YANN TOUTANT is the CEO of Econocom NL, the €6bn digital services company in the Netherlands, as well as the President of the French Chamber of Commerce in the Netherlands. Yann is a strong believer in the ‘location independence’ movement. He believes the associated focus on experiences versus possessions presents a new opportunity to Corporates. In this interview, we talk about how companies can get themselves remote ready.
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Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lissette: Great, and we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lissette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today on the line from my home country, the Netherlands, I have Yann Toutant and you Yann you are the CEO of Econocom Netherlands, and also the president of the French Chamber of Commerce here in the Netherlands. So I want to dive into your experience in terms of what Econocom does and some of your experience with different cultures but let’s start with the first question, what does your virtual office look like? What do you need to get your work done?
Yann: Well, first of all, hello, and thank you for welcoming me on your podcast. My office is very simple, I just need a computer, a laptop with a good WiFi connection and that’s it. I could even put down to an iPhone or a smartphone, that would be enough but I must admit that I’m still in need of a computer, user keyboard, and a hard disk.
Lissette: The keyboard makes it handy.
Yann: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. And also the size of the screen. But basically, that’s all I need. I need a good computer and a WiFi connection and I’m working. And of course, work is not always behind a computer. There’s also some networking work to be done, talking to customers, partners, it’s not always behind the screen. If I look at the time that I spend working in my position behind the screen, it’s about I would say four to five hours a day and the rest of the time it’s more on interacting with people.
Lissette: Okay, that’s about it. That’s work for me.
Yann: Do you work from one particular place or is it a variety of places?
Yann: I like to be triggered by different locations. I like to work from different spaces and that’s also what I advise a lot of people and starting with the employees of the company. I believe in the fact that you can be triggered by changing the working environment as much as possible. I have for that principle which I call the remote work ladder, four steps to go remote for the people which are not remote today, for corporate organizations that are looking for a solution for remote work. First of all, is to be remote in your own office. So make sure that the office space you offer to your employees is fully flexible. And that will make the people already are flexible in the office. Meaning that every day people have to sit to another desk and they got don’t have a fixed position and managers have no fixed office. So everybody at the same level, and that will make the people starting to be used to change, sit to change levels. That’s what and so on it will be used to be fully digitized when it comes to their work. You can’t be changing places every day if you still have to carry your paper with you.
Yann: So that’s the first step to be able then to be remote outside of the office. And always advise taking baby steps. And the first baby step is to work from partners and suppliers and customers. You have a meeting with a customer at 11 to 12. And you have a productivity afternoon in front of you just stay there and as this customer to host you for the afternoon.
Lissette: Great relationship building,
Yann: Of course, plus the inspiration of the DNA of this company that you’re going to be joining for half a day and that’s step two. The step number three is to work from co-working spaces. So I love to work from, you know, if I don’t have to come to the office after a customer I never stay home, I just moved to a co-working space close to my own and there are plenty. And I work from there which is very inspiring because a co-working space has the… they all have the wish to differentiate from each other by creating communities and organizing events and making you feel part of a community so you join a work-related community that is not your company and you get a lot of insights.
Yann: And the last of the four steps that I advise is to take long weekends or extend your holidays and work from your destination. So instead of playing on a Friday afternoon for a weekend and flying back on a Sunday evening and being on a crowded and very expensive flight, just fly on a Thursday afternoon and come back on Monday evening. You pay half of the price and Friday and Monday you just do remote work from where you are
Lissette: And explore a little bit about you can take extra walks on those days or-
Yann: Try something.
Yann: Yeah and on Monday morning when we would wake up if we’re on the seaside for example, you will ever swim in the sea before starting your work, which you would not do if you live in the city unless you have a city under the seaside but this is a way to take distance also. And every people I discuss this matter with they all agree that when you work remotely when you work on the sideline of your business, you have more distance and you think different and you act different and your productivity is higher. So this is also bringing a lot of value to your business, which people would think ‘well he’s escaping,’ and in fact, no, you’re more, you’re even more in by having a distance
Lissette: With the help of an additional perspective or a step away or-
Lissette: Yeah, indeed, I would think going to the same place even, I mean I love working from home but being in the same place every single day. I indeed noticed that I start to think the same way I’ve got the same patterns I do the… so it’s really important to get out and about. I’m really curious. So you say you never work from home. Why is that?
Yann: I believe home is not the place to work and also one of the challenge I face to implement remote work is that management leaders have quite some restrictions or some I would say they are… they think that if people will work from home, they will not be working, they will be doing the laundry or-
Lissette: Swimming in the sea.
Yann: Swimming in the sea. So if you directly associate remote work to home office, then it creates some tensions in your organization. So I prefer to say home is not a place to work because it’s not working on vitamins. And I prefer to say that if you want to work from home or close to your own, go to a co-working space instead of staying home.
Lissette: Make sense?
Lissette: So in your LinkedIn profile, and some of the things that I’ve read, you said, it says that you’re a strong believer in the location independent movement that focuses on impressions versus possessions, and this offers new opportunities to corporations. What do you mean by that?
Yann: Yeah. I am convinced that the whole economy is going to use edge-based economy. So we’re going to use things instead of owning things, we’re going to enjoy things instead of having to manage things. And I’m thinking about, of course what is of use all of us, Netflix, Spotify, those are examples where if you think about Netflix before Netflix, you had to go to the store to rent a DVD. And then, of course, the DVD you want is never there available. So you take another one, and you’re back home with your DVD and then you have to put it in a player and maybe the remote control batteries are dead, so you have to change the batteries and before you start watching a movie, one hour later, you have got a lot of frustrations. Netflix, you just use any device anywhere and you start and it works. So it’s about the usage. You could even buy some DVDs at the time and you would buy them up and do your TV and you will only look at them once so. The whole economy is going this way, in a service model. And this is something I believe that is very interesting when it comes to remote work and location independence, because you can have a life that is not related to a place only if you are only using the devices that are on the services that are available without owning them. So basically, I’m talking about Airbnb, for example, I’m talking about [inaudible 09:29] in Holland, where you can rent a bike and not buy a bike anymore. So all those services allow you to focus on the experience, instead of the ownership of the solution or the device or the service that will provide you the experience. You just focus on the experience without having the burden to organize the experience. That’s what I summarized by impressions versus possessions. I like to spend money in impressions in experiences, and not in positions because if I possess, I need to maintain, insure, being even forced to use it. If I use, I use what I need and that’s it. So that’s an example of… that is, for example, I live in a very tiny apartment. And I have a local commission for example.
Lissette: How’s that possible?
Yann: If I want a coffee, well, first of all, it reduces my coffee consumption. And if I want a coffee, I need to walk downstairs to the balance there and then I would meet another atmosphere, I will meet people and I will have impressions, experiences.
Lissette: Wow, that’s extreme. It sounds extreme.
Yann: That’s extreme yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lissette: Like [inaudible 10:55] I want… based on this, this use based economy, this service model, this actually ties really nicely into the company. You have Econocom and actually when I started learning about it, I thought ‘oh I’ve got to talk to you more, I’ve got to have you on this podcast,’ because this is a really interesting system that I think sounds like the future. I mean, it makes sense to me. So let’s explain what does the Econocom do?
Yann: Yeah, with Econocom we bring into the business world, what we are used to having as individuals. So I give the example of Netflix, Spotify, we use it as a new door, but when they come to organizations, organizations still have to buy, maintain, service, their equipment, and some specific equipment are already in this model of as a service that record. I’m thinking about the copy machines to make the copies, I’m thinking about the coffee machines to make the coffee, I’m thinking about the cars, most of the cars are in a service model but there’s still a lot of devices in organizations that are not in those models. And organizations are still buying the equipment, maintaining the equipment, and so on and so on. What we offer it Econocom is to create solutions for our customers, to bring them on a silver plate do usage of the technology and not the ownership. I will give a concrete example. One of the customers that we have are schools, the primary schools, and primary schools struggle to go to E-learning, why? Because the schools have to buy software, they have to buy tablets, and they have to service those tablets and it’s not the core business of a school to manage a fleet of tablets. What we have created for the schools is a solution that is bringing on a silver plate, complete a learning environment that includes the software, the tablet, the maintenance, the insurance, the WiFi, the digital boards in the classroom, and all that for eight euros per kid per month.
Lissette: Wow, that’s less than Netflix.
Yann: This is an example of… that’s less than Netflix. So you can choose E-learning on Netflix, it’s cheaper to go to E-learning. Now, this example I like to give because this is making very concrete what we do is to take the different components of a project and to integrate them into a solution and to offer the solution in a price per month. So then the user can focus on the usage and only the usage and these kinds of problems.
Lissette: While the teacher can focus on teaching not on ‘oh my gosh! how do I get this iPad working?
Yann: Exactly, exactly.
Lissette: So with this then also… so a lot of times when I go into needs to give workshops a lot of people say ‘our hands are tied on the tools that we’re allowed to use because, at our company, everybody has to use Microsoft Teams and x video platform.’ So in this case, this would solve a problem like that where you could say, actually, if your company wanted to be more flexible, where some teams were using these conferencing tool and some other teams wanted to use Microsoft Teams that you guys could then provide sort of that flexibility for people to branch out. So the whole company doesn’t have to use exactly the same tool, because that’s really an old fashioned idea. Seems to me, I mean, it seems efficient and say in a lot of ways that everybody’s using the same things, but different teams have different needs.
Yann: Yeah, yeah of course, what we like to offer in this case is to have some standards. So not going into every direction because the management of a fleet of technology, we have customers, we have 700 meeting rooms, for example, you have to manage all the meeting rooms, you have to have some, some standout, some standardization but you can afford for only one, you can afford standardization and then according to the needs you have as user, you can choose the one that fits you the best that specific day. And what we offer in this case is to be complete, independent from the technology so we can make this solution with any technology, we don’t mind in fact,
Lissette: So some people want to use zoom, some people want to use Team, some people want to use it doesn’t matter to you guys, you’re just setting up the infrastructure.
Yann: Yes, yes.
Lissette: Brilliant, really brilliant. So what’s the worst conference room setups you’ve seen? You must have some terrible ones.
Yann: Well, I must say that I’ve seen only a few good ones.
Yann: Yeah, yeah this is really… the video conferencing. Systems, everybody says that when you need to do video conferencing, you enter into the room. You don’t know how it works, you find a new remote control you’ve never seen before. There is a cable that is unplugged. You need to call the helpdesk. You have two guys coming and they’re like, they also don’t know, but they do their best and fifteen minutes later you start to have someone on your screen. That’s so common, so common.
Lissette: Why is that because this is the primary means that people are communicating with each other amongst their companies, right? Multinational companies struggle, I hear it too, totally not surprised. I’m sure everybody listening to this podcast is like, ‘yeah, that’s my company,’ but so why are we making more of an effort to improve this system? I don’t know if you know the answer, but-
Yann: Yeah, well, I have a start of an answer. It has been for long it has been managed by facility management in the organization. So this portfolio belongs to facility managers, and facility managers most of the time will have an approach to management room by room due to the budget allocations that are also being given. What happens today is that those systems are connected to the IP technology of the company because they have to be online. So, they are creating a bridge of security in the backbone of the company. So, the spot for you is going now to the IT directors because they become part of the IT infrastructure and its directors are used to have one, two or three-stall outs for their equipment and suddenly they face sixty different rooms with sixty different suppliers. And so the management of it is very complex. And there we step in to help them to turn this in fleet management and to help them to manage their meeting rooms as a fleet. As a fleet, meaning that you have three different types of rooms and you have one player that does all the service of these rooms, and you again, pay a monthly price for it and again this [inaudible 18:02] for free service.
Lissette: And you can change it anytime, right? There’s no like.
Yann: You can change it any time.
Lissette: Yeah which seems like given that new technologies come out every day, you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a ten-year contract.
Lissette: Something given-
Yann: Of course not.
Lissette: Yeah, I get emails for new tools every single day. So the market is really developing fast in this area.
Yann: Yeah, yeah and then this is the link with remote work we discussed before because the office space is becoming a place to collaborate. So people come to the office only if they need to collaborate. But if they have to work on their own, they don’t come to the office. So, if you are able to provide great collaborative features in your office, then you also promote sorry, remote work, while keeping contact with your employees because they will come to enjoy the collaboration features that you provide that you will never find elsewhere.
Lissette: Right. Right, because you’ve got the infrastructure in place. There’s they can’t get in a co-working space of course or at home. That’s an easy setup. Right? So then it changes then from the office space being just a place where people come in to do work to a place where actually if people only come in when they need to collaborate, and then they’ve got all the infrastructure that they need in order to do it. So that means though, then, a lot of downsizing of offices I’m assuming since not everybody has to be there all the time.
Yann: Well, here I am, six for ten. So we have six seats for ten people and it’s no problem. I would not talk about downsizing because those collaborative environments, if they are well installed, well prepared, and they take quite some space also. I’m talking about immersive collaboration room, so rooms with big screens, where the sound is being integrated and you really can share your creativity and the files you’re working on and the ideas you have with other people involved and it requires quite some space and some [inaudible 20:06]
Lissette: Right and also people learning how to use the technology and how to interact with these kind of new.
Yann: Yes correct yeah, yeah.
Lissette: Yeah, so I’m curious. So given that people in your company they’re allowed to work from anywhere, how do you guys stay aligned? How does everybody know what each other are doing? And then you’re all focused on the on the same goal? Do you have some sort of a team agreement in place for how you all behave like some core rules that everybody has to follow? How do you guys stay aligned?
Yann: Yeah well first of all, we have very strong mission statements that make it clear for everybody that what you’re doing today, is what you’re doing today contributing to the mission statement of the company. That is very important, what are you doing now is contributing to the mission statement, if not well. And the second thing that is important if I’m doing someone else’s job, who is doing my job. So am I doing precisely what nobody else can do in your organization? If not, then we have a problem also, means that people are not at the right place. So those are questions that I’m asking the people to think about very often. I’m I contributing to the purpose and am I in line with my work, job description, meaning that I’m doing something that nobody else can do. And then it creates already a self-sufficient platform for people to be able to know if they are acting in the right direction and of course, we have job descriptions, which are very much focused on the output. So where do I need to produce? What is the outcome of my work? And this output has to be achieved, how they want. So I’m not asking people to do a certain number of hours or to be here, you have to do the output, no matter how they have to organize themselves to reach this output.
Lissette: Okay? So you’re saying, Hey, here’s the goal, how you get there, I don’t care how you get there, as long as it’s, of course, you know, within the values of the company and legal, I don’t care how you get there, but when you get there, we’ll discuss how-
Yann: And your contribution to this goal is in your job description, in the output of your job description.
Lissette: Okay, and are there core hours that everybody has to work or is it-?
Yann: It depends on the jobs, of course, we have jobs that are customer-facing related. So of course, you have to be available for your customers but for the one who doesn’t have to afford some drugs are customer-facing related but not always facing customer so then you can decide to work when you want for those people
Lissette: So really is just results-based, it’s not you don’t really care if it’s done before 5 pm but in its results based also means making your customers happy so just make sense to be there when your customer okay. And you may have answered this with your climbing the remote working ladder answer with your four steps to go remote. I really, really like that. But it says also in your profile that you want corporates, that you’re in a mission to get corporates remote ready.
Lissette: And is this what you meant with your climbing the ladder or so that they are able to work?
Yann: This is a tool, this is an easy way to understand the steps to be remote ready. If we take a bit of a distance to…to this principle. The future of work is remote and convinced of that, the future of work is remote. We are used to two things I like to mention. The first thing is when you are looking for talents, and you look at them within one hour commuting time of your office. So you take your office and you draw one hour commuting time, which is roughly what you will ask for the people maximum two hours and if they say ‘ah two hours,’ you say ‘maybe I will take someone else.’ So basically, you look at your talents in a circle that is one hour distance from your office. Just take a map of the world and draw the circle.
Lissette: Yeah, you’d need a really big map to be able to draw any sort of circle yeah.
Yann: Yeah, so you’re fishing in a bounce that is so small compared to what the world has to offer for talents, how can you reduce this? Why? Because you want to see the people every day in the office. What’s the connection? So I believe that we are used to bringing people to work together at the same place since the Industrial Revolution, where before the Industrial Revolution, the people that were producing shoes, for example, were doing from A to Z the shoes they were producing on their own and then the industrial revolution has sliced the work different steps. So you need to be people next to each other to do one step after each other. So you need to bring everyone to one place at a certain time in the day and during a certain amount of hours. And of course, the industrial revolution has developed to some offices, some services and we moved to a service economy, but still we asked the people to come to the office and to work next to each other where this idea of tasks that are being sliced from one to another, are not existing anymore, especially with the technologies we have today. So, I believe that we still have this legacy of the Industrial Revolution, where we asked people to come to a place to deliver their work, we still have this legacy into the office environment, which is nonsense.
Lissette: Yeah, it starts to make less and less sense over time, it seems but then I’m really biased over it. However, I do feel like there are some people that are still not, they can’t do that. They don’t have the discipline or they get really lonely and they don’t know how to get their own social needs met. You know, there are people that are unable to do this,
Yann: Of course.
Lissette: Seems like there’s probably enough offices for them.
Yann: Yeah and you know what… no but you can have a full distributed workforce with anyone and know anyone out of an office and office. Or you can have a fully integrated workforce with everyone at the office every day and you can have a [inaudible 27:12] models where you can have an office, that’s my case, there is an office here. We have an office where we can come as much as we want, but it’s not an obligation. The office is part of the places where you can work, is one of them.
Lissette: Right, right just a central hub that has been… yeah, that has been designated as here yeah just like a co-working space would be.
Yann: Exactly it’s one of the places, one of the co-working space and if you really are in need of meeting people and meeting critics, well, you can come every day for words.
Lissette: So in your… also in your profile, it says that you are passionate about bridging cultural gaps and your French as everyone can hear on the podcast and living in the Netherlands French accent is the best, right? The Dutch accent just doesn’t compete but it says you’ve also lived in Belgium or worked in Belgium and in Spain and in the Nordics and you’re the president of the French Chamber of Commerce here in Holland. What can you say about…I’m going to admit this is a very broad question, so I’ll leave it into whatever direction you want to take this, but what can you say about working with different cultures? What are some of the things that people need to pay attention to?
Yann: I used to introduce myself as a European from France.
Lissette: Love it.
Yann: And I believe we should all think like this. I believe that especially in Europe, we are very much focusing on the country where we live, where in fact, the distances are so short, that you can change country in one hour. And I invite everyone to think that either European from one country where I was born and raised. And having said that, I really like to observe the cultural differences because they bring you a lot of lessons on the things that you do because it’s part of your culture. So the things that you do without even thinking you are doing them. And I like to address those things because in some cultures there are very interesting habits that are good to grab and to integrate for yourself. I’m taking the example of the Dutch culture, when a meeting starts, people are on time. People are really on time and when the meeting starts at two o’clock, it starts at two o’clock and if some people are missing, the meeting starts and when you start the meeting at two o’clock, if there are some slides and some documents they’re already engaged on the screen and you have received an agenda. And you have received the goals of the meeting and you have an hour at which this meeting ends. I’m coming from France, it’s a completely different story and I like to integrate this habit of the Dutch people in my routine because I get more productivity.
Yann: That’s an example and it’s interesting to see a meeting between French and Dutch people. Where, if it’s in France, the Dutch people will be already sitting in a meeting room waiting for the meeting to start at two o’clock. And the owner of the meeting will arrive at 02:05 and you will be like, ‘oh they’re already sitting here, what’s happening.’ He’s not used to that and it creates pressure, creates tension because people don’t understand each other. We are on time the meeting didn’t stop what’s happening. And the French guys he says, ‘well, I am a wrong maneuver of my phone.’
Lissette: Now you’re on mute are you?
Yann: What’s happened here?
Lissette: No worries, technical difficulties. It’s all part of the experience.
Yann: Technical difficulties.
Lissette: There you go. We can edit it out of the podcast version.
Yann: So these cultural differences are very interesting to…to observe. And it’s good to pick from any culture what is interesting in its culture, and networks that’s what I love and makes me richer is to be on the sideline of a culture and look at the plus and the minus of each culture and integrate them in my daily life and also help people to understand those differences.
Lissette: Yeah, because they can make a big difference I can imagine even just with the meeting time starting, you’ve got the Dutch people who are frustrated and the French people who have no idea why they’re frustrated. Or maybe some idea but, but, but less and it’s a small thing, but it can build up over time. And especially if you have remote colleagues, then people tend not to necessarily talk about it straight up, and it just comes out in weird ways. It seems like there’s all kinds of little things like that, that must come up in working cultures where we really need to just stop, take a minute and observe and know what we are just know that there are lots of things that we don’t know about another culture. Yeah, we don’t know what we don’t know in this situation.
Yann: We don’t know where to remember exactly.
Lissette: Yeah, can be really tricky. I thought coming from the United States that living in the Netherlands. How different could it possibly be? It’s Western Europe, it’s the United States. It’s, you know, it’s got to be the same and I found the opposite to be true. There are a lot of very small and significant Differences in the culture that I quickly, quickly heard about.
Yann: I agree.
Lissette: Oh, we’re totally running out of time. But what I would like to a man we’ve already gone over darn, I always try to keep it shorter. But you know, if you’re saying good things I can’t stop. One thing I have two last questions and one is if you have advice for people who are just starting out maybe a CEOs of other companies who are just starting out and thinking about letting their workforce go remote, what advice would you give them?
Yann: Have your management go remote-first because the biggest resistance will be there.
Lissette: Where does that come from?
Yann: Well you know it’s some of the leadership signs that will disappear. If you are a manager and you made it to a manager position for other people, it means that they have to broadcast their manager position. Has it has always been done by having a nice office or even a corner office and having a team working in front of them and seeing these people working, organizing meetings with all those people in the room preparing some slides extra. So, broadcasting your leadership in a way by being very present, physically present, together with your team and working remote has to bring completely different leadership behaviors
Lissette: Takes a hit on the ego.
Yann: Yeah, of course, the ego has been touched, of course, I have for example, and here I have turned all the offices of the managers into meeting rooms. So nobody has an office here anymore. Of course, this was hard to swallow for some of the managers because they had hundreds of excuses why they should have an office and I work myself in the middle of the open space when I’m here, and I love it because I get the conversations of the company I listen a lot about the organization which I was not understanding before when I was locked in my office,
Lissette: Right, it is nice to have your own office that’s for sure it’s quiet and productive. You can close the door and get work done, yeah.
Yann: Please do it. I mean, I still have a lot of I mean in one of those offices now which you can book if you have a need to focus or what we’re doing now. But those managers I was one of them. You are used to getting in his office at eight o’clock in the morning and late in the evening, no matter what you do. Now I go in this office for the [inaudible 35:39] but after all back to the open space.
Lissette: Yeah bigger space. So your advice then is managers go remote first?
Lissette: Experience it so that you also know what to expect and you know that your employees then are also going to encounter when they go remote.
Lissette: Okay and then last question is with people want to learn more about you and Econocom, what are the best places to go online? Obviously the website which I will link to in the show notes,
Yann: Yes the websites and my LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is really an easy that’s my favorite access to… my favorite way to connect with people. So please engage the conversation on LinkedIn profile, my name is Y-A-N-N, Yann Toutant T-O-U-T-A-N-T on LinkedIn, I’m easy to find.
Lissette: Great and I will definitely link that in the show notes as well. I love LinkedIn. I’ve met more people on LinkedIn that I’ve met in person, it’s kind of… well, Yann thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. I took copious notes. So I really appreciate all the tips that you had to give and I hope the audience appreciates it too. Thank you.
Yann: Thank you to thank you have a good day for what remains.
Lissette: Thank you, and until next time, everybody be powerful.
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