Working well remotely – Good Earth Matters

Good Earth Matters may be small but its staff are based all over New Zealand. Thanks to Annette Sweeney, the company’s managing director and principal environmental engineer, this remoteness is embraced and supported. 

How did you come to have such a remote workforce? 

Our industry has a very low turnover compared to before covid. People are looking after their teams and providing good opportunities. We’re currently focused on growing our capacity through professional development of our team rather than actively recruiting. This means we are thoughtful about the work we choose to take on, but that’s a good thing too. Our team is part of our long term plan so we’re making sure we have a highly productive and effective team and that everything is ticking along smoothly. 

We recognise that not everyone wants to live in Palmerston North (where we have our office) and so we support team members’ needs to have a good working space wherever they live. This is vital regardless of whether they work from home or in a co-working space. One of our team lives on a lifestyle block outside of Wairoa so the company funds a rented cabin just across her driveway that gives her the space and separation she needs.

We have amazing tools and opportunities for remote working. We’ve been able to build a team that is aligned with what we’re about, our just cause, and who wants to work for Good Earth Matters through providing for remote teams and flexible working. Ninety percent of our company is female and work part-time. We have six working mums out of a company of nine.

How do you look after your team members given their remoteness?

We do all the usual things such as support Mental Health Awareness Week and so on. But we have implemented several other initiatives too.

Part of our support team’s role is to do regular check-ins with the team and be my eyes and ears because we don’t have those ‘water cooler conversations’. We try to be very purposeful about it because we are a fully remote team.

We have regular touch points throughout the week where we all come together. One is focused on project work and coordination, professional development (resilience, wellbeing, team building, getting to know each other, what’s happening in the industry, team presentations). Then there is personal development within the professional realm.  We also have a social morning tea and get together. 

These are all very important because it’s easy for people to become quite isolated and for online work to become very transactional and project-focused. It can be difficult to gauge how people are going as it’s easy to hide through screen interaction. We have a constant awareness of needing to make time and space to see where people are at. 

We also recently instigated quarterly work-place surveys for a more structured check-in. A key part of this is checking whether employees are seeing a connection between the work they’re doing and our just cause and values. The survey focuses on alignment because meaningful work is a huge contributor to wellbeing. 

The survey asks about the type of work employees are undertaking. We have a model based on energising, neutral or draining work. This can refer to technical details such as how a project is set up. We’re aware it’s hard to achieve the perfect ratio but we’re trying to understand where the work falls for different people. What is energising for some will be draining for others, so the surveys allow us to form an understanding and share the load more. Making sure people’s workloads are energising is very important to us and, where possible, we will reassign or remove work where it falls into that draining element.

The survey also asks whether people have enough time to complete their work, if it is within their capabilities, whether they’re bored or stretched and more.

We’ve only had three rounds of surveys so far but have already gained some great insights. We’re trying to find different avenues of engaging with the team, which include team discussions, online meetings, administration team check-ins, and these quarterly surveys.

To me, it all comes down to whether you care about your team. We need to treat each person as an individual, and try to find space for them to be in and have conversations. We need to be purposeful about it because it’s easy to be caught up in the act of consulting and meeting your client’s needs, and all the other daily pressures. We need to try and be genuine and authentic. Some days we do it well, other days less so. 

Do you think your processes to support remote team members are working well?

I often think that we’re not doing enough. I’m also not the best person to gauge how well we are doing. Our team is the best judge of wellbeing because then you really know how what you’re doing is perceived.

Our quarterly surveys indicate we’re on the right track but there is always room for improvement. The surveys were developed by the team following ACE workshops in 2022 that focused on mental wellbeing in the business health and safety forum. I tasked our team to come up with survey questions. They also felt quarterly surveys were enough. We will keep reviewing the surveys. There was also much discussion about what we’ll do with the information from the surveys. If you’re going to ask the questions, you need to be prepared to act on the feedback that comes in. It must be taken seriously.

You’re also working with the Te Whare Tapa Wha framework. Why do you use this model?

The Te Whare Tapa Wha framework has five parts. These are who we are and what we are about; wellbeing – how we look after our team; client duty of care; how we deliver on our just cause and client duty of care, and work as a team; governance and ownership. We’ve used this model since 2020 when I took over the company and we really started to focus on wellbeing.

We’re currently redeveloping and updating our policies and procedures. We’re putting together a guidebook, which sets out the principles and values underlying the business and how we go about our work. 

We’re grounding the Te Whare Tapa Wha model in our wellbeing policy. It’s one the company endorses and it’s shared through the guidebook as a model for wellbeing if it helps you. There are many different models around wellbeing and we encourage people to try and find something that fits with them. We endorse this model because it talks about the whole person. It involves your family and social wellbeing, where you’re from, spirituality, mental and emotional wellbeing, and physical wellbeing. 

We also like that it is a Te ao Maori model because it fits well with the work we do, particularly in the water space in New Zealand. We are strong supporters of the co-governance model and much of the work we do is around facilitating partnerships and helping our clients build those partnerships with tangata whenua. The legislation we work under requires us to give effect to the Treaty principles, and to Te Mana o te Wai, so we have to be more comfortable bringing that approach into our work. This model helps reinforce that as well.

The model can also be a good reminder when people are struggling as it’s almost a diagnostic tool. For example, it can remind you about the need to get out and exercise. It brings balance. It’s also a simple model with a structure that we understand. We are practical people. 

How do you look after your own wellbeing?

I have some fantastic people who keep me accountable. My principal planner and PA make sure I prioritise my wellbeing.

I enjoy bike rides and always have a ride planned. I find it hard to disconnect when I take my annual leave if I’m not doing something active. If I go on a bike ride, I’m out of contact and focused on riding. You won’t hear from me. I also have certain events in my calendar that are non negotiable such as my tramping group in summer and an annual weekend away with friends in Hanmer Springs.

I’m taking six weeks out next year in February and March to ride the Tour Aotearoa trail. Taking the managing director out of a company our size for that amount of time is daunting for fee-income reasons, but we’ve budgeted for it and I’m confident the team will thrive while I’m away. 

About 18 months ago, I also fulfilled a dream of having a holiday home to share with friends and family, and that was close to riding trails and water in the central North Island. It’s my happy place. I go there regularly and find it easy to unwind there. 

I also try to eat well and exercise. I’m learning that I can’t look after others if I don’t look after myself. 

Do you have any further wellbeing initiatives that you’d like to pursue?

Another interest of mine is how you support company leaders’ wellbeing. Many leaders work hard to support their teams, and often their clients, and there’s a heavy load that can come with this. I understand that you need to put yourself first but also what else can we do? 

Engineering New Zealand set up monthly employers’ forums during covid times, which are hugely valuable. I’ve suggested to ACE that something like this would also be helpful; it would be voluntary, and focus on technical discussions as well as be a check-in, such as discussing issues employers are currently facing. It’s beneficial to know that others are grappling with the same thing. At the moment, the set up is in geographical sub-groups and most of the consultants in our area aren’t in the same field as us. It would be beneficial to have something more aligned with company discipline or size. 

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