Remote Work: Extreme Arctic Edition

There’s work from home, and then there’s remote work- emphasis on the remote. Picture living in a tiny trapper’s hut built in the 1930’s with no running water and no electricity. The nearest town is 86 miles away and your nearest neighbors is polar bears. Meet Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Falun Strom. This is their home office in the heart of Svalbard, Norway. Self-described polar ambassadors and citizen scientists, Sunniva and Hilde are there to inspire “global dialogue about the changes we are experiencing in the Polar regions” and why climate change in these regions should matter to everyone.

PODCAST | 25m
November 4, 2020

Executive summary

  • Exploring the most extreme remote work conditions
  • Advice surrounding isolation and creating boundaries between work and life
  • Insight on how technology is enabling remote work in the most innovative of ways

Melanie Green (host):

I’m Melanie Green. This is Remote Works, an original podcast by Citrix.

Sunniva Sorby:

My first encounter with a polar bear was a meter and a half away.

Melanie Green (host):

That’s Sunniva Sorby.

Sunniva Sorby:

I opened up the door from Bamsebu to go out to close our wooden shutters. And I turned the light on to go outside (SFX BEAR GROWL) and I scared a polar bear that had been sniffing around our food barrels outside, directly to the right, like on my right arm, right there.

Melanie Green (host):

Sunniva works remotely. Very remotely.

Sunniva Sorby:

And he came right in front of me and stopped. And I could swear that there was a second of eye contact, and then he pushed off his hind legs and ran towards the east and then south. And I just, I almost have no words for what it felt like to actually be surprised by a polar bear. That's a first. And to have it be so close and feel it, see it, and know that in that split second, it could have gone very wrong.

Melanie Green (host):

For Sunniva, the ability to do her job in one of the world’s most extreme environments - and to stay connected with the rest of the world while she’s doing it - is frankly just amazing. Sunniva lives and works in Svalbard with her partner Hilde Fålun Strøm. Svalbard is a remote Arctic archipelago, or group of islands, midway between Norway and the North Pole. It’s so far north, that it's dark for three solid months in winter.

Melanie Green (host):

Okay. So let's, let's start. Give me a picture of what you and your partner and roommate see when you look out the window of your quote unquote home office.

Sunniva Sorby:

If you're sitting in Bamsebu, which is a 20 square meters trapper's cabin that is not insulated, without running water, uh, the room that is the quote unquote home office is also my bedroom. It's also the dining room. It's also our little training studio and it's also our spa. There's a lot that happens in that little space.

Melanie Green (host):

For reference, twenty square meters is just a little over two hundred square feet. That’s a little smaller than a typical single car garage.

Sunniva Sorby:

So organization is absolutely critical for, for us, regardless of what we're doing. If you look out the window, we have a direct line of sight towards the Van Coolen Fjord, which is on the West side of Spitsbergen National Park in Svalbard, in Norway. And on any given day, we see different bird species. We see geese ducks, beluga whales, Arctic Fox, seals. It's a, it's an area rich with wildlife and all of the weather extremes that you could possibly fold together in one setting.

Melanie Green (host):

There are sparsely populated settlements in Svalbard. But even those - are too populated for Sunniva and Hilda. Their office and home is in the Arctic wilderness in an old trapper’s cabin known as Bamsebu. If they need a cup of flour, they have to go 86 miles to get to the nearest neighbor. The cabin has no electricity and running water, but is full of the latest technology including solar and wind technology, electric snowmobiles, a drone to record data, and an Iridium satellite communication device that gives the women connectivity and allows them to make calls and receive texts. So I know you’re asking, what do Sunniva and Hilde do in Svalbard? They’re gathering samples and collecting data -- lots of it - for organizations like NASA and the Norwegian Polar Institute. And they’re field testing the latest technology in an unforgiving environment. Sunniva may in fact be one of the world's greatest experts on remote work, having so much lived experience.

Sunniva Sorby:

Oh, I have to tell you, I mean, we're like little kids. We have a microscope, we have a drone, we have video cameras. We have dissecting tools. We have little samples to collect polar bear poop. We have a net for phytoplankton and salt water samples. We have an ice core drill, which is almost as tall as I am. It's one thing to have all of these instruments go well. Uh, which as we know, when we deal with technologies is that's just not always the case. We have some problems to solve and we've been working in temperatures with this equipment that are minus 27, minus 32 degrees Celsius.

Melanie Green (host):

The thing is Sunniva and Hilde aren’t scientists. They aren't techies either. Before this, they worked in polar tourism for many years. Hilde has lived and worked in Svalbard for more than two decades. Sunniva comes from Squamish, British Columbia, a community of 19,000 people. Then this opportunity came along -- the chance to live in this remote location and collect data to help scientists. This was a chance to make their contribution to fighting climate change. So they packed up and moved to Bamsebu, and they’ve had to learn how to work with a lot of extremely complicated technology.

Sunniva Sorby:

We are officially called rocket citizen scientists from NASA. We have been taking time lapse, Aurora photography for something called Aurorasaurus. It's profoundly interesting for us to be involved in these projects because we sort of like flip the lid off our curiosity. We are continually learning and curious. The reason they called us rocket citizen scientists is we were in the right place with no ambient light around us, no distraction. And at a 45 degree angle from our location at Bamsebu, a rocket would be launched from Omdea and from Svalbard. And they would give us a seven minute window, uh, and literally this little text message came on our satellite phone and it said ready to launch in seven minutes. And wouldn't that excite you a little bit? So we put on our 20 pounds of clothing and our belt with our flare gun and our pistol, and went outside with our rifle and our tripod and our camera and headlamp and set up the cameras and photographed a simulation of Aurora up there to see how the gases would interact with this. But it is very gratifying. Collecting data for nine months is a rarity for scientists and researchers. I think that our work has been extremely valuable.

Melanie Green (host):

Sunniva and Hilde are like the eyes and ears on the ground in this remote northern outpost. Their work is a big contribution to gathering information on the science of climate change. They gather data and send it back via satellite to be analyzed.

Sunniva Sorby:

We have become two people who have tested this technology to the absolute extreme. We have an infrared drone. And Eric Saczuk is our resident drone, Mr. Doctor Drone.

Melanie Green (host):

Eric Saczuk - AKA Doctor Drone - is an instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Eric Saczuk:

And I fly drones.

Melanie Green (host):
Eric was the guy who had to teach Sunniva and Hilde the skills to be able to pilot the drone on their own in remote Svalbard. To make some of their research possible, they needed to be able to take aerial photos to monitor the effects of climate change.
Eric Saczuk:

So, you know, I started to look into some drone training for them and making sure that they knew how to fly the aircraft. Sunniva and I met and walked her through some of those steps. And then we begin to look at really, okay, well, that's, that's great. Their job was to collect the data. To have a tool like a drone in the hands of pioneers, like Hilde and Sunniva that are brave enough, not only to be up there, but to actually, you know, bring this drone out, set it up, trust the technology, trust their training, to be able to launch it and do its thing - it makes it accessible.\

Melanie Green (host):
A couple of drone newbies head off to the remote Arctic and start collecting data. That would’ve been unheard of a few years ago. But now technology is connecting us in ways that we hadn’t even considered.\

Eric Saczuk:

And you can take photos, but what else could we use this for? I had just come back from Antarctica and I knew that it was, it was great to have a drone there to capture the world, the changing world that we're experiencing now, in a way that only helicopters could really do, and they were very expensive and very cumbersome and, relatively inaccessible compared to drones. So I thought the thermal aspect looking at the thermal heat reflectance and emission off of a glacial surface would be very interesting to capture. How could we use drones to look at what's happening on the surface of the ocean. It's sort of the first time that we were able to see that, that landscape and that area for that period of time with that level of detail. So it's a big deal.

Melanie Green (host):
Two citizen scientists with unlimited passion for their remote work - and Eric’s drone technology. When he started to think about all of the work that could be done - the possibilities were endless.
Eric Saczuk:

Perhaps the snow cover? Could we say something about the snow cover or where the presence of moisture could be using thermal drones?

Melanie Green (host):
Whether it’s sending data on snow cover to Eric Saczuk or recording cloud observations to share with NASA - Sunniva is constantly reminded of the difference her work can make. And her remote work has also led her to some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Sunniva kept a few audio diaries to share with us. One day, she was working near the ocean shore - and saw something she would never forget.

Sunniva Sorby:
Oh this is so exciting. I’m standing out in the rain, pouring, pouring rain right now. It’s about 1 o’clock on the 20th of August and there are dozens of beluga in front of me right now. The water is calm and you can see their little white backs pop up and this is a total success story because if I look to the left of the beach there are 11 piles of beluga bones from the 1920s and 30s when they were beluga hunting here so, and they stopped hunting for beluga, they made it illegal as of 1962 so to see them in the bay right now, oh, I wish you could hear them with me because they’re breathing. This is so beautiful.

Melanie Green (host):
Sounds amazing. But before you pack up and head to the Arctic -- or whatever goal you have in mind, she has some important advice.
Sunniva Sorby:

This is something that I would encourage everybody to do is be honest about, you know, take self-inventory. What are your strengths and what are the things that you feel are key things that you need to work on and be honest and seek out the experts - we worked on our values.
So really identifying what do you value as an individual? What do you value in terms of work, big picture. And being clear about those and then working with integrity and an alignment with those values. But if you don't identify them, we will always swing into some element of mediocrity in our work. When we are working remotely, we can actually work so much at a greater level of creativity and engagement if we identify what we stand for, you know, who we are as an individual, and then make that your best work, regardless of what the work is. But to really show up for what you stand for, stand up for what you believe in is more of what I'm trying to say.

Melanie Green (host):

For Sunniva working in the frozen north, what’s really important has become crystal clear.

Ravi Gajendran:

The thing that caught my mind is how relevant it is to the situation that many individuals are facing as they deal with the COVID pandemic, uh, as they work remotely.

Melanie Green (host):
That’s Ravi Gajendran. He’s an expert in organizational behavior and remote working. He sees so many similarities between Sunniva and Hilde’s work life and the rest of us.

Ravi Gajendran:

You can see that there are parallels between their experiences and what people are undergoing as they work remotely during the pandemic. Many of them are isolated from a lot of their family members, relatives, friends. They are stuck, with two people or maybe four people or five people in a home because they’re stuck with their spouses, their partners, their kids. And they are pretty much a bubble, you know, you don't have polar bears, but you do have the threat of infection. And they don't have many of the things that they can draw on for support. They can't walk into an office and print stuff or have somebody do stuff for them.

And so they are in many ways in their own Arctic bubble. Many of the things that Sunniva talked about are really really important when we think about being sane and effective while working remotely. How do you take care of yourself? How do you get a sense of identity? How do you make sure that you're communicating with your partner, your spouse at home in a way that allows both of you to be healthy in spirit, mind, and body?

Melanie Green (host):

So true. Whether you’re in a downtown one-bedroom walk-up, or a wooden cabin in the Arctic, you need to know how to communicate and deal with conflict.

Sunniva Sorby:

You know, a lot of people right now are living and working remotely, maybe on top of each other and that's been our life for nine months. I think that we have really taken our communication skills to an entirely different level by, you know, working it out, talking it out, and if something is wrong, someone says something that you don't agree with, sometimes you just need to quote, let the train pass. Don't hop on the train. Don't get into that little argument. We've worked really hard to stay respectful. We both care about each other a lot. We respect each other and it's taken a lot of work to just keep the energy positive because we are living, working, creating in that small space. We have really pulled out all the tools that we've developed over the years and then new ones, to let the four-year-old come screaming once in a while too. So it's been quite an experience.

Melanie Green (host):

So Sunniva wants to remind us that we are in charge of our lives. These days, there are times when it doesn’t feel like that. But in a lot of ways, it’s true. We can’t control everything, but we can control how we respond to what’s happening. Ravi Gajendran says a big part of that is looking at how we work and connect with our teams.

Ravi Gajendran:

Managers reaching out individually to team members or unit members to understand their situation, to communicate with them, uh, and doing so well, you know, shows that each, you know, you at least care about the people in your team. It shows, it demonstrates trust, demonstrates caring. It demonstrates that you're communicating with them.

Melanie Green (host):

Communication, adaptability, flexibilit This is how remote work thrives.

Ravi Gajendran:

A lot of individuals are facing the same problem with remote work. Many people don't have dedicated offices, or they may be sharing offices with their spouses, their homes or their offices and their offices or their homes now. There's a blurring of these spaces. And if you're working in these sorts of situations, managers need to understand that and providing employees autonomy in terms of how they get their work done when they get it done without insisting that employees be in front of their terminals nine to five.

Melanie Green (host):

For Ravi, the motivation and engagement Sunniva finds in her Arctic projects - can be possible for all of us who work remotely.

Ravi Gajendran:

You find something meaningful that you're interested, that you're trying intellectually engaged with it. To some extent, isolation helps because it minimizes distraction. So to the extent that that's useful it can prompt creativity. But you also do need connection with others. It could be your spouse at home. It could be colleagues at the office. You need to be able to speak with others to have conversations. You might be able to see what the issues are and refine them.

Melanie Green (host):

Hand in hand with creativity - is technology. Technology is the bridge that connects us. And thanks to satellite technology, Sunniva and Hilde have been able to teach remotely, sharing their climate change research with hundreds of classrooms around the world.

Sunniva Sorby:

One month we had experts on climate change, biodiversity, weather, and on and on, and every month was a different theme. And we had two phone calls. We had posted them in Norwegian and English. And we would call in with our satellite phone and we would have the expert on the call via video. It was very challenging for us calling in with a satellite phone, but it was so interesting for us. I mean, these kids are just hungry. They were wanting to learn, and they got to follow our story for the entire journey. There were about 5,000 school kids that we connected with from around the world. And, and then maybe just as many, if not more via YouTube live.

Ravi Gajendran:

Without this technology infrastructure we will all be remote from one another, but we wouldn't be working. The ability to use multiple modalities, video, audio, and text at the same time on the same call. Those are all, you know, uh, game changers when it comes to being able to sustain remote work. In that sense, yeah, this is fundamentally built on the backs of technology infrastructure that has allowed us to get to this point.

Melanie Green (host):

Sunniva and Hilde’s projects in Svalbard show how valuable and rewarding remote work - anywhere in the world - can be. But it can also be pretty challenging at times too.

But here’s some advice from someone who knows the challenges of working remotely: you need to spend as much time focusing on what’s going on inside you - as what’s going on around you.

Sunniva Sorby:

We're living at a time right now when we are all forced to look at how we live and work. And if there is a time to live and work differently, it's now. We have not just the climate crisis, which is why we are doing Hearts in the Ice, we have now the COVID crisis and we're all being forced into some form of isolation, some form of disconnection from our own identity. Many of us identify with a job title or showing up at work as the one in charge and, you know, snip, snip, snip. All of that has gone for many of us. We have to find a way to create identity not from the exterior, but from the interior. So a recommendation I would have is whatever we do now with our lives, all of us, find the purpose, the red thread in what you're doing and why you're doing it and have that be something that is absolutely meaningful and purposeful and do it with all of you. Really stand up for what you believe in and use your work, perhaps as a vehicle for change, uh, and not as a vehicle for taking. But as a vehicle for giving. And I think that that is so important today. We, we're trying to build the bridge between individuals and corporations and politicians and environmentalists and scientists to say that we are no longer living in the same time where we can keep growing and living as if there's nothing happening. Because there's a lot happening and hopefully people don't feel forced, but if they're not, maybe they will force themselves to actually look at the very power that we have. We are the architects of our own lives. You know, we are. Me. You. And the power in that is enormous.

Melanie Green (host):

Even though Sunniva Sorby works more remotely than most of us, her words really hit home.
The more we know ourselves and what we’re capable of -- which is a lot -- the stronger and more successful we can be. And the more we know and understand the tools and technology at our disposal, the more we’ll be able to use them to help us achieve our full potential wherever we work. Remote works is an original podcast by Citrix. Subscribe and come back in two weeks. That’s at citrix.com slash remote works.

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