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Kiira Belonzi Of Branded Group On Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

… I would say that if your culture was not strong prior to the pandemic, it is time to invest in rethinking this foundational element of organizational success. If people are not aligned with the vision, purpose, and core values of the company, they will lack cohesion and each will be dancing to the beat of their own drum.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kiira Belonzi.

Kiira Belonzi is Vice President of Business Development and co-founder of Branded Group, Inc. She is responsible for the development and delivery of internal skills-based educational programs, as well as comprehensive management training curriculum to assist employees on a leadership career path. Previously, as Vice President of Operations, her expertise in business development, facilities management, construction, and business operations contributed to Branded Group’s year over year exponential growth since its founding in 2014.

With more than a decade of facility maintenance and management experience, Kiira began her career at a nationwide facilities maintenance and management company, where she was quickly promoted from coordinator to supervisor. Prior to this, she was Vice President of Operations for another facilities company where she managed more than forty accounts and led a team responsible for the end-to-end client experience. As the Business Development Manager, Kiira managed a growing account base by serving as an extension of the account teams.

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 co-founded Branded Group, along with our CEO, Michael Kurland, and have worn many hats since our launch in 2014 including operations, sales, marketing, and even IT! Each of these roles have helped me to better understand the entire business and contributed to my ability to deliver top-notch professional development to our workforce.

Currently, I am the Vice President of Development, which fulfills my childhood dream of being a teacher. I am passionate about identifying opportunities for professional development, including skills and leadership training.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was working a PR/Marketing role in 2009 and when the economy took a hit, my company laid off all of their marketing staff. I registered with a temp agency and was scheduled for an interview as a medical billing specialist. When I arrived for the interview, I was told that the role had been filled and instead I was given the option to apply for a facilities coordinator job. I didn’t even know this industry existed, yet I needed a job and so I accepted the position. This led to other roles in the company including sales, which ultimately led to me meeting my co-founder and launching the business.

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?

The funniest mistake that was made in the launch of the company was in our excitement to get started, we opened our doors on President’s Day! As we stared at the quiet phones and wondered why no one was calling us, we realized that it was a holiday and most of our potential clients were out of the office. It’s something we still laugh about to this day. We both learned a valuable lesson: while excitement is great when launching a business, always do your research and check the calendar!

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

We ask and recommend each of our employees to take a strengths assessment within the first few weeks on the job. This valuable tool provides insights into how we can ensure that the right people are in the right roles and that we are utilizing their strengths in the best way possible so that they are not spinning their wheels in the wrong job. The data helps us to manage their needs and assign new roles or projects, while enabling us to work effectively together.

Additionally, we provide regular performance feedback to our team members. Since we are primarily a virtual workforce (98% of our team works remotely), it is critical that we communicate regularly with each employee. For example, we have check-in meetings with every team member that help us reconnect as well as provide input and insights into their deliverables. This feedback has to be specific with clear ties to the organization’s goals. For example, “Your work on project X enabled us to secure five more clients” is much better than “Great job on project X.”

During these check in meetings, we also ask pointed questions about their workload and schedule so that we can ensure they are taking breaks and not overworking. We set expectations to ensure that team members take their full lunch, set expectations for regular exercise, and turn off their computer at the end of the day. We don’t promote a culture of “always on” and instead want to make sure every employee is mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy. We introduce the practice of taking breaks in our new hire training so they build this habit from day one.

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?

Our organization has been managing virtual teams since 2016 as several of our employees were located in states outside our corporate headquarters. To ensure they felt connected, we implemented a variety of programs that included all team members in company activities and our volunteering events. For example, we instituted a Buddy Program in which team members who were in our corporate office reached out to their remote counterparts regularly to build and nurture relationships and share best practices for their specific roles, if applicable.

Therefore, when the pandemic hit, we did not have to start from scratch. We simply applied our learnings from these two “beta teams” to our entire company, continuously improving our processes and programs.

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 think first and foremost, you must ensure that your company culture is alive and remains solid with each virtual team member. By this I mean, it is not just “words on a wall” or in the case of a virtual workforce, “words on a screen,” but rather the culture permeates every part of your organization. It is vital that everyone feels included, valued, and respected for their contributions. We employ daily team chats so that people feel “seen” and so they know that someone cares about them. People have to feel like they are part of something bigger that they can contribute to — a company that values their talents and skill — and that they work with a team who genuinely cares about them.

One challenge is providing feedback in a virtual environment. Since there is no face-to-face interaction, it is even more important that feedback be done thoughtfully and that it be specific. We utilize the sandwich approach, i.e. we share something positive, followed by a clear example of a skill or behavior that needs improvement, and conclude with a recommendation and encouragement for a game plan so they can be successful.

Your choice of technology may also be a hindrance or obstacle in managing a remote team. What worked pre-pandemic may no longer be suitable for a remote workforce. For example, we have an application that allows us to turn every chat into a video call. Not only is this more efficient as it eliminates the back and forth, but it also provides a means to connect “face to face.”

Another challenge can be not knowing what your team is thinking or feeling about the organization, their role, or other facets of the company. We conduct annual employee surveys and ask every person to provide open and honest feedback. This information helps us to craft new programs or address gaps in existing ones.

A final challenge is delivering meaningful and impactful training virtually. You need to get very creative to address the various learning styles of each attendee. Not everyone learns best outside of the classroom, so continual feedback is necessary to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable and fruitful learning experience.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

As I mentioned above, a solid, engaging, and empathetic company culture must be at the foundation. Otherwise, feedback may be viewed negatively. When delivered by leaders or managers who have a true desire for their teams to succeed, it is better received and acted upon.

Providing feedback that is received correctly can be challenging with a remote workforce. Emails or other non-face to face communication tools have the potential to be misunderstood, which is why I believe any type of feedback should be conducted over a video call to make it more personal. It’s important to hear each other’s tone of voice and see the reactions as you communicate.

Ensuring that your operational processes have been reviewed and possibly adapted to meet the needs of a virtual workforce is also a necessity. What worked in a face-to-face environment won’t necessarily work with a remote team. Technology also needs to be reviewed and updated if possible so that communications are seamless. You don’t want your employees tripping over technology hiccups or inadequacies.

This leads to frustration and eventually burnout as workarounds stop working.

Additionally, securing feedback from your team, whether this is a formal survey or some other means, can provide valuable insights into process or program gaps.

Creating a multimedia training program that can be delivered over a variety of platforms is also helpful. Not everyone learns the same so it’s important to be mindful of this as you develop your training. We have video group meetings as well as individual development time that includes structured activities. Group breakout sessions help to strengthen the team bonds and enable each team member to “cross-pollinate” their knowledge. We also use videos, written content, live discussions, and assigned activities to reinforce the training.

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?

I mentioned above that we use the sandwich method for delivering all of our feedback: begin with something positive and specific, followed by something constructive, and ending with a positive and attainable game plan.

We deliver feedback over video so that we can monitor nonverbal cues that may give us information on how the feedback is being received. Research shows that 55 percent of our communications are nonverbal so it can be challenging to fully “read” the recipient’s reactions if they were not in a virtual meeting. Yet, if we pay attention to facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, and other clues, we may be able to discern their responses and act accordingly.

We also provide them with the tools they need to be successful and we follow up with regular check-ins on progress.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Since you can’t see the person and they can’t hear your voice, even the most positive feedback can be misinterpreted when sent over email or text. It’s best to keep this type of feedback extremely specific so that the recipient is clear on what to do. Make it a priority to follow up with a phone call or, ideally, a video call to discuss details and next steps. This action emphasizes the importance of the conversation and how much feedback is valued.

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?

Since we had multiple employees who were already remote, there were used to this type of environment. The remainder had to adapt to this new way of working in less than 48 hours, yet because of our solid technology, the transition was seamless.

To avoid the obstacles of working remotely, ensuring that your technology can handle the needs of your employees is a priority. Scheduling upgrades may also need to be evaluated since it may take longer for everyone to get familiar with the changes. Additionally, workloads and deadlines may need to be adjusted, which is why continual communication with your team is critical.

If internal communications were lacking in the past, now is the time to over communicate. Do not assume that everyone knows the latest and greatest news. There are no more water cooler conversations or lunch room banter so beefing up employee newsletters, launching town hall meetings, and even considering new ways of sharing information are ways of ensuring that everyone is in the know.

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 would say that if your culture was not strong prior to the pandemic, it is time to invest in rethinking this foundational element of organizational success. If people are not aligned with the vision, purpose, and core values of the company, they will lack cohesion and each will be dancing to the beat of their own drum.

Surveying your team on what they like or dislike about the company will provide key data points for which changes can be made. Assigning a task force to implement some of these changes creates a sense of ownership and accountability.

It is important that all those in leadership lead by example and are honest, adaptable, and transparent in all forms of communications. It can be tough reviewing survey responses that are not glowing, yet it is critical to put feelings aside and address the suggestions being provided. These changes can transform a company culture.

Lastly, instead of pretending that being remote is a walk in the park, address the reality of it. For some of your workers, this work environment is a dream come true. Yet for others, it may be challenging. Being open to all feedback can help to enhance the entire climate of the organization.

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 have a passion for homelessness and hunger, especially for youth who have aged out of foster care and are left to their own devices to survive. They have no resources, no skills, and limited opportunities, which leads them down questionable paths and prevents them from being all they can be.

I would like to see early intervention for these young men and women through mentoring programs, training, and of course basic human necessities so they can thrive.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You create your own destiny.” You’re in charge of your life. If you don’t like something about yourself, either personally or professionally, you have the power to change it. Set up a plan and then attack it. Go through every door that’s opened for you but don’t stop there. Open your own doors! Nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it.

Thank you for these great insights!

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