Valentina Thörner: Distraction Management

AKA How to be Productive When You Have Kids (or other Distractions)

You love your work but you don’t let it define you. You may be a parent, passionate about a hobby, part of a close-knit community. There are areas of your life that are just as important as work and finding the right balance means you can fully show up for each part of your life. The challenge: it’s not easy to balance commitments to all those different parts of your life that make you who you are.

The same happens to your employees, remote/hybrid work makes this an even bigger challenge.

Valentina shares approaches to org design, culture and productivity that let you take more control of your own life and help you build a company where your teams worry less and produce more.

Slides

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Transcript

Valentina Thörner  
I’m Valentina Thörner, you may take a seat.

I’m the Empress my daughter is the princess. We are working on a dynasty here.

So I’m Empress of Remote. That’s why I wear a tiara. I have an entire Tiara selection, actually. But I’m not going to talk about the Tiara selection, I’m going to talk about distraction management. And I’m sorry if I traumatised anyone by putting on ‘Baby Shark’ yet again. That was my pandemic.

But how do I get to distraction management because that’s not a topic that we talk about a lot in leadership or, or in productivity at all. So back in the day, like 10 years, don’t tell anyone ago, I worked as a productivity coach. And I worked with leaders and with anyone who wanted to get more things done.

I was amazing at that, I got everything done. Inbox Zero To Do List, at the end of the day, you get those little gold stars to do is if you do, I don’t know how many tasks I was, I was absolutely killing it. And then 2016 came, and this happened.

My Story

So I had kids, two of them, twins. And as you can see on one of those photos, you can breastfeed and answer emails. However, having those tiny little humans around me, most of the time was a little bit more distracting than I had anticipated. Because, like they need attention all the time. Like you need to keep them alive. It’s kind of a full time job. And they don’t tell you that. Like of course, they tell you it’s stressful, and you won’t sleep etcetera. But I mean, I know better, I thought. So what do you do in that situation, apart from putting those little beds into the storage behind you so that you can put the kids away while you’re on a conference call and still look very productive, which only works when they are sleeping, you will go back to theory. You look at all the books, everything that you’ve studied, because I was sure that the problem was me, I probably missed something very, very crucial in all of these books. So I went back to the books. And these are the 10 most important influential whatever books in productivity, if you ask Google Chat GPD or whomever you trust these days. So if you look at these books, what’s standing out there, if they were all written by mail white office with no kids, or with kids and wife who takes care of the kids. So maybe getting a wife to take care of the kids would have been my solution. So I realised that actually, they had a big advantage over what I was trying to do, because they had full control over their time and the space that they were trying to be productive in. And it’s very important. It’s like the time component, they could just put aside two hours, three hours a day or whatever hours a day to actually get into their stuff. And they could design their space the way that they wanted this space to work for them. Because on average, every interruption costs you like 15 minutes. If you’ve ever tried to work with a six year old in the room, like forget it, you don’t get 15 minutes to get back into anything. So what the problem then was not productivity methods. And there was no productivity method in this entire world that was said this right for me, the problem was distraction. I needed to focus on distraction. How can I get distraction, maybe not out of my life, but actually out of my current reality. And the thing with managing distraction is I’m sharing now some things that I have learned. But even if you don’t have kids, or you don’t have any distractions in your life, in which case I really envy you. You probably have people working in your company that do have to manage distractions. So even if you don’t have to have kids, you might learn a thing or two from what’s coming next. So my daughter has told everybody at school that she’s that her mom is famous. And her friends have said that is not true. She wasn’t on the news. So I told her but I will be on the internet. So feel free to make photos of me and use that hashtag and put it on the internet so i can tell my daughter that she’s famous and when you’re taking out your phone, use that code and answer those questions there and we’re going to do a slide or take over now so that you can we will be able to see actually the results on screen.

I’m really happy that QR codes actually now kind of work and somebody up there has to put the slider thing on here. There we go. Dogs kids slack okay. 13 month old twins it does get better. I can promise that baby’s phone notifications, dogs in the home office, other people I hear you especially for the introverted among other people. And open floor offices are the worst.

The laundry that’s interesting, but for the people who work from home on hand who have this oh, I should be doing this. Lawn mower work or Well, I love this. baby crying outside noise. Clutter. I just decluttered my desk last week, there’s actually a before and an after photo on LinkedIn. And the most popular comments on my before photo was that my photo was creating anxiety in people even though they didn’t have to work on that desk. Squirrels. That’s somebody who needs to sue who’s probably in in Cambridge. Unsolicited calls, team member questions, team questions. Okay, you do need this talk. There’s a lot of distractions going on in your life.

Okay, cool. Thank you very much for sharing that. Um, we won’t go into all of these. But if there’s a specific thing you want to have, you have questions about you come to me afterwards, and I’m going to help you solve it.

Two Kinds of Distractions

So we can all of these distractions, we can actually divide them into two different ones, there’s an internal distraction. And then there are external distractions, internal distractions happen in your head.

I mean, they still real but kind of, you have to figure that out them out. And then there are external distractions which happen outside you. This is a picture from last summer while the kids were on summer break, and I was trying to get some world work done puzzles work for like, I don’t know, 10 minutes or so. Which isn’t exactly enough to get back into work before the next question comes around.

External Distractions

So we’re going to start with the external distractions, because external distractions are kind of easier to solve, like, not easier, but like they are easier to also to delegate or to, to look into finding something else. So external distractions there was this study, which in my brain will forever be called the secretaries eat cookies studies. I asked Chat GPT there was the study, but one secretaries eating cookies. And it turns out it is a study from 2006 Completely blanking on the people who did it, probably two white males. They put Hershey kisses on top of the receptionist desks and measured how many Hershey Kisses these secretaries actually ate. And then they put the same bowl of Hershey Kisses into a cupboard like six feet away and measured how much they ate. And what happened is that these people ate 2.5 More Hershey Kisses when the Hershey Kisses were just one hand like arm span away. And the study was called Environment Matters. Because we actually get a lot of cues from our environment as what to do and what not to do. So the most immediate result of pet study is that my chocolate stash now lives on top of the fridge on the far side where I actually have to choose to have to take a chair to get their big

Because that means I get that critical moment of, do I really want to eat that chocolate? Or am I just bored, and I can use the chocolate to actually kind of bribe myself to, to do things. So this study tells us that we can hack our environment in a way that we either don’t realise that there is a distraction, or we move to distraction out of our basically, visually and all static and whatever site we have. So how do we do this? We analyse the distractions. So first, how is this thing distracting us there are two types of distraction there is the directly my daughter in goes from walking on stage and asking me a question distraction, which is kind of very obvious. And then there’s the small distractions, like a seed that doesn’t belong there. And it’s nagging in the, in the back of your brain, and you’re trying to think about whether disk traction is actually a thing. And whether this is a see on purpose there or whether and I just lost you. So those are the smaller kinds of distractions. So once you know how you’re being distracted, you look at where does this happen in terms of where am I when does when this happens? And when does it happen to see if you can find a pattern. And this works a lot better if we’re looking at examples. So we’re going to look at kids first, for obvious reasons. So how do kids distract you, kids distract your productivity when they are in the vicinity of your productivity.

Them being there will disrupt you where wherever you are, and the kids are like, there is a very clear correlation between the presence of kids and then disrupting your productivity. And when well, like in the kids example, it basically all can be summed up in one scream internally, that happened about two weeks ago, which was like, can you just give me five minutes so can can finish this presentation and send it over to Kirk? Because he needs it? So how do we solve this? That’s the more interesting question.

My Solution

Number one, the best solution is do not have kids. I know this comes a little bit too late for some of you, including myself, in which case, the second best option is get a divorce and let him or her take 100% custody. Because in that case, you’re only on the hook every other weekend. And if you then move far away, not even that. okay, now popular, good. The other option is to get a divorce and insist on 50/50 custody, never you get the custody all by your own, then you really screwed. Get 50/50 and that way you get one week off one week on, okay? No, okay. There. I mean, there are other options. So the other thing is to actually take advantage of or create systems around you that can take the kids away, why you want to be productive. And I know this is not a very popular thing to say when you’re a mom. But school was invented so you can work. I mean, school was invented so that kids grow up to be well rounded human beings.

And you can work. And the same goes for after school activities, summer classes, and grandparents, or single friends who don’t have kids, but would love to have kids so you can give them your kids so they’re happy and you’re happy to. So with kids, basically organise your kids away. As harsh as that sounds. And for summer break, I can tell you, your kids are going to learn a lot more in starship summer camp than with you at home, being bored out of your brain because you cannot answer one work. What do I know about astronauts anyway, like just learning from somebody who’s really passionate about the topic.

Of course, if you just need an hour, you may use the tablet, you have my permission to give your kids an age appropriate video or game and have a break for an hour to get something done. Like that’s also important for your mental health. Just not watch the thing with them because that will mess with your brain.

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Distraction: Notifications

Notifications. Another example now if you sold for so have kids notifications, like this is trivial. You can leave your phone outside of your room for eight hours and no one’s going to sue you. So just switch those notifications on. But if we go through the through the process, like how does it distract you most of the time when there’s a notification and I look at my phone.

I’m at the end of Instagram and three hours have passed, and I still haven’t read the notification. So the how, It’s not even the notification. So notification is bringing me to my phone. Where does it happen whenever I have the phone with me, and when the when actually doesn’t depend on me, it depends on somebody else triggering something on my phone. So the best thing for me is to get the thing out of my reach. Practical examples here is like, set your phone to black and white, Instagram and Tiktok are very boring and black and white. Like it really reduces the dopamine hit. So that’s a hack that I can really recommend.

Get rid of all the notifications, except when the school calls, or your parents call, or my brother calls. So like, there are some, some some exceptions, and has very clear rules for yourself, when you’re going to be in arm’s reach of that phone or when not, because that’s the thing, you cannot pick your brain. Like you cannot just try harder, I’m going to try really, really, really, really hard not to look at my phone today, good luck, you will last until 11am, maybe. But if you put the phone away, then you don’t have to use your willpower muscle. And you can actually use that to negotiate whatever you need to negotiate in your day. So make sure that whatever is distracting you if you can get it not out of your life, but out of your productive hours, that this can that you can do it because the distractions either still be there like the notifications aren’t going anywhere. And even if you miss them, if it’s important, should floods will come again.

Distraction: Cravings

And finally, cravings. And this is like the grumbling stomach which is debatable whether this is internal and external. But very often it’s triggered by something out from the outside like your neighbour making coffee and not inviting you over. I know how inconsiderate. So cravings or bodily functions, there is a good question first about is it a want? Or is it a need? And there we do what we do with kids. Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Have you slept enough? And if you are our age group, are you creaky, which mean you look like this and that means you probably need to stretch. So if you have eaten and you have had water and you are rested, that all of these things will probably go away. If you analyse, when this happens, you will see patterns every day at 3pm I get really, really tired.

You can schedule in a coffee before 3pm meeting. Or if you live in Spain is yes, then why not? In which case you might want to sign up your kids for after school activities so that you actually can get stuff done. Before the end comes, the day comes to an end. Or if you always get a headache in the afternoon when you go to the co working space because you forget your water bottle at home. The solution is not really rocket science for the remainder of the door, take your water bottle with you. So make sure that you don’t forget that your amazing brain lifts within a body.

And our bodies are amazing, but not really good at maintaining themselves unless the brain is actually involved in this maintenance. So make sure that if you know you forget to eat, if you know you forget to drink water, if you know to forget to leave the house in five days, never has happened that you schedule a schedule this into your into your day so that you actually do it.

So and that’s the thing I’ve just taught you like a couple of things that you can do to get rid of those distractions or solve for those distractions, which means you can learn it, which means you can teach it to your people. And how do you teach these things? You teach them through setting guardrails that helped them to do the right thing that’s a little bit the same with kids. Sometimes you just make rules and expect them to follow the rules and because you know that then things will turn out well. So in your company, you have actually two ways to implement this helping your people to be less distracted. One is operational distraction management, which is setting up a system that reduces distraction by default. And the other one is people-based which is where you work with the individual people one by one because we are all snowflakes. These are some examples for the operational ideas that you can do.

If you know that people are very easily distracted by laundry, sent them to work to a co-working space somewhere where the day-to-day of their home lives cannot interfere with the hours that they are working for you and the co-working allowance, which can be signed them up for a co-working space, or tell them that you’re going to pay for the coffee at the local coffee shop can like make all the difference there. You can do meeting-free days. And this is an operational thing. Because if I want to do my meeting free days on Wednesdays, and you want to do them on Fridays, that’s a problem. So it’s better if you operational. Ly say for the entire company, no meetings on Wednesdays and Fridays, which also makes the meeting space within the week a lot sparser. So suddenly, people actually do more meetings that matter, instead of just calling a quick meeting, because the time is there. So putting these restrictions in place can actually really help slack etiquette, answer in Threads.

There’s a reason Threads were invented. Don’t put everything into the big channel where everyone is going to be interrupted. Have a lot of channels for non work related conversations. My favourite channel is a past company was planned parents, we were only five people. But whenever I bought a new Patos they were ecstatic without me having to interrupt all the other 120 people in the company.

And if you’re in an office, you can give everybody these you know, this little availability flex or this flex that in the US they put on the post office. So a lot of postbox so you can save somebody there, somebody’s not there, you can get those for your monitors. And then people can say you may talk to me or you may not talk to me is really helpful and like reducing the whole other people are interrupting anything, but it needs to be something that is that is known to everyone. You cannot just decide to use this and then everybody like no one else was know what’s what’s happening there. And on the individual level, you have like mental health stay vision reminders, KPIs on an individual level employee coaching to help them people to be more productive, those things will come out of having one on ones with your individual employees. So one thing is, can you set can you put the Hershey Kisses six feet away? And the other thing is, can you have them read the label of the Hershey Kisses, and they’re never going to eat one again, when they’ve seen ingredients. So this is how you can influence it on a company level and on a personal level.

Internal Distractions

Which brings us to the internal distractions, because a lot of those personal ones are of course, internal ones. And internal is a lot more difficult. Because it basically requires learning about yourself, having self awareness and actually figuring out what is it that works for me and as a leader to understand what works for me actually might not work for you. Because you have different circumstances in your life, different experiences in your life, different needs. So what you can do as a leader, honour your one. And once seriously, if you have reports, I expect you to have a one on one with each of your reports at least every two weeks. If you don’t have that, write that down and schedule them for starting next week. Because this is the one place within your company where you can create this personal connection so that other people can tell you what their problems are with distraction management. And then if you know what distracts them, you can actually help them solve that. But you won’t find that out in a survey. You won’t find that out just by reading random slack managers slack messages in a big channel or by overhearing them in the hallway. I have worked in an office for 15 years everything what I say about an office is pure hearsay, but apparently people speak in Norway. So honour those one on ones do them and have them not to be just about work, but also about work at EA some things. You do your one on ones and you make sure that all the managers in your company also do their one at once. But you are the one you have to be the example because you’re at the top and people will always emulate what what happens at the top.

Take that time off to recharge. Distraction often means that our brains need a break. So give your brain that break. go on vacation, take that mental health base. Go on parental leave, leave at five o’clock to go to your daughter’s choir recital. Leave early because your child has to go to this birthday parties and take your earplugs with you. Like seriously you’ll you’ll thank me later but to take the time off and take it off visibly put it in your select star status.

Tell your people I am leaving early because I’m doing something with my family. And I know this is important because then they will interrupt me less during my workday. Well they have their their vacation and model that behaviour model that you have family model that you have friends, I mean, I hope you have friends otherwise, like talk to the person sitting next to you and start a friendship model that you have hobbies model to you people that it’s absolutely fine to be engaged in things that are not just work because distraction management is nice productivity is even better, but having a life tops both of them. And you will be more productive and less distracted if you ever have to actually have a balanced life. And you will want that for your company as well. Because where do you think new ideas come from? If we all read the same 10 books about productivity, there will be no new ideas in this world, we need to get insights from outside. And yeah, we need you to make sure that that actually happens. Thank you very much. And I think we have time for questions.

Yeah, and you can find me on this, it’s easier to send me a LinkedIn message than an email because I have silenced email notifications, but not LinkedIn notifications. 

Mark Littlewood  
Sensible. Okay. Questions, rich, back to kick off. Thanks. 

Audience Member  
So those of us who have children really appreciate the points you made. I’m back to Slack for a minute, which I hate, and thinking about sort of setting up the standard or ethic that says whether you’re supposed to be on Slack every moment of every day and respond to every Slack message before it gets more than 60 seconds old, or what do we do? 

Valentina Thörner  
Okay, so it depends a little bit. You can have different rules for different channels. One of the things that if you want to avoid people being on Slack all the time, and to honour productivity and lower distraction, you will want to avoid that have an official company policy, it’s like, you have to answer and DM within six hours, within 24 hours, within three hours, whatever works for your company. And I recommend to experiment with these things. I would say you have to answer them, for example, within 24 hours running the risk that something might break that is actually like very, very important. And then you can maybe adjust it on position.

In my experience, even if you say you have to answer within 24 hours, it reduces the pressure on people to answer but no one is going to take 24 hours, like people will still answer within an hour or two. Together with this, make it very clear that it’s fine for people to close down Slack. I know like this is absolutely mind blowing. But you can close the app. Like you can completely close the app, then you don’t even know to manage any notifications. You just close it down. And you can tell people, hey, two hours a day, please close your Slack app and get real work done. Because Slack is like the number one interrupt if it’s not used particularly well. Teach people how to mute Slack notifications, you can be in all the channels, that doesn’t mean you read you need to read all the channels, it’s absolutely fine to mute the channels where that you then go on on Friday and just read the back scroll if you’re interested because if you add mentioned you get a notification anyway. But very often it comes down to what are the rules in terms of slack etiquette that you want to put in place for your company communicating these very clearly, especially for new joiners.

And in whenever somebody asked questions that is already documented somewhere, ask them, have you already searched the knowledge base? No, it’s a little bit passive aggressive. But the idea is that people search first and ask second. So by writing this down and saying this is what we expect from you, you’re all adults here you’d like you know how to search a knowledge base, do this first and then come to us like that. Remember, that reduces a little bit the the amount of clutter that is coming into and just like be upfront with your rules, and you can make those rules. This is not a democracy. This is a company. 

Mark Littlewood  
More questions? Daniel.

Audience Member  
Alright, so this one’s on the internal side, which it’s okay to say that is in your head, and there’s nothing I can do to help you I get that. One of the things I find most distracting will be something important going on in the background. I’ve got an email about a big negotiation tomorrow or someone I really really don’t want to lose his hand in there. Notice those kinds of things. And it means that I go into the next meeting. Now I’m thinking about that email. And I’m still doing in the next meeting and I find it very hard to move on from that thing. That’s a priority for a reason. Is there anything you can do? You can suggest for that level of internal distraction?

Valentina Thörner  
So usually we keep things and our brains are very bad at storing information. So like we put seven things in, and when the eighth information comes in, the first one like disappears. And that’s why when something really important comes up, we’re like constantly, like putting it into the into the last slot, because we need to be sure that we don’t forget about it, forget about it, to circumvent that is to write it down and put it somewhere where your brain knows you cannot forget about it. Because actually, what you want to solve is your brain, your brain being on on overdrive, because it wants to forget, what works for me, is writing it down and putting on the inside of the fridge.

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And I know that this is not the most logical place to put it. But it’s a place where I will never ignore a post it note and it’s a place where I am going to look for dinner when I’m starting to go on dinner with it. And then I move it to my computer. So when I go back, I add to my computer when the kids are in bed, it’s the first thing that I see. But like find a place where you know that you’re going to see it and then your brain can let go of it for the meeting. And you might have to experiment with different places, or whether you write it down on your computer, or whether you write it down in a special really nice notebook or something, experiment with it. Because that’s the other thing about like hacking, how you you set up your own system, there is a lot of experimenting going on. Just because something doesn’t work on the first time doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for you, you might have to tweak and you will probably will have to tweak it. Like it took me a long time to find the fridge hack, but it works pretty well. 

Mark Littlewood  
I thought that was like an anti snacking one as well, because like.. 

Valentina Thörner  
Anti snack things on fridges never work. 

Mark Littlewood  
But if you’ve got the really important thing you’ve got to do on inside the fridge.

Valentina Thörner  
Only after doing the thing that’s actually a good hack to

Audience Member  
How do you deal with kind of individuals who are perennial distractors within the organisation? Not naming any names.

Valentina Thörner  
Have you talked to them about the fact that they’re distracting you? Have you given them? Have you given them clear guidelines as to when they are allowed to talk to you and when they’re not allowed to talk to you? You might want to give them office hours? 

Mark Littlewood  
Let’s imagine they wouldn’t listen.

Valentina Thörner  
Alright, what are some things that he look, I know, you have a lot of question. And I love that you have a lot of insights for me. And like I really appreciate that you are so involved with this business. I also never say but because if you say but I also they only hear that you don’t want it to listen to him. And I also need to get a lot of things done today. So I have reserved this hour for just the two of us at the end of the week, can you write down everything that you’d like to discuss, and then we can sit down together and you get all my attention on this hour, because I don’t want to be just half as hearing to you now. So let’s move this to a time when we can both be present.

Audience Member  
Hi, I don’t have kids. I don’t think I want to after this presentation. But I have worked with female colleagues who have had kids, and they report into a male manager who doesn’t have kids. And I’ve had feedback from them that they find it difficult to communicate how distracting it is as mothers and probably fathers as well. But in my case, this is mothers to communicate that to a line manager that doesn’t really understand and can relate what would be your advice to that.

Valentina Thörner  

Do a bring your kids to work day, if you’re in an office, and put the play thingy into the office of the line manager. And tell the kids if they have questions, they can talk to Uncle John. Like it sounds like a joke, but it works.

Because the thing is, it’s very difficult to explain to someone how disruptive it is. So making them live through it, which in this in office is of course a lot easier. It’s kind of the most effective way to do it. The other thing is to really sit down to that person and tell them okay, I want you to work on this project. This is an experiment. I want you to work on this project for an hour. I’m going to ask you a random question every 10 minutes. This is just an experiment just to see how you do it. And then you ask them. So, are there more stars than then sand grains? Okay, now you go back and work on your talk, okay? Is orange the same as route? Because it’s just like read and reality. Colour theory, and then like it, it’s really interesting because after the hour you, you ask that person so how was that experience and like really set it up like a lab experience, don’t tell them that this is about child children interrupting you tell them that it’s you’re working on a new productivity, whatever always works.

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And then you can debrief them in the debrief, say like this is what happens if you have children around you, because they have all of these questions. And they’re basically rewiring their brains, and they need your input to via the brain. So answering these questions is actually not something that you should do on the side. But it’s actually part of their upbringing, part of their brain development. And as a mother, you have a vested interest and your kids having a developed brain. So to kind of create that empathy, because unless unless you have lived through this interruptions, it’s very, very difficult to empathise with this. And otherwise sit down with a line manager and say, hey, you need to be a little bit more patient, because reality.

Mark Littlewood  
Happens if that results in your line manager going, Oh, I just don’t think I’m gonna employ mothers.

Valentina Thörner  
This comes down, I think, to company culture. Because what if if somebody if somebody gets defensive or doesn’t want to work with mothers, because all of these disruptions, I totally understand that. I mean, those disruptions aren’t really, really helpful. And I do understand companies who say we don’t want to have mothers who, because they always leave at five, and we do our best to work between five and seven. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. On the flip side, it’s like explaining to people that one thing that you learn as a mother is prioritising the heck out of everything. Because you have very limited time, you have a lot of pressure, like it’s the best executives I know, are mothers, because they have learned to soul things like you have a bleeding child and the other one is running over there. And then another mother is coming over, it’s like, oh, but your child hit my child first. And so you’re de escalating while you’re also trying to calm down someone else, and fixing the playground. So all of these things like these are transferable skills. So making sure that the line manager also explains well, you felt very disrupted by all these interruptions. And she does too, but she’s still doing good work. And you didn’t do nothing in this hour where I was interrupting you all the time. That’s kind of a balancing act. 

Audience Member  
When a company does that. As a job sponsor, you say, give me their stock ticker? Shorter?

Mark Littlewood  
I don’t screw it up. And I goes back to the earlier talk about some people on boards with 80s mentalities. I think it’s an important conversation to have. I don’t don’t disagree at all. Who’s next? And then we’ve got Bob.

Audience Member  
It’s actually in line with what you’ve just said, Mark. On the opposite case, when you have a co worker, who is who has to stay, because another one with kids has to constantly leave earlier. And they cannot take a lot of time out away from work, and they can they take a lot of sick leave, and the other one has to do the job all the time, like more. So what would be the recommendation to the line managers or bosses how to deal with a situation.

Valentina Thörner  
That is actually not a personal problem? That’s a structural problem. So why is the company set up so that people have to stay longer in the first place? Why is work not set up in a way so that everybody because I mean, I have kids, but maybe you have a dog, and my neighbour needs to get home because their parents need help.

Valentina Thörner  
So it’s like having kids, it’s just the most visual thing that can interrupt you. And it’s one of the things where if I say I have to leave early, because I have kids, I feel horrible about that. Because I know I’m being judged for leaving my job. If I tell them, I’m staying late because my partner is picking up the kids I’m being judged to because I’m horrible mom staying at work while my kids are being sick. So it’s kind of the individual can’t do can’t do a lot of it. But if as a company and that’s where you as leaders and examples come in, if you leave every day on five, even though you don’t have kids, maybe that sets a really good example that you want work to get done. And when it’s done, it’s done. You don’t have to sit here and warm the seat, just to show that that you are a better worker than the others who don’t have the privilege to be able to stay longer. So and I think there’s something that we kind of need to shift in the work culture in general, do we really need 40 hours between nine and six with one hour? Can it not be a little bit more flexible, so that we can accommodate different realities and different attention spans.

Audience Member  
This is the note to all bosses.

Audience Member  
So I just want to build on that point, because one of the things we’ve been doing in the States with some companies is helping them redesign the work to fit the people. And so what you start to realise is that the employment situation has changed where before there was more people than there were work. But in the last 10 years, there’s actually more work than there are people and people, employees hire companies more than companies hire employees. And so part of this is to realise, if you really study how job descriptions are made, they’re made up. They’re literally wish lists. They’re the ideal candidate. And the reality is there’s trade offs. And so what you start to learn is how do we reshape the work to fit the people. And when you do that, all of a sudden, I don’t need nine to five, I need to get this done in this timeframe. And you start to realise you can make some redesigns, but most people don’t feel like they can ask to redesign the work. And that’s where I think the the agency to ask those things are what’s really, really important. Your thoughts on that?

Valentina Thörner  
I think every company, once a year should sit down, look at how we work and think about is does this still serve the purpose that we’re trying to solve here. And if not do something different, and at least once a year, you should try something new. So I worked at a hybrid company before the pandemic started. And we just had planned an empathy challenge, because some of the people were fully remote, but some of them went to the office in Tallinn. And we had planned an empathy challenge to send everybody home for a week just to see what breaks. If there was no office, the pandemic happened that week, I promise it wasn’t me. But it really worked. The company is now fully fully remote. But this was like for us it of course, it felt like a planned experiment, because we had planned for that. The same goes with the ‘Okay, this summer, we are going to try a four day work week and see if this works.’ ‘Or this summer, we are going to try that people can work whenever they want.’ So if you want to have a split day, like during the pandemic, I did split days, I would get up at five o’clock in the morning work until nine then the kids would wake up, then I would work another two hours between one o’clock and three o’clock when the kids were having their midday nap. And then I would work again from nine o’clock to 11 o’clock do not recommend at all. But it worked like it worked for a period of time. And it helped me to understand when it’s actually my most productive time of the day. So the time between two between one and three o’clock, I should not be working then like not my best work is being produced in that time slot because like my body just doesn’t want it. And like giving this flexibility for a company to experiment with different things so that people can experiment with different things like do this once a year, like that can do a lot of good for the productivity of your company.

Audience Member  
I think I was really impressed about the first point about having a one to one and committing to those one to one because lots of times this overtime, comes on the back of your manager promising to their manager or promising to client and you end up working harder. How would you suggest in terms of having those one to ones was that to weekly, monthly? And also would you suggest about team members having one to one with the manager of the manager because I skipped one on ones? 

Valentina Thörner  
Yeah. So if you are a remote company, one on ones should happen either once a week or every second week. And that depends a little bit on the seniority of the person. If you are in similar time zones, make them a call like talking in the same like together. If you are in different time zones, you can also do like chat one on ones if you’re interested in then let me know I have resources about that, one on ones. So everything that is work related and that is visible somewhere doesn’t need to be part of a one on ones. If you can just look at the Kanban board like you don’t need your employee to read out the Kanban board for you, you you’re very capable of doing that yourself. So what you would do to prepare for the one on one is just looking at the work that they’ve done and write down a couple of notes where you might not understand where this came from or where you feel they are like going into the wrong direction and then in the one on one, you address this, but the biggest part of one on ones is creating a relationship of trust, and having this half an hour, 45 minutes every week, where the employee knows if something comes up, I am not interrupting to ask a question. I’m not interrupting to sharing my situation, I’m talking to you, because this is my time, which means you can use that one on one to also work on different things.

So if, for example, I worked with a, with an employee on their ability to say no, because they were completely overwhelmed all the time with work, because they would never say, No. So during our one on ones, we’d together read the book, which probably what’s called the power of saying no, or something like this. And then every week, we would discuss one chapter, and we would look into Okay, so how can you implement what you’ve learned this week? And then next week, you tell me the three things you have said no, to this week? How did it feel? How did you handle it, etc. So you can use that time to actually kind of coach this person to be better. And for that, you need continuity, and you need more than once per month, one per month is probably not enough. And then for Skype one on ones, I recommend to have them once a year or twice per year, that depends really on the size on the company, because if like the Skype one on one puts you 50 More one on ones into your calendar, you cannot do this more than once a year. And you may not be able to do it with everyone, in which case, you can still say okay, I have I have I have open office hour, every Friday from three to five, you can book yourself in my calendar, if you want to speak to kind of flip the I am available, but I don’t have the time to actually accommodate for everyone. So whoever wants to speak can speak. They can be very insightful. The Skype one on ones.

Valentina Thörner  
Oh, one question you should ask in Your one on ones once every six months was Well, I think I said that yesterday as well. Are there any rumours I should be aware of?

Valentina Thörner  
Very important, then you don’t say anything until the other person speaks? Might take three, four minutes. Fascinating.

Mark Littlewood  
Mike, final question, either.

Audience Member  
Great talk, by the way. Thank you. So as an intro, moms get stuff done in time. And that’s amazing. So a different question. A male colleague, he is in his 40s about to get his first child, the whole company is remote. I’m thinking about getting an office only for him next to his house and move him there. Yeah. How do you do it politely and without tensions?

Valentina Thörner  
Hmm, I would actually I would tell him, Look, we have this policy, that if you have children in your life, you might need a space that isn’t disrupted by children. So we are happy to offer you this option of having a co working or an office close on and have him decide whether this is something he wants or not. Because very often at the beginning, they say, I said that’s not a big deal. Like don’t worry, I can work while they sleep. Ah, yeah, good luck. Because then who does the household. So like and tell him this is an open offer, you don’t need to take it now. If you want to take it. Eight months from now when your child starts to move around, like do with them. And if he doesn’t want to I moved to a standing desk when my kids started walking so that they couldn’t reach the keyboard. Works too. Okay.

Mark Littlewood  
Empress Valentina. Thank you. 

Valentina Thörner  
Thank you very much.


Valentina Thörner

Head of Remote, Klaus

Valentina is a single mum with young children. In her career she’s worked in Europe and South America, founded startups and worked in large tech companies including Yahoo and Automattic in product, strategy, customer success and leading remote work.

Today, she splits her time between her role as Head of Remote at Klaus and training remote (and hybrid) people managers to discover the leadership style that works for them and help design remote and hybrid policies to make those leaders thrive.


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