Stephen Arndt of Silver Linings Technology: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Make full use of multiple forms of communications and find what works best for your team. There is chat, slack, zoom, instant messaging, video calls, phone and email. Make sure your team knows what is available to use and when to use each type. Each communication form implies a different level of connection and formality. Phone and video are the least documented but are the most expressive. Our team uses G-Suite so Google Hangouts is how we primarily communicate. There is a group chat function for the help desk team to use while they work and bounce ideas and questions to each other. If they have something that is higher level they know to call their Team Lead. There is also a group chat for Silver Linings Technology Team Leadership this is only for updates and nothing else.
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 Stephen Matthew Arndt (President and CIO of Silver Linings Technology), a national healthcare information technology consultant and industry leader, is an innovator, change agent, and problem solver who focuses on results. Stephen has spent more than 25 years in IT, specializing in healthcare for more than 15 years.
Prior to this, Stephen served as managing director, Consulting CIO, and senior consultant for IT Powered, a VCPI Company. He also served as the vice president and CIO of Assisted Living Concepts, Inc.
Stephen also brought his passion and knowledge of healthcare and technology to the world of higher education. He taught technology and businesses classes, authored a class on databases, and designed IT applications for development and implementation as an adjunct professor at George Fox University.
Stephen is a member of the following associations: SIM Portland, CIO Forum, First Robotics, and Assisted Living Federation of America. He has spoken at AFLA, HC100, CALA, and VCPI Client Connections.
Stephen holds a Bachelor of Arts in Management and Organizational Leadership as well as a Masters in Business Administration with a focus on Information Technology from George Fox University in Newberg, OR.
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?
I can honestly say I am doing what I love. As, a young kid I was always fascinated with technology and have been a lifelong tech geek. I entered the Navy with no education but worked onboard a ship in the data processing department because of my self-taught knowledge of programming. This helped me achieve my goal of getting experience but also showed me why I needed to further my education. My first job was a programmer and I quickly moved up the ranks. Eventually in 2005 I started my first company which was called IT Powered. Although I made many mistakes, I learned a lot and was able to sell the company two years later. In 2011 I founded Smarndt.com (taken from my first initials and last name) which focused on CIO Consulting. My clients were primarily in the Post-Acute Healthcare industry such as Assisted Living and Skilled Nursing facilities. I helped my clients develop strategic plans for their IT. As time went on, my clients more frequently asked if I could execute the recommended plans, so in 2017 I rebranded my consulting practice to Silver Linings Technology and shifted the business to provide fully managed IT services. Our motto is “every cloud deserves a silver lining” as we fully embrace the strategy of cloud computing and encourage our clients to move to the cloud. Our business model was built with the idea that all my staff would be remote workers, so little changed for us when the pandemic began. We have field techs and occasionally make onsite visits to our clients, but our work is primarily accomplished through email, video, and phone calls. We have clients and employees across the nation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are choices you make or paths you go down that you know are turning points in your life. For me I made the decision to walk away from a lucrative full-time long-term consulting engagement with a client whose CEO was making unethical choices and treating his internal employees increasingly disrespectfully. I did not have other work lined up to replace this income, but I knew this was the right thing to do. As I now had the immediate free I travelled to meet a friend in NYC for the week. As I took a beautiful stroll through Central Park I got a call from a prospect who had been referred to me from one of the people I had previously worked with. The new opportunity wanted to engage me full time and was ready for me to start as soon as I was. They have since become my longest running client. This event cemented my belief that my integrity and reputation are the strongest and most lasting assets I control.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two philosophies or theories that have been very impactful in my personal and professional life. The first is called the Five Second Rule and it originated from Mel Robbins and her theory that “If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it. When you feel yourself hesitate before doing something that you know you should do, count 5–4–3–2–1-GO and move towards action.” In a nutshell she says “Stop wishing, start doing.” This has been helpful to me for even the simplest things like my alarm clock blaring in the morning. I used to hit snooze about 10 times to my significant other’s chagrin but now I count down and get up. I am less groggy and have saved myself 30 minutes of time I can focus elsewhere. It sounds amazingly simple but on a larger level it has also paid off in having a difficult conversation or making a hard choice in an emergency.
The other is from Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking this book gave me a lot more confidence in trusting my instincts. Gladwell interviews many people and shows the reader that great decision makers are not those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of “thin-slicing”-filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables. Gladwell says, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” I highly recommend both books.
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?
The first IT Director I worked for gave me an opportunity even though I did not have a college degree and had limited work (resume) experience in programming. I did not fit his company’s normal hiring profile and he took a chance on me. He recognized my solid work history, aptitude, and that I had an enthusiasm for the work. He was a mentor and influenced my future hiring mindset as it taught me that a person is much more than their resume. You need to see the full person.
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?
I think when people are physically together there is more opportunity for ad-hoc conversations resulting in status updates and brainstorming. Interactions feel more organic. There is also more of an opportunity for non-work bonding and that can help create a culture and boost morale.
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?
A few challenges that can come up when a team is not in the same space is missing the body language of communication, sometimes missing lower-level details, and not discerning a person’s true availability. You are not able to look across the room to see if a person is in their office for a quick chat or available to take that call that just came in. There is much more personal responsibility for time management and organization to ensure agendas and details happen in distance communication. Interacting with coworkers in different time zones adds more complexity to this.
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.)
- Do not just communicate, over communicate. Communication is always important, but especially as more people are working from home. It is easy to assume everyone is well-informed, reading the right documentation, and being kept in the loop of policy discussions. But working from home isolates office talk. It is easy to miss important changes, especially when it comes to security. Are you patching potential problems? Have you downloaded the latest fixes? Have your policy guidelines been updated to ensure work-from-home procedures don’t leave your data vulnerable? Does your entire team know? Whether it’s a simple upgrade to make things run smoother, or a response to a data breach, every team member needs to understand the response and what it means to the team. Email is often ignored and overlooked. New protocol and good communication are the only way to ensure everyone on your team is on board.
- Make full use of multiple forms of communications and find what works best for your team. There is chat, slack, zoom, instant messaging, video calls, phone and email. Make sure your team knows what is available to use and when to use each type. Each communication form implies a different level of connection and formality. Phone and video are the least documented but are the most expressive. Our team uses G-Suite so Google Hangouts is how we primarily communicate. There is a group chat function for the help desk team to use while they work and bounce ideas and questions to each other. If they have something that is higher level they know to call their Team Lead. There is also a group chat for Silver Linings Technology Team Leadership this is only for updates and nothing else.
- What are your communication guidelines? Set expectations that chat isn’t urgent but that a call to your cell is usually a more urgent or complex situation. We teach staff to not call each other’s cell phones if it isn’t urgent. Don’t assume your existing team already knows this and you must proactively teach incoming hires. Train them on your company’s working style. The owner might be sending them emails at all hours of the night but he doesn’t expect a response outside the times of 8–5pm. We set boundaries so that people feel that their personal and their work time are respected. If it isn’t urgent and its afterhours, send an email. If it is urgent, then call. Outline what is time sensitive and what isn’t.
- Set an expectation of respect for all team members while allowing playfulness and banter. Working from home can be very isolating so it’s important to find ways to encourage team building. Maybe it’s a zoom happy hour or a holiday themed activity, or while g-chatting you send a pictures of your dog doing something cute. It is allowing flexibility but also personal responsibility in making sure the work is also being done. There are not the opportunities for water cooler talks or grabbing lunch together so find way to let your team connect.
- Have a designated note taker for every meeting. This person shares the notes with the team, but everyone is expected to review/approve/add in case something was missed. This allows for everyone to be on the same page and holds each person in the meeting responsible for making sure what they heard is the same that everyone else did. People interpret things in different ways and with everyone double checking the notes you are ensuring that not only did the notetaker get was said, but that it was understood by everyone else as well. This helps address any misinterpretation and also a way to follow up for action items. In our team we have a rule that silence is agreement — so if you don’t speak up in the meeting or about the notes you are giving your stamp of approval.
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?
Many people don’t have a private space to work. There are more distractions because most people have multiple people in their household. As a result, when distractions can’t be minimized we have a higher tolerance for rescheduling than pre-pandemic. One coworker tries to have meetings when it is her child’s nap time — and the rest of us have come to recognize work with that when we can. It is all about having empathy and kindness when working with each other.
Security is hard enough when everyone is in the same working environment. How do you keep security in check when data is being referenced from many different devices, from many different regions, all over the world? While you’ll never decrease your risk one-hundred percent, there are some easy security rules you can put into place that will keep your remote workers safe.
Separate your machines.
The easiest way to keep your data safe is to separate personal and work life. Do work on a work computer while doing everything for your personal life on a personal computer. If you don’t intermix the two, your risk of contamination decreases. This means you’ll have higher costs to purchase hardware for every employee, as well as continually educating them on the importance of separating their two lives. Still, it will cut down potential risk factors.
Only allow employees to use the tools provided.
Employees often look for workarounds to get the job done. Even more so when they work remotely and don’t have someone looking over their shoulder. This falls back on educating workers and having a vetting process for looking at new tools and resources. It also means keeping an eye on what people are using to get the job done.
Don’t forget to give remote workers all the tools.
You’ve given remote employees a business computer and smartphone, but what about a router? Home wi-fi routers are often cheaply made and are notorious for being full of bugs. That’s not a way to protect your data when an employee is working with it all day, every day. Make sure you give your team everything they need to stay secure, no matter where they are in the world.
Ensure tools are properly configured.
You can provide your remote workers with all the tools they need, but if they don’t use them correctly, your data is at risk. While it’s easier to control what’s happening in the office, it’s more challenging to ensure remote workers handle data securely. This is evidenced by the password “123456” continually being the number one password of choice. No matter what tool or resource you have in place, ensure your remote workers are using it correctly.
Use a corporate VPN.
Virtual private networks allow remote workers to connect to an encrypted, corporate-owned network to access any company data. This is especially helpful for keeping medical data secure without compromising HIPAA laws.
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?
Our team uses Google hangouts for their video calls and chatting capabilities. It is easy to use, cost effective, and is included in the cost of the suite. It is our company email so employees are a click away and it operates on all platforms.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
There are platforms that really pull all the tools together but get expensive for things you might need only once in a while. A nice addition would be an interactive white board where you can pin documents and group edit or a large screen where you can see everyone on a large zoom call instead of scrolling multiple screens.
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?
I think the pandemic has increased the visibility of the usefulness of unified communications. It has also allowed more tolerance for when the environments are not perfect which also increases utilization.
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?
VR capabilities are cool and that tied into the online conferences that we are now seeing are great utilization of it. I think you see that in the vendor booths, speaker break out rooms etc. They are becoming more interactive, so it has more of a feeling like you are at a conference but without the travel.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
As VR becomes more immersive people will struggle to balance the virtual world with the physical world like in the book/movie Ready Player One.
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?
We have stopped all physical onsite meetings and moved them to a virtual one. We have always been virtual, but this has leveled the playing field for us because people are seeing what can be done virtually. We are not as biased against from a local IT provider because they could go onsite.
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?
It is hard to give constructive criticism without being in person. The biggest thing I tell my team is to pick up the phone and not to chat when there is a problem. Chat and email are not the best forms as tone and expression or not coming across. I think video is the best with phone being second so that the nuisances of communication such as the tone of your voice, smile, or look in your eyes can come through so there is less misunderstandings. Set expectations initially regarding work habits and work environments are critical for success.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
We have done a few things throughout the year to get everyone feeling involved. We had a remote Halloween costume contest, count the candy corn in a jar (video and pictures where sent to everyone), and for Christmas an ugly sweater contest. My favorite was the Thankfulness Wall where everyone emailed their favorite quotes, pictures, and things they were thankful for. This was compiled and posted in our physical office but pictures of it where also on our intranet team homepage. People were also encouraged to write notes to each other for something they were thankful for within the team. Another team building was Jogging July were we had a contest of who had the most steps for the month. Another fun thing was a social media campaign of #featurefriday on our employees pets and some people did their kids. It was great getting to see another glimpse of people.
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. :-)
Experience life and go on adventures! Finding balance between work and life doesn’t have to mean work life separation. We have discovered we can work from anywhere and taking advantage. I had one coworker live in Costa Rica for a month to work on her Spanish. She got the work done and was able to take some evening Spanish classes there and experience the culture. It is still taking care of the work that needs to be done but finding new places to do it at.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.