Ed Stevens of Preciate: Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team
Managing work-life balance — Remote work is a blessing and a curse in this regard. Now that home and office are the same for many people, you can find yourself essentially living in your office…and it’s hard to separate the two. At the same time, remote work gives people even more flexibility than ever before, and many employees love that. You have to trust your employees, and be clear that flexibility is fine, as long as the work is getting done in a timely manner.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed Stevens.
Ed Stevens is the founder and CEO of Preciate. He is deeply committed to helping others build strong, authentic relationships with the power of technology. Mr. Stevens has a BA from Stanford University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
After college, I went to live in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was the First American to be on the payroll of a Russian military factory after the Cold War. I eventually started helping the Russians to sell some of their consumer products into the U.S. and around the world. I’m a serial entrepreneur, having started five companies so far. Preciate is the latest and has the greatest potential of all of them. I love taking an idea and turning it into a product and then a company that delivers that product consistently to many customers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
On December 12, 2009, my previous software company, Shopatron, had a major system outage. We were an eCommerce platform used by over 800 manufacturers and retailers, and December 12 was Cyber Monday. Our systems were down for 14 hours, and honestly there were times when we thought it was going to kill the company.
With teamwork and focus, we eventually fixed the problem. The next day, we gathered together as a team and called every last customer to apologize and ask them what we could do better for them. We learned a lot about what our customers wanted. Then, we set about fixing our organization. All in all, it took us two years to put the necessary changes in place, but, at the end of those two years, we were bigger, better, and serving more customers than ever.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We started Shopatron as a bootstrapped business with credit cards. Our first offices were in a movie studio warehouse with no heat for three years. There were plastic sheet walls that hung around our desks that gave just a teaser of privacy. It was often 45–50 degrees inside during the winter.
When they would shoot movies or commercials in the studio, I had to be quiet and end my sales calls. I bootstrapped to save money. Ecommerce was going to be huge though, and looking back, I think we could have raised even more money and thought bigger than we did.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Help them remove energy drains (the things they don’t like or aren’t good at) and find what they are good at. Almost everyone is really good at something. You just need to figure out what that is and have them do it all day long.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?
Including Shopatron and its satellite office in England, I have over 10 years of experience managing remote teams. Now with Preciate we have been a fully remote company for the past 2 years.
Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?
- How things work. The biggest challenge is articulating how things get done when you’re fully remote, because everything is different when you’re not all together in an office. For example, when onboarding an employee, how can you get them to meet the people they need to meet?
- Building Culture — It can be hard to become connected and friendly with people over conference calls. One of the biggest challenges in building culture is getting casual time on the calendar. We’ve solved this with weekly all hands meetings, which include fun free time before and after for the team to just hang out and chat.
- Sending physical things — Handing out swag to your team is a whole ordeal when you’re remote. As well as fun things like Secret Santa. But if you’re focused on building a strong culture, we’ve found that spending the extra time and money to do this actually makes a positive impact on team morale.
- Managing work-life balance — Remote work is a blessing and a curse in this regard. Now that home and office are the same for many people, you can find yourself essentially living in your office…and it’s hard to separate the two. At the same time, remote work gives people even more flexibility than ever before, and many employees love that. You have to trust your employees, and be clear that flexibility is fine, as long as the work is getting done in a timely manner.
- Teaching managers how to manage — Mentorship is still important, and it’s definitely a challenge when you’re remote. But as the CEO, it’s my job to make sure we’re teaching our managers all aspects of management, and as a result I spend a lot of time working individually with each of them in this regard.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
Using the Preciate platform honestly is one of our secret weapons. We like to call this “drinking our own champagne.” It’s a virtual meeting and events platform that really helps people to feel human and connect. Instead of being stuck in a tile or a grid, event attendees can move around the virtual space, from conversation to conversation. It’s akin to being at a cocktail party in real life, where you can move around the room freely whenever you want to.
For most of these challenges, including teaching people how to manage, you just have to take time to do it. And, documentation is the answer to helping people know how things get done. But improving company culture and managing a remote workforce takes a little more effort, since you can’t just pop by someone’s desk at any given moment to ask them a question or get something resolved.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing 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 employee?
First off, stay away from email. Feedback is definitely best over the phone or on a video call. Again, this is where we “drink our own champagne” — I give feedback in the Preciate platform which allows me to have a face to face conversation with anyone.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Don’t do it. I think any constructive feedback is better given in person/virtually/over the phone.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
It’s time to change your mindset from temporary to permanent, and start thinking about how to rewire things. Just because your team is remote doesn’t mean you can’t interact with each other. There are plenty of virtual tools available to help you remain a team, have fun together, and build company culture. It’s up to the leadership team on how to pursue this. Unfortunately, the c-suite can’t just show up to the office and expect everyone to answer to them now that we’re remote. You have to put more effort into building and maintaining relationships, wherever your team is located.
What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
Create common culture spaces and meet there. We use the Preciate platform, and I have different rooms that I use for different purposes. My favorite is a branded room that has our colors, our logo, and our company core values in it, which we use for our All Hands meetings. This helps reinforce the things that are most important to us as a company on a weekly basis. Simply having a set time every week when people can come together and hang out virtually goes a long way towards building a stronger work culture.
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’d love to inspire a movement of building healthier relationships when people can’t be in person. It’s not just doable, it’s essential in the new normal. We shouldn’t just accept that Zoom and Zoom fatigue are the way it’s going to be. Technology can definitely be used to bring people together and that’s what I want to do.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take — Wayne Gretzky
Thank you for these great insights!