Melanie Musson of Clearsurance: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Use several forms of communication. When you communicate with a remote team, make sure you use more than one method of communication. If you have a project you’re all working on, it’s not good enough to send an important message over email. People might forget it. Along with the email update, send a chat message, update your calendar, and communicate in any other way that makes sense for your project. If you’re in person, just seeing your face will help your coworkers remember your message, but that doesn’t happen when you work remotely, so you have to plug the updates into every avenue you can so people remember.
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 Melanie Musson.
Melanie Musson is an HR expert with Clearsurance.com. She is passionate about her work and strives to build relationships with those on her team at work. When she’s not working, she’s spending every spare second with her family, enjoying the great outdoors in the mountains surrounding their home.
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 having my first couple of children, I quit my job to stay home with them. After a few years of that, I wasn’t ready to give up staying home with them, but I wanted to do something to exercise my mind and earn an income. I wasn’t sure how to go about finding something that was a good fit.
And then, out of the blue, while my parents were visiting from out of state, a family friend asked my mom that someone she knew was hiring, and she thought my sister would be a good fit. I jumped in on the conversation and said that I thought I’d be just as good a fit as my sister.
That was almost six years ago. I got the job and haven’t turned back. It’s a perfect fit.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’ve started to realize that everything in my life can make me better at my job. I pay attention to conversations about things I’m not naturally interested in. I read about topics I know nothing about. I love how my thirst for learning has grown and how stepping out of my comfort zone has made me a much more rounded individual.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“ Be yourself — everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde
As a mother, a woman, a human, I’m so tempted to compare myself to others. I want things others have. I wish I had the success of someone else. Then I have to stop and remember they’re them. I’m me. This quote is a good reminder to be who I am and stop trying to keep up with anyone else.
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 dad has always been my person. He poured himself into his kids, and we reaped the benefits of the time he spent, the care he gave, and the knowledge he imparted.
He worked with me from the time I was little so we could develop a plan for me to go to college and graduate debt free, and we accomplished that goal. I saved, he saved, we both sacrificed, and I made it.
Without what I learned in college, I wouldn’t be able to be in my career. While I understand college isn’t for everyone, my dad knew it was for me, and he made sure I was equipped to succeed there.
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?
When a team is together, they can build camaraderie. When you walk into the office there’s something deeply satisfying about being able to raise your eyebrows a certain way and know your coworker is totally onto your line of thinking.
When you’re physically together, you’re bound to have personal conversations throughout the day. There’s a lot of talk about separating home from work, but you’re a whole person, and I believe it’s essential to be able to integrate both, even if it’s just by talking about one while you’re at the other.
Being at an office helps remove the distractions that arise when you’re at home. If you have other family members, especially kids, around, they can be distracting. Screens can be distracting. Getting snacks can be distracting.
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?
When you work remotely, it’s easy to neglect all casual conversation. You do your work, communicate the necessities, and clock out. Missing out on human connections can make you feel less connected to your job.
You’re comfortable in your home, so you may have a more challenging time staying focused on your work. When your location stays the same, it’s harder to exit home mode and enter work mode and vice versa.
You may miscommunicate more easily when you aren’t in the same space as your coworkers. A typo may cause someone to misunderstand their responsibilities. When you don’t understand personalities, you may think someone is rude when really, they’re just shy. It’s difficult to learn personalities remotely.
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.)
#1 — Spend time getting to know each other personally.
So much can get lost in written words. It’s challenging to ascertain mood, urgency, and joking without seeing a face and hearing a voice. But people can learn to understand each other better through writing when they communicate often. If your dialogues consist of “do this,” “got that,” and more exclusively to-the-point conversations with no glimpses of personality, you’ll miss out on creating the most effective team. Sometimes, exchanges can be minimal and to the point, but if you don’t take the time to get to know your coworkers, you’ll have a difficult time building cohesion. There’s no shortcut to building personal relationships. It takes intention and it takes time.
#2 — Use several forms of communication.
When you communicate with a remote team, make sure you use more than one method of communication. If you have a project you’re all working on, it’s not good enough to send an important message over email. People might forget it. Along with the email update, send a chat message, update your calendar, and communicate in any other way that makes sense for your project. If you’re in person, just seeing your face will help your coworkers remember your message, but that doesn’t happen when you work remotely, so you have to plug the updates into every avenue you can so people remember.
#3 — Use an online calendar to keep everything organized.
Everyone on your team needs to know what’s expected and when it’s expected. A calendar can provide the big picture of when a major project is due, but it also can cover the details of who has to do what so that the big picture goal becomes a reality.
#4 — Ask questions.
Don’t assume you got it right the first time. When you’re working remotely, as I said before, misunderstandings are common. If you think to yourself, “huh?” don’t move on until you know what your coworker meant and what you’re supposed to do. If you’re not sure what your responsibilities are, ask for them to be spelled out. If you’re not sure why someone did what they did, ask them what their reasoning was. You’ll work together as a cohesive team if everyone is on the same page.
#5 — Share special days and events.
It’s on management to recognize milestones. Your employees know when their start date was, so you’d better recognize their commitment to the job on their anniversary date. That will help them feel valued from afar. Celebrate birthdays together. You may want to do a virtual party once a month and highlight the team members celebrating their birthday that month. You can do a virtual show-and-tell where those employees can be in the spotlight and share what they love in their life. Since remote teams can tend to be aloof and anonymous, these celebrations may go a long way to help humanize your team.
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?
Logistically, it makes sense to allow employees to use their own cell phones. Most employees can make unlimited calls with their personal phones, and that has simplified things for the company and allowed for seamless communication.
Moving to remote meeting platforms caused some hiccups early on. There were no major problems, but we had to spend some time troubleshooting to make sure everyone could attend and participate. Now, online meetings go on without a hitch.
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?
Slack has been a wonderful platform to communicate critical information with the whole team, as well as specialized groups. It also allows team members to chat and get to know each other on a personal level.
Asana allows us to communicate specific project responsibilities and workflow. When one person finishes, they pass the project to the next person.
Google docs and sheets give everyone access to set procedural guidelines and up-to-date tracking and monitoring.
Google meet and hangouts let teams meet visually on video. You can meet with one person or the whole team.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
I would love to have a video meeting platform that felt more like a real-life meeting. I don’t know how it could be done. I mean, if it were easy, someone would have done it. You miss a lot of interaction when only one voice can be heard at a time.
Remote meetings feel very distant. A virtual reality-style meeting seems more appealing to me.
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?
Yes, the pandemic has increased the need for unified communications. Remote teams have to put in a lot of effort to communicate effectively, and UC can help simplify the process.
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?
Virtual reality will help meetings feel personal and real, and I’m excited about the prospect of making it accessible to all team members.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
While I appreciate the improvements that virtual communication has already experienced, and I look forward to future innovations, I firmly believe in the importance of physical human interaction. I want people to enjoy the convenience of remote work but also to value the in-person events.
I want people to go to concerts, see faces in person, and bump into each other without fear. Virtual has its place, but it doesn’t replace physical.
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?
Our communications with customers were remote before the pandemic, so we haven’t had to shift from in-person to distant communication. As virtual communication platforms have improved, our customers have benefited from those improvements when interacting with our company.
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?
Give praise liberally. General praise like, “good job,” won’t go as far as, “I loved when you did [specific example of a recent success].”
Avoid prefacing feedback with a cliche like, “just a friendly reminder,” or something along those lines. Using that type of language before a critique can feel smug and condescending. Instead of that preface, just begin with your point. Don’t beat around the bush. Clear and pointed feedback eliminates nonsense fillers.
Be clear and avoid using personal preferences. Don’t say, “I didn’t like the way you did this.” Instead, say, “It may be clearer if you did this.” Communicate the benefit of the improvement. Does the feedback pertain to clarity, timeliness, communication, or something else? Tie the feedback into the category that will benefit from the team member’s improvement.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Plan a company lunch. If everyone’s working remotely, you won’t be planning a holiday party, so put that budget toward a remote holiday lunch. Ask employees to turn in receipts for their food and then reimburse them. Play games, give prizes, share a recap of the year. Keep it fun, upbeat, and try to make sure everyone feels like they’ve made the world a better place by their contributions to the company.
Recognize accomplishments privately and publicly. Your whole team should know when an individual excels. They’ll start to recognize their coworkers for their strengths when they hear about them.
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. :-)
I would develop a way that organic farming could be as productive as standard modern farming practices. As it is, organic farming cannot produce enough food to feed the world, even if all farmers switch to it. It just doesn’t have enough yield. If healthier food could be produced with higher yields, organic food could become a reality for everyone, not just those with enough money to pay for it.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check out my work with Clearsurance.com.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.