Jen Grogono of uStudio: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
…Convey emotion. It’s hard to be seen as human when employees are no longer able to meet with you in person. A typed or written message can only carry so much meaning. As Mehrabian’s research noted decades ago, audio increases the meaning of a message by more than 500 percent. That’s a lot of weight! And it’s fairly intuitive; not only can employees receive your words, but they receive the tone and cadence of your voice which has all sorts of effects including a stronger ability to inspire cultural alignment and action. This past year, a client of ours produced a heart-felt podcast episode describing a fundraiser where an employee raised money to buy iPads for nursing home residents during the pandemic. The connectedness and kindness came through in ways a print notice on the company intranet or even email wouldn’t have.
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 Jen Grogono, CEO of uStudio.
As Founder and Chief Executive Officer of uStudio Inc., Jen Grogono leads company vision and strategy for a new generation of media technologies for the enterprise, transforming employee communications and learning experiences with podcasts, on-demand video, and live streaming. In 2006, Grogono co-founded one of the industry’s first multi-channel media networks, On Networks (now part of Complex Media), where she pioneered new forms of digital programming, any-screen publishing and distribution, and audience measurement. A cum laude graduate of Boston College, Grogono holds a patent for technology related to digital media distribution and measurement and is a frequent speaker at events such as SXSW and NAB on the intersection of media and technology.
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?
In 2006, I co-founded a new digital media business which today might be called a multi-channel media network. This was during the period between the iPod and iPhone (if you can even remember the days before we had iPhones!) so digital video streaming was still a fairly new concept. While our business progressed, I was struck by how few technology resources were available to support operating a digital media business. Standard technologies for handling things like video distribution, compression, metadata, stream security, and audience measurement barely existed. It became clear that the success of any digital media operation would depend heavily on these technologies and that there was an opportunity to build an innovative platform. We later realized that every corporate communications and training department was going to look a lot like a media business and would need to use a platform like ours to transform communications from print to streaming. The opportunity was big, growing, and too interesting to pass up.
Can you please give us your favorite, “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always loved Teddy Roosevelt’s quote about the critic.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
It’s a great reminder that standing on the outside looking in is not the best position from which to judge anyone or anything. We have to actively participate in our work and our lives in order to have the greatest chance for growth. I particularly like Roosevelt’s phrase “daring greatly,” now popularized by Brene Brown’s book with the same title. If we don’t dare to try something, particularly in those moments when the stakes feel high and the fear runs deep, we’ll never know what’s possible. In fact, playing it safe means we’re far more likely to limit our outcomes.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful and who helped you get to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think one of the hardest and most important decisions for any entrepreneur is choosing the right partners and advisors for your business. Since the very beginning, our CTO Josh Marshall has fearlessly led our engineering vision and operations, garnering several international patents and architectural accolades, not to mention building a team of world-class software developers. Not only has Josh proven to be an incredibly dependable and hard-working co-founder, he is also one of the most objective and kind-hearted humans I know. In the very early days of uStudio, I remember how committed he was to designing a system that was open, API-first, and above all, ‘designed for change’. He has always had the ability to see around corners beyond the typical eye. I’m grateful for his partnership.
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?
Well, one thing we know for sure is that human connection is important and that need will never go away. In fact, in today’s work from home reality, we are all experiencing what it feels like when we lose that connection. Social interaction at work leads to a better understanding of our colleagues, which in turn leads to stronger collaboration and often more successful and productive execution. What we’re learning is that employees who work together physically for at least some part of the week seem to be able to access more creativity as a team and more individual satisfaction with their job.
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?
Sure. It’s still early in our understanding of all the potential drawbacks to remote working, but we’re starting to see some of the inefficiencies in positions that require more consensus-building and collaboration. When product and marketing leaders, for example, aren’t able to get into a room with a white-board and brainstorm or simply bounce ideas off of one other, there’s often an element of innovation that gets lost. Zoom is unable to recreate those experiences effectively or allow for sub-groups to break off and hold important side conversations. The other thing we’re beginning to appreciate is how valuable ‘water cooler,’ office pop-up meetings, and lunch conversations are to employees feeling connected and aligned. Without these soft touchpoints, business leaders are in uncharted waters, unable to rely on traditional means of cascading communications across the business. They need to work harder to ensure employees receive important business news and updates no matter their time zone, location, or network bandwidth. In short, it’s easier than ever for leaders and the workforce to feel out of touch when people are not in the same physical space. This is one of the many reasons why I love enterprise podcasting — you can communicate efficiently with more meaning and intention in the way the workforce prefers to receive information. One voice, nothing lost in translation.
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.)
First, implementing a system of communication accountability is important. As a business professional managing remote teams, it’s important to know that your messages are being received and how it’s resonating. It’s no secret that you can’t measure the consumption of print and email, but with an audio or video stream, you can see who played your content and for how long. This information can help you understand employee preferences and improve the nature of your content.
Second, communicate regularly and consistently. Establishing a series of schedule communication delivered regularly sets expectations for your team and makes it easier for you to be proactive. Over time, you’ll find that the more often you check in, the more transparent and aligned your teams will feel. Several digital communications tools support group functionality which allows you to set schedules and target messages to specific teams.
Third, convey emotion. It’s hard to be seen as human when employees are no longer able to meet with you in person. A typed or written message can only carry so much meaning. As Mehrabian’s research noted decades ago, audio increases the meaning of a message by more than 500 percent. That’s a lot of weight! And it’s fairly intuitive; not only can employees receive your words, but they receive the tone and cadence of your voice which has all sorts of effects including a stronger ability to inspire cultural alignment and action. This past year, a client of ours produced a heart-felt podcast episode describing a fundraiser where an employee raised money to buy iPads for nursing home residents during the pandemic. The connectedness and kindness came through in ways a print notice on the company intranet or even email wouldn’t have.
Fourth, be adaptable. We are all busier and more distracted than ever — especially balancing work from home and children. There’s a high value on organizations that can make company communications and training more convenient and adaptive to life in a post-Covid world. Select tools that allow for multi-tasking and micro-learning without being burdensome to employees. Fit and adjust your messages so that they fit within systems and tools that are already being used. Again, here, we’re big proponents of enterprise podcasting and training series on-demand because the use of these technologies at home is already natural for the workforce. There are no new devices needed or behaviors to learn when your team can receive and consume work shows, episodes, and recommended playlists.
Fifth, don’t entertain drama. This one doesn’t need much explanation. We’ve all been on the receiving end of emotional email threads where intentions and messages are lost in a sea of pointed language and ‘reply all’ antics. There are very few replacements for direct and open voice dialogue.
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?
Like every business, we had to make adjustments as it became clear the pandemic would not be short-lived. I’m proud of how we handled our policy changes and operational management, but I’m even prouder of how our team handled themselves. From our developers to our marketers, everyone immediately kicked into a ‘can-do’ gear and we became stronger and more resilient as a consequence. We hold our standard weekly executive meetings via video conference, but all of our teams also have daily morning ‘stand-up’ video meetings to touch base on tasks. We’re recording more audio and sharing that through our internal media application for more convenient playback. And we’ve strengthened our OKR quarterly planning process. I can say with confidence that our productivity has grown over the last 12 months.
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?
We’re certainly a bit biased, but having worked closely for years with corporate leaders who have invested in audio and video communications, we are big believers in its benefits. The meaning of a message delivered through voice is simply unmatched with written communications. And the gap is widening. As more consumers depend on audio-visual mediums to connect and engage one another, emails and news posts on the company intranet are being seen as low engagement tools. Additionally, as the cost of hiring and reskilling our workforce increases, modern employee engagement tools will become critical to the bottom line. And the benefits of employee engagement are a no-brainer. A recent Gallup study analyzed differences in performance among business units — Businesses in the top quartile on employee engagement significantly outperformed those in the bottom quartile when it came to less turnover, lower absenteeism, higher productivity and profitability, and more.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
As I alluded to earlier, the perfect communications tools will carry as much meaning and effectiveness as face-to-face connection, but with far less cost and inconvenience to the organization and the individual. Less effort to convey and consume important information means that greater amounts of information can be shared and retained.
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?
As you know, early investments in Unified Communications in the enterprise were part of our increased dependence on IP networks and tools like email and chat. Over the last decade, cloud-based infrastructures accelerated the adoption of UC investments, but even then, many enterprises were flat-footed at the start of the pandemic. IT organizations were stretched thin as they scrambled to accommodate VPN capacity, personal device policies, and streaming video without compromising governance, speed, or corporate security standards. The need for and value of clearly established UC policies and tools has never been clearer. Businesses depend on IP-based communications. The overwhelming growth of media streaming coupled with work from home mandates continues to stress the network and pose real challenges to those who have historically underinvested here.
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’m excited about all of those new media experiences and I think they will, as you mention, bring remote people together in shared virtual spaces like we’ve never seen. What I look for before determining whether a technology is commercially viable in the enterprise is some sort of solidity or broad adoption in a related field. In other words, before a technology finds success in the enterprise, we usually see that same technology used successfully elsewhere, often for a different purpose like social or entertainment experiences. For example, I’m watching the gaming industry as it continues to push the boundaries of VR and AR. There will undoubtedly be opportunities for us to leverage those innovations and apply enterprise use cases to the capability set.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
The only real concern I have is whether we are being thoughtful enough about outcomes. Sometimes we become enamored with cool technology just because it’s cool and we don’t think enough about its commercial viability. We can get caught up in the ‘hype cycle’ and we lose pragmatism — both as vendors and customers. Enterprise tech economics have a virtuous way of checking this behavior and forcing us as an industry to think about long-term value and ROI. In the case of AR / VR, there are so many shifting variables and standards and no uniform set of use cases and workflows that one would be wise to maintain an ‘experimental’ stance until there is more solidity underfoot.
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 company communications have shifted to digital interactions, whether that’s with an employee, a customer, or an investor. We maintain a standard portfolio of tools that aid in everything from messaging, real-time chat to media streaming, capture, and playback on-demand. I think the key to adoption is to stay within the natural range of habits for your users and to ensure you’re responding to usage data and preferences. In other words, people want to use tools that they are already using and familiar with within their everyday life. If the modern worker feels more digital familiarity with podcast apps, playlists, news feeds, audio and video messages, then those things should be strongly considered as part of your corporate portfolio.
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. Not so when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
Back to Mehrabian’s law, tone of voice is 500 percent more effective at conveying the meaning of a message than the written word. And video more than doubles that. It’s difficult to convey a message clearly through print. We’ve all been there when we’d spend hours trying to get the tone of an email right or even being on the receiving end of an email and wondering how to read the tone. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but smart leaders are opting for audio and video tools as a replacement for emails and pdfs. The creation of the message is faster and there’s a far greater chance the message is heard as intended.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
We worked closely with one of our advisors to establish a quarterly planning process that has made a big difference in team cohesion. Every quarter we have a mandatory 3–4 days off from all business operations and we focus solely on our 12–18 month goals. During this period, we meet together as one team and we have cross-functional committees for each goal. The committees work together to recognize and celebrate success and progress as well as identify areas where we may have gaps or obstacles in our way. What I’ve found so far is that this process — both the act of doing it and reporting out quarterly — does more for individual and team satisfaction than all of the company ‘awards’ and recognition in the world. There’s something about sharing the work — and not just the outcomes — that bring people together and help them feel connected to one another and to the company. Increasingly and not surprisingly we are planning to record these sessions and house them in our private company media app so that folks can revisit our important discussions.
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.
That’s a good and hard question! While most of my time is spent consulting with businesses, I’ve always championed the individual. In particular, I’ve loved studying the people behind the changes and transformational movements across our customer base. What’s clear is that while human nature causes most of us to bring some amount of fear and skepticism to new things, the best thing we can do for ourselves and for the people who depend on us is to push forward anyway. Walt Disney once said, “the single difference in winning and losing is most often…not quitting.” We have a hell of a lot more capacity to create new things than we realize. And in pushing past our perceived limitations, we inspire others to do the same. In a future state, I’d love to see our children learn this in school — conditioning them to recognize when they are holding themselves back and giving them the tools and techniques to push past those thought patterns. If we as individuals can learn at a young age to push past the inevitable walls of self-doubt we encounter throughout our lives, we will maintain a culture of innovation and progress.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Those interested can follow our work on most of the social media networks such as Twitter https://twitter.com/ustudio and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/1493654/admin/). Our team also regularly shares resources via our blog. For those wanting to use audio podcasting and video for strategic communications, or even if you simply enjoy the art of podcasting and media, there will be value in connecting.
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.