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From In-Person to Online: What I've Learned after 25 years in Business Ops to Head of Remote

Business operations can change when going from in-person to remote. Here's what our VP of Operations has learned over the last 25 years.

8 mins read time
Leesa Burrows
Leesa Burrows

Sep 14, 2022

What's the first thing you do when you're getting ready to strum a guitar? Tune it, of course. It's only when each string is carefully and perfectly tuned that the whole sound comes together in perfect harmony. Remote workers are much the same. And I should know. In addition to being a devoted rocker 🤘, I'm also VP of Operations here at FPS.

leesa playing guitar

I've been working in business ops for a quarter of a century (holy *&#%), but it's only recently that I've transitioned to a fully distributed, fully remote team. And sure, there have been moments of culture shock, but mostly in the how-did-I-get-this-lucky and how-did-I-never-know-how-kickass-remote-work-can-be ways. So what have I learned in my transformation from in-person ops leader to Remote Ops Maven (title pending)?

Business Ops vs. Remote Ops: What's the Same?

Over the last 25 years, I've worked mostly in a traditional office setting. So yeah, going fully remote and joining the #WFA crowd was an adjustment. But there are a few truths that remain, whether you're leading employees in the workplace or in the digital space:

Get in Tune with Your Team

Just like the guitar strings I mentioned above, you can't expect the song to sound right if the individual strings are all out of tune. You have to tune up regularly, and that means checking in with each employee to ensure their needs are being met. That can be challenging in a remote setting, but the need is equally important no matter where employees are doing their work.

Build Trust

Those team tune-ups will help create a bond between you and your employees, and that bond grows trust and mutual respect. The natural outcome of this is better communication and collaboration, which is crucial in any work setting. In a remote environment that hinges on successful async communication, this is even more critical.

Make It Personal

It's a pretty simple rule: People over policies. Sure, I know better than anyone that policies are integral to successful business operations, but I've also been around the block enough to know that people are what count. And people can make or break the operations of any business. That's why building personal relationships with employees is a must. Here's how I do it:

  • Leading with honesty, authenticity, and empathy
  • Working continuously on my own personal growth
  • Empowering the people around me
  • Sticking to my word
  • Keeping employees involved and informed

Business Ops vs. Remote Ops: What's Different?

The core values I've had since I started my career remain unchanged now that I'm working for a remote company. But of course, there are differences, and some have required a more significant grace period than others. As I've adapted, I've become aware of a few challenges I hadn't quite expected.

Reliance on Technology

It's not surprising that a remote company is more dependent on technology than an in-office company. However, I didn't know that not only would I need to learn various new technologies to perform my job, but I would also need to be prepared to help employees do the same. Training and troubleshooting technical issues weren't a part of my previous skillset, but it's a challenge I've since embraced.

Digital Fatigue

The shift to managing operations remotely has brought about the challenge of digital fatigue. I am now, more than ever, dependent on technology to successfully manage, work, collaborate, and communicate with everyone across various online platforms. Work-life balance can become problematic when I'm able to log in at any time (or not log off until late in the night).

Plus, the team is susceptible to bottlenecks and barriers that come with technological reliance — so if their resources are not well-oiled and moving efficiently, we're in for some trouble. And that's especially exhausting because I can't just get up from my desk to chat with a coworker or walk to the break room.

However, in spite of being more dependent on technology and more susceptible to fatigue, I can see that the way remote teams utilize communication tools and resources improves operations across the board. They offer the flexibility and collaboration needed in a remote work environment.

The Changing Landscape of Remote Operations

Remember when I said that my general rule is "people over policies"? That's...not so common in the business ops world. We loooove our policies, procedures, and processes. And sometimes, especially in a traditional office environment, that works "well enough."

But well enough isn't, well, good enough for me. I've found that in a remote team, putting people first is preferred because otherwise, things fall apart. But it's also one of the biggest challenges since the people involved are never in the same physical place at the same time.

What I love about FPS is that we're leading the charge in remote work ops. I've been encouraged to create a work environment that allows me the flexibility to build or improve the business infrastructure while also connecting and leaning on the team’s experience and expertise to support those efforts. I think that people have an innate desire to have their voice be heard and to understand how decisions, processes, etc., will impact them. When you involve them in those decisions, this need is met.

While this is a needed change regardless of work setting, I think that it has been further promoted by the “Great Resignation” and the pandemic. Moving to remote work during the pandemic allowed more work opportunities for people, which in turn meant that people could be more selective in who they chose to work with. Human nature is going to guide you in the direction of wanting to work in a place where you feel heard and valued.

What I've Learned During the Shift from In-Person to Online Ops

I consider myself a lifelong learner, and the opportunities I've had to explore and grow as a human and as a professional during my time with FPS have been absolutely invaluable. I've learned plenty of lessons along the way, including a few surprises:

Remote Relationships Are Real

Remember when people used to be embarrassed to say they'd met their romantic partner online? Now it's almost weirder if you met IRL. The same shift is happening for colleague relationships, especially on remote teams. The bonds created between remote workers are authentic and valuable.

And while it can be challenging, it's possible to create an unshakeable sense of community between people who've "never met." To build that remote culture and foster those relationships, you have to take a few key steps:

  • Be intentional in creating opportunities for collaboration.
  • Lean into remote technologies like Slack or Zoom to work on interpersonal communication.
  • Promote face-to-face communication when possible.
  • Facilitate (and participate in) culture-building events like book clubs, virtual dates, trivia, etc.

Asynchronous Communication Is Vital

In an office setting, you might use async communication when a manager is out on vacation or someone is busy in meetings all day, but it's typically not the go-to communication style. On a remote team, however, closing the communication gap is absolutely critical. Async communication protects employees' time and helps prevent digital fatigue. I've seen numerous benefits during my time at FPS, including:

  • More control over time to focus on deep work without interruptions
  • Better, more productive conversations I can fully invest in when it works for me
  • Creates a paper trail for every conversation for better accountability
  • Allows me to show respect to team members in different time zones or working hours

Dear Leesa: My Advice on Navigating Remote Operations

Let's say I had an advice column (a fabulous idea for any editors who might be reading), and ops managers could write in seeking my best tips on transitioning to remote ops. Here's what I would tell them:

  • Communicate often! Communication is especially important for remote companies. Breakdowns here often lead to missed actions/deadlines, disengagement, frustrated team members, unhappy clients, and unclear expectations.
  • Document all new and existing announcements and important communications on easily accessible technical platforms (with desktop and app options).
  • Create policies for remote work, sync, and async communications — and be prepared to be flexible.
  • Use collaborative software, such as Google Drive, Slack, ClickUp, GatherContent, etc.
  • Use one centralized project management tool to keep everything organized, standardized, and on track. (We also use the tool to share resource information such as available technology, “Roadmaps” — policies/procedures, quick reference guides, etc.)
  • Always give kudos. People at all levels of an organization need to feel appreciated and valued. Sharing and encouraging kudos, recognition, and praise are all fantastic ways to build morale.
  • Find or make ways to have some fun between work hours. Taking the time to do this helps unite cross-cultural employees scattered around the globe and builds camaraderie. Plus, who doesn’t want to have fun at work?

In-Person Business Ops vs. Remote Business Ops: What's the Big Diff?

Remote ops isn't about what happens inside a space — it's about what happens between the people. Its success is built not on policies but on relationships. And now that I know the ins and outs of remote ops, I can tell you I'm never going back!

The flexibility, autonomy, and freedom I have now is incomparable to my previous life as an in-office manager. But more than that, the relationships I've established and the community I'm building with my team is one of the most fulfilling experiences of my professional life.

Want to find the same kind of community that values flexibility and freedom (and gives you the best remote colleagues out there)? Check out the job listings at FPS and see if there's one that fits you!

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Leesa Burrows

Leesa Burrows is the Head of Remote Operations at FPS. Leesa has 25+ years of experience in program management, leadership development, organizational design, strategic planning, process improvement, consultation, and training. Aside from her professional work, Leesa is most passionate about her family, friends, guitars/music, water and outdoor adventures, her dogs, social justice, being authentic, and laughing hard.

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