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Dana Elmquist of FieldCast: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

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 Dana Elmquist, president of FieldCast.

Dana Elmquist is the President of FieldCast (www.FieldCast.co), a Milwaukee-based company that has developed the first private podcasting system for businesses to securely engage their teams through the convenience of mobile devices and the voices of company leadership. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, Elmquist pursued PhD studies in art history at UCLA. He spent several months in sub-Saharan Africa studying art and artists in Mozambique. He went on to work with the Museum of African Art in New York, where he helped raise millions of dollars for the museum. He also worked with the New York City Libraries, helping them secure funding for and build their digital programs. Elmquist went on to head corporate partnerships at WNYC Studios, where he provided the groundwork to launch an industry-leading podcast network. At FieldCast, Elmquist leads a team of professionals that help corporate leaders create world-class podcasts without the need to ever enter a studio. In addition to his role as President of FieldCast, Elmquist enjoys mentoring young professionals and teaches a class at Columbia University in New York.

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?

I actually started my career with a focus on art and art history. After working toward a Ph.D. in Art History (which I did not complete), I went to work for the Museum of African Art in New York. I then went on to the iconic New York City library where I combined my fundraising expertise with digital platforms. After moving to public radio, I played a key role in launching a podcast network, which prepared me well to lead FieldCast.

I’ve played the guitar since I was 4, so have always been involved in audio and have always had an interest in recording high quality audio. In my opinion, it’s an underutilized medium in business communications.

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

One of the most interesting changes I have seen in my career is the change in how we work and how we communicate with our colleagues. We use to have days full of meetings in conference rooms in big buildings. Many of us would spend much of our day going from conference room to conference room for meeting after meeting. Often, we would be traveling across town, across the country, or even across oceans to meet in person. Then at 5:00, the meetings ended and we got to do our work — unless we had a business dinner meeting.

Perhaps that wasn’t the most productive use of our time.

We had already begun to evolve away from that, but that evolution was really accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations today have become more productive. I think we are at a real inflection point on how people use technology to enhance their productivity.

Previously, I spent so much time in traffic and on airplanes — to meet clients for an hour or two. Days and weeks of travel and wait time are now time I can spend interacting with clients and having more free time with my family.

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

My favorite quote is from the ancient Chinese philosopher and writer, Laozi. He said, “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment.”

This quote has had an important impact on both my personal and professional lives. I believe this philosophy especially applies to the marketing and communications industry today — particularly when executives are talking to employees. Executives have to first be comfortable with themselves before they can be authentic with their employees. Employees want an authentic leader, but you can’t be authentic if you don’t know yourself.

Today, much of corporate marketing and communications is internal branding. Mass marketing no longer works. Niche is the new scale and authenticity is demanded by both internal and external audiences. We move the needle through very targeted campaigns. At FieldCast, we help companies do that by creating authentic podcasts directed to their most important market — their employees.

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 are two people who had a significant impact on my career. The first was my boss at the Museum of African Art — Marietta. She had immigrated to the United States from Cuba. Marietta started her work life by cleaning houses in Florida while she put herself through college and graduate school.

Marietta encouraged me to take more risks in my career. She was a minority, immigrant woman who overcame many challenges. I was young with a good education and endless opportunities before me. She couldn’t understand why someone like me, with really nothing to lose and lots of advantages, didn’t risk everything to take on a bigger challenge. She was very persuasive and really encouraged me to challenge myself and challenge how I think about my career. She helped me think about my life and career differently. Thanks to her, I believe I am more willing to “think outside the box” and challenge myself and my colleagues and even my family, to consider all possibilities.

The second great influencer in my life was Dennis. He was my sales trainer when I worked at WNYC — New York’s Public Radio station. Dennis really helped me think about how to talk to clients, identify their needs and find equitable solutions to their problems. His influence has helped me a great deal throughout my career, but especially now as I work with clients to help them create solutions to their communication needs during this challenging time.

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?

Being together and seeing someone every day helps build a sense of social trust and creates a cohesive atmosphere. It’s much easier to form genuine relationships with coworkers if you are in the same space. That can be harder to do — especially for new employees — when everyone is working remotely. Being in the office not only can lead to camaraderie, but makes it easier for spontaneous collaboration, ideation and exploration of ideas. It’s sometimes much easier to bounce an idea off a colleague and get instant feedback when you are both in the break room than it is if you have to make a phone call or send an email or message.

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?

When teams are not working in the same space, there are many challenges, especially related to building the company’s culture. One of the challenges that perhaps has the biggest impact on company culture is getting communications right. It’s vital to find that right balance between under communicating and communicating so often that you interfere with an employee’s ability to get their job done and become an annoyance. It’s important to communicate in ways that don’t take employees away from their work or disrupt the pattern of their work day. Leaders should utilize a variety of communication tools to effectively deliver their message.

Using the right communications tool is especially important because today, business leaders are not only expected to communicate information about the company and its business with employees and other constituencies, but they are also expected to share the “why” behind what they are doing. They are also asked to address many societal issues as well, including varied work patterns, vaccine mandates, social justice issues, the environment and more. Often, those topics require timeliness, context and nuance, which can be difficult to deliver in a company newsletter. It’s critical that leaders engage employees through effective, personal communications that allow employees to get to know the leader in a more intimate way and bring people together emotionally, even if they can’t be together physically.

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.)

  • Authenticity — Today, everyone expects leaders to be authentic. Authenticity is critical to building that cohesive relationship with employees and creating a common culture for the company. For me, authenticity is having enough sense of self that leaders can be a little vulnerable and are able to unpack and share the decision-making process with employees. Sharing “This is what we weighed in making the decision. . .” That way people aren’t asking questions about the decision.
  • Transparency — I am a huge fan of being transparent. It’s very empowering. At FieldCast, we are extremely transparent with our work, our finances, our salaries, everything. It’s really a radical level of transparency compared to most companies. We share a lot more information about budgets and have a unique level of transparency so that everyone knows what success looks like. We have created a program where there is both external and internal equity. We run our company very collectively and employees participate in the company’s success.
  • Honesty — Tell people the whole truth using plain language that all employees understand. For example, if you are taking away a benefit due to economic reasons, explain that. Communicate, “We value employees more than we value this benefit and because of a decrease in sales, we had to make a choice. The choices were cut back on benefits or lay off employees. We chose keeping employees.” There are lots of ways to say and explain so people understand, but it’s important to be clear and honest.
  • Empathy — Empathy is such an important part of connecting with employees. At FieldCast, we help executives connect with employees using our secure, proprietary podcast platform, which can help convey a leader’s empathy. Last year, one of our clients used the FieldCast podcast system to address issues of social justice and civil unrest. In talking to his employees, the executive told a very personal story — about how he talked to his 10-year-old daughter about the George Floyd killing. She had seen something on the news and was asking him why everyone was so upset. He told employees how he had to explain the legacy of distrust and racism and how he felt like the first step in acceptance in a pluralistic society is interfacing with lots of different people. He explained to employees how he told her that once you get to know people of different backgrounds, you realize everyone deserves respect and dignity. By telling his employees what he said to his 10-year-old daughter, he built a very personal connection. His podcast on this topic was the most popular one of the year among his employees.
  • Personality — I’m a people person, and so for me, personality is important. A leader’s personality helps shape the company culture and helps guide employee’s actions as they fulfill the leader’s vision. A leader’s personality can help motivate employees if they are engaged with company leadership.

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?

At FieldCast, we are a very tech-savvy, nimble workforce. So, we have not experienced a lot of technical challenges throughout the pandemic. Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced — as have so many other companies — is that we found our daily calendars became parking lots of zoom meetings. This inhibited productivity and revenue growth. It interfered with our team’s ability to think, plan and interface with clients — which is what employees most want to do. So, in order to prevent our days from becoming a series of back-to-back zoom meetings, we reduced standing meeting times from one hour to 25 minutes. That has certainly helped us stay focused on what’s important to our team and what’s important to our clients.

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?

While I can certainly advocate for FieldCast’s podcast system, I have to say that it’s important that companies and their leaders utilize a variety of communication tools to reach their audiences and build a strong connection that helps engage employees and support the company culture.

To my thinking, we have to give people options and tools for communicating — and going forward, audio is going to be a big part of that — using platforms such as podcasting, messaging, and other tools. Companies should be open-minded and test and learn what works for their team. Using communication vehicles that engage employees when, where and how they want to be connected is important.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

As I’ve said, I think a big part of the future of employee communications is audio — especially podcasts. Podcasts have grown dramatically in popularity in the last few years, and a survey of 1,500 employees showed that 83% want to hear from their employers via podcasts. Of those surveyed, 78% specifically said they want to hear from company leadership via podcasts.

Certainly, part of the reason for this is that podcasts can build a very personal connection between corporate leaders and employees. Through podcasts, employees can not only hear an executive’s voice, but they can hear the nuance in the discussion. And rather than interrupt an employee’s day to communicate at the leader’s convenience, or require employees to be at a company computer, podcasts allow employees to tune-in from their ever-present mobile device when and where they want, so it’s not disruptive to their work day.

Finally, our FieldCast podcast system allows companies to measure the effectiveness of their messaging. They know how many employees have tuned-in and how long they listen. The FieldCast system can also survey employees at the end to determine what messages resonated with them.

Audio communications are a great way to engage and motivate employees and podcasts let employers do just that utilizing a platform that is easy-to-use platform for all parties.

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?

The pandemic has underscored the need to have communications that respect the user’s time. As I previously said, companies should use a variety of communication vehicles. I don’t think there is one single solution, but we need communications to be time-shifted. By that I mean we are delivering communications that let employees listen when and where they want, which will allow them to listen intently.

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?

Audio is just beginning to penetrate corporate settings and enterprise communications. Technology is allowing us to turn text into spoken word. Coming will be systems that allow the user to ask questions aloud — like we do with Siri — and have business answers come back to us. I can see tons of applications for audio in the workplace. Audio already is, and will continue to be beneficial for the visually impaired.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

My only concern about using technology to supplant human connection, is that we realize that we can’t replace that personal connection of meeting face-to-face. While we need to be more prudent with our time and resources as we meet with people, we can’t totally eliminate face-to-face time, nor should we try to.

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?

Almost all of our outreach to customers is digital, sales calls via zoom or phone. This has enabled us to re-organize our sales team with category specialists regardless of geography. Thanks to technology, our team members can talk with clients in Amsterdam in the morning, Pheonix at lunch and California in the afternoon. I see productivity and revenue increasing markedly. We do still visit clients and do trade shows, but these are very select events. Our goal is to maximize time and resources for everyone involved.

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?

Feedback should be ongoing, not a surprise. Managing a fully remote company is not an easy task especially training and onboarding. At FieldCast, our culture is really to surround every new hire with expertise from across the organization, giving them as wide a view as possible. This helps them understand how the departments relate to each other and how their work impacts everyone. We do monthly town halls either on audio only or video and in better times I will bring the company together physically in a new city every quarter for culture building and strategy alignment.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

I believe the key components are a shared vision and regular communications. At FieldCast, we take a lot of care to celebrate wins across the organization whether that’s a new accounting system that streamlines invoicing, an amazing podcast that just got released for a client and especially new hires and promotions. Showing the team how they can grow with FieldCast and how we regularly promote from within helps say that the hard work that everyone is doing each day is and will continue to be rewarded.

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. :-)

I would like to make work, work for more people. At FieldCast, we’re making a difference every day in the lives of employees, especially in how connected, heard and included they feel in their company culture and workplace community. We spend more of our lives working than with our families and friends and it’s really important to me that everyone has the opportunity to rise to their fullest potential, contribute boldly and be part of something that has a tremendous impact. This all starts with great communication, and FieldCast is a little, but important part of that.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow our work at www.FieldCast.co We have lots of great information on our website, including several terrific examples of how companies are using podcasting to engage employees. Be sure to check out our Blog and our Webinars for useful information.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.

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David Liu

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