A missing “human touch’ in meetings — I have always admired our ability to think creatively, share ideas, and resolve complex issues, whether in a room or online. But when you are meeting online rather than in the same room, there may not be as much raw, zany energy. On the other hand, someone might get offended at something you said, and it wouldn’t be as easy to perceive.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Manas Fuloria.
Manas Fuloria is a co-founder of Nagarro and has served as Custodian of Entrepreneurship in the Organization since 2015. From 2013 to 2020, Manas Fuloria served as member of the management board at Allgeier SE. Mr. Fuloria has an academic background in Technology and Operations Management, with a Master’s degree from Stanford University, California. Afterwards, he received his doctorate from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. In addition, Mr. Fuloria is a management board member of several of Nagarro’s subsidiaries and of Wrig Nanosystems. He is also founder and trustee of Re-Imagining Higher Education Foundation, which is the sponsoring body of Plaksha University in Punjab, India.
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 was born in India near the eastern border with Myanmar, in the last town on the train line. My father was a petroleum geologist, so we went wherever the oil was. I even spent six years of my childhood in Iraq! I came to the US at the age of 21 for my post-graduate education and stayed for over a decade. Now I live near Delhi and co-lead a German-listed international company that I co-founded. Seen one way, I’m all over the place! Seen another way, I feel privileged to have quite a handful of cities around the world that I could land at and feel right at home.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It was 1999. I had a tiny software company, just a couple of people, and my friend Vikas and his brother Vikram had another small company, maybe half a dozen people. One day I was at their small office, over a mom-and-pop shop, and Vikas and I stepped out onto the balcony for a smoke (I smoke once or twice a quarter, always have.) By the time we came back in, we had not only decided to merge the companies into what became Nagarro but also agreed to what percentage of the company each of us would hold. That was a pretty amazing day. We had never thought of such a merger before and in those few minutes we not just broached the idea but sealed the deal. In a day or two we had Nagarro’s first business plan.
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?
I remember setting up a factory once, early on in my entrepreneurial journey. Everyone told me that it was best to use the little money we had to buy the factory building and then put it up as collateral to finance the machines. With the brash confidence of a 26-year-old, I proclaimed, “We are technologists, we don’t want to be in the real estate business.” It was a huge mistake — later, no bank was willing to finance the machines. Well, it wasn’t funny. But I did learn that the way things are done traditionally is usually so for a reason!
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
When you are surrounded by energetic and enthusiastic colleagues, you spend a lot of time with them telling them to slow down. I don’t know if it helps though. I do wish people would make sure they take a few hours of time in the day just for themselves and their families and their loved ones (if different).
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?
As a globally distributed company, we have been working remotely for the longest time. My first Nagarro project had me sitting in an apartment in Marlborough, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, working with a colleague in India, for a solution for a client in the north of Belgium. Today, we have 8,400 Nagarrians working across over two dozen countries. So, I have about 25 years of experience working remotely.
One of our business units, Nagarro Digital Ventures, operates entirely remotely. A few years ago, we even decided to begin a distributed working certification program throughout Nagarro. Rather than force a policy one way or another, we have always encouraged working from home. We prefer to have an agile, entrepreneurial mindset that empowers all project leaders and colleagues to decide what is best for them.
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?
One could draw up different lists, but here are my top five:
- A missing “human touch’ in meetings — I have always admired our ability to think creatively, share ideas, and resolve complex issues, whether in a room or online. But when you are meeting online rather than in the same room, there may not be as much raw, zany energy. On the other hand, someone might get offended at something you said, and it wouldn’t be as easy to perceive.
- A drop in enthusiasm about the company’s goals — In a remote world it becomes far easier to forget the meta picture. We may still handle our day-to-day tasks, the work that must be completed, but can feel disconnected from the bigger picture. A company depends on more than the day to day. Our values, company goals, and feeling of belonging are all critical.
- Loss of a work-life balance, paradoxically enough — You would think that people working from home would have more time to enjoy its benefits, but I think we may work more, in reality. Be it out of a sense of guilt or a need to show how productive we still are, or just as an addiction, people answer emails at all hours, even more so than before. It has never been more important to set boundaries.
- The absence of all those serendipitous meetings and discussions in hallways and cafeterias — This is a big one, and it stems from the fact that good ideas can come from anyone at any time. We used to have multiple exchanges and conversations outside of meetings. These exchanges were informal, unstructured, and unplanned, which was a beautiful thing. Now we face much more significant constraints, and our meetings are scheduled and more structured. It is productive but different.
- The disappearance of an emotional safety net for many people — We have all heard about the mental toll the pandemic is taking, and we have also all seen it. People going to an office had a place that went beyond work. It was where we had friends, social exchanges, and a place we felt good. This was healthy for many reasons. We had a much more comprehensive array of emotional support than we do now.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
- Cameras on, freedom to joke — This is so important for us at Nagarro. Turning your camera on in a digital meeting is not about how you look, it’s about reminding everyone that we are humans and that we are still here. If a child or a cat walks by in the background, it’s even better! The freedom to joke around is also essential for us. Regardless of who is on the call, we must take the time to laugh and connect. It sparks a sense of belonging and togetherness.
- Digital meeting spaces — The identity of the company no longer resides in its buildings, it resides in its digital properties. It is imperative, for example, to create periodic, company-wide digital get-togethers (as opposed to “meetings” in the traditional sense), each perhaps on a separate subject, and nurture these as treasured digital assets. Ideally informal and totally optional to attend, these can help reflect the company’s identity not just in the content but in the way they are conducted. Success is when they become almost cultish — that is an indication that you now have a mature and valuable digital property! This is an amazing way to bring the company together, topic by topic, piece by piece.
Srikanth RP, one of our HR Directors, recently said: “Communicate, communicate and communicate — In these times it’s extremely important to transparently and frequently communicate what is it that the organization is doing and set expectations with all colleagues. Don’t limit this communication to just advisories and status only though. Create avenues for collaboration, enjoyment and other such initiatives which help keep the morale high in these difficult times.”
- The habit of asking after-hours: Is it urgent? We live in an age of immediacy, and this had caught up to us in the workplace as well. Before you start discussing something after working hours or on a weekend, it is important to take a step back and ask how urgent it really is. This alleviates stress, establishes boundaries, and gives the team members a chance to find balance.
- Conscious cross-connections and surveys — A classic mistake one can make is to end up talking to the same ten people every day — it is the best recipe for tunnel vision. And tunnel vision can be fatal for leadership in these times. It may make sense to reach out occasionally to someone wholly different and disconnected, perhaps someone you might have otherwise met in the hallway or in the cafeteria. It at least helps my understanding of a situation a lot.
Another solution is to carry out surveys. If it is a well-designed survey, and especially if it is anonymous, you will get a sense of what folks are really thinking.
- Talk and keep the informal networks alive — We need to keep talking one-on-one, we need to keep connecting without feeling the need to schedule a meeting, we need to keep chatting and joking about subjects that have nothing to do with the company. We have to continue to be friends. I think leaders set the tone by their own behavior, but this message also needs to go out through the HR channels, especially as the pandemic lasts.
Vaibhav Gadodia, Managing Director and CTO at Nagarro, recently said, “Remote communication and collaboration platforms are ubiquitous in the tech industry and were being employed even when we weren’t isolated the way we are now. The difference now is that we need to step up the use of these and other tools to more than just collaborate. We need to use these to socialize and ensure that we don’t feel isolated.
When work from home is decreasing physical proximity, we need to work harder to increase emotional proximity with each other. Compounding the loneliness that most of us are feeling are the anxiety and uncertainty resulting from the double whammy of a pandemic, that we still don’t understand, and the economic downturn, that the world is descending into. We need each other more than ever. We need to increase social cohesion despite social distancing.”
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?
Remember that old adage about a relationship being like a bank account? That is, you have to put money into it, so that you can draw from it on a rainy day. I think the same applies with remote working. You have to invest enough in having good times together, even remotely if there’s no other option, so that you can give honest feedback when you have to.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
I’m no expert but I try to use phrases like “I could be wrong, but I believe” or “I’m no expert but I think..” And even the act of putting such a phrase in an email somehow reminds me that I really could be working off a wrong premise.
Further, if you are too prescriptive as a leader, you may be stunting your company’s entrepreneurial zeal. It’s almost always better to say, “Let me know how I can help” and leave the solutioning to the colleague. The odds are that he or she anyway understands the detailed context better than you do.
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?
I’ll go back to the bit about remote working being like a bank account. I would avoid doing anything jarring until there’s enough in the bank. What may be considered jarring and how jarring would depend on the specific context of the team.
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 think humor is a good tool. A team that can joke together, even at a senior person’s expense, is a healthy and empowered team.
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. :-)
We are all so mired in our narrow identities of political leaning, religion, sect, or nation… I would love to get people to give up their denominations and see the world afresh. It could have a racy slogan like “I want your sect,” LOL.
More seriously: my mother was born in what is now Pakistan and my father studied in the Soviet Union. I’ve lived in India, in the US, in Iraq (both the Arab and Kurdish sides), in Germany and in Sweden, and have visited many other countries and worked with colleagues there. All I can conclude is that humans, at an individual level, are usually pretty much the same all over the world. You will find more differences between two kids in the same family!
When we look at the people of the world, let’s look at what brings us together, not what makes us different. Today’s Europe is an inspiring example. They fought such bitter wars in the last century and now it is such a peaceful continent, they even share a currency. Let us come out of our foxholes and embrace the world, because there is no other way to make the planet safe for our children.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think it was Hemingway who wrote, “When the tide comes in, even the dead fish rise”. When I read this the first time, I was struck by how well it could be applied to my few lucky entrepreneurial successes, against the backdrop of my many failures. Years later I found out that Warren Buffett had added his own sentence about the failure bit to this quote: “When the tide goes out, you can see who’s not wearing any clothes.”
Thank you for these great insights!