Interview: Carlos Silva on Preventing Burnout in a Remote-First Setting

March 28, 2022
Stela Gineva

Interview: Carlos Silva on Preventing Burnout in a Remote-First Setting

March 28, 2022
Stela Gineva

Carlos Silva was selected as one of LinkedIn's top voices for remote work in 2022. He runs his own weekly newsletter, Hello Remote, that highlights marketing jobs at remote-first companies. The newsletter has attracted nearly 1200 subscribers and has a loyal following that has become a community in its own right.

Carlos also works full-time for Chili Piper and posts regular remote work content on LinkedIn for his growing following.

We spoke to Carlos about how remote work has changed his life and how individuals and companies can prevent burnout in a remote-first setting.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your experience with remote work and how it has changed your life?

Originally, I am from Venezuela. It's one of the top five countries for displaced people in the world. I fled Venezuela seven years ago and I moved to Spain in search of a better life and a better future. And I actually had never even been to Europe before.

It was a huge risk but it worked out, I guess. Still, it's hard. None of my family is here, they're not even in Venezuela because everyone has left.  

I guess when I say remote work saved my life, I really mean it. It gave me the ability to work at organizations that I could only dream of before.  Working for a cool tech company meant you had to be located near the company, in the same city, or within commuting distance. That's not true anymore. That's changing.

And it's given me the opportunity to earn enough to take care of my family. I've learned things that I would have never learned in Venezuela or even working here in Spain. I have the flexibility I need to be a dad and spend time with my daughter, and to make myself known through my personal brand.

When the pandemic hit, it made me believe in remote work much more.

Yes, the pandemic made remote work much more mainstream, didn't it?

Yes, it had a huge impact on the world. For me, not much changed. Except I was forced to work from home which is not exactly what remote work is. Before I used to work in a coffee shop and I used to go to a coworking space.

I very rarely worked from home and there was an adjustment with being forced to work from home. But other than that, nothing changed. I worked for a small startup in the Netherlands and we were already operating remotely.

But the reason why I started getting more vocal about remote work was because I was still seeing all these posts on LinkedIn and on Twitter about people losing their jobs and getting fired. Or, you know, having a really hard time finding a job because of the pandemic situation.

I just kept seeing them and seeing how within our own company people were getting laid off. Or if they weren't getting laid off, they were scared of getting laid off. So they left. It was such a weird situation. And I started wondering, what can I do to help?

That's how I decided to start my remote work newsletter, and it grew massively. We have around 1200 subscribers right now.

Could you tell us a little bit more about that and what you're working on right now in the remote work sphere?

The newsletter is a project that's been going on for more than a year. It has a community of around 1200 people. It's not just about people looking for jobs. People also like to know they can help. Sometimes, they'll see a cool job and they'll share it with their friends who need a job.

I plan to keep it going. My girlfriend keeps asking 'how long are you going to do it?' And I keep saying, 'as long as it takes'. I like it, it's a bit of an effort but I don't mind doing it. People reply every week saying thank you. So I know it means a lot to people.

But when I was selected as a LinkedIn top voice, that recognition made me realize I could do even more. I am considering starting a podcast around autonomy and remote work. It will probably be within Chili Piper. I'm also thinking about producing resources for refugees and writing more articles about remote work.

It just takes time. I have a full-time job so it needs to fit around that.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you started working remotely and how did you overcome those?

My first remote job was at an SEO agency. The owner and I are good friends now, he's a mentor.

But he had the onboarding process set up so well. It was great. Everything was documented and transparent. It was a small company which is why I personally never faced too many challenges when I started working remotely.

This may be because I started at smaller companies and it's usually easier to feel like you're part of a team then and just to feel more connected.

But onboarding is so important. I had someone reach out to me on Twitter recently and he said he was onboarded and just expected to start working on day two. And he was feeling super overwhelmed. He didn't have a proper onboarding process. He felt like he was never introduced to how the product and how the team works.

He was just expected to start working. That's a huge challenge.

What makes for a good remote onboarding process?

I think a lot of over-communication is necessary. I always say if it feels like over-communication, you're doing it right. It's so important to be vocal and to communicate everything.  

Everything should also be documented in one place that serves as a source of truth. And that should be transparent and shared with everyone. That's really helpful. New staff can browse in their free time and just learn.

Also, I think having an onboarding buddy helps a lot.  That means having someone, not from your team but from the company, who can help with answering questions like, 'hey, how do I do this?'. Or, 'hey, who do I contact for this?', 'what are the expectations around being online or attending calls, or how does the company feel about vacation?'

Also, the first few weeks should be really structured. Everything should be documented with expectations about what should happen during your first weeks of onboarding. Even things like, watch this video then ask us questions.

Some people find it really hard to separate their work life from their personal life, especially when it comes to working from home. What's your advice to them?

It's tough because we put a lot on ourselves as remote workers, but I think ultimately it comes down to the companies and the organizations having a culture where they show they care for their workers and their mental health. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way which is why a lot of people experience burnout.

It can be difficult to notice burnout, especially in remote teams. Sometimes, you work an extra hour on a project here and there, or you have a few busy weeks in a row, and before you realize it, it hits you and you're totally drained and burned out.

I think one important thing is that, as a company, not to celebrate long working hours. There's a difference between saying 'hey, great effort completing this project' versus celebrating, working overtime or long hours to get work done. So it's about being mindful of the company culture, especially leadership.

Messages about taking breaks should also come from leadership. As a remote worker, you can only do so much with everything else going on in your life, your partner, your family, your children, plus you're working remotely which can become a challenge. Resting is a core function of doing excellent work.

That's something that comes from leadership as well.

If you're burnt out as an employee, it's about working out what's causing that stress. Is it that you're feeling overworked? Is it not knowing when to disconnect or how to disconnect? Is it feeling a responsibility that you shouldn't be placing on yourself?

It's then about reaching out to your support system, whether that's your friends or family. Hopefully, it's somewhere at work as well where you have that support system.

Do you think there's a responsibility for managers to gauge whether burnout is happening or do you think it should be more on the employee?  

It should 100% be on the managers and leadership to gauge that. I know it can be really difficult to identify, but there are ways to do it. For example, if managers are having one on one calls with their employees, the message should be, are you taking time off?

Managers should be asking, are you resting? Are you feeling well? They should be saying 'hey, you should take time off.'

And they should be setting expectations. If I'm a manager and I don't have Slack on my phone and someone slacks me, I won't reply right away. That sets an example for my team and shows them they don't have to be online all the time. They're not expected to reply and don't always have to be connected.

One of the leaders at Chili Piper recently said, 'hey, I realized I haven't taken time off in a while and I should.'

So he took time off. He just went off the grid. But he was transparent enough to say it and set that example.

I hate when companies say, 'oh we tried remote and it didn't work. Our employees didn't feel happy. So we're going back to the office.'

No, they're not happy because of how you went about going remote, right? Like remote isn't about working from home and being logged on to your computer from 9-5.

Of course, nobody's going to be happy with that. It's not on the employees. It's on the business to establish the culture for a good remote work experience.

With remote work, it's more about the outcomes than the hours worked, isn't it?

Yeah. I had a chat with a manager last week and he was like, 'I don't really care how many hours you work'. He was like, 'if you do great work doing less hours, so be it'. And that's the beautiful thing because not everybody works the same way or is as productive.

But forcing them to be in an office x amount of hours, even when their work is done and they're wasting their time? When they could be doing something else like spending time with their families?

Do you think that's part of the reason why we're seeing burnout? Because some companies go remote and try to replicate the office environment? 

A hundred percent. I've seen it with my partner. My girlfriend, her company went remote during the pandemic and they pledged to stay remote but it's such a bad environment. They're expecting them to work nine to five.

But part of what helps prevent burnout is not having a linear workday, not sitting at the same place from nine to five. You can stop work, walk your dog if you have a dog, go exercise, then continue working and then stop again.

Just have it be non-linear with a morning routine and evening routine. That helps.

Yes,  the benefit of remote is that you get to work the hours that you're actually productive versus having to stick to regimented hours.

I have friends who are developers and they are night owls. Once they start coding, they just want to keep going. Because they've got to build that momentum.

And you can't do that if you're forced to be in an office from nine to five. Sometimes they'll work nights. That's what works for them.

Sometimes I do too. I'll put my kids to bed and then the house is quiet. The kids are sleeping and I'll get a couple of really good hours of work done. But this isn't overtime or extra hours. This is my working time. This is when I am productive.

With that in mind, how important do you think it is to have a routine as a remote worker for your mental wellbeing?

I think routine is key but we shouldn't take it to the extreme either. I think it's important to have morning routines and evening routines to stop that 'always on' mentality.

So for me, that's taking my daughter to daycare and then coming home. That's when I know it's time to switch to working mode. But it could be something as simple as your first coffee, or just any other habit that means you're starting work. And for winding down, it could be taking your kid to the park, going for a walk, taking your dog for a walk.

Really, it's just doing something for five minutes to disconnect from your workday.

But I don't like the idea of a routine during the workday, because I do believe in non-linear work. I usually take a break and go for a run and do some exercise and then come back refreshed mentally and ready to start working again.

So I'm not huge on daily routines but I do believe in having a morning routine and an evening routine. I've found that really helps with your mental health and your mental wellbeing.

Where do you hope to see remote work in five years?

As businesses adopt hybrid environments, I hope they keep a remote-first mentality and culture in place. I've seen that can be an issue as well.  Decisions are sometimes made in the office or in hallways or just in the spur of the moment. But if you have a remote-first culture, you would need to give your remote workers' opinions the same weight as individuals in your company.

If you don't do that, then remote workers are going to start feeling isolated and pressured to return to the office. So I hope even if companies opt for hybrid or a return to the office, that this experience can teach them to value the benefits of remote work.

The main thing is, remote work means that where you live or where you're born doesn't dictate your opportunity to work in a particular company. I hope businesses appreciate that and adopt that remote-first mentality, even if they're not completely distributed or hybrid.

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