Podcast: Meredith Monday Schwartz on managing a flexible workforce

Plenty of people — men, women, parents, and others — would like to work flexibly. Being able to control which hours you work makes it possible to work many more hours without experiencing work/life conflict. Being able to work from home sweetens the deal even more by removing the commute from the equation. While you’ll still work a whole day (or even more!) you can do personal things during your breaks. Like get a workout in. Or nurse a baby.

Some work cannot be done flexibly and remotely. But much can, and yet much work is not done that way. One major reason is that it seems very difficult to manage remote and flexible workers. If you, as a supervisor, are trying to meet your numbers, introducing flexibility can seem like introducing chaos.

But that doesn’t have to be the case! Today, Sarah and I are delighted to welcome Meredith Monday Schwartz to the podcast. Some readers of this blog (and Sarah’s) probably know Schwartz from her Penelope Loves Lists days. She is also the CEO of Here Comes the Guide, a wedding planning company. Her staff of 23 all work virtually. She had a lot of helpful tips on making this work.

Ease in. Here Comes The Guide went through a 4-year process of transitioning from an in-office company to a virtual company. People began working from home one day a week, then two. They actually spent an entire year with everyone working in the office one day a week so that they could build in systems for supporting remote work.

Preserve face-to-face interactions. Here Comes The Guide has a really cool software program (much like Second Life!) that allows people to see their colleagues’ avatars. They can see who is at their desks and pop over for an instant virtual chat. They get a birds-eye view of the office so they feel like they’re actually there. They also meet twice a year for retreats where they hang out and have fun and build friendships.

Put some guidelines on flexibility. Schwartz asks her employees to pick a certain 8-hour schedule that they generally plan to work. If you want to work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., great, that’s your choice. But with some core hours set, make sure your colleagues can know when you’ll usually be there. If you have a kid event and need to make up time at night, that’s OK — but the goal should be that there is work time and not work time, and people aren’t checking email all night just to see what people sent.

Hire well. Schwartz hires very very carefully. She wants people who are motivated self-starters, and who don’t need to be monitored. She wants people who look out for the team more than themselves. Perhaps it is not surprising that many of her employees are moms! It’s partly for the schedule, partly for the business (weddings!) and partly because that’s who often works well under these conditions.

Enjoy the upsides. Here Comes The Guide has almost zero turnover. Because almost any life event can be dealt with! Some of Schwartz’s employees have military spouses, and they can keep working wherever their spouses are stationed. Given how hard it is to hire people, this is a major benefit for anyone in management to consider!

If you work for a company remotely or flexibly, or your employees do, how do you make it work? Please share any tips or strategies, or things that DIDN’T work — because those realizations are helpful too.

14 thoughts on “Podcast: Meredith Monday Schwartz on managing a flexible workforce

  1. I loved this interview! I was so interested & surprised to hear about the scheduling & virtual office. So cool. I am an academic & occasionally work from home & think those strategies could be helpful for me.

    1. @Susan – thanks! It was cool to hear how Here Comes The Guide makes virtual work work. I’m still fascinated by the idea of seeing your colleague’s avatar walk into the virtual office, and then popping over for a quick video hello.

  2. The listener who asked about whether she should go to law school would really do well to speak to some actual practicing attorneys about the decision. The discussion on today’s podcast seemed to imply that all attorneys graduate with high earning potential, so debt and opportunity cost isn’t a huge deal. This isn’t the case at all – job searching out of law school can be a challenge and an individual needs to be a top performer at a respected school to get a high paying job. In addition, most high paying jobs are at large law firms where junior associates tend to have very little control over their time and schedule. She needs to educate herself about what her working schedule might look like during her first decade of practice and make sure that works for herself and her family. Many junior associates don’t have children, so she’ll have an additional consideration while also learning how to practice law and balance client/partner demands.

    1. @Deckled Edges – definitely she should talk to practicing attorneys. Since she’s a paralegal, she probably relatively familiar with what her colleagues do, but it is true that it’s good to get a sense of the job market. She’d also need to know exactly what kind of law she’d most like to practice and what salaries and lifestyles would look like. But if it’s what she really wants to do, she should go for it. She’s spent the past 12 years primarily caring for kids and it may be time to enter a different phase of life.

  3. My dad went back to law school when I was in high school – in the late 90s. He was 40 and had 6 kids ranging from 2-16 at the time. My mom pretty much ran everything at the house, which she also did before he returned to school because he was working 2 jobs. I don’t think he every regretted the decision and didn’t have trouble being an “older lawyer”.

  4. I loved this episode because I have long followed Penelope Loves Lists. Meredith and I are both upholders and enneagram 1s too 🙂

    It was fascinating to hear of the virtual office rules. At first I thought it might be inhibiting but then there’s the upside – no emails at night 🙂

    1. @Marcia – I somewhat chafed against the idea too. But I’ve seen other virtual companies suffer from employee burnout because people feel the need to be reachable 24/7. To me, the whole genius of email is that it is asynchronous communication. I send it when it works for me, you read it when it works for you. But enough people feel compelled to respond to their managers/colleagues/clients instantly that they experience trouble with it. So as a manager you have to figure out how to manage that compulsion.

  5. My husband is an attorney that is somewhat involved in hiring decisions. He works for a smaller firm. But he says they would focus more on time out of law school (new grad vs working for 5 years) than physical age. If it’s what she wants to do, go for it. But also be aware (as I’m sure she is with her background in the field) there is no such thing as a family friendly lawyer job. The closest it comes is having slightly flexible hours and the ability to keep billing at home once the kids are in bed. Government work is popular with female lawyers because it is more family friendly but also pays significantly less.

  6. I liked this episode though I don’t think I would like working 100 percent remotely! It would definitely be nice for people in some situations like the military families mentioned.

    I will say I disagreed with a lot of the Q and A section. I’m not a lawyer but my husband and many friends are and I can’t emphasize enough how much the field has changed since the recession. It did use to be true that most lawyers could get good jobs but that is really not the case any more. It is extremely important to go to a very highly ranked law school if you want to practice in a competitive law field. Or if you want or if those jobs that will allow you to pay off debt in a year – you need to go to a good school AND do well. I know several people who have had to do the equivalent of lawyer temp work because they could not get real jobs with benefits etc straight out of school. You also have to be willing to relocate to where some jobs are. I thought lawyers could practice wherever but it turns out many fields exist primarily in major cities – and really just a handful of cities in some cases like my husbands job. Unless this person is in NYC or maybe SF and Cambridge/Boston very few places have both really good schools and most kinds of jobs. So This person should be super honest with themselves about the opportunities that will be available if They don’t want to move at least once.

    If this person just wants more independence but likes the firm they are at they should look into seeing if the firm will make some sort of agreement to hire them later to keep that door open.

  7. Suggestion for future podcast topic: Could you do one on relocation? I’m currently in the middle of a job (& location) move with my husband and 2.5 yo daughter. I went back and listened to your child care episode which was super helpful, but I think there are a lot of other sub topics under relocation. I’m just especially interested in how to minimize the impact to my daughter, manage my time when it’s pulled between 2 jobs, moving tasks, and home responsibilities, and just generally keep a lid on the crazy until it’s over.

    1. @Byrd- it is a fascinating topic, though I’m not sure I have much expertise in this. We moved 7 years ago, but not particularly because we needed to. We were in complete control of the timing. None of the kids were in school yet (only two were born). Moving in general is a giant pain. Even packing up my kitchen so it could be renovated consumed far more time and energy than I care to relive any time soon. Keeping a lid on the crazy is an apt description.

  8. Hi, very good episode, and I think you gave a very practical advice in the Q&A section.

    I would like to know which self-improvement book was Meredith referring to that she was reading right now. I got her love of the week book, castle of water, but could not understand the other two books that she mentioned.

    1. @Kamala – Glad you liked it! I think you’re referring to You Are A Badass, by Jen Sincero. (And then the follow up, You Are A Badass At Making Money). Not entirely my cup of tea, but I think Meredith really liked them, and I’m all for people finding self-help books that work for them!

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