Larry English of Centric Consulting: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Being vulnerable is the shortest path to deep virtual relationships. Strong relationships are key to effective virtual teams. The fastest, most foolproof way to form deep bonds with teammates is by being vulnerable. As a leader, if you model vulnerability — by sharing concerns, admitting mistakes, asking for help and basically just being human at work — your employees will feel more comfortable following suit. When you have deep relationships, collaboration, innovation and everything in between runs more smoothly — even if you’re only ever interacting digitally.
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 Larry English.
Larry is author of Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams, a roadmap to virtual work success. The book draws on his insights as cofounder and president of Centric Consulting, an award-winning business and technology consulting firm that has been virtual-first since its founding more than two decades ago. He regularly publishes articles on remote work and the future of work. In his day-to-day role with Centric, Larry helps organizations make the permanent switch to remote or hybrid work, helping them think through all the complexities of managing distributed teams.
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?
Right out of college, I went to work for a large international consulting firm. I learned a lot, but I was also working 100-hour weeks, including weekends. Five years in, I had one of those life-changing moments. I was heading out of work late at night and thought “Is this all there is to life?” Shortly after, I took a leave of absence. My newlywed wife and I bought a one-way ticket to Iceland and spent the next year traveling around the world.
The experience opened my eyes — I wanted to take a big risk and try something new. Soon after, I reconnected with some like-minded coworkers and we decided to build a different kind of consulting company. We wanted to do great work with people we loved being around but also have a life. So we founded Centric Consulting, and made the decision early on to be a virtual company. We thought this model would provide better work-life balance for employees and would still allow for a great culture.
That was more than 20 years ago, and we’ve since grown to over 1,200 employees with operations across the U.S. and India. Being virtual has become second nature, and we’ve won numerous awards for our culture and innovation. Our success has really driven the point home for me that if you don’t like how something is working, you have the power to change it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
At the start of my career, a series of events happened to me with a common theme. I worked for three different types of companies in succession. The first had a culture of working 80-hour weeks for the rest of your life. I couldn’t believe everyone thought that was OK! At the second company, the CEO’s entire motivation was to get rich and sell the company as quickly as possible — a vision he kept secret from his team. The third organization was a publicly traded firm that only valued hitting their stock price every 13 weeks.
After those experiences, I was so disillusioned with the business world that I literally quit my job, backpacked around the world and ended up starting Centric with a few like-minded friends. We shared a vision of building a company that would make us happy, that would leave politics behind and would value people over profits. Those painful early experiences and then later the success of Centric has really driven home that you don’t need to compromise, and that success doesn’t have to mean putting profits before people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In The Drifters, James A. Michener writes, “Southern Florida is filled with people sixty-eight years old who were going to do something big in their lives but waited until it was safe. Now it’s safe and they’re sixty-eight years old.”
I read this quote when I was backpacking around the world trying to figure out how to live my life after experiencing major burnout early in my career. This has always helped remind me how short life is, and that the greatest risk is not taking a risk at all.
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?
My most impactful mentor is actually a group of people. I’ve been part of YPO Forum for many years. This is a group of peer CEOs that you meet up with once a month. They know you on an intimate level and everything said in the group is confidential, so you can be completely open. They call you out on your blind spots and hold you accountable to improving. For example, they told me I was terrible at being vulnerable — no one had ever pointed this out to me before. I worked hard over the years to change my leadership style to be a more vulnerable leader. It was transformational. Now, my employees feel closer to me and we’ve developed a higher degree of trust. The group has made me a much more effective leader.
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?
Centric has been remote for over two decades, but we learned a long time ago that that doesn’t mean we never see each other. Even if you’re fully remote, it will still be important to design impactful face-to-face meetings to deepen relationships, energize your teams and reinforce your culture.
For example, we get the entire company together three times each year, and smaller groups such as business units get together a little more frequently. We’ve found we get the most out of our in-person events when we schedule a mix of business and relationship-building activities. The goal is to offer a shared experience that everyone will bond over and talk about for years to come — think challenging adventures, local community service and fun activities that build business interaction skills (group improv was a big hit).
In addition to big company get-togethers, we advise our teams to schedule in-person meetings any time key decisions are being made and you can’t afford ambiguity. Big project milestones are also ideally experienced in person to create a better sense of shared responsibility and to move the project forward during critical junctures.
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?
Employees can quickly feel disconnected, leading to a degraded culture, weakened relationships and less effective teams. The good news is that this isn’t inevitable — these problems can be overcome. Leaders of virtual teams need to get really intentional with building and maintaining strong relationships virtually.
I’ve found it’s possible to be fully remote and have the same deep level of relationships and even a better culture than when you’re in person — but it does require you to change how you operate. This is what my book, Office Optional, is all about.
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.)
From my 20-plus years leading remote teams, I’ve learned that the following are best practices for communicating with remote employees and ensuring they stay engaged and connected to their work:
1. Check in often to keep communication flowing. Without regular interactions, virtual employees can quickly feel disengaged. Lacking the visual cues of the office environment, a problem can fester before you ever hear about it. You should schedule regular one-on-one time with your people to connect on a personal level. You want your employees to feel comfortable opening up about any issues or concerns. Without laying a good foundation, it might not even occur to your remote employee to bring something up. Before you know it, they’ll be on to another job.
2. Give remote employees a voice with two-way feedback mechanisms. Engagement is critical, especially for remote employees. One way to ensure engagement stays high is by providing regular feedback to employees AND giving employees multiple communication channels to do the same. This ensures you’re keeping tabs on employee sentiment about the company and making employees feel heard. Centric uses a mix of anonymous companywide surveys, exit interviews, external feedback via sites like Glassdoor and touchpoints with individual employees.
3. Being vulnerable is the shortest path to deep virtual relationships. Strong relationships are key to effective virtual teams. The fastest, most foolproof way to form deep bonds with teammates is by being vulnerable. As a leader, if you model vulnerability — by sharing concerns, admitting mistakes, asking for help and basically just being human at work — your employees will feel more comfortable following suit. When you have deep relationships, collaboration, innovation and everything in between runs more smoothly — even if you’re only ever interacting digitally.
4. Chat and email may be convenient, but they’re not ideal for serious topics. Hard conversations come with the territory of being a leader. Add in the impersonal nature of a chat box or the easily misinterpreted tone of an email, and you have a recipe for disaster. At Centric, we train employees on smart, empathetic conflict resolution. We want everyone to approach these conversations as an opportunity for an honest human-to-human interaction that ultimately builds a deeper relationship. As part of that training, we recommend that any serious conversation or feedback be given by phone, video or in person. If a conversation over the phone starts becoming emotional, we agree to pause and address it in a different format. Really difficult conversations (such as a poor performance review) need to be done face-to-face. If that’s not possible (such as during Covid), we lay out ground rules ahead of time. For example, we advise people to ask permission before giving hard feedback. A simple “Are you mentally ready to receive feedback?” can go a long way toward making the conversation go more smoothly.
5. Don’t keep it strictly business. It’s easy to slip into an “all business all the time” mode when you’re operating solely off digital platforms, but that would be a mistake. When you’re physically together in an office, you naturally chat with colleagues on the way to the conference room, before meetings begin, while passing each other in the hall, etc. There are endless ways to have micro moments of connection. It’s not so easy when you’re virtual, which is why you need to intentionally set aside room to connect with people on a personal basis. Again, it all comes down to strong relationships: The most effective teams have deep bonds. At Centric, our meetings always begin with a few minutes of intentional conversation — like a virtual watercooler hang session. Sometimes we literally include a fun question on the agenda. “What is the grossest food you’ve ever eaten?” can reveal a lot about people! Other times, we engage in a casual, unstructured conversation. Either way, our goal is to take some time getting to know one another as humans.
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?
When the pandemic happened, we’d already been working remotely for 20 years. It was a non-event for us on an operational level. What was new, however, was the level of stress people were feeling.
Luckily, we already knew how to take care of team members when they are remote, and we were able to do that. Our remote work policies include stipends for at-home office setups and phone and internet and we’ve invested carefully in the right collaboration tools we need for our business — if your culture includes the experience of working from home, you don’t want to make it a burden on people.
The bottom line: Take care of your people, make sure they have a good working experience, and don’t get in their way of doing a good job.
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?
Good collaboration tools are a nonnegotiable investment if you’re going to be remote, as they’re key to effective asynchronous communication. Thankfully, the tools are exponentially better now than they were even a few years ago! Throughout the pandemic, all the major collaboration application providers, including Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom and others, made huge improvements in their capabilities, and will continue to improve over the coming years.
The best collaboration tools integrate all communication into one cohesive platform, like a digital headquarters. For example, we use Microsoft Teams, which offers a lot of features to bring a sense of “togetherness” for remote workers. You can embed collaboration, communications and applications within large-scale meetings, so people can do everything related to the relevant work within the meeting itself. For those who are unable to participate in meetings in real-time, Teams allows people to easily access meeting notes, recordings, transcripts and meeting tasks. Of course, nothing can replace the “togetherness” found when meeting participants simply turn on their cameras. Lastly, allowing some banter and fun during these meetings can also break up the monotony.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
There is no one perfect tool. What’s more important is the rate of adoption. For tools to be effective, they must be used by everyone in the company, including leadership, and integrated with all your remote work processes. The tools also must be accessible in the cloud so people can access them whenever and wherever they need to. If you truly want an agile, innovative, collaborative culture, you need to make it easier for people to do business anywhere — no more chaining people to their desks.
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?
Unified communications has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. As people started to work remotely, for example, many companies didn’t want to (or couldn’t afford to) invest in company-owned telephones for their entire workforce. Additionally, people wanted to protect their privacy and were rightfully reluctant to give out their personal phone numbers to fellow employees, supervisors and customers.
Many organizations turned to unified communications tools such as Microsoft Teams that provide an all-in-one experience for chats, meetings and calls and an all-in-one package for voice, video and data. These tools ensure the right people have the right access to the right features needed for their day-to-day work.
Unified communications tools also provide the security needed when people work from anywhere and from any device. While some companies may have accepted some level of risk in their unified communications approach early on, most have realized the risk isn’t going away and are now seeking ways to continue to harden their infrastructure and the applications they use.
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?
There is an explosion of innovations in tools to address the messiness of hybrid organizations, where people are remote some of the time and in the office some of the time. The goal of many of these tools is to make the work experience inclusive, regardless of where people are working. For example, smart cameras make it possible for remote workers dialing in to an in-person meeting to see a virtual version of the conference room, rather than just seeing the few people sitting closest to the camera.
I think widespread use of VR, AR and Mixed Reality is still down the road. Organizations are still figuring out the nuts and bolts of hybrid work, and I’m personally more excited about the short-term innovation going on to address the issue of making sure the work experience is equally inclusive for remote and on-site workers.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
On the contrary, I feel enormous optimism about how work is changing — remote work has the potential to transform the world for the better.
Netscape founder and entrepreneur Marc Andreesen, who has a long history of correctly predicting trends years down the road, said it best:
“This is perhaps the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime, a consequence of the internet that’s maybe even more important than the internet. Permanently divorcing physical location from economic opportunity gives us a real shot at radically expanding the number of good jobs in the world while also dramatically improving quality of life for millions, or billions, of people. We may, at long last, shatter the geographic lottery, opening up opportunity to countless people who weren’t lucky enough to be born in the right place.”
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?
We were already able to deliver all our services virtually, so there was not a lot of change. What has changed is the frequency of business travel. I think the days of flying across the country for 15-minute meetings are done forever. Customers are much more comfortable with the idea of remote communication, collaboration and relationship-building.
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, leaders must build strong relationships with their team, so that feedback is easier to give and receive. How you give feedback is super important, too. As I mentioned earlier, we train our employees on how to approach feedback and other potentially difficult conversations as an opportunity for an honest, human interaction that ultimately builds a deeper relationship. Our training is based on the book Crucial Conversations, which I recommend everyone read, because hard conversations are an unavoidable part of life.
Finally, we recommend that any feedback be done by phone, by video, or in person. We really do not want leaders to give feedback via chat or email. There is just a much greater risk of misinterpretation and frustration on the part of the employee.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Whenever you onboard a new employee, make sure you’re cluing them in to your culture. For example, it’s an important part of Centric’s culture that we take time at the beginning of meetings to connect on a personal level. By educating new hires on this part of how we do work, they know that we prioritize relationships. We also provide new hires with a list of people they need to meet virtually within their first 30, 60 and 90 days with at Centric — this ensures they are getting connected to people and can start to form those relationships that will be key to their success.
You can also find ways to give employees a shared sense of purpose, whether through fun activities like a month-long step challenge or a virtual volunteer opportunity.
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. :-)
Remote is the future of work, and it represents a potential solution to creating jobs for many disadvantaged people. However, we have a massive digital divide in the U.S. Using the digital economy to train and then employ millions of disadvantaged people is possible with the right approach and leadership. That is also why I’m donating the proceeds of this book to LaunchCode, a nonprofit offering free training in tech skills and assistance with job placement.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.