Benjamin Müller Of OTRS Group On How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
An Interview With David Liu
Find reliable virtual meeting programs that work for your team — This is crucial for any remote team. We use Go To Meeting and are able to record our meetings if necessary. It’s simple and straightforward and works well for our regular team meetings. The video feature lets us connect on a more personal level and helps build camaraderie.
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Benjamin Müller.
As an expert on the definition and development of cloud solutions, Benjamin Müller is shaping the OTRS solution. He is doing so by applying his expertise in designing software architectures and dealing with IaaS, PaaS and SaaS providers, Before joining OTRS Group, Benjamin Müller worked as Head of Development at ADAMOS, a provider of digital solutions in the mechanical and plant engineering sector. This was preceded by professional positions at Software AG. The business informatics graduate was responsible for the development of a cloud-based platform in the industry 4.0 environment.
Today, Benjamin Müller is Executive Vice President of OTRS Group and responsible for OTRS Solution Management. With his team, he shapes the solution portfolio and researches innovative ideas.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Since attending Technische Universität Darmstadt, I knew my passion was in information systems. I have since led several development and infrastructure teams at PaaS and SaaS providers. My specific focus in recent years has been on Industry 4.0 and cloud-based solutions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Throughout my career, I have always had the opportunity to perform part of my work from the home office. When I joined OTRS Group in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I never imagined that I would be doing 100% of my work from the home office — or in Madrid for that matter. It’s remarkable how normal this situation feels for me and my team. But it’s also remarkable how important face-to-face meetings are from time to time. As good as video conferencing technologies may be today, they don’t fully replace a face-to-face meeting and never allow a personal bond to become as deep. That’s why I spend much more time today updating my teams on current circumstances and asking about their personal situations than I used to.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The Courage To Be Disliked”: Ichiro Kishimi’s book of the same name still influences me today, both privately and professionally. Happiness is not about satisfying everybody else, but about standing up for your opinions and decisions. Your life is in your hands. When I’ve had a second thought about something, this guiding principle always leads me back to the right path.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There were many great personalities that I met and from whom I was able to learn — friends, colleagues, supervisors and many more. I have a certain curiosity towards new things but also towards new characters, and I think this openness is the key to success. The moment you stop asking questions, you stop growing. An important lesson I have learned during my professional career is that the success of a project mostly comes from a team and rarely from a single person. I surround myself with people smarter than me and trust them to make the right decisions.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
Having your team all in one place certainly has its benefits. For example, in-person meetings foster genuine connection more easily. You can see each other’s expressions and banter more easily. Additionally, in-person meetings often lead to more successful brainstorming sessions. Sometimes it can be difficult to hear everyone when brainstorming ideas on a conference call, but in person you can talk over each other and let the ideas flow more organically. Plus, it’s easier to foster relationships outside of formal meetings through general conversation and shared experiences.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
There are several challenges that can arise when a team is not in the same physical space. For example, if your team is international, you will have to contend with time zones when scheduling a meeting. Additionally, you are often at the mercy of technology. It is very important for all team members to have access to reliable internet and understand the basics of the virtual meeting technology you utilize.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1 — Find reliable virtual meeting programs that work for your team — This is crucial for any remote team. We use Go To Meeting and are able to record our meetings if necessary. It’s simple and straightforward and works well for our regular team meetings. The video feature lets us connect on a more personal level and helps build camaraderie.
2 — Engage with your team frequently — Just because you aren’t in the same space, doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly. Obviously, be aware of personal boundaries, but don’t be afraid to build up a friendly rapport with your team. Celebrate wins and birthdays, just as you would in a regular office. This can lead to better communication and a closer-knit team.
3 — Set clear expectations — Lay out what you expect of your team from the very beginning. Talk with your team (being mindful of time zones!) to set a regularly scheduled meeting. Be clear on what is expected at these meetings and what each team member should bring to the table.
4 — Find ways to collaborate virtually — Don’t be afraid to try a few things — maybe a team Google doc where everyone can add ideas on their own time is best. Or perhaps your team is more successful when meeting in real time “face to face” via video chat. Encourage team members to meet with each other as needed as well.
5 — Listen to feedback and adapt accordingly — This is arguably the most important aspect of leading a remote team. Listen and adapt! If something isn’t working, it may be time to try a new approach. Encourage your employees to regularly give feedback and then make changes where needed. This will lead to a happier, more communicative team.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
Fortunately, OTRS Group has predominantly been a remote organization since long before the pandemic, so we already had experience working this way. That said, data privacy and our employee’s comfort are top concerns for us, so we do offer our company phones and laptops, as well as help with other tools needed to be successful working from a home office.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our tool, OTRS. It’s a highly capable and customizable tool for communication and work management, allowing teams to easily manage, organize and track tasks — as well as the communication and back-and-forth that is needed to get the work done.
We also like using Miro. Teams throughout the company adopted this early on in the pandemic because it offers easy creative support for brainstorming. Additionally, we are avid users of RocketChat which fills the gap for casual one-on-one or group conversations.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
I think the industry still has a ways to go with video conferencing. While tools have come a long way, they are still very resource dependent. There continue to be times when we have people who need to turn off their cameras because their bandwidth is dragging. Other times, we simply get cut off. Certainly, we’re making progress in this area, but I’d love to see it get even better.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
I’m not sure if it’s the pandemic that did it, as we’ve been considering the topic for a while at OTRS Group. For instance, one of our goals is to give customers the ability to communicate with each other and their own customers seamlessly through multiple channels — email, an app, online forms, social media, phone calls, etc.
However, I would say on a personal level that the ability to work between my office setting, my cell phone or even my watch absolutely helps my efficiency and ability to connect with my team from any location whenever they need support.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
I think virtual reality has a lot of potential! It’s developing at a rapid pace and is becoming more and more commonplace. In a few years, perhaps it will be standard to host meetings in a virtual reality board room. Or better yet, be able to work side by side with our customers, without leaving our offices and homes. That would certainly help make physical distance seem less important and bring a remote team closer together.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Security is always the first thing that comes to my mind. As technology evolves, so too does the expertise of cybercriminals. We need to be careful and aware of how new technologies could put organizations at risk.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
The biggest shift for us has been with our consulting team. Traditionally, they would travel to customer sites for onboarding and training. Today, that is mostly done via video conferencing.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
I certainly recommend using high-definition video chat. That way you are able to send and receive nonverbal cues much more easily and can adjust to the conversation in real time to be sure you are understood. Email or chat messaging can often come off differently than the sender intended, so video chat is best to avoid miscommunication as much as possible.
I would also add that it’s important to give feedback more regularly, instead of waiting for an annual review. This helps reduce the intensity of getting built up feedback in one session and makes it easier to talk through each situation.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
I think that camaraderie is crucial to a close-knit, effective team. Building that remotely can be challenging, so don’t be afraid to get creative! Try to do everything you would for team building that you would do with an in-person team. For birthdays mail a little care package and have a virtual toast. Perhaps you could do some online gaming as a team building — Jack Box, for example, is a great option that offers basic, user-friendly games that can be played virtually. Or you could keep it simple with a remote happy hour. Find what works for you and your team, and don’t hesitate to ask your employees for ideas. Have fun with it.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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. :-)
Companies have often told me that they foster a “culture of failure.” But the term itself shows to me that these companies have not understood what it’s really all about. Because failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of it. The important thing here is “learning.” I would like to encourage people to strive for a “culture of learning,” because it is learning from our mistakes that makes us successful. And this is true in all areas of our lives: just ask yourself how a child learns to walk.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.