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Robert Fenton of Qualio: Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team

An Interview with Tyler Gallagher

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

CEO and founder, Robert Fenton, built Qualio from the ground up beginning in 2012 based on challenging personal experiences he had while studying to earn his pharmacy degree and working both as a pharmacist and in quality and R&D roles at global pharmaceutical companies.

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 and raised in Ireland. My experience as a pharmacist there and in quality and R&D for a variety of global pharmaceutical leaders taught me early on that quality management in healthcare was antiquated. With that challenge in mind, I decided to focus on modernizing the quality management process by making it digital, simplifying the user experience, and driving transparency and collaboration across the entire life sciences supply chain. Today, we serve more than 250 life sciences leaders across the globe and help power their ability accelerate speed and safeguard quality.

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

It’s not as much a story as it is a lesson. I built Qualio as a remote company and team from day one. I was initially concerned that this approach could be detrimental to company growth since it wasn’t a typical business practice at the time, but my gut instinct said to push forward. What I learned over time is that if you set the mission, vision, and values for your company and focus on hiring the best talent — regardless of location — success follows.

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?

As a pharmacist early in my career, there was no room for mistakes. That said, that first job taught me many lessons — most notably that being a pharmacist was not the best career fit for my business talents and personality. Early on in one’s career, identifying what one doesn’t like or want to do for the remainder of their career can be just as valuable as learning what you do in fact want to do.

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

To help employees thrive and avoid burnout, our leadership team decided to invest in hiring a people operations expert early on. This person is focused solely on the people experience for those on our Qualio team. From streamlining our onboarding process to establishing new approaches to setting work hours and making sure employees are actually taking their paid time off, our people operations lead has played a mission-critical role in ensuring our teams are set up to excel in a high-performance environment where we place value on downtime and self-care, as well as customer success and business growth.

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?

I have been managing remote teams for over a decade. As mentioned above, I also started my business — Qualio — as a remote company. We have continued this remote model since Qualio’s founding. We have enjoyed great success by focusing on hiring the best people — regardless of location — and giving them the tools and support to set them up for growth.

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?

The five main challenges of managing a remote team are as follows:

  • Addressing a high likelihood of people overworking and then burning out due to a lack of boundaries between home and work
  • Getting teams to make the mental shift to focus on measurable results achieved instead of time spent doing work
  • Driving streamlined and effective communication
  • Ensuring clarity on business, team, and personal goals so people understand what we are all collectively rowing toward
  • Creating a sense of belonging

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

  • First, invest in a people operations lead who can set up specific approaches across your organization to deter overworking and, in turn, burnout.
  • Have teams and individuals set specific measurable goals each quarter and year and then ensure managers measure progress and quality based on their teams meeting or exceeding those goals.
  • Ensure consistent communications from senior leadership and managers at a cadence that aligns with your mission, vision, and values — and make it a priority early and often, especially when the communication is specific to a company change of any sort.
  • Leverage ongoing communications to report on progress against company goals and celebrate big wins together — and problem solve for challenge areas together as well.
  • To create a sense of belonging, we coach managers on prioritizing the person doing the job — not their output. Employees who feel valued at a personal level are more likely to have a sense of belonging, instead of feeling like a cog in the wheel. This can be as simple as celebrating a birthday, encouraging someone to take a day off if they are struggling with something personal, and even just asking how they are feeling in ongoing 1:1 touch bases.

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

Always lead with empathy. If you find yourself frustrated versus empathetic, give the situation some space so you can approach the discussion regarding feedback with a growth mindset. Also, whenever possible, offer constructive feedback in 1:1 videos versus email. Feedback via email can unintentionally come off as brash and insensitive.

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?

In this situation, it’s important to acknowledge that change is hard, and, as a result, mistakes will happen. The key is addressing those challenges early and often. A good dose of empathy and an understanding that this transition from in-person to remote work is iterative is also very helpful.

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?

To create a healthy and empowering workforce, business leaders must set mission, vision, and values in stone — and base decisions on just that. In just the last year, our team at Qualio has tripled our headcount, so this topic has been top of mind. One of the key things we’ve done as part of onboarding is a concerted effort to make new and current employees feel safe and like they belong. Taking this approach and prioritizing safety and belonging help to create a healthy and empowering workforce.

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. :-)

Honestly, I would love to see more companies investing in an all-remote workforce. This has made a world of difference for my company and, more importantly, for my employees. Our Qualio team members work from all over the world, and they bring a set of skills and learnings that are unmatched because of this fact. A remote-first mindset could help solve a lot of problems we are facing today and in the years to come — from a lack of local talent to fewer women joining the workforce.

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

The following quote from Steve Jobs has been one I have turned to throughout my career: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”

This quote inspired me to take the leap to start my only company in 2012, Qualio, and to also take an all-remote approach to building our team and culture. It is easy to focus on challenges and to succumb to self-doubt. This quote is a solid reminder that people, just like you and me, have changed the world for the better — and will continue to do so moving forward.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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