Interview: Molood Ceccarelli on Adopting Remote Work in Agile Teams and the Future of Remote

Picture provided by Molood Ceccarelli

Molood Ceccarelli is a remote work strategist and remote agile coach. She pioneered the idea of remote work in agile companies.

Molood is the founder and CEO of Remote Forever. The team at Remote Forever serves two different types of clients, including small business owners and larger companies transforming to agile ways of working.

They offer three different types of services, including courses, workshops and coaching to help organizations transform to remote working by taking advantage of agile ways of working.

We spoke with Molood about adopting remote work in agile companies, the challenges businesses face today with remote work, and what impact remote work is likely to have on companies in the future.

What are you working on right now?

At this moment, I’m working on streamlining all of our products and services so that it would be easier for people to figure out which solution would actually solve their problem.

We’re also working on a secret project that will hopefully bring a lot of joy to the agile community who have been forced to work remotely for the last couple of years.

It’s also for remote entrepreneurs who want to learn how to create more adaptable and faster growing businesses.

In a blog post, back in 2016, you wrote that ‘the future of work is remote and the future is now’.

You could argue that in 2022 this statement has truly come true. What do you think of the speed at which the world adopted remote work?

Needless to say, the speed is faster. That’s something we all know! But it has come with a lot of challenges and some opportunities as well. So the speed at which remote work was adopted during the pandemic caused a lot of trial and error because it was a forced experiment created with no prior planning.

This whole forced idea of working from home is only one of the many flavors of remote working.

So what people have experienced during the pandemic is not necessarily the whole idea of remote working because remote work in essence is about giving people freedom and giving people empowerment, to do meaningful work from wherever they are. Which also means they should have all the tools and information they need.

But companies weren’t prepared for this when the pandemic hit.

They didn’t have that transparency of information because they could just literally walk to someone, tap them on their shoulder, and just get that information right away. And because there was a lack of transparency and lack of strategy, we are faced with a lot of challenges, but these challenges themselves are also opportunities.

They’re opportunities for companies like mine to help these organizations, these leaders, to actually learn how to create a strategy and how to create those business processes and operations that can help them to work more effectively.

When you say it’s an opportunity to create effective remote work strategies, have you found a lot of companies have been struggling with that and seeking you out?

Absolutely! My business has grown during the pandemic. I started in 2016 and, at the time, our target audience was organizations that are moving to agile ways of working but who also had a distributed workforce. At the time, this meant people had to collaborate from offices in different countries.

But this is not the same concept as working from home, or working from the beach.

The difference is that when we work with companies where people work from the office, the office can fund really high-quality equipment for video conferencing, for example. Or tools that allow people to have access to information.

But when suddenly people are distributed around the world and they have to work from their own devices from many different networks on various different types of broadband, the challenge is a little different.

Companies didn’t have a strategy for these new challenges. They didn’t have a process to handle this. As a result, we got a lot more interest from companies during the pandemic because we already had the experience of how to help companies with different styles of working.

We had the toolsets. We had the skillsets in-house to go out there and help people. And I hope we can continue to do that because I think now, even those companies that did not ask companies like us for help, have been through a lot of trial and error and are still struggling. They’re still figuring it out and are wondering why it isn’t working.

We’re meeting more companies. It’s going to be a major thing, I think. A lot of companies are now deciding to go fully remote. So I guess they’ll be wanting more working strategies.

You’re a strong proponent of remote work in agile companies. What does that look like to you?

As I started the business in 2016, we had a yearly conference called the Remote Forever Summit. In that summit, what I initially wanted to do was to show the agile world, including agile coaches and agile trainers, that remote work and agile are one and the same and that they need to co-exist because the world is moving towards remote working.

But I did not expect the pandemic to hit a few years later and to accelerate this so much. I did see the trend and many other people saw the trend with remote work as well.

So, what does that really look like?

Agile has a manifesto. It was written in 2001 by an amazing group of individuals who were proponents of different ways of developing software. So they came together and they wrote this manifesto focused on people. That is, valuing people and interactions over everything else.

And in essence, they wanted to iterate really, really fast, then deliver value to the customer really quickly instead of the customer having to wait for a couple of years to get a new version of the software.

So when you see, you know, an update popping up on your phone, it’s because a company behind that software is working in an agile way. Whereas in the past, you’d have to wait for two years to buy a new CD of the newer version of the software you wanted to use.

So with this movement that started back then, there was one principle in the manifesto that said face-to-face communication is the most effective form of communication.

However, this was then misinterpreted and people thought that co-location was a prerequisite for agility.

And what I did back in 2016 was address the elephant in the room. Because my experience did not match the literature out there. In my experience, every company I was a part of had an element of remote working. For instance, the business executives were in the US, the developers were in Europe, or within the whole company, colleagues were distributed.

And I saw many other people like me face this problem, but there was no literature addressing that.

So what I created was basically highlighting what many people had experienced.

There were three groups of people who joined the first conference I put together. The first group of people came with the same experience as me. They saw a person addressing the challenge they were facing and putting it into words.

The second group was people who were just curious to know what this is all about. Then the third group, which was probably the largest group, wanted to come and prove to me that I was wrong. But many of them actually got convinced that remote is the way.

Bringing remote work and agile together has been and still is what I do and what my company does. My mission is to empower all knowledge workers to contribute meaningfully to their work from wherever they are, office included.

What was the thing that made people change their minds?

I showed people what agile is and what remote is and how they were practically the same thing. The world has come a long way since 2001, when that manifesto was written.

One of the things that I did was, I interviewed almost all of the manifesto writers. I interviewed 15 of them out of 17.

Every single one of them works remotely. Isn’t that fascinating?

And they all told me that they work remotely, that they have been building companies and software remotely.

Now agile is used in other industries too, and in other parts of the organization because the principles are not just about software, they are about creating value for the customer.

So when I interviewed them and they all said they worked remotely, I specifically challenged them around the principles that have been misinterpreted, specifically the principle of face-to-face being most effective.

And what it actually means is basically this: we’re looking for the most effective means of communication.

Maybe it was face-to-face in 2001, but the problem is that in the past two years, people were forced to work remotely.

They translated face-to-face into calendars filled with meeting, after meeting, after meeting, after meeting. They decided to replicate the idea, because they assumed that without seeing each other’s faces, they couldn’t have effective communication.

What we do is we show them different ways of having effective communication, such as asynchronously sharing information.

This means simplifying processes, creating structures around information management and organization, creating transparency in how decisions are made, how information flows top-down, and across the organization, and how collaborative decision-making can actually be empowering.

So we help them create the culture of a remote-first organization while creating agility and maintaining that. They are then robust and agile, meaning they can respond to any change that can happen in the market or the world.

And they can handle it regardless of location. Isn’t that amazing? That’s truly our mission.

What’s your advice to an agile manager who is exploring remote working?

I think as an agile manager, first and foremost, you should educate yourself and get the information you need. You can come to our free courses, our webinars, or buy one of our paid ones and really educate yourself. You need to unlearn some of the management patterns you’ve been exhibiting.

Even though you’re remote right now, you’re exercising the patterns that are inherited from your in-office time. You need to unlearn those and learn the new ways of leading people and managing work in an effective way. Oftentimes, managers are managing people and hoping for work to be led.

And I specifically say, you need to lead people and manage work, and we teach you how to do that.

Another essential skill that every agile manager really needs to have is online facilitation. When I say facilitation, a manager instantly thinks of meetings and workshops.

In our flagship course, which is called ‘Online Facilitation’, what we do is we help you understand that facilitation is not reserved for when people are together in a meeting.

It also happens when you’re managing work, and it manifests in how you create conversations, how you create environments in which people are empowered to share and consume information, and really do the work they need to do effectively to contribute meaningfully to their work.

When you don’t see people, oftentimes you think they’re not working. Or simply, that you don’t know what they’re working on. And that is a reflection of your management.

Effective communication leaves no doubt for anyone in the organization, including the manager, about what people are working on. Work is visible. Everybody knows what people are working on. Everybody has access to information at the time when they need it. And it all comes back to what you are doing as a manager to create an environment where people have the time to be on their own and be productive.

The management calendar is different from the creative calendar. The management calendar is usually divided in chunks of one hour.

Managers often do their work in meetings, but creatives, the people who write code, the people who create content, or basically do any sort of creative work, their calendar is divided in two parts.

There’s ‘before lunch’ and ‘after lunch’. And they really need that big chunk of time to get into a flow state and create what they’re creating.

So as a manager, you need to have awareness over what productivity is for you and what productivity is for your direct reports and create the environment that empowers them to not be interrupted constantly by meeting after meeting, while still having access to the information they need to do their work productively.

How do you see the remote landscape changing in the next few years?

If we think about the next two years, I think many of the big companies will call their people back to the office, which has already started.

We will see that many of their people do not want to come back to the office. Many of these good companies will lose some of their top talent to the competition and to competitors that already offer remote working.

Some companies that are in the growth phase and that have smart leaders who can spot trends will acknowledge that remote is the future.

And they will invest in creating strategies and business processes and infrastructure for their companies to be remote-first. And they will absorb the talent.

So I think, if you look longer term, perhaps over the next 10 years, you will see companies that stuck with working from the office, experience a decline in market share and productivity. They will have higher rates of churn.

Companies that are in the growth phase right now will actually continue to grow, especially if they embrace remote working and they put the right strategies in place.

So when you ask me, where are we going, I think we are going to be even more remote.

A lot of interesting changes are coming.

Instead of insisting that the future should equal the past, we should look at what reality really looks like in the present time and just embrace it and ask ourselves, ‘what can I do to make the future better? Not like the past, but better than the past.’

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