It’s important to always remember the positives when you give out constructive feedback, and in a remote working environment, this becomes even more important, because at the end of the day, a written message is often all people have to make an impression. It’s important to start off a feedback email with words of appreciation and gratitude. They are, after all, a wonderful addition to the team, and we appreciate their work overall.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irina Papuc, co-Founder & Managing Partner of Galactic Fed, a multinational, fully-remote marketing agency with employees all around the world.
A physicist turned digital marketing leader, Irina brings a unique view to her work as a data-driven growth marketing expert. Irina co-founded GalacticFed to provide clients a better solution for on-demand, scaleable, growth marketing teams. Previously she led SEO teams at Toptal, a global online services business, and has built high-powered virtual teams for hyper-growth Bay Area companies. Irina has created performance marketing strategies and solutions for brands such as Shell, Descript, Tenfold, and HVMN, among many others.
Irina’s specialty is providing bespoke, highly scalable email marketing and link-building solutions, as well as designing and operationalizing full SEO programs at any size and scale for her clients.
Outside of digital marketing, Irina is an academically trained anthropologist with a physics degree, having briefly worked at CERN in particle physics before moving into the digital marketing world.
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”?
I’ve worn a few hats so far! To quickly sum it up, I studied physics, worked briefly at CERN, graduated in the aftermath of the 2007 recession, concluded that office life was not for me, bought a one-way ticket to Taiwan, lived there for a year and taught English, then saved up enough money to travel a year overland from Thailand to Romania (my roots). Once I returned to the states in 2014, I fell into marketing when browsing the web for remote work opportunities, and it stuck like a well-fitted glove. I fell in love with all aspects of SEO while joining (and eventually leading) the SEO program at Toptal, a global tech startup specializing in the talent economy, eventually moving on to co-found Galactic Fed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Marketing has taken me on some pretty remarkable business trips. I’ve had the pleasure of dipping into ethnographic field research (something tied to my graduate background in anthropology) while doing marketing. For example, for one of our undisclosed clients, I had the pleasure of spending a day washing cars in Texas “undercover” while learning the ins and out of user behavior related to this activity!
All in all, marketing puts you in contact with some of the most interesting people in various industries, fields, and walks of life. You never know who walks in through the door!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Offer unlimited paid time off, and encourage your team to actually take time off. Many companies implement this policy, but the team doesn’t actually take time off! Set the precedent and don’t ping our e-mail your co-workers on the weekend. Help prevent “Slack burnout” (constantly checking Slack) by encouraging team members to designate “deep work” time when they are not checking Slack. Encourage some healthy competition within the org that emphasizes health and wellness, such as a company-wide walkathon, or recipe exchange. Make sure team members who are expecting or recently gave birth take the necessary time off to rest and focus on their family.
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?
I’ve never worked a day in a physical office. My entire career has been remote, and it began in 2015. So, 5 years total to date managing remote teams.
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?
Communication — it’s hard enough as it is to communicate effectively in a traditional team setting. Once to take this to a remote environment, you often have little more than a few specs, Slack messages, and perhaps a brief call or two to convey the expectations and the end goals. Daily communication is the cement that holds the team together, and at Galactic Fed this extends over multiple time zones and continents.
Building trust — it’s important to build a team that trusts one another and their managers to deliver on their promises day in and day out. That reassurance of trust fuels the team to show up every day and give 100%.
Tracking productivity — with a team spread over multiple time zones and continents, it can get a little tricky to track productivity, even with a team of carefully vetted, motivated self-starters.
Team morale — It’s really important to sustain and cultivate a healthy team morale.
A unified company culture — whether your company is domestic or international, it’s vital that leaders find common threads to unite the org in a unified company culture.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
Communication — encourage the team to follow certain protocols, such as making themselves available in Slack during normal US work hours Monday to Friday, and responding within a set amount of time. Encourage the team to practice over-communication, that is, assuming that what reads as a clear text to the writer does not necessarily provide all the context to the reader. Give your colleague a chance to ask questions in a Q&A doc, and answer them promptly. Set up brief calls when needed to quickly untangle any misreads.
Building trust — With a remote environment, building trust is largely about setting and living up to expectations with your team. Make sure to maintain clarity around the core areas that matter to your team, such as project expectations, pay rate, payment timelines, and status updates on projects. Make sure your team has a platform to voice their concerns and have them addressed.
Tracking productivity — we track productivity for all our team members, and our preferred reporting is a combination of internal solutions and tools like Toggl. It’s really about finding what preferred tech stack works with your org. We also recommend weekly sync calls across departments and task forces.
Team morale — we recommend calling out weekly wins of members of the team, and recognizing them for their individual contributions to the team.
A unified company culture — we recommend encouraging team-wide competitions, and onboarding the team in a unified way of working together and producing results, in our case the Galactic Fed Way.
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?
Great question. It’s important to always remember the positives when you give out constructive feedback, and in a remote working environment, this becomes even more important, because at the end of the day, a written message is often all people have to make an impression. It’s important to start off a feedback email with words of appreciation and gratitude. They are, after all, a wonderful addition to the team, and we appreciate their work overall. It’s also great to call out some things they have done exceptionally well in recent times, for this information is as important as the feedback itself, it forms a more comprehensive picture of what they bring to the table. Once this is laid out, I would go ahead and share the constructive feedback, taking care to include why it matters to the success of the company overall. Finally, I like to include a step by step action plan for how we can help set up the team members for success, e.g. how we can help them with training, etc. to reach and surpass the challenge.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Honestly, I usually avoid giving constructive feedback over email. I much prefer a more interactive platform, such as Slack, to give the person receiving the feedback opportunity to interact with me in real time, so it feels more personal, like a real conversation that goes back and forth.
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?
Try to avoid getting into the routine of working out of bed, in your pajamas. Instead, it’s really best if you designate a special room that is private and quiet for doing work. Make this your office, and treat it just like any normal co-working space. Minimize distractions, keep healthy snacks and water on hand, and consider what will pop up as your video call background, as it could distract your co-workers. Or enjoy the Zoom backgrounds that are all the rage now. Having this space that is devoted to just work time will help you achieve better work-life balance over time, and “keep work at work” so to speak, even as you work out of your home.
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?
I can share an example from COVID-19 times. Now, with everyone social-distancing at home, it’s important more than ever to get in some exercise, and a bit of friendly competition never hurts! We launched a Galactic Fed Walkathon across the whole company last month, to much fanfare. We set up teams, and some friendly competition to see who got in more steps on their pedometers. A little friendly competition is always good!
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. :-)
To echo Zach’s response, Zach and I would love to see more entrepreneurs and founders focus on building companies that have a social purpose or positive mission. That has been our biggest focus lately.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Short cuts make long delays.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring This resonates in so many life situations, especially in business. From building and nurturing relationships, to planning a new department, to hiring a stellar senior-level engineer vs. a n00b, short cuts make for very long delays indeed.
Thank you for these great insights!