Tammy Bjelland holds a BA and MA from the University of Virginia and is a certified Master Trainer by the Association for Talent Development. She began her professional career in academia before moving into ed-tech, where she got her first remote role in 2011. Since then, Tammy has continued to help people achieve location-independent growth as the owner of a learning experience design firm specializing in online courses, the author of How to Learn Online, and now as the founder of Workplaceless, which has just launched a Remote Work Certification Program to help people work remotely.
Shantel: Hi, Tammy. Welcome to the show.
Tammy: Hi, Shantel. Thanks for having me.
Shantel: Of course. We're so excited to learn more about your business and how you got started. And I suppose, to kick things off, can you tell our listeners a little bit more about your journey? And I know that's such a loaded question, so we want to make it bite size, like how you came to form your company, Workplaceless.
Tammy: To start, way, way back... My background is actually in academia, so I was preparing to be a Spanish professor. And then I realized that I didn't really want to do that for my whole life. And I had also gotten a taste of working in an ed-tech company. So that was my very first remote role, in 2011. And I was working for a company that was developing software for language. And it was directed towards students in the middle and high school ages. And I loved that work. I loved doing the curriculum design and the development. And I loved working remotely. And I loved my team. And that was very first taste of remote work. And a very very long time after that, here I am now. And I started Workplaceless about a year ago. And I wanted to create learning opportunities for people who work remotely, specifically. So my journey in this particular point really started back when I realized that I didn't want to be a professor. I wanted to work in the learning and development space, but just not as a professor. And then I ended really loving remote work and wanting to create a business out of it.
Shantel: That's amazing. So when you speak to education for people who want to work remote, are they learning modules of how to be efficient and manage your time? Or can you kind of elaborate a little bit of what that curriculum looks like?
Tammy: Yeah. So currently, we're ... well, there's one product, there's one course that is launching tomorrow, actually. So this is a very timely interview.
| CERTIFIED REMOTE |
Tammy: Thanks. It's been a little bit hectic. So that program is a remote-work certification program, and it covers seven core modules that prepare people who are new to remote or who want to work remotely, prepares them for understanding what the difference is between working in a co-located environment versus working remotely. So we cover the basics and we cover the differences. And then they test their knowledge with assessments. And then they apply their knowledge with assignments. And so that course goes live tomorrow, which is really, really exciting. And then the second program that we have currently in development is a leadership program that prepares managers who have not led remote teams before or perhaps brand new manager who are in startups or companies that are completely distributed to manage their remote team effectively.
Shantel: Wow, that's amazing. And the certification that is launching tomorrow ... and we'll be sure to hyperlink on the show notes. Let's say someone's currently working for a business. Would they take the certification on their own and then present that to perhaps their manager? Or would managers and companies reach out to you and want their employees, before they go remote, to get that certification?
Tammy: So interestingly, it's happening in all sorts of ways. So those two situations apply already to people who are signed up for the program. So we have organizations that want to use the certification as a sort of filter for their application process, so to give priority to individuals who have the certification in the case that they don't have previous remote work experience. So I'm not sure how familiar you are with current job descriptions and such for remote companies, but a lot of them either require previous remote work experience or prioritize previous work experience in a remote environment. And so this helps organizations identify talent that could be potentially really beneficial for their team but that don't necessarily have that experience. So that's one way that organizations will be using it. And then individuals have also signed up, in order to set themselves apart from people, from other applicants. I have people who have signed up who are already employed by a remote organization, or at least they are part of a team that is distributed. And it's to, again, set themselves apart for potential future roles and to just make sure that they're staying on the cutting edge of the remote work field. And then I also have organizations that want to use the course for an onboarding program. So when they have new hires, it would potentially be part of that onboarding process, to make sure that new hires are fully up to speed on what the organization does and how they do it.
Shantel: That's so interesting. We have a team of 20. And I started off working remote, and not in an office space or bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop, and then made the decision about three years ago to get an office space. And what's kind of fascinating is our work, social media marketing, can be done remote, for the most part, with the exception of client meetings. But we haven't formalized any training around best practices. When you do work from home, because we do have that flex, you can come and go. We don't have any training around expectations around that or how to do that effectively. So I think it's really interesting that companies are doing that. And as a fairly new company, I just didn't know that.
Tammy: It is a fairly new field. Telework has been around for a long time, and working remotely has been around for a long time. A traditional sales role is almost always remote, because you're on the road. But it's true that the best practices are not necessarily ... Well, first of all, they're not necessarily universally agreed upon. There's a lot of things that might work for one type of organization that don't work for another. But there are some universal best practices that really just encompass best practices and how to be a productive and efficient worker. It's just you don't have those visual cues around you in a workplace. So it's interesting that not a lot of companies have been doing this. And so it's really exciting. It's an exciting time to be a part of this and to help individuals achieve flexibility, if that's what they want. And that's what's really exciting about what I do.
Shantel: And so I know you mentioned this idea was sparked because you enjoyed working remote. Did you also see that there was a void in the marketplace for this type of training and education?
| GAP IN RESOURCES |
Tammy: Oh, yeah. Totally. I loved working remote, and actually coming from academia I think that that trains you really well for working remotely, because you're doing a lot of work by yourself and you're kind of isolated. So in a way I was really primed to succeed in a remote environment. But when I've worked on teams, I've noticed that that's not necessarily the case for everyone. Not everyone really takes a shine to it immediately. And for some people, it can be really, really challenging to be productive and to also keep from being isolated when they work from home, or if they choose to work from a coffee shop or wherever. So it was interesting to me, number one, that there was definitely a gap in knowledge and skills. And there is definitely a gap in resources. And that was true in all the companies that I've worked for, whether I was an employee or whether I worked with them in a contractor relationship. But I just noticed that there was a complete lack of professional development resources for people. And so in my last position, I really wanted additional leadership roles and I wanted additional opportunities besides what I was doing in that particular role. And there really weren't any opportunities for me, and there weren't any resources that I could turn to to help me kind of forge out a path that would help me grow in the way that I wanted to grow. And that was really what sparked, what actually got me going with this, because I've been thinking about a certification program for a really long time, like for a couple of years, but I only just pulled the trigger, so to speak, within the last year, because it was really frustrating to not have those resources. And from what I can tell and the conversations that I've had with other people, it's a pretty common issue for people who work remotely.
Shantel: Well, congratulations. You're one year in. I'm sure it's been fun and challenging and exciting and all the emotions bundled into one. Looking back, reflecting on this past year, what is something huge that you've learned or didn't know that you were going to ... didn't anticipate happening? Does anything come to mind?
| SHARE YOUR VISION |
Tammy: Oh my gosh. The whole thing. So you start something with this idea that you're going to solve a problem for people. And you sort of have an idea of how that's going to become a reality. And then when you start talking to people, it changes shape so many times. And I think that's what's so interesting about the entrepreneurial journey is ... and the biggest lesson that I've learned in all of my entrepreneurial experiences is that the more you talk to people and the more you share what your ideas are, even if you haven't made any steps towards making them a reality, the more likely you are to actually achieve them. And then also just it's amazing, the different shapes that those ideas take. And so this past year, I had no idea who I was going to meet. I didn't even really know that there was this whole world of remote work advocacy. I had been working remotely for a lot of my professional life, but I didn't even know that there were these advocacy groups and things like that. And so that was one of the first things that I discovered. And I was like, "Oh, this is a whole new world out there." And then, from there I met a bunch of people. And as I kept sharing my ideas, I got validation that this was something that was needed, and people were talking about needing educational programs. And then it sort of snowballed from there. And I'm so happy that it did. I don't know. That's not a very concrete answer to what you were asking. But I'm just amazed by how different your vision can become, once you actually start sharing it with people.
Shantel: No, I think that's a great point. Did you also find that maybe you were surprised by some friends and family? When you sharing this idea, were there any naysayers in the group or anyone that kind of said, "Oh, no. That's not going to work" or they were afraid for you of taking this big leap of starting a company?
Tammy: So this technically isn't my first company. And so yes, there's been some doubt. But I wouldn't say it's from naysayers. I would say it's hard to really imagine, to use the word again, the title of your podcast. But it's a little bit hard to imagine exactly what somebody else is picturing if you're not immersed in that world. And so I think the thing that I've learned the most is that ... and this is advice that I've heard from other people, but ... that you should share your ideas, but make sure that you're sharing them with people who can actually give you actionable advice. And so that was why I started seeking out people in the remote world, in that remote advocacy space, because their advice is really beneficial to me and helps me see ideas where I didn't see them before. Whereas when I share my ideas with people who know nothing about this space, it can be a little bit more disheartening, because they don't understand remote work at all or they don't understand why there's a need for that. And so I would say that there have been certain people that just don't understand it immediately. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they're naysayers. It just means that they're missing a little bit of the context that my actual audience has.
Shantel: No, that's fair. And I'm glad to hear that no one has kind of doubted that piece of it solely because they didn't understand it. Have you heard of Remote Year? And that actually may be a silly question, because-
Tammy: Yeah, I have. No, it's not a silly question at all. Yeah, I have heard of Remote Year and other programs like it. And it's just really exciting to see all of these newish programs come about to help support the idea that remote work is actual work. Do you have personal experience with Remote Year?
Shantel: So one of our teammates actually, she just left for Remote Year. She's in month three. For those listeners who are not familiar with it, it's a program where you travel to a new country every month for a year and work remote. So she had presented that to Margot and I, my business partner, and mentioned ... She put together this whole PowerPoint about how it aligns with our core values of being adventurous and just everything. And she mapped out the hours that she would be working in those places and how she would get WiFi, just everything. We were blown away and so excited for her, and secretly, I think, probably both of us were a little jealous, because it was amazing. It sounded amazing. But she's on Remote Year right now. So we have one teammate who works completely remote.
Tammy: That's awesome. Well, I'd love to hear more about her experience. Is she sharing it publicly, on a blog or something?
Shantel: She is. So on our blog page on Imagine Media Consulting, she has a whole section built out on her experience. And she's sharing a blog post at least every month, around the new city and her experience.
Tammy: Oh, cool. Well, I'll definitely check that out.
Shantel: It's also been neat to see as a team how we adjust to that and how we get a little bit more scrappy with, "Okay, we can't see face to face. So how do we adapt and ... " We use video calls more than we had ever done before. So I think it's a really fascinating space, and I'm excited to now have a friend in that world. So as we continue to maybe expand, more teammates remote, we have a good resource for that.
Tammy: Well, happy to help. And I also just love hearing people's stories about their motivations behind going remote and all that. And so I just love hearing more about it.
Shantel: Certainly. So the certification that's launching tomorrow, do you have people ready and waiting for it? How have you been attracting new business and new customers?
Tammy: Yeah, so we do have people signed up already. And the program appeared in FlexJobs. I don't know if you're familiar with FlexJobs, but it's a job board that offers jobs that have flexible schedules or ... well, and that's the name implies that, but ... flexible schedules and telework options. And so they've been a really great partner with us. And then just traditional social media marketing as well. And I'm actually just starting a relationship now with the Utah State University, which is starting a rural online initiative, so training individuals in remote areas of Utah to work remotely so that they can have additional employment opportunities with companies that offer remote jobs. So that's been really, really exciting. So that just started actually. And we're really excited about partnering with states and governments to provide additional training to people who want those opportunities so that not just the individuals can thrive but also those remote communities that perhaps have seen more brain drain than others.
Shantel: That's amazing. I know this is not the first company that you've started. But have you, because it's moving kind of really quickly in the industry and you noticed this need so you jumped on it, have you been kind of just reacting to, "Okay, I need to get a course for this, because this is what I'm hearing from consumers. And now I'm starting a course on leadership, because that was the need"? Or have you been very strategic about how you're launching things, when you're launching them, casting that vision for the future? Or do you have to kind of just move fast because the industry is moving quickly?
| BRIDGE THE GAP |
Tammy: That's a really great question. And there is strategy behind it. So I knew that I wanted a certification program. I knew that I wanted to help people bridge that gap between not having any remote experience and then being able to have a flexible schedule. So I've known for a long time that I wanted to do that. And then when I heard from these potential partners and people who were interested that they were really excited about potentially having a ready-made curriculum that they could deliver to people to have them approach competency in those areas. That was when I was like, "Okay, I better get started on this. You know, I can't just be talking about the plans. I have to, like, put that in motion and get it developed." Because originally, the plan was to develop the leadership courses first. And we did have one live leadership workshop earlier in the summer, and the idea was to develop the leadership first and then work on the certification. But the opportunities in the certification space were a lot more urgent. And so we decided to shift things around a little bit and focus instead on the certification first. But the leadership program is definitely in the works, especially since some of these partners that are planning to use the certification curriculum, they also want to use the leadership curriculum in order to make sure that the leadership, wherever these new remote workers go, understand the ins and outs of managing a distributed team.
Shantel: That's great. Where do you see your company going?
Tammy: Oh gosh. I would love for Workplaceless to be the go-to place for remote workers who want to move forward in their careers. I don't necessarily want to be the creator and the provider of every single type of learning experience. So to go back a little bit, to your previous question, about being strategic, I definitely want to be strategic in what kind of content we're developing. But I also want to be the resource that people come to if they have any kind of learning need. And I'd love to be able to match them with a learning experience that supports their goals. And it might not necessarily be the programs that we have. But that's really what I would like to be is, for Workplace List to be that go-to resource for people who want to keep moving forward in their remote career and need some professional development support to do that.
Shantel: That's really exciting. What are your thoughts on companies that are not remote currently that would like to shift to remote? Do you think that it's possible for every company?
| FLEXIBILITY IS ATTAINABLE |
Tammy: There are certain companies in certain industries where it would be practically impossible. So companies that require people to be physically there. So in a lot of manufacturing, for example, if there are people working at that manufacturing plant, for instance, it would be really challenging to make that remote unless you really automate everything. But that's not making those human jobs remote. It's automating. So I don't think it's possible for every single company. But I do think that almost any company that has you doing work at a cubicle or at a computer can be done remotely. And again, there are some industries that are very, very conservative in terms of privacy and all that. And so for them, it can be a little bit harder to let go and allow their employees to work remotely. But I definitely think that flexibility is attainable for almost any company, and especially those that primarily have their employees work on computers.
Shantel: That's great. I don't know if you can secretly ... or not secretly ... maybe tell when some of my questions that I sometimes just the miss the days. I'm far more productive when I'm not in the office. And I know that there's a lot of value now in me being there and casting vision and culture. But I certainly crave the days of working remote, because I was very efficient.
Tammy: And that's definitely my situation as well, where if I have to be around a lot of people, it's very hard for me to focus and be as productive as I am when I can really control my surroundings.
Shantel: Certainly. Well, being in the remote space, do you have any tools or software that you lean very heavily on, that you would recommend for anyone working remote that you're open to sharing?
Tammy: Yeah. I use Zoom all the time. So you mentioned earlier about video calls, and I definitely think that having more video calls is the way to really establish a feeling of connection with people when you work remotely. And that's one of the biggest challenges in a remote team is really feeling connected to your teammates. So I would say use Zoom or any other kind of video conferencing tool. But Zoom is my preferred tool for that. And then to keep track of projects and things, I really love Asana, and that's my go-to. And for productivity, I keep a very basic spreadsheet that budgets my time every day. So I assign myself tasks and I estimate the time it's going to take me. And then I can see how much time I have left in the day and how much time I ... or how many tasks I need to accomplish in the day. And so between that and Asana, I get a lot done.
Shantel: That's amazing. So where did you learn the spreadsheet hack from? Or create?
Tammy: So I don't remember. I don't remember exactly how it got started. But I was thinking ... and this is potentially an app, if somebody wants to create it. I've thought about creating it myself, and I'm like, "I can't." I can't add more projects to ... So this is an idea. If somebody wants to create this, I will be the first person to buy this. But I have always wanted a time-budget app. Like I have a to-do list and there are time-tracking apps. Maybe there is something out there that I'm just not aware of. But I really love being able to check, to see how much time is left in the day and then, "Oh my gosh. I have to write an article, and that's going to take me 120 minutes.” To actually gauge how much time I have left, and that way I don't over-schedule myself. So I don't know. I just formed this spreadsheet. And I don't remember exactly the process that I went through to make it. But I have it. I can share it with people. It's just a simple Google Sheet. But it keeps me on track and it really does keep me from over-scheduling things.
Shantel: That is great. We actually just ... our accountant and partner Andy, who's also been on this show, shared ... he had a spreadsheet very similar. And it calculated percentages and so that he could also track, day to day and week to week, how much time he was spending with family or resting or mindfulness. I don't know if there's so many apps, but we've tried a few time-tracking apps within the company. And they're, one, not very user friendly or pretty, and no one cares to do it. But the spreadsheet, I kind of geeked out when I saw it. And now you said it, so I feel like that's some sort of sign that maybe I need to create some calculation on a spreadsheet for myself.
Tammy: I'd be really curious to see that spreadsheet. Mine is not as tricked out as that. I'm just going to warn you. I don't track things really from day to day. I don't compare what I did to like last month. It's really just to keep me on schedule for that day and week.
Shantel: Well, if he's open to sharing, I'll certainly hyperlink at our follow up email. When I saw it, I was like, "You need to sell this. Like, I will buy this from you." It's formulas, so I could just plug it in. But no, that's great. I just have one more question for you, Tammy, to wrap up the show. What do you do to recharge when you're either feeling drained as a very busy entrepreneur? Or if you're not around a lot of people very often, working remote, what would you encourage remote workers to do to recharge?
| SCHEDULE TIME TO RECHARGE |
Tammy: I will be honest and say that I am not very good at it. I mostly just keep working. But I will say that when I schedule out social gatherings, like hanging out with friends or this past weekend I was just down at my husband's family has a lake house and I went down with some friends from high school. And it was a little bit chaotic, trying to schedule that. And I had this program that's coming out tomorrow, and I was really stressed out. But it was so amazing to be with them and to just completely disconnect and just have fun. And so I would say that the best way that I recharge ... but it's really challenging for me to actually follow through with this ... is to dedicate a time in my schedule for connecting with people, like in real life. And that would be also my recommendation to people who do work remotely, is schedule those things that make you recharge or that help you recharge, because if you don't schedule it in, it's just so easy to forget about it and just not do it.
Shantel: I appreciate you sharing this. And fun little fact, for those listeners we typically batch record our podcast. So we have anywhere between four and six, just one day a month. And truly, Tammy, the last four people I interviewed today ... and I'm not even making this up ... so all of you guys will be hearing this over the next month. But all mentioned ... if it is not in my calendar, it just doesn't happen. So personal things, I have to schedule in, like flex time, date nights, everything, has to be in the calendar. So I think it's just funny, and it must be kind of out there in the universe today, calendar planning.
Tammy: It's not super sexy. It's not even super fun. The idea of scheduling every single thing is just ... I think part of being an entrepreneur and making it ... and that doesn't necessarily mean having financial success, but just feeling like you can do the work that you want to do ... I think part of that journey is figuring out who you are and what works for you. And sometimes it's not sexy or exciting.
Shantel: No, that's fair. I don't know if this makes it any more sexy, but it has made it a little bit more fun for me. And I don't know if you do this. Do you use Gmail?
Shantel: So you can change the color. So under the same calendar, you can change the color of each event. And so what I've started to do, which is kind of neat or at least appealing eye wise for me, is change the color based on what type of event it is. So if it's a networking, it's this type of color. If it's internal and it's a team meeting, it's this color. If it's anything personal, it's this. And so now, from a week at a glance, even I plug in my projects that I'm working on them, if I have any work work to do, and at a glance I can see approximately what percentage of my time is going to each thing. And just, again, maybe not sexy but it will make the calendar planning perhaps a little bit more fun or visually more appealing.
Tammy: I love some color coding, so I'm all about that.
Shantel: Well, thank you so much, Tammy, for being on the show. I really appreciate you carving out the time.
Tammy: No, I'm happy to be here. This is a nice little break from the craziness of putting out a program that comes out tomorrow.
Shantel: Well, good luck. And we'll be sure to hyperlink.
Tammy: All right. Thanks so much.