Podcast | How to enable remote work and build teamwork during a pandemic

Jean
Shin

Director, Strategy & Content | Podcast Host of Mobile Interactions Now

40 min podcast

In this special episode, we check in with the award-winning author of Dream Teams Shane Snow and delve into what insights we can draw from his researches and writings on teamwork to help organizations create extraordinary collaborations even during a pandemic.

Podcast Script:

Jean:
Shane, welcome to the show. We gave an intro in the beginning, but I'm sure our listeners would love to hear from you directly. So can you just tell us who you are and what you do?

 

Shane:
Yeah, my name is Shane Snow. I am from Idaho, and what I do is I'm a writer and I really see those two things as my identity. Grew up in a small town in the country, moved around the world, lived a lot in Latin America and now in New York City mostly. I write, I do journalism and a lot of what I write about is business and psychology. And so I've ended up doing a lot of business and psychology work as well.

 

Jean:
It is absolutely awesome to have you on the show today, quite honestly a personal honor to have you. I'm a big fan of Contently, the company that you co-founded as well as books you wrote, Dream Teams to name just one.

 

Shane:
Thank you.

 

Jean:
When I was thinking about what topic I could possibly discuss, that will be helpful for our listeners in this extraordinary time that we are going through together with the coronavirus outbreak, I realize something that we professionals all have in common right now is really having to work from home remotely. Some of us are more used to working remotely and some are just getting the kinks out of their old habit before they get into a new rhythm. So let me just start there by asking how things are with your team, either at Contently, or any other hobby teams that you have and if there are any changes triggered by this.

 

Shane:
What's interesting about Contently is we started the company to help journalists meet clients and work with them, and by design it was about facilitating remote work. So we started with journalists and reporters and then editors and we added content strategists and photographers. And so there's a network of freelance professionals around the world that Contently helps connect with companies that want to do content and content marketing.

Part of the pitch originally was if you need a great writer in Alaska, but you don't want to find someone first and then fly them to Alaska, we might have someone in our database that's a professional that can do the work from Alaska for you. And so that was really the original use case we built the company around and since then it's gotten bigger and become more about managing the content marketing process. But it was all built around this idea that you don't need to be in the same spot to get the best work.

In fact, sometimes the best worker is going to be far away. And so we built tools to help with all of the little things that you need to do to make that easier. So what's interesting about now, the core Contently team during this time of coronavirus are all working from home. Now, most of them have been used to working in the same office together, you need something you tap someone on the shoulder or you look and you see, "Oh, they're still in the meeting. I'll wait." All of those little things that you get those great cues, social cues when you're in the office together.

Now, none of the core team can do that. They're all working over Skype, and Slack, and Zoom. And so they now have to live in the shoes of our freelancers and our clients. The good news is, the last 10 years of working at Contently has made it a very easy transition for our staff.

But there is a component that now I think a lot of the team has a lot more empathy for, which is if you're working from home, even if you're not in a quarantine, it can be very isolating. It can be hard to not get depressed or burnt out or not work too much. If you're working from your kitchen table, then your life, and your meals, and your work, and your family, and everything is all in one spot.

And so there's extra things that you need to do in order to keep productive. And I think it is giving the team a little extra dose of empathy for all of these freelancers that we've been helping out over the years that, "Oh, it's not just about making work easy and helping people get work. There's also this very important psychological component to doing your best and feeling your best when you're working from home."

I think that's something that's changed recently with this, and there's going to be only a few silver linings, I think to this crisis going on. We'll be better prepared for the next one and all of that. There's a lot of sadness going on, but one of those silver linings I think is increased empathy for those who do work with remote workers. And I think hopefully we'll find that it's going to be a lot easier for bosses to be okay with their teammates working from home in the future.

When this is all over, hopefully it's not too long, but if someone needs to work from home because their kid's sick, we are now getting used to being able to do this and I think there will be more comfort around that. So I'm glad for that.

 

Jean:
It's really interesting you talking about the cultural changes that is happening surrounding this whole remote work situation. I think it's really important to really look at it that way because that is really what's new, new. It's not really just remote working.

But if you were to actually look at some of the companies, I'm guessing companies like Contently is better equipped in a way to orchestrate this kind of collaboration. But if you were to look at the mainstream companies, businesses large and small, where you think we are at in terms of being able to provide this culturally, and toolset wise, are we pretty much ready to handle these situations, do you think?

 

Shane:
No, I don't think anyone's ready, as ready as we wish we would be. But I think that it's more natural. Remote work is more natural than a lot of people have been afraid of. I think the transition has been hard but easier for many than it could be. I think there're different types of companies that are having an easier and harder time.

Companies that are high tech in the tech industry, are already used to a lot of remote collaboration tools, group chats and video conferencing. Companies that are less in the tech industry, if you're in the agriculture industry and you're still doing work, you may have a big business team, big operations team, but they may not be as used to remote work and video conferencing, and even all of the considerations around, when should you do a video call? When can you take care of things over email when you can't talk to people in person?

I think that there're a lot of companies that haven't been as prepared for this and will require some extra help. And then there're also companies that have security issues. If you work in the finance industry for example, you may have to work from a secure computer terminal in your office. So now if you're working from home, your security team has to figure out how you can log in from home into your remote terminal, how you can do team chat, those kinds of things.

You need to now adopt business solutions that can maintain that security. And that is something that I think a lot of companies didn't expect to have to do. Where I've been most [inaudible] in my own work since actually the start of last year, it started 2019, as I'm now a board member at Contently, I'm no longer involved in the day to day operations. The office is around the corner, so normally I go in all the time. But my work is focusing primarily on business and psychology, journalism, and then online training programs around things like teamwork and innovation skills.

I had been putting together with my team an online training course for managers and leaders specifically for things like managing remote teams, managing programmers if you're not a technical person, those kinds of things. So we actually just took the remote work part of our training course and released it to help some of these companies that aren't as well versed in best practices and just good solutions for remote work. And what we've seen with the people who have taken this course is that for most companies, it's not for lack of technology that gets in the way of doing a good job with remote work. Very few companies are in that camp of the security tech stuff is getting in the way of them being able to log in or do anything.

Most of the companies that are having a hard time, it's more of the social part. As a manager, how much should I be checking in on people? How do I check in on people? As someone who's working from my living room, how do I make sure that I'm not being overwhelmed by communication? How do I manage the relationships with my clients when I can't go and see them? When's a phone call appropriate? Those kinds of things end up being the things that are tougher for people.

Then of course there are tech things that you can do to make things much, much easier on yourself. But most people are having a harder time with those social details of just like, "I need to solve a problem. I'd normally get a group of people in a room together. How do I do this? How do I coordinate it? Do we just do a video call? But we can't hear everyone because 10 people on a video call is crazy." That's the part that I think is the hardest transition right now for most companies.

 

Jean:
Those boundaries like, what is proper? What passes as a good practice for certain topics and certain situations? I think it's such a human factor. But I think we constantly run into this, after all we are humans using tools, and getting that first part. So I mean, for communications platforms businesses like my company tyntec is in, we are starting to see spikes in use cases of two factor authentication for access management, all those things.

I think what you're talking about, companies start making decisions, how to let people work and access certain services that are within the walls of corporations, are happening. But there's a constant balance between the security and the level of access you want to provide. So if you get into that zen mode a little bit and then, because sometimes you could be making point decisions, "Okay, so-and-so is in this functionality, approve access for certain things?" Is there a nice balance how to think about this in terms of the teamwork, the access, versus security, some kind of a guiding way of approaching this? Because it is a hard decision. We get into fights all the time, even at my workplace.

I think there's a couple of underlying principles. You know, every company is different. But a couple of underlying principles that should guide the decision making around that kind of question that you're talking about. And you said one of them is boundaries. Boundaries are super important for our sanity and for our productivity, and you need to, when you're working as a remote team, you need to get more clear on what those boundaries are so that people can do the work they're meant to do. So that people don't do things that they shouldn't be doing.

And so part of it is getting very clear on when approvals, security, all of that are needed when it's appropriate to contact people in certain ways. I can talk about that later. There's a lot about boundaries just around communication and sanity, but from a security standpoint and just getting work done standpoint, the other underlying principle is that everything revolves around trust.

In a team everything revolves around trust and we often default, with someone who you don't know, we often default to, "You have to prove that you're trustworthy before I will trust you with information, with access." That sort of thing. The same thing kind of happens when you go from working together in the office to not seeing each other and working remotely that there ends up being this, "Oh, you have to prove that I can trust you to do this from home." Whether we're talking about working all your hours and not just watching YouTube or doing the laundry while you're on the clock all the way to doing the right things for the company. I can trust you to do this when there's no one there to potentially look over your shoulder.

The thing is about the laziness thing, are you working? Are you doing a good job? The kind of person that is going to be lazy and be on the clock and not do the work that they're supposed to do, is going to find a way to do that in the office. Yeah, there was a study a few years ago that at JCPenney Headquarters, something like 35% of the company bandwidth was being taken up by YouTube of people at the office. It's kind of surprising, but really not that surprising.

I was told a story by someone that we interviewed for this remote work course, of an employee who would put on a podcast in their headphones and then open up a crazy spreadsheet and just type like they were doing something crazy and just listen to podcasts all day and act like they're super busy and in the office they're like, "Wow, they are so productive."

So just because you can't see each other doesn't mean that human nature has changed, and most people that you have gone through the trouble to hire and to work with and that you respect, are going to be worthy of that trust. And so I think especially in a time like now where everything is a crisis and we have to use duct tape in some cases to make business still work, adding an extra layer of trust of, "I trust you until you betray that trust." Rather than, "You have to earn that trust."

I think starting from that place with our teammates goes a long way and from a brain science standpoint, showing someone trust, actually creates a mirror effect of where they are more likely to trust you if you have trusted them first. A lot of managers and leaders, they wait for you to do that with them. The employee trusts you as the boss, and the employees shows that they're worthy of trust, that as the manager, if you flip that you say, "I'm going to trust you. I'm not going to breathe down your neck because I know you're working from home, but I trust you and I'm going to trust you to do the right thing to log in right, do the security procedures, whatever. Here's the guidelines, but I'm going to leave this accountability on you." That will create a trust relationship in most cases.

Now, if you're working with people that you can't trust and you know that, then now is the time to work on that problem. But for the most part, starting with the trust first and get trust back standpoint I think is really key.

 

Jean:
It's a very fundamental thing as an organization you have to start really embracing. I think it is such a nurturing process in a way because you don't push that button. There's no such button to do that. Then sometimes I go into this tech-minded people where their default set is zero trust. So they'll build a system trust is not even a question to begin with. So I think there's a philosophical deference we as human beings need to decide.

But right now in addition to the trust issue, it looks like what we are experiencing right now is real scalability issue as well. So if you are letting everybody in... not many systems are built to get everybody access at the same time like this. I think there needs to be, and I'm assuming companies like Contently because you guys are mostly platform based and that's where most of the work is happening, you might have been building systems that are more geared towards scalability. But not many companies are looking at that. Is this a new reality that people start really thinking about, like full capacity scale of a remote collaboration, you think?

 

Shane:
I think so. No, I think you're right on that it wasn't a thing that a lot of us put in our calculations of how we needed to build our business. And now that this has happened, I think one just from... in the future something like this could happen, and are we going to be anti-fragile out of this, right? Are we going to become more resilient and be prepared? But too, I think realizing that there's opportunity in preparing to do things from a remote standpoint and from a scale standpoint that actually can be a better way to do business, having that flexibility.

And so I think where the remote scalability thing was not a priority for a lot of businesses, if it doesn't become a very obvious thing to include high up in the priorities now, then I think that would be really surprising to me.

One thing about the trust and the scalability thing, together I think not talking about systems now, just talking about people, one of the biggest things that I could say that I can recommend from a building and maintaining trust standpoint is actually kind of the least scalable thing. It's that when you're working remote, you need to maintain very good one-on-one contact and one-on-one relationships. That in an office you can get away with as a boss or a manager, kind of the, "All right, everyone gather around, I'm going to say something." And just sort of monitoring the general picture of how everyone's doing and sort of broadcasting more.

But when you're working remote, if you want to build and maintain trust, every person who has a direct report needs to be in one-on-one contact making sure that they understand the needs and the situation, the personal situation that people are in. That is less scalable than sort of this broadcast like the CEO says, "Here's what's going on." Having the CEO talk with their direct reports, and their direct reports talk with their direct reports one-on-one, spending that quality time just checking in. Even if it's just a few moments at a time, that is really helpful and really important.

You reminded me with the scale question and I think a lot of times when we are trying to address issues with people as leaders and managers, someone, I'll use an analogy from when I was in college, someone at my college climbed a tree and fell out of the tree and broke their arm. So the college made a rule, no climbing trees on campus. Really, the issue is that one person, right? You can tell everyone, "Hey, a kid fell out of a tree and broke their arm. Do what you want with that information." But really the person who needs to be talked to is anyone who's climbing trees, not the whole making a rule for the whole campus. So I think don't do that.

The equivalent of that as a manager with your remote workers is if someone has an issue, they do something wrong, maybe especially with something like security, deal with them, resolve the issue with them, take a real deep one-on-one empathetic dive with them. Then you can tell the team any guidelines you have for them. But don't punish everyone for one person's mistake. That'll also make that one person feel awful and people not trust them anymore as well. So, sorry to backtrack to that question, but I think that's an extra crucial thing to keep in mind when working with remote teams.

 

Jean:
I think because you have a lot of studies in history and how as human beings we develop this way of dealing with each other and all that, those anecdotes kind of shed quick light on the issue…"Yes, I can relate. I can so relate." It's like, whether the response to that is really proportional, should you go from there to there? But another thing, it is really interesting what you said, in a remote situation, almost counterintuitively this whole one-to-one relationship, one-to-one communication is more important than on premises kind of working together. Never thought of it that way, but what I do believe is there is no collaboration without communication. It is really about communication at the end of the day.

Now, just like what we are doing right now and remotely working, we are doing teleconferencing, we're using messaging apps, collaboration tools and other things you mentioned. And how that changes in terms of the tech savviness as an organization as a whole, how much of that really matters in this kind of situation? Because you mentioned Slack, it's the kind of channel that is pretty different for different teams or it's a cloud service app that everybody has access to, but the way we are using it is very much in that groups that we create.

So I mean, this question I didn't even think about before we started talking about this, you have these many different digital tools these days, and what are you seeing out there where things are created…but people are using it differently than what is originally designed for?

For example, right now we have a lot of our clients who are using WhatsApp Business APIs. It was basically designed for really big scale application softwares talking to their customers, but the interaction is to really create this one-to-one communications.

So, given all these different communication tools that exist, talking between colleagues as well as outside partners and their customers, how are we using it in the same way how human beings have been communicating all the time after all?

 

Shane:
Yeah. It's a really interesting question. I'm thinking about my experience versus folks that I've been interviewing and talking to. I think to start, everything in social media is basically a variation on a text message. What I mean by that is via SMS you can send short texts of letters and numbers and emojis and you can send pictures and you can send videos. And if you think about Twitter, Twitter is basically broadcasting those things, short texts and pictures and videos. Facebook is basically doing that. Then when you get into Instagram is mostly just pictures. When you get into business social apps, it's basically that same thing but with different configurations of groups and teams.

Slack, you're sending short text messages and pictures and videos. Microsoft Teams, a tool that I really love, you're doing all those same things too, but there's also repositories for files that it's a little bit different. What I've seen is that WhatsApp in particular for most of the people that I text personally, we have WhatsApp groups for different configurations of friends. I text my wife on WhatsApp, and now I think especially as more people are working remote, I've noticed that a lot of my business conversations have moved to WhatsApp as well.

That's interesting, and I suspect a lot of people are experiencing this, and because it's all a variation on an SMS, it's a very familiar behavior. But the organization of that becomes something that if you just allow it to happen, it's easy for communication apps to manage you rather than you to manage them.

When I think about what's useful about say, Slack, or Microsoft Teams, or HipChat, or something that's a team-based chat group, chat app, there's organizational principles that make it easy or to not have it run your life. You can hop in and hop out. The analogy that a friend of mine who writes about distraction, his name's Nir Eyal, a psychology researcher. He says that Team Chat should be like a sauna. You don't stay in all day long, you hop in and hop out.

 

Jean:
And jump into cold water and come back out.

 

Shane:
Yeah. They're built for being able to ideally, if, especially if you set it up right, to search for files, where was that conversation we had about this? Oh, well, it's all open in the files in there. You can find it. But as more of my business conversations have been moving to WhatsApp, because now everything is a little more intertwined with my personal life so I'm working entirely remotely, I have noticed that it's easier for me to integrate business communication into my workflow, but it's also harder for me to find important information. So it adds the need to have some sort of repository for information.

I have now added Trello as a project management tool for kind of my side business projects, like the online courses and stuff. Because before I could just manage it, and now because it's mixed in with my personal chats, I have to have a place where you can find the most up-to-date information and to-do lists and all of that. So that's changing.

However, I think to the WhatsApp Business solutions thing, I am much more comfortable having a conversation, a business conversation, say with like a bank where I'm doing customer service or whatever, but just if they have WhatsApp available, that's so much easier for me. So much simpler. I think that's a marvelous tech solution versus loading up their chat or figuring out how to contact them.

And so I think this sort of blending of personal and business communication is enabling, sort of better customer service opportunities for businesses, that they want to connect with people on their terms. I think that's another principle actually that's important as a business if you can, I mean this is one of the things that we really learned at Contently, if you can become part of someone else's standard workflow rather than teaching them a new workflow, that makes things a lot easier.

At Contently, and one of the features is if you're doing content and a lawyer needs to approve it, instead of having the lawyer get a Contently account sign in, figure out the interface, find the documents, approve them, you just hit a button and it sends the document to the lawyer over email and they can make modifications and approve from that interface. They can hit the approve button or if they need to make modifications, they can hit a button that then takes them to the place that they need to go.

Working into their workflow because they're working on email all day is really important. I think that's where WhatsApp is really interesting from a communication standpoint. I don't know much about Slack for customer service, but this sort of business interacting with their customers, this is a little bit different than a business interacting internally with its teams.

So the long story short with this monologue in answer to your question is that, I think consumer behavior is changing. Paying attention to that and seeing as a business how you can make things easier by slotting into their communication is very important. And on the other side of that, as a business, as a worker, especially remote worker, being clear about where the best places to communicate with you depending on what it is, I think is very important too.

For me, if there's an emergency, everyone that I collaborate with knows, send me a text or send me a phone call, detection, say urgent if it's truly urgent. If it can wait a little bit, then send me a WhatsApp because that's what I'm using now. And if it can wait like a day or more, then send me an email, that's fine. Anything that needs to be found later needs to go in Trello because that's where we put all the important information.

So just being clear about that and those boundaries, and if someone calls me and it's not an emergency, I'm going to tell them, "Hey, this is not an emergency. Next time, just hit me up over WhatsApp." So, there's a lot of things that I just answered in there. But that's how I think about the evolution of our communication now. And a lot of it is spurred by this crisis itself, forcing us to actually think about these things in a way we didn't before.

 

Jean:
I'm going to even go one step further, actually, I don't know how this will become, normal again. I don't know if that is what we should start thinking about. But I mean, let's think about this. People coming back to physical workplace, but they will be bringing back now newly acquired habit of working remotely with a different experience. You think sometimes the technology is a tool that we are designing this to meet certain human needs and you make this but sometimes it's completely the other way around? And you're so used to using this say in a remote situation, you tend to bring those things inside.

Technically you don't need it. You could be back to your desktop, you could be doing email, whatever, but you might be bringing your new habit of using different communication tools in. Whether the corporate world will embrace and start supporting all of this, or not is, is to be seen.

But I really see the people who are trying new things, perhaps for the first time they might be bringing in their own newly acquired habits. And so it's going to be interesting. Now, put yourself into that boss situation again. Is this a new clue that you should start paying attention to, "Oh, you figured out how to work differently while in this situation"? Should we be trying to learn and collect this and try to reflect to the general standard way of running the business even after this crisis mode or is this something you think is just a one time thing?

 

Shane:
Well, I hope this pandemic is a one time thing, but I hope that the lessons we're learning don't end with the pendemic. I think that there's opportunity to change when things force you out of your normal situation. Research in human behavior and neuroscience shows that you're much more likely to change your mind about something important when you are traveling or when you're living somewhere that's not home. Because when you're out of that normal space and that normal routine, you're more open to considering new ways of doing things.

I think that applies here. If you're forced to adopt a different work style because of your new work environment, because you have to work from home now, that is going to change the way and make you more open to changing the way you think about work generally. Here's an example, I think, a lot of people are figuring out that you can get the things that you need to accomplish without as many meetings. And so hopefully when we go back to work, we won't call a meeting just to ask a question. We'll call a meeting so that we can put off thinking about something, because we've learned that you can do things a little bit differently. So we default to meetings for all sorts of reasons.

When we're in the office, now it's more of a pain to arrange a meeting and it's kind of a drag, especially a big large person meeting. And so we're figuring out ways to get around that and still get work done. Hopefully that's going to stick so we don't waste as much time and effort and we can, I guess be more thoughtful about when we need to meet face to face with the group, it's going to be for really good reason and when it can be more efficient, we can use that team chat instead. I hope that that sticks.

One of the things that I'm hoping people learn is that we're all different. Our work styles are very different. Now, when we're working from different places, we're all working from home, that's even more apparent because there's a geographic and a space issue as well. But if you figure out how you work best on your own, you think the most clearly in the morning, you're able to get enough flow only if you have quiet, or if you have music, or the afternoon is when you can do really good head sound work, or maybe the afternoon is when you really should not be making big decisions because that's just not how you're wired. You figure that out and you can kind of work that way when you're working from home. And you figure out what are the best ways to communicate with you that can help them to work better with you too.

I think as a manager, this hopefully will be a bit of a forcing function to figure out, when is the best time for me to have a hard conversation with Jean? How does Shane manage his to-do list and how can I present this thing that I need him to do in a way that's going to help him out rather than treating everyone the same? Kind of like parents that have multiple kids, you know that how you get a kid to do chores is going to be different than how you get the other kid to do chores or how discipline that works with one kid will not work with another.

Not to say we should treat our teammates like kids, if you're a boss, but that customization to personality and work style, hopefully will stick. I think as a manager for me, I'm being more mindful of that and hopefully a lot of bosses will go back to the office after this is all over and say, "I've figured out that Shane needs to be approached this way with certain things or I figured out that the best way to communicate with these people is going to be like this." And taking a little bit extra effort, but realizing it's not that much extra effort because we've gotten used to it through this time when we've had to be really flexible. So yeah, that's the summary I think is that forcing yourself to be flexible makes you realize that you can be more flexible and that there's advantages to that.

 

Jean:
I totally agree with many of what you just said and I think that, the whole parental analogy is actually becoming real for many people right now, because kids being at home as well, you have to switch the mode here like you're talking to the kids and try not to bring that tone of a voice when working with a colleague, and I'm like, "Well, I'm sorry I was in the kindergarten mode." You just kind of snap out of it.

 

Shane:
Hopefully your colleagues have a little more empathy for you because of that too. They realize you're human, you have a family, right? I was just at a call with my accountant the other day and she's a grandmother and she's like her grandkids are staying with her and they kept on barging in and interrupting and she's like, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry." And I was like, "You know what? Maybe normally your clients would be like, this is so unprofessional. But right now it's like, wait, we're all human, we all have these things." It made me feel like I care more about her seeing that she has this personal stuff she's going through too. So absolutely.

 

Jean:
The awareness and empathy I am totally with that.

Part 2 of the interview with Shane Snow will be released in three days, following this release of Part 1.

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