Sometimes, it’s not all about getting down to business. Communicating effectively requires a captive audience. In order to keep your team happy, engaged and invested contributors, creating strong social bonds is a necessity.
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 Katie Bapple, Sr. Director of Agent Experience at Liveops. She uses her experience as an online community strategist and architect to help others learn how to establish and maintain thriving online communities. Liveops is a virtual call center company with tens of thousands of agents working remotely across the United States. Katie’s specialty is making sure that each agent feels connected to their workplace by building successful virtual cultures that transcend physical location and provide a robust team experience and environment.
Prior to her current role at Liveops, Katie worked as the Senior Director of Community Management at Socious that was later acquired by Higher Logic. Katie received her Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Global Studies from Arizona State University.
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?
After attending boarding school and studying abroad, I realized how important it was for me to continue interacting with and learning from people all over the world. I gravitated towards the lessons their unique perspectives and experiences offered. I thought that meant I wanted to work for an NGO or the Foreign Service, but with opportunity shrink happening in that space at the time, my career aspirations turned down a completely unexpected path.
I stumbled upon an opportunity right after college to develop engagement strategies for a large global online community and realized that would fulfill my passion and purpose in a different way. It stuck. Five years later I co-founded a professional services division to help other companies learn how to connect their audiences in meaningful ways, attracted the attention of a Fortune 100 company and grew the opportunity 10-fold, collaborated with numerous associations, VC firms, B2B & B2C organizations and, through it all, discovered that Customer Experience was my true calling.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Several years ago, I was sending out a communication to a handful of new customers in which I wanted to introduce myself. One gentleman wrote back shocked at the last name that had appeared in his inbox; his teammate in the desk next to him also had the same last name. He was right to be surprised, as there’s no other family in the world with the same surname. The gentleman connected me with this unknown relative, spurring a detailed search of our complete family tree.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I always think of Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in possibility” poem. It’s far too easy for people to live and work under a strict paradigm of “the way things are” and never realize they have the power to challenge everyday notions and explore their curiosity. Someone out there will listen!
I think of this text often, especially serving as an advocate for others, to remind myself of the growth that can be found by chasing and exploring the unique ideas of others.
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?
Up until the half-way point of my career, I operated in a very “niche” space — or so I thought. I started a job with a new company the same day as the then CCO so we were brought into a lot of the same meetings to get the “lay of the land.” The meetings that day afforded the opportunity for a lot of collaboration and sharing of insights that paved the way for additional brainstorming. Within a couple of months, when he wanted to launch a new department, he suggested I apply to lead it. It wasn’t until discussing the opportunity with him that I realized how flexible and applicable my skills were to different applications. It really compelled me to step outside my “niche” and expand into new business areas.
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?
People are wired to seek social fulfillment and validation — whether they are in person or virtual. This is something that the traditional brick-and-mortar workforce model excels at fostering by ensuring close peer-to-peer contact and visibility. This makes it easier to keep sentiment high and the need for robust engagement tactics much more muted. In an office setting, the opportunity to spark a conversation with someone as you pass them in the hallways, or to pop by a co-workers desk when you need to bounce around an idea is always available. As a result, the trick to successful remote work is to create an environment where this sort of interaction can be facilitated. If your teams can still connect and communicate, they’re able to achieve that social fulfillment, even when working from their homes.
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?
Due to the traditional workforce model, most people are wired to believe that they can only collaborate effectively in an in-person setting, or they can only get ahead if they’re physically seen working x number of hours, or they won’t get their ideas heard if they don’t have a seat at the physical table where they can count on all decision makers being present and focused. This paradigm generally makes it more challenging to keep people motivated and engaged, especially if you don’t have the right profile in place.
Without the constant interaction that makes people feel like they and their work are noticed and valued, they can more easily disengage, dismiss the importance of their objectives and become apathetic.
When leaders aren’t trained to drive engagement remotely, or quickly identify performance changes as they start to emerge and understand reasons that may drive this behavior, workforce retention suffers.
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.)
- Be prepared to lead by example. Company leadership must illustrate their commitment to fostering a great culture by proactively connecting with their distributed workforce. At Liveops, key leaders appear on-camera in monthly all-hands meetings and quarterly town halls; they not only create transparency in their work, they also take the time to answer pre-submitted questions from anyone who wants to be part of the conversation. We also have a strong commitment and level of accountability to engage in our virtual online independent contractor community daily. By illustrating leadership’s personal investment in being present and leaning in to one another’s experiences, our employees and contractors see how to best engage with others and feel aligned in their goals and purpose.
- Identify what your team really needs — don’t guess. What tactics work for one organization might not work for another. Various factors like tool accessibility, demographics and industry play a big role in identifying the right ways to best meet your team’s needs. And even if you have a good understanding of the composition of your organization, don’t assume that you already have all the answers. One-on-one interviews or surveys work well to narrow in on effective communication and engagement strategies for your team. Ask questions like:
- When you run into an issue with ______ , how do you get answers, support and validation?
- How do you share your knowledge on _______ with other people who might be interested?
- What do you feel [ORGANIZATION NAME] is currently doing to keep you engaged? Is this ideal?
- What kind of opportunities, tools or activities could [ORGANIZATION NAME] provide you to increase your workplace satisfaction?
- If you want to find another [ORGANIZATION NAME] employee who shares similar interests, backgrounds or professions, how would you currently go about doing that? Is this your ideal process?
- What would be your preferred way to communicate/engage with fellow remote employees [ORGANIZATION NAME]?
Once you have a large enough sample size, look for trends amongst your team to pinpoint the most effective solutions.
3. Sometimes, it’s not all about getting down to business. Communicating effectively requires a captive audience. In order to keep your team happy, engaged and invested contributors, creating strong social bonds is a necessity. Once a month, be sure to introduce an opportunity for people to interact with one another in a purely social and personable way. Virtual trivia, giveaways, coffee talks, and Zoom-based meetups are all examples of opportunities that help fill the absence of in-person social interactions that organizations rely on to help drive retention.
4. Make sure your team sees the personal benefits. Regular 1:1 outreach is critical. Personal invitations to engage directly with you, or in specific opportunities with others, goes a long way in getting individuals to take that first step outside of their normal routine. Since behaviors and inclinations vary greatly from person to person, provide options that meet a variety of needs. For example, some people may be more comfortable attending a Zoom-based team happy hour than volunteering to be part of a cross-functional communications committee. People won’t take time out of their day to connect with coworkers unless there is clear value and interest.
5. Equip your teams with the tools they need to be successful. If you did your research (see #2, above) identifying investments that will maximize your remote team’s communication and collaboration should be easy. Sometimes the basics, such as a virtual meeting platform and instant messaging tool is enough. For others, collaborative project management software that creates real-time transparency is essential. And for larger corporations, an intranet may be what’s needed to consolidate everything everyone needs to know into one virtual destination.
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?
Because Liveops has been operating remotely for the past two decades, we had the ability to scale our expertise in virtual work to meet the demand of those seeking safe, at-home work during the pandemic. Over 60% of our corporate employees, and 100% of our 20K+ independent contractors worked from home before COVID-19, so we were fortunate to have the infrastructure and experience needed to avoid many of the obstacles that other organizations faced during the transition.
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?
Liveops’ online community platform is where a vast majority of our virtual communications and remote engagement takes place. This is where people interact with leadership and one another, engage in conversations in the virtual “water cooler” and around their clients, read their daily updates and news, and earn incentives as they check off items on their “to-do” lists.
Additionally, Zoom allows for virtual happy hours, lunch & learns and town halls. The success of these events is based on providing an ongoing balance of intentional “face-to-face” interaction and casualness, transparency and ongoing development.
Teams can also benefit from leveraging email marketing tools for the purposes of consistent communication and engagement — not marketing. These communications should close the gap on things people might miss outside of in-office chatter, such as peer-recognition, upcoming events, committee opportunities and business updates.
To measure the effectiveness of these tactics, it is also beneficial to have a measurement tool to aggregate your data and keep track of adoption rates, levels of activity, sentiment, and more unique KPI’s month-over-month so that you can learn and grow your remote culture.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
We have a lot of conversations around the importance of consolidating the everyday experience into a “single source of truth.” Having a distributed workforce that uses a large number of disparate systems can be challenging to support and creates a confusing experience. Setting clear expectations and enabling people to do everything they need to do to achieve success in a “one-stop-shop” is a long-term goal I can’t wait to see come to life.
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?
Absolutely! Before the pandemic, we saw a large number of systems in the marketplace that largely catered to the norm at that time — workers in companies with multi office locations or multi-floor commercial space. There was a dependency on unified communications technologies, but it was tempered by the fact that, in most cases, you could book a meeting room and come together face-to-face, or pick up the phone and call someone’s business line. With both of those modalities abandoned for the time being, the dependency on these technologies is critical for day-to-day operations. Meeting without a tool like Zoom, or collaborating without communication methods like Outlook or Slack would make workforce connectivity nearly impossible in the current state of the world.
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?
First and foremost, don’t let technology dependencies stand in the way of authenticity. In other words, emails and Slack messages won’t cut it. At Liveops, we provide ongoing feedback to more than 20,000 independent contractors. They crave constructive feedback, but from a person — not a machine. Picking up the phone, or setting up a time to go on-camera via tools like Zoom or Slack are the ultimate delivery method for giving intentional feedback in a way that is constructive and clear, while also illustrating empathy and understanding.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Let’s connect on LinkedIn and continue to learn from one another! Find me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kbapple/
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.