Why Distributed Teams Struggle with Misalignment
An Interview with Involvesoft’s CTO Saumya Bhatnagar
Distributed teams and remote work have become an important part of any growing workforce, and it’s not hard to see why. Being distributed allows companies to access talent from more affordable geographies while remote work also offers employees more autonomy in their work lives and flexibility in their home lives.
Distributed teams also have downsides that companies struggle with when adopting a remote workforce. Top-down communication becomes muddled when teams rarely meet face to face, trust and collaboration suffer when workers are siloed, and it can be hard to tell when employees feel disconnected from the company’s goals.
As remote work rapidly begins to tax existing communication channels and redefines employee satisfaction, we interviewed Involvesoft’s co-founder Saumya Bhatnagar to understand the evolution of their business in the year since LaunchCapital’s investment and to gain insight might help your company better manage your own distributed teams. Understanding and solving the broader problem of employee engagement is what drove Gaurav Bhattacharya and Saumya Bhatnagar to start Involesoft, which LaunchCapital proudly backed over a year ago.
When LaunchCapital first invested in Involvesoft, the focus was on unlocking volunteering and personal development for corporate employees. How has your mission evolved over the past year?
Involvesoft certainly began with the idea of making volunteering and personal development more accessible to corporate teams and employees and we’re very happy with how it was received by customers like Verizon, Ghiradelli Chocolates, and many others. Our corporate volunteering platform had an exceptionally high engagement rate — even for companies with five to ten thousand employees, we would onboard over 25% of the workforce into Involvesoft in less than a month!
We achieved this by streamlining communication to deliver messages to the platform or channel that users checked most; contextually relevant messaging where a user is most likely to engage with it. Over the last year, our team has spoken to C-Suite executives at over 350 leading corporations and very quickly realized that the workplace community solution which we had built to streamline communication — at first just to make volunteering and personal development programs more accessible — could really help alleviate a much larger, and even more common problem: Corporate misalignment.
What exactly is corporate misalignment? How can we tell when a company is ‘misaligned’?
Corporate misalignment happens when management believes they have effectively communicated their message from the “top-down” but that information doesn’t actually make it through the layers of middle management to resonate with the company’s employees.
As corporate campuses have been abandoned in favor of remote work, Fortune 100s rely on internal communications divisions to streamline messaging, while smaller companies have relied on department heads to effectively communicate with front line employees.
Either way, there isn’t a good way to capture feedback on how these employees feel about decisions made at the corporate level in real time. As a result, many executives don’t even know that their messages aren’t reaching their employees, which is the scariest problem. How can you fix something when you don’t even know if or how it’s broken?
What’s the number one message being lost in the noise?
Our C-Suite conversations revealed that the message most often being lost between the CEO and her employees is: “My work here matters”. Helping the CEO communicate how each employee and each department contributes to the larger organization’s goals and accomplishments can really make a meaningful impact on the overall morale and retention of the workforce. More than that, providing feedback to the C-Suite on which parts of the organization feel least-engaged or appreciated can also help address these problems in a more timely manner.
Understanding every company or industry is different, are there factors that, more often than not, lead to misalignment?
Specific factors vary across tech companies, financial institutions, or in-the-field industries like manufacturing or telecom but here are some interesting things we learned:
- As corporate campuses have given way to remote teams with flexible hours, getting a single unified messaging across has gotten much harder. Geographic locations and timezones play a role in complicating the messaging, but so do language barriers. For example, we learned that a company was sending all corporate communication in English when the two most common languages on their factory floors were Japanese, then, Spanish.
- “Deskless” workforces make workforce alignment much harder for our clients. These are employees in functions such as transportation/delivery, warehouse, and on-site technical support, who don’t work in front of a screen all day, meaning that messaging has to find them where they are.
- While workforce size definitely has an impact, the organizational complexity or hierarchy plays a bigger role in misalignment. Flatter organizations place more responsibility on each individual manager but also reduce the layers in which messaging gets lost.
Interestingly, while traditional industries struggle with existing channels not being enough to reach their entire workforce, technology companies struggle with important messaging being diffused through too many platforms (Slack, Teams, Sharepoint, Email, etc) and becoming noise.
Which channels do organizations use to get their message across and which channels haven’t been working?
Older companies lean heavily on the “Town Halls” — either in-person or via video conference — which I initially thought archaic, but have seen work really well at bringing employees “together” to hear unified messaging directly from the CEO and to ask questions in an environment of transparency. However, Town Halls are a massive organizational undertaking and only take place quarterly or annually.
Floor managers address their deskless teams at the top of a shift and some companies install digital message boards on-site that can be updated in real time. Great to push messaging out but aren’t ideal for “two-way communication” i.e. getting insights or actionable feedback
For direct feedback on workforce satisfaction, corporations use surveys. Again, these are time-consuming, happen once or twice a year, and have painfully low response rates. From over 350 conversations, we found that response rates on internal surveys range from just 11% to 15% which is really sad. All that work and you don’t even get enough feedback.
We really learned a lot about what channels don’t work for distributed teams:
- Cascading of Corporate Emails: One corporate communication teams, we spoke to shared this statistic: “To ensure that at least 85% of our company receives a piece of information, we have to communicate that same message 7 times!” Minimizing noise in communication is really important and if the C-Suite doesn’t address it from the top-down, employees take matters into their own hands by filtering these emails to Spam or Trash — making the misalignment problem worse.
- Corporate Intranets: Almost 95% of my conversations are about how existing intranets are letting corporate clients down. They have abysmally low usage and you can’t really measure engagement on Sharepoint (so you have to get Google Analytics or something similar to associate with it). They are also hard to keep maintained and over time end up being less useful relative to their cost. Yet, for one reason or another, these intranets are really hard to displace so many companies drag these legacy tools forward with them for years.
- Internal Mobile Apps: These sound like a good idea — creating a unified hub for company information, especially for employees that don’t sit at a computer during the workday. But providing mobile communication apps to your deskless workforce means maintaining apps across multiple different builds, device sizes, operating systems, etc. which leads to more friction not less.
On the whole, when different departments use different tools to interact and engage, the biggest issue is something we’ve dubbed “Platform Paralysis”: When an organization knows they need something to help them resolve their communication challenges but already have too many standalone tools, hence prolonging the adoption of a new solution and compounding the problem of misalignment.
Tell me more about Platform Paralysis. How aware are companies of this and what are they doing to address it?
Oh, they’re very aware. You’ll know your company has a platform paralysis problem when there are simply too many logins for individuals to keep track off. Too many standalone tools also will make onboarding new employees harder because you have to train them on each and every new platform. The prevailing issue is that the information you need as a manager or executive to assess the health of your team or workforce lives across many different silos meaning you still aren’t able to quickly answer important questions like:
Am I sending the right message? Are the right people receiving it?
Organizations push back on the adoption of new technology solutions because they feel they have too many standalone tools. Talk to any startup selling to enterprise and they’ve probably heard this objection a lot.
How has that push-back influenced Involvesoft’s current product?
We really listened to our customers! Instead of building Involvesoft as another platform where every employee needs a login and password to access critical information we designed Involvesoft as a “middleware” between all these communications tools and the end-user. We now connect with your existing workflow on Slack, Teams, Sharepoint, SMS or any other tool the organization uses to communicate. This helps us centralize communication to become your one-stop “Workplace Community Platform”
We also only have to onboard the relevant managers within an organization (not thousands of individual users) to provide them real-time insight on the effectiveness of your org’s communication — response rates, open rates, glance times, view times, attendance, and more — distilling these into a mean value score on the health of the team or workforce. This approach has been well-received by our customers and we think will help us further serve the needs of even more C-Suites through 2019 and beyond.
What is some advice you would have for someone thinking about implementing remote work within their company?
Offering remote work is awesome but it is so important to be proactive, not reactive when understanding the health and engagement of your distributed workforce — and that starts with communication.
Our best-performing customers leverage more than just email to communicate with their organization. They really understand which channels each department lives on and interacts with so they can send contextually relevant information within the existing workflow. The best companies also vary messaging, so that if they have to send repeat emails on the same topic, each one has something new or interesting to warrant the reader’s time.
Also, I advise involving IT teams in the process of evaluating new tools or solutions. IT will likely have the best understanding of the needs of the organization because they are the ones that are most often problem-solving technology or communication problems as they arise for your employees.
We know there is no one solution for every company, and Involvesoft’s value proposition changes depending on the type of company we work with. However, one thing that’s consistent is that in a distributed world, it’s more important than ever to have consistent communication that lets your messaging easily find its way to your employees — instead of forcing your employees to have to seek it out on their own.
My sincere thanks to Involvesoft’s CTO Saumya Bhatnagar for her time and insights on this piece. If you’d like to learn more about what Involvesoft is doing to help executives solve workplace alignment issues, check out Involvesoft’s site and blog for even more helpful resources. For more information on LaunchCapital and our investments, follow us here!