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WFH Warning Signals

The world is working from home and the WFH phenomenon looks like it just might be here to stay, as companies like Twitter and Google are in for the long haul.

So who better to bring on the podcast than Robert Ruff of Sovren, whose company has been WFH for over 10 years. He's spilling the good, the bad, and the ugly on this Sovren exclusive.


- When WFH efficiency dies - Hiring WFH-type talent - Staying in the FLOW - The new "Wage Ceiling" - Outsourcing isn't - Work from EVERYWHERE

Enjoy ... and wash your pajamas, they stink!


Sovren: Sovren is known for providing the world's best and most accurate parsing products. And now, based on that technology comes Sovren's, Artificial Intelligence Matching and Scoring software, In fractions of a second receive matched results, that provide candidate scored by fit to job. And just as importantly, the jumps fit to the candidate, make faster and better placements. Find out more about our suite of products today, by visiting That's S-O-V- We provide technology that thinks, communicates and collaborates like a human. Sovren, software so human you'll want to take it to dinner.

Chad: Are we ever going to get back into the office? Google says they might not go back through 2021 and Twitter might never fully return to the workplace. Companies are seeing efficiencies rise and the thought of lowering overhead is pretty enticing. But what happens to work, culture, relationships, when companies go full work from home? Is the panacea real? All of those questions and deep discussion with our friend, Robert Ruff, President of Sovren, on today's, The Chad and Cheese podcast.

Intro: Hide your kids, lock the doors, you're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts. Complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark. Buckle up boys and girls, it's time for The Chad and Cheese Podcast.

Joel: Ain't that rough enough? What's up everybody. You're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. This is The Chad and Cheese podcast. I'm your co-host Joel Cheesman, joined as usual by my co-host Chad Sowash. And today we are honored to once again, bring back, Robert Ruff, CEO, founder of Sovren. Robert what's going on, man?

Robert: Just working from home. Like everybody else.

Joel: What a favorite?

Chad: Okay. So, that's nothing different for you, it's nothing different for Joel and myself. We've been working from home for years. I mean, your company actually went to work from home in 2006. The thing that everybody's talking about, well, we're so used to work from home, we're seeing more productivity and so on and so forth. There's less overhead, is it as rosy as everybody thinks it is?

Robert: So I think the answer is yes, people are seeing huge increases in productivity and that is actual, that's really going on. That's the good news, the bad news is, it is not going to last. So our experiences that this is a fairly simple thing to produce and work from home, is just one way to produce it. So if you want to change morale, or you want to boost productivity, in an office, all you have to do is turn the lights down 30%. So you save on your electric bill and for whatever reason, no one knows exactly why, the people feel like, wow, you've really done something for me, this environment is better. And they pay more attention for a while and they do become more productive, but it doesn't last. So eventually what you ended up doing is turning the lights back up and you get the same effect all over again. It's not the change, brighter or darker, it's just the fact that you did something different. And we're seeing that right now, work from home people have measured, and I'm like, wow, I have more productivity out of my people. Like, yeah, that's true. But it is going to stop. It is actually declining right now, what we have are failures to measure properly, right? So you can't just measure once and say, "Oh, it worked." No, it's like a week later, a month later measure again. And you're going to find it's not as effective as it was. And in fact it is on a continual decline. And I describe it to people like this. It is a form of alcoholism, so it's not actual. But a lot of people are having a problem with alcohol right now at home. I should

Joel: We've redefine what alcoholism is in this last three months.

Robert: ... So, what's happening is, people aren't making a conscious decision to become less productive every day. But eventually, you will need to have the same kind of intervention with them about their work life, that you would have to have with an alcoholic about their alcohol life. So you literally have to sit down and say, "We don't know when you cross the line," and you don't either. That's the thing, the employee could never say, "Yeah, it started with this." But it's the death of a thousand little Nicks. So what ends up happening, is people go from long stretches of being in the flow initially, to by the time you have this intervention, work is five to 20 minutes snippets that they give you in between walking the dogs, getting ready to make lunch, making lunch, eating lunch, cleaning up from lunch, thinking about how good lunch was, talking to somebody in the house about that lunch.

Joel: Taking that dump after lunch.

Robert: Right.

Chad: The lunch dump.

Robert: It becomes that they still think, well, I'm giving you all this time. I gave you eight hours today. Those are the worst eight hours of their day, not the best. And that's what we continually emphasize to our people is, I want your most productive eight hours. And if you think you're going to slot that in, a few times an hour for 15 minutes, that's not going to work for us.

Chad: So how does everything degrade? I mean, so it just happens slowly, right? Because you have this great boost in productivity, because things are different. They're excited, they're really into it and then it just becomes routine. And then you start to see this degradation, right? So how do you upfront knowing it's going to happen? How do you plan for that? How do you manage that? How does that work at Sovren?

Robert: So let's talk about some of the strategies that our people are trying to do right now. First strategy is surveillance. Okay? So we're going to find key loggers, we're going to find things that we'll take, screenshots every 10 minutes or randomly, and we'll be able to, "Monitor what you're doing." Alright, surveillance, telling people that you're now confined to home by law. And by the way, you're in a police state, is not what I would say, "Hey, how do you feel about your job?" And then the answer you're going to get is, "Oh, very productive, I feel great about it, I trust my employer as much as they trust me."

Chad: Yeah.

Robert: Which actually is what you're going to get out of that. People will eventually feel like you're turning this into a game, I will game it. So surveillance is not going to get you anywhere. And then the next thing people try is management. Okay, well, it's really hard to manage people from home. So what you're going to end up doing is probably micromanaging. So you're going to say, "Here's a task, I need you to do it, get back to me when you've finished it." Okay. well, you know what they're going to do between task? Nothing for you. Micromanaging someone's work life while they're at home, doesn't work. And in fact will turn them into a much less capable, much less valuable employee. So surveillance doesn't work, management doesn't work. What you have to do is lead and you have to lead by helping people remember, why are we doing this?

Chad: What's the purpose?

Robert: Yeah

Joel: For the vision. Yeah.

Robert: At Sovren we have a very crass not popular, and like, no one will ever ask me to give a Ted Talk on, what our corporate mission is. No we've had this conversation with people that are business consultants we brought in and they're like, well, what are you really trying to do? You're trying to connect people with jobs and employers. No, that's not what we're trying to do. We're actually in business to get rich. And they're like, well, yeah, no, but really what are you trying to do? And we're like, you need to understand the point at which this business doesn't make money, we're not doing it anymore. This is the reason we do this. It's a great business and we enjoy it, but the enjoyment is not enough of a payback. We're actually in it to make money.

Joel: How many employees do you have Robert? Just for the listeners.

Robert: We are in the work from home sweet spot because we don't have a lot of employees.

Joel: Yeah.

Robert: If you have 30,000 employees working from home, you have to have, a layer of management that is just going to make sure that people are taken care of. They're getting the resources that they need, that type of thing.

Chad: Virtual handlers.

Robert: Yeah. Pretty much it, you can kind of have to organize it like the army where you literally have a chain of command and people split up into, I'm responsible for these eight people, 10 people, that kind of thing. You can't have people responsible for 100 people working from home.

Chad: Right.

Robert: You have to set it up into different units. But one of the parts of leading people is, instead of micromanaging their work life, you go to them and you do something counterintuitive. You give them something that they're not the best at. So I need my people to get better all the time. But if I only give them the things that they already do well, they're not going to get better. They're just going to knock that out of the park and do it again and again, and eventually it becomes very repetitive, very boring. I want my people cross-trained and I also want them talking to each other in productive ways. So yeah, we can talk about the dog or whatever for awhile, but really I want you having a conversation about how to do your job better. By giving Davy, something that Patricia is good at and giving Patricia something that Davy or Johnny is good at. I then kind of force a mentoring relationship there, where there are productive conversations and people are challenged, and it's interesting, and they are going to do good work, because they're into it. It's counterintuitive, but it's the best way to handle it. You talk to people and you find out what they want to do. And essentially instead of dividing up the work for them, you more give them the ability to divide the work up among themselves. And you hold people accountable, for the bottom line results. Tell me how long this is going to take and then don't give me an excuse or an explanation that you think is an excuse, at the end of that period bring it.

Joel: Do you guys use contractors? Have you ever used contractors? And if not, is there a reason why? I think work from home has forced the question for a lot of companies of saying, "Why do I have full time employees if we're all working from home, anyway, I can just employ contractors from around the globe?" What are your thoughts on that?

Robert: I don't think it's appropriate for our business. So, we want to hire the top one or 2% of programmers and salespeople and their professions, because we believe that you can get 10 times or more the productivity out of the top people, in coding and software architecture, than you can out of average people. And because of that, contractors aren't suitable for us. The other thing is this is why software has gone open source. The reason it's gone open source is big companies can no longer protect their intellectual property, if they're shipping it all over the world to 1000's of people it's out there.

Joel: Yeah.

Robert: So instead of making your money by protecting your source code, you have to make your money by services and value added about those products, and not just by protecting the source code. And our business, we're in a small enough niche with a small enough company. We still are fanatically about protecting our intellectual property and by bringing in contractors, that is not going to be possible.

Chad: Yeah. So when it comes to, again, trying to hold on to that top 1% money, one way to do it, but keeping them interested is I think, even a bigger piece of it, what do you do to ensure that once again, these people, aren't just, making the donuts every day, they're doing something that challenges them. You said that you want to throw different types of tasks at them. Can you give us an example and how your staff actually reacts to some of those projects?

Robert: Well so, for instance, we have two kinds of applications that we do at Sovren. One type is only for our internal use to run our business. And the other type is the product and the SAS service that we deploy publicly. So the cool software for most people coming in is, Oh, I want to do the public stuff. I don't really want to work on the internal apps, but the fact is, is that the internal apps, although they don't get as much, maybe respect day-to-day, are what makes us super productive. One thing that's a problem is if you have a person that is primarily responsible for that internal system, and that's all they do and they leave, that's a bad problem, but they also get too comfortable. So instead of just saying, "I'm going to give you what you're best at." You have to say, "I'm going to show you something else now, I'm going to put you on the product side." Take a product guy and say, "Look, this isn't permanent, but for the next six months or a year, you're going to get in on the internal app side, and I want you to take a fresh look at it, and we're going to work on taking it to another level."

Chad: Well, isn't that, isn't that exciting though. I mean, because we've talked about before, how you hire troubleshooters, right? You hire people that are problem solvers. And if you redirect them and say, "Hey," make them feel special and they're going to, because they should. "We' have a problem over here," or "We would really like to revamp this entire system and we want your eyes on this." Instead of saying, "Well, it's boring because it's an internal system." That's a challenge and you would think that a problem solver would really rise to that. Is that why you do it? And is that what you're seeing from your staff?

Robert: Yeah, that is why we do it. People get stale and when they get stale, they're not really focused on productivity and giving you the greatest value. They're really more in putting in the hours to that point and watching the clock than they are getting in the flow, and doing something that they're super interested in, and doing it well. So you have to remember that, if you keep somebody in the same job for forever, you've done something bad for them and they're not giving you as much as they could either. Neither one of you has done it on purpose, but it was a big mistake.

Chad: It's comfortable.

Robert: It's comfortable and being uncomfortable in a safe environment is what really boosts productivity. Good people like to be challenged.

Joel: Robert, curious about the hiring aspect and a lot of people that are moving to a work from home environment, obviously, hiring is a little bit different, right? They're not coming into a big office enterprise, lobby, meeting folks. You've been doing this for a long time. What tips and tricks would you give to someone that's now hiring in a work from home environment, as opposed to a in person environment?

Robert: So most of our employees that we've hired, I have not met until months after they were hired. And literally never even had a video where I saw who they look or ...

Joel: Really? I think most people would be surprised by that.

Robert: Yeah. We're not interested in what, you know, we're interested in how you got to what, you know, we're interested in. If we give you something you don't know, how are you going to find the information out about that?

Chad: Right.

Robert: You said we want troubleshooting, we want problem solvers. We want people that look at it like, there's an answer out there somewhere. And where am I going to get that answer? And we also challenged people on, how did you vet that answer? Right? So we want people thinking deeply about the task and the best way to accomplish it.

Joel: Right. Let's get granular on this. So I assume you post a job out to the world, people apply and then what? You have a phone conversation, there's no video. Is there any kind of testing or prescreening that you're doing? Is there any litmus test for, there'll be successful working from home? Talk about that.

Robert: So we actually don't very often post jobs. We go to recruiters. So we have a lot of recruiters that are our customers and we have one recruiting firm in particular, we do it multiple times over the years and we go to them, we give them the job and we have them do all of the initial screening.

Joel: Okay.

Robert: And then we will interview those people that they have. They'll go over with us, here are your candidates. We'll select candidates from the candidate pool. And then we'll take typically five, and we'll interview those. So what we're trying to find out, is what the truth is about what you've accomplished. So we find a lot of people list things on their resumes that, I worked on a team that did so-and-so, or like, yeah, but what did you do? Right? So did you write the core algorithm or did you look at the guy that wrote the core algorithm every day when you ate lunch? Right? So, if we really have to drill down to what have you actually done? And then what we try to find out is, some task that we're familiar with, that they are not, and give it to them to do live. And if they can't do it, we can't hire them. If I tell you, go find everything you know about this and write a program that does X, Y, Z, and you can't do it while we watch, you're not our person.

Joel: Yeah.

Chad: If stage fright is a problem, sorry.

Robert: Stage fright is a problem because it's typically a lack of confidence.

Chad: That you've said, "Flow," on a number of occasions and I'm sure that you guys talk about that, because that is, it is not just about getting into work, but it's having the discipline to stay in work and not get distracted. Right? So staying in that flow, how do you know when somebody is getting out of their flow? Because I think this is one of the big issues, that companies are going to have as they see this productivity and then people start falling out of the flow. They don't know how to identify, what's happening, when it's happening and how to counteract it.

Robert: Yeah. So, over management and micromanagement will kill flow every time. Sovren is doing about a third more business today, with 30% less employees than we were about a year and a half ago.

Chad: Wow.

Robert: Okay. And the reason was, is we had a layer of management that was put in, it was supposed to be part time management. So like, we're going to take you and put part of your workday into this management task. And that person decided that they wanted to make it a full time management task. Okay. Well, what they did was systematically destroy the ability of a whole development team to stay in the flow, by constantly contacting people, asking questions, getting on the phone, having long conference calls. And, we had a ton of management and nothing was worth managing. So we actually, don't have that manager anymore. They weren't supposed to turn it into a full time job by taking that person out, what we found is that people now, don't feel like they're being nitpicked, second guessed and taken out of the flow. Because in programming, you can go for an hour in the flow, and it doesn't just seem like five minutes. And if someone interrupts you, it may take another hour to get back to that.

Chad: Yeah.

Robert: So if you look in golf or in tennis, the people that are winning the tournament, they're in the flow. So what do you do in tennis when your opponents crush you?

Chad: Try to break their flow.

Robert: Exactly. So you suddenly get a horrible cramp.

Chad: Yeah.

Robert: Now we got totake 15 minutes out. Yeah, of course, it's a strategy.

Chad: Are you arguing with the ref?

Robert: Exactly. So let's talk about one of the things that's going on right now. I just talked to a lot of people around town and they're like, oh, I am so happy that I can work from home now. And I'm like, oh, you realize that your real wages have been kept, your real wage is at its peak right now. And they're like, what are you talking about? Work from home is actually a disaster, for middle management jobs and most white collar jobs. You want to talk about why that is?

Joel: Sure.

Robert: Alright. Well let's just say that I'm in Austin. I have an office in Austin and everybody has come in the office all day long. All right, I need a person that can do X, Y and the pool of people that can get to my office every day and do X Y is within a what? 40, 50 mile radius of that office. Alright, Austin is 11th biggest city in the United States, 1.6 million people I think. Fine, what if now I no longer have to worry about people coming into the office. I can hire somebody from anywhere. I don't care if they're on the phone, 10 feet away, or on the phone, two continents away. What do I care? Just the conversation is the same. Now, the people that I can draw from to do your job is, let's just narrow it, it's everybody in the United States. So it's a 200 times bigger job pool, bad news for you is, I guarantee you, in that 200 times bigger pool, I will find somebody who's actually better than you at your job and willing to work for less wage.

Chad: Ouch.

Joel: Yeah.

Robert: Yes. This is a disaster for good earning people and white collar jobs right now. And people are like, oh, this is fantastic, I can work from anywhere. I look at them and I say... And let me explain how that works. You will work from everywhere. I travel about 40% of the time and I'll spend a month or two on personal travel and a month or two on business travel, every year. My personal travel looks like my business travel, but I take the 80/20 rule and flip it. Right? So I'm going to carve out, a known area of time for me today, that I want you to bring me questions or things that need talking about.

Joel: Yeah.

Robert: And then only contact me for an emergency after that. That's when I'm on vacation, but I have to do that every single day, no matter where I am. I can literally be 10,000 feet up on a mountain in the Tetons and I have to check my phone.

Joel: One of our favorite guests, has been Douglas Atkin, who wrote a book on branding. And he was head of culture at Airbnb. And we've bridged this topic about work from home. And he's not a fan at all for the reasons of company culture, sort of what he calls, rubbing together until it becomes sticky. So rubbing employees together until, the culture becomes something that's prevalent. Is culture important to your organization and in a work from home setup, how do you keep culture alive? How do you cultivate it? How important is it in the world, that we're seeing going forward?

Robert: I think people have to know what you stand for and why you're in business, and how you go about

your business. So one of the things we want people to do, is always know that they are valued here. If you treat your employees poorly, they will treat your customers poorly.

Chad: Amen.

Robert: If you blame your employees for everything that goes wrong, whether it was their fault or not, they will treat your customers that are having problems, as if those customers are personally failing you.

Joel: And culture is probably more important in bigger organizations. They're important in every organization, but my guess is if you had 500 plus employees, keeping the culture would be more important than having, a dozen.

Robert: It's surprisingly important in a company like ours. So, I was talking to our accountant. So we have an internal accountant, CPA that works for us and her replacement, the woman that she replaced, trained her. And she made a comment the other day that, "Yeah, when she trained me ..." The first thing that really caught my attention is she said, "We don't let people bully us." She goes, "This may a small company and we have literally the largest companies in the world as our customers, but we do not get bullied. So we will work with anybody and work with where you are, and what you have, and what you need, we're going to try to fit your needs, but we will not let you dictate to us and bully us just because you're bigger."

Chad: Not to mention, and correct me if I'm wrong, your culture is, and you're picking the people, which obviously creates that culture, is one of the reasons why you can be so damned efficient and so damned good at what you do, with not having 500 people, right? So it has to be important.

Robert: Correct? We have to have everybody that believes that they are being treated fairly by the company and fairly on a relative sense. So remember, the biggest morale killer in a company is the person that continues to irritate all the other employees, by getting management attention, while they are basically mucking up the company and tormenting everyone else. Again, when we got rid of the management layer we didn't need, productivity soared. And we found out that people despised the person that was in that job.

Chad: Yeah. And that's a message to all those companies out there, who probably have two or three layers of management, which are redundant and also a pain in the ass. You probably don't need those now, let alone in a work from home scenario, but Robert man, we appreciate you bringing yourself, not to mention your knowledge of actually having a company who've done this. Because again, we have so many companies that are out there today, who see this as a new way forward, but they don't understand the potholes in the road. So thank for bringing those potholes.

Robert: All right, guys. Thanks for having my honor. It's always good.

Joel: Thanks Robert.

Robert: Thank you guys.

Chad: We out.

Joel: We out.

Outro: This has been The Chad and Cheese podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts, so you don't miss a single show. And be sure to check out our sponsors, because they make it all possible. For more visit, Oh yeah, you're welcome.

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