TJ Hoffman of Sibme: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
An Interview With David Liu
Use Rituals, but when Rituals become Routines, change them: Early on in Sibme’s life, we took a very organic approach to our interactions with one another. We were all pretty close with one another and it was easy to just gather together and hash something out. As we’ve grown, and our team has become more diverse (we have employees in 6 time zones and 4 different countries), we’ve found it necessary to create some more formal structures for our interactions. But what we’ve noticed is that these rituals of interactions (meeting formats, slack channels, etc) get stale over time and lose their meaning. So every 6 months or so, we take a look at our standing meetings, our interaction structures (Kanban Boards, Gannt Charts, etc.) and make some kind of change to them. By making them unfamiliar, people are more deeply engaged. I wouldn’t say this is the most popular thing we do, but I would say it’s important.
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 TJ Hoffman, Chief Operating Officer at Sibme. He has been an educator for 13 years. Prior to joining Sibme in 2017, TJ was a teacher, coach, school and district administrator in the greater Houston area. Most recently, TJ managed new employee induction for Houston ISD. TJ holds degrees from Texas Christian University and Rice University and was a 2017 MBA graduate of the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
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 love the power of teams. Growing up, I was never successful at sports, but I did love performing arts. My favorite types of performances were ensembles. In college, my choir director said that his job was to, “hold people together.” I was immediately hooked by that statement, and it led me to switch careers from from business to music. I’ve made my way back to the business world from that early decision, but I’m still motivated by the idea of “holding people together.” That’s the crux of what we do at Sibme: holding people together when they can’t be physically present. During the pandemic, that mission has doubled down, as we moved from a partially-distributed team to fully-remote. But since using technology to keep everyone connected was a part of our DNA, the transition has been relatively simple.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Honestly, finding Sibme was the most unexpected surprise. At the time, I was happily teaching and mentoring new teachers in a Houston-area school. Dave Wakefield, Sibme’s founder, came to give a presentation in the district and I immediately saw the opportunity to help onboard new teachers. Our onboarding-team became Sibme’s first customer and I started a wonderful partnership with Dave that has completely changed my life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was in the 6th grade, the principal of my school taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. She would always remind us to “leave something better than you found it.” I think her statement was designed to remind us to clean up the lunch room, but it’s had a profound impact on the way that I treat any space I’m in. As my life has moved largely from physical spaces to digital spaces, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we all can leave digital spaces better than we found them. I think one of the fundamental crises of the pandemic is that digital spaces (social media, web-conferences, slack chats, and even email inboxes) aren’t treated as spaces. People will say something in a comment online that they would never say face to face. It’s a serious challenge and, if digital spaces are going to be productive as workplaces (and I think they can be), we all need to endeavor to leave them better than we found them.
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?
I had the same English teacher through all of middle and high school. Her name is Kathy Maddox and not a day goes by where I don’t think about something she taught me. In addition to teaching me the power of dialogue and language, there are two things that I recall almost every day. The first is the importance of clarity. Often people can say the exact same words and mean completely different things. This can be the root of a great deal of conflict, especially in the workplace. As a leader, I spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone has the same understanding of the words that we use. Taking time to check for clarity before entering into a debate is incredibly important. The second, which is sort of connected, is the importance of primary source evidence. Every year, we would work on a major research paper. Mrs. Maddox taught me so much about how to choose, reference, and cite sources. Again, I think that’s a crucial part of workplace communication. Incidentally, this is exactly what we do at Sibme: try and make sure that feedback, coaching conversations, mentoring relationships, and professional growth are all based on evidence, and not just perception and opinion.
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?
In general, I’m not a huge fan of office culture. I think it tends to privilege outgoing people and has some unintended consequences with regard to group think and “squeaky wheel” syndrome. However, having a team physically together can create opportunities that are harder to emulate organically when your team is distributed. Mostly, the “water cooler” chat that happens between people in informal collisions. There’s a great deal of value in those collisions and unplanned relationships. They build company culture, and often lead to the greatest innovation. Additionally, those interactions are often where you identify the hidden strengths of your team members. These informal interactions are where you might see the potential in someone that wouldn’t normally be uncovered in their normal work.
But, as I said, these might be harder to emulate, but it’s not impossible. And I also believe the benefits don’t outweigh the costs of office culture.
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?
There are two main challenges I see:
- Connections: You have to be intentional about providing opportunities for cross-functional relationships to build on your team. But that intentionality, which isn’t as necessary when people are physically together, can actually be a strength, not a challenge. By creating opportunities for people to connect, instead of just allowing them to happen organically, you can ensure that everyone will be included. Most teams just hope that people will connect, which privileges outgoing people, and frankly, can often have disastrous consequences by further marginalizing certain members of your team who don’t feel as comfortable reaching out and speaking up, and who others might not be as naturally drawn to.
- Memory: Because of the ephemeral nature of most online spaces (Slack Chats, Web-conferences, email in boxes etc.), we see a lot of unnecessary repetition. It seems to take much longer to build institutional memory when people aren’t physically in the same space. However, I think that’s more of a consequence of organization than technology. Again, an intentional leader can do a few things to make sure that institutional memory can be built in digital spaces. It just requires a few thoughtful changes to the way people interact in them.
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.)
These 5 things are directly connected to the two main challenges I addressed in your previous question. I think all 5 of them can address both challenges, but numbers 1–3 are more about building institutional memory online, and numbers 4 & 5 are more specifically about improving opportunities to build connection.
1. Group people differently than you would in a conference room or cubical block: While Slack channels can be helpful for creating different groups of people for informal conversation, you need to work hard to manage the experience so people aren’t left out of important chat conversations. We’ve found that channels and group DMs get unwieldy over time and need some culling to make sure people know where to go when they need to ask a question or have a quick discussion. Creating some specific rules for interaction will be a good start, but you also need to police this information. Since most of our team reports to me, I often get DMs with questions that really need to be shared with a larger group. I refuse to answer the question if more people will need to know the answer. I’ll ask that the person ask the question in the correct channel, or even save the question for one of our synchronous meetings. Which brings me to number two…
2. Get out of chat as quickly as possible: If a chat takes more than 10 messages to complete the conversation, or if there needs to be mutual inspection of some kind of artifact, Slack is not the place. A more structured space is needed to give people a chance to have longer conversations, especially because the conversation is probably important enough that someone will need to refer back to it in a week or two. We use Sibme for this, but you could also do it through some kind of shared documents, a company Wiki, or some other similar structure. The chats will always disappear (even if you’re doing a great job of structuring them), so you want some kind of record if it’s important.
3. Don’t Zoom by default: For many people, “let’s just hop in a Zoom” has become the de facto response, but it’s not always the most efficient. Especially with the chaos of work-from-home life, a Synchronous-Only option can be really detrimental to overall success. That’s why we practice a blended approach, making sure that people have time-stamped annotations of Zoom meeting recordings in easy-to-access spaces so people can watch, ask questions, and get asynchronous answers after the live event has taken place. And, again, having a time-stamped recording in a searchable, transcribed, and easily accessible space means that we can “go to the tape” when we need to recall something down the road.
4. If there are more than 10 people, just record it: Jeff Bezos famously wouldn’t allow teams at Amazon to meet if they can’t easily feed the entire meeting with two pizzas. And yet, most companies have no problem making their team meet in conference rooms by the dozens to “share information.” I’m a strong opponent of this. I think this has only gotten worse in a remote world. People will just have a web-conference or conference call where one person talks, and hundreds of people listen. This is a complete waste of time. Either record a video of what you were going to cover in the meeting, or write it in a memo (preferably both). Let people digest information on their own. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t come together to discuss or take action on the information. To do that, get people into smaller groups and allow them to meet when and how they want, with specific action steps and expectations from each team. But putting more than 10 people in a room will always privilege the loud mouth, and my experience has been that the person that talks the most is the person you need to hear from the least. Great teams elevate the voices of every member, and that only happens in smaller groups.
5. Use Rituals, but when Rituals become Routines, change them: Early on in Sibme’s life, we took a very organic approach to our interactions with one another. We were all pretty close with one another and it was easy to just gather together and hash something out. As we’ve grown, and our team has become more diverse (we have employees in 6 time zones and 4 different countries), we’ve found it necessary to create some more formal structures for our interactions. But what we’ve noticed is that these rituals of interactions (meeting formats, slack channels, etc) get stale over time and lose their meaning. So every 6 months or so, we take a look at our standing meetings, our interaction structures (Kanban Boards, Gannt Charts, etc.) and make some kind of change to them. By making them unfamiliar, people are more deeply engaged. I wouldn’t say this is the most popular thing we do, but I would say it’s important.
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?
We’ve always used our personal devices, so that hasn’t really been a concern. I’d say the resource that has caused the greatest challenge is time. As I said, we have people working around the globe and at different times. Additionally, many of our employees have significant commitments to families and other things in a work-from-home environment. That’s created some complication for us. Rigidly adhering to a 9–5 schedule has been pretty ineffective. People might be present if you force them to work certain hours, but they’re not necessarily engaged. If I’m having to sit in a Zoom meeting while my kid is trying to have show and tell on the computer across the table from me, I’m not going to be fully engaged in work. So, we’ve worked with our team to create a more flexible work schedule for them so they can work when it’s possible for them to be the most focused. Again, that means somebody might miss a meeting. That’s why we record everything and ask that someone who missed the live event watch the recording an annotate with any questions or action steps. And since we do it in Sibme, it’s easy to use our analytics to make sure it happened.
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?
We use Zoom and Slack constantly, but quickly found that both spaces have an ephemeral quality that can be tricky when you’re trying to make sure people can access artifacts and discussions after the fact. Of course, we use Sibme for all of the work I’ve described, but I’ve pieced this together with multiple technologies and could speak more strategically than technically about how to accomplish it outside of Sibme.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Well…luckily, I have been working on designing the perfect communication system, so I’ve thought about this a lot! We’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s better to centralize or cobble together multiple technology tools. Ultimately, we think a hybrid approach is best. For example, we have a live-streaming feature in our app that we can use for real-time announcements to the team, but when it came time to decide whether we should expand that product to include two-way synchronous communication, we decided it was better to integrate with Zoom instead of trying to build something ourselves. The Zoom interface is beautiful and simple, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Generally speaking, I think most workplace tools don’t think of themselves as consumer products, which is why I think they fail at communication. Slack has done a good job of this, by simplifying and thinking about the end user. That’s what we’ve done at Sibme. Rather than building for a specific workflow, which is what I think most workplace tech products are built around, we take a human-first approach. We think like social media platforms, with the first question being “how can we gather people together” and the second question being “what will they do when they get there.” That’s the best approach.
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?
You’re really singing my song now! This is exactly what I think most teams should focus on, especially in the remote-workplace. There’s so much opportunity for redundancy when you fragment things in inboxes, calendar invites, web-conferences, notes in CRMs, chats, phone calls…the list is endless!
One thing that I think is super important is having a mobile-first culture. We pride ourselves as being mobile-first and are surprised that more workplace communication technologies are not. So when something happens on my computer, you should see it on your phone immediately, with the ability to watch/listen AND read a transcript, with immediate access on any device. I get a lot of work done when I’m walking my dog. And if I were tethered to my laptop, I couldn’t do that. But having all of our communication take place in an integrated web-and-mobile platform means I get to work on the go. Some of my coworkers disagree. They like the boundaries of only working when they’re logged into their computer. And that’s fine with me. The important thing is that people have options and choice.
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?
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
I think it’s mostly the unintended consequences of the perceived anonymity that comes along with virtual communication. We see this in the social media world, where people are just willing to say things that they would never say to somebody’s face. However, I think in some cases that’s a good thing. I know I’ve been more apt to have conversations with someone when I can type my thoughts, read them, and revise them before hitting the send button. Technology enables that. But people seem to be a little too trigger happy with that send button. One of the other important things Mrs. Maddox taught me is the importance of reading and revising. So even if you’re recording a video or audio message, take time to watch it or listen to it before sharing it. Ask yourself the question, “is it possible that the most easily offended person on earth could be offended by this?” If it is, maybe think about another way to communicate it.
What I think people don’t consider when they say that “some things are just better said face to face” is that the person who’s face you’re saying something to might only “receive” the information better because they’re afraid to respond. So just because someone is polite in a face-to-face conversation doesn’t mean they received the information well. The other thing that social media has heightened is people’s ability to voice their discomfort about something. I don’t know if that’s entirely a good thing, but it has caused me to think twice about what I say with the hopes of not being offensive…and ultimately I think that’s good.
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?
All of it. We don’t have any in-person interactions with customers anymore. A major part of our business pre-pandemic was at trade shows and industry events. We were pretty concerned early on that the elimination of those events would negatively affect our business, but the opposite has happened. As we’ve moved online, we’re more engaged with customers and potential customers than ever before.
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?
I think it’s important to make sure that all communication is two-way. So even if something is recorded, or shared via chat or text, I always insist on a response. And I don’t let up if I get something like, “got it” or “sure thing.” That’s not enough. I want to make sure that the other person heard what I intended for them to hear. I think most problems with feedback is that people don’t define terms in the conversation the same way. And again, this is where having everything recorded is a huge benefit. I can go back and listen to my feedback or read what I said and what the other person said and ask, “did that go the way I meant for it to?” If it didn’t, I can follow up.
I had that experience the other day where I created some changes in one of our processes for our team. I shared it with one of our CSMs and she was pretty quiet to begin with. It took some time, but I was finally able to probe into how she actually felt about it and realized that she was interpreting something in a document I shared with her differently than how I intended it. When I was able to clarify, she was thrilled with the new process. But I needed to make sure everyone was clear, and not just assume they heard what I meant for them to hear.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Well…the frustrating answer is you do really need to be physically together some of the time. It just doesn’t have to be as frequent as you think. We try to get together at least once a year, but not for just a parade of meetings. We do something meaningful for everyone on the team. A couple of years ago we did a group event where everyone came to Houston and we volunteered at a local child-care center for children living in housing-insecure families. It was so cool to get to see those kiddos and do something totally fun with them. That made a big difference in our connection.
What does need to be frequent is created opportunities to have non-work conversations. We do regular “no business Monday” meetings where we have everyone join a zoom room, we break into small breakout rooms, and we just don’t talk about work for a few minutes. We also use a slack-bot called Donut that randomly pairs members of the team for “virtual coffee” once a week. We ask that everyone set aside 15 minutes to have small talk with the person they’re paired with. They can chat, call one another on the phone, have a zoom call, whatever they want, but they need to do it once a week.
Personally, I hate these things because I’m naturally pretty shy. But I find them to be very helpful in building connection between people who don’t normally work together. It’s built a much stronger sense of camaraderie on our team. Especially because we’re so international, we have pretty significant cultural differences on our team, so we need lots of opportunities for people to connect to learn about one another’s lives. But it’s been pretty cool to develop deep relationships with folks on the other side of the world!
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. :-)
My background in schools influenced this answer. The way that we organize learning in most communities is geographic, and I think that’s a huge problem. For the most part, a child’s quality of education is largely dependent on their physical proximity to a school with outstanding teachers. So if you’re adjacent to a “good school” or you can travel across town to attend one, you’re in great shape. In a lot of US communities, the experiment of “school choice” has tried to address this issue, and it’s worked for the kids who’s families can make the choice, but it doesn’t work for the kids who’s families can’t make the choice to send their kid to another school. And it’s been catastrophic for those communities who have been drained of students and the resources that come along with them.
I truly believe technology is the solution to this problem. The reality of it is that there might only be one amazing AP Biology teacher in a school district, and if my kid happens to go to the school where that teacher works, great! But what if they don’t? We need to use technology to connect teachers to one another to scale their impact, and to connect teachers to students so kids can have access to the best. But this isn’t a simple “let’s do online school” solution. I think we’ve all seen how that goes over the past year. It’s a complete redesign of the system. You need to rip the geographically-driven school organization model to the ground and rebuild it from the web up. Education is the key to economic stability and upward mobility in a community, and technology is the only way to really make a change. Because quality education is 100% a factor of the quality of the teacher, so scaling amazing teachers has to be the solution.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Primarily through Sibme. I regularly write for our blog (sibme.com/blog) and learning center (learn.sibme.com). There’s a ton of great content that we create on our YouTube and Social Media channels, just look for @sibmeapp.
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.