John Knotwell of Bridge: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Weekly Check-Ins with each team member. These 1 on 1 conversations are more important in a remote environment than in a physical setting. The relationship between employees and their managers are critical to the success of the overall business.
Engagement Surveys are an absolute must. Senior leaders must determine if their messages are resonating with rank and file employees. These quarterly surveys are key to understanding the health of your business.

Weare 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 John Knotwell, General Manager, Bridge Global Software Executive, SaaS & Cloud Computing, Teacher, Growth-Oriented, Lifelong Learner.

John Knotwell serves as the General Manager of Bridge, by Instructure. As GM, he is responsible for the people, customers, and operations of the Global Bridge business. He is the champion of Bridge’s mission to help people transform their organizations through connection, alignment, and growth.

John brings more than 15 years of experience in cloud technologies across multiple industries and geographies. Prior to joining Bridge, John was CEO of Utah Technology Council, where he had a front-row seat to the innovation economy in Utah’s fast-growing technology sector and Chief Revenue Officer of RizePoint, a leading quality management software in the retail, hospitality, and food service industry. Before joining RizePoint, John was Vice President of Sales for Workfront, a work management platform.

John firmly believes that people matter most and that everything in business begins and ends with people. He’s passionate about building a company through transparency, growth mindset, and operational excellence. Outside work, you can find him growing things in his garden, achieving his lifelong mission to cook the best brisket, enjoying Utah’s great outdoors, and always spending time with his family. John holds a Master’s in Business Administration from the Jon Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University.

“I am best when I’m building things, whether its sales teams, companies, or treehouses. When I was 8 years old I found an abandoned, broken down, treehouse in an empty field near my house. My best friend and I spent countless hours rehabilitating it. We had grand visions! When we had finished it, we disassembled it and spent many more hours building a go-kart out of the materials. I can trace my love of building things to these experiences. I love to create in my personal time and can often be found taking photographs, grilling, or hanging with my tribe.”

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?

Istarted my life in tech way back in 2006 when Software as a Service was just getting started. I’ve spent most of my time on the sales side of the house and have had experience in sales engineering, sales development, sales operations, sales management, international sales leadership, channel sales and of course executive leadership including my role as CEO.

I also spent 7 years in the Utah House of Representatives starting in 2012 and finishing up my time in 2019 which was a completely different and challenging experience.

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

I remember one particular moment when I was asked asume leadership over a failing team. I wasn’t that interested.

After several weeks of being asked, Frank (who I have worked together with on and off for 12 years) pulled me aside while we were at a company meeting and said, “Look, this is your future. You will be successful, I won’t let you fail, I know you’re the right person for this, don’t make me beg.”

I ended up taking the role, and that team hit its stride and we ended up dominating the group.

Definitely a pivotal moment for me and for my career.

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

“See a need, fill a need.”

I think I heard the quote first on an animated movie from years ago called Robots. It has become an unspoken family motto as well.

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 worked for an assisted-living home in the early 1990s, serving dinner (and occasionally lunch) to about 50 men and women of the Greatest Generation. I’ll never forget them, and I most certainly will always remember what they taught me, especially about empathy.

My supervisor, Dahlia, was an amazing mother of 3 from Peru. She worked full time at the facility and was a great teacher. One evening, after our dinner service was concluded and cleaned up, she said, “John, I need to gather things from the residents’ rooms. Why don’t you come with me?”

So, she grabbed one of our carts, and off we went. Room by room, we knocked on the doors to let the residents know we were there to gather plates and silverware from the meals. The residents always gratefully allowed us to enter, and we usually left with loads of dishes. On multiple occasions, we would discover empty creamer containers, sugar cube holders, glasses, tin foil, metal dishes, dozens of cloth napkins, salt and pepper shakers, and even some large metal serving trays. After gathering the items, returning to the kitchen, and loading the dishes into the dishwasher, I posed a question to Dahlia I was dying to ask, ‘Why are the residents hoarding all these relatively worthless items?’

She shared with me that, as it has been explained to her, most of the residents grew up during the Great Depression. In those times, anything shiny was perceived as valuable. Tinfoil, salt and pepper shakers, metal serving dishes, glassware, and the like, were all things that could be traded and bartered for items that were needed, such as food. My mind was blown. I was a 15-year-old boy who had never wanted food before. At the time, I had no frame of reference and couldn’t relate. To help me further connect, Dahlia shared her own experience of growing up in an impoverished area. It was common for her friends, neighbors, and even her own family, to steal to put bread on the table.

True leadership has its roots firmly planted in empathy. And the human experience is a long road, paved with potholes and speed bumps that can teach us to put our feet in another’s shoes, and learn from the feelings and perspectives of others. I can trace my first understanding and recollection of another’s struggles back to Dahlia and that invaluable lesson learned as a young man.

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?

Working together in the same space is inherently a social experience just as much as it is a productivity one. I have missed the opportunity to spontaneously invite a colleague to lunch, or to brainstorm a project in the moment using a whiteboard. These types of organic interactions are more difficult to do when everyone is remote.

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?

As human beings we derive much of our communication from body language. In a remote environment, we have a hard time seeing physical reactions to our words, even over video conference. When all employees are remote, often cameras are turned off and we don’t even know if there is engagement among small groups of people.

Additionally, as leaders, when we see an employee struggling lending moral support is difficult when you aren’t able to observe an employee working from day to day. It is much easier to see someone’s ups and downs when you’re working with them in person on a daily basis.

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.)

  1. Say it again, and again. Seasoned leaders know that communication is an art and a science. Repeat yourself and provide clarity in each message you share.
  2. Mix it upVideo messages combined with email messages combined with quicker conversations are important too. I send almost weekly video messages to my team. I try to add variety to the messages by sharing stories, giving updates and acknowledging the good work of my colleagues.
  3. Weekly Check-Ins with each team member. These 1 on 1 conversations are more important in a remote environment than in a physical setting. The relationship between employees and their managers are critical to the success of the overall business.
  4. Engagement Surveys are an absolute must. Senior leaders must determine if their messages are resonating with rank and file employees. These quarterly surveys are key to understanding the health of your business.
  5. Culture wins. Always. I invest inordinate amounts of time focusing on transparency, recognition, mental health and an environment of growth. I’m fortunate to have many other people in the organization that are as committed to this as I am. We work hard to develop, grow and maintain a healthy corporate culture.

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 have tried our best to assist employees who may have had connectivity challenges. Thankfully, there are so many tools at our disposal (many of them are free or very low cost) that we haven’t had to have our employees use personal devices, but if their position requires it, we provide a reimbursement for their usage. We do provide a stipend for remote workers internet costs while we are in a fully remote environment.

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?

Focus Conversation on Development

Frequent one-on-one conversations with employees can shine a valuable light on employee well-being. It is important to align and grow employees to help fill the gap between their current skills and what the organization needs. Here are five important considerations to help performance conversations — and careers — thrive.

1. Hold Weekly Scheduled Check-Ins

During times of change, employees want to know how they will be individually effected and what is expected of them. Regular check-ins between managers and employees provide opportunities to align strategy and explain essential priorities. Managers need to be empowered to provide strategic guidance while allowing each individual to perform with autonomy.

2. Have a Shared Agenda

Both employee and manager should be able to access the agenda throughout the week and shift priorities, assign learning, tasks, and goals, and make comments. This information should be saved and easily accessible throughout the week to ensure both managers and employees stay connected and on the same page.

3. Celebrate Wins

When an agenda is created and easily accessible, the actual one-on-one becomes a far more efficient experience. The manager can check in on task progress and project status ahead of time and come to the one-on-one prepared with specific questions to discuss.

Employees are able to discuss what drives them and explore plans for desired skills and career growth while managers help identify learning opportunities. Additionally, they can take time to celebrate wins, a practice which research from Bersin & Associates indicates leads to 31% lower turnover.

4. Be Human

One-on-ones shouldn’t always be formal, especially during times of stress and change. Employees need to feel comfortable and cared for and understand that their manager is invested in their overall well-being. Relationships are not transactional so lead with humanity.

5. Take Time to Connect

When leaders take time to connect, often they will go beyond status updates and learn how their employees are really doing. I had a one-on-one meeting with an employee who is usually laser-focused and dependable. When we started to work from home, I noticed a shift and checked in. The employee shared that working from home with a toddler whose daycare was closed and a spouse who continued to work outside the home was difficult as the person tried to work the typical nine-to-five job. At that moment, I realized why a weekly cadence of one-on-ones has become more necessary than ever.

People matter most. The future of work depends on incorporating a thoughtful approach to communication. Business leaders must strive to provide people with the tools necessary to connect, align and grow together while working apart.

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

I would create a solution that allowed employees to recognize each other, help the employee grow in their career and facilitate alignment between employees and their managers as a place to keep track of things that are important to them or issues they are working on and a way for managers to align an employees work to the overall goals of the business.

I also think it would be great if there was a software solution that could produce a perfectly toasted pop-tart at a moment’s notice. I really miss having those handy at the office.

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?

When I was a legislator in the Utah House of Representatives, communication came at me from constituents across many different platforms. Imagine direct messages on social media, comments on news articles, and of course, email, text and phone calls. I do believe that if there was a way to streamline all those forms of communication into one platform it would make it much easier for one person to communicate with many.

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?

Throughout 2020, we’ve seen the emergence of a new “social media” called Clubhouse. We’re still understanding how users will begin to monetize this new technology, but I definitely foresee some incredible opportunities in the future. This gives people an area to engage with each other in a non-video conference way and still brings refreshing, engaging and relevant content to you.

Plus, who doesn’t want to feel elite enough to be “in the clubhouse?”

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

Business is, at its heart, about solving problems. Companies have issues, entrepreneurs develop solutions to those problems (or problems they didn’t know existed until someone shared a way to solve it) and they convince them to exchange something in return for solving that problem. Communicating with customers or potential customers in a way that effectively solves those problems can be more challenging in a fully remote environment. Interestingly enough, it’s a very level playing field right now.

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?

Of course it has changed the way we interact and lowered the cost too! While the material shared in those interactions have remained largely unchanged, with the exception of in person meetings. The interesting thing about all of this is that we have adapted together. We’re finding that customers needed to adjust to this new way of engagement at the same time we were adapting to it as well. We’ve grown together.

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?

Empathy is the most important part of giving feedback. Can you recall a situation where you received feedback that came across as harsh, judgmental, or difficult? Recall those situations anytime you’re about to give feedback. I also tie every piece of feedback to our goals as a business. Explain why something needs to be done, changed, modified or altered. In fact, spend more time explaining it than sharing the actual “thing” to be corrected.

I ask questions too. To let my colleague begin to explore the situation on their own. There’s no reason for any feedback session to be one sided. Listen actively and remember to smile. Make sure that your colleague feels safe sharing information with you. They need to buy in to make change.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

Create a culture of appreciation.

By showing your employees appreciation throughout the year, you will retain more of your talent and foster an environment of excellence. People tend to do their best work when they feel valued.

The act of recognition also sends messages to other employees about what success looks like. In this way, recognition is both a tool for personal reward and an opportunity to reinforce the desired culture of the organization to other employees.

1.Go public

Proudly publicize when employees do something great so everyone can share in the accomplishments. Recognize birthdays, promotions, and work anniversaries.

Point out an employee who surpassed their targets, read a great client testimonial out loud, or recognize an employee who went above and beyond while completing a certain task.

2. Pass a note

Researchers show that employees value praise. Compliments from the boss even beat out cash bonuses. (Pizza beat out everything, but we’re talking about not spending a dime here.) Handwritten notes are a lost art. Send one to your employees’ home office who deserve acknowledgment.

3. Reward effort, not results

Reward great efforts even if they didn’t succeed. When you reward effort, you encourage risk-taking.

By doing so, you create a culture of learning. A culture of learning is one in which employees continuously seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills to improve individual and organizational performance.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to recognize the personal achievements of your team. Demonstrate the fact that you care about them as people, not just as cogs in a wheel.

4. Peer Appreciation

Create a space for peer-to-peer recognition. This could be a gush channel on Slack or a designated agenda item during company meetings. Enabling your team to celebrate the success of one and another will ultimately promote stronger teamwork.

5. Be intentional about Culture

Culture will form, whether you want it to or not. Make the culture of your company one of connection, alignment, and growth. Show a sincere interest in employees by investing in their success.

Collectively set the intention to take ownership of your company’s culture. Prioritize conversations that count. With busy schedules and endless to-do lists, it can be hard to find time for meaningful conversations with your team. But it’s important to prioritize these meetings and establish regular check-ins.

Invest in on-going learning. Employees tend to stay with companies that are genuinely interested in their ongoing progression and growth. Assemble materials, such as webinars, book lists, and podcasts, that employees can access to learn new skills and improve in their work.

6. Keep it going, year-round.

At Bridge, we created Bridgeapalooza Week also known as “a celebration of what makes us unique”. We are a company that prides itself on enabling continuous learning. As such, Bridgeapalooza is an opportunity for employees to come together and celebrate the chance to learn from each other and grow. It encourages diversity of skills, and appreciation for the unique talents individual members of our team possess.

Q. 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. 🙂

One key to growth is disruption.

Expose What’s Broken: Disruption is useful because it introduces alternatives to a system’s current weaknesses and vulnerabilities. So, expose your weaknesses by running an engagement survey and get feedback. Examples of weaknesses to keep an eye out for are lacking leadership, misunderstanding of job roles, misalignment of goals and priorities, and disconnected feelings.

Visualize the Ideal: Think about the ideal state and then work out how to get to it. Once you know your weaknesses, don’t start planning the steps to fix it first. Instead, start by picturing the ideal state you want to reach. For example, an ideal state may be that every employee knows exactly how their job contributes to its success. From there, you may decide to promote goal setting and alignment, or you may choose instead to enable communication between managers and employees. There are many roads to one destination, don’t get caught up in which route to take; stay focused on the destination.

Use Your Toolbox: Lean into technology. We live in a technological world. Even people management is becoming digital! I’ve heard time and time again how companies purchase technology to be more efficient, only for leadership to ignore it because they prefer pen and paper. Often, leadership doesn’t want to admit that they don’t know how to use a particular technology and avoid it. It’s time to move forward and embrace technology. Take the time to learn new ways of operating so that you can keep your team from being disrupted by someone else.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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.


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