In the eleventh episode of the Red Cube Podcast, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined by John Riordan, Chairman of Grow Remote and formerly Chairman of Shopify International. Dubbed the 'Godfather of Remote', John has years of expertise in the field of remote working, having first discovered the concept while living in the US in the early 2000s and adapting it to perfect his ideal way of working, whether it's 'deep work' or an afternoon of meetings. John chatted with Cathal about the importance of organisations always being ready and able for change, as well as the often overlooked but huge opportunity remote work brings for Ireland's rural areas.
Listen below! 👇
Subscribe and Listen on:
> In this podcast
Chairman of Grow Remote Former Chairman of Shopify International
Great Place to Work Ireland
Cathal Divilly: Welcome Red Cube listeners, you're very welcome to today's episode. I'm delighted to be joined by John Riordan, ex-Shopify, ex-Apple, ex-Virgin Atlantic and known as the Godfather of Remote. John you're very welcome.
John Riordan: Thank you very much and thank you for not calling me the Grandfather of Remote!
Cathal Divilly: No, no fear of that, John! So, John, listen, you're very welcome. How are you these days?
John Riordan: Very good indeed thanks and delighted to get the opportunity to chat with you today Cathal.
Cathal Divilly: Thanks a lot, John. And John for the listeners, you might just give them a sense of your background and career to date.
John Riordan: Yeah, I emigrated in in the early 90s, along with a lot of other people in Ireland at the time – people of my generation will remember things like 17, 18, 19 per cent unemployment. I went to the States and was lucky enough to end up in the aviation sector culminating in a job as VP of Customer Service at Virgin Atlantic Airways. And in the early 2000s, I got involved in remote work because we needed to make some fairly significant changes in our customer service product.
I came across a company that was doing remote work and we shifted a lot of the Virgin Atlantic business to remote work. Cathal, this was a time when there was no broadband, so people were doing it on dial-up. So the people who were working on the Virgin Atlantic account for this vendor were required to have three phone lines, one for data, one for voice and one for their own personal usage.
And I say that because a lot of people will say, oh, I have to have one gig broadband if we're gonna do this, everybody has to have it – hey, look, we were running a significant major international airline on dial-up 20 years ago, so, you know, we need to think beyond some of the problems. So that was kind of 2002/2003 and I did that for a couple of years.
And then I got a phone call from Apple who were looking to build a significantly scalable customer support organisation. This was around 2006 they were looking at it. I was too stupid to realise that they were actually in long term planning for the iPhone, which came in 2007. So about a year, maybe 13 months before the iPhone came in, we did the first ever remote employee handling a customer service interaction for Apple – it was May 2006, which is exactly 13 months prior to the iPhone launch. And Apple then made the shift from being kind of a B2B company to being a B2C company and the iPhone was the catalyst for that.
So I did that for a couple of years and ended up working in and around the Apple ecosystem for about 10 years. And I moved back to Ireland in 2010 with Apple, spent seven years at Apple running their customer support organisation down in Cork. And about five years ago I joined Shopify, which at the time was about 100 people in Ireland, all remote-based and when I left in late 2021 that 120 had grown to just north of 800, so a sizeable shift over the course of that over the five years I was there.
Cathal Divilly: Remote has clearly been with you right through major parts of your career if you like and why have more organisations not embraced remote work? I know it took it a global pandemic and all of that. What's your thoughts on why it hasn't been more embraced before then?
John Riordan: Yeah, it's actually a really interesting point because you know, you're either a genius for having done it 20 years ago, or you're a big fool for having got the timing completely wrong. And I remember at one stage sitting down and drafting a business plan in about ‘05/’06 to go out on my own with the view to kind of starting a consulting group or a contract group to promote remote work. I'm very happy that I didn't do it because the timing would have been terrible. The idea would have been wonderful, but I would have been very hungry for quite a number of years I'm sure.
So to get to your point – why now or why has it not been embraced before now? Well, you know, I think it's a bit crass to say, but you never waste a recession or never waste a significant problem. And in this case, I would say the pandemic has given us the opportunity to not waste the opportunity that this tectonic plate shift has brought. So I'm just going to throw out four or five things here.
First one is office utilisation, so let's take your general office that's in a central business district in country X, large city and large country. You have an office 168 hours a week and the typical office in your central business district in that city is probably going to be occupied five days a week, 12 to 14 hours. So let's just say 65-70 hours a week. So you're talking about approximately 50% of the time the office is going to be used. Now flip side of it is 50% of the time, the office isn't being used and you're the CFO and you're actually paying for that.
So now you have a situation that the pandemic brought upon us where most of the people were working from home. So suddenly your utilisation dropped significantly. Do you hold on to that office? Even when the people are coming back, how do you judge the need for space in the future? So if 20% of those people come back do I still hang on to the office?
And you still recognise that OK, you have a massive utilisation gap and you have an asset that, at best, if you jammed everybody in and you got everybody back, it's being used 50% of the time. So I think one thing that it unearthed is the great myth that is office utilisation. It's not office attendance, it's office utilisation.
The second thing that was unearthed in this pandemic was what I call “hidden deals” - we all know of situations in every company where Mary she's a really good employee, we can't lose her. She wants to work from west Galway and look, just don't say anything to anybody. We won't say a word. Get her up once a month into the office and just say nothing. And there were hidden deals in all sorts of companies and it wasn't talked about. So that was the second thing that was unearthed.
The next one was what I would call a lack of resilience. Because everybody was required to come into the office and everybody was required to commute, you had a situation when there was a challenge or problem, like for example, we had a couple of storms there about four or five years ago, the whole country shut down.
And there was a very interesting scenario happened to us at Shopify on those particular days when the government shut down on 2 occasions, once for a day, once for two days – we actually had more than 100% show up at the office or show up online to work for Shopify.
And the reason for that is the people who were going to be off that day or are going to be on holidays were dialing in saying, hey, I've nowhere to go, the roads are closed. Can I come and work? So what it showed us was that we had a level of resilience, so we knew going into a situation like a pandemic, we were going to be able to do it.
And another thing, one last one as well that I think it unearthed was biases. There's a ton of biases that all of us have. And I think the bias that I suppose, landed on people of my generation. I'm in my 50s, you know, you look at that kind of “male, pale and stale” group of people that tend to be leading organisations. And the bias would be everybody has to come into the office ‘cause that's the way it's always been. And I think we've seen such a change in the last two years that that quote, “that's the way it's always been”, that needs to be just exploded and it got exploded in the last couple of years.
Cathal Divilly: It's really interesting, John. I think the two storms – was it storm Ophelia and we had a few inches of snow, if I remember. And the panic that caused for workplaces, how do we get work done?
John Riordan: Absolutely, and what I would say is that what we should do in future … We’re always going to have something that's going to challenge the convention or challenge our work process. And the next time one of these happens, I would encourage anybody who's kind of on the path of leadership to sit back and go “what am I going to learn, while I'm in this moment, what are the things that I can detach myself from it, write down and learn – that I wouldn't have learned if this hadn't come about.” And it's a really simple process and I think it really will stand to people as they develop their careers.
Any given moment gives you two opportunities. One, you can either step forward into growth. Or you can step back into safety. And I would encourage anybody and everybody to really take that step forward into growth. It's uncomfortable, it's hard, but it's a whole lot better than stepping back into safety. And look, you probably know where I'm going to go on this one – with all the companies talking about these return to office mandates and mandate’s a terrible word to use, but that's what's happening.
What we're seeing happening is large companies are reaching back to 2015 and they're trying to drag 2015 into 2023. And what I would encourage people to do is think a little bit about 2028, five years time. Where will the people that I want in my organisation, what kind of a company do they want in five years time? Not what do I think I want, but what do the people who are going to drive the company forward, the next generation after me – what do they want in five years time? That's what I should be planning to do.
Cathal Divilly: So there's an element of visioning around that John, and I think one of the things that sparked there – high performance sports are always talking about almost being comfortable in the chaos and being comfortable in the change. Because things will happen during the game or in a match, and then often I think sometimes we set up work or workplaces or the work to be very comfortable for people. And then something happens like what happened over the last few years and we struggle a bit, to adapt to change.
John Riordan: Absolutely, and I think that's why I would say never waste a moment of tension, stress or significant change. As I mentioned, if people could step back in the moment and jot down a couple of points as to what they're feeling at the time and what they think is the learning in the moment. And maybe even for a couple of days afterwards have that kind of, I wouldn't say a root cause analysis, but actually have a moment of reflection as close as possible to the time of change to see what they can do better in the future.
Cathal Divilly: John, a lot of the organisations listening, right, they're still at that starting stage, trying to figure out their way of working. Of course it's going to evolve – what does successful remote working look like for you John?
John Riordan: I'm going to boil it down to probably one key thing, but really there's two or three. The best way to have a successful remote working culture or successful work culture is to start by saying we're going to be remote first. That doesn't mean we're all going to be remote, but if you enable remote work and give people the opportunity to work remotely, as well as hybrid, as well as in the office, but you're setting it up so people can work remotely, you're actually setting yourself up for success.
But you have to move this up a little bit higher. What is the most important thing to enable people or enable a company to be remote first? You have to trust employees and you have to have a culture of trust. And I would always say, go back to the moment when you hired an individual, when you sat in a room and put a contract across the desk to somebody – you trust that person to come in and help you to do the job. Do you then try to take their brain out and tell them everything they shouldn't do? Or do you actually want that person with those ideas and that level of trust? Are you going to instill trust in people?
What I would see over the past three years is a very slow and steady decline on what I would call the command and control culture. And a nice steady uptick on inherent trust. So then you take trust and you move it down a little bit more. So the next most important thing after trust is providing people a purpose as to what it is you're doing in the organisation.
So if you trust them to be the right people and you provide the right purpose and we agree on the purpose, probably the most important thing is then to enable people by giving them a level of autonomy to do their job, which is kind of a bolt on to trust. So I would say trust, autonomy and purpose are probably the three most important. One great book that was written, I'd say about 10 years ago was a book called Drive by Daniel Pink where he talks about those inherent drivers. And he actually talks quite extensively about trust, autonomy and purpose.
Cathal Divilly: And we are seeing a lot more ownership and involvement. And I think we're seeing more vulnerability as well on the behalf of leaders because that's a key part of trust. John, you've been around many leadership tables, right, any thoughts on how to encourage leaders to adopt remote or what are the sort of things they need to hear? Any thoughts on that piece?
John Riordan: You actually answered the question in the question. It's about vulnerability. It's about honesty and vulnerability. I had kind of a bizarre situation when I was in Shopify, when the pandemic happened, 40% of the company was in the customer service arena and we were all remote. The other 60% of the company were office-based. You know your engineering, your product folks, your finance people, et cetera, et cetera were all office based and suddenly they had to go work remote.
So they were doing something that was sort of first nature to us – that was our essence and then they were trying to learn from us. And what I found watching some of my peers trying to learn that skill, the ones who were most successful were the ones who literally opened their soul and were really vulnerable about it and reached out and actually reached across the aisle and asked questions of their peer group and asked questions of their employees. Am I doing the right job?
The type of people who didn't succeed that well were the folks who were trying to make it up as they went along. But the vulnerability and the willingness to listen were to me, the keys that actually cracked it for most people.
Cathal Divilly: Any key ingredients that Shopify had when it comes to remote working or any key things that you felt were in place that made it sing for Shopify?
John Riordan: Shopify was very lucky in like I just said, the fact that about 40% of the company were fully ingrained in a remote work culture. So the other 60% were able to lean in on that 40. So we had a huge head-start on most other companies and that's critically important. But also the company about five years before that was in the process of changing an office in Ottawa and to speed up the change, every employee was sent home for a month. So the company had kind of a shock to the system five or six years beforehand, where everybody was forced to work, whether they wanted to or not, forced to work from home for approximately a month.
So that might sound like at the time a crazy idea, but they're these forced functions and I think you referenced it earlier on when you were talking about sport. You have to have these challenging and testing moments every now and then. And what you learn from that, you never know when you're actually going to need that. A great example – the first thing I remember in March 2020 were people in Shopify saying, hey, look, we've done this before, I know it was only for a month or so, but we've done it before. It shouldn't be too bad.
So I would ask other companies now like what are you going to do in the next year or two to not necessarily shock the system but can you actually bring a few things in to test to see how resilient you are? Another way of saying it is what are you doing every year to actually kick that resilience tire?
Cathal Divilly: Really interesting. I don't know about you John, but I've found myself the last number of months having conversations with organisations and I might ask them, are you working remote and they would say no, no, no, we're hybrid, which I find interesting, that response – is remote hybrid? What's your thoughts on that?
John Riordan: That's a classic one, yeah. We all remember five or six years ago, when you were the only person on a conference call who was on video and everybody else was in the conference room and you're on from a remote location, and it was a terribly sh*tty experience. You're missing out on everything. Now that is not what I would call a democratic experience. What the pandemic brought upon us is an understanding of the fact that that is a really sh*tty experience, so now you'll have situations where people are even going back into the office, but companies are requiring that everybody goes into a different place in the office so that they have their own little, let's call it individual little Zoom picture so you don’t have a group of people together.
So what companies have done to ameliorate that problem is without actually saying it they're saying, OK, we're going to be remote first, but remote can actually be in an office. It can be remotely in an office, in the corner of the office, but you are actually on your own. So I think we really need to recognise and understand that remote can be weaponised by some people as you know somebody working in the deepest, darkest West Connemara and we're never able to get to them and they're never coming into the office and they're not keen on the company and they're just reclusive. No, that's not remote work.
Remote work – what we really need to talk about is flexibility. So whether it's remote, whether it's hybrid, what we have to focus in on is an element of flexibility that enables people to get the best work done so you know, you talk a lot about great places to work. What I would say is we need to talk about not places, but, we need to talk about where do you need to go to do great work and is it a place?
And for some people, that place can be multiple different places in a week – I might like to spend two or three days at home doing deep work. I might want to spend half a day in a coffee shop scratching that community itch with a bit of a buzz around me, doing some stuff, but not real deep work but busy work. And then I want to actually be in an office and you know, have that collaborative moment.
I could actually do the most incredible week by having a combination of all those three. Is it remote? Is it a co-working week? Is it hybrid? No, it's just damn flexible. And I think this is what companies need to think about is – what can I do to provide the most flexible workspace? And the thing that underpins all of it is if I create a framework where I am embracing remote first, all the rest will follow. That doesn't mean that I'm charting the course to say we're remote only. Big difference.
Cathal Divilly: Big difference is right. And I don't know why John, but I feel more creative if I'm close to a window and sitting on sort of a higher stool. I don't know why that is. And for you where do you feel at your most creative?
John Riordan: I'm lucky enough to have a second home down on Mizen Head. You and I talked last week and I showed you some of the views from there and they're pretty darn good. I find that is the place where I can do the best thinking, the best deep work. And then I love interspersing that time with having a number of conference calls, video conference calls with people. So that I'm able to kind of make sure that I am still connected. So it works for me. But you know there's no point in me bashing home what works for me. Everybody's got to work out what is the most appropriate circumstance for them to deliver their best product.
Cathal Divilly: Is there a way of doing that, John? Not at scale, but with like a number of people, how do you get underneath that?
John Riordan: It's interesting because there are as many different opinions on this as there are people, and I think the companies that are doing it really well are like I said, the companies who say we're going to enable remote first for everybody. We're just going to level the playing field and then going department by department or even leader by leader and finding out what works for that particular group.
Because we can't say, you know, all accounting departments in every company all around the world. They can all work from home. No, there are plenty of companies and plenty of divisions within finance functions where there's a deep interaction required and a face to face collaboration. So it doesn't work in some organisations. So any of these thick and fast rules I'd say forget about it. It can boil down to smaller units and what works for that group?
One of the things that I'd like to detail on this one is that there's a unique opportunity here for Ireland. Because the relative small size of Ireland is a superpower when it comes to embracing remote work because we can congregate and collaborate quite easily in a variety of different places, in the Midlands or in Dublin or wherever … you can get everybody together fairly quickly, yet you can then have everybody disperse and go whence they came. And that's a massively important superpower that you don't have in larger countries, be it in the UK, Canada, be it in the US, where that is incredibly difficult, incredibly costly, incredibly time consuming.
So we need to take that opportunity and hammer home that point before anybody else gets up on that horse. We need to ride that horse hard. We're an English-speaking country. We have access to the EU market. We're an incredibly attractive place and we have multiple nationalities clamoring to to come into Ireland. We've got to use that and use that to our advantage. So I would say actually a great place to work is Ireland.
Cathal Divilly: We've got to shine those positives a lot more and I know your work with GrowRemote John you're a big promoter of making employment more accessible for rural Irish communities. Maybe expanding on that point, John, what do we have going for us there?
John Riordan: So I mean the most incredible benefit of a couple of people spending more time in let's call it a more remote community. OK, you suddenly have a little bit more business going through the coffee shop and the corner shop – it makes a big difference. It may well be the difference between the post office or the bank branch staying open and it's quite likely to have a difference in the local school getting potentially an extra teacher. It may well be the difference between the local GAA club being able to feel the team or not.
Those ones and twos? They're not that obvious, until you're actually in a community and you see multiple ones and twos from a variety of different companies. So the days when the economic growth of Ireland was based upon the Minister for XY&Z with a big scissors cutting a ribbon on a concrete box on the outskirts of a town – those days are long gone. What we need to see are companies enabling their employees in Ireland to work in a more distributed manner and encouraging that and that may well be a little bit further away from homebase.
And the other major advantage here and you know I don't want to want to state the obvious here. But there's about 6 1/2 million people living on the island of Ireland now and there was a time when we had 8 million people living on this island. And there's a lot of houses that aren't being used.
And they're not in Dublin, they're not in Cork, they're not in Galway, they're not in our cities and towns, they're in the smaller places. So we have the opportunity to actually fill out the country a whole hell of a lot more and that's why I think this whole concept of growing the remote base of Ireland is a massively important element.
Cathal Divilly: And when we chatted, when you showed me out the window of Mizen Head and I got very jealous John, you talked about the connectivity you have in Mizen Head.
John Riordan: Yeah, it's actually kind of wild that there I am, 2 kilometres from Mizen Head and I have a 1 gig broadband line and all the way around the general area, there's 5G service. That just was not the case four or five, six years ago. So I think we need to stop being a bunch of whiny folks in Ireland and actually celebrate what we have.
There's an enormous amount of growth happening with the rollout of National Broadband. And all you're going to hear about are the people who don't have it yet. But guess what? There's a commitment there, it's going to happen everywhere, like when we electrified the country in the 1950s, not everywhere got it the first day. But everywhere got it eventually. So we're getting there, we really are getting there, there's a lot of positivity coming. We just need to be smart about it.
The access to Broadband in this country, when you compare it against many other countries of our size, I think we stack up and we stack up really well. Now of course that will probably p*ss off the cohort of people who don't yet have access and I apologise, I'm not trying to rub your nose in it but guess what, it is coming.
Cathal Divilly: Yeah, it's coming soon. And at a macro level, John, what do you feel is needed to encourage more remote?
John Riordan: I'll give you one basic one and one wild one. I suppose the basic thing is we need really strong joined-up thinking from a policy perspective. So there's a document going around – legislation on the right to request remote work. And we need that to be not watered down so that an employer can say for, you know, silly, nefarious reasons you can't work remote. It needs to be significantly employee-friendly without actually causing a significant burden on the employer. That's a very important point.
Another simple one would be we have a remote work allowance, so I think it's €3.20 a day if you can prove that you're a remote worker, but let me explain like an absolutely, hilariously stupid thing. So Shopify, 100% remote company that has no office – every single employee at Shopify and other employees of other companies that are 100% remote, are required to prove to the government that they don't work in an office.
There is no office, so I couldn't be working in an office, but I then have to prove it by sharing utility bills and sharing this and sharing that for the sake of €3.20. No wonder we're in a situation where not that many people are applying for this remote work allowance, so you know it's great for whoever passed that legislation whenever it was passed to say, oh, I passed that. But how effective has it been as a catalyst for change, or how effective has it been to bolster your political career? I would say it has not been effective enough to deliver change.
And then the wild one I’ll throw at you and pardon the deliberate pun here – the most spectacular change that we've seen in the country in the last 10 to 12 years has been the advent of the Wild Atlantic Way. And it has opened up essentially the West Coast of Ireland from, you know, from Donegal probably all the way down around almost to the southeast into Waterford. Of that whole area, it has kind of talked about that one area as being an incredibly attractive place for people to come visit. And what I'm saying is it's an incredibly attractive place for people to come and work.
One of the things I noticed very early on at Shopify; people would come in from outside of Ireland, come to work in Ireland and you're automatically going to be drawn to the cities because that's where people tend to go first. Once you embed in a company like a Shopify, like another remote company, and you realise, hang on, this is a great country, this is a great company … I don't know if I really want to live here in this part of it.
So we saw people kind of asking their peer group: oh, where's a nice place to live in Ireland, and surprisingly – not surprisingly – the types of places that people were moving to were Tramore, Strand Hill, Lahinch, Dingle. Why? Because they're beautiful places to live, the infrastructure is quite good, the housing is far better than in the cities.
So what that says to me, is what we've done from a leisure perspective with the Wild Atlantic Way, we can and should do from a business perspective. A country that's done a really good job of pushing stuff like this is Estonia, a city that's done a really good job in the US is Tulsa, Oklahoma, giving a 10,000 dollar essentially bounty for people to come in and live and work in Tulsa.
And what they found was that people who moved to Tulsa to work have stayed; there's an enormous stickiness to policies like this. So what I would say is the Wild Atlantic Way – we need to move it from being a leisure product to it being a cultural and business product that's going to help drive the next generation of growth.
Cathal Divilly: And it all fuels each other then.
John Riordan: Absolutely. Oh, and by the way, it's an enormously helpful thing for whatever carbon footprint goals we're signing up for, because less and less people are going to require, oh, and by the way, more and more people living in places like that are going to get into that house, and they're going to put up the solar PV panels and they're going to do their level best to ameliorate any costs, extra costs, they're going to have.
And all of that helps. But we've got to have that forward thinking to try to create the level of encouragement that essentially commercialises the Wild Atlantic Way, but not in the touristic way. In a more heuristic way, rather than a touristic way.
Cathal Divilly: John do you feel more embraced by people now that we're all dialed into remote? I suppose maybe another way to ask is, did you feel a little bit like the Mad Hatter to remote years ago?
John Riordan: Yeah, that's a great point. I mean, look, I went from being a fool to being a genius. And I actually changed not a bit. And I’m not trying to say like I was ahead of the game or anything like that. Like how I came across remote work, it was kind of bizarre. I overheard a conversation when I was at a baseball game in 2002, when somebody was talking about remote work and laughing about it and saying, oh look at those people, they're at home and they're watching Oprah during the day and they're not working at all, haha, remote work, it never works blah blah …
And that was fine, and I remember driving home that night from Boston down to Connecticut, where I was. And the irony struck me that I was actually taking the Thursday and the Friday off as in, not coming into the office because I had budgets and reviews to write. And it kind of struck me – almost like a “Road to Damascus” moment – that, and I never even knew the terminology to use probably for about 10 years afterwards, but I was doing deep work. I needed space and time to think about what I was doing. And the way I did it was I didn't go into the office, so I wasn't disturbed, I was able to lock myself away, I was fortunate I had a laptop, which not everybody would have had 20 odd years ago.
And that's how I came across this. So yeah, I suppose that then I got heavily involved in it. But I do remember doing a pitch for remote work to a company in 2008, 2009 in the US and being laughed out of it and being told that “remote workers are remote shirkers”. And yeah, that moniker stuck with me for a long time.
I did see some change kind of 2017/18/19 but none of this would have happened. This goes back to one of the original questions. None of this would have happened unless you had this forced function of an awful pandemic that forced us to do something completely different.
Cathal Divilly: John, what do you do to relax?
John Riordan: I retired with the view to relaxing. So that was my plan, but I got involved in a ton of things – actually, almost all of them have a tie-in to remote work. What do I do to relax? I cycle a bit, I walk quite a bit and run. I try to keep fit and I try to read as much as I can.
And the biggest curse that I have in my life that causes me not to relax is something I fool myself into thinking is a leisure activity, which is scrolling through my phone to find out information that educates me. I wish to God I could actually treat myself like a teenager and that I could have an alterego that would ban me from the phone! And I wish I could just have the discipline to turn my phone off for 6/8/10/12 hours at a time and pick up a book and get lost in it. So maybe that's my mission for the rest of the year. Read more and doom-scroll less.
Cathal Divilly: It's only on a small level, but since I took my emails off my phone, I’ve definitely felt a lot more relaxed, I think. It's a small thing, but it's definitely worked. John, you've been incredibly generous with your time. We really appreciate you joining us on the Red Cube and you might be in a position to join us on June the 15th for our client away day at the Lyrath Estate, hope to see you there. And thanks a lot for joining us, John.
John Riordan: Thank you very much.