Karen Hough of ImprovEdge: “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team”
This is a moment in every organization’s history and culture to define themselves. How did you adhere to your mission and vision, and most importantly, how did you do the best by your employees that you possibly could? Allow people to socialize virtually in order to keep those connections strong. By the same token, make all social interactions opt-in. Virtual work is exhausting, and tacking on virtual happy hours or book clubs when individuals might really need to get away from the screen isn’t helpful. And that’s really the heart of empowerment — give your team autonomy, control and praise when they achieve something special
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Hough.
Karen Hough is the Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge, business training with an improv twist. Amazon #1 bestselling author, in the top 1% of women-owned businesses in the United States and recipient of the Stevie Award for Most Innovative Company, Yale grad, wife, mom and avid hiker, Ms. Hough has run a virtual company with Ensemble members all over the world for 20 years.
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”?
It’s an Oops to Eureka! story! Oops to Eureka! is an improv concept that demands we embrace the unexpected and find the discovery. After graduating from Yale, I became a professional actor and improviser in Chicago, training and performing with Second City and other improv troupes, doing theater, film and radio. After I got married, I was enjoying success as an actor in New York when I had the ridiculous opportunity to go into a tech startup. (Remember, I was a Humanities major, and they still wanted to hire me…) In a real twist, my husband said, “If the tech thing doesn’t work out, you can always fall back on your acting, honey.” I crammed and took classes every night and improvised during the day. Although I didn’t have the experience of many of the engineers, I could think on my feet in front of clients, come up with creative solutions, and roll with the unexpected. I kept getting promoted and ended up working in three different start-ups — one went public and one was acquired. It was crazy and difficult and I loved it. The Wharton School of Business agreed to let us test the idea of using improv as a behavioral learning tool in 1998 — we were the first training company in the world to integrate improv, back it up with research in neuroscience and psychology, and trademark our principles. I bought out my partners and incorporated in 2005. We now serve companies such as NBCUniversal, JPMorganChase, AstraZeneca, and Coach, both in the US and internationally.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There are so many! Just one has to do with the importance always showing up. I remember being invited to speak at a conference after I published my first book with Berrett-Koehler. By that time, I was speaking all over the world for audiences in the hundreds which would be followed by book signings. They had set up the breakout hall for about 300. Guess what? Twenty two people showed up! They had forgotten to include my session in all of the materials except for one poster in the hallway outside the door. One of the key tenets of improvisation is to say, “Yes, and..” You accept what’s there and then build something out of it. I left the stage and went into the group immediately. We laughed and joked a bit about the situation, then I invited them onstage with me. We did a fully interactive mini workshop right there and we had a great time. I went home with what I thought would just be a funny story. One of those nine people ended up hiring ImprovEdge for a very big contract because they were so impressed that I showed up fully for a small group.
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?
Saying yes too much! Although “Yes, and” is the foundational principle of improvisation, I had to learn that it is often the CEO’s job to say “no.” And that no wasn’t for the employees of the company, it was for a client. We are incredibly flexible, agile, and creative, and often can accommodate unbelievable requests by our clients — it’s part of our brand. However, I found myself in a meeting one day with a really combative client — he was pushing for things far outside our capabilities, as well as timelines and budgets that were impossible. He was obviously trying to take advantage of me, my young company, and was leveraging the power of his company’s money and reach. I finally put my foot down. When I left the meeting, I was a little shaken, and figured I had lost the contract. That same client came out a few minutes later, laughed and said, “The first time you finally looked like a CEO was when you said no. I’m signing the contract.”
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Allowing people the grace and time to take care of themselves, their families, and their future is key. Most of the organizations we’re working with are dealing with one end of the spectrum — this crisis has created double and triple volumes of work, difficulties with technology, time management and work from home issues. As we settle into this difficult time, here are just a few tips from our full curriculum for dealing with crisis:
- Create a family plan and timeline, then collaborate with your boss and colleagues on your work plan to integrate both together. There is often synergy between teams where one person needs to be working during the day when they have help, and another might need to work in the late afternoon into the night. Also, it sets expectations for the home team and the work team as to your real capacity and boundaries.
- Move! The body/mind connection and its importance continue to be proven by science. If you want to manage stress and keep your brain agile, move on two levels: first, every 15 minutes, do a small move, such as neck rolls, ankle and wrist rolls (which increase circulation) or shoulder rolls. Second, every two hours, do big moves such as 10 minutes of yoga, a 20-minute walk or a bike ride.
- 55/25! This ratio is a best practice for virtual meetings. Schedule them normally for 60 minutes or 30 minutes, but insist on ending at least 5 minutes early. That allows for a bathroom break, a chance for a small movement and a chance to check in with the family. The key here, is that leadership MUST model this behavior. If there’s no example, people will end up sitting in front of a video call for 10+ hours/day.
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?
Twenty years of remote management from the research and start-up phase to now where we serve clients all over the world.
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?
- I spoke with a director last week who was sharing his latest Oops to Eureka! moment, compliments of the pandemic. His first, worst mistake was assuming that he could manage the group as he had from the office: all-team meetings each morning and 2x/month check-ins. It didn’t take long before he realized his stressed team was being pulled in a million directions and his attempts at office normalcy were actually making things harder for them. The first big mistake is managing a group, rather than a group of individuals. Even with diverse teams, the environment of the office provides a certain level of homogeny. We all work at the same hours, have a dedicated workspace, and know that our home/life responsibilities are, for the most part, managed while we are working. It’s a controlled environment. Expecting each member of a remote team to work during the same hours, have the same level of engagement or collaborate in the same way is folly. This is where managers really need to work hard — it’s their responsibility to understand all the elements that affect each person’s ability to work.
- Think about communication in an office: you can have scheduled meetings, chance meetings, overhear conversations, catch up on issues in the lunch room, see posters and news feeds, hear about other teams’ projects just because you passed them doing a whiteboard session. Now think about communication alone, at home. Even with wonderful tools online for collaboration strings, video conference team meetings, and quick phone calls, there’s much less information osmosis. The second issue is that managers don’t communicate enough to remote teams. I know, I know! We hear this all the time. Leadership on all levels needs to communicate more clearly, more often and more immediately. Think about how much more important this is with remote teams. If just one person is left off of an email string, it can create terrible isolation, mistakes and issues in the remote work environment.
- The irony here is that all this communication is also burying us in time, stress, and worry. Reports of people working 12+ hour days, suffering back pain, eye strain and shoulder pain from hours in front a computer, and suffering from anxiety because they have children who need care and attention while their workplace is demanding more, are on the rise. More than ever, managers need to be aware of, and support, good health and mental wellbeing for remote teams.
- We used to joke about using conference calls as a time to catch up on email. If you didn’t have to speak up or engage, we’d check in, mute the phone and never interact again until we hit the disconnect. Managers who are doing the same thing on video conference or with newly remote teams are making the third mistake. Don’t do all the talking and allow teams to be passive in interactions. Engagement is much harder remotely, and far more important to keep your team’s morale and productivity up.
- Think about improv again: managers who consider themselves conductors of a symphony, rather than members of a jazz group are making a mistake. Symphonies follow their maestra or maestro without question. Jazz groups collaborate together, sharing the spotlight and improvising constantly. Micro-managing, telling rather than listening and collaborating, and demanding hierarchical action are all signs of bad remote management.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
- Mange individuals first, then manage the team. Relationships need to be hyper-specific. Where we used to avoid knowing about a person’s home life for privacy reasons, we need to understand their situation so that we can be empathetic and set up the employee for success. Are they caring for children or ill loved ones? Do they have a dedicated workspace or share it with others? When and how are they most productive? Do they have support for home duties? By having a robust understanding of individual needs, a manager can begin to create Venn diagrams of where the team can most effectively collaborate and interact.
- Lack of communication happens all the time, even in offices. You have a conversation with someone to resolve an issue, feel great, and move forward. Then three days later you realize you forgot to tell the rest of the team and you’ve lost three days of work from all of them. In addition, we tend to talk to the people with whom we’re most comfortable, perhaps not realizing that they are getting the benefit of more time and insight. This happens exponentially when remote. Tracking your interactions will not only improve consistency, it will keep managers honest. A best practice shared with me by Jenny Nelson-Carney, Esq., a partner at Bricker & Eckler (www.bricker.com), was to use a tracker for her team, so that she would know how many times she was interacting with each team member, each week. Also, recording and having minutes from each team meeting helped another manager ensure that even if someone couldn’t make it to a meeting, they had options to get all the information. Finally, using succinct, clear messages, that you repeat in writing and vocally, multiple times, to ensure the team absorbs the information, is critical.
- Part of getting to know the individual is to ensure you understand what they need to be healthy and well. Areas that used to be relegated to yoga studios are now fully embraced by enterprises, and desperately needed to ensure people stay focused and well. Check the resources available from HR and remind your team of these resources often. Do they have access to phone counseling or telemedicine, are there recommended free apps for meditation and healthy eating, is there anything available you can share about stress management? Get assistance from your operations and IT departments to ensure they have a workspace that is safe and correctly set-up for their needs.
- Engagement is far more critical with remote teams. Not everyone is comfortable speaking up in all-team meetings, even on a virtual platform. And some people need to time to think about what they want to say or do. Assign part of every meeting to a different member of the team to lead, and let them know well in advance so they can prepare. Use all the options on virtual platforms such as chat, use of video, breakout rooms and share screen. Mix up the size of collaborations so that you have lots of different groups interacting. Ask questions without preconceived notions about the answers, then sit back and listen. Encourage your team to bring something to taste to the next meeting! Yes, engagement elevates when using as many senses as possible — maybe halfway through the next check-in, everyone gets to have a mint or piece of chocolate. It will awaken the brain. Can you hold a meeting via phone where everyone gets to walk outside (if possible) or just move around during the next collaboration?
- Finally, the analogy of improv really applies now. The concept of “Team Equity” ensures that an improv team has diverse talent, that everyone gets into the spotlight at different times, and that autonomy to do the best they can in the moment is clearly accepted. As a manager, this is also your opportunity to be more flexible and open to innovation; set clear expectations, give feedback often and let your team run with their projects.
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?
One technique is to embrace what we at ImprovEdge call “feedforward.” Rather than focusing on what the person did wrong, focus on the future state that you want! Instead of saying, “Your presentation was too long and data heavy in our last virtual team meeting” provide them this sort of feedforward — “Next time you present, I’d like you to focus on providing a quick 15-minute update that uses storytelling. You have so many great stories from clients, it would be great to share those with the team in format that’s memorable. Let’s collaborate on the next set of slides.” By providing a positive vision of what they could accomplish, it allows the person to focus on a future accomplishment, rather than wallowing in worry over a past mistake.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
We have an exercise in our workshops that asks participants to remove negative words while discussing a difficult issue. Human brains respond by going into defense mode when they encounter too many negative or aggressive sounding words. That’s also true in writing. Next time you have to send difficult information, re-read before sending. Can you say the same thing without using these words? No, but, if, however, don’t, won’t, couldn’t shouldn’t…(all the negative contractions and words). Although it’s challenging, it will allow them to more easily take in tough information and hopefully open up a dialogue with your colleague.
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?
Everyone’s assumption at this point in the work-from-home crisis, is that most logistical issues should be resolved. Yet that’s not true! I can’t believe how many teams still haven’t resolved technology and hardware issues. In addition, people are suffering physical issues from working on a couch or bed, or at odd angles. Be sure to address these problems with each team member.
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?
This is a moment in every organization’s history and culture to define themselves. How did you adhere to your mission and vision, and most importantly, how did you do the best by your employees that you possibly could? Allow people to socialize virtually in order to keep those connections strong. By the same token, make all social interactions opt-in. Virtual work is exhausting, and tacking on virtual happy hours or book clubs when individuals might really need to get away from the screen isn’t helpful. And that’s really the heart of empowerment — give your team autonomy, control and praise when they achieve something special. Remember to recognize contributions and allow for improvisation.
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. :-)
It’s a movement to which I already belong! Gender equity, equal pay for equal work, benefits and freedom so that all genders can take advantage of meaningful work, being a parent if they choose, and living with the people they love.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can be the lead in your own life.” — Kerry Washington
I’m grateful and lucky to have been born with supportive parents an d strong dose of self-confidence. It’s allowed me to try, fail, succeed, and grow. Many people subsume their desires and hopes for others, and I often wish they could take a moment to realize that they, too, deserve to be the star. They deserve to be the focus of their own show and see just how brightly they can shine.
Thank you for these great insights!