MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE
Managing a remote workforce is the new normal and the new management and leadership challenge. In the near term and also the long term. Today’s guest has been living the remote life since before it became a thing. He lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand and has some valuable tips on best practices on managing a remote workforce.
What You’ll Discover About Managing a Remote Workforce (highlights & transcript):
* How better hiring practices are key to managing a remote workforce [7:29]
* The critical importance of team building when managing a remote workforce [10:56]
* How managing a remote workforce is easier when employees write their own culture [11:55]
* How cultural diversity impacts managing a remote workforce [16:04]
* How micromanaging backfires when managing a remote workforce. [20:05]
* The most important leadership trait for successfully managing a remote workforce [21:22]
* And MUCH more.
Hanna Hasl-Kelchner: [00:00:01] Managing a remote workforce is the new normal and the new management and leadership challenge in business in the near term and also in the long term. Today’s guest Time Libelt has been living the remote life since before it became a thing. He lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and has some valuable tips on best practices for managing a remote workforce.
Announcer: [00:00:24] This is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner helping you see business issues hiding in plain view that matters to your bottom line.
Hanna: [00:00:36] Welcome to Business Confidential Now, I’m your host, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, and yes, today’s guest, Mr. Tom Libelt, is joining us from beautiful Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tom has had a number of international escapades, you might say. He’s like a little bit of a marketing James Bond in that as a child, he learned how to sell and negotiate through getting haggled by Russian vendors.
Hanna: [00:01:01] His family left Poland to escape communism and came to the United States. As immigrants searching for the American dream, he watched them take any job they could just to survive. And as a young man, that struggle instilled in him a deep desire to never want a traditional job. It led him to forge his own path as an entrepreneur, a publisher, salesman and one of the top Polish hip hop artists.
Hanna: [00:01:28] Today from his perch in Thailand. He runs Smart Brand Marketing and We Market Online Courses. He’s published around 5000 Kindle books. That’s remarkable. Built a successful SEO and online course marketing business and succeeded in numerous other ventures. And what’s remarkable about this success is that all of these ventures were bootstrapped. None were done with outside funding. So let’s find out more.
Hanna: [00:01:56] Welcome to Business Confidential Now, Tom.
Tom Libelt: [00:01:59] Thanks for having me. I actually enjoyed listening to that intro, was like, wow, he’s a very interesting guy.
Hanna: [00:02:05] You want to meet this guy, right?
Tom: [00:02:07] I did after listening to it. I’ve never heard the Marketing James Bond. I’ve heard people describe me in a lot of ways, but I like this one.
HOW TOM WOUND UP IN THAILAND
Hanna: [00:02:15] You like this? Okay, very good. Well, Tom, you’ve had an amazing entrepreneurial journey. And of all the places and all the towns and all the world, how did you happen to land in Thailand?
Tom: [00:02:29] It was sort of by chance when I left US to kind of slow travel and I felt comfortable enough that my business was running well enough remotely so I could test it out first. I moved within the US quite a bit to kind of stress test the business. But once I’ve done that, I met a group of people who were having conferences around the world and they were actually building legit businesses, doing the same thing. Not like wannabes, but legit businesses.
Tom: [00:03:04] And the first conference where I went to with them was in Berlin. And then I realized that the main conference that they’re having every year was in Bangkok, Thailand. So they kind of brought me in. Initially, I didn’t like it. But as I came back, Thailand is one of those places where on the surface it’s nice, then it gets really annoying and then it grows on you. Right? Like one of these, like you’ve got to go a little deeper to actually be like, well, this is a really good place to live.
Tom: [00:03:36] So I kept on coming back and eventually it became one of the places where I go back to the most and now it’s home. I would say part of the year. I still, I mean, what with Covid going on we really can’t choose much. I really like it. I’m here, but I still like going back to the States for four months a year, going to Europe for four months a year. So I still like other places too.
Tom: [00:04:03] But overall, I would say this is like my second or third home because I move between, you know, I have an apartment in the States which I go to, and then I have a place I stay in, in Warsaw, in Poland. So I would move. But I have offices set up in every one too so I can just get back to work immediately. It doesn’t affect my business at all.
THE PROS AND CONS OF WORKING ALONE, WITH A PARTNER, OR WITH EMPLOYEES
Hanna: [00:04:24] Well, let’s talk about these offices. As an entrepreneur and someone who’s taken multiple startups and grown them into profitable business, I’m sure at times you’ve probably wrestled with deciding do you work alone, with a partner, or having employees. Tell us about your thought process and deciding between these options.
Tom: [00:04:43] I’ve done all of these. All of these. I’ve worked alone. I’ve worked with employees. I’ve worked with partners multiple times.
Tom: [00:04:51] So that let’s start with the partner one. That’s a very tricky thing. I, like most of us, when we pick our business partners, we want to work with friends or we kind of get thrown into something, you know.
Hanna: [00:05:07] Right.
Tom: [00:05:07] Then it’s always difficult. It’s always difficult, you know, like we . . . a lot of arguments, a lot of . . . it’s like a marriage, you know. It’s like a marriage. You’re pretty much going into another relationship, long term relationship. And it’s going to come with a lot of ups and downs. The only thing I really can advise in that is, first thing, would I be OK sitting next to this person on a 17-hour flight? Internationally, with no gadgets, no distractions, and if it doesn’t pass that, that’s an automatic no. If it does, it’s like, OK, well, maybe.
Tom: [00:05:50] Then the second thing is like, can you divide the roles properly? Because I’ve made this mistake before, too. I had a partner with a business and then we all kind of have the same skill sets and it makes zero sense. We were kind of stepping on each other’s toes a lot.
Tom: [00:06:07] So the successful partnerships I’ve seen is when you have completely different skill sets, like one of you is a good social skills person, like you’re doing sales, marketing, advertising, team building. And the other person is a hard skills person, which is good at building things, coding the technical, and then you completely separate the roles and things usually run much easier. But once again, it’s a long-term thing.
Tom: [00:06:36] You’re going into a kind of like a marriage. So it’s definitely going to come with a lot of pain. And even the best partnerships I see with some friend businesses, they’re all bickering and going through this. So, you know, it’s an easy way to get gray hairs. I’ll tell you that.
Hanna: [00:06:54] You got to set those boundaries, healthy boundaries.
Tom: [00:06:57] You do. You do. But, as with any relationship, you’re going to have days when you’re kind of not on the same page. So it’s great because in some ways you have the roles divided you can grow very fast because you have two people hustling hard and everyone’s focused on different things. You can outgrow someone that’s doing it by themselves, but it’s going to come with a lot of those negatives, which I just wanted to address.
Hanna: [00:07:26] Those are the tradeoffs. So . . .
Tom: [00:07:29] It’s a tradeoff.
BETTER HIRING PRACTICES ARE KEY TO MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE
Hanna: [00:07:29] Yeah, absolutely. But this thing about remote employees, you don’t have to sit next to them for 17 hours on a flight. They take their own flights. They maybe they don’t even fly at all. Let’s talk about managing a remote workforce. One fear that old school managers have about remote employees is that somehow they’re goofing off and only spending half the time they should on what they’re getting paid to do. What would you tell executives or managers who feel that way?
Tom: [00:08:00] Well, some are. Some are. So that comment is halfway correct. You know, it depends on your employees too. Look remote employees are a challenge. Finding the group for your business will take a while. And I went from, you know, micromanaging to almost zero managing and in between. Everywhere in between.
Tom: [00:08:24] So what I found with the businesses and Covid, especially, the ones that started initially, people get super excited. They get to work from home, and then the productivity drops off. A lot. Some take on multiple jobs because the business will never know.
Tom: [00:08:40] And this is more of a character problem than an employee problem. So when initially we were hiring the remote employees, this was like maybe ten years ago. My main focus was, do they have the skills? Right. So if we need writers do they, can be write. If we need coding. Are they good coders?
Hanna: [00:09:02] Right.
Tom: [00:09:03] That was very mixed when it came to productivity. Recently what we’ve done is we give them a personality test and we give them test jobs to do so. Skills are maybe 30-40% of the hiring process. Everything else is more of a personality test. Will they be able to (1) overcome obstacles? Right. That’s the results we’re looking for in this whole test, because it’s geared towards remote workers, the test that we compiled.
Tom: [00:09:37] And (2) are they OK to kind of talk back in a way? Do they have the confidence? What happens with a lot of workers, especially if you start hiring in Asian countries, they will disappear because they just don’t want the conflict. And that’s what it kind of goes down to.
Tom: [00:09:59] They’d rather just not do anything and not say anything and get a different job than argue with you a little bit. And that’s a trait you actually want because since you don’t get to sit around, not everyone’s very comfortable, and people are scared for their jobs because . . . you don’t pay them, you get upset, they’re fired . . . they often tend to shut down when something bad happens. And bad things happen all the time in business. Right? We have ups and downs. We have to put out fires constantly. Right?
Tom: [00:10:31] So what we look for in employees is (1) a bit of a drive and self-confidence for one to be able to solve these problems, address them. And if they don’t like something you said, to tell you why and maybe give you a better option, but (2) to what the main thing is, you don’t want to have a big obstacle, to actually go and try to overcome it, instead of just being like this job sucks, which, you know, is a normal thing.
THE CRITICAL IMPORTANCE OF TEAM BUILDING WHEN MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE
Tom: [00:10:56] As to team building, which is kind of important to learn remotely since you don’t have the morning roll call like you do in a lot of businesses, like, oh, gather around and let’s see how many things you sold today or, you know, we have a meeting or team building and let’s throw the ball and call your name. Like all this stuff I’ve seen in companies I worked on before.
Tom: [00:11:18] What I’ve found is having the manager be more of an organizer, think like Obama, like a very good organizer, community builder, that’s what you’re kind of looking for. And their job is more to create a friendly environment than being someone like, and these are not really known figures, but someone that’s pretty much whose only job is to make sure that people are working with a whip, which is like a supervisor.
HOW MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE IS EASIER WHEN EMPLOYEES WRITE THEIR OWN CULTURE
Tom: [00:11:55] And the thing we’ve done in our business, which helped this a lot, is we let employees write their own culture. Right? Obviously the team builder, the manager was driving it, but we let them draft those documents. It wasn’t me writing what kind of company we have, what we expect, what sort of environment we’re looking for, when people will get fired, I let all the employees come together and write that themselves. So they own it. They own the environment, like they wrote down exactly what they want and what they don’t want.
Tom: [00:12:35] So now if someone messes up and I gave some constraints. Right. I told them, let’s make it a place that you want to work in, but we still need to make money. So some of the things I want you to address in these documents is what happens when one of you is sick? One wants to go on leave, when can’t work you. Things still need to get done.
Tom: [00:12:56] So they wrote all these things in. And now if someone doesn’t follow it, I’m like, well, you’re not following your own rules that you guys wrote down. And the next step is also written in the document. So this is what’s going to happen. So there are not really questions or bad feelings towards me about any of this. It’s like, well, you guys came up with it, you know, and it becomes easier.
HOW NEW HIRES AFFECT MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE
Hanna: [00:13:17] Yeah, I can see how that becomes easier. But let me ask you this. When somebody new comes in. All right, you had a group. This is how it got started. And they drafted these policies. And this is how we’re going to play the game. When somebody new comes in, do they get a say for how they get to play the game or no, these are the rules now. We decided and if you want to play, this is it.
Tom: [00:13:40] That’s a good question. So this is this is what we do. Everyone that comes in to the company has a three-month probation period.
Hanna: [00:13:48] OK.
Tom: [00:13:49] This is this is that no nonsense, you’re up or you’re out, because I found that if people can’t be consistent for at least three months. It’s not going to work out well. That’s usually the timeframe we found. So in these three months, you learn the way we work, the way we design things, and if you don’t like that, you just go. Go away. It’s sort of like I think Zappos. When you get hired, you get told we’re going to give you two thousand dollars to go and leave the company right now before you even start the job. We’d rather have you leave if you want to just take the money. So we’re a little strict in the first probation period. As soon as that’s done, the person that worked with us for three months, they’ve seen how we do things and we let them give input into the documents.
Hanna: [00:14:39] I see. OK, so it’s a living growing document, what you’re saying.
Tom: [00:14:45] It is, yes. So if you been around, because people change, maybe the old guard left. This happens with everything. When I used to work in the music industry we’ve seen the levels. The guard that was living in the 70s, they had their own ways. And the people in the 80s, they had their own ways. So everyone was telling you how things should be. Right.
Tom: [00:15:05] And then the newer guy coming in, that entered and stuff, says this sucks, this is completely tipped. Times change. Napster came out. Things change. So I understand that. And things work quicker now and move quicker now with the way things are online. So we want to make sure that the people actually working in the company, they are evolving that document. It’s not just there like the Constitution. Someone wrote it five hundred years ago and now we’re following it blindly because things change, things evolve. This is why we’re having so many problems in the US now.
Tom: [00:15:39] The same problems will happen in our company if we don’t allow the new people to, you know, sort of . . . . But they still have to follow the same constraints. We can’t all of a sudden go like, you know, that my feelings are hurt I can leave for five days and no one comes to work. That doesn’t cut it.
Tom: [00:15:55] But if you have something insightful, like this rule, maybe worked for the other people, but for us it doesn’t, here’s an example of when this happens.
HOW CULTURAL DIVERSITY IMPACTS MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE
Tom: [00:16:04] Often with online businesses, if you’re starting out, you sort of go for the lowest cost remote workers. Right. Which could be India, China, the Philippines. When you grow a little bit or you want to go into more tech, you will often go more into Eastern Europe or parts of the world, most of Eastern Europe, that is like the next step up in the more educated workers. And then if you have to do sales and marketing, you might move to Western workers, U.K., Canada, Australia, America.
Tom: [00:16:38] All of these are different cultures. And often when the guard moves, right, we’re moving from this area more to this one, things will change based on the culture. Even with sales, Australia and the UK, for example, are very different from America, very different mentality, very different in the way customers want to be sold.
Tom: [00:16:58] So depending on which type of workers we have, the majority, we’re sort of going to start leaning in that direction because they will overpower the other ones. Right?
Hanna: [00:17:08] Right.
Tom: [00:17:09] So the document might change also just based on the different cultural differences. And it’s just evolves. If we had a bigger percentage of Asians, it’s going to be a little different. And if we now have a bigger percentage of, you know, and I still want to make sure that everyone’s kind of covered under it. But the majority does usually rule, so that might change. And if we didn’t, then you can imagine that the Western people would be like, well, this doesn’t make any sense because of who was this written by? And it’s just because of a culture difference. And maybe you wrote it before.
Tom: [00:17:42] So it does need to evolve a bit. But I found as long as you give people input and you let them kind of create the rules in their own environment, things work pretty, pretty, OK.
BIGGEST MISTAKE BUSINESSES MAKE WHEN MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE
Hanna: [00:17:54] Sounds like they do. Sounds like they do. In your experience, what do you think is the biggest mistake managers make when supervising remote employees besides not letting them have input? I mean, clearly, this is a path that you’ve found is successful by letting them craft the rules of the culture, so to speak, the policies and the procedures that they need to follow. But aside from that, what do you think is a mistake that people make when managing a remote workforce?
Tom: [00:18:23] So I think, in my opinion, the biggest mistake is when you’re managing them, you need to once again be more of a community builder than a guy with a whip, like the typical bully or micromanager I just found. It doesn’t work as well online. People will push back or they’ll go for different jobs. You’ll lose your best people. When you do have very low-end tasks. You know, this is when . . . I mean, my friends do it, but it’s still never works out so well . . . you can. We have that software that looks at people’s screens and takes screenshots every couple of minutes, so you’re kind of on top of them. I find they always find a way around it. And it’s a problem.
Tom: [00:19:13] It’s really the personality you’re looking for. Personality more and character over skills. Skills can be taught. Personality, character, cannot. You will spend more time keeping the group organized and on the same team that normally because there is no cooler talk, water cooler talk. Right. I remember the offices I used to go to. Most of us got along by sitting before or during lunch or just around the corner and complaining about different things or excited about different things. That doesn’t happen so much online.
Tom: [00:19:52] Most people get into their own crew, their own routines, and they just don’t have those opportunities. So that’s the part that’s missing and the one that you need to work, I guess, focus on.
HOW MICROMANAGING BACKFIRES WHEN MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE
Tom: [00:20:05] What I find a lot of people do, especially in this time, they try to just move what they’ve done offline to online, which is I just need to make sure they’re behind their desks and working well. Right. You can’t see what they’re doing at their desks. So that already makes it impossible. And therefore, you know, you just messaging someone, are you behind your desk and working?
Tom: [00:20:27] Well, let me tell you a story. I used to work at Poland Springs, which is owned by Nestlé, and it was a sales job. It was a salary job. So it doesn’t matter how much we sold, you were paid the same thing. So right there, you have a misalignment, right? So what a lot of us did, we were outside sales and outside sales and we’re very similar to remote work. There was no company building. We had a boss that just told us you need to make two sales per day.
Tom: [00:20:57] We would fall asleep in the cars hanging out. And if the boss called us, “Are you out selling?” Like we just opened the window to get the noise come in, “yeah, yeah, I’m running around.” Almost none of us did. And that’s what’s going to happen. You know, you can’t stop it. How is he going to know what we’re doing? And I always think back to those times I kept. There is no incentive. If there’s no community, it is what it is.
Hanna: [00:21:22] Yup.
THE MOST IMPORTANT LEADERSHIP TRAIT FOR SUCCESSFULLY MANAGING A REMOTE WORKFORCE
Tom: [00:21:22] Business as usual. Yeah. And it’s human nature. Right. So I think the biggest change for companies will be the management team. You’re now looking for people who know how human psychology works and know how to team build much more over before – like, I just need a guy that listens to me, the suit manager, and does what he’s told and cracks the whip. It just doesn’t work that way. So that’s like the biggest change. In everything other than that, people still want to feel fulfilled. They want to do a good job, like all that stuff. Still the same. A lot of them will be very thankful.
Tom: [00:22:01] I think if you look back JetBlue did a very good job with this way before Covid. This is like in the 2000s. For a while they were the number one customer service team out of all the airlines. Why? Because they found a group of people, women with kids whom they allowed to work at home and all the benefits that came with. They had managers who are good team builders and people were happy and excited to work.
WHAT TIM FERRISS’ FOUR HOUR WORK WEEK BOOK TAUGHT TOM
Hanna: [00:22:30] There you go. Well, one thing before we close here, I know that you had mentioned in correspondence to me that Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week book had really a profound influence on you. Could you tell me more about that?
Tom: [00:22:44] Yeah, I was working in those sales jobs because one of my plays in the twenties was . . . to I was always pretty good at sales, but I didn’t know why it worked. So I went from one corporation to the next, had them train me, tried to sell and then I left to move on to the next one. As I was sitting around after, like maybe two years of doing this, I was actually doing laundry in New York, I was sitting in my car waiting for it. I popped a book open. Right. I started reading it.
Tom: [00:23:15] Keep in mind, I was doing outside sales at that time, which means running around for about seven, eight hours through New York, all the different boroughs, not a very friendly environment for salespeople and sitting in traffic for hours. And then it planted a seed. Like, how in the world can you make money and work four hours from anywhere that you want? And it took many, many more years for me to actually get to that point, but it planted a seed that I just could never shake.
Tom: [00:23:46] Now there should have been a disclaimer in that book, which I learned later, since I am in the marketing industry and I know most of these guys. Tim Ferriss sold the company for I don’t know how many million dollars before he figured out the four-hour workweek. So this was after an exit. And most people like me, we read it before starting the company. So there were some problems and misaligned goals with the whole thing, but it just planted a seed and more than just working a four-hour workweek.
Tom: [00:24:23] What I took out of that book is that you can create systems and use tools, you know, automation, software, whatever, just different tools to help you set up your business in a way where you have minimal employees. That’s always a good thing. And B, you can scale without having a physical location. As someone that did have physical locations like the record store before a coffee shop and all those, I knew what that comes with. You know, the mortgage, the taxes, unemployment tax, harassment from the city. Everything needs to be up to code all the time. And I was like, wow, if I can avoid all this, use systems, use these tools and do it remotely, I mean, that is, I think, the best business model ever.
Tom: [00:25:14] And there is a lot of nuance in that too, like the type of business model you choose. But just the idea of having that be possible, that’s what that book did for me. The possibilities, the imagination that it fired up.
Hanna: [00:25:28] Well, Tom, thank you so much. This has really been interesting. It feels like a tour around the world, especially with the different cultures. Thanks so much for joining us here on Business Confidential Now today.
Tom: [00:25:42] Yeah. Thank you for having me. It was fun.
Hanna: [00:25:44] That’s our show for today. But don’t go anywhere. I have a really easy ask for you. Would you please open your podcast app and give us a five-star review and leave a comment about what you love most about the show? I do read them all and it’ll take you less than a minute. And while you’re at it, share this episode, tell someone about it, because the best way to grow our audience is by word of mouth. And if you want the detailed show notes, links to connect with my guest or stuff that we talked about, even if you want to ask a question, have a show idea. Come on over to BusinessConfidentialRadio.com.
Hanna: [00:26:16] I’ll catch you on the next episode. And in the meantime, have a great day and even better tomorrow.
Guest: Tom Libelt
Tom has had a number of international escapades, he’s a little bit like a “Marketing James Bond” in that as a child he learned how to sell and negotiate through getting haggled by Russian vendors. His family left Poland to escape communism and came to the US. And as immigrants searching for the American Dream he watched them take any job they could just to survive. As a young man that struggle instilled in him a deep desire to never want a traditional job and it led him to forge his own path as an entrepreneur, publisher, salesman, and one of the top Polish hip hop artists.
Today, from his perch in Thailand he runs Smart Brand Marketing and We Market Online Courses. He has published around 5000 Kindle books, built a successful SEO & online course marketing business, and succeeded in numerous other ventures. And what’s remarkable about his successes is that all of these ventures were bootstrapped. None were done with outside funding.
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