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Remote Career Development: Terry Kasdan Of University of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign On How To Advance and Enhance Your Career When You Are Working Remotely

An Interview With David Liu

Distractions: For me, this has never been a problem. I realized from Day 1 that this is my job and my livelihood; I just happen to do it from home. When I’m in my home office, I am at work and I leave all the distractions of home outside my office door. Still, I can have lunch with my kids when they’re home from school. Or, as I mentioned, leave early to coach their hockey teams. But those are not distractions; those are the privileges of working from home.

Career development is the ongoing process of choosing, improving, developing, and advancing your career. This involves learning, making decisions, collaboration with others and knowing yourself well enough to be able to continually assess your strengths and weaknesses. This can be challenging enough when you work in an office, but what if you work remotely? How does remote work affect your career development? How do you nurture and advance your career when you are working from home and away from other colleagues? How can you help your employees do this? To address these questions, we started an interview series called “How To Advance and Enhance Your Career When You Are Working Remotely”. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Kasdan.

Terry Kasdan co-founded atCommunications, LLC, an award-winning Web development and digital marketing agency located in Northbrook, Illinois. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

In 1999 my wife Abby and I co-founded at Communications. Since then we have had the privilege to design, program, host, and promote more than 1,000 Web sites and mobile apps for clients spanning a broad spectrum of industries and issues — from Fortune 500 companies like McDonald’s, Microsoft, Pepsi, Pfizer, and State Farm, to Grammy-winning artist Shakira’s charitable organization, the Barefoot Foundation. I’m also really proud of the opportunity I’ve been given to teach media entrepreneurship to advertising students in the University of Illinois’ College of Media.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Today is my 5,109th day working from home! My firm, atCommunications, is a virtual digital marketing agency. That means we don’t have a central office and everyone we employ works in different locations, including many (like me) from their homes. When we started working virtually in 1999, some prospective clients were disappointed to hear we didn’t have a lavish Michigan Avenue office in downtown Chicago. But over the course of the next 23 years that perception did a complete 180° (starting even before the pandemic struck). Today’s clients very much appreciate the tremendous overhead we save by not maintaining expensive office space, and the fact that we pass those savings on to them. But don’t be mistaken — we’re not at home working from our dining room tables. In 23 years we’ve used the (many thousands of dollars) office rent we saved to build out and trick out our home offices with the very latest technology and collaboration tools (our infrastructure is just as advanced as any downtown agency’s). We’re able to meet with each other, and with clients, in-person or virtually any time we need to. And best of all, on days like today when my high schooler finishes his last final exam at noon, I’m already at home to have lunch with him!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Shortly after starting our agency, I went to meet a prospective new client — the marketing directors at a regional bank — and being under the assumption that the banking industry is more conservative and traditional than other industries, I wore a business suit to the meeting. Generally speaking the dress code in creative industries like advertising and Web design spans from really casual (t-shirt and jeans if you’re not meeting clients) to business casual (khakis and a collared shirt if a client is coming). But surely, I thought, bankers would expect me to be dressed more traditionally. When we didn’t land the client, I asked why and was told, “Your presentation was terrific but we thought you were a little too conservative and traditional.” It was totally the suit, and from then on I vowed always to be (for better or for worse) myself.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Ferris Bueller said, ““Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” I live and work in Northbrook, Illinois, which is known fictionally as Shermer, Illinois and was Ferris Bueller’s hometown in the classic 1986 movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” In fact, the junior high school I attended is situated directly across the street from the high school at which many of the movie’s scenes were shot, and for several days in 1985 my friends and I watched during our lunch recess as scenes from the movie were being filmed. That was more than 35 years ago, and life has moved fast since then. Owning my own business and working from home enabled me to coach both of my boys’ travel hockey teams — to leave work a little early when their teams had 4PM practices or take off on Fridays when they had out-of-state tournaments. Sometimes I’ll stay up late or work on Saturday because the work still needs to get done. But I can say with a great deal of pride and satisfaction that I can’t remember the last time work caused me to miss one of my boys’ school plays, holiday concerts, or sporting events. Ferris Bueller would be happy to know that I haven’t missed a thing.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?

It’s really very simple: trust them. You hired them for a reason, right? If you don’t have complete faith in their ability to do the work you hired them to do, then you shouldn’t continue employing them. Since our firm is entirely virtual, I don’t have the luxury (or curse) of checking in on employees every moment during the day. But even if I did, I wouldn’t. I don’t hire people just to micro-manage them. I hire them to do a job and I trust they’ll do it well.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunities but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits and opportunities of working remotely?

Simply speaking, working remotely gives you back control of your days. You can schedule personal appointments without having to ask permission to leave the office. You can have lunch with your child if he has a day off from school, or leave early on Friday to get a head start on the weekend. You can also take time out of your days to pursue other opportunities. For example, I have the privilege to teach an entrepreneurship class to juniors and seniors in the University of Illinois’ College of Media every Tuesday and Thursday from 1:00 to 2:20PM. This is a luxury I don’t think I’d have if I was working in a “traditional” office and constantly surrounded by other people.

But this arrangement only works if you’re committed to getting your work done — even if that means occasionally working late at night, or over the weekend, to catch up.

Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding working remotely?

1. Distractions: For me, this has never been a problem. I realized from Day 1 that this is my job and my livelihood; I just happen to do it from home. When I’m in my home office, I am at work and I leave all the distractions of home outside my office door. Still, I can have lunch with my kids when they’re home from school. Or, as I mentioned, leave early to coach their hockey teams. But those are not distractions; those are the privileges of working from home.

2. The tendency to overwork: Because the office is so close (just steps away!), it’s easy to step in at night or over the weekend to do “one quick thing.” And before you know it one thing turns into another, and two or three hours fly by. Since I don’t have to commute home at 5:00, I don’t mind staying a bit longer in the afternoon to finish up. But once work is done, the office is closed and I try (but am not always successful!) not to go back until the next day.

3. Having the technology needed to succeed: Without the right technology, it’s almost impossible to work productively from home. Few things are more frustrating — and bigger wastes of time — than using an outdated computer that works at a snail’s pace, having old software that’s incompatible with the files people send you, or an unreliable Internet connection. In my firm’s case, investing in the latest technology to keep our agency “virtual” allows us to save a lot more on overhead by not needing an office (which would still need to be equipped with the latest technology).

4. Working together with others: Since co-workers aren’t in the same building, I have to be much more intentional about communicating and meeting with them during the course of the week. This is much easier now than it was when I started 23 years ago! Back then, sharing files involved burning them onto CDs and driving them across town or shipping them to where they needed to go. And of course, we didn’t have the luxury of attending meetings on Zoom.

5. Staying connected with others: On a related note, working from home and not seeing colleagues every day leaves some people feeling isolated. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even in the age of Zoom meetings, I still plan in-person meetings with partners and clients all the time.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? Can you give a story or example for each?

If the work you do at home is just a side gig or a hobby, so be it. But if you want it to be your career, then you need to treat it as if your livelihood depends on it. This means you need to set aside a dedicated space to serve as your office. You also need to invest in the same tools and technology other businesses in your industry use to compete against you. When we finished the basement in our “forever home,” we carved out a state-of-the-art office away from everything else — set apart from the kids’ playroom with not one but two sets of French doors — and furnished it comfortably (for all the hours I spend in it!). When I’m in my office, I’m there to work. And likewise, even though my office is still in my home, when I’m finished at the end of the day it’s far enough away to keep me from wandering in and overworking (as they say, out of sight, out of mind!).

Let’s talk about Career Development. Can you share a few ideas about how you can nurture and advance your career when you are working from home and away from other colleagues?

Just because you work from home doesn’t mean you work alone! This is a common misperception people have. Every day I meet with people (colleagues, clients, friends, etc.) in person and on Zoom, no differently than I would if I worked in a traditional office. I persistently tell my students that one of the best ways to advance their careers is to grow their personal networks — after all, the more people they know, the more doors they have to open — and working from home should not impact a person’s ability to meet new people. If you feel like you’re struggling to meet people, then get out of the house. Go to a seminar, networking event, or trade show. Volunteer to help small businesses in your community or a non-profit organization. Everyone you meet becomes part of your personal network, and when the time comes for you to take the next step all of those people will be rooting for (and potentially helping) you.

Can you share a few ideas about how employers or managers can help their team with career development?

I believe everyone should have a passion project (or multiple passion projects) related to their careers. These aren’t jobs you’re doing to generate revenue; instead you’re doing them to inspire you. Managers should encourage employees to pursue their own passion projects. The satisfaction and joy humans get from working on their passion projects renews their purpose and fills them with energy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would echo the words of Ferris Bueller, and make sure everyone stops to look around once in a while. In the blink of an eye my firm, atCommunications, celebrated it’s tenth anniversary in 2009. I blinked again, and now it’s 2022 and we’re celebrating 23 years. Advancing a career, managing a business, these are not easy things to do. But they shouldn’t be all-encompassing. I’m more than two decades into my career and I still love what I do now as much as I did when I started. I believe that’s due in large part to the fact that I don’t resent my job like some people do — I never allowed it to keep me from the things I really love, pursuing my own hobbies and passions, and being with my family.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Let’s grow our personal networks together! Connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know you read this interview. Also, follow my firm on Facebook (@atCommunications), Instagram (@atCommLLC), and Twitter (@atCommLLC) to see the work we’ve done, the work we’re doing, and the things that interest us. I also love sharing on these accounts some of the amazing work my students do in the entrepreneurship class I teach at the University of Illinois. Every semester they out-do themselves!

Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.

You’re welcome! Thank you so much for this opportunity!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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David Liu

David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication

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