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Rebecca Ryan of NEXT Generation Consulting: Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

If your team is just getting started working remotely, understand that it may be awkward at first. Always have a clear agenda and stick to it. Make sure your meetings start and end on time. Keep checking in and ask, “What’s working in this remote arrangement?” and, “What needs work?”

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

Rebecca Ryan is a noted top 50 professional futurist, economist, best-selling author and entrepreneur. She is the founder of NEXT Generation Consulting through which she partners with government leaders across the country. Looking a generation ahead, she outlines strategies in urban planning, economic development and workforce development to ensure communities are well equipped for future trends and challenges. Rebecca is a graduate of Drake University with a certificate in Strategic Foresight from University of Houston; she is the Resident Futurist at the Alliance for Innovation and on the Executive Committee of the global Association of Professional Futurists. For more info: https://rebeccaryan.com

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 founded NEXT Generation Consulting in 1998 after having five jobs in four years (I was a terrible employee always asking, “Why are we doing it this way?”) I started NGC because I realized that we were going to have a huge talent shortage when Boomers retired, and there weren’t enough Gen Xers to backfill. So, I started working with companies and communities to “win the war for talent.” During the Great Recession I went back to school and got certified in Strategic Foresight. Now I work primarily with the public sector and other organizations like Chambers of Commerce who are committed to building better places to live and work.

It’s hard for me to describe, but deep in my guts I am completely committed to future generations. I can pinpoint the moment when this became clear. When I wrote my second book, ReGeneration, I wanted to dedicate the book to someone. And it hit me like lightning; I dedicated it to the great, great grandchildren of my godson — children I’ll never meet. My vocation as a futurist is to work on their behalf, to help shape a future that our great, great grandchildren can be proud to inherit.

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

Yes, it’s a story of a hard lesson learned in the early entrepreneurial days….

Ideas come easily to me and I love to collaborate. What I’m not naturally good at is structure and organization. In the language of the FEBI assessment, my home pattern is “Collaborator-Visionary” and I have below-average scores in “Organizer” and “Driver.”

So, when the Lieutenant Governor of a large Midwestern swing state asked me to help design a workforce retention project to fight brain drain (more young people leaving than coming in), I went to my strengths: we generated some kick-ass ideas and a project plan that was bold and ambitious. We agreed on everything…but I didn’t draft an agreement.

After several weeks, the LG’s spokesperson called and said, “We have to move quickly in this office, and we can’t work with a firm that can’t match our pace and send a proposal.” I was dumped.

It was the first (and only!) time I cried during a client call. The lesson was one I continue to relearn: ideas aren’t enough. Process and structure also matter.

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?

Oh god this is so embarrassing. Early in my career I was pinch-hitting for my boss at the department of economic development. I was doing a presentation that included a chart comparing U.S. and state data. Instead of saying “United States” or “U.S.” I was pronouncing it “us.”

I realized what I was doing mid-way through and wanted to die.

Lesson learned: always run through your slides before you open your mouth in public.

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

The most basic advice is to remember that your employees are human beings, same as your siblings, your closest friends, and your family. Sometimes we do this weird thing at work; we become a “boss” and separate ourselves from our teams. All of us are just people.

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?

Twenty.

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 don’t know if the challenges are different in a remote versus in-person environment, but I can imagine how these challenges could be amplified or mitigated in a remote environment.

Challenge #1: Clarity, i.e. “I don’t know what I should be working on or how my work ties to the big picture.”

The issue of clarity has been most obvious to me during specific moments:

  • When onboarding a new employee
  • When starting a new project with new partners or teams
  • When business/the market is changing

For example, when my team started our COVID journey, there was so much confusion. To create some clarity, I wrote a 13-page “Pivot through Covid” plan that outlined:

  • Four principles we’d use to weather the epidemic;
  • How we’d use the time to grow a better business
  • Complete transparency into the company finances including bi-weekly updates and clear tripwires for if/when we would transition from Plan A to Plan B, etc.
  • A promise from me to them, based on lessons learned during the Great Recession.

Then, we met twice a week on Zoom to review the plan, clarify matters, share what we were hearing from our clients and the industry, and share information. Both the plan and the meetings were critical to provide clarity.

Challenge #2: Value, e.g. “How does our work make a difference?”

There are two questions every business leader should be asking of their clients and teams:

Q1: What value, exactly, do we bring to our clients or the market?

  • This could be objective value, e.g. “Our clients have ambitious, actionable, and exciting plans that mobilize their teams, excite their clients, and will help them kick ass in their market” AND
  • It could be social-emotional, e.g. “We ease clients’ stress because we do what we say we’ll do on time and with high quality.”

Q2: How can my team organize our workflows around the value we bring to clients?

I had a client who would send me dozens of emails each day. It got so bad that I could not do the work I’d been hired to do (a long-range vision and plan) because I spent most of my time answering his emails.

I had to back up and ask Q1, “What value am I being paid to deliver to this client?”

Then I had to work with him to reorient our work processes around that value. I asked him to track his questions on a shared document that we’d review at a weekly meeting. It took a lot of requests (plus some training on how to use Google docs and an intervention with his boss), but the project got back on-track, I created ample time to deliver value, and my email inbox became less busy.

PS: My hunch is that if businesses answered this two-part “Value” question, most would find that they really CAN have a completely hybrid work arrangement and happier employees.

Challenge #3: Connection, e.g. “I feel like I’m part of a team.”

There are two kinds of communication that happen in workplaces: formal and informal.

The formal communication can be pretty easily converted to a remote environment as long as you have good tools to share the info and get appropriate feedback. (see Challenge #4 below)

The informal communication may not be as business-critical, but it’s very efficient in building bonds between people. And when people feel bonded, they work more effectively as a team. In a normal office environment where people are collocated, connections form during the hallway huddle after a meeting, the smoke break, the lunchroom, the drive-by (when someone walks by your office, pokes their head in, and chats.). This is also where the spontaneous pop-up opportunities happen, e.g., “Hey, can I bounce something off you?” or “We’re going to grab a drink after work; do you want to come?”

Challenge #4: Communication, e.g. “Do I have the info I need to do my work?”

I hate email. HATE IT. It’s a way for other people to write on my to-do list. I also don’t like it when people drop an idea in my lap and say, “I’d love your feedback on this.” Why? Why is this important to you or to me? What kind of feedback do you want? I tried Slack for one week and found it to be a ticking time bomb of disruption.

A lot of “communication tools” are really just interruption devices. There is NO friction for the sender to shoot you an email or a slack message, but it becomes something the receiver has to read, process, and address. (All hail, Cal Newport’s new book A World Without Email.) Many of these “drive by” messages are unnecessary. Some are addressed or cc’d to the wrong people, and others are better communicated via phone or Zoom.

I’m obsessed about how we communicate effectively in a remote environment because I’m hell-bent on giving employees the one thing that knowledge workers crave most: autonomy to do their work.

Challenge 5: Employee “Happiness”

Gretchen Rubin’s happiness research shows that we’re happier when we’re learning new things. Creating an atmosphere of growth is key.

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

Challenge #1: Clarity, i.e. “I don’t know what I should be working on or how my work ties to the big picture.”

Every person in your organization needs to be working on a project that matters to clients or the organization. They must know (A) what the project is, (B) how its success will be measured, and © what they can do to add their superpower to the effort.

If you manage projects or people, it’s your job to provide answers or guidance to those three things.

At my company, we use the Traction process to create long-term and near-term goals and a weekly meeting to share information, solve issues, and stay on-track. I also post “Office Hours” when anyone can come into my Zoom room and we can talk about whatever is on their mind.

Challenge #2: Value, e.g. “How does our work make a difference?”

Clients and teammates need to be clear about what the project really is, and how it will be measured. Then, they have to have tools and processes that they trust, to handle issues as they arise. At our company, email is not the default. We use shared documents with our clients and a regularly scheduled meeting.

Challenge #3: Connection, e.g. “I feel like I’m part of a team.”

Informal social cohesions are really important, and I haven’t figured out how to recreate them in a remote environment. We create time before or after every meeting for informal sharing and catching up. I schedule informal calls with my teammates just to see how they’re doing, what they’re up to, and catch up on life. And whenever possible, I bring the team together in real time for a couple days of work, dinners, time together.

Challenge #4: Communication, e.g. “Do I have the info I need to do my work?”

Our employee handbook says, “Imagine doing the best work of your life. What kind of atmosphere would that require? Here’s the recipe we’ve been tinkering with since 1998…”

A large portion of our handbook outlines our team’s communication protocols, e.g.

  • We hardly use email for internal matters. If we do email, we have a very specific way we use the subject lines of emails to signal the behavior we want from the respondent.
  • We don’t use slack.
  • We use texts if it’s a real emergency or just in time issue
  • We do “write ups” of issues that we want people’s feedback on, and we give people ample time to read, analyze and digest the information.
  • We use real-time discussions and meetings to exchange ideas, debate, and make decisions
  • We don’t rush non-urgent matters; it sometimes takes us several weeks to work things through

(We also work a 40-hour workweek, have a robust CRM that we keep totally up to date with all documents related to clients and projects, and make time for important conversations. I am a Zen priest; I want a peaceful, balanced company.)

Challenge 5: Employee “Happiness”

Create an atmosphere of growth.

We do two explicit things to foster this:

  1. Everyone gets $1,200 per year to apply to any training or development. It could be attending a professional conference or getting certified as a yoga instructor.
  2. We set quarterly, individual stretch goals to support annual company-wide goals. Our stretch goals usually require us to learn something new. For example, this year, I’m working with a PR and media firm to learn how to be a better spokesperson for the company. My colleagues have done some LinkedIn Learning, attended online conferences, and taken golf lessons.

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?

Do it on video call so that you can see each other’s facial expressions and hear each other’s tone. We misuse email a lot, and this is one of those times when you need to see people, not email them.

Then, follow the best practices:

  1. State the observed behavior in a non-judgmental way, e.g. “I’ve been in two meetings with you in the past week where I’ve noticed that you interrupt the client. Once, it was ______________, and the second time it was _____________________.”
  2. Ask, “What’s going on?” to get the employee’s sense of the issue
  3. Describe the behavior you want the employee to exhibit and brainstorm with them how they could self-manage, e.g. “It’s considered rude to interrupt someone before they’re done talking. And I understand that you feel you have important points to add to the conversation. How could both be accomplished without coming across as rude?” The employee may have some ideas, but you should also be prepared to offer a couple, e.g. “Maybe you could write your comment down and wait until the client is done talking or choose the ‘raise hand’ reaction in a video conference. Or if you’re concerned that you won’t be heard, you could ask the person running the meeting if they would be willing to ask for other’s input before moving between major subjects.”
  4. Ask if there are any further questions or guidance you can offer. Approach this as a coach, not a judge. Remember you want to help your people succeed.
  5. Ask for their commitment to improve.
  6. Thank them for their time and openness and be positive when signing off, e.g. “I believe in you and want to see you be successful.”

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

Don’t give constructive feedback over email. Don’t. Use email to say, “Can we Zoom for a few minutes about something that I think will help you with this project?” Use Zoom or a video platform so that you can see each other’s facial expressions and hear each other’s tone.

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?

Give each other time to share what’s happening, personally. We would do this in the office, so we should do it online.

Ask teammates to take turns running the meetings. This spreads the responsibility and also allows you to see each other’s personalities come shining through!

If your team is just getting started working remotely, understand that it may be awkward at first. Always have a clear agenda and stick to it. Make sure your meetings start and end on time. Keep checking in and ask, “What’s working in this remote arrangement?” and, “What needs work?”

Treat it like an experiment and stop doing things that aren’t working. Take a risk to do new things that people are asking for.

It’s a process and it takes time. Eventually you’ll develop a cadence and people will know what to expect.

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?

Give people direction, make yourself available to them when they need help…and then get out of their way and give them freedom to do their jobs.

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 want every billboard and screen saver to flash “You will die” once a day for a month, as a reminder to people to stop doing stupid, petty things and invest in the people and projects that make them feel like their life has purpose.

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

No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. I’ve spent a lot of my professional life trying to prove how smart I am. It was very performative and sometimes forced. But what I really love is connecting with people. Once I flipped my priority at work from PERFORMING to CONNECTING, everything got easier, more enjoyable, and more fun.

Thank you for these great insights!

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