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Remote Work: Brian Kyed Of Airtame On How To Successfully Navigate The Opportunities & Challenges Of Working Remotely Or From Home

An Interview With David Liu

As a part of our series about the things you need to successfully work remotely, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Kyed.

Brian is co-Founder and co-CEO at Airtame. He’s the right side of the brain in the business, which is a fancy way of saying he’s a “dream big”, creative type. When he’s not leading on all things design and product related, he’s crushing it on the football pitch as a striker with Airtame FC.

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?

Even before Airtame, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. After secondary school, I started my own video and photography company with a friend. We contacted a local travel agency and asked to make a promotional video. That job would take us to Romania to film, but before leaving, we rented a book from the library on how to use a camera and read it on the plane ride. That’s where my career as an entrepreneur started — on that plane. My friend and I continued to make videos for a few years until we met with these guys who worked for an open-source consultancy that wanted us to make a video that explained what open source means. We agreed and used Lego stop motion to do it — which took forever but gave us plenty of time to talk together about the prototype that would become Airtame. Ultimately, we made a video, got a crowdfunding campaign and joined forces. I ventured into university but dropped out after realizing that Airtame was far more exciting.

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

I discovered along the way that to grow a company you need to grow as an entrepreneur and as a human being, as cheeky as it sounds. And even more importantly, you need to bring in other people and make sure they grow too. At Airtame we have a saying that “people in growth create companies in growth” and we take this very seriously.

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

I resonate with a Danish saying from Søren Kierkegaard, which translates to, “Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all alright.” The Danish word for “walking” and “alright” is the same. And for Kierkegaard and myself, it’s not so much about the idea of moving forward or progress, but actually going on a walk. Throughout my career as an entrepreneur, whenever I’m in a stressful situation or need to digest a big idea, I always take a walk. It seems so simple, yet walks help my mind relax and refocus. Sometimes, when facing a new challenge or making a tough decision, we need to decompress and not react right away. Taking a step back from your work and going for a walk allows us to find much-needed clarity.

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 a 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?

The main benefit is the human interactions and emotions that come out when people are together. Mainly, it is the empathy we develop for our coworkers during those water cooler conversations when we aren’t working on a project. When we are remote, it feels like we are just working with messages and not human beings. Research has found that you are not necessarily more creative or come up with better ideas when you’re in a workshop together versus by yourself at your table. Therefore, I don’t think that getting back to the office is solely about productivity or creativity. It’s about developing culture and deepening personal connections with each other. Work should be more than just completing checklists and reaching milestones — but celebrating, learning and winning together as a team.

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’re not in the same space, you lose that human-to-human empathy — people become more distant and not just in a literal sense. I think you especially lose company culture. For Airtame, as a startup, company culture was vital to our success because it enabled us to see work as more than just a job, but a collective mission that brought us all together. It becomes almost impossible to build a strong culture when you never meet; your work becomes just a job and nothing grander.

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?”

  1. Maximize the time your team does have together in the same physical space. Use these opportunities to build empathy for one another to strengthen company culture. From a business point of view, it’s easier for people to quit and start a new job when there isn’t a strong company culture or sense of belonging. Years before the pandemic, Airtame established a robust culture — and even though we obviously had people leaving over the years, we endured because of the time we spent building up that sense of togetherness.
  2. Create those “water-cooler” moments virtually. Allow and encourage your workers to have informal virtual meetings with each other outside of scheduled times — even if it’s to talk about non-work-related subjects. The people, not necessarily the company, motivate employees to stay for years.
  3. Ensure that your isolated team members meet new people from different departments whenever you have in-person functions. You don’t need to wait for a reason or event to happen to have people come together. Encourage people to travel to other offices to work for a week, just for the sake of being in that office.
  4. Remember when communicating remotely to not reduce people to just messages on a screen. When the human element gets removed, people lose their sense of connection with the overall shared mission. As often as possible, use video conferencing software so people can see each other’s faces and hear their voices.
  5. Make it difficult for people to leave — what I mean is not that they have to go through unreasonable hurdles to quit, but to communicate so that everyone has had a chance to meet everyone in the company, in-person or virtually. In exit interviews, our employees expressed that even though they were sad to leave, it felt easier because they had never met anyone in-person.

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?

Building a strong company culture was essential to our perseverance through the pandemic. In the six years before COVID, Airtame invested so much in those human connections allowing us to weather the storm. Even though we had to do layoffs, by leveraging Zoom often, we managed to stay productive, continue collaborating and create those moments of authentic discussion. Those video conferencing tools empowered us to replicate some of the benefits of being together in the same space. For example, seeing peoples’ faces reminded us that we were working for our coworkers and not just some nebulous idea. Nevertheless, we always miss the human aspect of being together, and we’re looking forward to returning to the office again.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

That ideal communication technology exists in our screen sharing and digital signage solution. By sharing screens throughout the office and using digital signage to share messages effortlessly, we created a more collaborative space that is more engaging and inspiring than being at home. For example, in one workshop, we asked a few questions then had everybody split into groups where they had to screen share pictures that described some of their moments of personal growth or a winning mindset. These various images were displayed throughout the office, captivating people wherever they were. If our people were next to a screen, they would get reminded of something positive or inspiring — maybe from an image they picked out. This exercise was a helpful way to start great conversations and let us ask people how they were doing. Even weeks later, it was still a natural facilitator of dialogue and allowed everyone to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

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?

The pandemic merely accelerated the adoption of the new way of working — but this new way of working was inevitable, as there were a lot of companies already doing it five or even ten years ago. The rapid transition and transformation forced people to learn new methods and technologies, creating frustration. Eventually, some realized that it was super convenient to not always have to show up at the office from eight to five. And it was this flexibility that people wanted to capture. Whether you’re going to be a company with numerous online meetings or offices in different places, you will need to offer a much more flexible way of working if you want to attract future talent. Not only is flexibility about working from anywhere, but it’s also about staying home for when you have a package that is getting delivered or a dentist appointment that doesn’t require a vacation day. The office space will need to change too. Consider how easy it is to collaborate when everyone is in the office, but if one or two people are absent, suddenly, it becomes challenging. When one half of the workforce is at the office while the other is at their homes, things get even more complex. I think solving this puzzle of how phone, instant messaging, computer and voice all come together is the focus in the coming years.

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 will be a need for shared screens in the metaverse and virtual reality because we want to replicate the office space and real-life feelings. When I say shared screens, picture a visual surface that communicates some message to people in a particular place at a given time. It won’t be necessarily akin to a Slack message that you can read whenever — it would have to be a type of notification where someone must be looking at a particular screen to get that message or context at that exact time. At Airtame, we believe there is a relevant space in the metaverse for us. However, things are still early, and there will need to be improvements before we can concretely say what Airtame will look like in the metaverse. Likewise, I believe the metaverse cannot give people the same human feelings and empathy which comes from working in the same physical office. While there is some form of empathy in the metaverse through avatars and other features, it is still missing those person-to-person interactions and connections someone gets when they meet physically in real life. Of course, more research has yet to get done, and there are plenty of cleverer people than me out there working on these things. Nevertheless, the physical, in-office, empathic interactions built Airtame’s healthy company culture.

Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.

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David Liu

David Liu

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David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication