
Iwo Szapar 05:29
Yes, so I think the most important thing is that it gives you the opportunity to take more control over your life. Because in most cases, the life is driven by work. And then there is everything around it. And here, you can shift this. And then starting from this shift, there is a number of small or larger changes that can happen to your life. So I think this is the, from a personal perspective, I guess this is a huge one, it can help allow you to spend more time with your family, can help you have more time for your hobbies, it can help you with your overall well-being, right. Although on the contrary, it can also affect your well-being if you're working too much, and you're constantly online, etc. So there, you also need to know how to do it right. Then from the company perspective, we've been talking about the big changes, and either from the diversity and inclusion perspective, or creating more sustainable businesses, creating equal opportunities for people all over the world, etc. and remote work is this common denominator that enables companies to be more diverse, more inclusive, to create equal opportunity for more people than just in the area around them to provide better well-being opportunities for further people. And to truly focus on the culture of the company, instead of just pretending that the culture exists. There are cool phrases on your company website, but then the reality is completely different, right? So it's like a perfect reality check for companies. So it's not just PR. Then on the other front, what's really exciting about remote work, which is still in pretty unknown areas is how it can positively impact the environment if we do remote work right. So that's also an interesting angle. And just in general, it disrupts the way how we live and work. And that's why it's so exciting, because it's such a humongous change. Back in the days when we started, we never envisioned that over night, the whole world will start working remotely. It was more of a niche that is growing, that we knew that it will be growing because of the expectations from the workforce, especially younger generations, Gen Z etc. But we never thought that it will explode this way. So right now, it's extremely important that we help to create work environments where this type of work is simply sustainable.
Sandra Redlich 08:56
You didn't only found Remote-How, but you're also one of the founders of the Remote First Institute. And with that, you are dedicated to create global standards to make remote work processes a bit more easy to implement. What are the standards that you need as a company who maybe wants to start implementing remote work policies?
Iwo Szapar 09:17
Yes, sure. That's a very good question. That's basically something that we've been doing as Remote-How for years and we had like over 2,000 companies that came to us and we've worked on different projects with them either like consulting support or training support. So we had a lot of data and a lot of first hand insights on what are the real struggles, challenges and also what are the missing pieces when it comes to making remote work work. And those are both like huge corporations, fortune 500 companies, but also hyper growth startups, scaleups, SMBs. So all across the board about sizes. And that's important when we start talking about challenges. But also all over the world. And the one thing that there is in common is that besides remote hybrid, however you want to call it, in theory, we know how we should be doing stuff. In theory just as a workforce, if we generalize it. But then the reality is completely different. There is a humongous legacy in how we work. And because there's always a deadline, there's always an important project, there's always an important meeting etc. And this legacy keeps growing. And the time that companies should sometimes invest in learning and development or just change management, oftentimes has a low priority, right? So when we started to see that there's a lot of legacy that goes beyond just remote and hybrid, the companies in theory, are doing something but it's not effective. Then one of the answers, of course, I will emphasize that this is one of the areas, that you need to come and show what are these standards, and then help not just apply to their environment, but then also encourage them to work on these standards internally, adjust them, improve them over time, right. So now focusing on a couple of areas.
Iwo Szapar 11:36
So first of all, leadership, this is the biggest topic. And we knew it before the pandemic, that managers, leaders are the ones that are setting the tone, setting the example. But unfortunately, in many cases, there are simply bad leaders. They're not mentors, it's more of like a boss approach. They are in many cases micromanagers, they don't know how to plan, they have a hard time communicating, talking about tough situations, and lack of writing skills, and the list goes on and on, right. So in general leadership is extremely important. And that goes beyond remote and hybrid, this is simply we need to relearn how the teams should be led. They should be more and more autonomous. Managers still have a hard time trusting their employees. Those are the fundamentals. They are actually preventing managers from then executing the day to day job, because in their mindset, this is where the true first challenge exists. So leadership first, then communication. Communication before the pandemic was very synchronous. So you're messaging me, I was replying immediately, you gave me a call, I responded. So the information was shared instant. And the remote first world for companies that have been operating this way for years, asynchronous communication was the first way to go. So I'm sending you the message, it can be a text message, it can be a video message. But you're not obliged to respond immediately. We have an internal policy around the communication for super important stuff, it's x minutes, x hours. But if it's something about a workshop in two weeks, hopefully not important, I don't need to respond to you immediately. So you're not interrupting my flow right now. So just an example. And asynchronous communication, just in general, how companies communicate internally, this is a huge topic. We have a hard time formulating our thoughts in writing, we have a hard time in managing the knowledge internally. So knowledge repositories, in most cases, are just these random documents that you just open once and forget about it. So that's another area, so leadership, communication, then moving into the third one, managing the knowledge internally. So it doesn't matter where are the people, where are their conversations happening? If someone comes in in like six months and you hire or you want to check something, this knowledge that exists is well managed. So that's absolutely another area. Then the huge one that I touched on a bit earlier: Culture. Culture is not a new topic, but unfortunately, most companies have just nice signs about it. But then the reality was different. And what we see on the culture front like there are two areas, one actually tied back to leaders. So in today's world, leaders need to take more responsibility, they need to be held accountable for actually cultivating this culture, investing time, truly building habits on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, to simply do something in this area to bring their teams together, it's no longer just a Christmas party or like a summer party where we come together, and we do stuff, right. It's absolutely no longer the case. And I can go on and on. So those are the couple of ones that we see that companies struggle the most. So the idea behind the... One of the goals behind the Remote First Institute is to help create the standards together with the world's top experts that we've been working with for four years now. We work also with companies that have been operating this way for years to have real life examples, and then help these companies that would like to change and adjust. Have the inspiration, but also have the hands on support that will that will allow them to implement that. And maybe a final thought on these global standards. The kind of final outcome, what we see and what companies are coming to us for, is a playbook. Playbook, handbook, however you want to call it. So basically an instruction, how you should be working, how the company operates, the ways of working. And such product should have an owner. And once created, it should be curated, it should be adjusted along the way. So the adoption increases. And this is where the standards are first implemented, and then adjusted. And then also there is a huge part where employees need to contribute to this as well. So they feel like they're part of that change. And they can make an impact as well.
Sandra Redlich 11:48
There are a lot of big companies who have kind of taken this time where everyone was forced into working from home. And initially, I think a lot of companies were thinking first off, we're not going to... it's not working for us, it's not going to be possible for our business.
Iwo Szapar 17:45
Yeah, I've heard that many times.
Sandra Redlich 17:47
Yeah! Then they had to and all of a sudden they realize, Oh, it is possible. And it's actually helping us. So there are a bunch of big corporations like Spotify, for example, I think Google has had that in place for a while too, who are really embracing this new way of working. But then there's also a few others who have kind of made a push to go back to the office. I think Tesla is one of the big ones. The founder, Elon Musk, was saying he wants people to go back into the office. Why do you think people are advocating for this move back into the office? And how can we convince them of the power of remote work?
Iwo Szapar 18:26
Sure. So with Tesla, this is actually a very good example, because Elon is a very smart guy. And when he made this announcement, a couple of days later, there was an information that Tesla - there will be layoffs in Tesla, and they will be downsizing their staff. So that was a preliminary signal that hey, if you're not happy here, and if you'd like to work remotely, maybe you should look for another job. And then layoffs are coming, right. So that was more of a strategy. Because like I said, he's smart. So he absolutely knows that the work can be done from anywhere. And he's also working remotely. So that's a kind of a different story. But looking at the companies that are still fighting to go back to the reality from like March 2020, or like February 2020. There is no way of going back, simply so many people tried it. And most people see a value, how it can positively impact their own lives. And I'm not just talking about the ability to travel right, this is actually a tiny percentage, right? I'm more talking about the people that don't need to be stuck in traffic for like one or two hours every day. I'm talking about the people that can get a job living in a small city or a village and work for a company somewhere else without the need to relocate. I'm talking about people that can finally spend more time with their children. Because you're not wasting so much time for example, commuting, right? And the list goes on and on.
Sandra Redlich 20:10
It's even just making sure that you cater to your own personal preference of how you like to work. I'm way more productive in the mornings. And then I have this, like, after lunch, kind of deep spot. And I'll just tend to hang out. I have a really, really long lunch break, and then I'm productive again, kind of in the evening. And I can determine that myself, because there's no one telling me no, you need to be productive, and give your best work from nine to five. And if you can't fit your style of working to that, then you're not good enough.
Iwo Szapar 20:41
Yes. And in the nine to five culture, you will be just wasting, you wouldn't be doing your thing, you're just recovering, resting, but you're employed. So it's insane, right. One important point that we should mention here is that there are people who like working from the office, and this is absolutely, totally fine. But as long as they have a choice, so you're not forcing people to do one of the two. We create the office that it's remote first friendly. And then it doesn't matter where you work, you can work from the office, from home, from co-working, from basically anywhere. We really care about the outcome. And we really care that you're feeling good every morning, open your laptop, right. So, kind of circling back. There are many reasons why people love it and will continue to do so. If you look at the aspect of freelancing and consulting, self employed, like that exploded in 2020. It was already a big trend. But if you combine this need for some people, right as an opportunity, to not just have like, either you work full time or there are no other options, then you add on top of that the growing need to work less, just simply work less, like the whole trend of four day work week, etc. We're still in very early days of this, that shows you that disruption around how we are working and how we are living. It's not going away, right. And remote is just a part of this change. And in some cases, it's an enabler to do a difference switch, right. So companies should really focus on how they will adapt to this new future. Rather than trying to fight with this and transform back to 2019. So that's quite insane that companies who are like talking a lot about productivity, resources, etc. While they are actually very unproductive right now fighting this, losing the resources. That is already affecting in many companies, talent retention metrics, where they're trying to go back to the old world, it's affecting their talent, attraction metrics as well, if they cannot promise your new candidates, what kind of work policy there will be in place. So in some cases it's mind blowing. But we see that there are more and more companies that know that this is the future. And they really focus on figuring this out, how to make this work.
Sandra Redlich 23:54
You kind of said that the whole Tesla Elon Musk thing was probably more of a strategic move than really his personal belief that everyone needs to be back in the office. If you had the chance to speak to him or to any other big founder, who is kind of moving back into the office and saying no, we want to move back to the 2019 times. What would you say to them? If you had that conversation? If if it wasn't me, you're talking to but one of them and you want to just preach the remote work gospel. What would you say?
Iwo Szapar 24:24
I think at the end of the day, it boils down to happiness. We as humans are chasing this need to be happy. And if you look at the reports around employee satisfaction and what people really want, remote work flexibility we chatted about earlier to your point about flexible working hours. This is what people are looking for and this directly impacts the productivity and the efficiency. So the business has a gain, but then it also positively impacts your well-being so then can you a good impact from work to your life. So, if, at the end of the day, this is what matters and what can be a win win, why fight with this? it's no longer about, Hey, someone wants something. No, it's just for the better for all of us. That would be my message to help figure out how we can be happier, especially in these challenging times. And more challenges to come.
Sandra Redlich 25:48
Speaking of challenges to come, what do you think is the future then? Because we've talked about what we don't want: To go back to the 2019 pre-pandemic stiffness. Now, it's hard to predict, and there's so much uncertainty. But where do you see the future of work going? What are the next 10 years or how is remote work going to look like in 10 years?
Iwo Szapar 26:11
Yes. So absolutely. Number one is decentralization. So the work is not just becoming more and more distributed in terms of a place. But also there are more and more parties involved in getting stuff done. There is a very interesting aspect of web three. So the new internet, where we are not just reading, like in web one, not just reading and creating content, like in web two. So everything what we are doing right now, you're creating Instagram posts and you post it, but it doesn't belong to you. In Web three, this data belongs to you. Just as a super short overview for someone who is not into web three. And we're forgetting about the crypto part of web three. But what's really interesting is happening around DAOs. So decentralized autonomous organizations. So basically a community driven way to run the company, which actually even don't need to be incorporated. It's just the mission shared by the members who are voting on projects and have a shared treasury. And that's it, and the work can be done, right. So one huge trend is that the work is becoming decentralized. It's fueled by the growth of freelancers, consultants, people who would like to be independent, but also work on interesting projects. Then speaking about interesting projects. Second trend is people would like to work on impact projects, something that can really create a better future and kind of help us fix the problems that we have right now. For instance, around climate change, like the world is burning, and more and more people would like to get involved somehow, but not everyone. And those DAOs for instance, coming together as a group of people with a shared mission and start figuring this out, is one of the answers. So decentralization, impact work, absolutely. Then the third one, like directly connected to remote work. In tech, when you're working in tech, in 10 years, it will be absolute standards, it will be simply a new normal. So there's no doubt about that. Offices, they will still exist, just at a smaller scale and with an adjusted format. They will be more used for meetings, collaboration, team integration, rather than just for coming and getting the work done, because that can be done anywhere, same as collaboration, workshops, etc. But just from time to time, some companies will choose to still keep these offices and are happy for people to come in. About the future I can talk a lot but those are the couple of things that come to my mind that they're not only about remote work, but actually where remote work can fuel the change in other areas.
Sandra Redlich 29:49
Yeah, and how much further it can go than where it is at the moment and probably hoping to see some global standards for that introduced as well.
Iwo Szapar 30:00
Yes, absolutely. And we really need to take into consideration different cultures, different ways of working, different communication style, etc. So even though if we come up with a global standard X, it still needs to be localized and adjusted. And that's also one of the beauties of the remote work movement and the shift that it enables us to start also connecting with different cultures, with different countries and learning more about them, and that there will be a lot of positive outcome and like synergies that we cannot even think about right now. But that's an amazing tool that we all can use here.
Sandra Redlich 30:48
Yeah, sounds like decentralization, but also more individualization, like having things way more catered to individual needs, and therefore making it work together.
Iwo Szapar 31:00
Yes, yes, absolutely. And, like, this is the whole freelance revolution that has been happening for many, many years now, right? People, like some people prefer to work on their own and adjust their schedule, their life to work. In most cases, they're not working 40 hours a week, they're working less. Of course, there are also examples of 40+. But when traveling and meeting a lot of people, I was a bit jealous when I was still grinding and I saw them, just okay, I've done my stuff. And now we can do some other things. So this will happen for sure. And because of the talent shortage, because of the lack of skills on the market, looking at the full time positions, companies are already working more and more with external consultants, external experts. In most cases, it's still happening through large corporates. So in theory, you're getting a consultant, but actually, these consultants work full time. So this trend of being able to simply plug in many people from outside of an organization to create the value for you, either short term, or maybe even on a recurring basis long term. This is another step in making work from anywhere work with anyone.
Sandra Redlich 32:46
Well, fascinating times ahead of us. I'm really looking forward to the future.
Iwo Szapar 32:51
Yes, yes. A lot of challenges, a lot of blood and tears, so we need to be ready.
Sandra Redlich 32:57
It's definitely not going to be boring at all. Well, thanks so much for sharing your insights and for talking with us about these super exciting topics. Yeah, very happy to pick your brain and enjoy the rest of your day.
Iwo Szapar 33:14
Pleasure is mine, thank you so much and stay safe.
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