Laïla von Alvensleben: Why we'll be seeing more companies go remote

Laila is a designer at, a digital product design team all over the world. We spoke with Laila about remote work, where she sees the industry heading, and her awesome & growing ‘remote workshops’ project.

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So let’s jump straight in. Can you tell us a bit more about Hanno and exactly what you do there?

Sure. Hanno is a digital product team and we are really well known for being a remote design team. We work with all sorts of companies. We work with startups, larger enterprises, and non-profit organizations. Basically what we do is we try to help them make whatever kind of technology they have or even their brand, we try to make it relatable and accessible to any kind of audience they’re trying to reach.

Because we’re a digital product design team, we’re basically building and designing a lot of websites, apps and other kinds of digital platforms, and we help them improve the user experience of these products.

That’s great. And how long have you been at Hanno yourself?

I’ve been there for two years now. My main role at Hanno is helping out with user research and usability testing, so basically talking to people about what we’re doing for our clients and trying to find out what they really need so that we can build a better product for them. I’m also doing these online workshops lately, where I either teach our clients how to become better at UX design so that they can do it themselves within their own design team, or I help other people become better at working remotely.

We’ll come on to the remote workshops in a bit but just before I do, do you work remotely yourself with Hanno?

Yeah, we all work remotely so we don’t have an office at all. I’m usually based in London, although I will travel sometimes and work from somewhere else and the rest of the team is spread around Europe and Southeast Asia.

And how do you find working remotely with the whole team being distributed?

Yeah, it works really well. I think Hanno has come up with a really good structure and process and especially a team culture that allows us to work remotely this way. I’ve been working for them for two years as I’ve mentioned but Hanno has been doing this for five years. So I think over that amount of time, they’ve become really good at improving the way they work remotely.

So where do you see the future of remote work heading and Hanno as well?

In general, it’s safe to assume that remote work is really going to continue rising and there are a lot of research and statistics to prove that. One of them from 2015 that I often bring up is that 68% of millennials and college graduates basically, in the US, say that they want to work remotely in the future. This number, I’m pretty sure, is going to continue to rise.

I think with Hanno, we’re definitely not going to revert to a different kind of model where we’ll suddenly work in an office but I think we’ve realized over time that it’s important for us to touch base and meet face-to-face. So there’s probably going to be a bit more of that. But we’re also hoping to maybe scale our network and have more collaborators onboard to help us in some projects.

You’ve touched earlier on your remote workshops. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more about them and the success you’ve had?

I came up with this idea last year, about this time of the year. Basically, a lot of people have been contacting us, asking us for advice about how to work remotely and we tended to guide them towards our blog posts about remote work. But knowing from experience that usually people learn better by doing something rather than just by reading it, I thought that providing some kind of workshop would help people to actually get their hands dirty and actually have that experience.

So we ran three pilot workshops last summer, which were fairly successful I’d say. We had about eighteen people overall from all kinds of backgrounds and spread all over the world — from Australia, the US, and Europe — and the feedback was really good. It was good for us to practice with these people, to continue improving the workshops. Since then, we’ve had over 120 people signing up on the waiting list to take this workshop.

We’ve launched it online last month officially so we’re hoping that this year, I’ll be able to deliver these workshops consistently and get better feedback and get more people to work remotely and feel confident about it.

So you plan to make your remote workshops a stable offering from Hanno that you can host regularly?

It’s definitely a new service and it’s something that we’re excited to do. We might start out slow in the beginning just to make sure that we understand how to get better and better at it. Potentially, we could be running a workshop every week.

That would be awesome and I guess it allows you to reach people from all over the globe at the same time as well. Have you had a good response from around the world with your workshops?

Yeah, we’ve had people signing up from anywhere — from Southeast Asia, to the US, to South America. One of the pilot workshops we’ve run actually was at a time zone that was really inconvenient for this lady in Australia but she still joined. She stayed up till like, three in the morning to join the workshop and she had so much energy and was so enthusiastic about it. That just gave me so much happiness, just to see that somebody could attend a workshop so late.

I think people are still signing up from everywhere. It would be interesting for us to actually not only get individuals joining the workshop, but an entire team from a company.

Have you got an idea of the direction you want to take your workshops in?

Yeah, definitely. I think at the moment, we’re kind of mixing beginners with people who’ve already had the experience with remote work. It’s still interesting for both of them even though it’s a mixed workshop because they can learn from each other. I think the main direction I’m taking is basically, focusing a lot in the beginning on team culture and how that is really important to have a successful remote team basically, because if you have a lack of trust in each other, that’s not going to be helpful at all.

The workshop focuses in the beginning on building the right remote team culture, and then focuses on the tools and processes to do that. I think a lot of people, when they think about remote work, they’re just thinking about the tools. What I tell people in the workshops is that the tools will be constantly changing. There will always be a new tool to do something and you can just adapt and learn the new tool fairly easily. But when it comes to human relationships and keeping that team together through their values and their beliefs and everything, that’s much more difficult to do when you’re remote.

I also try to make people focus on the kind of individual habits and routines that they can adopt when they work remotely. People kind of tend to not think about their work environment and what they need in their physical space — I mean, you are remote but you are in a physical space at the same time. So it’s talking also about things like ergonomics and other things like that. Just basic things and how to deal with distractions much better. How to manage all these online communication that can become really overwhelming when you’re very new to remote work.

Eventually, I think we would like to then be able to help also people who have been working remotely for years and just have to improve their process. I’m sure there’s a lot that we can learn from them and that Hanno can teach them as well.

So do you base the workshops around your own experiences that you’ve picked up from working in a remote team?

Yeah, definitely. I think that when I joined Hanno, everything was so overwhelming for me even though they had an onboarding process that I can follow. I think after two years of observing Hanno and reading things about the remote work community and writing blog posts myself, I feel like there’s a lot that I can share.

There’s a lot I take for granted as well and there’s a lot of things that come naturally to me, but when I say these things in the workshop, people actually really are surprised. They take these things as little pearls of wisdom, which for me have just become embedded in my everyday life.

So it’s definitely coming from a place where I want to share how I work and how I take advantage of this lifestyle and work style.

Yeah, it’s very easy to take this lifestyle for granted, isn’t it? You have to sort of try to remember the freedom that it allows but you do have to remind yourself of that constantly, don’t you?

Yeah, definitely. I think it’s important to remind myself as well and to show gratitude for having this kind of lifestyle. As a team, it’s easy to say, “Oh I’m going to Paris next week,” or whatever and it just seems so natural. Then it’s interesting to see my friends’ reactions when I tell them, “I’m just going to work from Morocco in a couple of months.” They’re just super surprised that I can actually do that.

I think doing the workshops is also a really good way to remind myself of what a special position I find myself in — not just myself but the whole team. We have to remind ourselves constantly that we’re lucky.

So have you had any challenges with the workshops?

I mean, it’s been challenging just to put them together. I had this idea a year ago. It took me six months to actually set up the first pilot workshop. I think one of the challenges came from me working on this mainly on my own. Of course, I had my team’s support and people were helping me when they could but we also have client projects on the side and Hanno is mainly building websites and apps and doing strategies for other clients.

It was difficult to juggle creating the content and doing my usual client work at the same time. It’s been difficult specifically to come up with exercises that give people a sense of what it’s like to work remotely. It’s fine to provide theory and guide people through different ideas and different tools but then you actually have to make them use it.

Often in these workshops you’ll have people who don’t know each other at all — actually, that’s 100% the case. People just don’t know each other. So you have to get people who don’t know each other online to together build a team, do some exercises, and make them get a sense of what it’s like to work synchronously and what it’s like to work asynchronously. Just coming up with those exercises, which might just last twenty minutes or thirty minutes, is really hard because obviously, that doesn’t represent the reality of remote work. It’s just like a little taste.

When I was on boarding in Hanno, I had eight hours a day every day to learn that. Translating that into a workshop because your time is limited is really challenging.

Now coming back more to yourself, where’s your absolute favorite place to work from?

I’m not sure I have a favorite place. In terms of places like in London, I usually work from home. I find that it’s really easy. It’s not because I’m lazy or anything, it’s just because I find co-working spaces a bit overrated sometimes. You think you’re going to go there and meet people and talk to people and actually, everybody is there with their earphones. They’re in their own bubbles and you don’t want to tap them in the shoulder and say, “Hey, want to have a chat or something?”

So I find co-working spaces either too loud or too disturbing or they don’t really have a sense of community that I’m looking for — with rare exceptions. I have been to some good ones but I find working from home quite easy and convenient. I basically have control over the whole atmosphere at home, what music I want to listen to. I can cook from home and I can get other boring things done like do my laundry if I have to. But it can get quite lonely.

In terms of places I’ve been to elsewhere, I found Singapore a really cool city to work from. Just things like getting the local transport and getting there easily without too many problems. The language — I could use English everywhere — and having really good co-working spaces, which were really comfortable and had a good sense of community. And you have amazing food in Singapore. And great weather. So I think Singapore was a pretty cool place to work from.

I’ve been to Singapore just for three days myself. It’s expensive but it’s a great place to work from.

I didn’t mention that actually. I’ve been to maybe cheaper places as well. For example, I’ve been in Brazil but it’s just like figuring out the transport system in Rio and all that was much more complicated. I think if you go maybe to smaller towns and you have a good Internet connection, I think that’s super important. Singapore had all that, except the prices weren’t so cool.

So my final question to you for our eager listeners out there is, what’s the biggest tip that you can give someone that wants to get into the world of remote work?

Wow. So many tips to give. I guess if I just have to give one tip, it would be I guess to just throw yourself in it. Just do it. Just give it a go. It’s much easier than what people think it is and any challenges that you’ll face, you’ll solve them as you go along. I think people put themselves — myself included — I’ve put myself so many barriers to doing things and you always say, “Oh but this is going to be difficult. That’s going to be tricky. How am I going to find a place to stay?” Just let go of things that you think are just super important for your life and your work. I think with the technology today, you can just easily get yourself sorted and give it a go.

Great. That’s awesome. Thanks. I wasn’t sure if there’s anything else you wanted to add?

No, not really except that I think there’s always things that you can learn from remote work. I think after having done it for two years, I also see a lot of aspects about it that I didn’t see in the beginning. So for anyone out there who’s been doing it for a while, there’s so many different ways of doing remote work and it’s not necessarily about traveling and working remotely. I know so many people who work remotely just because they want to avoid commuting to the center of town and they don’t necessarily like traveling. So I think that’s something to keep in mind. For anybody who connects remote work with traveling, that’s not what it’s about necessarily. But it’s a great thing — it’s like a plus. It’s a bonus for sure. Having places like Surf Office as well where you can get different experiences is just absolutely great.

Great. Thanks, Laila. It was great to have you on the show for our first ever podcast. I hope to speak to you again sometime.

Yeah. Thanks a lot for having me. I’m looking forward to hearing it and hearing more podcasts.

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